Chapter 29

Ominous darkness, bone-chilling cold

The icy fingers of a homicidal threat

A shared moment of truth

Eyes connect knowing... for one the end is near

An explosion

The smell of burned flesh

Scattered pieces of skin and bone

Blood spattered in nonsensical patterns on stoic walls

oozing….dripping….pooling….

The sightless eyes of a murdered brother

A soul lost, another emptied

"NO! GOD NO! DEAN!" Sam's terrified voice cried out from the bedroom, practically rattling the walls and shattering the windows. "DEEEEEEEEAN!"

Dean nearly ran over Bobby as the two hunters bolted frantically, weapons drawn, to answer Sam's blood curdling scream.

The anxious sibling jumped back, pulled his knee to his chest and kicked the door with all of his might. The flimsy wooden barrier between he and his brother broke open, swung back and slammed hard against the wall, knocking a faded picture off and sending it crashing to the floor.

Dean burst through, arms extended, weapon clasped tightly in both hands, finger whitening on the trigger, eyes desperately seeking out a target. He searched the bed where Sam sat bolt upright yelling, then swung around the room looking for the presence of an intruder.

Bobby came in behind him, weapon drawn and out in front, took up a position back to Dean and rotated as the younger hunter did.

"Bobby?" Dean anxiously questioned needing to know if the hunter had a target in sight.

"Clear. You?" the older hunter barked out in military fashion.

"Clear," Dean answered as his worried eyes fell on his brother's trembling frame.

Bobby immediately searched to closet just to be sure, but as he expected, it was empty.

"Sammy?" Dean questioned softly as he took in his younger sibling who now sat silent, trembling fiercely on the bed before him.

Sam's body glistened with fear induced sweat, his panicked eyes searching his brother's, begging to be reassured that he was alive and okay.

Dean lowered his piece and began walking slowly towards Sam so as not to startle him. He studied his brother's features trying to determine if he was awake or still trapped in his godless nightmare, whether the searching eyes were seeing or struggling to see, to make sense of the waking world around him.

Dean's uncertainty clarified when Sam put his head down and buried his face in his hands.

Bobby lowered his weapon and moved slowly to the end of the bed to see if Sam was alright.

Dean turned to the concerned hunter and nodded indicating that, though clearly distraught, Sam was safe.

Bobby nodded and then quietly moved to the doorway and slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him to offer the boys some privacy.

"Sammy?" Dean gently called again as he put on his safety and belted his .45 behind his back.

Sam's face remained buried in his hands and although Dean couldn't see the tears, his brother's hitched breathing indicated his was crying.

"Hey," Dean softly whispered as he took a seat close beside his anguished sibling and clasped his hands supportively around his little brother's trembling arms.

Sam remained silent and continued shaking.

Dean saw wet tears drop beneath his brother's hands and travel down his wrists and arms.

"Shhhh, It's okay, Sammy," the older sibling cooed as he attempted to lower his head to reach his brother's hidden gaze while maintaining his gentle hold. "It's alright. You're okay."

Sam suddenly leaned into Dean, clasped his older brother's shirt in his fisted hands and buried his face in his brother's chest.

Dean wrapped one arm around him , the other he slipped through his brother's hair and rested gently on the back of his head. He pulled him close and just held him.

Sam began to sob. Anguish poured out from him along with sorrowful tears.

Dean bit his lip as he attempted to hold back his own emotions in order to be there for Sam as he felt his brother sobbing against him. Sam had suffered too much for too long and now that there were no hunters left to torment him, Sam's unconscious mind was turning against him, torturing him in his sleep.

Dean closed his eyes and rested his chin on his brother's soft brown hair. A single silent tear managed to escape and found its way down the side of his empathetic cheek.

It was cruel how reality often played out in the unconscious mind, in some ways, even more torturously than life itself, because while life had been merciful to the brothers and not allowed the death of either, the unconscious dream world had been much less kind. Fear played out as if reality there and death came often and repeatedly.

Dean flashed back to his nightmare of Sam being executed in the motel by the sharpshooter. The imagine of himself lying helplessly wounded on the floor while he watched in horror as the nightmarish hunter pumped Sam's defenseless body full of rounds, his baby brother's body jerking on the bed, the blood fountain-ing upwards from Sam's destroyed frame…..

Dean felt sick and held his little brother more tightly as if needing to feel his life in his arms to be reassured it had only been a dream and erase the image that once again revisited his mind.

He didn't know what nightmare had besieged Sam, whether he had relived the brutalities he had suffered or the condemnation he had endured, but he knew it was more than his little brother could manage.

The brothers sat in silence until Sam's trembling slowed and then eventually ceased. The cascade of tears ended soon after. Dean remained unmoving, allowing his brother to take whatever care and comfort he needed.

Sam finally leaned away and began wiping the rivers of salty water from his face with his hands. His gaze remained downward as he tried to avoid eye contact.

Dean released his fatherly hold when Sam began to move away, but remained close by his side. He waited for a moment as his little brother sniffled and settled before finally breaking the silence that hung heavily between them.

"You okay?" he whispered as he watched Sam wipe away his left over tears.

Sam finally looked at Dean and nodded, but didn't say anything. Then he whispered an embarrassed laugh.

Dean's lips curled slightly upward in the corners when he heard his little brother's unexpected sound. "What?" he questioned gently.

Sam sniffed and offered a self-conscious smile.

"I feel like I'm a chubby twelve year old again, waking up screaming and crying from nightmares," Sam explained shyly as his breathing hiccupped, a left over from the deep distress he had recently released.

Dean recalled the fierce nightmares his brother used to have whenever he and his dad would return from a hunting trip when Sam had been left behind with Pastor Jim or Bobby. The kid feared that every time they left, they wouldn't be coming back... alive. When they finally returned, Sammy was visibly relieved, but his fears played out in nightmares for days afterward.

He remembered his father being impatient with Sam's nightmares. Dean figured his dad didn't mean to be calloused; it was more he couldn't accept that the hunting life was too much for Sammy and dealt with it by denying his little brother's pain. Dean found himself filling in for his father's lack of understanding and was always the one who helped calm Sam down and allay his fears. He often held his little brother for a while afterwards, when the nightmares continued on past his waking, just to help him stop crying and go back to sleep.

"You're a hell of a lot bigger now than you were back then," Dean softly teased hoping to get a smile out of his brother.

To Dean, it was a fond memory of a time when he could take away his brother's fears and help him return to a restful sleep, a time when Sam's troubles were, in a way, fixable. Dean couldn't help but wonder how he could help fix what had happened in a way that his brother could ever sleep peacefully again.

"Thanks," Sam muttered sarcastically with a slight smile. "That makes me feel so much better."

"Yeah, well, what can I say," Dean answered as he got up and walked into the bathroom to grab a hand towel for Sam.

Sam watched his brother intently, hoping he wasn't leaving quite yet.

Dean ran the small cloth under the cool facet and wrung it out. On his way back he tossed the soggy rag playfully at Sam. It landed on the side of Sam's face and shoulder with a soft shlopping sound and then dropped to the covers below.

Sam whispered a laugh, sniffed and nodded appreciatively as Dean took a seat near the end of his brother's bed. He cooled his face down and set the cloth on the edge of the nightstand where it dripped slowly onto the carpet below.

drip

"So what did you dream about?" Dean gently asked wanting to know which bastard had tormented his little brother in his sleep.

Sam's face grew suddenly serious and his eyes began to sting. Dean could tell the dream still haunted his little brother and was almost sorry he had brought it back up.

drip

"You," Sam finally whispered as the tears once again spilled down his cheek.

"What?" the older brother questioned, surprised by Sam's answer and disturbed that he had upset Sam so much in his sleep. He had assumed that when Sam cried out his name, his kid brother was asking him for help, not begging him to stop whatever he was doing that had been so terrorizing.

drip

Sam nodded and wiped away the tears. New ones quickly dampened the dry spots where the others had been removed.

"What the hell did I do?" Dean asked hating the nightmare version of himself for having caused his brother so much distress.

drip

Sam looked at Dean with deep, sorrowful eyes.

"You died," Sam whispered vulnerably and broken as more tears rained down his face and dripped onto the covers beneath his chin.

Dean searched his brother's hurting eyes and nodded compassionately. He knew all too well the pain Sam was communicating to him. He'd felt it so many times before when he'd almost lost Sam. It was a pain like no other, one that seared deep into the heart and emptied the soul.

It hurt to see Sam so broken and Dean wanted so much to alleviate his anguish.

Sam had been barely holding it together before Bracken and Derek. The only thing that had kept him going was Dean. When Sam though he'd lost his brother, what little was left of his resolve had vanished. Then life had mercifully returned Dean to him and even though reason reminded him of that very fact every time he felt the sting of the remembered loss, reason couldn't follow him into the unconscious world of sleep. In the quiet stillness of sleep, where reason relinquishes its hold on the mind allowing it to work out its fears unrestrained, Sam's greatest fear enjoyed its full reign, terrorizing the youngest Winchester mercilessly. And even though the dream had ended, the fears and emotions that existed there wafted into Sam's waking hours utterly devastating him and consuming his rational mind.

While Dean hated that he couldn't follow Sam into the dream world and alleviate his brother's suffering there, he could assuage the emotions that had followed his brother back out.

"Well, it was just a dream, okay?" Dean offered to comfort his distraught little brother. "I promise, I'm not going anywhere and I'm certainly not dying so you can put that nightmare to rest," he added, gently urging his brother to try.

Sam nodded. He knew he should be able to, but for some reason he couldn't. The image of his brother's body exploding into pieces remained firmly fixed in his mind.

"Sammy?" Dean questioned softly wanting to know if his message had been received and if it had eased his brother's pain.

"There's something I need to know, Dean," Sam softly replied in response to his brother's call for him to lay the nightmare to rest.

"Name it," Dean answered willing to help his brother in any way he could.

"Bracken," Sam began, his voice hitched at the mere mention of his name. "What did he do to you after I left," Sam whispered out searching Dean's eyes begging for him to understand the need behind the request and be willing to give him an answer.

Dean looked hesitantly at Sam trying to discern why his little brother had asked. Was it simply curiosity or did Sam really need to know. The last thing Sam needed was more fuel for his nightmares or something else to blame himself for and Dean was unsure exactly how to answer.

Sam noticed Dean's hesitation and attempted to coax a response from him.

"I know something bad happened or was supposed to happen. Bracken and Derek considered you dead."

Dean eyed Sam and hesitated again.

"Please, Dean. Not knowing…..," Sam hesitated and sniffed. "It's killing me."

Dean looked at Sam and nodded. Not knowing had nearly done him in when Sam disappeared when the Benders took him and when he left to go find the other 'children' and encountered Ava. Dean knew the pain of the imagination when your brother's life is endangered and he wanted to lay his brother's fears to rest in the hopes that in doing so, he might free Sam's unconscious mind of its troubles as well.

"After you left, he messed with me some, I passed out and woke up to Joshua," Dean explained leaving out the little detail of the grenade, figuring his brother didn't need that as fuel for his nightmares.

Sam nodded knowing full well Dean was holding back. He knew his older brother, sometimes even better than he knew himself. He jutted out his lower jaw and debated whether to push the matter. He figured Dean was holding back because he was protecting him, not because it was too painful to remember it.

"And?" Sam softly pressed on.

Dean raised his eyebrows and glanced away. He wanted to be honest with Sam, but not upset the kid.

"Joshua said stay away from grenades," Sam finally added with pleading eyes.

"You heard that, huh?"Dean asked awkwardly as he rubbed the back of his neck and frowned.

"Yeah, I heard that," Sam answered back as he looked to Dean for an explanation.

Dean still hesitated.

When Dean remained quiet, Sam finally explained.

"In my nightmare," Sam swallowed hard, licked his lips and pressed on, "you got blown up, Dean."

Tears stung in Sam's eyes again as the image of Dean's chestless body and scattered limbs found purchase in his tortured mind.

Dean froze with his hand on the back of his neck. His eyes fixed on Sam's tearing eyes and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Sammy. I guess I should have told you. I just figured you had enough to work through without adding to your pile."

"You can always add to my pile, Dean. I'm here for you, no matter what," Sam explained sincerely. " Please, don't ever keep something from me thinking you're protecting me, cuz you aren't. Your silence hurts way more than any truth ever could. I want things up front. Your pain is mine, Dean. If you went through something I want to know about it. The not knowing……" Sam paused, drew a breath, and shook his head.

Dean nodded. He understood what Sam was asking, but he had always been in the 'protect Sammy' business where game faces and masks were a part of every day life. He was the oldest. It was his job. To do anything less felt just plain wrong.

"I don't really work that way, Sammy. You know that."

"I think you do. I think you could. You just aren't used to allowing yourself is all," Sam explained with pleading eyes.

"Yeah, well, Dad was never one to allow it."

"Dad's not here. I am. And I want you to talk to me…. about anything, about everything, and stop worrying about whether I can handle it. Okay?"

Dean looked in Sam's eyes. Sam wanted, no he needed Dean to trust him, to be open with him. Sam was his best friend, the one, if anyone, he knew he could confide in. Sam's request for transparency was uncomfortable and yet for Sam…..

He nodded. "I'll try."

Sam saw Dean's try as a slight attempt to give it a shot and Sam wanted more.

"I mean it, Dean. We've been through way too much lately to be holding out on each other."

Sam was right. Since this whole lynching thing began, he and his brother had reached a whole new depth in their relationship. Sam had needed to rely on Dean for everything. Walls had been breached, barriers broken. Sam had literally been naked before his brother physically, when he'd been unable to care for himself, and emotionally, and the level of trust between the boys had changed dramatically. There had been no time for personal space, pride, or the promotion of images, there had be raw emotions and souls laid open.

In the process, Dean had developed tremendous respect for his little brother. Sam had survived the unthinkable, and shown a strength of character Dean had not thought humanly possible by anyone, let alone his sensitive, vulnerable baby brother. He needed to reconsider his "game face" impulse and relate to Sam as an equal. He would always be his younger brother, but he was strong and capable and deserved to be treated as such and not be related to as if fragile.

I hear ya," Dean repeated acknowledging his brother's call for openness, equalness, and trust.

Sam nodded and smiled, then waited for his brother to do it. When he didn't he initiated.

"So the grenade…."Sam began.

Dean finally complied.

"Bracken shoved me around a bit and then rigged me with a grenade, okay?" Dean finally confessed as quickly as he could hoping that in doing so it would be over and done without any ramifications for his little brother. " I was passed out, so I didn't even know about it until Joshua showed up and told me. He pinned the damn thing and untied me. End of story." Dean finished quickly, his big brother side instinctively down playing the situation.

Dean looked at Sam and waited, knowing the "s" word would soon be on its way.

Sam nodded, appreciative that Dean had told him. "Sorry, man," he whispered.

"Now see, that's why I hate to tell you. Cuz you always blame yourself. It wasn't your fault, Sam. It was Bracken's and all the other sons of bitches and their warped senses of 'saving the world'," Dean muttered, wondering if he'd made a mistake hopping on the 'everything up front' band wagon his brother was eager for him to be on.

"Actually, that wasn't the kind of sorry I meant. I know it's not my fault," Sam stated rationally.

"Damn straight it's not so quit being sorry," Dean grumbled still annoyed with and unsure of himself and wondering if he had made a mistake in disclosing the details and hurt his brother in the process.

"I meant I'm sorry it happened to you," Sam clarified with a sympathetic smile.

Dean paused and looked in awe at Sam's mature response, then quickly became embarrassed that his kid brother was offering him sympathy.

"Yeah, well it was no big deal. I'm here in one piece, Derek and Bracken are in hell where they belong, and this dream of yours…well, now that you know, hopefully you can end it a different way. Try having the grenade go off in Bracken's hands or in his pants pocket or hell even in the van before the bastards ever got to Bobby."

Sam smiled and nodded at Dean's suggestion that he could rewrite his dream before it turned into a nightmare. He was definitely going to give it a try if the nightmare ever dared to return again, though he was hopeful that, by knowing what really happened, it might remain a part of his past.

Dean smiled back at Sam glad to see the kid was amused. To his surprise, he saw his brother's face suddenly pale.

Sam was growing tired and found the position he was in to be too taxing on his back and his already weakened muscles. He realized almost too late that he lacked the strength to keep sitting any longer and as he began to shift, in the hopes that he could lay back down and find some relief, he suddenly felt a searing pain shoot through his back. Sam gasped and winced, then lost his ability to remain seated and began to fall back.

Dean quickly reached forward and caught his brother's shoulder just before he landed flat on his back.

"Easy," Dean coached as he attempted to turn his sibling so he would land on his side to avoid the bed making contact with his back.

Sam gasped a few times as he struggled to cooperate, but with Dean's help, he eventually was able to ease himself down on his side. His head once again sunk deep into his pillow and he finally relaxed.

Dean placed his hand on Sam's shoulder.

"So how's the back. Does it still hurt?" Dean questioned with concern having wished he'd made his brother lie down sooner. Between the nightmare, the sitting, and the movement, he imagined it couldn't be feeling too well.

"No more than normal," Sam whispered out sarcastically.

"Yeah, I'll bet. Let me take a look at you," Dean requested quietly as he moved in behind Sam.

Sam unbuttoned his shirt and with Dean's help, removed his left arm.

Dean pulled the fabric gently back exposing his brother's damaged back. He inspected the stitches and signed in relief. "Looks good, Sammy. Probably doesn't feel good, but it looks good."

Sam nodded. His brother got that right.

Dean gently wrapped the thin fabric around his brother's back and held the sleeve of his nightshirt out. Sam painfully struggled to slip his arm back inside and began buttoning it closed again. Within a minute, he was finished.

"You good?" Dean asked as he got up from behind his brother.

Sam nodded as his brother picked up a fallen pillow and tucked it between his arms.

Dean covered Sam's shoulders with the comforter, turned out the light, and took a seat on his own bed a few feet away to watch his brother until he fell back to sleep.

"You don't have to stay. I'm okay," Sam offered drowsily, then yawned.

"I'm not staying here for you. I'm…I'm…I'm thinking about redecorating the place," he said with a crooked smile.

Sam snorted.

"After all, we did lose the only decent picture we had in this fine establishment," Dean added as the tacky decoration still lay shattered on the floor behind the door. "Wonder what time housekeeping can come by," he teased referring to Bobby who was still making noises in the kitchen cleaning up the shattered bottles, beer, and salsa the two hunters had dropped when they first heard Sam's terrified cry for help.

Sam whispered a laugh and smiled. He hated to admit it, but his brother's presence was calming and he was grateful his sibling had chosen to stay with him.

Silence eventually reigned as Dean sat thinking through the conversation he and Sam had just had and Sam lay quiet trying to allow himself to doze off.

Though he was exhausted, whenever he closed his eyes the image of his brother dying in his arms flashed in his mind and the emptiness he had felt before at the thought of Dean being gone once again began to consume him.

Dean, having observed Sam's difficulty in falling asleep, waited patiently in hopes that the kid would either open up and talk if he needed to or eventually drift off.

A few minutes later, Sam opened his eyes and looked at his brother through slowly blinking lashes as his face lay snuggled in the pillow beneath his head. Though the room was dark, illuminated only by the hallway light, Sam could see his brother looking back at him.

Dean's eyes fixed on Sam's as he waited for his little brother's heart to spill.

"When Derek said he had killed you, and I thought that you were dead…It was like…." Sam paused and swallowed hard searching for words to describe the horrible feeling he had experienced back in the warehouse. He remembered losing hope and wanting to die. It was as if...

"The air was sucked out of your lungs and your soul had been ripped from you?" Dean finished softly.

Sam looked Dean in the eyes, amazed that Dean knew exactly how he'd felt, and he nodded.

"I've felt that way a lot lately, Sammy," Dean softly explained, his voice full of sympathy and understanding. He'd faced that empty soul feeling at the roadhouse, the hospital, the motel, the apartment, the warehouse and in the bay. It was a feeling he prayed to God he'd never have to experience again.

Sam's brow wrinkled in sympathy when he realized how much Dean had suffered the last three months.

"If anything had happened to you because of me…," Sam soulfully began, "I couldn't….I'd never be able…."

"Nothing happened to me, Sam, and nothing's gonna happen to me or to you for that matter. It's over, okay? …… It's over and I'm fine…….. as long as you are."

Dean's words hung in the air as if waiting to be received and answered. They were more of a question, an asking, a needing to know if Sam was alright so that Dean could be sure he himself was alright too.

Sam smiled and nodded to confirm that he was fine and Dean was too.

Dean nodded, then leaned forward and patted his little brother on the shoulder. "Now get some rest, kiddo. It's been a long day."

Sam nodded, nuzzled his head deeper into his pillow, and closed his eyes as Dean sat back down on the bed determined to see his little brother safely to the gates of sleep and wishing he could continue on. He only hoped Sam could rewrite the ending of his nightmare the next time it raised its ugly head.

Sam eventually drifted off.

Dean lingered a while longer, then eventually got up and moved to the doorway. He decided to leave the door open this time in case Sam should call and he joined Bobby to see the ending of the horror movie they had rented.

"He okay?" Bobby asked gently as Dean came down the hallway rubbing his hand along his jaw bone pensively.

"For now," Dean answered softly feeling uncertain of what lay ahead for his little brother's mind.

"Sam's strong, Dean, and he has you. You boys will be fine. Just give it time," Bobby coached kindly.

oooOOOooo

And time was something the boys had a lot of…..

The brothers settled down to a fairly regular routine over the next few weeks. Dean began working with Sam on his physical therapy, though they were a bit limited on what they could do with his back until the stitches were removed. Since Sam and Dean had so much extra time on their hands, the two set to trouble making, practical jokes and pranks many of which Bobby ended up receiving the brunt of, much to his dismay. Sam usually sided up with Bobby after feeling sorry for the guy and the two went after Dean who was quite capable of holding his own.

The TV wars raged on. Sam memorized the television schedule and removed the batteries from the remote whenever he wasn't using it in a bold attempt to sabotage Dean's obnoxious flipping. Dean hit up the local Radio Shack and bought a case of replacements. After several days of missing batteries, replaced batteries, and flipping, Dean was dismayed to discover the remote controller had mysteriously vanished altogether and though neither Sam nor Bobby fessed up, Dean always suspected Bobby to have been the culprit. Either way, Dean's days of tormenting Bobby and Sam soon ended…that is…. in regards to the TV, anyways.

Dean soon figured out he could bug the heck out of the two with the radio instead. Neither hunter was partial to Country and Western music, and although Dean could hardly stand the stuff himself with all its chick flick, broken heart whimperings, he found the stuff enjoyable simply for the irritating effects it had on his 'roommates'.

Sam, being constantly supplied by Bobby's underground gummy worm ring, rewarded each and every physical therapy accomplishment he made with one of the tasty treats. As he yowled along with Dean's musical choices, Dean grew suspicious of his brother's sugar highs and began searching daily for the wiggly, sugar coated demons. Having found packages stuffed under cushions, in drawers, and inside pillow cases, Dean purged the place and kept a constant vigil inspecting every bag of groceries Bobby dared to bring in the apartment every day after that.

Thanks to Bobby's cleverness, the oldest Winchester never thought to look in the freezer where Bobby had managed to hide the last package Dean had missed in his searching. Unfortunately, the frosty temperature changed the chewiness of the little creatures, and in the end, Sam's sugar highs were thwarted.

Sam continued his yodeling anyways just to annoy Dean since he'd been robbed of his confectionary treats by his brother's persistent searches. He tried to pick songs he knew Dean disliked and always began with a rousing rendition of Short People.

The weeks were a mix of fun, rest, talks and tears as Bobby tried to help Sam and Dean deal with all that had happened to them over the past three months.

Dean finally removed Sam's stitches, the last remaining visible evidence of what he'd suffered at Derek's hands….the physical trauma, the condemnation, and worst of all, the pain of thinking Dean was dead. The procedure seemed endless, but caused little discomfort. Dean was slow, methodical, and gentle and periodically offered his younger brother breaks.

Sam refused, wanting to get it over with all at once. For him, it marked another mile stone on the road that was allowing him to put the whole trial nightmare in his rearview mirror.

Unfortunately, though the physical evidence was easily removable, the emotional scars were harder to get rid of. While Sam's rational mind had dealt with his feelings of guilt, helplessness, powerlessness, and the hunters' cruel condemnations, his unconscious mind remained victim to them. Sam often woke up in cold sweats yelling he was sorry and begging those whom he loved that were lost to forgive him, especially Dean, who in his dreams still ended up getting killed night after night. Many times he'd cry out in pain when he relived the searing, cutting knots of the Cat as it repeatedly sliced through his flesh condemning him of his wickedness. He tried desperately to rewrite the horrid scripts that his unfettered mind kept creating, but was unable to.

Though the hour at which the night terrors struck varied, the pattern and routine that followed remained the same night after night.

Dean was always the first to jump out of bed upon hearing Sam's begging pleas and sorrowful cries. He'd move to Sam's side and place his palm face down on his brother's hysterically beating heart and gently try to wake his nightmaring sibling, to end his troubled sleep.

Sam would eventually open his terror filled eyes, which softened upon his recognition that his brother was alive, and then he'd look longingly at Dean as if begging for him to make things alright.

Dean would pat Sam on his chest once he was sure he was awake, get him a drink of water, and after helping his little brother take a sip, suggest he try to get some rest. Sam would often roll over and place his pillow over his head and Dean would sit silently at his bedside so Sam would know he was there.

Bobby would appear soon after in the doorway and give a concerned and sympathetic look over to Dean and the two would wonder if Sam were going back to sleep or simply suffering in silence.

Dean wished he could take out the pain in Sam's mind as easily as he'd removed the stitches from his back. All he could do was watch helplessly as his brother suffered in his unconscious world where he could do nothing to help him, and pray that dawn would come soon and that his brother's waking reality might make it through to his dreams somehow, someday and relieve his burdens.

oooOOOooo

After a particularly difficult dream where Dean had been unable to awaken his brother for several minutes and he and Bobby had begun to grow concerned, Sam suddenly became lucid and made an unusual request. He asked Dean to take him for a drive the next day but didn't specify where.

Dean thought the middle of the night request was a bit unusual, but would have agreed to anything Sam had asked if it would ease his sibling's troubled mind. He promised Sam he would.

After both boys were showered, dressed and ready to go, Dean made good on his promise.

"Well, kiddo, where to?" Dean questioned as he grabbed his keys and jingled them in front of his brother. He'd promised Sam he'd take him anywhere, but he secretly hoped his little brother didn't pick the Mini Mart again. That place still creeped him out.

Sam looked over at Dean with serious eyes. "I want to pay my respects to Ellen and Jo."

Dean looked at Sam cautiously trying to mask his concerns with his little brother's request. He worried that the trip might not be such a good idea and that the weight of their passing might send Sam's emotional progress which was already precarious at night, in the wrong direction.

"I don't know, Sam," Dean replied softly, "I'm not sure now's the best time to be doing that. Why don't you wait until things settle down a bit," he suggested protectively.

"You mean until the nightmares go away," Sam clarified.

Dean glanced away when Sam exposed his concerns, shifted awkwardly, and then turned back to Sam and nodded.

Sam appreciated Dean's concern, but his determined eyes told his older brother that now was the time. He was pretty sure the nightmares were continuing because he needed closure in his heart and he believed he'd find it in going to the cemetery. Jo and Ellen had given their lives and Sam wanted to honor their sacrifice.

"I think it would help with them, Dean," Sam softly added.

Dean studied Sam for a moment and sighed. The kid needed rest. His dark circles under his eyes proved that. Dean wasn't sure how seeing Jo and Ellen's graves could help his little brother heal, but he found he couldn't resist his brother's request. He only hoped he wouldn't end up hating himself later for honoring it.

"You sure about this?" Dean asked again hesitantly.

Sam nodded.

Dean took a deep breath and sighed heavily. "Okay," the older sibling reluctantly agreed.

The drive was quiet. Neither brother felt much like speaking. The two were mostly bathed in sadness. Their lives were healing and going on. Jo and Ellen's weren't, nor would they ever be. The girls had really been there for Sam and Dean at the roadhouse ambush and it wasn't right that the two had ended up dying for it.

Except for a brief stop at a local flower shop, the boys made the trip straight through. They pulled up to the black wrought iron gates of the Oak Lake Cemetery somewhere before noon and stopped by the small office to get information. They were given a map and directions on where the girls had been laid to rest.

Dean parked the Impala to the side of the single driveway that passed to the left of the grave sites.

Both boys got out and looked around.

The scene was breath taking. The property stretched our for miles with lush green hills and large oak trees everywhere marking the history of the cemetery's existence having overseen the laying to rest of thousands over the years. A small pond with a fountain was off to the right, a few birds were splashing, enjoying its refreshment. The grass was perfectly manicured as were the small bushes and planted flowers beside the various headstones.

Sam looked at Dean with searching eyes. He was finding this trip to be more painful than he had even expected and he needed his older brother's strength to help him make it through.

Dean saw Sam struggling with his emotions and he silently cursed himself for agreeing to bring his little brother in the first place. It was too soon after all he'd been through and the last thing Sam needed was more pain and guilt.

"You wanna come back another day," Dean suggested softly.

Sam smiled slightly, appreciative of his brother's understanding, but gently shook his head.

Dean forced out a reassuring smile and indicated the grave sites to be behind Sam up on the hillside.

Dean circled around the Impala to Sam and with flowers in hand, the brothers made their way up to the grave sites.

Sam was the first to spot the two headstones with newly grown grass in front of them and he headed in their direction. Dean followed silently.

Upon arriving, the boys stood for a moment, hands down and crossed in front, flowers hanging down.

Sam's eyes glossed over the engraved granite and his mind flashed to Jess's stone. He was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and turned to look off towards the water.

Dean moved in a little closer trying to offer comfort to his brother without intruding on his seeming need to be alone.

Sam glanced back, noticing his presence. He sniffed and wiped the tear that was slowly sliding down his right cheek.

"They shouldn't be here," Sam whispered almost breathlessly.

Dean was unable to catch his words, but he could tell that whatever his little brother had said, it was heartfelt.

"What?" he asked gently hoping his brother would repeat his heart's whisperings.

"They shouldn't be here," Sam sadly repeated longing for his voice to be heard in the heavens above that God might somehow reach down and undo what had been done or at least make a trade.

He shook his head and sniffed. "I should."

Tears stung in Dean's eyes when his brother's words drifted across the newly growing grass to his straining ears. Dean's soul whispered 'no', but having no voice with which to speak, the voiceless cry merely wafted along the very fibers of his being shattering each and every one as it went along.

Sam turned to Dean with water filled eyes, nodded his head and repeated his belief. "I should."

While Sam spoke with quiet conviction, his eyes pleaded for his big brother to say something to ease his pain, to prove him wrong because the pain of being right was unbearable.

Dean couldn't undo what had happened to Jo and Ellen. God he wished he could, but he couldn't. What was done was done and there was no going back. He couldn't tell Sam it wasn't his fault either, because in Sam's mind it probably was. All he could do was to fall back on the fact that the girls were willing to take a stand with Sam back at the roadhouse for what they believed in knowing full well it might cost them their lives. They believed in Sam and were willing to face death for him.

"They didn't see it that way, Sam," Dean reminded finding it extremely painful to hear Sam talk that way.

"Yeah, I know," he acknowledged with a heavy sigh. "And Jess wouldn't have either," he added having fully embraced the forgiveness of those who had fallen as Dean had suggested weeks earlier. "But that's not what I'm talking about. It should've been me 24 years ago. Don't you think that maybe if I had, you know…died back in the fire, that things would have been better for a lot of people?"

"No, Sam I don't," Dean responded adamantly. " You can't just look at whose lives have been lost in this screwed up war between good and evil to decide if your life is worth living. You need to see all the people who are better off because you're alive," Dean softly added hoping his brother could hold onto the truth he was offering him.

Sam smiled, warmed by his brother's kind words and whispered a disbelieving laugh. He couldn't think of one person whose life had been better off because of him. Mom, Jess, Max, Pastor Jim, Caleb, Jo, Ellen,and even Dad, were all dead. Their lives certainly weren't.

"Name one," Sam replied looking at Dean sadly and daring his brother to make good on his overly generous words.

Dean raised his eyebrows and smiled. "You're lookin at him."

Sam smiled, touched by his brother's expression of love, and shook his head. "Dean, I'm serious," Sam announced.

"So am I, Sam," Dean replied.

Sam looked at his older brother intently as Dean held his belief firm in his eyes. His brother really did believe he was better off because he was alive.

Sam smiled genuinely this time. God he loved his brother, always there, always believing in him, always laying down his life for him, always having his back.

Dean studied Sam's face to see if his little brother was receiving his words and finding peace in them. He truly was better off because of Sam. He couldn't even imagine his world without him. In fact, he wouldn't even have a world to exist in without his little brother. From the day he was born, Dean knew what his purpose was. The fire had only cemented it in his heart. Dean was here because of Sam and ironically, according to Ellen, Sam was here because of Dean. His thoughts wandered back to Ellen's words. "He's here because you are. Keep talking to him until he tells you to shut up."

Dean whispered a laugh.

Sam, finding it odd that Dean would laugh, raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Dean looked at Sam and smiled sheepishly.

"What?" he asked knowing full well why his brother was looking at him that way. "I was thinking of something Ellen said when you were in the coma," Dean explained apologetically.

"Yeah? What was that?"

"Nothing important, really," he replied.

"What?"

Dean paused and cocked his head.

"She basically told me not to give up," Dean summarized.

"On what?"

"On you," Dean clarified softly.

"And that's funny?" Sam asked incredulously.

"It was the way she said it, actually," Dean explained, "And I didn't……give up I mean ...and neither did you. You and me, man, we're still standing," Dean added with a smile appreciating Ellen for the hope she offered when he had been so desperate to believe. " She was right. We made it cuz," Dean paused a bit embarrassed by the chick flick moment he knew was about to make the scene, " cuz we have each other, Sam."

Sam looked Dean in the eyes surprised to hear his brother so openly admit the depth of their relationship and how it had kept them going when each might have otherwise given up or in. He nodded his head in agreement.

"Thanks for being there for me, Dean," Sam softly acknowledged. 'I know I wouldn't be here without you, man."

Dean nodded almost embarrassed that his conversation had prompted his own acknowledgement. "Yeah, well, I had nothing better to do," he muttered.

Sam whispered a laugh.

Dean smiled and moved forward to place his flowers on the top of Ellen's headstone. Sam did the same on Jo's only he paused and whispered a 'Thanks'.

Both stepped back and stood quietly for a moment.

"You ready?" Dean finally asked.

Sam glanced across the cemetery taking a mental image of the place, the sun on the water, the tiny ripples on the surface from the gentle breeze that was caressing his face. He wanted to remember the place as if in doing so, he'd be permanently etching Jo and Ellen's existence into his mind, their sacrifice into his heart. He turned to Dean and nodded, then the two made their way back to the car and headed home.

oooOOOooo

The next weeks flew by quickly. Sam's nightmares about needing forgiveness from loved ones and friends faded after the visit to the cemetery. He found himself feeling more thankful for their love than guilty for their deaths and his unconscious mind eventually released him from his guilty burden and embraced the thankfulness he'd adopted.

Sam's thoughts about life being better if he had died in his crib long ago also faded. His brother's revelation that his surviving the fire when he was six months old was serving a positive purpose….at least for the most important person in his life…Dean…. gave him a peace he had been lacking.

His nightmares of losing Dean and being tortured took a little longer to fade away, but in time they did eventually vanish. Whether it was simply a matter of time passing, putting distance between him and the trauma suffered, the long conversations he, his brother and Bobby had shared that enabled him to work through it, or because he and Dean were returning to their more normal routines, Sam didn't know, but his brother seemed to live through the night and the hunters' cruelties and voices eventually faded into nothingness. Sam began enjoying more restful sleeps which Dean and Bobby enjoyed as well.

As Sam's heart and mind healed over the course of time, so did his body as well. Dean's rigorous routines and Sam's passion to be an equal at his brother's side were greatly rewarded as Sam's strength and stamina increased to the point where he was able to enjoy full range of motion and even jog at his brother's side. The numbness in his left hand lessened some though it still continued, but both he and Dean remained hopeful that in time, the numbness would eventually be gone.

oooOOOooo

One morning, after a trip to the local diner for an early breakfast to celebrate Sam's three mile run the evening before, Dean and Sam returned to the apartment to find Bobby all packed up.

It was a shock in some ways, but not completely unexpected. The boys had wondered how long the hunter would remain now that Sam was well on his way to recovery and no longer in need of the family friend's counsel. None of them had spoken openly about it, fearing that doing so might trigger the event that neither looked forward to. Bobby was family, and though not their father, the closest thing they had to one and the thought of not having the dear family friend around was, well, painful.

The boys both froze in the doorway, their smiles straightened when they saw the duffels piled up at the door.

The hunter rose from the chair he'd been waiting in and turned to face them.

Dean, knowing it was going to be a difficult parting, decided to put on his full snarky attitude, half because it was what he did naturally in uncomfortable or emotional situations and half because he hoped to soften the pain he knew his little brother was about to suffer.

"What's this? No note? No goodbye. I bet you're even taking the dog!" Dean complained playfully pretending to be a jilted lover, though if he were to admit it, he felt anything but. Bobby had stayed well beyond what was necessary just to be sure he and Sam were okay and Dean was grateful.

"Naw, I thought I'd leave you behind to keep Sam company while he's getting back up to speed," the old hunter jested with a wink in his eye. He smiled, quite pleased with himself that he'd gotten the best of Dean on that one, licked his finger, raised it into the air as Sam had taught him, and recorded a point on his side of the invisible scoreboard.

Dean shook his head. "Okay, that's 1 to…what are we up to again? A MILLION!" he joked giving Sam a snide look for teaching Bobby how to obnoxiously keep score. " But who's counting?" he added lightheartedly.

"You, apparently," Sam replied as he raised his eyebrows at his over competitive sibling.

"At least I'm on the board," Bobby responded cheerfully trying to keep things light, in the midst of the emotional situation. He'd grown quite fond of the boys and though he knew he needed to get back to the world he'd left behind to help them, he found them to be the world he preferred to be in.

The three stood in silence for a moment, each knowing he would soon be feeling a tremendous sense of loss.

Sam was the one who finally spoke up.

"So where are you going?"Sam's voice gently questioned.

"Think I'll get back to my business. I imagine there's been a wreck or two since I've been gone and I could sure use the pennies," Bobby answered trying to give a good reason to move on. Truth was he didn't have one, but he knew it was time. He glanced back and forth between the two.

Both boys nodded sadly, neither quite able to initiate a goodbye. Dean recognized there was no easy way to go about it except head on. It was the only way he knew.

"Thanks, man," Dean offered sincerely. "For everything. Me and Sammy couldn't have made it without you."

Dean leaned forward, clasped Bobby's hand and leaned into the hunter's shoulder. It was the closest thing to a hug he'd ever initiated with the man.

Bobby smiled, grabbed the physically non-expressive Winchester and hugged him. Bobby slapped him twice on the back and stepped away nodding.

Dean glanced away for a second avoiding eye contact finding the raw emotions difficult to manage.

Bobby turned to Sam and smiled.

"I don't know what to say, Bobby," Sam's voice gently spoke out as he was filled with a mix of sadness and such great appreciation for the dear family friend and adopted father.

"Say I'll see you around," Bobby suggested with a shimmer of wetness in his eyes. "I'm sure as hell not good at goodbyes."

Sam's eyes began to tear.

"You take care of yourself, you hear?" the old hunter counseled Sam trying to sound unemotional, but sounding anything but.

Sam nodded and forced out a smile.

"And don't go believing what any dumb ass hunter or for that matter demon tells you. You're a good kid, Sam, and no one can change that but you."

Sam nodded again, appreciative of the hunter's words.

Bobby reached out for Sam and the youngest Winchester stepped forward into Bobby's embrace. He buried his face in the fatherly man's shoulder and paused.

"You're gonna be okay, son," Bobby whispered as he placed his hand on the back of Sam's head and held him. Bobby tried to hold back his tears, but a few managed to escape.

Dean watched on, finding it painful to see Sam so needy and yet, he couldn't help but endear himself more to Bobby for caring for Sam in such a fatherly way.

Sam eventually straightened and moved back. He, like Dean, glanced away awkwardly for a moment, but he quickly returned his gaze to Bobby.

Bobby looked at both of John's boys, his boys, and smiled. "You boys take care of each other. Make me and your daddy proud."

Sam nodded, still trying to control his emotions.

"Yes Sir," Dean answered for the both of them.

Bobby gathered his things, hesitated and then headed out the door.

Dean followed and stood in the door way and watched him head for the steps. Sam went into the kitchen for a drink.

Bobby, aware that Sam was not within hearing distance, turned to address Dean.

Dean sensed it was something the hunter wanted to say in private and closed the door behind him.

"What is it?" Dean questioned with concern.

"Hunters run in tight circles, Dean," he cautioned. "There may be others who grow suspicious about what happened at the roadhouse, the hospital or the apartment or even wonder about Derek's disappearance."

Dean nodded. He'd already considered the possibility.

Bobby continued.

" Sam, because of who he is, his gifts and all, can easily show up as a blip on any supernatural hunter's radar," he added gently, knowing he needed to speak the truth, but not wanting to upset the oldest Winchester. " You boys will always need to be on guard," he cautioned sadly, wishing it weren't so.

Dean nodded. Bobby was right. Things seemed over, but they could never count on that. Dean would always need to be watchful, careful, and protective. Sam would always need to be looking over his shoulder.

Bobby smiled sadly, hating the burden that John's boys had to carry. He sighed. "But you know, you boys have each other and you will make it to the top of that mountain as long as you stick together."

Dean nodded again and smiled.

Bobby paused having said all he had to say, nodded his head and then held up his hand palm out as in a goodbye and turned to finish his descent down the old wooden stairs.

Moments later the hunter was in his truck and driving away.

Dean stood on the landing and watched him go. The words he'd said were painful to hear, yet Dean recognized them as truth. He'd always need to be on the watch for Sammy and he was willing to do so, do whatever it takes to keep his brother from ever suffering at the hands of hunters again.

Dean returned to the apartment, closed the door behind him, rested his back against it, and turned to his little brother.

Sam approached him with two water bottles. He offered one to his pensive brother.

"He's a good man," Sam acknowledged while trying to figure out if it was his leaving that had sobered Dean or something else.

"Yeah," Dean answered distractedly.

"You okay?" Sam asked sensing his brother was somewhere else.

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" Dean questioned as he formed a crooked smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

Sam studied his brother for a moment searching his eyes for a truth that lay just below the surface of his casual remark.

Dean not wanting to reveal his concern to his little brother's careful inspection, suddenly jumped into coach mode and clapped his hands.

"Okay, 500 laps, 100 knee bends at the end of each. Let's go!"

"You aren't serious?"Sam questioned startled by his brother's quick turn around.

"Time to continue your training, if you still want to keep me from pinning you," Dean teased.

"Dude, I'm not running in the hallways! We've been out jogging for weeks now!"

Dean smiled knowing full well his brother would be insisting on pavement beneath his feet. "I'll grab my running shoes," Dean added knowing his boots wouldn't cut it.

Sam nodded. He was ready for a good run. He began stretching his leg muscles while Dean went to get ready.

Dean returned good to go and was amused to see Sam stretching so intently.

"Yeah, that's right, you better limber up. I don't want to have to wait for your sorry ass at the end of each street corner."

"Bite me," Sam replied.

Dean laughed. Truth was he was willing to wait for Sam for however long it took until his brother was fighting the supernatural world at his side.

Sam noticed a glint in Dean's eye.

"What?"

"Nothing," Dean replied mysteriously, trying to bait his brother's curiosity.

"Nothing, my ass. What?" Sam pressed on.

"Just thinking," Dean answered smugly dangling the worm a little closer to his intended catch.

"Abooooout? Sam dragged his word out trying to urge a confession from his older brother.

"About how long it will take you to catch up!" Dean hollered as he bolted out the apartment door and took off down the stairs.

"Pffff," Sam laughed, shook his head, and hollered after him as he took off in a dead run, " Yeah, well, you must be getting nervous if you feel like you gotta cheat to win!"

The day was perfect, blue skies, sun shining down on his face, a gentle breeze and an open path. Dean loved the feel of the ground beneath his feet and needed to work out Bobby's words as they lay heavily on his heart. Sam was always going to be a target for black and white thinkers like Jake and Gordon and that scared the shit out of him.

Dean widened his strides as he looked over his shoulder to check for where his little brother was. To his surprise, Sam had made good distance and was coming up behind him. He quickened his pace.

Dean knew he couldn't keep Sam out of the curious eye of a determined hunter, but he hoped that he and Sam would be ready the next time one came calling. Dean would always be on his guard and trust his instincts and he knew now, that if Sam had to, he would defend himself.

Dean looked left and then right and crossed the street heading towards the local community park that was not far from the apartment. He turned to check for Sam and to his surprise, his little brother was crossing the street as well. Dean quickened his pace again and bee lined it to the park. By the time he got there, Sam was running at his side.

Dean smiled. "Not bad," he huffed out.

"You should see me on a good day," Sam quipped with a healthy smile.

It felt so good to the youngest Winchester to be feeling fit again and to be able to keep stride with his older sibling. Sure he had a ways to go, but the worst was over and soon he and his brother would be able to start perusing the newspaper and internet for a job, maybe deal with a spook or two, nothing big, but something to get them going again.

The brothers made it to the familiar path they had exercised on before that circled the oversized manmade pond and slowed to a jog. Their strides synchronized as they moved in tandem along the water's edge. The park was quiet and almost peaceful as the sun shone on the water revealing all the life that lived beneath its surface as well as above.

Dean glanced over at his little brother beside him… strong, healthy and happy. He smiled and turned his focus ahead.

He didn't know how he felt about there being a greater power, but he knew it was a miracle Sam was alive and well. Between the demon and the hunters, he could only imagine what road lay ahead for him and his brother as they made their way to the top of the mountain they were destined to climb, but at least the road they were on had Sam at his side and for that he was truly grateful.

Fin

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Author's Note:

Special thanks to each and every one of you for joining me on this writing endeavor!

For those of you who were able to review, thank you! I've thoroughly enjoyed interacting with you and hope to have the opportunity to interact with you again on my next piece. Special thanks for all the wonderful "chocolate" you sent my way and for helping me reach over 1200 reviews. A number I never thought possible! You guys inspired me and are greatly appreciated!

For those of you who were too shy to reply, I thank you for staying the course... chapter after chapter ...and hope that it was well worth your while too! It was a thrill for me to see so many of you following along …in the numbers. There were over 81,000 hits for Ambush and I so appreciated your interest in my writing.

Thank you! Rachelly