A/N: Thanks so much for the comments! It's good to be back. Here is the conclusion of Out of Africa. I hope you enjoy!
Out of Africa
By AJ Wesley
His insides were on fire. Everything hurt and there was no end to the pain. He longed for the blissful unawareness of sleep, but…that was where it resided. It was there every time he closed his eyes, a dark specter beckoning him to come. He could hear its whispers, its taunts, its laughter.
What do you want?!
But there was never an answer, only more laughter.
Leave me alone. Stay away from me!
It whispered again, but he couldn't understand the words, couldn't understand anything. Why was this happening?
Dean. Dean had told him that. Dean was there. Wasn't he? He had to be.
Please, God, don't let me be alone. I don't want to die alone.
He cried out, startled, as something grabbed him. He fought with everything he had, but still couldn't break the hold. His muscles felt like rubber bands that had been stretched too far for too long. He couldn't escape.
Sam's eyes shot open, but everything was still in shadow, as if he were looking through a dense gray fog. But the figure before him…not the demon of his dreams…familiar somehow …familiar…family…
He stopped struggling and clutched the arms holding his. Leather. "D-Dean?" He blinked in an effort to clear his vision. It was still light out, the sun blocked by Dean's body as he leaned over Sam. A cool breeze blew through the open door, making him shiver. That was when he suddenly realized the car wasn't moving.
"I'm right here, Sam. It's okay." Dean clapped him on the upper arms. "We're here, dude. You ready?"
He really wasn't. Every move intensified the pain. He just wanted to crawl into a hole and—
Be careful what you wish for…
Sam jerked, his eyes popping open. He didn't even remember closing them, letting the nightmare in. Instinct drove him to move, to get away, but his feet got caught on something, toppling him. His knees slammed into a hard surface and he fell forward. It was going to hurt, but he really didn't care. He thought he heard a familiar voice, so close, but the sound of distant laughter drowned it out…
"Geez!" Dean shifted his grip quickly, grabbing Sam under the arms as he pitched out of the car. He winced as his brother's knees slammed into the hard-packed dirt, but Dean managed to keep him from falling any farther. "Sammy…" This was not going to be easy. "Come on, man."
Sam's feet were still caught on the rocker panel, so Dean lifted him as best he could and stepped back, pulling his brother completely from the car. Winded, he sank to one knee, turning Sam so his back was resting against his raised leg. The dark head lolled forward, then rolled up as if Sam was fighting to stay conscious.
"That's it, Sam," Dean encouraged him. Fighting was good. "Up and at 'em."
Sam blinked a few times, squinting in the sunlight, head still wobbly. His hand lifted, uncooperative fingers trying to find purchase, and finally managed to catch the sleeve of Dean's jacket. Then he started to move, holding his breath as he struggled to gain his feet.
Dean stood, pulling his brother up with him, and got him anchored. "Okay, Sammy. Here we go. Stay with me, okay?"
Sam's head moved in what might have been a nod.
They started out slowly, eventually finding a rhythm that seemed to work. Dean kept his eyes straight ahead, focusing on the goal and trying to ignore his screaming muscles. He wasn't sure how he remembered which way to go; he'd always had an innate sense of direction. It had always helped him in the past. He was counting on it now.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves. It felt good on his sweaty face, but also set his nerves on edge. They were in the danger zone. Years of training and experience had taught Dean to discern natural sounds from the unnatural, but this place… Everything about it felt unnatural. Like the demon tree had driven away every animal and bird in the area. Dean slowed his pace. He needed to be ready. No surprises this time. Scanning the forest, he found a large tree that looked safe and sturdy. He shifted direction and moved toward it, easing Sam into the new direction. When they finally reached the old tree, he carefully propped Sam against it, his left hand splayed at the center of Sam's chest to provide support. With his right, Dean drew his Colt and released the safety.
Laughter filled the air around him. He felt Sam's breath quicken, his chest heaving beneath Dean's hand; Sam heard it, too.
"Dean," Sam breathed, real fear in his voice.
Weapon extended, Dean turned. But there was nothing there.
"I told you you'd be back."
The voice seemed to be everywhere, inside his head and all around. "Where are you, you son of a—?"
Something stung his neck. Cursing, Dean reached up to swat the insect and felt the tiny object protruding from his skin. He pulled it out quickly, but even as he looked at the tiny sliver of wood between his fingers, his vision started to blur. He turned to Sam, saw the look of horror in his brother's eyes as Dean dropped to his knees, the weapon falling from his grasp. Then he was grabbed by the throat and hauled to his feet. Dean lifted his hands, clawing at the one encircling his neck. He couldn't breathe…
"I know why you are here."
His vision was graying, but somehow Dean managed to focus on the witch doctor.
"You cannot save him."
If you can't save him…
"It is too late."
…you have to kill him.
"No," Dean managed to choke out.
The man smiled, releasing him.
Dean collapsed, his body refusing to obey. All he could do was watch as the witch doctor crossed to Sam. The last thing he saw was the man taking a handful of Sam's hair and dragging him upright. Then everything went black.
Whispers. Words. He heard them, but he didn't understand. Quiet, soft-spoken words, from somewhere nearby. Not in his head this time. But the pain was still there, everywhere. He just wanted to roll over and go back to sleep. But…
Sam dragged his eyes open, his muddled brain knowing something was wrong but having a hard time figuring out what that something was. Blinking to try to focus, he searched for the source of the sound.
When he found it, his breath caught: the shadow from his nightmares was standing just a few feet away. He needed to move, to escape, but he couldn't. Something was…was…
Sam tried to draw his arms forward, but they seemed to be secured. He didn't have the strength to fight it. It was hard to… He lifted his head, the muscles in his neck screaming their protest, but he couldn't hold it upright. It dropped back, connecting with something solid behind him.
He suddenly realized it had become quiet. Sam shifted his gaze back to the shadowy figure just in time to see it move toward him. Fear spiked his pulse and his chest heaved for breath. His mouth was dry and he couldn't swallow. His tongue felt thick. What—?
A hand touched his face, and the words were back. He tried to jerk away from the contact, but he couldn't escape it. When he finally managed to focus, Sam saw that the witch doctor's other hand was raised, his eyes gazing upward like he was…praying. Sam didn't think God was on the receiving end of that prayer. This was so not good.
What was going on? Wasn't he just—?
Wait. Where was…? "Dean?" It came out choked and weak, but it caught his captor's attention.
The witch doctor smiled. A horrible knowing smile that churned Sam's stomach, making him feel an entirely different kind of sick. His brother had to be okay. He had to be. And Sam had to—
Dragging his gaze away from that awful smirk, Sam scanned the forest surrounding them, but there was no sign of his brother. "Dean!" he yelled, but it was barely audible. He struggled against his bonds with what strength he had left, but it was no use; he was running on empty.
Sam sagged, his head dropping back once more. He looked up, his vision swimming in and out of focus. Long, wispy branches, like those of a willow tree, hung above his head. But it was no weeping willow. He recognized it from…before…how long ago was it anyway? Didn't matter. Focus, Sam! The old, gnarled tree. Its branches swayed gently in the…wait. There was no wind. The branches were moving…in different directions. And he was tied to the damned thing.
The witch doctor's chanting grew louder, more intense. The sound was overwhelming, and Sam wanted to scream.
Then he felt something on his shoulder, something on his leg. Holding his breath, Sam dared to look. The vine-like branches were reaching out for him, twining around his leg, slithering over his shoulder and down his chest. Like dozens of thin snakes, slithering, invading, encircling, binding…
And then Sam did scream.
"Smoke on the Water" was playing again. He remembered loving that song, but normally he would only play the same song over and over again to annoy Sammy. Now he was the one getting annoyed. This had to be payback: Sam's retribution for yet another of Dean's pranks. A grin curled his lips. Got him good.
The music stopped, and Dean settled back to sleep. Only… Somewhere at the edge of consciousness, something lingered, gnawing, teasing. Poking at him like it expected him to remember something. Something important. Something—
"Smoke on the Water." Again.
"Damn it, Sam," he grumbled. Or at least he thought he did; what reached his ears was garbled nonsense. Musta had one too many last night. He reached out for the phone on the nightstand, but his hand touched… What the…? Dean opened his eyes.
Everything was blurry. But even through the haze, he could tell something was not right. Very slowly, sensation began to return, and Dean could feel it was not a mattress under him. He'd stayed in some dives in his life, but even the lumpiest of mattresses never felt like this. Like…what the heck was poking him in the stomach, anyway? With some effort, Dean managed to make a fist. His fingers gouged into something that crackled, then into cool, moist…dirt. The smells…
"Sam?" He pushed up on wobbly arms, but they couldn't hold his weight. He collapsed back to the ground, panting. "Son of a—" Why couldn't he…?
His memory slammed back with the force of a blow, and Dean grabbed his head, a groan escaping through his clenched teeth.
And the damn song started playing again. Wanting to scream, Dean pressed the heels of his hands into temples. He had to get up, had to get to Sam. Had to—
Noises sounded from nearby. The crunching of leaves. Footfalls. Someone walking…no, running… He had to…had to…
Someone…not Sam. He tried to get up again, but his body wouldn't obey his commands.
Then there were hands on him, skimming his body, moving his hands, rolling him over and holding him in a strong, supportive grip. Dean blinked up at the shadowy blur, squinting to clear his vision.
"Dean? You all right, boy?
He knew that voice. Bobby?
"Yeah, genius, it's me. Who'd you think?"
"How…how'd'you…find…?" Damn, it was hard to think!
"You sent me coordinates, remember?"
"I-I…did? I…did…" Yeah, he kinda remembered that…
Then the light was blocked from view and a different set of hands gingerly touched his neck. Warm hands, gentle hands. He blinked, eyes catching the dark curls, the smooth, perfect skin. "Cassie?"
"Just relax, Dean. You'll be fine," said a voice that wasn't Cassie's. A woman…with an accent like…like…
"Sam!" Dean sat bolt upright in Bobby's grip and instantly regretted it. His stomach lurched, and then he was retching. He could feel Bobby holding him up, patting his back, but he was too miserable to shake the man off or feel embarrassed. His head felt like it was going to pop, but all he could think was that he was wasting time. Sammy was in trouble.
There was a conversation going on. He could hear their voices—Bobby's and the woman's—but he couldn't catch the words through the ringing in his ears. He sat panting in Bobby's grip, wanting to move but his body not cooperating.
"Dean." The woman's voice again. "Put this under your tongue."
The warm hands cupped his face and coaxed his mouth open. A small wad of something slid under his tongue. He didn't really taste anything—not with the horrible sour taste already in his mouth—but after a few minutes, his head began to clear.
"What the hell is that?" he asked without moving his tongue. His vision was clear enough now to see her smile.
"Just something to counteract the poison. Just stay still for a little."
"No. Sammy's—" He tried to get up, but fell right on his backside again.
Bobby steadied him. "It doesn't work that fast, Dean. Just hold your horses."
"Bobby," Dean pleaded, not worrying now about the stuff under his tongue as he spoke, "that freak has Sam. We gotta find him before…"
"The boy is right, Robert. If it is truly Umdhlebi, we must move quickly and be cautious."
Bobby let out a sigh, but it was clear he was not going to argue with her. He pulled one of Dean's arms across his shoulders and lifted.
Dean's stomach dropped like he'd traveled up way to fast in an elevator, but he managed to get it settled with a couple of swallows and deep breaths.
"You all right?" Bobby asked.
"Yeah." He glanced after the woman, who was already on her way. "Who's she?"
"Name's Noli. She's a sangoma."
"She can help," was the explanation, said with a bit of irritation.
"Okay," Dean conceded, then grinned. "Robert."
The terrain was starting to look really familiar, especially now that whatever Noli had given him had cleared his head. Still supported by Bobby, Dean found himself silently urging the older man to pick up the pace. He had to find Sam. He had to—
Dean stopped in his tracks.
"What is it?" Bobby asked, halting with him.
"Shhh," Dean urged.
Ahead of them, Noli stopped moving, too, and the forest around them grew silent…except for…chanting. Someone was chanting. Dean couldn't make out the words, but he knew the tone, had heard enough spells to know the cadence of one. But there was something else, too. Something he doubted anyone else heard, but he was so attuned to it that it rocked him to the core.
"Sam," he said on a breath. Dean broke free of Bobby's grip and bolted toward the sound. He didn't even have a weapon, but he didn't care; footfalls behind him told him Bobby and Noli were in pursuit.
The burst of adrenaline allowed Dean to push himself to the limit. He couldn't hear anything now over the rush of blood pounding in his ears, but the noise he had heard his brother make resonated in his head; Sam was in pain. And God help whatever was causing it.
As he got closer, he slowed to a stop, breathing hard, listening past the noise in his head. The chanting was getting louder, almost as if reaching a crescendo. Dean didn't like the thought of that. He closed his eyes, focused on the sound, then took off in that direction.
Moments later, he burst in on the scene and skidded to a halt, his eyes landing first on the witch doctor. The ugly smile on the man's face twisted Dean's gut into knots. Eyes searching, Dean finally located his brother—and stopped breathing.
Sam was… Sam was almost completely enveloped in the snake-like boughs of the tree, struggling weakly in its grip.
Lightheaded, Dean sucked in a breath and moved closer, keeping just out of reach of whipping limbs that seemed to know he was a threat.
The tree wasn't simply wrapping itself around Sam; it was squeezing the life out of him. Tiny rivulets of blood trickled from beneath the coils, and as Dean drew closer, he could just about hear his brother's desperate gasps for air. Sam didn't have much time.
"Screw this," Dean muttered, then darted toward his brother. Branches cracked at him like dozens of whips, welting, slicing skin. Dean gritted his teeth and forged ahead, using the pain to fuel his anger. Almost—
Dean crashed face-first to the ground, practically at Sam's feet. He turned his head in time to see the root sink back into the ground, its job accomplished. "Son of a…." Just as he pushed up to his hands and knees, Dean felt one of the branches wrap around his ankle. It dragged him away from Sam, the tree hungrily protecting its catch.
Struggling upright, Dean reached for his boot and the knife hidden there. If he could just—
A branch curled around his neck and hoisted him up. Dean choked, hands going to his throat. It lifted him off the ground, but kept hold of his leg, pulling, increasing the pressure on his neck. He gasped for breath, unable to slip his fingers between the garrote and his neck. As his vision dimmed, he turned his gaze to his brother. I'm sorry, Sammy.
And then he was falling. A strange sensation of being weightless…until he crashed into the unforgiving ground. Wait, what?
The jarring slammed him back to reality—and the pain that came with it—with blinding speed. Dean retched and gasped for breath, trying to get air to his starving lungs through an abused windpipe. Through tearing eyes, he caught sight of the tiny wisp of smoke curling from the barrel of Bobby's pistol before another round of coughing claimed him.
The older man was at his side a moment later; the hand on Dean's back confirmed it.
"Sam," Dean managed to choke out. His brother had fallen silent, still. Dean scrambled to his feet, but was held back.
"Give her a minute," Bobby said in a hushed voice.
Dean's ears were still ringing. The shrill noise was almost deafening. When he finally managed to focus, he looked up at Bobby, then followed the man's gaze to where Noli was standing just a few feet away, chanting.
It was then that Dean realized the shrill noise he was hearing was not in his head. It was the tree. It had released him completely and was now trembling, shaking insanely and practically screaming. The thing was pissed. Or in pain. Maybe both. Who knew with a friggin' tree?
"What are you doing, woman?" the witch doctor shrieked. "Stop. Stop, you fool!"
He started toward her, but Bobby stood, leveling the weapon on him. "I wouldn't do that if I was you." Then, without looking down, he said, "Dean, now."
The statement needed no explanation. Dean scrambled to his feet and ran to his brother…and swore. The branches had almost completely engulfed Sam, and where his arms were stretched behind the tree, the bark had begun to grow over his skin. The thing was eating Sam alive. If he was still alive—
Dean stopped that line of thought. No time for that now. He grabbed the knife from his boot and starting slicing, severing the branches from above first before attacking the ones binding Sam to the ancient trunk. He cut the rope next, but his brother's arms remained where they had been stretched, the bark holding them in place. Muttering another curse, Dean began hacking at the tree, desperately trying to free his brother.
"Hang on, Sam," he said on a breath. He glanced up at this brother, concerned that the kid hadn't moved at all.
Something wet slid over his hand. Dean looked down and was horrified to see blood covering the blade and his skin. In his haste, he'd somehow managed to cut his brother. "Sammy, I'm sorry." Uncertain what to do, Dean paused. His hand was shaking. Clenching his fingers, he willed himself to pull it together and get Sam the hell out of there. But there was so much blood.
Too much blood. What the hell? Dean crouched down to get a better angle. That was when he realized he hadn't cut Sam. The tree was bleeding.
A sudden sense of satisfaction welled in Dean. With renewed determination, he hacked and sliced at the thing until finally Sam slipped from the Umdhlebi's grasp.
Dean caught him as he fell, his body still encased in layer upon layer of branches.
A deafening screech rent the air. Dean ducked his head, unable to cover his ears as he dragged Sam out of the thing's reach. The witch doctor was ranting, too, but Dean couldn't understand what he was saying over the piercing sounds of the tree. Not that he cared. At that moment, his focus was on Sam, getting him to safety and freeing him from the cocoon of branches. When he was finally a safe distance away, Dean collapsed to his knees, easing his brother to the ground.
Bobby's voice had Dean's head snapping up.
"I said, don't move." The warning was clear, punctuated by the cocking of the hammer.
The witch doctor was furious now, gesturing wildly at the tree and at Sam. He lunged toward Noli, but before Bobby could pull the trigger, the witch doctor fell…right into the writhing tendrils of the Umdhlebi. He was lifted into the air, fighting and screaming as the tree enveloped him in branches and bark, devouring him.
Dean looked away, turning his attention back to Sam. His brother looked horrible: pale and still. Dean couldn't even tell if he was breathing. Gripping his blade tighter, Dean grabbed a handful of the cord-like limbs and sliced through them. At some point, Bobby joined him, pulling away the severed pieces as Dean continued to cut.
Finally, he was able to see Sam's shirt. But as he sliced it up toward the neckline, Dean saw that the damn tendrils had slipped under Sam's t-shirt. He tugged to get them out, but they wouldn't budge. Frustrated, Dean slit the t-shirt up the middle. "Sorry, Sam," he said quietly.
Pulling the split material apart, Dean was able to see the extent of the tree's vicious attack. He swore. Like vines growing up the trunk of a tree, the branches had sprouted tiny roots that had embedded themselves into Sam's skin. Their dark, reddish-brown color told Dean it wasn't simply rooting itself to Sam. The damn things were all over the place: down his chest, across his stomach, some disappearing under the waistband of his jeans. Smaller fronds had started up Sam's neck toward his face, and more were wrapped around his ankles, no doubt creeping up the kid's legs.
Dean looked down at his hands, still covered with drying, caking blood. That's why the tree was bleeding. It was Sam's blood…and the blood of its other victims. Friggin' vampire tree…
"Is he all ri—? Mother of—"
Bobby's voice broke Dean from his thoughts. He looked up at the older man. "Do I just cut these things off? They're everywhere!" Anger lent power to his voice.
"Don't touch them," Noli warned. She stepped around Bobby for a closer look.
"Well, what the hell am I supposed to do?!" Panic was creeping into his voice, but Dean didn't care. Sam was too still. Too pale. His breathing way too slow. Dean's stomach flipped. Between the drugs and the nausea, it was taking great effort not to throw up.
"We need the antidote," Noli said. "Your brother does not have much time."
Dean looked up at her sharply. "Do you know how to make it? It's made from the fallen seed pods, right? If we can—"
"I don't know." The sangoma's voice was grim. "I'm sorry."
Dean moved to run a hand over his face—force of habit—but thought better of the idea. Instead, he pounded a fist against his leg. "So what then, huh? You mean to tell me the only person who could have made the cure is now fertilizer?!"
"There has to be something, Noli," Bobby urged her.
The woman shook her head. "He would have kept some made…a supply for himself, just in case. In the bag he was wearing."
"Or in the cabin." Dean's gaze darted between the sangoma and Bobby, settling on the latter. "He has a cabin close by."
"It's our best shot," Bobby agreed. "Take Noli with you. I'll stay with the kid—"
"No. No way." Dean shook his head adamantly. "I'm not leaving Sam."
"Dean, you know—"
"No, Bobby." Dean didn't even try to hide the emotion in his voice. "I have to stay. What if he—?" He couldn't say it. Didn't even want to think about the possibility. He stared up at Bobby, knowing his eyes were glazing over but not giving a damn. He just hoped his friend understood.
Bobby nodded once. "Which way?"
"Just follow the path. West. You'll see it."
The older hunter clapped a hand on Dean's shoulder and used him for leverage to stand. "Bad knees," he grumbled, but gave Dean's shoulder a squeeze before letting go. He took off into the woods with Noli close behind.
Alone with Sam, Dean became more aware of the silence surrounding them. A foreboding silence. He glanced around, his gaze coming to rest on the Umdhlebi.
"You and me," he said, his voice a low growl, "we have a date with some s'mores."
The tree's leaves shook as if it knew it was being spoken to, and Dean had the sudden urge to get his brother as far away from the thing as he possibly could. They couldn't leave the area, not with Bobby and Noli expected to return with the antidote for Sam. But Dean felt the need to be a healthy distance away from the thing, from the damn roots that had started it all.
"Come on, Sam." Dean slid an arm under his brother's shoulders and the other under his knees. Taking a breath, he hefted his precious cargo into his arms. His legs shook a little under the weight, but he managed to steady himself and stagger several more yards from the danger zone.
Sam didn't react at all. His only movement was when his head lolled and came to rest against Dean's chest and shoulder.
Anxiety ratcheting up a notch, Dean collapsed onto one knee and gently lowered his brother to the ground, settling him as comfortably as possible. Sam's skin was cold. Dean quickly shucked off his jacket and laid it over Sam, tucking it under on each side. His fingers paused over the pulse point at Sam's neck. The sluggish beat made his own heart skip. Where the hell was Bobby? What if he didn't make it back in time? What if there wasn't anything to find? What if—?
Dean clenched his hands into fists, feeling the dried blood crack and flake. "Hang on, Sammy," he demanded. "You hear me?"
A cool breeze rustled the leaves, the sound almost deafening. It wasn't a sound Dean wanted to hear.
He shivered. "I hate friggin' trees. I hate friggin' woods." He looked down at his too-still brother. "Hey, remember when we went on that camping trip with Dad? Well, you thought it was a camping trip, anyway. You were, what, eight years old? You were so excited." Dean sat beside Sam so the kid's head lay against his thigh. He brushed the dark hair back and let his hand rest lightly on the other side of Sam's face. "Then Dad went off, and it started to rain. It rained and rained. There was water everywhere. Ground got so wet, it wouldn't even hold the tent pegs. Everything was washing away, remember?" Dean shook his head at the memory. "We had to cut the tent just to get out. I don't even remember how we found our way back to the car, couldn't see through that downpour. I just know we made it, and we sat there in the back seat, soaking wet and covered with mud—dude, it was even in my shorts—and we…we looked at each other, and at the exact same time we both said 'I hate camping.'" Dean laughed at the memory, absently stroking Sam's face and hair. "Then we laughed and couldn't stop laughing…"
No more words would come. Dean sniffed and cleared his throat. "You'll be all right, Sammy. Everything'll be fine."
Another noise, a rustling in the brush, brought Dean back into full alert mode. He waited, tense, at the sound of footfalls.
Bobby. Thank God. "Over here!"
In a moment, Bobby was at his side. He didn't even ask why Dean had moved. He didn't need to. Noli stepped up beside him and handed Dean an amber bottle with a black leather stopper.
"This is it?"
"I believe so," Noli said.
Dean looked at her like she was crazy. "You believe so? Lady, I'm not experimenting on—"
"Dean, it's all we've got," Bobby told him.
Dean looked at him, aghast. Bobby was dead serious. But they were right; what else could they do? He sighed. "Yeah. Okay."
Bobby shifted awkwardly. "Look, uh…Noli's gonna say some prayers by that monster tree. Should keep it dormant until we can come back and torch the sucker. I'll be over there if you need me."
Dean nodded. When he was once again alone with Sam, he set the bottle aside and lifted Sam under the shoulders, pulling his brother into his lap. He settled Sam's head into his left shoulder, then reached for the bottle. Drawing his arms together around his brother, he removed the cork.
The smell hit him instantly, making him gag. How could anything so foul smelling be a good thing? With a slight pause, and a silent apology, Dean gently tilted Sam's head back. He opened Sam's mouth and poured a small amount of the dark liquid into it. With his other hand, he massaged Sam's throat, making sure it all went down. After a moment, he poured some more.
Dean repeated the process until the bottle was empty. Swiping a thumb across Sam's jaw to catch the trickle that had escaped, Dean tossed the bottle away, then closed his arms around his brother. Nothing to do now but wait.
And that was the hardest part. After everything, he still didn't know if Sam would come out of this alive. The kid remained still, a dead weight in his arms.
God, Dean hated this: the waiting, the helplessness. The feeling that he was utterly useless. Impotent, Sam would have said. Never in a million years would he ever associate that word with himself…until now. Damn it.
So he did the only thing he could: he sat and held Sam.
He didn't know exactly how long he sat there, but by the time he heard approaching footsteps, he was cold and numb.
"How's he doing?" Bobby asked.
"Still hasn't moved." Dean's face twitched, his jaw clenching. "How long is this stuff supposed to take?"
"I'm sorry, son," Bobby said softly. "We got no way of knowing. Let's just get him back to your room where it's warm. I think you could use some warming up, too."
Dean sighed. The simple act of moving seemed an impossible task at the moment. He finally managed a nod, and shifted Sam just enough so he could stand, and then pull his brother up with him. But his legs buckled under him almost instantly and he collapsed back to his knees. His falter jarred Sam, but Dean caught him before he hit the ground.
But something did hit the ground.
"—the hell?" Dean looked down, trying to see what it was.
"Look!" said Noli, bending to pick up one of the branches that had attached itself to the younger Winchester.
Allowing a spark of hope to ignite inside him, Dean brushed a hand over his brother's chest. The vines detached easily, leaving tiny red spots that looked like tick bites.
"It is working."
Noli had put Dean's thoughts into words. And he certainly needed to hear them. "Attaboy, Sammy," he said softly, and mussed the mop of already tousled hair.
"Now can we get out of here?" Bobby asked with mock impatience.
"Yes, please." Relief was washing over him, sapping his strength. But there was still a long way to go.
Dean eased Sam down to the forest floor, then allowed Bobby to help him stand. Together, they lifted Sam, in a two-person rescue carry. It would be a rough hike back to the Impala, but Dean didn't care. The only weight on his shoulders now was one he didn't mind bearing.
Something…there was something he was forgetting. Something he needed to tell...tell…
"Dean?" He barely recognized the sound of his own voice. There was a horrible taste in his mouth, one that made him gag. The retching set off a chain reaction of pain through his body. Images began to appear in his head: trees and dark eyes and blood, so much blood—
And then they were gone. Someone steadied him until the coughs receded. He reached up with a shaking hand to grasp a forearm, making sure it was real.
"Sammy? Hey. You okay?"
Somehow he managed a nod against material. He opened his eyes, but everything was a blur. A hand patted his back.
"Can you sit up?"
He nodded again, even though he wasn't sure he had the strength. But he wouldn't have to do it alone. Even as the thought crossed his sluggish mind, the arm across his chest was lifting him upright. Then the grip shifted and he was eased back onto a mound of pillows. Sleep.
"Sam? Sammy, look at me."
He was exhausted. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep. But…
That was…that was… He opened his eyes. Even through the haze he knew. "Dean."
Dean scrutinized his eyes, then sat back with a sigh. "Well, that's a relief! Dude, those red eyes were giving me the creeps." He smiled.
Dean was smiling. He hadn't smiled that genuinely in a long time.
"Hey, you all right? You need anything?"
Sam thought a moment, then said, "Water?"
"You got it."
There was already a glass on the nightstand. As Dean put it in his hand, making sure he had a solid grip on it, Sam noticed the tiny red spots and ligature marks on his arm. The shock seemed to clear his head a little. Further inspection revealed similar marks on his other arm and on his chest. What the hell? "Dean? What's going on?"
His brother helped him lift the glass to his lips so he could take a long drink. It felt wonderful on his parched throat, and even better as it washed away the horrible taste in his mouth. When he had drunk his fill, he demanded an answer.
His brother's eyes narrowed. "What's the last thing you remember?"
That was a good question. What was the last thing he remembered? "Uh…I had a headache…"
"Yes, I had a headache."
"No, seriously, that's the last thing you remember?"
Okay, something was up, but his brain was too muzzy to figure it out. "Yeah. Why? Dean, what happened?"
Dean's mouth opened and closed like a fish. Then his eyebrows shot up and he shrugged. "Not much."
Sam didn't believe it for a second. "I had this nightmare…about this tree…and there was blood and— That was just a nightmare…right?"
His brother stood. "Look, we both need some sleep. Just…get some rest. We'll talk about it tomorrow. Okay?"
After a moment, Sam nodded. He really didn't have the strength to argue. It was just…what the heck had he needed to tell Dean? He closed his eyes and tried to think. The light went out, and he heard Dean climb into his bed. Sam relaxed into the pillows and was almost asleep when it finally hit him.
"I don't think it's a Tirisuk."