Author's Notes: Loosely associated with Tom Petty's song of the same name. Many thanks to Amy for her wonderful ideas, warm support, and excellent beat-ing.
"I don't understand why you won't just buy a CD player."
Dean gasped in exasperation. "This car is a classic, Sam. I'm not going to tear her apart because you don't think she's modern enough." Dean patted the dashboard affectionately.
"She?" Sam parroted, raising one eyebrow. "The car is a she?" He snorted and shook his head. "I suppose she's got a name, too."
Dean tightened his grip on the steering wheel and stared into the darkness on the other side of the Impala's headlights. Little brothers could be so… obnoxious sometimes. "Yes, it's a she," he replied. "And no, she doesn't have a name." Then, for good measure, he added, "Smart ass."
They were just outside of Richmond, Virginia. Night had long since fallen over the Blue Ridge mountains and Dean was thankful that Sam was awake and talking, even if he was just spouting off irritating barbs about the car. The roads were steep and winding and a metal guardrail bordered the asphalt on either side. Twice already, Dean had come out of a sharp turn only to slam on the brakes before they plowed into a deer. The damn things were everywhere. Dean was tempted to get the shotgun from the back and blast them out of the way. He snorted softly. That would teach 'em.
Dean sighed and shifted, propping his left elbow on the door against he window. It was only a little after midnight but earlier that evening they'd been playing both offense and defense with an angry spirit. Sometimes the dead could put up a good fight; just refused to go down peacefully. But then again, if spirits were easy to get rid of, he and Sam would have a lot of spare time on their hands, wouldn't they?
Sam's loud, exaggerated sigh drowned out the beginning of an AC/DC drum solo. "How fast are you going?"
"Fast enough unless you want a pair of antlers through your chest. Shut up- this is the best part of the song."
Sam sighed again and Dean shot him a dirty glare. They were only going 47 miles per hour and Dean still had to use the brakes to get around the sharp turns. The road was deserted so he let the car drift over the center line, effectively hogging the two lanes. Night driving was so much fun.
"Are we gonna stop soon? I'm tired of sitting."
"Jesus Sam, what is this- whiney little brother night? We'll stop when we get there, okay?" Dean took the turn a little fast, effectively pressing Sam into the passenger door. "Shouldn't you be sleeping or something?"
Sam struggled to keep himself upright. "I'm too keyed up to sleep. Did you know in America we drive in the right-hand lane?"
"Piss off," Dean snapped, but he obeyed nonetheless. The road straightened out and Dean checked the rear view mirror, surprised to see another pair of headlights behind them. He hadn't seen another car in almost 45 minutes- this one was obviously traveling faster than they were.
"How's your head?"
Dean glanced at Sam then turned his gaze back to the road. "It's good… you know, considering."
Sam snorted. "I always knew a book was no match for that skull of yours."
"Laugh it up, sissy boy. I'll take a book over a bookcase any day."
Sam shifted and grimaced at the stiffness that must be in his shoulders. "It's really not that bad, once you get used-"
The rumble of straining horses was all the warning they had before a car flew past Dean and promptly swerved in front of the Impala before speeding ahead. The suddenness and the sheer audacity of the move startled Dean and left his heart racing.
"Stupid fucking idiot!" he growled, watching the red glow of tail lights disappear. "That jackass is gonna wind up with one of these fuckin' deer through his windshield."
Beside him, Sam took a deep breath. "I remember a time when you drove like that," he said quietly. It wasn't criticism, just a reminder- Sam's way of telling Dean he should have patience.
But Dean's patience had been spent on the psycho-killer spirit they'd defeated six hours ago. "I still do drive like that, when the need arises. And not when I'm barreling around hairpin turns in the dark, through deer-infested mountains."
Sam remained silent. He crossed his arms over his stomach and turned his head away.
Dean shook his head. This was the companion he usually traveled with- not the whiney, annoying person from before. Recently it seemed like Sam was always brooding. Dean understood at first- the guy had watched his girlfriend burn to death over his bed- but time wore on and Sam never really shrugged his dark mood. Granted Sam was never really a happy-go-lucky kid, but he was always a damn good little brother. He was Dean's best friend. Sometimes his only friend. And like it or not, when Sam was brooding, it hurt Dean to see him like that.
Dean reached out and turned up the volume to drown out the monotonous, hypnotizing sound of tires humming over asphalt. Sam didn't even move.
Dean wanted to sigh, but that was Sam's irritating quirk to overplay. Instead he began drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and pointedly tried not to think about how he missed Sam's bitching.
"You smell that?"
Sam's voice broke the tension and Dean straightened, using his nose as Sam leaned forward, now on full alert. "Yeah, kinda," he replied, reaching out and turning down the volume. "Smells like smoke."
Dean searched the darkness. The beams of the headlights glinted off the steel guardrail and beyond that, large pine trees crowded the mountain side. A quarter moon hung high in the sky, giving off very little light to aid their search. Dean took his foot off the gas as they came up on another turn.
And there it was. If he hadn't been looking, he would have missed it.
The headlights passed over a gaping hole in the guardrail, the edges bent away from the brothers and towards the mountain's decline. Shards of glass littered the edge of the pavement, glittering in the headlight's strong beams. The twin tire tracks confirmed Dean's suspicions.
"Shit. The car went over."
"Well pull over!" Sam said, undoing his seatbelt. "We have to help."
Wordlessly, Dean guided the car to the edge of the road. Leaving it on the turn like this was dangerous so he hit the button for the blinkers and left the car running after throwing it into park. Sam was already out the door and crossing in front of the Impala's hood, cutting through the headlights as quickly as one of those damn deer.
"Sam, wait," Dean called after him as he pulled the trunk lever. "Flashlights."
Sam halted and spun, meeting Dean at the rear of the car. "Here," Dean said, shoving a flashlight at Sam. "Let's go."
Dean followed his brother across the road. The smell of burnt rubber was still in the air and as they neared the edge, glass crunched underfoot. The smell of smoke grew stronger though it wasn't yet clouding the air.
"What the-" Dean yelped, nearly colliding into Sam's back. He fumbled and moved to the side, standing even with his brother at the edge of the drop-off. Suddenly the flashlight was weightless in his numb hand.
"Shit." Below them, nearly 100 feet down the steep, rocky mountainside, a dark-colored car was lying belly-up, and it was on fire.
Dean broke through the shock and he reached inside his coat pocket, grabbing his cell phone. 'Please get reception… please get reception…' Dean flipped open the phone and watched as the signal bars appeared and disappeared, finally settling on three. 'Thank you!' With a wave of relief, he dialed 911 and looked up at Sam.
Except Sam was gone.
"Sam!" Dean yelled, listening as the phone rang once. He took a step forward, moving sideways to get secure footing in the loose gravel, and spotted Sam scrambling down the mountain, nearly twenty feet ahead of him. "Fuck it all… yes! Hello? I need an ambulance!"
Dean relayed their location to the best of his knowledge, his attention torn between the woman's questions and trying to keep up with his little brother. How did he move so fast? What, was he part goat or something? When the 911 operator confirmed the dispatch of a helicopter, Dean snapped the phone shut and jammed it in his pocket. "Sam! Slow down, Damnit!"
The car was completely engulfed in flames now, and Dean didn't see anyone beside himself and Sam. That meant the driver- and possibly some passengers- were trapped in the burning car. He should have brought the crowbar to break the windows.
Then an even scarier thought occurred to him and his movements became frantic. "Sam!" he yelled, fear making his voice deepen. "Get back! It's gonna explode!" He tripped on a large rock and fumbled, dropping his flashlight. "Shit! Sam! Now!"
Sam was nearly forty feet from the car when he finally stopped, aiming his flashlight at Dean. "It's a woman, Dean! I see her!" he called back. "I can get her!"
"No!" Dean commanded, sounding frighteningly like his father. Pain lanced through his ankle as he made his way towards Sam. "That car's a time bomb, Sam! Leave it!"
There was a pause, then Sam yelled, "I have to save her! I have to try!"
Dean watched Sam turn his back and continue towards the burning car. "Damnit Sam…" The flames were ten feet high and they lit up the immediate surroundings so brightly that Dean didn't need the flashlight to see. He clicked it off and shoved it in his waistband as he continued limping down the mountain. The gravel gave way and slid under him and each movement was agony on his ankle. When this was over, he was going to beat some sense into that brother of his.
And then the car exploded.
"NO!" Dean yelled, cut off as he was flung to the ground from the deafening boom and surge of heat. He threw an arm around his head and pressed himself into the ground, ignoring the taste of dirt. Something rained down all around him, pattering on his leather jacket and stinging the back of his neck and skull. He gasped for breath, trying to get back what the explosion had stolen.
When he could consciously move his limbs, Dean struggled to sit up. Silence rung loudly throughout the forest. "Sam!" he yelled, his voice weak. When nothing but the steady crackle of fire answered him, Dean forced himself to his feet. "Sammy!" he tried once more, fighting to stay upright through a spell of vertigo. "Answer me!"
Yeah right. Half the time, Sam didn't answer him when he was conscious.
Dean moved forward, ignoring the pain in his foot. He scanned the ground where he'd last seen his brother. There! An unmoving lump lay just over fifteen feet away. Dean hurried forward.
"Sam!" he repeated, continuing until he reached his brother's side. Dean dropped to his knees next to Sam and reached out, grabbing a shoulder and turning Sam onto his back.
He placed two fingers to Sam's neck as he took in his appearance. There was a small cut just above Sam's right eyebrow, but the blood was only trickling. Dirt and small rocks were stuck to his cheek and his hair was askew, but other than that, Sam looked to be alright. His heart rate was strong and steady, breathing was normal.
Dean jostled him a bit. "Hey, Sammy… I need you to wake up now. Can you hear me?"
Sam moaned a little and turned his head. Dean felt Sam's muscles tense with awareness, one by one.
"Come on, little brother. I am not carrying your ass back up this mountain."
All at once, Sam jerked upright, causing Dean to jump backwards. "Jessica!" Sam gasped, his eyes wide and wet and his chest heaving in the firelight.
Shit. He hadn't expected that.
Dean inched forwards, placing a cautious hand on Sam's shoulder. "No, Sam… it's me. Dean. Remember? Your favorite big brother?" He ended with a grin that was lost on Sam.
"Dean?" Sam said, blinking as he looked around. He winced and worked his jaw, raising one hand to the cut on his head. "What happened?"
Dean glanced at the burning car. "We found the burning car, remember?" Dean studied Sam's pupils. 'Please don't let it be amnesia again.' "It exploded. You feel alright?"
Sam stared at the fire. "We didn't save her?"
"No buddy, I'm afraid not."
Sam sighed, long and slow, then blinked. "Oh."
"You okay? Head hurt?"
Sam shook his head. "I'm fine." After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he asked, "Can we go now?"
Certainly not. "The paramedics are coming- I think you should get checked out."
Sam looked… shell shocked. "I'm fine," he sighed, turning away from the fire. "I just wanna leave… please."
Dean recognized the desperation in his brother's voice. Sam's voice was gentle but urgent at the same time and Dean never had been able to resist it. The cut had stopped bleeding already, and there was nothing anyone could do for the driver. The police would be able to figure out what happened by the skid marks on the road. Dean sighed. This went against his big-brother instincts, but it looked like Sam needed a shower and a bed more than he needed to sit for countless hours in an ER waiting room.
"Alright, fine," he relented as he rose and extended a hand to Sam. "But I'm waking your ass up every two hours, got it?"
Sam grabbed his hand and Dean pulled him to his feet, catching him as he stumbled. 'Please don't let this be a bad idea,' Dean prayed, then they started up the mountain.
"Oh gross… man, I knew this was a bad idea!"
Dean held onto Sam's shoulder as the younger Winchester puked in the tin hotel wastebasket. Sam's stomach had long since been emptied and all that was coming up now was the nasty, slimy, bubbly stuff. Dean turned his head and took a deep breath, trying to calm his own stomach. He'd seen Sam puke before- he would not let it affect him…
Sam took a deep breath through his mouth, closing his eyes. "Okay," he said, still hunched over. "I think I'm good."
"That's what you said the last time."
Sam swallowed. "I mean it this time."
Dean set the wastebasket on the floor then pushed Sam backwards, against the headboard. "I think we should get you checked out."
Sam shook his head, very softly. "I'm fine. Must have been something I ate, that's all."
"Sam, you were knocked unconscious. You probably have a concussion." Dean set down across from his brother and grabbed the bag of ice. "It could be serious." He propped his foot on Sam's bed, bridging the two, and placed the bag on his ankle. The throbbing was down to a dull ache now, but Dean knew a sprain when he felt one.
"I'm fine. How's your leg?"
"Fine," Dean huffed in mockery, "And don't change the subject."
Sam lowered his head and his eyes grew dark, reflecting the flashing images of the muted TV across the room. When he folded his arms and stared straight ahead, Dean sighed.
It hadn't been a long drive once they left the burning wreckage, although the tense silence between them sure made it seem like hours. They'd arrived at the run-down hotel only half an hour ago, close to 1:30 am. Dean pushed Sam in the shower then saw to the cut on his forehead, then settled Sam in bed and took a shower of his own. Between the warm water and now the ice, his ankle hadn't swollen very much. A few pain-relievers had dulled the pain. He'd be good as new in no time.
Sam, on the other hand…
Dean may not be the touchy-feely, explore-your-inner-self kinda guy- but he wasn't stupid. Sam had come-to with Jessica's name on his lips, no doubt inspired by watching the woman in her car go up in flames. Sam hadn't been able to save that woman, just as he hadn't been able to save Jess- which was horse shit because there was no way Sam could have saved either of them. Dean believed it, and not just because he wanted to. He'd been there both times, and both times Sam had been helpless to pull those women from the fire. It was a fact- one that he was determined his younger brother wake up and face. This wallowing in self-pity crap was getting old.
"Hey," Dean said, kicking Sam's leg with his good foot. "Don't drift off on me."
Sam blinked his eyes open and sent Dean a patented scowl. "You know as well as I do that not letting the victim of a concussion fall asleep is just an old wife's tale."
Dean huffed. "Well maybe I wanna talk to you, Sunshine."
"I'm fine," Sam muttered as he started to turn away. "Lemme sleep."
"It wasn't your fault, you know." There, he said it. It was kinda like jumping into a pool of cold water on a hot day, and Dean took a nerve-steeling breath.
Sam's eyes were open but he didn't move. Dean had to look very closely to make sure he was even breathing.
Fine. Dean could play hardball. What was that saying? It Mohammad won't go to the mountain, the mountain will go to Mohammad?
Dean swallowed his machoistic pride. He got up, hobbled around the foot of the bed, and plopped down next to Sam, right in his line of vision. 'Ignore this.' He grabbed the ice and repositioned it over his ankle then leaned back against the headboard, shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother. "There was nothing you could've done for that woman tonight," he said softly, "just like there was nothing you could have done to save Jess."
Sam recoiled. He drew his legs up and rested his elbows on his knees, closing himself off. The TV continued flashing images, unnoticed. "I could have warned her," he whispered, keeping his eyes glued to the opposite wall. "Should have tried."
Dean felt something stab at his heart because no matter what kind of a front he put on, he couldn't bear to see Sam in pain. "And when she didn't listen?" he pressed, watching as Sam picked at the frayed strings around the hole in his jeans. "Sam, listen to me. I don't give a shit about your precognitive dreams- what's meant to be will find a way."
The hand fell still and it was Sammy's small voice and large, wet eyes that answered him. "Then why do I feel so guilty?"
"Because you loved her."
A flash of pain passed over Sam's face. Tears pooled along the bottom of his eyes and his bottom lip trembled before he clamped it between his teeth and looked away. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly, then sniffed, waving a dismissive hand. "I know you hate drama."
The words hurt. Had he really become that flippant, that cold-hearted? "No, Sammy," Dean replied, resting his hand on one trembling shoulder. "This is grief. We're allowed to grieve." He'd watched his father grieve for a very long time after Mom died- it was the one weakness they were allowed to show.
Dean paused, letting Sam digest the words. Fine tremors shook Sam's body. He was close. "Come on Sam," Dean pushed quietly. "It's okay."
Sam rolled towards him suddenly and Dean lifted his arm, allowing Sam to burrow into his side as if they were children and Dean was still a superhero. Dean wrapped his arm around his little brother, holding him close. He kept silent as Sam cried quietly, simply resting his chin on Sam's head and gently squeezing his shoulder. There were no words for this. Dean couldn't be sorry for something he had no part of, and he didn't know when the pain would go away. His chest soon grew hot where Sam's shuttering breaths permeated his thin white t-shirt, but the familiar warmth felt good. Sam needed this, because for all the pain it caused, it eased even more. Dean's lifelong job was to protect his little brother, and if that meant simply being the shoulder to cry on, then by God, Dean could do that.
It was a few minutes later when Sam finally let go of Dean. He pulled back, scrubbing at his eyes and cheeks and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his t-shirt. "Thank you," he mumbled, leaning back against the headboard.
Dean settled his arm in his lap and shivered slightly as the loss of heat. "You okay?"
"I'm better," Sam replied with a sniff and a nod. "Sorry about… you know. All this."
Dean smiled, feeling very proud of himself and Sam. After a long night of botched good intentions, something had finally gone right. The pride was making him cocky, and he smirked. "…And the Academy Award for best drama performance goes to…"
Sam barked a laugh- but it was an honest to God laugh just the same. "Jerk," he grinned, wiping the last of the moisture from his face.
"Bitch," Dean shot back, snatching the remote from where it lay between them.
He settled down to watch some TV as Sam got up and went to the bathroom, taking the wastebasket with him. Dean smiled as he watched his brother; Sam's movements were lighter, the darkness had left his face. Inside, Dean was humming. He couldn't replace what was lost, but he'd been able to fix what was broken. Dean had successfully played the role of big brother.
And Sam's smile was worth more than any award.