Strength to Endure

Summary

Strength comes in many forms, some more obvious than others. Sam must overcome the pain of his past if he is to save his own life and that of his brother's. SFTCOL(AR)S inspired.

Disclaimer

I don't own anything Supernatural. Supernatural owns me.

Warning

A couple of swear-words only.

Author's Note

This is especially dedicated to Faye and Brenna. Faye - for your unending enthusiasm and fantastic support. Brenna - for the inspiration for this fic and for your generosity of your time, hard work and dedication. Thank you both for creating such a wonderful home for us Limp-Sam fans! You are tremendous, amazing people.

Thanks also to Gem, not only for her part in creating said home, but for her superb beta-ing skills, endless patience and encouragement!

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Sam cried out and clutched at his chest, turning pain-filled eyes on his now seething brother.

"Dammit Sam, what did you do?"

"What I had to." Sam gasped out before his unsteady legs gave way and he fell gracelessly to the floor.

Dean lunged towards his stricken brother a moment too late and cringed as Sam hit the floor, hard.

"Fuck, Sammy, I told you I would handle this one."

Sam blinked owlishly from where he lay, curled on one side with a hand still cupped to his chest. "I couldn't let you, Dean. Not this time. I've cost you too much already. You've sacrificed enough"

Not enough, never enough if he lost Sam. Dean thought furiously.

He reached trembling fingers to the gemstone that was now embedded into his brother's chest, directly over his heart. Ironically, it was also heart-shaped, a deep blood-red ruby that glowed with a luminescent fire.

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"A test. Why is it always a fucking test with faeries? Can't they learn poker or something?"

"Let me handle this one, Dean. You know I'm good with tests."

"Yeah, but she also said it was a test of strength kiddo, and let's face it, I can beat your ass blindfolded and hogtied."

"She really doesn't want to hear about your fetishes. Neither do I." Sam grinned. "And she said 'emotional' strength and we all know how you feel about chick-flicks."

"I know, she's only three inches tall, Sam, and you going all emo and crying on her might drown her, but it wouldn't get us out of here." He gestured at the prism of light that encased them.

A heart-shaped ruby, hung suspended in the air between them.

"It's all very Superman, isn't it?" Sam commented as he looked at the opaque angles and planes.

Dean kicked at the nearest panel of light closest to him. "Ow…damn faeries."

A small, strangely lilting feminine voice spoke. "Which of you will submit to the test?"

Sam opened his mouth to answer but was silenced by Dean's glare.

"What does it involve?"

"One of you will complete the test. If you pass, you are both free. If you fail, then the one will die and the other is given the choice to attempt the test."

"Dean…"

"No, Sammy, you are not doing this. I don't exactly have much to lose."

"We still have a year."

"You still have a lifetime. No, Sam, that's final."

He should've known better that to give Sam an order, should have known that his brother never gave up on an argument he felt strongly about. And he should never have turned his back.

But he did, and when he turned to the faerie to volunteer, Sam was more direct, his hand shooting out and grasping the gemstone. "I submit."

Sam's expressive eyes focussed briefly on his brother from where he lay as he whispered, "I told you, Dean. That I'm here to watch out for you too."

Then Sam's eyes became terrifyingly void and dull, clearly focussed elsewhere.

"Sammy?" Dean whispered. "What's happening?" He demanded of the diminutive figure.

The faerie shrugged gracefully. "His test has begun."

"What does that mean?" Dean growled.

"It is a test of heart. Of the will to endure when all seems lost. Your brother has experienced much and lost more than most, not all of which he has come to terms with. He will face it all now. And then he will have to choose."

"Choose what?"

"His penance."

"Listen lady, he has nothing to be penitent about. He hasn't done anything wrong."

"He doesn't believe that."

"Well that's a college education for you." The elder hunter sighed.

"His heart is weary, his soul in pain. He will give up. Mortals always do."

"You know nothing about my brother." Dean was growing more incensed with every word the faerie spoke.

"No? I can see how deep the pain flows, how he yearns for an end."

"No." Dean's flinch at the words belying his denial. He more than anyone knew the depth of his brother's pain, how deeply he felt every loss and failure, but he refused to accept even for a moment that Sam would give up. His stubborn younger brother just didn't know how. Thank god.

"Place you hand above the gemstone. You will feel a sense of what he sees, feel what he feels, watch his hearts-strength flicker and die in the gem before you."

"Why are you doing this?" Dean's voice was apprehensive, anger and alarm vying for dominance.

"You trespass where you are uninvited. This is the debt that is owed."

If there was any justice in the world, the heat of Dean's glare should have incinerated the faerie on the spot. How dare she condemn his brother, he was one the most considerate and gentle men he knew.

They were only here because four people had been found dead in this forest without a mark upon them in the last three months. Other than the location, the one common link being that they were found within a seven metre circle of either mushrooms or a circle of dark green grass. Elf circle, pixie ring, fairy circle. Whatever you want to call them, they were normally no more than old wives tales.

Huh, maybe folk should really start listening to those old wives; they seem to know what they're talking about.

He glanced down at his brother and his fury faltered then found a new direction. Dammit, Sammy, what were you thinking? This isn't the way this is supposed to go down. I'm supposed to be the impulsive, reckless one. You're supposed to be safe. That's my job, to keep you safe, you stupid, stubborn, pain in the ass. What good is my selling my soul, if you are going to throw yourself into danger at every turn?

Dean leaned against an almost vertical panel of solidified light and carefully pulled his brother to him. The gentle, almost delicate way he cradled his brother in direct contradiction to his angry thoughts, showing them for what they were - fear. Not just any fear, but gut wrenching, soul-withering terror. He had lost his brother once, he wasn't about to face that desolation again.

And no matter what Sam was facing now, he wouldn't do it alone. They were in this together, always had been, always would be. The elder brother drew his sibling close and when Sam's head was resting against his chest, Dean tentatively placed one hand above the gemstone.

Images and emotions instantly assaulted his senses. Sam's memories, he was seeing Sam's memories and feeling his emotionsAnd each of them was more disturbing than the last.

A nursery and their mother pinned and bleeding, her blood baptising her youngest son.

His father drunk, lost, consumed. Impressions of Dean as a child in second-hand clothes and with eyes far too old for his age; of leaving friends behind and being left on their own too many times to count.

Pictures of Sam and Dean training and practising, hunting with their father. John and Dean injured, a child haunted by hunts and all the evil creatures he knew existed. A resistance to this life and fear of seeing his family destroyed because of it. A yearning for freedom and a better life for them all that would never be attained.

A quick flash of an acceptance letter from Stanford and the terrible battle of wills that followed. Loneliness and sorrow at leaving his family, the heart-rending realisation that he was losing their love to follow his dreams.

Images of Jess laughing and the careful choosing of a ring. Happiness and joy, utterly devastated, marred by terrible visions of flame and death.

The choice to go with his brother and in doing so sacrificing his heart and future. The desolation as nightmare became reality.

Snapshots of hunts and the people they had encountered, Laurie, Sarah, Max. Shock and revulsion that he was turning into that which they hunted. Feelings of failure, guilt, fear and uncertainty. A sudden image of a dark figure dripping blood on a baby's lips.

Memories always returning to Dean. Electrocuted and dying, battered and bruised, bleeding and fading.

Then the demon in the cabin, their father's death, Dean lying dying in a hospital bed. Too little, too late and a punch that hurt far longer than the bruise it caused. Sam's own grief and guilt, repressed and subjugated by his fears that Dean was losing his way.

The betrayal of Dean's revelation, of his father's dying words. The dark fear and

confusion at his inexplicable immunity and a growing unease.

Battling, always battling, and a feeling of slowly losing ground.

A misled priest and the loss of faith.

Then Madison – hope cruelly rekindled and his heart had broken again, not only shooting down the first woman he had allowed into his heart but also the last of his hopes for salvation.

Possession and learning the evil wrought through his own body, seeing Dean wounded and battered, and knowing it had been at his hands, if not his will. Overwhelming shame and an immense weariness, a certainty now that it was a case of when, not if.

Andy's death and Ava's turning and the Demon's horrifying revelation about their mother and Sam's own blood.

Guilt and shame for crimes not his own but carried out because of him. Of lives torn apart and broken just because he lived. Then pain, white hot and yet numbing, and a fading of the world.

Then Dean, always Dean, bringing him back, saving him. His shooting of Jake and the horror at his rage that made him fire so many times. Anger and terror for the deal Dean had made. Guilt that, once again, something precious would be lost because of him. The firm resolve to save Dean from this fate, no matter the cost, and the nearly incapacitating fear of failure.

And finally, overwhelmingly, the resolution that Sam may have lost but was willing to sacrifice what little he had left if it would save his brother.

Dean sat in awe and wonder of the emotions he felt coursing through Sam, at the stubborn strength of his brother's spirit. He had never realised just how deeply Sam felt everything, and marvelled how he had stayed sane. No wonder this life causes him so much pain. Why does he stay?

Dean knew the answer now more than ever, Sam stayed because of him. Because I need him too. They were each all that the other had; especially now when it seemed the entire world was against them. Demons, FBI, police, hunters. They needed each other more than ever, but Dean knew it went deeper. Separately they were incomplete, unbalanced. Sam steadied Dean, Dean kept Sam grounded.

One of the things he had always admired about his young brother was that every time Sam was beaten down, he always somehow picked himself up and found a way back. He never gave up. Sam's indomitable will and strength of heart, his belief in the good in the world despite everything they encountered, filled Dean with pride for the man his kid brother had become.

He watched the spark in the gem that had flickered and faded with every negative image and emotion now steady and glow more intensely. Certain his brother would succeed.

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Sam was swamped, drowning in a sea of memory and augmented emotion, tormented by sorrow and regret. Despair surrounded him, threatening to pull him under in a tide of hopelessness.

Sam could sense the promise of peace if he laid down his burdens and moved on. He could finally rest, be with Jess, his mom and dad, and wait for Dean. No more fear of what could happen, of turning evil, of hurting his brother. No more guilt for the suffering and death he seemed to bring down on all he loved.

A silent voice whispered to him that if he just let go that the world would be a better place for it, that perhaps his death might even release Dean from his bargain with the crossroads demon. Even if not, Bobby would find a way.

Deep down, he knew that the way back led to pain and loss and suffering.

But…

Six times he had left his brother.

Once to chase a dream that was never his to follow.

Once to follow a father who was lost to the hunt that consumed him.

Once in impatience and fear to fight the destiny that seemed to stalk him.

Twice for reason beyond his control, once by cannibalistic rednecks and then by Meg.

And one time, equally unwillingly, in death.

And in each leaving of his brother, it was if a little piece of his soul was torn from him. Each time, he watched as loneliness and responsibility wore his brother down a little more. With each separation, Dean's self-confidence faltered, his self-worth waned and a sense of failure ate away at the core of him, brought him to his knees.

And like hell was anything coming between them again. Not a demon, not a desperate pact and certainly not some midget fairy with a fucking bauble.

So, Sam fought. He tore at the bonds within his heart, at the fear of his uncertain future, the guilt and shame that haunted his past. He fought his self doubts and recriminations and pushed the sorrow of his past behind him.

He reached for Dean, with his heart, with his soul, grasped his faith in his brother and drew it around him like a cloak to keep out the cold that permeated this in-between world he occupied. His brother loved him, and Sam was not about to let him down.

His brother believed in him, always had and seemingly always would. It was time Sam believed in himself.

He needs me.

And despite what Dean might fear, Sam Winchester could never, ever walk away from his brother when he needed him.

He drew his emotions tightly to him, keeping the fairy-enhanced despair at bay. With a snarl, he pushed all the negative emotions and feelings of weakness back.

He had been fighting all of his life, for his views, for a normal life, for respect and for the defenceless. He had fought loneliness and sorrow, despair and fear. He had and still was fighting for his soul and he would fight every damn demon released from hell till this war was over.

He was tired of being a victim, of his choices being made for him, of having no say in what became of his existence. He was tired, so very fucking tired of losing. They had lost their parents, their childhood, and their innocence. He had lost Jess, his future, then Madison. Their humanity was getting chipped away slowly but surely. And then his brother had sold his soul for him. What do they say? This far, no further?

He would fight for his brother with every breath and with every beat of his battered and torn heart.

Dean was all he had left, all the family left to him, the last light in the ever-growing darkness. His last bastion of hope - and he was not going to let him go, not here, not now, not ever.

Sam Winchester fought back. His time of playing other people's games was over.

A slow smile spread across Dean Winchester's face as he felt his brother's anger and determination grow. The gemstone burned incandescent, and Dean basked in its growing warmth.

His brother wasn't done fighting yet.

His grin turned wicked as he turned to the now paling faerie. "As I said, you don't know my brother. I can kick his ass and even I make sure I don't get him this mad. You've pissed off the wrong mortal this time, bitch."

The glow from the gem flowed out, bathing the elder brother in a warm and gentle light. Within it, Dean felt the bright purity of Sam's spirit and the strength of his brother's love for him. But when the light brushed across the faerie, it darkened into an angry blood-red. She cried out and flinched back before retreating to hover high above them.

Where the light touched their translucent prison, it tracked up the panes in rainbow veins. The cracks quickly spread until with an ear-splitting shriek the panels shattered in transparent, multi-hued shards. But the glow that fractured them also protected the two brothers, acting as a shield against the razor-sharp fragments.

Dean looked around at the now quiet and deserted clearing. He checked to see that Sam was awake and relatively alert before rising to his feet and assessing the damage to the forest around him. There were tears and deep gouges in the tree barks, boughs now contorted as if twisted back by a great force; chunks of leaves and branches littering the clearing in which the fairy ring lay.

"And I thought I was bad-tempered." He commented, turning back towards his brother.

"Yeah, well you always said I was a quick learner." Sam muttered, flushing.

"Except with the ladies, man. You always were rather slow with them." Dean grinned down at his brother. His smile lighting his eyes as he looked down with an almost irrepressible joy that Sam was still with him and still fighting, and was infinitely thankful for his brother's strength of soul.

I won't lose you again, Sammy.

Sam touched his chest and the ruby came loose, still faintly glowing, leaving a heart-shaped brand.

"Well, chicks love scars right? So a heart-shaped one should give me an advantage."

Sam took a leaf out of Dean's book, attempting to deflect his attention with banter and raised his hand to reach for his brother's help to stand, a light tremor marring the young hunter's normally graceful movements.

Sam could still feel the lingering dark within, desperately scrabbling for a foothold, to sink its claws into him, to drag him down with it.

But as he grasped his brother's hand, the firm, calloused grip so familiar, he knew that he was 'home'. Home was always where Dean was and it gave him something solid to place his back against, something tangible for which to fight. And once more he pushed the darkness back.

I will save you, Dean. I won't lose you. I can't. You're all I have left worth fighting for.

Dean looked down at his brother, seeing the dark that had haunted his gaze these past two years lighten. His hand clasped Sam's tightly as he pulled him on to his feet, his grip steadying his lanky, loose-limbed brother. Sam's unsteady stance was more like a new born foal than a seasoned and proficient hunter, long-legged, shaky and heart-warmingly clumsy. Dean kept one hand on the small of Sam's back, ready to catch him if he fell and couldn't help the affectionate smile that crept across his face.

Sam's answering smile was beaming, lighting his face as he looked back at his blatantly hovering big brother... Dean was safe and sound and that was all he could ask for. He was determined to keep him that way.

"So how much do you think we could get for this?" Sam waved the gem at his brother.

"Keep it, Sam." You earned it, besides Dean was loathe to part with the ruby, it had after all for a while been a part of his brother." A girl needs her jewellery."

"Are you ever going to stop calling me a girl?"

"I dunno. Are you ever going to stop acting like one?"

Sam sighed in affectionate exasperation and changed the subject. "So, what now?"

"Vegas?"

"I thought we were keeping the ruby, not to mention the car and the shirts on our backs?" Sam commented wryly.

"Fine, spoilsport. How about a game of pool, some beer and a friendly barmaid?

"Don't we have work to do?"

"Don't we always?"

"Ok then, maybe one beer."

"Whoa, pushing the boat out, aren't we, Sammy?" Dean smirked at his brother.

"Shut up, Dean." Sam's lips twitched as he fought to keep his laughter contained.

"Oh, make me, elf-boy."

"Elf boy?"

"You were the one consorting with faeries, Sam." The younger brother pretended to look scandalised.

"Do you mind?"

"Like you have a reputation, bitch." Dean's grin grew impossibly wider.

"Jerk." Sam glared in mock anger, before failing miserably to keep a straight face and starting to chuckle in earnest.

"Sasquatch." Sam's laugh was contagious and Dean soon joined in.

"Tiny."

The sound of the two brothers' banter and answering laughter wafted through the forest canopy as they headed back to the Impala, back to the hunt, back to home.

fin