Actions

Work Header

Three Strikes

Work Text:

Three Strikes
By JJJunky

 

"Son of a bitch!" Dean Winchester loudly swore, attracting the attention of the other diners. He sat up straight in his seat with a swiftness that tore the newspaper in his hand.

Wondering what could have caused such a reaction in the sports section, Sam closed his laptop. "What's wrong?"

"This is wrong. So wrong." Dean folded the paper in half, then half again before handing it to Sam.

Sam looked at the headline. "Ken Griffey Jr: Toe Still Swollen." Laying the paper down, Sam shrugged. "I can see why that would upset Cincinnati Reds fans--"

"Not that," Dean interrupted. His finger punched at the other story on the page. "That."

Ignoring the curious stares of the other customers, Sam softly read the article out loud. "Jake Avery, outfielder for the AAA Iowa Cubs, is poised to join the parent club. After spending the last nine years and the first month of the current season with the Peoria Chiefs, a class A team in the Midwest League, Avery jumped AA to go directly to AAA. With a batting average two hundred points above his lifetime average and fifteen home runs in ten games, Avery is setting records Babe Ruth would envy."

Sam stopped reading to look at his brother. "Interesting story if you like baseball, but hardly anything to get upset about."

"You don't recognize the name?"

His eyes going back to the beginning of the story, Sam whispered to himself, "Jake Avery."

"He and I played against each other in high school," Dean impatiently supplied.

"Now I remember. It was when we were living in Portland, Oregon."

"Right." Slapping the table with both hands, Dean sat back in his seat.

"I also remember you guys didn't get along very well."

"That's because I always struck him out."

"Oh, yeah." Sam smiled. "Didn't he come after you once with a baseball bat?"

A smug grin on his face, Dean nodded. "It got him kicked out of the game."

"Wasn't it a play-off game?"

"They lost."

Handing the paper back to his brother, Sam said, "I guess he was better than we thought. It looks like he's going to the majors."

"Dude, you read the story and that's all you can say?"

"Yeah, so?"

"You don't think something's in the cornfield?

Sam rolled his eyes at the obscure reference to the Kevin Costner film. "This isn't Iowa."

"It's not Kansas either, Dorothy. Answer the question."

Overlooking the jibe, Sam asked, "What makes you think something's wrong?"

"Someone spends nine years at the bottom of the ladder, then in less than two months he's at the top?"

"Okay," conceded Sam, "it does sound improbable. But what does that have to do with us?"

Dean looked around to see if anyone was close enough to overhear. When no eyes met his, he whispered, "I think Jake's possessed."

"You're joking, right?"

"Does it look like I'm joking?" huffed Dean.

Sam had to reluctantly admit he had rarely seen his brother look more serious. He just couldn't figure out why a demon would possess a mediocre baseball player. "There has to be another explanation."

"Like what?"

Staring absently at the newspaper in front of him, Sam searched for something to explain Avery's sudden improvement. "Steroids."

"Finish the story." Dean tapped the paper. "He's been tested for drugs - repeatedly. Nada."

Honestly stumped, Sam shook his head.

"The Iowa Cubs are playing in Tucson this weekend. I think we should check it out." Dean emptied his coffee cup and slipped out of the booth.

Although Sam didn't necessarily agree with his brother, he knew it wouldn't do him any good to argue. Pulling several bills from his wallet, he put them on the table before heading to the cash register. Dean was obviously determined to have his way. Why should today be different from any other?

*****

Watching the crowd streaming into the ballpark, Sam realized the Cubs farm team was almost as popular as its parent club. Although it was an away game, many of the fans were wearing Cubs' shirts or hats. Unfortunately, the large crowd would make things more difficult for them. From the conversations he was overhearing, it was obvious most of them had come to see Jake Avery.

"How do you think we should play this?" Dean asked.

Sam couldn't remember the last time he had seen his brother this antsy. "After the game, I'll go around to the player's entrance and see if I can get Avery's autograph."

"Dude, what would you want with that son of a bitch's autograph?"

"It's an excuse to get close enough to take an EMF reading."

Dean chewed over the suggestion for a few minutes. "That'll work. But why wait until after the game?"

"What's the rush?"

"If there's a demon, we have to destroy it."

"I repeat, what's the rush?"

Dean shifted uncomfortably before quietly admitting, "It's just wrong."

"I gotta tell you, Dean," said Sam, "I don't see the big deal here."

"You didn't almost get your head split open by the SOB."

Even though he knew it would only infuriate his brother further, Sam couldn't stop a smile.

"This isn't funny, Sam," Dean growled.

"You were, what, seventeen when that happened?"

"Yeah, so?"

"It was almost ten years ago. I don't see why it's such a big deal now. He's not hurting anyone."

When Dean turned away on the pretense of checking the crowd, Sam became even more puzzled by his brother's attitude. As far as Dean was concerned, hunting was a job. He only became emotionally involved when someone's life was in jeopardy. It was inconceivable to Sam that a baseball player could be in a position to endanger lives.

Dean's eyes were troubled when he turned his gaze on Sam. The smile slipped from Sam's lips.

"If Jake has a demon in him," whispered Dean, "he's a monster and he has to be stopped."

"All right," Sam reluctantly acknowledged. "First we'll find out if he's possessed then go from there."

*****

Dean shifted impatiently, searching the thinning crowd for his brother. How long did it take to get an autograph?

In today's game, Avery had hit two home runs, a double, and had been intentionally walked in his last at-bat. His defense skills had been equally spectacular. He had caught a fly in deep left field and threw out the runner trying to score from third. These were all things one expected from a professional baseball player but rarely saw in a single game. Yet, it had become the norm for Avery

Which was why Dean was determined to discover what had propelled a mediocre player into a star. Nine years was a long time to spend in the minors, particularly on a Class A team. Generally, if a player wasn't traded to an AA or an AAA club, he was either cut loose or quit in discouragement. Dean had to hand it to Jake for sticking it out but it didn't mean he approved of Avery's methods. It was unethical to use any kind of enhancements to artificially augment one's skills, whether via drugs or a demon.

One of the things Dean liked about baseball was that anyone could play. In basketball, you had to be taller than Sam to have a future; football, large or quick; soccer, light and fast. But in baseball, anyone had a chance. He had seen a 5'6" second baseman and a 6'5" first baseman pitchers with paunches, and catchers with short, stubby legs. The only thing baseball players had in common were natural skills improved by hard work, and the love of the game. When talent was obtained by artificial means, it was unfair to the other players, the team, and even the fans.

Lost in his thoughts, Dean missed seeing his brother's approach until Sam was almost upon him.

"It kills me to say this," Sam grumbled, leaning against the Impala next to his brother, "but you were right."

"You got a reading on him?"

"I think it was him."

"You think?"

"There were so many reporters around him, I couldn't get real close," Sam defended himself. "It's possible one of the reporters is possessed, but--"

"Not likely," finished Dean.

"Given Avery's history and performance today," Sam reluctantly said, "that would be a yes."

He should have felt vindicated by Sam's discovery, but Dean merely felt depressed. He had wanted to be wrong. The Cinderella story of going from a nobody to a somebody was every child's-and most adults'-dream. Many of Dean's own dreams had been destroyed or abandoned, so he knew how much it sucked.

"What do you want to do?" Sam asked.

Dean rubbed his face before unenthusiastically replying, "Exorcise it."

"Where should we do it?"

"Jake'll have a roommate in the hotel, so it'll have to be here after everyone leaves." Digging in the glove compartment of his car, Dean pulled out a badge identifying the wearer as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He handed it to Sam. "Try to get a private interview."

Backing away, Sam protested, "Why me?"

"He tried to separate my head from my body. I'm thinking he might recognize me."

"Good point." Sam unwillingly took the ID.

"I'll tell the bus driver Jake has connected with some old friends and doesn't need a ride to the hotel."

"Don't take too long to join us," Sam reminded.

Dean held his hand up in the Boy Scout pledge. "I'll be there as soon as the coast is clear."

In spite of himself, Sam smiled. "You were never a Boy Scout."

"Dude, I was so."

"When?"

"For about six days when we were living in Fort Wayne, Indiana."

Sam thoughtfully noted, "But we lived in Fort Wayne for almost a year."

"Yeah. So?"

"Why only six days?"

"The scoutmaster caught me in his daughter's bedroom."

Sam gasped. "Dean, you couldn't have been more than...twelve?"

"That's what I tried to point out, too." Dean shrugged. "No one would've believed me if I told them it was her idea. So, I didn't say anything."

"How old was she?"

Dean squinted up at the sun. "Eighteen."

Horrified, Sam stuttered, "That could be considered statutory rape."

"No one seemed to care." Sliding lower on the hood of the Impala, Dean hunched his shoulders.

"Not even Dad?"

A note of disappointment in his voice, Dean said, "He believed someone, it just wasn't me. He gave me a lecture on the birds and the bees, which I didn't need by the way, then grounded me for a month."

"Dean--"

From the tone of his brother's voice, Sam clearly thought he could right a wrong with sympathetic words. It wasn't that easy, and much too late. "You better get going," Dean urged. "You don't want to miss Jake."

Sam couldn't help marveling as he walked away at how an innocent statement had dredged up another painful memory for his brother. He wondered how many more hurts he would uncover in the days and months ahead. Logically, he knew he could blame his ignorance on his age. The four year difference between them was more evident when they were six and ten than it was now at twenty-two and twenty-six. But Sam still felt he should have noticed some of the traumas Dean had endured while they were growing up. This wasn't the first time Sam realized how much Dean had sheltered him. Maybe a little penitence was due? If Dean would ever let him.

He couldn't let Dean's revelation affect him at this moment, however. Entering the clubhouse, Sam relegated the words to a part of his mind for another time and another place.

Most of the reporters had gotten their story and left. Only a few continued to pepper Avery with questions. Taking a notebook from his pocket, Sam pretended to jot down the answers. One by one, the remaining players and journalists left the locker room until Sam was left alone with a beaming Avery.

"What's yer question, man?" Avery asked.

Wishing he had paid closer attention to what had been previously asked, Sam said, "How do you account for your amazing transformation?"

The smile slipped from Jake's face. "What do you mean?"

"The numbers you've been racking up this last month are pretty miraculous." Sam caught Avery's eyes with his own. "You might almost think an outside influence was involved."

Jake opened his locker and started to unbutton his shirt. "It's called hard work."

"Does that mean you've just been pretending to be a baseball player the past nine years?"

Taking a threatening step forward, Jake growled, "Your paper's going to need a new reporter."

The anger his question evoked had Sam wishing Dean would join them right about now. Backing away, Sam took his father's journal from his coat pocket. Never taking his eyes off Jake, he let his fingers search for the bookmark he had used to find the incantation he would need to exorcise the spirit inside Jake Avery.

"What's that?" Avery suspiciously demanded, stopping his advance.

"Just some notes about your career."

"Let me see."

Sam pulled the book tightly to his chest and backed further away, only stopping when he found himself up against a locker.

"Well, if it isn't my old friend, Jake Avery."

Both men's attention turned to the figure leaning nonchalantly against the door jamb.

Taking a step closer to the new arrival, Jake shook his head. "Dean Winchester?"

"In the flesh." Dean entered the room, closing and locking the door behind him.

Blessing his brother's timing, Sam quickly returned to searching for the exorcism he had bookmarked for the occasion.

"What are you doing here? I would hardly call us friends," Jake growled at Dean. "You got me kicked out of that play-off game. It cost me a scholarship to UW."

"Hey, I didn't ask you to come at me with a baseball bat."

"You knew how important that game was to me, but you kept striking me out."

"That's what a pitcher's supposed to do."

"It was only a high school game. It didn't mean anything to you."

"It meant more than you think."

Surprised by the response, Sam stopped his search to regard his brother. There was regret in Dean's eyes. An emotion Sam had never seen so openly displayed.

"Sam," Dean drew his brother's attention to the advancing Avery, "now would be a good time to do your thing."

Nodding, Sam kept one eye on the two adversaries while the other continued to scan the pages of his father's journal. Finally finding the page he wanted, he started reciting the Latin phrases.

"What's going on?" Avery demanded, his gaze shifting between the brothers.

"We're leveling the playing field," explained Dean.

"What does that mean?"

"You're going to lose your advantage."

Really listening to the words issuing from Sam's mouth, a flash of fear crossed Avery's face. His cheeks flushed red with fury, he took a step toward Sam.

"Not so fast, Ty Cobb." Dean put a hand on Avery's arm. The contact was violently broken when he was flung back against a wall by unseen hands. A baseball floated out of the practice sack and sped across the room, striking Dean's thigh. "Ow! A little faster there, Sammy."

The threat to his brother, and a glimpse of Jake's grinning face had Sam trying to comply. But he found it difficult to concentrate when he was forced to dodge flying baseballs himself. A few times he zigged when he should have zagged. One ball struck him in the left shoulder making him drop the journal. He had barely resumed reading when another ball plowed into his hip, almost taking his legs out from under him. At the speed the balls were traveling, Sam knew if one hit him in the head, he would be out for the count.

A cry of pain drew his attention to Dean. His brother was trying to dodge a swinging bat. When it came toward his head, Sam saw him throw up his arm to protect it. The distinct sound of a breaking bone echoed through the room. Sam watched in dismay as agony drove Dean to his knees. Forcing himself to ignore everything but what he needed to do, Sam picked up his pace, loudly reciting the exorcism. His absorption cost him as several more balls slammed into him at high speeds. One struck his chest, momentarily emptying his lungs of air. He had barely recovered when another glanced off the side of his head. The writing in front of him blurred as he slumped to the floor.

"Sam!"

Dean's worried voice did more to clear Sam's head than any medication. Blocking his own pain, he finished the chant.

Inches from his forehead, a ball stopped in mid-air before falling harmlessly to the floor. Sam looked over to see a black cloud escaping from Jake's gaping mouth.

"Sam, are you all right?"

Sam looked up to see Dean hovering over him. Though his right arm was cradling his left and he was clearly in a lot of pain, Dean's foremost concern was for his brother. Sam he couldn't remember a time when Dean had put his own needs and wants before his younger brother's, or his father's. It had been so much a part of their lives, Sam had never recognized what a sacrifice it must have been. The sad thing was, Sam could never express his gratitude. Any gesture he made would be rebuffed, not out of lack of appreciation, but out of embarrassment.

"Sammy?"

The increased note of concern made Sam focus. "I'm better than you," he said.

"That's impossible."

Recognizing the joking reply as a sign of relief, Sam awkwardly climbed to his feet, ignoring Dean's attempt to assist him. His brother looked like a feather could knock him down. His face was pale, his eyes glazed.

"Is it gone?" Jake tentatively inquired.

Reluctantly shifting his attention to Avery, Sam assured him, "It's gone."

"Will it come back?"

The man's frightened features surprised Sam, considering the demon had given Avery the chance to fulfill his dream of becoming a major league baseball player. "It can't come back. You could say we killed it."

"Thank you."

Jake shook Sam's hand, and reached to do the same with Dean until Sam protectively intervened.

"What did that thing want from you?" asked Dean. "I can't say a baseball player is the first place I would look for a demon."

"I don't know, sometimes I would black out." Jake's voice cracked. "I knew it was using me, but I couldn't stop it. Do you know what it's like not to have control of your body? I was afraid it would make me hurt someone."

Sam pressed, "Did you think it was going to?"

"I know it wanted to. I don't think it did, but I can't be sure. Thank you for stopping me."

"We only stopped that thing," Dean quietly reinforced. "You still have a chance for that major league career."

"No, I don't." Avery sadly shook his head, before squaring his shoulders. "I know I'm not good enough. I've known for a long time. You tried to tell me."

Dean exchanged a confused look with Sam. "The only time I remember speaking to you was when you had a baseball bat in your hand and were chasing me around the baseball diamond."

"That's because I didn't want to listen." Jake looked down at his feet. "I knew if I couldn't hit your pitches, I couldn't hit in the major leagues. That's why I was so mad at you. If I had been honest with myself then, none of this would've happened."

"At least you got to try to make your dream come true."

Jake's obvious sincerity made Sam start to admire the man. Something he would not have thought possible today or ten years ago. Noticing that Dean was swaying, Sam discreetly put a hand under his elbow. "I need to get my brother to a doctor. Good luck."

"I really do appreciate what you guys did."

"That's good," said Dean, his voice raspy with pain. "But if Cubs fans ever find out we hurt their chances for a pennant, we'll be drawn and quartered."

Jake smiled. "My lips are sealed."

He wouldn't break his promise. If he tried to tell someone, he would be labeled a kook or, worse, committed to a mental hospital. Feeling his own aches and pains, Sam put an arm around Dean's waist as soon as they were out of the locker room.

"Dude, I can walk." Dean shook off the helping hand. Though he tilted without the support, he stayed on his feet.

Keeping close without actually touching his brother, Sam guided him out of the stadium and across the deserted parking lot. He knew Dean was hurting when he allowed Sam to open the passenger door for him without an argument. Wincing as he climbed behind the wheel, Sam turned the key in the ignition.

"You sure you're OK to drive?" asked Dean.

His right hip protesting as he pressed down on the brake, preparing to shift, Sam pointed out, "At least I have two working arms."

"I'm more worried about your head," Dean grumbled, slumping down in his seat.

Sam touched the lump on the side of his head. "It's harder than yours."

"Wanna trade?"

The comment worried Sam enough that he pushed down harder on the gas pedal. In his own roundabout way, Dean was admitting he was in pain. Funny how candid a person became when they were nursing broken bones.

*****

His own injuries impeding his normal agility, Sam parked the car in front of their hotel room. Climbing out, he circled the hood as fast as he could. It wasn't fast enough. Dean already had his door open but, miracle of miracles, he was patiently waiting for assistance before he went any further. Sam knew he could blame the unusual docility on painkillers. And he hated it.

By the time they had driven to the hospital, filled out the paperwork, and waited their turn for an available doctor, Dean's arm had swollen so badly they couldn't put a cast on it. They had sent Dean home in a sling with orders to ice his arm to reduce the swelling. Once that occurred, he was to return to the hospital for treatment.

While it was nice having a cooperative Dean, Sam didn't like the reason for his brother's uncharacteristic compliance. He preferred Dean at his most obnoxious to a Dean so doped up he did whatever Sam asked without a quarrel.

Reaching down, Sam carefully swung Dean's legs out of the car. He took it slow, knowing how the bruises on his own limbs, chest, and hip awakened at the simplest movement. Putting one hand under Dean's uninjured arm, Sam wrapped the other around Dean's belt at the back of his waist. "Let me do the lifting," he advised.

A reluctant nod was the only acknowledgement of the suggestion. Keeping one arm around Dean on the short walk to their room, Sam had to free up a hand to unlock the door. Dean swayed without the support. He put a hand on the doorjamb to keep himself erect.

In an effort to take Dean's mind off his pain, Sam asked, "So, have you figured out why that demon took over Jake?"

The unusual submissiveness continued once the door was open. Dean shifted his weight back into Sam's arms and allowed his brother to practically carry him to the nearest bed. As soon as the back of his legs hit the mattress, he collapsed onto his back.

"Not yet," said Sam regretfully, making Dean sit up. "We need to get your clothes off."

"Not the shirt." Dean protested.

Instantly understanding, Sam soothed, "No, you can sleep in your shirt." If he had to, he could cut the T-shirt off. Tomorrow, he would have to find a thrift shop or yard sale and see if he could pick-up some more shirts.

"The only advantage I can see to possessing a baseball player," said Dean, finally answering his brother's question from long ago, "is that they move around a lot."

"Except when they're in their hometown, they only spend three or four nights at a time in any given city," Dean reflected. "Maybe there's something in that."

Sam took off Dean's shoes and pants. Flinching at the deep bruises on his brother's thigh, he helped him into bed. Taking one of his own pillows, Sam placed it to cushion the swollen arm. Once Dean was settled, Sam hurried into the bathroom and retrieved a couple of Tylenol, a glass of water, and a tube of Ben Gay from their personal kit. He handed them to his brother. "Take these, then, I'll get some ice for your arm, and put some gel on your bruises."

"You don't need to do that, Sammy." Dean gratefully swallowed the medication. "I'm good."

Taking the empty glass, Sam set it on the end table. "Sure you are."

A smile deepening the dimples in his cheeks, Sam shook his head as he grabbed the ice bucket. Hurrying down to the office, he filled it to overflowing. Grabbing some towels from the bathroom, he fashioned several ice packs and carefully positioned them on both sides of Dean's arm. By the time he was done, Dean had fallen into a restless doze. Furrows of pain lined his face, making it clear he would not fall into a deep sleep. As gently as he could, Sam rubbed pain medication into the bruised flesh where the baseballs had made contact. Dean moaned, but didn't wake up.

His own bruises throbbing, Sam went into the bathroom and shook a couple of Tylenol into his hand. Throwing them into his mouth, he filled another glass with water and swallowed them down. Gritting his teeth, he squeezed what was left of the almost empty tube and rubbed the gel into his aching muscles.

Quietly returning to the bedroom, he glanced at Dean, glad to see his brother was still asleep. Knowing his concern wouldn't allow him the same relief, Sam turned on his computer. He had a theory he wanted to check out.

*****

Even semi-conscious, Dean knew he wanted to stay oblivious to the real world. He wasn't entirely certain he knew why until he shifted. Waves of agony washed along his left arm, eliciting a groan.

"Easy, Dean."

Dean tried to comply with Sam's suggestion but found it difficult to even catch his breath.

"Here, take these. They might help."

Forcing his eyes open, Dean saw Sam had a couple of white pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. Though he knew they would only afford him partial relief from the pain, Dean eagerly reached for the Tylenol. At this juncture, he would gladly accept any help that was offered.

"I just replaced the ice," said Sam. "That should help, too."

Swallowing the pills, Dean focused on his brother's face. It was obvious, at least to him that Sam was also in pain. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Sam instantly replied.

The answer was too quick and too pat to be believable. Dean glared at his brother. "Dude, your face says different."

"I've got a headache," confessed Sam, rubbing his forehead.

Alarmed, Dean tried to sit up. "A vision?"

"No." Sam gently pressed Dean back onto the bed. "Computer. I was doing some research. After getting my bell rung by that baseball, I guess I should've waited."

"A little late to realize that."

Smiling, Sam explained, "My curiosity got the better of me."

"You're not a cat, man, you don't have nine lives."

"Neither do you." Sam's smile faded.

To deflect the attention from himself, Dean asked, "What had you making like Felix?"

Sam shifted to avoid his brother's eyes. "Dean, you were right."

"Of course I was." Dean paused before pressing, "About what?"

"I looked back to when Jake was with the Peoria Chiefs, before he was traded to the Iowa Cubs. The last month he was with them there was a ritualistic murder involving young women every night in whichever town they had a game. The murders continued in every one of the cities the Iowa team played."

Dean closed his eyes and rested his head back on his pillow. "With the murderer leaving town so soon after the murders, there was nothing for the police to follow up on."

"The only thing I don't understand is why the demon was so determined to join the major leagues? I would think there was more anonymity in the minors. Why draw attention to itself?"

"The major league club plays in bigger cities," Dean said, opening his eyes. "In the smaller towns, the police might eventually make a connection between the murders and the ball club. In the bigger cities, murder is almost a nightly event."

"I'm guessing the demon killed almost fifty people," Sam sadly calculated. "Dean, if you hadn't realized something was wrong who knows how many more it would have racked up."

Dean tried to relax, the pills and the ice finally working. "Too bad I didn't notice a month ago."

"There was nothing to notice a month ago," argued Sam.

For the families' sake, Dean wished there would've been. He knew what they had done was important. They had saved lives. It was even possible the demon wouldn't have been satisfied with one murder a night once it reached the bigger cities: Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Still, it would have been nice if he had read about Jake's mysterious rise sooner.

*****

Sam retrieved a plastic bag from their first aid kit. This wasn't the first time one of them had broken a bone. When Dean tried to grab it, Sam held it at arm's length, a distance far exceeding his brother's reach. "Let me do it."

"Come on, man," Dean protested. "I know how to cover a cast to keep it dry in the shower."

"So do I, and I've got two working hands."

"Rub it in, why don't ya." Dean unhappily held out his encased arm.

Now that Dean was feeling better, Sam decided to seek the answer to a question that had been bothering him for the last couple of days. "Dean, in the locker room, you told Jake that the high school play-off game meant more to you than he thought. What did you mean?"

Dean turned away and gathered some clean clothes. Even to someone who didn't know him, it was clear he didn't plan to answer.

Anger making his voice raspy, Sam growled, "You know, you're not being fair. Whenever I have a vision, you expect me to spill my guts to you."

"What you're seeing could be important," argued Dean.

"So could what you're feeling," said Sam. "Trust is a two-way street."

"Like I've never heard that cliché before."

"If you want me to be open with you, you need to be open with me."

Dean's hand stilled on the last button. "Jake wasn't the only one the recruiters were after that day in Portland."

"You!" Sam shifted until he could see his brother's face. "A big league club wanted you?"

"Two actually, and a couple of colleges."

"Which ones?"

"Which teams or which colleges?"

Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Both."

"The Cubs and the Colorado Rockies. The University of Miami and Stanford offered me full rides."

"Stanford! My Stanford?" Sam tried but couldn't keep the shocked note from his voice. He regretted his outburst when he saw the hurt look on his brother's face. He regretted it even more when an expressionless mask pushed the pain aside to hide all emotion.

"You don't think I was smart enough to get into Stanford?"

"No, of course not," Sam stammered. "I just never realized you had the opportunity to go. You never said anything."

"Well, now I have."

"But you didn't want to go?"

Dean carefully pulled off his T-shirt and tossed it into the dirty laundry pile.

"Dean?"

"What do you want me to say, Sammy?" Dean angrily demanded. "That I hoped Dad would catch the demon that killed Mom so I could accept one of those offers?"

"Did you?"

Slowly sitting on the edge of his bed, Dean nodded. "Yeah, I did."

"You could've left anyway."

"Like you did?"

"Yeah."

"I'm not you, Sam."

For the first time, Sam tried to imagine what it would have been like those four years without his brother. It took his breath away. One thing was certain, Sam wouldn't be here now. The fights between he and his dad would have been more explosive and hurtful. The breach between them would have become insurmountable. One or both would have said something that would have destroyed any possibility of being a father and son again.

Sam knew better than to thank Dean for his sacrifice. Embarrassed, Dean would never open up if another opportunity like this ever presented itself. Instead, Sam proudly offered, "You would've made a helluva a pitcher." The statement wasn't conciliatory. Sam had spent too many years watching Dean hone his abilities as a hunter. He would have used the same single-mindedness on whatever profession he had chosen.

"Damn straight." Dean rose from his bed and walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

Knowing when his brother came out, Dean would act as though the conversation had never taken place, Sam turned on his computer. It was time to find a new gig. A cast on his arm wouldn't be enough to stop Dean from hunting. Sam would just try to find something that wasn't too strenuous...for either of them.