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Sam was pissed at him again.  “Pissy” was probably a better word for it, Dean decided. Pissed was far too strong of a word.  Sam Winchester didn’t do extreme emotions.  Or maybe (a voice deep, deep down inside of his head suggested) maybe it was that his emotions were way too extreme these days. 

No, it was Sam.  It had to be Sam.  He was too Zen, or Joe Normal, or some shit.  Sam was the weird one. He was the one that was all about letting things go, moving on, and crap like that.  Must be nice.

Dean never thought he would see a day when he’d miss his brother’s famous hot-headed temper.  There was a time when he would have given almost anything for Sam to just chill the hell out for a week or even a day.  That was back during the span of a few years – or maybe it was a few millennia- when every time Dad so much as breathed, Sam would completely fly off the handle into Def-Con 4.

In those days, Sam was far too skinny, and the rest of his body was trying and failing to catch up to his extra-long legs.  He’d puff out his chest, flare his nostrils, and let loose on Dad with the force of a nuclear explosion. It reminded Dean of the warnings on spray cans that read “contents under pressure” and man was it true.  Spit would go flying in every direction when Sam finally blew. Dude was righteous! 

It had to be something to see for an outside observer.  Bobby had certainly laughed about it, said it reminded him of a banty rooster his family once owned before they “got tired of its ornery ass and wrung its neck”

Yeah, hilarious, unless you were the one who was always stuck in the middle of it. 

Teenaged Sam wasn’t capable of backing down and Dad was too stubborn and too determined not to let a smart mouth teen get the better of an ex-Marine.  Truth was, the two of them were cut from the same cloth and it was exhausting to have to deal with.  Too often, Dean found himself in the unenviable position of referee and peacemaker.

Hard to believe he would actually be happy to see Sam foam at the mouth like a damn crazy person over pretty much nothing right now.  Truth be told, he wanted a fight.  He wanted to have it out once and for all. Throw it all out in the open.  Brawl about anything and everything: from his friendship with a vampire and Sam’s lack of giving a flying shit about whether he lived or died, right down to the price of gas.  Simply put, Dean wanted to give him the beatdown of his life and if he ended up getting one in return, so be it.  He’d go down swinging.

The point was, he was pissed that after everything, here they were - just barely held together by what was (according to Sam) their final mission.  Letting things go was no longer on the table, especially after the year he had just experienced.  A part of him wished it was, but it wasn’t, and now he was waffling back and forth between shutting his trap for fear of his brother making good on his threat of taking off -even though they could barely stand the sight of one another - and doing his best to piss Sam off without actually bringing up the elephant in the room. 

Today, Dean’s needle was leaning heavily into the ‘being a dick’ zone.  Yeah, it was immature, but there was a certain satisfaction to be found in being childish.  It was fool-proof.  Wasting gas, time, and taking the most back-ass roads in existence were three things that never failed to get Sam’s panties in a twist.  So, Dean was doing all three in spades.  He had also loaded up on the onions on his last burger order. The extra onion-scented belches were even starting to get to him at this point; he could only imagine what they were doing to Miss Priss over there in the shotgun seat.

They’d just finished-up a job in Virginia, where a poltergeist was wreaking havoc in an historic inn. Not a bad gig, since it meant they were able to stay in a decent place for once.  Of course, he could have lived with fewer cute little doilies and more cable channels. 

At the moment, they were between jobs and Kevin was still in the breeze.  In the past, they would have headed in Bobby’s general direction until/unless they caught the scent of another hunt, but those days were gone.   They had no home base anymore, nowhere to go, and no one expecting them. No nothing. So, Dean was taking Highway 11, which hit pretty much every little piss ant town in East Tennessee from the Virginia state line to Knoxville. From there he planned to cut North toward Ohio and why he did not know.  What he did know was, taking 11 added about two hours versus the interstate and that was the current source of Sam’s irritation.

Apparently, Sam’s giant brain could not comprehend why he would waste the gas or the time driving through nowhere, and Dean wasn’t about to explain it.  Mostly, he wasn’t explaining because he was fairly certain Sam would understand and then his plan to be petty would crash and burn.  Sam would just love the Hallmark card ‘talk about feelings’ angle and Dean wasn’t giving him that much satisfaction.

Truth was, this little detour wasn’t all about being a giant pain in Sam’s ass.  Because, honestly, what was the hurry? Where the hell else did they have to be?  Also, maybe - just maybe- Dean wanted to feel some sort of connection to the world and the people in it.  He had always felt somewhat apart from the rest of humanity, from “the civilians” as he thought of them, but since coming back from Purgatory, he felt downright alien.  Somehow, he needed to reconnect or he felt like he might just go crazy and end up like Frank Devereaux, living in a tinfoil-lined travel trailer surrounded by webcams.

Besides, the interstates reminded him of a friggin McDonalds.  They were the same everywhere and they were boring. It was easy to fall asleep or even forget what state you were in at times.  Only difference were the types of (or lack of) trees in the distance and whether or not you saw mountains or flatlands ahead of you.  

Sometimes, the identity of the roadkill was a clue to your general whereabouts.  If you started seeing smashed armadillo everywhere instead of smashed opossum, you were generally headed southwest.   Coyotes used to be a similar clue, but those poor scrawny bastards seemed to be everywhere nowadays.  Dean wouldn’t be surprised if somehow he and Sam weren’t responsible for that kink in the natural order too.  Why not?  They may as well add that to their tally of destruction.

At least the old U.S. Highways had some character.  You could see stuff, get the local flavor, and experience the things that made one state different from another, along with all the things that made them exactly the same.  Any McDonalds anywhere in the country would serve you the same Egg McMuffin for breakfast, which was damn good, but he still preferred a roadside diner where there was some regional variety.  Being offered grits with his eggs versus corned-beef hash or home fries helped him to orient himself, and that was nice, because even though he had one hell of an inborn sense of direction, sometimes he felt like he had no clue which way was up.

Cheesy as it sounded, driving the back roads reminded him of who and what they were protecting. What he’d given up everything for.  These were real people - not shiny, perfect, TV people with Martha Stewart homes and three-hundred-dollar shoes.  Besides, you never knew what crazy, interesting shit you’d see on some of the more rural stretches of road. 

He was currently in love with whoever decided to paint their giant, old farmhouse Pepto-Bismol pink and make decorative planters out of every piece of discarded furniture, tire, and vehicle they or their ancestors had ever owned.  The crazy-ass even had a toilet sitting on either side of their long driveway like some sort of pillar, and each was overflowing with purple and blue flowers.  Nutcase or not, this person had a green thumb. 

For some reason, it was usually that kind of thing that convinced him they were right to derail the apocalypse, regardless of the mess the world had been in ever since.  Somehow, he doubted the perfect new world order the angels had planned would’ve included toilet bowl flower planters, and some things were worth fighting for.  Independent gas stations being another one of those things, he realized, after spotting one just up ahead. There was something about the increasingly rare non-franchise service stations that Dean had always loved.  They always made a good place for a pit stop.

The sign read: Lester’s Gas & Grocery and there was no big name gasoline company logo to accompany it.  Just a list of prices for gas, diesel, kerosene, and a gallon of milk.  The prices on the sign were the type that had to be changed by hand using one of those long poles, which wasn’t as easy to do as it looked.  Dean spent one interesting summer in his early twenties working at a convenience mart where he learned it was a real pain in the ass until you got the hang of it.

“Time to gas-up again,” he announced, half-hoping Sam would take the bait and bitch about the detour to nowhere and the wasting of gas resources again.  He was disappointed.

“Be nice to stretch my legs,” Sam remarked mildly after yawning.  “Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll have something in there besides beef jerky and pork rinds.”

Dean grinned.  Maybe there was some potential here. “Pickled pigs’ feet, Sammy.  That’s the good stuff.”

Sam wrinkled his nose. “Even you wouldn’t eat that.”

“I’m the man that just spent a year in Purgatory, dude. I had nothing to eat. I’d have been friggin thrilled to eat a pickled pigs’ asshole on rye toast.  I’ll eat anything.”

Score! That one worked. Guilt and disgust, the perfect combination.

“Thanks for the overshare,” his brother said with a bitchface that fell somewhere between uncomfortable and grossed out.

Dean grinned and tried for a snarky: “You’re very welcome,” problem was, it came out like a distracted mumble.

Shadows had fallen over him when he opened the car door.  They were small and moved quickly, zigging and zagging above him, making threatening noises.  For a moment, he was frozen with his hand resting at the small of his back, torn between pulling his pistol and firing straight up into the air and listening to the voice in his head that told him he wasn’t in Purgatory anymore, those shadows were most likely birds going to roost for the evening.

Thank God he listened to that voice, because that is exactly what they were.  Just a noisy flock of starlings going wherever birds go when the sun starts to set.  Nothing more.

If Sam noticed his little psycho moment, he didn’t say anything, so Dean shook it off and walked around to the gas pump, where he realized that this place was seriously old school.  No credit card reader at the pump. Damn, it had been a while since he’d seen that.   Good thing they were headed inside anyway.  Although, he was a bit worried until he saw the little handwritten sign that read “Credit Inside”. He had maybe five bucks in cash and that wouldn’t get the Impala very far at $4.12/gallon for regular.

A bell overhead announced their entry through the doorway, but the only ones who seemed to notice them were two big, furry tabby cats that were curled up on the checkout counter with their backs to one another. 

Now that was definitely something no franchise joint would allow.   Both of the animals glanced up briefly and were obviously not impressed, judging by how they immediately settled back into the rapidly fading sunbeam they were lying in, after taking a second to look at him and his brother like they were the world’s biggest losers. 

Dean sort of wanted to give those cats the finger, but decided that was edging a little too far into Frank territory and - in a way - the cats’ bored reaction was kind of comforting.  These days he felt like a dangerous killer that maybe shouldn’t be out among decent, civilized people.  But these guys obviously didn’t find him too threatening. Of course, they weighed roughly a thousand pounds apiece. They probably weren’t afraid of anything, not even battle crazed hunters fresh from Purgatory.

He and Sam silently decided that whoever worked here must be in the back, so they proceeded to browse the aisles for some junk food to tide them over until their next meal.  Sam should be happy, because this place had a few apples and a couple of brown bananas.  Actually, they had pretty much everything. 

This was one of those places that had at least one of anything and everything a man could think of.  There were the usual suspects like junk food, basic groceries, emergency auto supplies and over-the-counter medicines, and then there was a weird variety of As-Seen-On-TV items you’d never think of picking up on the side of the highway, especially when there was a Wal-Mart within twenty minutes of practically every direction. 

For a mere $19.95 you could get a glorified potholder called the Ove Glove or a can of spray paint you were supposed to use to cover gray hair.  Spray paint.  But, the best of all had to be the Snuggie For DogsSeriously?  Had they ever actually sold any of this crap?

“I don’t think it’s right to put clothes on dogs. Kind of humiliatin’, if you ask me.”

Dean turned to see an extremely large, black t-shirt with a picture of a dragon and the words World of Warcraft stamped across it.  That seemed vaguely familiar for some reason.  Filling that giant shirt was a guy who looked to be somewhere between his late teens and early twenties with long, dark hair which was slicked back into a low ponytail.   He immediately decided this must be Ronald the mandroid dude’s long lost redneck cousin.  Poor Ronald, he had liked that guy.

Dean looked down at the Snuggie box he realized he was still holding and laughed at himself, feeling like a dumbass.  

“Believe me, man, I’m on the same page.  I was just blown away by the clever advertising,” he said pointing at the text on the box.  “This thing keeps you warm and your paws free.  That’s just awesome.”

“Miracle, ain’t it?” Ronald Jr. remarked as he slowly ambled toward the checkout counter.  “Sorry if I kept you waiting.  Me and the boss man are trying to organize the stockroom. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the bell back there.”

Sam appeared from the snack aisle, turning his wide shoulders sideways to avoid tipping over an oddly placed display of PedEggs, another As-Seen-On-TV miracle product that offered to give anyone baby soft and smooth feet for the bargain price of $9.95.  He was carrying a Sam-sized armful of typical convenience store snacks along with some apples and bananas, of course. 

Dean realized he hadn’t picked out anything yet, unless you counted the stupid-ass dog Snuggie he quickly shoved back on the shelf.  What was wrong with him? It was like he needed an instruction manual to do anything that didn’t involve bloodshed and mayhem these days.  How long had he been standing here staring at all the stupid, useless crap this place was selling?

“No pickled pigs’ feet, Dean?”  Sam asked with more than a little sarcasm.

“Not hungry.”

That was a lie.  He was hungry, sort of.  Now that he thought about it.  Quickly, he darted his eyes away from Sam’s patented curious-face and let his gaze fall on the soda and coffee station. The coffee pot was empty.  Yahtzee. He could work with that.  He wasn’t zoned out on dog Snuggies at all, he was just waiting on dude to come and make him a pot of coffee.  Totally normal stuff.  Everything could be explained.

“Was kinda hoping for a cuppa joe,” he said with a friendly grin directed toward the cashier, who he was pretty sure was whispering to the cats.

The guy’s head snapped up guiltily (yep, whispering to the cats). 

“Oh, sorry ‘bout that.  I’ll start a fresh pot.  It’ll only take a couple a minutes.  These two,” he said, pointing to the still-sleeping cats, “They know they ain’t supposed to be on the counter, but they do it anyway. I’m trying to talk them down, but Jayne’s hateful.  Just give me a second.”

The guy slid a pair of chubby hands underneath one giant lump of fur and lifted it up like a baby.  It just lolled its head back and looked up at him blandly with giant, luminous green eyes.

“Yeah, Mal, you’ll just have to get over it.  No gettin’ on the counter.  Them’s the rules.”

Mal didn’t seem overly concerned either way.  Once his paws were on the floor, he yawned, stretched his back and strolled off, probably to find a new sleeping place.  The other cat, presumably Jayne, didn’t seem so agreeable.  It was now awake and alert, and definitely pissed-off about it.  Its ears were laid flat against its head, yellow eyes narrowed, and the thing had a huge set of fangs. Actual fangs.  Maybe this was Purgatory.

“He can be sweet,” the cashier swore as he pulled out a pink, plastic spray bottle from underneath the counter.  “He just don’t like being told what to do, and I don’t like being scratched.  That’s the root of our problem.”

Just the sight of the spray bottle – which may or may not have been filled with holy water - was enough to deter the monster, because it hissed and then jumped, hitting the floor with a loud thud.   Dean almost regretted his laugh when the thing turned its yellow-eyed demon glare on him.  Thankfully, he wasn’t flung against a wall by an invisible force. It simply turned its back on him and walked away with its tail held high, giving him the ass-shot, otherwise known as the housecat’s version of the finger. Now he was regretting his earlier self-restraint.

Dean heard the slight, but distinct scuff of boots on the tile floor behind him and pivoted on the balls of his feet, his hand automatically shifting to the knife sheathed at his hip.  He had been well aware of the approach of the kid, but this one had surprised him.  He’d been too distracted by the damn demon cat show.

The man coming up behind him was older, reeked of stale cigarettes, and was most likely just the boss.  Dean immediately breathed deeply and flexed his fingers trying to force his hand to relax at his side.  The move didn’t go unnoticed though.  The man’s eyes briefly fell on Dean’s right hand and then flicked to his own right hip where he had a very obvious gun holster. 

Like most of the south, Tennessee was a state where it was fairly easy to get a permit to carry a handgun, and this man was clearly not into getting robbed.  Dean was also betting that, along with the cats on the checkout counter, this was another thing a franchise joint might frown upon.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with that stupid cat a twenty-two won’t solve,” the newcomer said.

The guy sounded fairly mild, given the fact that he’d essentially just threatened to put a hole in Dean with his Smith & Wesson.  Probably meant he knew how to use it, which was actually a good thing.  Nothing was more dangerous than an armed man who had no clue what he was doing.   Still, Dean felt uncomfortable as hell.  Ronald Jr., as he’d been calling him, had gone off to make the coffee after evicting the cats and Sam was busy setting his armload of groceries on the recently-cleared countertop.  No one else had witnessed the near quick draw.  That was good, but it also left him to make awkward conversation with his would-be dueling partner. 

Dean decided to go for his most winning bullshit grin, all the while sizing-up the man in case worst came to worst. 

Wasn’t much to size-up.  The guy was at least a head shorter, somewhere north of sixty, grizzled looking, and not very big in general.  Wiry was the word that came to mind and Dean knew from experience that sometimes that type could fool you in a fight, but given this guy’s age, he wasn’t exactly worried.   He didn’t doubt his assessment of his firearms skill though. The hiking boots, faded camo pants, and blaze orange cap were probably not a fashion statement.

“Those are some big cats,” he said for the sake of having something to say.

The older man was clearly sizing him up too, but gave him a sideways grin in return anyway. 

“Yeah.  Came here in a ladies’ shoe box.  Both of them.  Some sorry ass left it out by the pumps when they’s kittens, with a note saying: Free to a good home.” He snorted, making a deep, phlegmy noise and rolled his eyes to show what he thought of that idea. “Like anybody ’d want them two worthless things.  Had to keep ‘em. And they don’t do nothing, neither.  Still have to keep traps in the storeroom.”

Huh. Well at least you took them in.” 

Dean relaxed his stance a little.  The man didn’t seem eager to make a move unless he made one first.

“Yeah, I’m a damn saint,” he grumbled then gestured over toward the chubby kid making coffee.  “Then Joey over there goes and gives one a girl’s name and now he’s mean as all hell because of it. Not that I blame him.”

“Not a girl’s name, Lester,” Joey called back without bothering to turn around.

“Oh right.  It’s a Star Trek name.  The adventures of Spock and Jayne, I always forget that classic episode.”

Dean had to smile at the genuine outrage on Joey’s face, because this time he did turn around.  He had a feeling this argument had been had before and Joey was allowing himself to be played way too easily.

“Firefly was a good show,” Dean said, thinking he’d throw the guy a much-needed bone.  It was tough being a sci-fi fan and there was no way this guy didn’t live in his mom’s basement. 

The eyes of the kid formerly known as Ronald, Jr. burned with almost feral excitement when he realized Dean caught the reference to his favorite TV show.

“Man, I’m paying for your coffee.  This is so cool! You’re only the second Browncoat I ever met in real life.  I hate to be a selfish bastard about it, but I kinda wish that Castle show wasn’t doing so well, or I think the movie would’ve brung the show back.  Wish I’d brought my petition with me, I’d have you sign.” 

All of this was said in one breath and fast too, considering that all words had extra syllables in this part of the country, even the ones that had only one letter.  Now Dean was regretting his choice to engage Joey.  He was practically foaming at the mouth with fanboy glee.

“Yeah, that’s too bad,” Dean said with a shrug.  He didn’t want to appear rude, but not too interested either. It was a fine line to tread.

He could see Sam smirking at him from over Joey’s shoulder and pointedly ignored him.  Sam thought his lack of pop culture knowledge made him superior somehow and he could suck it.  Someday, Dean was going to crack a huge case using a piece of trivia from some obscure TV show or cult movie.  It was going to happen, he just had to keep the dream alive.

“Coffee’ll only take another minute or so,” Joey called out as he headed back toward the drink station, still sounding overly happy. “I’ll make you a cup. You want any sugar or cream? We got the powdered kind and the real stuff, plus we got some of them international flavored kinds if you’re into that.”  It was heavily implied that being into that was questionable if you were any kind of man.

Dean smirked right back at Sam. Maybe this fan-bonding thing wasn’t so bad after all.  There could be perks. 

“Black’s good,” he replied as he scanned the room again, taking note of the two large windows located above the low setting shelves of oil, tire gauges, Fix-a-Flat, and other automotive supplies.  There was also the one, mostly-glass door that they’d entered through and a smaller window located behind the counter, which looked out onto the side of the parking lot.  Dean also guessed there was a back door located off the stockroom, possibly even a loading dock too. 

It was normal for him to be aware of his surroundings.  Dad had drilled that necessity into both his and Sam’s head from an early age, but this was different.  Something wasn’t right.  Problem was; Dean didn’t know if that something was internal or external anymore. 

There was a time when he’d put his instinct up against any computer, any so-called genius, angel, or any other friggin thing.  He may not be the smartest man on earth, but his instinct never failed.  If his instinct said danger was close by or something hinky was about to go down, it was. You could go all in on it.  Now he wasn’t so sure.

It was almost like he needed to be reset, like he was a damn thermostat that had been set on high for so long that it had gotten stuck there well after winter was over.  He couldn’t regulate himself.  He was always running hot.  That was fine in Purgatory, because that was Purgatory.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 360 degrees of fucked-up.  He had to be his instinct just to stay alive and now - just like that - he was supposed to go back to only pulling that part of him out whenever it was needed.

What if he couldn’t?  That was the terrifying thought. Maybe he had run so hot for so long that he had finally burned everything else away. 

He knew for a fact that there was once a Dean Winchester who would never have left Cas behind, no matter how much he whined, stumbled, or dragged his feet.  He would have carried his ass out if he had to.  And annoying as hell or not, he’d have found a better way of dealing with Crowley than slitting Linda Tran’s throat.  Once, he was either too stubborn or too stupid to compromise or budge one single inch, even when it seemed like the most logical course of action.  When had that changed and could it be fixed?  Should it be fixed? 

He really didn’t want to think about that stuff.  It was one of the reasons he liked to keep moving.  As soon as Joey finished pouring his cup of coffee, they paid for Sam’s crap, and he filled the tank, it was time to hit the road.  Too much standing still led to too much thinking.

“How long you been stateside, son?” a voice said, interrupting his train of thought.

Adrenaline surged through Dean’s body as he turned to face the old man again. His instinct had been right.  Of course something was wrong here.  What did this guy know? Better question - what was he?

“Whoa, son. Sorry ‘bout that,” he said soothingly, showing Dean both his weathered palms.  “None of my business.  Just know the look is all.  Did three tours in Nam myself. My ignorant, redneck ass up and volunteered for the third,” he explained with a grin stained by decades of smoking.   

Dean felt like his knees may buckle as the adrenaline suddenly drained from his body.  He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Kind of wanted to do both, but settled for closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose.  Now he fit into society as a twitchy vet.  Sort of made sense.  Explained his current crazy pretty well, actually.

“Not quite two months,” he sighed.  He didn’t feel guilty for lying to the man, either.  It wasn’t a lie for once.  His battlefield had just been a little further away than assumed.

“That’s nothing,” Lester said with a wave of his hand.  “Give it a while.  Just don’t let the bottle take you, and someday, all this won’t seem like Mars no more.  I won’t blow sunshine up your ass.  It’s gonna be rough, and you don’t have my good looks to fall back on,” he said with a wink and another wet cough, “but you’ll do alright. I seen a lot worse.  Least you ain’t in no wheelchair.”  

Very true.  Thanks to some luck and a whole lot of angel mojo over the past few years, Dean was physically pretty damn fit.  He should take more time to be thankful for that, he supposed, but the overall balance of shit always seemed a little too overwhelming for that.  The good thing was that at least he knew how to put an end to this sort of conversation in the Bible Belt.

“Well, praise Jesus for that,” he said with a tight smile, trying his best to look and sound as serious as he could.

“If that floats your boat,” Lester said with a raised brow, clearly not buying Dean’s sincerity and apparently not too concerned about it, either.

“Lester’s going to hell,” Joey added with a grin.  “He hates Jesus.  The Baptist church down the road and my mama are all praying for him.”

“I don’t hate Jesus,” he scoffed.  “I just believe if he’s so superior, then he’s above all that egomaniac praise me B.S.  I got more sense than to think my kids ought to sit around praisin’ me and I’m sure he’s a whole lot brighter than I am. Don’t you figure?”

“Don’t know, I ain’t the one fixing to burn in hell,” Joey said gleefully.

“You overgrown little shit. When’s the last time you got off the damn computer long enough to even go to church?”

“Don’t matter.  I been saved.”

Oh well, Dean thought, it hadn’t exactly gone to plan, but hauling out religion had still worked.  It had succeeded in taking the focus off of him and causing Lester and Joey to take potshots at one another, clearly a favorite pastime of theirs.  

Of course, now he could feel Sam’s eyes on him and he didn’t have to look to see the kink in his enormous brow or the curious, puppy dog eyes trying to pry their way into his brain.  No, they were not having a conversation about this or anything else that had happened in here.  Sam hadn’t earned it.  He didn’t care enough to look for him for an entire year, he didn’t get to give a shit about his tweaked out behavior now.