Dean awoke with the sun above him, burning through his eyelids and turning his vision white when he rapidly blinked. There was a voice whispering in his ear, and as he twisted away from the words, a pair of strong hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to a seated position. The voice said his name again, and he forced himself to open his eyes. His vision flared in smears of yellows and whites before he was able to see the pair of large brown eyes staring back at him. For a moment of paralyzing confusion, the image swirled and two eyes became four, one nose into two, then at last when the face stood still, Dean saw his brother.
"Dean," Sam whispered, and a faint smile tugged at the corners of his swollen lips. On the side of his face, long streaks of opened flesh had dried to twisted, brown pieces, and thin streams of blood clung to his neck in crusted rivulets. When Sam spoke again, he seemed to be ignoring the wounds on his body and focused instead on Dean. "Hey, it is you this time, right?"
Dean looked up at Sam, who was crouched next to him, and he shook his throbbing head. Dean's limbs hurt, and he felt disoriented and disconnected from his own body, as if he had spent the last few days in a perfectly inebriated state. He looked at Sam's face again, and then allowed his eyes wander to the puncture wounds around Sam's shoulder and the claw marks down his arm. Sam's sleeve was crisp with the dried blood, and the red liquid had turned to thick, crimson flakes on his arm, matting his hair into clumps. It was obvious, though, that the wounds were still fairly fresh, despite the thin layer of scabbing that had already occurred.
Not meeting Sam's eyes, Dean choked out, "Your…arm…face."
As if being reminded of the terrible markings on his body, Sam flinched slightly, but did not loosen his hold on Dean's shoulders. When he shrugged, it was a failed, half-hearted attempt at nonchalance. "We don't have to talk about it now."
"I did that."
The admission hung in the air like a gunshot at midnight, and Sam looked away from his brother's clean face in guilt that did not belong to him. Dean's skin was smooth again, and the scales lay scattered in a pile around him on the sand, as a nightmare wiped away from the light of the morning. His eyes, although their human shade, were still glittering and focused. "Dean," Sam finally said quietly, "you weren't—you didn't...It wasn't like that."
Dean sighed, then grabbed Sam's arms and held on tightly, careful not to squeeze too tightly near the claw marks. There was a long moment when Dean merely held onto Sam's forearms, while Sam clutched his older brother's shoulders, neither of them saying anything. Nothing could rival the slings that Dean had hurled so truthfully at Sam when Dean's destroyed inhibitions had allowed his words to tumble freely. The marks on Sam's body would soon fade to white scars that would forever wear Dean's signature, no matter how much he wished otherwise.
Dean wondered if he would ever be able to forgive himself for what he had done to his brother. Bowing his head so that he did not have to look upon Sam's face, he whispered, "Sammy…I, God, I—I'm sorry."
Sam said nothing, and instead pulled Dean close to him in a tight embrace. He couldn't remember the last time Dean had allowed himself to be held so willingly and so strongly. But Sam bent his head to the pale skin on Dean's neck, and the faint scent of leather met his nose. This was his brother, and Sam had been willing to die for him. Dean had nearly been lost, and now, despite everything, they were together again.
Hearing Dean's hoarse apology, Sam knew that he had already forgiven Dean the moment he woke up and looked at Sam through human eyes again. There were no apologies that needed to be offered anymore.
Finally Sam, refusing to loosen his worried hold on his brother, said, "Don't."
- - - - -
They rose to their feet, although Dean needed some assistance to get to a standing position with the bullet wound in his leg. After he had regained his balance and ignored the throb of pain in his muscle, the two brothers walked together to the two human forms on the sand. The man lay on his back with his round eyes opened to the sun, the bullet hole turned black in his forehead, while the female was collapsed across her partner's body. She had long, black hair that cascaded down her back and fluttered gently in the wind, and her human face was upturned so that her faded green eyes stared out at nothing.
Hesitantly, Dean bent down beside her and pulled a few of the silken strands of hair away from her face. Under the sunlight her skin was warm against the back of his finger, and he bit down on his lower lip as the threat of tears invaded his emotions. His boots crunched over the scales on the ground, and he felt a cold chill run up his spine, like the feeling of stepping on a fresh grave. Tenderly, he closed her eyelids and sighed heavily to himself.
"We need to take them back," he said to Sam. "We can't leave them out here."
Sam paused before speaking, as if he was contemplating whether or not to voice the protest welling up inside his mind that neither of them was in any condition to go walking across the desert. But when he looked down at his older brother, who was brushing away the wispy hair of a beautiful woman with such care, Sam could only nod in agreement.
- - - - -
Sam carried the man he had killed back to the cave, and Dean carried the woman. They walked together in silence, and when they reached the dwelling that formerly belonged to the lizards, Dean entered first and went to the chambers the two people had occupied when they were the ruling pair. He walked down the same corridor the woman had led him, and when he entered the room where the fountain used to stand, he was not completely surprised to see that it no longer existed.
Gently, Dean laid the woman on the ground, and Sam did the same with the man. The brothers paused for a brief moment before Dean patted Sam lightly on the shoulder as a signal for them to leave, and they began to move out of the cave again.
"What about the others?" Sam asked. "The other children, where are they?"
Dean glanced over at Sam, but didn't answer him. Instead, Dean turned away from the direction to the exit and began to head deeper into the belly of the cave. The atmosphere was deathly silent, and Sam was forced to turn on the flashlight he had packed along so that they could see.
After a few minutes of walking, Dean stopped in a larger chamber and looked around with a confused expression on his face. The beam of the flashlight bounced off the walls and landed on heaps of assorted colors of scales.
"They're gone," Dean said at last, and when he spoke, there was a definite twinge of pain in his voice.
"But where would they go? I thought they were going to die when the other two die."
"I thought so too," Dean admitted. "Maybe…I don't know…"
"Maybe if the leading two don't exist, then the rest of the children don't either."
Dean looked up to meet Sam's placid face and nodded slowly in agreement. "Maybe."
- - - - -
With neither brother in perfect condition, their steps were slow and heavy on their return trip to the motel. During that long walk, Sam finally spoke. "About everything that's happened…I just wanted you to know that I—I…didn't leave you."
"Sam. We don't need to—"
"Yeah, we do. Just give me this, please? I didn't leave because of you. You've got to understand that. I would never leave because of you."
"You want to again," Dean argued, refusing to meet Sam's needy gaze.
"Perhaps. I don't know. A lot of things have changed. I don't know what I'm going to do if we ever find the thing that got Mom. I just want you to know that I…" Sam sighed heavily, as if mentally preparing himself. When his cheeks puffed out slightly with the expulsion of air, the scabs of his wounds peeked open to reveal their slimy interiors. "Like it or not, you're my brother. You're going to be in my life, and I'm going to be in yours…And that's never going to change."
"A lot of that stuff I said…It wasn't me. It was like there was somebody else in my head."
"But they still managed to get to you," Sam pointed out as they entered the motel parking lot. "Somehow, they took advantage of something that already existed in your head, and I don't ever want that to happen again. I know Mom's not around anymore, and Dad's gone more often than not, but I'm here, Dean. I want you to know that I am here."
They walked up to their room's door, while Sam pulled the keys from his pocket, and at last, Dean shook his head and smiled. "You done yet? Or am I going to have to put this on a greeting card and buy it for you for your next birthday?"
Sam unlocked the door and laughed. "That sounds like something I've been wanting to hear for days."
While Dean packed his belongings, Sam cleaned his wounds in the bathroom. It had only taken Dean a short amount of time to disinfect the graze of the bullet across his calf, so Sam was left alone with the gauze and stitches. When Dean had offered to help, Sam smiled faintly and said he would be able to handle things on his own.
Behind the bathroom door, Dean could hear Sam's controlled hiss at each twinge of pain. Even though he wanted to go to his brother, Dean knew it was better for him to stay where he was. So, he remained seated on the bed, fingering the edges of their father's worn leather journal. He thought of everything he could write in the neatly lined pages, detailing the attack of the monsters and their eventual fall. There would be pages upon pages to write, and every detail he could carefully record with the most pristine care. Instead, he lifted a black ink pen and scribbled the current date. For a moment, the pen was suspended over the page, and he wrote, We learned to let go of what we could not control, and we learned to hold onto what we have.
Then, as an afterthought, he added, Our pain is only what we let it be.
After Sam was finished cleaning his cuts, the two brothers left the room with duffel bags filled to the bursting point. They threw the bags in the trunk of the Impala, which waited for them in the parking lot, and they went to return the key to the motel owner.
The old man was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch outside his office, and he was gazing off into the distance. When Sam and Dean approached, he rose to his feet and smiled, shoving his hands deep into his worn pockets. "Headin' off already?"
"Yeah," Sam said with a jerky nod, "I think it's about time. We've done all that we can do."
"How you feelin'?" the motel owner asked Dean, who looked up in slight surprise at being addressed.
"That's good to 'ear." As Sam handed the motel owner the key, the old man continued, "You 'member the story I was tellin' you 'bout my daughter?"
"Yeah," Sam responded with slight hesitation.
"I had a dream while I was nappin' 'ere, that she came to me and told me that ev'rything was goin' to be all right now. Said two heroes had finally saved 'er." The man grinned. "It was a good dream."
"That's good to hear," Sam replied, fighting to hold back an overwhelming smile of his own.
When they had finished with the necessary small talk, Sam said, "Well, we should probably get going. Got a long drive ahead of us."
"Take care," the motel owner responded, sitting back down in the chair as Dean and Sam returned to their car.
Before they entered the car, they turned back to look at the motel owner one last time. Standing next to him was a young blonde girl with curly blonde hair that bobbed in the warm wind. She smiled at the brothers, and when she lifted her hand to wave at them, her image began to fade away. Soon, she had disappeared completely.
Sam and Dean stood on the opposite sides of the car, allowing the black, glistening hood to separate them. Sam, who leaned on the passenger's side with his elbows resting on the hood, slid the keys to Dean. Hesitantly, Dean accepted them and fingered the clinking metal pieces. He looked down at his hands holding the keys and said faintly, "We're not heroes, you know."
Sam chewed on his lower lip and looked back at the motel owner, who was already engrossed in a crinkled newspaper. The blonde girl was gone from their vision, but remained nevertheless. "No, but we're something better than that."
"Which is what?" Dean asked, lifting his head at last to look at Sam.
The late morning sun was high in the sky, and it illuminated the brothers' tanned skin to a warm golden glow. It was the sun of a new day and new truths. They had walked through the night with the lips of death whispering in their ears, and they had emerged alive and victorious into the day.
At last, Sam grinned and replied, "Men."