Sam is exhausted—understandably so, since demons aren't exactly the most restful companions to have in your head—and he drifts off into a guilt-ridden sleep before they've been on the road fifteen minutes. Dean waits until he's sure Sam's really conked out, then finds a good spot and eases the car off the road, leaves the engine running and radio going, so Sam won't be wakened by the sudden silence. He's not worried that the lack of movement will wake him; Sam sleeps a lot harder in the car than he does in an actual bed, has ever since he was a baby. No matter how he denies it, they both know that Impala equals safe to Sam's subconscious.

Dean closes his eyes against the darkness of the empty highway, flattens his hands against the warm steering wheel, and lets his mind sink. That's what he calls it, anyway, because the sensation feels like his mind is descending into his body, into the earth. No one ever trained him for this, told him what to call it. He never dared to ask.

He may not have a doctor's vocabulary, but he knows what he's doing. Dean's taught himself over the years, given his own names to muscles and nerves, bones and blood vessels, the three components of each person that he calls body and mind and soul. His labels make sense, not like the things in the copy of Gray's Anatomy that he'd stolen from a library once. The Church Latin of exorcisms and the scientific Latin of medical books aren't the same language.

It's his body that he's concerned with now. Body comes first. Always.

Infection already lurks around the bullet wound in his shoulder, despite Jo's first aid. He should have been nicer to her, she was doing the best she could, but she doesn't have a brother. She doesn't understand how that bond works.

That's guilt for later. When he has time. When Sammy's okay.

The infection scatters easily, like the thousand he's banished before. The pain builds, morphing into a thousand tiny knives slicing through his shoulder. He channels it down the nerves, into fingers clenched on the steering wheel, out into the Impala. That was another lesson learned hard, that you can't channel into living creatures, not if you don't want them dead. Inanimate objects accept pain and disperse it harmlessly, because they have none of their own, no mind or soul to interfere or cause backlash. The Impala has accepted so much of his pain over the years that she's like an extension of him, her metal frame no different—at least, not from this angle—than his own nerves, except that once the pain in is them, he can't feel it. It makes channeling easier.

Dean doesn't heal the bullet wound all the way, though he could, and if he didn't have Sammy to worry about, if he was a lone hunter, he would. He settles for purifying it, making sure the bleeding's stopped, and strengthening the local immune responses. Next, he soothes the bruised skin and muscles across his face, where the demon punched him repeatedly. (The knot on the back of his head, where the demon knocked him out, he dealt with before he reached Duluth. He's had a lot of practice with concussions.)

If Dad ever knew, ever suspected that his firstborn wasn't quite normal, he never said anything. Dean's certain that Sammy doesn't know, because he's done his damnedest to make sure his brother has no idea; because sometimes, when he reaches into Sam to make sure his injuries really are healing, to make sure he hasn't hurt himself and tried lying about it, he catches a wayward thought, a stray How does he always know? Sam's own ignorance has helped. None of the hunters they trained with knew a lot about medicine, and Sammy learned first aid as grudgingly as he learned everything else. As far as Sammy's concerned, Winchesters have always healed fast.

Dean wonders, sometimes, if Sam ever cut himself at college and puzzled over why it took a week to heal and left a scar. Not that he'd ask.

Dean was seven the first time. Dad stumbled home beaten and bloody, too disoriented to even find his way to an emergency room. The phone had been disconnected the week before in anticipation of moving on, and besides, Dean was already too suspicious of cops and social services to risk a 911 call. Panic and desperation had woken Dean's gift; he'd channeled his father's pain straight into the bedframe, not knowing what he was doing, only knowing that it was making Dad calm down so he could tend the injuries the old-fashioned way.

A few weeks later, when Sammy had damned near amputated a finger on a hunting knife, Dean found out he could heal as well as channel, that if he took the pain away, the cells became open to manipulation, and that they couldn't tell the difference between wishing and ordering.

Dean couldn't heal it all the way, but there wasn't even a scar left of a gash that should have required stitches and instead took just a single prized Big Bird Band-Aid. Dad hadn't understood why Sammy was so insistent on telling him about it, and had greeted Sammy's tale of gushing blood with weary tolerance. It was just a scratch, right? Sammy was too young yet to know not to exaggerate.

If they knew...

He was always afraid to tell Dad, afraid Dad would reject him, classify him as something that needed killing, or worse—see him as a tool to be used until it broke or was empty, like the guns or the knives or the box of salt, completely forgetting that Dean was a person, was his son. Luckily, whenever Dad or Sammy was hurt, they were too involved with their own pain to worry about whatever it was that Dean was doing, and when the pain started dissipating, they usually fell asleep—a side effect, Dean suspects, and it just made it easier for him to sink and do the real first aid, the kind that didn't involve bandages and rubbing alcohol and peroxide.

Dean pulls out of the sinking. The pain in his shoulder has subsided to a dull ache, the building heat around the wound has dissipated, and his face feels almost whole. He can breathe without pain, his eyes aren't swollen nearly shut anymore, and he can focus, so driving's going to be a hell of a lot easier, and he can find a motel where they can both get some rest. Energy surges through him, better than caffeine, the momentary high that always comes after.

He reaches across the seat and touches Sam's arm as gently as he can, to avoid waking his brother, and sinks again—not into himself this time, but into Sam.

There's pain lurking around the brand; more across the cheek where Dean punched him. But—as usual—the bulk of Sam's pain isn't physical. It's strictly psychological, a tangle of guilt and self-blame already weaving themselves into nightmares that will haunt Sammy waking and sleeping.

Dean learned long ago how to channel his own emotional pain straight into the Impala, the only outlet he ever had; he's gotten so good at it that he doesn't even have to sink, but can just go into a driving-trance with a good song and let the torment soak into the steering wheel. It's harder now that Sam's with him all the time. Sam likes to talk on long drives, and that prevents Dean from reaching the right level of trance, and the inner pain just builds and builds and gnaws at his heart until he lashes out or does something phenomenally stupid that invariably winds up getting Sammy in trouble.

Not until Sam came back, after Jessica was killed, did Dean try to channel someone else's mental pain. Bodies are one thing. Minds are tricky. The last thing he wants is to read Sam's thoughts, or worse, have bits of Sam stuck in his head.

He can't do as much for others as he can for himself; that's a limitation he had to learn to deal with long ago. But he can dull Sam's anguish, distance him from the memories of the possession and the sense of violation, make it easier for Sam to find his way back to, well, Sam. If Sam wants to put it down to the restorative power of a good night's sleep, let him. Dean sure as hell isn't going to be the one to enlighten him.

He comes out of this sinking tired, on his last bits of energy. Working on others doesn't give him the high that healing himself does. He's never figured out why. Never really cared, come to think of it. Fixing himself is only a priority when it doesn't get in the way of fixing others.

"Rough night, baby," Dean murmurs to the car, shifting into gear and pulling out onto the deserted highway. Sam doesn't understand, of course. He can't let Sam understand. The bond between Dean and the car—it's not about being car-crazy, or even because the Impala has been home since Mom died. It's because Dean has channeled so much of himself into the car. It's the only reason he's survived this long. It wasn't hunting that kept him sane when Sam left, when Cassie dumped him, when Dad disappeared.

Some days, he wonders if he can go too far, if one day he'll sink and wake up as an Impala with a corpse in the driver's seat. Nearly did, once. The night in the cabin, after Sam shot their father, Dean sank, desperately trying to hold himself together long enough to make it to the hospital, and all that made Dean nearly ran out of his body on the current of blood running from his wounds, soaking the upholstery. When the truck hit, he'd felt it twice—once as his body was thrown against the car door, again as he felt his doors (his doors, as if he were made of metal, as if he'd merged with the car at some point) crumple inward under the force.

He thinks the confusion in his mind, the sensation of feeling two impacts, is part of what sent him into that coma, not just the physical damage the demon had inflicted on top of the wreck injuries. He's not sure, but it makes sense, in a way he's learned to trust over the years, the instinct that had taught him to channel pain in the first place.

Like everything else he trusts, it'll probably get him in trouble one day. Especially if Sam finds out.

But if there's one thing Dean's learned, it's that his troubles come last. Right now, he has to keep Sammy safe. Keep him whole, before Yellow Eyes grabs him up for whatever sick war it's planning, or before something else tries to take him over.

Dean slides a Zeppelin tape into the deck, fiddles with the controls until "Stairway to Heaven" starts, and lets the pain from the injuries that can't be seen flow into the steering wheel.

the end