Disclaimer: The characters don't belong to me, but in the spirit of sharing...

Between All Hell Breaks Loose, Part I and II

THREE STRIKES AND YOU'RE OUT

Dean held Sammy's dead weight. The only thing he knew was the warm wetness of Sammy's blood trickling sticky through his fingers and the dying breath that stilled against his face.

"Sammy!" He cried again like an incantation, as if saying it would bring back the brother that had left him.

Bobby was saying something, but Dean couldn't hear it. They picked up Sam's lifeless body and carried it to the car. Dean's face was wet with tears, but he never paused, climbing into the back, cradling his brother's lolling head. Bobby again said something, but Dean just stared at him, uncomprehending.

"KEYS, DEAN!" Bobby yelled, unnerved by the boy's unresponsiveness.

Dean swallowed thickly before he fumbled for the Impala's keys and threw them to Bobby.

"H-hospital, Bobby," Dean half asked, half pled. They both knew it was too late for that.

"He's gone, Dean." Bobby tried.

"No. Don't." Dean held onto the body, but he couldn't deny the stillness. He was crying freely. "Please," he pled "Please." Bobby wondered who the boy was asking. No one answered.

Bobby took Dean to the only place he knew to take him. The only way to get Dean inside the small cabin was to heave the body in too. Bobby felt the pit in his stomach deepen as he caught the older Winchester's eyes. Dean was lost in there and Bobby didn't know a damn thing he could do to bring him back. He was slipping away.

The world was about to collapse into Hell and Bobby didn't have time to mourn for the little boy whose eyes had sparkled intelligently, who had romped with his pups and asked him questions about exorcism rituals. That boy was gone and so was his daddy, leaving only Dean, haunted by promises made and broken.

They laid Sam's body out on the cot in the back. Bobby moved to cover the face of death with a white sheet, but Dean caught his arm. "Please, Bobby," was all he said and Bobby bowed to the desperation in Dean's voice.

All night Dean sat with his grief, eyes riveted on this brother's still features, seeing not the pale cheeks and long, limp hair or the shadow of whiskers that Sam never let grow.

Dean smells smoke and holds Sammy's squirming, heavy weight. Dad shouts, Mom burns and Sammy clings to him as they run.

He feels small arms around his neck, smells Sammy's hair after a bath, the cleanest thing his screwed up life.

He tumbles gently with the giggling toddler, wrestling on dirty hotel room rugs till Dad yells for quiet.

He listens to Sammy's soft breath in the dark, waiting for the Impala's familiar rumble to signal the end of his watch.

He sees Sam chewing concertedly on his bottom lip, holding his first gun with both hands. Sam nearly cries at the sound and the kick. He grins in relief, though, looking to Dean for approval, the first time he hits his target square.

Dean holds Sam's sticky hand as they walk the half mile home from kindergarten. Sam's nearly empty backpack thumps rhythmically. He trots beside Dean, filled with questions.

Dean takes advantage of the warm body curled up in front of him, appropriating Sammy's heat as he wakes up early in the frigid mountain cabin, smelling coffee brewing on the hearth and hearing the tramp of his father's heavy boots.

Dean's fist crushes painfully into the bully's face. He sees red. Nobody messes with his little brother.

"It's gonna be okay, Sammy," he promises. Somehow they make it through. "I'm not gonna let anything bad happen to you."

Dean smells blood and catches Sam's panicked eyes as he floors it to the hospital.

Dean hears the door slam and his fear is palpable. He watches his brother walk away. He picks up the pieces of his father, wondering if he'll ever see his Sammy again.

He watches Dad watching Sammy. The tense jaw jumps as Sam leaves class amid a group of students who can't protect him. Dean's heart aches to hear that easy laugh through the Impala's open window. But they always end up driving away.

Sammy's phone rings and rings, but he doesn't pick up. The call is routed to voicemail. "You've reached Sam Winchester..." It's professional and fakey, but it's his baby brother's voice. At least he knows Sam's okay. He doesn't leave a message.

There is a surge of recognition as Sammy engages him in the dark apartment. Three years, and finally Dean knows himself again, with his little brother there to define him. He can't help grinning like an idiot.

He barely recognizes the man who grieves hard for the blond in the Smirf t-shirt, can't sleep when Sammy's eyes are wide and glistening in the darkness. He lays awake at night, heart beating to Sam's shallow breaths.

Adrenaline pumps through his veins, he's straining with the knife that's pinning him to the friggin' barn, when he hears the gun go off, sees the flash and Sammy's white grin is telling him that the S.O.B. is down for the count. Sammy's all grown up, Dean grins. He jimmies the knife free and taking his little brother's hand up.

He's pinned to the wall while he's family is being tortured. He fights it, screaming. Sam's holding a gun to the demon, to John. "Sam, no." he begs. He knows if Sam pulls the trigger, it'll destroy them all.

His body's broken, but he holds on. He can't leave them. They are all he's got.

Dean's face is hot from the pyre. His fathers parting words echo over the crackling of timber and night sounds of the familiar forest. Sam, his impossible little brother, stands straight beside him, tears streaming down his face. Dean's never felt this close to anyone, yet feels terribly alone.

He sends Sam into the diner for pie...

He sends Sam into the diner for pie... smells sulfur and freshly spilt blood. Not Sammy's. Please not Sammy's.

The last thing he says is Dean's name. Dean calls back, but his relieved smile dies. "Sammy watch out!" His brother falls forward. There's blood on Dean's hands and Sam's gone... he's just gone.

Dean doesn't want to wake up in a world with no little brother, no Sammy. So he doesn't sleep. He just sits there, remembering and taking long pulls from the liquor bottles he found in the dusty cupboard beneath the kitchen sink while Bobby was out getting supplies. The drink makes him feel not himself, which is good because Dean Winchester is not a good thing to be... and hasn't been for a long while, he realizes.

"You've gotta save him," Dad had said. "You've gotta save Sammy or you have to kill him. You might have to kill him, Dean."

But Dean hadn't done either one. He had just stood there while Sam got stabbed in the back.

He should have gotten there sooner, faster. I'm not gonna let anything bad happen to you.

He should've shot that son of a bitch where he stood. Nobody messes with my brother.

He had just one job, just one more chance. But three strikes and you're out. And Dean's out. He's done. It's too fucking hard. Tears flood his vision. He can't even see, what the hell good would he be in this fight?

What the hell good was he to anyone, now?