Summary: "Someone goes over Niagara in a barrel. You gonna jump in and try to save them?" – Dean Winchester, Crossroad Blues. Sam's making plans, and they don't include his father or hunting. They might not even include Dean. High school in two time periods.

Rating: Gen, PG-13: swearing, violence, maybe some sex later on. If you buy me dinner first. WIP, will be 10 chapters.

Spoilers: up to and including Croatoan. In the Red 'verse, but you can read this without reading that.

'Tis the season: Lemmypie phoned Tennessee convenience stores for me. Jmm0001 nudged me for more, more, more, even though she despises the title. It'll grow on you. Promise.

Chapter One/Key to the Highway

Outside Greenwood MS, present day

A rush to leave, no real reason for the hurry, no hell hounds chasing them, no new thing to kill. Only the delta smell of standing water seeping through a gap in the Impala's window, Dean's prickly silence hidden by the smoke of an old guitar and a long-dead voice singing of keys to a highway. The highway was unknown to Sam, both the ancient bluesy one crackling through the Impala's radio and the one they were on. Take that any way you liked.

Of these things, Dean's silence was the hardest for Sam to endure. Nothing so unusual about a long pause, not where Dean was concerned, but this one was toxic, somehow, because of what had been said before it.

The flat estuary lands fled by in the darkness, nothing moving but them, always.

"Demons lie all the time, right?" Sam cajoled, tried to sound reasonable. Reasonable sometimes worked with Dean. Every once in a great while. "Maybe she was lying."

Dean wasn't going to go for that, though, not tonight. Not after what he'd told Sam the demon had said. If you knew where he really was…

"C'mon, that really what you think?" They shared a quick look, and Sam knew that was all the attention Dean was going to give him, because Sam could have looking and he could have talking, but not at the same time, usually. Dean's attention was back to the road, mouth chewing anger like doublemint. "How could he do it?"

Exquisite balancing act for Sam. Luckily, he'd had practice, though these were higher stakes than ever before. "He did it for you," Sam murmured, soft and distinct. No way to avoid Dean's bitterness, not unless he shut up altogether.

"Exactly. How'm I supposed to live with that?" That served up with a hard smile. Sam kept quiet, knew Dean wasn't finished. "You know, the thought of him," brows lifting like he was amused, was anything but, "wherever he is right now…I mean, he spent his whole life chasin' that…" caught not on the word 'fucking' so much as on sheer hatred, "yellow-eyed son of a bitch. He should have gone out fighting. That was supposed to be his legacy, you know? Not bargaining with the damn thing." Dean stared at the road as though it had done something unforgivable. "Not this."

His fury was vast and primal, was so unlike Dean, and Sam held onto the concept of 'reasonable' as a safe path out of the burning building Dean had lit up.

"How many people do you think Dad saved, total?"

"That's not the point, Sam."

Dean's profile was set against the speeding dark riverlands, and there was no way he'd look at Sam again, so Sam kept going. "Evan Hudson is safe because of what dad taught us." As though by sheer force of will, he could make Dean turn, as if by turning he'd be safe. Whole. "That's his legacy, Dean." Sam saw the swallow Dean took, still staring at the road, overwhelmed. "Now, we're still here, man. We gotta keep goin'. For him." Like that would matter to Dean. It almost didn't matter to Sam. He said it, heard the words coming from his mouth, knew if he said them enough times they would become true.

For him, at least.

Not for Dean; he couldn't hear what Sam was trying to tell him. Later, maybe, if Dean got later, because something else occurred to Sam. "Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah." Too fast, same way he had since they were kids, not inviting more, but letting Sam know that he'd been heard.

Putting up with me and my stupid questions.

"When you were trapping that demon, you weren't…" and what the fuck was that in his voice, an interloper, a seed from childhood, sprouting a new shoot. Fear. "I mean, it was all a trick, right? You never actually considered making that…deal. Right?"

Oh, please, Dean. Please.

But Dean only checked the sideview mirror, making sure that no one was following them maybe, but more likely signaling that he wanted Sam to shut the fuck up, and underlined it by changing the radio station. Loud unmelodic music in the key of hell. Fuck off, Sam.

A huge fear clawed its way up Sam's throat, because he knew. He'd asked, but he already knew. Had known for a long time of the damage done to Dean, chest running with blood, the floor splattered with it, they don't need you, not like you need them, and any deal Dean could think to make with a demon or a god wasn't going to be enough to compensate for what he'd already given up, what had been taken, and those heavy awful things left in their place. John Winchester's soul was a feather against the weight Dean carried, and Sam recognized the imbalance, even if he didn't know the details.

It wasn't as though Dean was going to tell him, either.

In a general way, Sam knew words from Dean were rapid and dense and frequent. And by the same lights, that Dean's voice was a rare thing for all that. He'd learned that the hard way, learned to see forest and learned to see trees.

The music was obnoxious and Sam let his question go, amazed that something as insubstantial as airwaves could become such a wall.

Niagara Falls NY, 2000

Sam tried to make up a smart-ass name for the place, but it was so ridiculous to start with, he really didn't have to try that hard: Niagara Falls High School. What was their mascot? A guy in a barrel?

Brand new building, nothing worked right, shiny and spacious. Same old battered text books, kids that had known each other since kindergarten and tall Sam Winchester thrown into the middle of it like a sacrificial offering, a stick over the edge of a bridge, heading for the rapids.

They'd been in Niagara Falls for three days, and he hadn't even gone to look.

Dean and their father had, sure. The reason they were here, Sam supposed, not really remembering the conversations in the front seat of the Impala on the way north, something about a guy named McGreevy, and obsessions and 'not quite right'. And who cared? Aside from Dean, anyway?

Finding his assigned locker out of the banks of color-coded hallways was hard enough without trying to figure out what supernatural bee had flown up dad's butt this time. Niagara fucking Falls. Tourist traps weren't usually on John Winchester's list of family vacation hot spots. Actually, family vacations weren't on John Winchester's list of anything. But here they were, for the time being, as John pointed out, which was all the time Sam had.

He'd kept the same lock for three years now, miraculously hanging on to something from previous schools, liking the fact that the combination was easy to remember: 3-14-15. Pi: endless division of a circle into three equal and indefinable parts, magic number unable to be truly understood.

Shit, yeah, that would impress the girls. Maybe he should join the chess club like Dean had suggested this morning, grin shit-eating big. Make new friends.

Last thing he wanted to do. In the midst of the teeming after-school crowd, Sam found his locker, spun the dial and yanked open the door, checking over his shoulder as he did so. Rocket-thin for his age, new kid, quiet except when asked a direct question, perfect target for any jock looking to up his social capital. He knew the drill, had plenty of practice.

Track, not chess, Dean. Loser.

He jammed books into his backpack, and it would be heavy. He barely remembered how to get back to the apartment their dad had rented for the month. One month. Maybe he wouldn't try out for track. Committing to anything was hard when you never knew what city – hell, what state – you'd be in next month. Hey coach, we're done with Niagara ghosts, moving on to Louisiana zombies. Sorry, I'll have to skip the track meet.

Someone jostled him from behind and he half-turned, realized a group of tall slender boys had congregated by the open classroom door; they looked like half the basketball team. They were harassing a heavy-set kid with a face too expressive for his own good, passing him around as though he were a joint or a hot potato. Sam moved out the way, and the kid banged into the locker beside Sam's. He was all huge white t-shirt and baggy pants, and he grinned good naturedly at Sam, then walked quickly the other way, but not before Sam saw the thin edge of panic reflected in his full moon glasses.

The basketball team's laughter floated down the hallway as they wheeled away in the opposite direction as tightly formed and as lethal as a Luftwaffe squadron.

Sam shook his head, not wanting to know what the politics were. Cocksure jocks; oddball kid wearing his soul like a corporate logo. Didn't take a genius to figure it out and he wasn't going to be here long enough to get involved, so why let it waste any gray matter?

Trouble was, Sam always took note of these things, had a continuous and running tally of injustices filed away for later examination.

A group of girls, bright and hard as chickadees mid-winter, chattered by a locker across the hall from him and he heard snatches of 'dance' and 'party' and swearing that had to do with someone's boyfriend. Near the water fountain, a clutch of Asian boys argued about what might have been some video game, something about levels and killshots and car chases. No one spoke about classes, for all that most of them would be graduating this year, would be leaving school for other places of shiny new promise. And Sam?

But that was beyond Sam's 'time being' and so he slammed the metal door shut with more force than was needed, shouldered the backpack, ignored the students around him, acutely aware that his jeans were frayed and his denim shirt not terribly clean – blood was a bitch to get out – and his hair four months past its last cut, the latter mostly to piss off Dad.

Out the wide concrete steps, should have brought a jacket at least. Late September and the air was like cut glass, the leaves just starting to turn, everything all around thinking about dying for a few months. His route, as far as he remembered it, was long but not difficult. The apartment was above a Chinese grocery on a main street, three rooms, partially furnished. A little mirror above the door that had made John grimace: feng shui. Well, why the hell not, Dad? That any weirder than the usual crap you pull bead on?

Anything that redirected bad spirits was okay in Sam's books. He allowed a grin as he hurried off the pristine and anonymous school grounds, swinging with one hand around the chainlink fence, ignoring the pickets of students who watched him go, regimented and close-ranked as an established military junta. Maybe he should read up on feng shui, start putting mirrors up everywhere, basins of water, watch out for straight lines, and re-orient their beds so their feet didn't point to the doors. Make dad crazy.

Not a bad neighborhood for a brand-new school, but boring in its residential way, slapped together like a badly-planned potluck dinner, too many bean salads and only one dessert. Houses all looked too similar, construction materials the cheapest money could buy. Two blocks onto the older main strip, a seedy relic of Niagara's glory days, like no one was paying much attention to what humans had made here, what with the natural fucking wonder just a half mile away. No one cares about this place, he thought. Least of all me.

Twenty minutes walking fast with that load of books on his back and he'd sweated through his white t-shirt, right through the denim shirt. Usual stores lined the busy street: a check-cashing outlet, convenience store, dollar mart, pokey family-run pharmacy doomed by the big box up the street. One or two location-specific joints: a wax museum, a tourist trinket shop, two different tour bus operators, all blatantly flogging their prime resource, all limping along indifferently.

In contrast to these imitation businesses purveying empty product, the Chinese grocery offered bright vegetables under a tattered awning, announcing itself as too fresh for this kind of town. Sam recognized the lychee nuts bundled together like weird kindling and the lush green leaves of vegetables he couldn't name. This morning, John had given Sam two keys: one was for the street-level door beside a broken crate that had once seen persimmons safe to Niagara Falls. Sam unlocked the door and loped up the creaky stairs, turned the corner at the top and stopped at the hollow wood door decorated with a desultory plastic 3.

Dean had apologized this morning, a pre-emptive move designed to prepare Sam for something he already knew: the hunt came first, tell us about your new school when we get back. So no one was home, and it took him a few seconds to work the newly-cut key into the reluctant lock. His picks would be faster. No salt across the threshold, though, and that was a positive sign. Dad was in a good mood, hadn't yet picked up enough information to get paranoid.

Sam threw his backpack onto the threadbare sofa, went directly to the fridge and pulled out a jug of chocolate milk. He was civilized enough to get a plastic cup from the cupboard. The living room was also the dining room and was also the kitchen. It was the armory too, apparently, since several bags of weapons were deposited in the corner by the television, a flannel sheet over the coffee table, bits of gun scattered across it.

Sam kicked off his sneakers, slid the gun cleaning to the side with one foot, and unzipped his backpack, the chocolate milk cradled against his chest. A mess of papers and hardcover texts were jammed in the bulging backpack, but he looked for the stapled softcover book that his homeroom teacher had given him.

'Niagara Falls High School Welcomes You!' it declared in bright cheery letters, with a black and white photo of the new school. He flipped open the booklet, only to discover a line drawing of the school mascot: a guy in a fucking barrel, the Niagara Falls Daredevils. Jesus Christ. Followed by thirty odd pages of rules and 'useful tips'.

Did they include a section on getting blood out of clothing? Cause that would be useful as hell. Sam was glad that the student handbook welcomed him, because the school itself sure hadn't.

As usual, he'd just shown up that morning, a tatty package of past report cards in his hand, must be at least twenty of them by now, a copy of the rental agreement providing proof of residency. At least Dad had said he could register in his own name, which always made things easier. The school's main office counter was higher than necessary, created the same inviting ambience as a big-city cab with a Plexiglas shield.

School administrators were a breed apart, had been genetically engineered to give you a hard time, viewed students as the enemy. Sam hadn't even tried charm, just stayed firm and quiet and had eventually been given a student number and a homeroom and a stack of forms for his dad to sign, or for Dean to forge, whichever was more convenient. An appointment to see a guidance counselor to figure out his course load if he wanted to graduate in the spring.

Again, 'time being' the only time Sam could contemplate. Graduation was a mirage, not so much unattainable as pointless.

He looked around him: shitty apartment, table full of gun parts, a television that hardly worked, a fridge containing only chocolate milk and pizza pockets – Dean had obviously done the groceries – and a fraternal bedroom with two single beds, his not nearly long enough. But most importantly, something to hunt, which was all that mattered to Dad.

Sam wasn't in the mood for homework, for studying. He didn't want to watch TV, even if the damned box had picked up more than a few grainy Canadian channels. He barely wanted the chocolate milk, though he downed it all, carefully set the cup among the lethal clutter on the table.

He wanted something that wasn't here, that was all.

That combination lock had survived three moves now. Back at the school, outside this room, it hung on his locker like a talisman, a sign that maybe Sam existed outside the confines of shitty motels and apartments, outside the incessantly moving Impala, that he could stay in one place, not be a piece of John Winchester's flotsam, detritus from a shipwreck seventeen years old.

Rockwood TN, present day

Somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville you lost an hour, and Dean always hated that, felt like he was getting ripped off in cosmic terms. Almost laughed at that as he finally spotted a 'vacancies' sign that was attached to something that didn't look like it would give him a disease he'd need ointment for. Almost laughed – losing an hour of his life should mean nothing to him. It was all borrowed time, wasn't it? His river had run its course, and for whatever reason, whatever bargain had been made without his consent, it ran on, against nature. He was still going, a dead man walking.

And Dad? Well, he was just a dead man. And if only that was the whole truth, Dean might sleep easier at night. Might sleep, period.

He eased the car into park and opened the door at the same time, anxious to stretch his legs, to snatch back that hour somehow, maybe walk a little ways west to catch it. He stared across the Impala's roof at Sam, who had gotten out more slowly, like he was hurting.

The hell hound hadn't touched him, Dean knew that. Other things had, though. Sam had said it himself, weeks ago now. I'm not okay. A day late and several dollars short, and Sam would have to live with himself and his last words to John for the rest of his life.

Less okay now, after what that bitch said, Dean thought. Shoulda kept that to myself, maybe. But he was sick of keeping things to himself, literally sick with it, could barely hold it all in, and then he was slamming the door shut and walking round to the trunk to get their things. A night here, then move, though he had no idea where, just needed to keep going, like that would make things better, like they'd actually get someplace they'd want to be.

Inside, the room was exactly as he imagined it from the outside: anonymous in its generic shabbiness, no spark of creativity, everything functional and perfunctory. Cheap in every sense of the word. Perfect, because though he'd often taken great pleasure in finding the weirdest fucking motels on the planet, the ones with furniture made from buffalo horns, with vintage 70s wallpaper, and clocks shaped like animals, he was tired of it, exhausted by the search for novelty. Just wanted beige, suddenly, a blank canvas.

"Sam, you should," and couldn't finish the sentence. Like he should be giving advice to anyone. Sam blinked once, eyes squinting as though the bedside lamp was too bright. Dead on his feet.

But he nodded, willing to take the advice. That was new. "Sure." He glanced at his watch, the room not having even a digital clock. He shook his head. Wasn't particularly late, but sleep was its own way of coping. Sam could sleep his way through Armageddon. Dean's lips twitched. Maybe they'd get a chance to find out if that was true.

Sam stripped down, dropped into the bed with a muffled moan of sleepy pleasure. Dean shoved the necessaries into the tiny bathroom: a shaving kit, the red first aid bag, a new tube of toothpaste Sam had remembered to buy at the last gas station they'd stopped at. Maybe thirty seconds, tops, but Sam was fast asleep by the time Dean came back into the room.

Dean stared at the furry dark head against the reasonably white pillowcase, wanting nothing more than for him to be safe. Found he was biting the inside of his mouth, hard. Shit, he wasn't going to stay here and watch Sam sleep. Even he knew that wasn't a good idea, no matter the number of times he'd done it in the past.

Quietly, he slipped on his leather coat, checked that his Glock was loaded, positioned it carefully under his shirt in the small of his back. A precaution. He took out two hunting knives from the duffle bag and slid one quickly under Sam's pillow, because Sam usually forgot things like that. The other he tucked into his boot.

Not unhinged, no matter what Sam thought. Prepared. There was a difference, because he knew what was out there.

He tried a bar first, because he thought he wanted some company, was how he initially identified the desire burning through him like a shot of bourbon. Bars were usually good places for him and his smile. A round of darts, a few bucks, a game of pool, figure out which girl might be willing to follow him back to the Impala.

A quick fuck in the parking lot was all the distraction he could afford, was all the distraction he wanted.

Not even that, he discovered. Opportunity was not the problem: two blondes, one of them natural, both fetching in the typical roadhouse way, the prettier one with a boyfriend who was too drunk to make a decent obstacle. And Dean wanted the boyfriend to notice, wanted that more than he wanted the fuck. Turn around asshole, I'm about to bang your girlfriend – looked to her hand resting on his thigh as she stood too close to his seat at the bar – your wife, shitforbrains, least you could do is give me a run for the money.

He didn't want to fuck; he wanted to fight. Or, more precisely, he wanted to kill something so bad he ached all over and he hadn't had so much alcohol that he failed to recognize what a bad place a roadside bar in an unfamiliar town was when this mood struck.

To be fair, though, he'd never really been in this mood before, so didn't quite know what to make of it.

Cut your losses, then, Winchester. He said goodbye to the regretful bottle blonde and the attentive natural one, put on his coat, was steady enough to drive. Idea: Find an open convenience store, grab some cold ones, go back to the motel and try hard not to kill anything. A noble plan.

There was nothing convenient about Rockwood, though; stores shut up at midnight, making Dean's plan more difficult than it ought to be. Fucking Tennessee and their fucking stupid liquor laws. But maybe four miles up the road, he'd cross that magic line, go back in time, and hit a fucking store that was still open because midnight hadn't happened yet.

He pulled out of Rockwood, the surrounding forest low and ominous, a pretend forest compared to ones in Washington, and turned up the music loud so he didn't have to think. Westal flashed past, everything dark and sleeping. Another mile or so and he came to Ozone – who the fuck called a town Ozone? Right up there with Concrete as a name to make the Chamber of Commerce proud. And there, the Friendly Mart & Beverage with a neon 'open' sign. That looked promising. Cold beer was his criteria, not too high a fucking standard.

The store was lit up like electricity was free, and the counter clerk gave him a thorough once-over as soon as he was through the door, the overhead bell signaling his arrival like a medieval herald.

Dean glanced back at the colored stripe running up the door jamb. "I'm 6'1", in case you're wondering," he said to the clerk, who was probably five inches shy of six foot. But the kid had to wear a folded paper hat, so Dean counseled some cutting of slack. Poor fucker, stuck in Ozone Tennessee with a dorky hat past midnight by someone's clock. Dean's watch still said 11:30 and he was going with that, would live in this borrowed time for as long as he could.

Fuck the demon, any demon.

Actually had to stand still for a minute, thinking that, amazed at how fast the flush of adrenaline washed over him, prickling face probably either beet red or ghost white, hard to tell without a mirror. Oh, wait there is a mirror, one of those fisheye ones so the sixteen-year-old clerk could make sure he wasn't stuffing bags of Doritos down his pants. Glancing into the reflective curve, Dean waved at the kid, headed for the bank of glass-fronted coolers, trying to think of nothing but beer.

I'm fine, he told himself. I just need to get used to things, is all.

There was quite a selection, and though Dean wasn't fussy, he suddenly realized he didn't have a whole lot of cash in his wallet, either. He brought it out, knew that one of his credit cards would probably manage it, but who wanted to use it for that if he could scrape together enough change? Three one-dollar bills. Some coins rattling around in his front pocket. He was counting quarters when the bell rang again, and Dean paid it not one bit of attention, not until he heard the clerk stammering, "Anything you want! Anything you want!"

Aw, fuck, not this shit. I just want a beer.

Dean backed up against an aisle of peanut butter, eyes on the fisheye mirror. Two guys, one short, one tall, ski masks over their heads. Must be sweating like pigs under those, he thought unsympathetically. Two guns, one held at an awkward angle, a clumsy grip that would probably result in missing fingers if it was actually fired. If it was loaded, which was debatable. The other guy, the taller of the two, held his gun low, easy. Probably knew how to use it. The brains behind this sophisticated operation. These idiots don't know what they're doing. I can wait them out.

Still, idiots with guns were still technically armed, and Dean didn't really want to end up bleeding to death on the Friendly Mart floor because a scared, drug-addled kid got jammed up, so he stayed where he was.

"You alone?" one of the robbers drawled, Tennessee accent turning it to an invitation, made a convenience store holdup sound like a cotillion.

Then Dean thought about the question. Shit. He stepped away from the peanut butter just as he heard the clerk squeak, "No. No, there's a guy-" and might have pointed to the back, Dean supposed. He sighed, held his arms out from his sides.

"Over here," he barked, coming slowly forward. He rounded a pyramid of canned soup, kept his hands where the youngsters could see them. If they pulled off those masks, the clerk would probably recognize them. Hell, the counter kid probably knew exactly who they were, went to school with them. Maybe they were all in it together. He didn't much care. All I want is a beer.

"Keep them where we can see 'em!" the short one shouted, excited.

Fuck, that's what I'm doing, asshole. "Give them the till," Dean spoke quietly to the clerk, who was whey pale, looked as though he was going to barf. And didn't move a muscle.

"The safe's locked," the kid replied.

The taller of the two pulled back his handgun's hammer with a cartoon click. Dean refrained from rolling his eyes. "Give him what you've got," he continued, voice soft, falling into persuasion, falling into that soft caramel tone that ought to make him feel ill, but right now he wasn't feeling much of anything except thirsty.

The clerk shook his head.

"Give him what you've got or I'll come back there and get it myself."

"You!" Shorty again. Dean could see a soft downy moustache above crooked teeth. Kids, out for a thrill, probably. "Hands on your head."

Dean laced his fingers together behind his head and turned to the taller guy, glanced down at the gun. A Beretta, probably a dad in the Air Force. Might have been taken out and given range practice. Probably knew how to use it. A mistake, though to pay that much attention, because Tall gave him a look and swung the gun around to Dean, correctly ascertaining where the threat truly lay.

Neither robber was particularly calm. Actually, though he was the one with the gun pointed at his head, Dean was the calmest in the store. "Um, Friendly Mart Boy, you should give them the money and let them get the hell out of here."

Shorty was behind the counter now, going through the till, thank god. Thirty more seconds and this would be over.

Except, "That's your car out there?"

Huh. He was going to go there, was he? Ambitious bastard. Dean didn't look at Tall, kept his hands on his head, stared at Shorty's back; the brainless putz had put his gun on the counter in front of the clerk so he'd have both hands to break open the cigarette case. Dean decided that the clerk was definitely in on it. Dean still didn't care.

"Which car?" Dean exchanged that question for an extra few seconds as he shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet.

"Black one, Kansas plates."

"Yeah, that's his," the clerk volunteered and Dean hoped Shorty would get carried away and just plug him, except that Shorty was now stuffing cigarettes into a plastic bag and was ignoring the gun still resting beside a glass jar of pepperoni sticks. "Keys are in his right pocket, leather coat."

Observant little fuckwad, wasn't he?

"You can give me your coat, too," Tall said, and smiled.

Slowly, Dean lowered his hands, didn't look at Tall, because apparently Tall had already recognized a murderous look and Dean didn't want to give him any extra warning. He leaned back like he was just shrugging out of his coat, instead grabbed a can of soup from the pile and swung it into Tall's face like it was a brick, breaking his nose with a fantastic crack, not stopping until the Campbell's Mushroom found teeth.

Dean would have broken fingers on a punch like that, but the can was barely dented, would maybe have to be marked down, but was otherwise intact. With his other hand, Dean grabbed the Beretta from a now loose grip, slid it across the floor where it spun under the magazine rack. Tall was bent over, blood pouring between his empty fingers. Then Dean brought up his knee, the hard cap smashing into Tall's face again, sending him flying backwards.

Only then did he spare a glance to Shorty, who stood transfixed behind the counter, a carton of Kools in one hand, mouth open behind the mask. Go for it, Dean whispered, not sure whether he said it out loud, eyes darting to Shorty's gun, a million miles away on the counter.

Just stupid enough, apparently.

The robber made a sudden grab for the gun, and Dean shook his head in irritation, whipped out his Glock from his waistband and aimed, right wrist supported by his left hand. Shorty stopped cold, eyes landing on his partner bleeding on the floor, then to the gun on the counter and back to Dean.

Who said nothing. He was surprised that he had no clear idea of what he wanted to happen.

The clerk started screaming. Either he was in on it, or he wasn't, but he obviously now anticipated a shoot out that he hadn't been planning on when he unfolded his paper hat to start his shift today. He dropped to the floor behind the counter, shrieking, the noise of it in no way muffled by his new position. Dean got ready to leave, mostly because he was just too irritated to help anyone, least of all the pimply clerk.

At that moment, though, Dean felt a hand curl around his ankle and the convenience store turned sideways, like someone had dropped a video recorder. Fuck it, this is getting out of hand, he thought from the floor, then didn't think of anything much else because Tall was getting to his knees and earlier that evening Dean had wanted to kill something and here was a something just lurching into his line of fire, who the fuck would blame him?

Dean rolled to his feet, ripped off Tall's ski mask with one hand, brought the butt of the Glock down with the other, toppled Tall like a Doug fir. Dean savored that, could predict how Tall would come crashing down, how his head would hit the ground with a bounce, exactly the angle and trajectory of his fall.

Dean found time, everything slowed and he saw what he needed to do as vividly as though he'd been given a shopping list. This time, he did it with his fists, landed blows so fast and hard that he didn't actually feel the impact until his whole right hand flared with cold pain, then flattened to a peculiar numbness, not dissimilar to what had settled over him since John Winchester had died.

When his hand twanged dangerously, Dean started in with his boots, each kick finding purchase, his shins singing with effort. When he was sure Tall wasn't getting up again, he tucked the Glock into the back of his jeans, turned to find Shorty pointing his gun at him, the clerk still making unbearable noises from behind the counter.

Guess I shouldn't have been so focused, Dean thought. He wasn't concerned at all.

"Give me your keys," Shorty said through clenched teeth.

"No fucking way," Dean returned. He hoped this asshole would fire the gun. He'd fucking kill himself, way he was holding it. No such luck, and Dean could see it, could actually see when the holdup kid decided that he didn't have the guts. The barrel of the gun shivered in his grip, then he lowered it, and Dean was on him.

First, Dean grabbed the kid's gun and slammed it on the counter, wanted it out the way so a stray bullet didn't blow an inconvenient hole in him. Adrenaline, that's what he told himself, but it wasn't that. He didn't know the name of what this was. Because Dean had control of the situation now, didn't have to do what he did next. Did it anyway.

He didn't let up until Shorty was whimpering in pain, ribs caved in from Dean's heavy boots, blood everywhere, his face raw as a butchershop counter. Dean's knuckles dripped blood, and he was no longer able to feel much of anything, whether it had a name or not.

Dean was breathing heavily, had exerted himself. The clerk whimpered, and Dean helped him sit up. Little fucker, why didn't you just give him the money? Supposed to make it look good for the cameras, Dean guessed. Restrained himself from continuing the beating, this time on the clerk, Dean put away his gun. Instead, Dean patted the clerk on the shoulder.

"Where's the security tape?" he asked quietly. The kid pointed to a cupboard under the counter, and Dean ripped out the tape, put it in his pocket. He stood, looked around the store. Must be closing time. The missing hour had caught up with him.

"I'm gonna get some beer now. I'm thirty cents short. Think you can cover it?"

The kid nodded, and Dean laid his bills and coins on the counter next to Shorty's gun, stepped over Shorty and avoided the pool of blood that surrounded Tall. He took the cheapest bottled beer he could find, nodded to the clerk on the way out, didn't think about anything for a long while.

The shower felt good, felt so goddamn good, and since it was the first thing to feel good in some time, Dean let it run until the hot water tank gave up the last of its warmth. When it did, he shut off the taps abruptly, hoped the noisy shudder of pipes wouldn't wake Sam.

Opening the mold-streaked glass door, Dean grabbed the towel he'd left on the plastic hook, the bathroom air eddying steam as he moved through it. Glad that he couldn't see his reflection in the gray mirror, Dean flexed his right hand experimentally. His knuckles had stopped bleeding, and he didn't think that he'd actually broken anything. They hurt something awful, though. Should have stuck to the soup cans. Cans of anything were usually good weapons, handy, fucking lethal…and he stopped himself, swallowed with difficulty.

He'd just beaten two kids half to death, no two ways around it.

He stood in the bathroom, scrubbed his hair with the towel, dressed slowly, making sure his bloodsplattered jeans were rolled into a ball for the laundry bag. He taped his right hand, knowing that Sam would ask and he would lie and that would be that. Sam would eventually be so relentless with his weneedtotalkaboutthis look that Dean would probably cave, but he'd made promises and he wasn't so sore and tired that he couldn't carry what his dad had asked him to.

I'm fine, he told himself and didn't question it. Sam thought that they should go on and that 'dad would have wanted it', and didn't stop to think of where dad actually was, because you'd drive yourself crazy if you thought of that. It wasn't something that Dean could ignore though, because he was only here on account of where dad now was. But Sam was sleeping and Dean could carry this and that was all that mattered.

His watch now said 3:24, which was the middle of the night in any time zone, and Dean still had four beers in the box.

In the morning, Sam could drive.

William Green Memorial Highway, 2 miles west of Newcomerstown OH, present day

Sam always mixed up Cy Young and Ty Cobb, used them interchangeably as though they were the same old time player. Sam would try to impress Dean about some modern pitcher winning the Ty Cobb award, obscenely pleased with himself that he remembered it was a pitching award, and Dean would laugh and laugh. Cy Young, gentleman pitcher, he'd explain, less than patiently. Ty Cobb, Georgia Peach, center fielder, batter from hell, asshole extraordinaire, blahblahblah. Always made Sam want to make his hand do the yakking gesture.

But Sam's baffled density with regards to baseball made Dean laugh and that was more than enough these days.

So Sam thought it was a good sign, maybe, when the so-called highway pulling east into the heart of Ohio offered up a blue tourism sign at its verge, proudly declaring that Newcomerstown was up ahead, Home of Cy Young. Sam slid his glance to the passenger seat, where Dean leaned his head against the window, barely awake, his hands slack in his lap, one bandaged because he'd caught it in a door at the bar.

That was actually the story he'd flown past Sam, sanitized as an afterschool special. Did Dean suddenly think Sam was an imbecile? This morning: six empty bottles, a whole package of gauze and half a roll of medical tape. Sam guessed bar brawl, hoped he was right. He'd noticed that Dean had wanted out of Rockwood almost before dawn and short of a yelling match, Sam wasn't going to get anywhere poking that wound. So he'd accepted Dean's ridiculous story with a grimace and a returned sunny smile. You drive, Dean had responded, an admission of sorts.

"Hey Dean," Sam prodded, one hand lifting to the upcoming sign, thinking that he might get his brother to laugh at least. He didn't make it past pointing.

A white shearing light sliced the Impala into a thousand shards of shattered glass, glancing through him as though he was made of warm butter. The smell of sulfur overpowered him, and his stomach roiled unpleasantly. That was all the warning he got.

In the middle of the opalescent fog, clearing, the brushed honey oak floors of a school gymnasium, the smell of sweat and gunpowder. Vinyl lettering on the floorboards, stupid looking guy in a barrel, the words 'Niagara Falls High School Welcomes You!' circling the familiar mascot like a noose.

The gunpowder smell registered and there, as though she was standing in front of him, a slight blonde woman, familiar – shit, more than familiar – but so fucking scared. He hadn't seen her in six years, but those years had only pared the smooth skin to the bones underneath, had turned a young teacher into a beauty. He recognized her immediately, though he'd never seen her look like this. She was staring at some point behind him, saying something and he almost heard her low voice, the salty-sweet slide of a southern accent in this northern place.

Strained to hear, but everything was suddenly overwhelmed by the crack of a rifle. The boards, so neatly partitioned for volleyball and basketball, were awash in a spray of her blood and she fell into it, blue eyes rolling back and Sam shouted 'no!' in a voice that barely belonged to him.

His head hit something hard and he panicked, flailing out, someone catching his arm and he jerked away, heard the screech of tires against asphalt, then the hot smell of rubber, not sulfur, and Dean's voice right in his ear, "For fuck's sake, Sam!"

Dean was almost in his lap, had his left foot jammed on the brakes, while Sam's right rested on the gas pedal. The car was in neutral on the soft shoulder of the highway next to a farmer's field, roaring its dismay at the abuse. Dean's breath came as though he'd just run a half marathon.

Sam thought maybe his head might explode.

Slowly, Dean extricated himself from his position, swallowed, his eyes wide, considered Sam as though he'd announced he murdered children in their sleep, still had one hand bunched up in Sam's shirtfront. "What the fuck, Sammy?" It wasn't a question, really. His eyes were white rimmed, and Sam didn't actually need to be psychic to know what was going on there – a near car crash on an empty highway, the sound of tires screeching across the road, both of them scrambled like so many eggs. Dean seemed to notice his fist in Sam's chest, looked at it, relaxed his hand enough to take it away.

Sam knew he was on the verge of being shaken or hit, that Dean was probably counting under his breath.

"Don't you fucking do that." Low sound, not so low that Sam couldn't hear the anger. "Don't you ever fucking do that again."

Finally, after the few minutes it took for their hearts to return to a place approaching normal, Dean reached out with his left hand, the one that wasn't hamburger meat, and grabbed Sam's chin, turning his head to the side. "You're bleeding."

Obligingly, Sam turned off the car. "So are you." And he pointed to where blood soaked through the bandages on Dean's right hand. He must have made some kind of leap to get the Impala back under control. Sam took a shaky breath. Shit, he might have killed them both. Fuck. He jumped out the car, folded both arms against the roof and rested his forehead there, waiting for the panic to pass.

It took a while. After a minute or two, he heard the passenger side door open and Dean got unhurriedly out, the jangle of keys as he opened the trunk, and came around to Sam's side.

"C'mon, I'll drive. It's just a little cut, a teeny tiny Bandaid'll do it. Think there's one in here with Nemo on it." Sam lifted his head just in time to see Dean grin, holding out the horrendously depleted first aid bag.

The lengths I go to get him to smile, Sam thought, wondering when this had shifted.

Sam walked stiffly around the car as his brother settled into the driver's seat. Dean didn't start the car until Sam had fixed the small cut, not with a Nemo bandage, but with a miniscule fabric one, tried to re-adjust the rearview mirror back to its original position, but Dean slapped away his hand.

Sam watched him take a deep breath. "So, what'd you see?" Dean asked, but didn't look as though he wanted to know the answer.

Christ, you're not going to like this, Dean.

"You know, in Greenwood, when we were at the crossroads, and you asked me if I'd save someone going over Niagara in a barrel?"

Dean's mouth worked. In Greenwood, Sam had been shocked when Dean had brought up Niagara Falls, him of all people. They never spoke of it, too much guilt between them. Too much sorrow and anger. Sam was pretty sure that no matter how angry Dean had been at the crossroads – and he'd been plenty mad, all right – he'd known he'd crossed a line, bringing up that.

The day's last light was low in the sky; they'd been driving all day, and Dean hadn't really slept, looked it. This wasn't going to get any easier, though.

"Yeah." He turned, mild belligerence caught in the slanting sun. "I didn't mean anything by it."

Sam shrugged, massaged the knot between his eyes with his fingertips. "Yeah, you did." And Dean let that one lay flat as a carpet. Sam wondered if he felt guilty now, because at the crossroads, Dean had deliberately goaded Sam with it, looking for a fight.

"Well, that's where we're going, so you'll have the chance to make it up to me."

For once, he didn't look at Dean, because his headache was fucking monstrous.

"Really?" Dean sounded uncertain. "Niagara? Back there?"

Sam wondered if he'd have to open the door to puke. He took a long breath and steadied, finally lowered his hand. For first time in weeks, Dean didn't look like he wanted to tear something apart. He was staring at Sam like he was an executioner.

Though his head pounded as he did it, Sam nodded, sure.

"Back there."