See Chapter One for summary, notes, etc

And the Greatest of These…

7.
The irritating buzz at the edge of his consciousness slowly coalesced into the murmur of voices. Other senses began to kick in, and he became aware that he was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning against something solid but warm. He could distinguish words, uttered by a voice he knew well, a voice laced with fear and confusion.

"What have I done? Oh, God, Bobby, what have I done? Dean…"

He knew immediately where he was and what had happened. The last image burned into his mind was of Sam dropping the knife as he cried out Dean's name.

He felt fingers at his throat and panicked, reflexively lifting a hand to swat them away. A large hand closed around his wrist, and Sam's anxious voice said, "Dean, it's okay. You're okay."

He struggled to open leaden eyelids and finally succeeded. He was leaning with his back against Sam's chest, one of Sam's arms supporting him around his waist and the other hand still clasping his wrist. Sam's face was inches from his own, sporting an expression of profound relief.

"Bobby, he's awake!"

"Sam?" Dean managed. His voice sounded weak and raspy, and even that one word was an effort.

Bobby squatted down beside them and nodded. "It worked, Dean. We got him back."

Thank God. Dean shut his eyes again because it was too much effort to keep them open. He felt Sam's arm tighten around him, and it occurred to him that it was less than cool to be lying here like a girl, practically cradled in his brother's arms. But it was warm and comfortable, and he was so, so tired. Maybe it would be all right to stay here for just a few minutes, until he had the strength to get up.

His last thought, as sleep overtook him, was that Sam really did have enormous hands. Just like giant hams…

The next time he woke, he was stretched out on his back on something soft. He lay quietly for a moment, assessing his physical condition. All in all, he concluded he wasn't doing too badly. The pain levels had definitely dropped, and his headache was at a manageable level. Mostly, he just felt weak and tired.

He opened his eyes half-mast and saw Sam sitting on a chair beside the bed -- not a hospital bed, but the one in the cabin -- long legs stretched out before him and one hand firmly clasped around Dean's wrist. Sam was looking away from him, presumably talking to Bobby. His tone was awash with guilt and anguish, and Dean sighed inwardly. He'd known this would happen. Sam was blaming himself for everything, berating himself for what he'd done to Dean. Dean just wasn't ready to face that, so he closed his eyes again and let the conversation continued around him.

"It was the blood," Sam said. "I looked down and I saw the blood – Dean's blood – and I…" he paused, and his grip on Dean's wrist tightened briefly. "I don't know, it was like I woke up and I was watching someone else holding that knife, about to… and then I realized it was me."

"That was the moment you broke free of the demon blood's influence."

"Yeah," Sam said, his tone weary and subdued, and let out a long sigh. "I can't explain how it felt. I remember everything. Back at the mine, after I killed the chulka, it was like everything fell into place. I could see the way forward, and it felt right. I was so angry with Dean because he didn't get it. I wanted to beat some sense into him… Bobby, I just left him there, unconscious. He could have died!"

"But he didn't. Don't be so hard on yourself, Sam," Bobby said gruffly. "It was that demon blood doing the thinking for you."

Sam let out a long, slow breath. "I knew what was happening to me. I'd known for a long time that something wasn't right. I should have taken care of it. I should have made Dean…"

"Don't take all the blame on yourself."

"Who else should I blame? Dean? All he's ever done is try to protect me. And all I ever do is hurt him. And he just keeps coming back for more. Why, Bobby? Why does he…" His voice faltered.

Bobby grunted. "You know why, Sam."

Dean felt Sam's eyes on him. "Yeah, I know," Sam said softly.

Dean had heard enough. He couldn't let Sam wallow in self-recrimination like this. He made a show of stirring and slowly peeled his eyes open to see Sam looking back at him, brow puckered in a familiar frown of concern. He almost grinned with relief to see Sam looking and behaving like himself.

"Oh, man, it's good to see you awake. How do you feel?"

Dean grunted. "I'm okay."

He started to sit up and a hand clamped down on his chest, holding him in place. "No you don't," Sam said firmly. "You need to rest."

"I've been resting. What time is it?"

"Nine o'clock."

Dean glanced at the window. It was dark outside. "I've been asleep for hours. Let me up, Sam."

With obvious reluctance, Sam removed his hand.

Dean sat up slowly and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He grinned at Sam. "See? I'm fine."

Sam looked unconvinced and continued to hover close as Dean got to his feet.

Dean rolled his eyes. "Sam, you're clucking around me like an oversized mother hen. I think I can make it to the bathroom on my own."

Sam frowned. "You passed out, Dean, and I know you have a concussion. I think I'm entitled to worry."

"There's no need. I'm fine." He nodded toward Bobby. Tell him, Bobby."

Bobby, sitting at the table, had been following the exchange with an exasperated expression. "Dean's right, Sam. He'll be okay. Your brother has a thick head."

"Thanks, I think," Dean said dryly.

His legs did feel a bit wobbly, but he made it to the small bathroom, Sam's eyes boring into the back of his head the whole way. He took care of business and splashed water on his face in an attempt to clear away the muzzy feeling. Feeling more alert, he made his way back into the room and carefully sat down in a chair across the table from Bobby.

Sam joined them and put a glass of water down by Dean's elbow. "You need some painkillers?"

"Later."

He caught Bobby's eye. The older man was wearing a grim expression, and Dean was pretty sure he knew why. Carefully avoiding Bobby's gaze, he said, "You want to fill me in on what I missed?"

Bobby grunted. "When Sam made a deliberate choice not to kill you, the binding power of the incantation kicked in."

Dean nodded. "I saw the tattoo turn red."

"Yeah, about that," Sam said. "Explain again how the binding works."

"It's an ancient ritual," Bobby said. "Dates back to early Christian times. There's holy water and a couple of herbs mixed in the ink, but mostly it's Dean's blood."

Sam frowned and his eyes flicked to Dean's bandaged wrist. "Why Dean's blood?"

"The ritual called for blood from someone whose bond with the victim is so strong that he'd willingly give up his own life in exchange for theirs." Bobby glanced at Dean. "I think that pretty much describes your damned fool of a brother, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do," Sam said, looking at Dean with an intensity that made Dean uncomfortable.

Dean cleared his throat. "So, when are we leaving?"

"We're not. We're spending the night here," Bobby said. "You need to rest." He held up a hand and scowled as Dean opened his mouth to protest. "Don't even think about arguing."

Dean shut up. Bobby was clearly in a bad mood and, truth to tell, the idea of a few more hours sleep was attractive. He was already finding it hard to stay awake.

Bobby looked at Sam. "Sam, there's some blankets in the truck. Would you go and get them?"

"Sure. I'll be right back."

Bobby angrily rounded on Dean as soon as the door had shut behind Sam.

"You did it again! What's the matter with you, Dean? That was a damned stupid move."

Dean stared back steadily. "You knew it was risky."

"Risky, yeah. We both knew there was an outside chance Sam would be strong enough to break those ropes and escape." Bobby's voice rose in exasperation. "But not suicidal. I wasn't counting on you to be stupid enough to untie him and practically beg him to kill you. What were you thinking?"

Dean's jaw tightened. "I wasn't getting through to him. It was the only way."

Bobby sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, I know in your warped view of reality Sam has more right to live than you do. But I'm telling you, that ain't true. When will you get it through your thick head that your life is important? It matters whether you live or die. It matters to me, and to all those people whose lives you've saved and whose lives you're gonna save one day. And most of all, it matters to Sam."

"You don't understand," Dean said stubbornly.

Bobby's expression softened. "I do understand, Dean. I understand better than you think. All I'm asking is that you accept that there are people who care about you and who give a damn whether you live or die. And the most important of those people is about to walk back in that door."

Sam's return saved Dean from finding an answer. He dropped a pile of blankets on the floor, then paused and frowned, clearly sensing the tension. "Something wrong?"

"Everything's just peachy," Bobby said. He stood up. "I'll head into town and get us some dinner – there's a fast food joint that should be open. I'll be back in an hour."

When the door closed behind Bobby, Sam raised an interrogative eyebrow at Dean. "What was that about?"

"Nothing."

"Didn't sound like nothing."

"Leave it, Sam," Dean said wearily.

Sam looked at him closely for a moment. "Okay. How are you feeling?"

"Been better," Dean admitted. "Just need a good night's sleep, though, and I'll be fine."

"Why don't you go and lie down until Bobby comes back?"

"Nah. I'll wait. Hope that joint is open. I'd kill for a burger right now."

Sam sat down at the table and ran a hand through his hair.

"You okay?" Dean asked, remembering that Sam probably still had his own headache from the knockout dart.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just…" He shook his head. "I feel weird."

"What kind of weird?"

"Weird like I'm waking up from a dream… Only it wasn't a dream, and I remember everything that happened – and everything I said."

"That has to suck."

"Look, Dean." Sam hesitated, and Dean thought, Here it comes. "All the things I said, what I did – I wasn't thinking clearly. I mean… it was me, but it wasn't me."

"I know that, Sam," Dean said quietly.

Sam scrubbed a hand over his face and blew out a long breath. "The really scary thing is, it all made perfect sense at the time. I really believed I could use my powers to fight the demon army." He paused. "You should have killed me, before it came to this."

"Don't be stupid," Dean said harshly. He hated it when Sam talked this way.

"What if this incantation hadn't worked? I'd rather be dead than evil and heading up a demon army."

"It did work. And I won't let that happen. Ever."

Sam's chin jutted out stubbornly. "How can you be sure?"

"Look," Dean said firmly, "the incantation worked, you're not evil, everything's fine." He cocked his head. "At least, I assume it is. Unless you're fighting an overwhelming impulse to come over here and beat the shit out of me?"

Sam's anguished look made him regret the lame attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

"Sam, the point is, we're both okay," he said softly. "Can't we just forget what happened and move on?"

Sam stood up abruptly. "How can we? I hurt you, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, Dean! I left you for dead back at that mine. And the things I said… you don't deserve any of that! And today… I came this close to killing you!" He thrust a hand in Dean's face, thumb and forefinger indicating a tiny margin of space.

Dean folded his arms. "But you didn't," he said calmly.

"What if I had? I know what you did, Dean. I know you deliberately let me get the drop on you, so don't even think about denying it."

"I wasn't going to," Dean said mildly. "It was the only way to get through to you."

"It was too big a risk."

Dean shook his head. "No, it wasn't."

"Promise me you won't take a risk like that again."

"I won't need to."

"Promise me, Dean."

"I can't do that."

"Dean…"

"Enough, Sam. It's over."

They glared at each other for a long minute, until Sam huffed a breath of frustration and flopped back down on his chair. "This ritual Bobby found. How sure are you that it'll hold?"

Dean shrugged. "Pretty sure."

"But not one-hundred percent?"

"Ninety-nine percent. Nothing's ever certain, Sam."

"Yeah, it is." Sam leaned forward, his expression intense. "You risking your life for me, almost dying for me, over and over – that's certain."

The emotion in the words brought a lump to Dean's throat. "Come on Sam," he said gruffly. "You're making too big a deal out of this."

"Look, I just want you to know, I understand why you do it, and I appreciate it. And I feel the same about you. But I'm gonna kick your ass if you ever risk your life like that for me again, you hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Dean?"

"I got it."

They lapsed into silence, but Sam still looked moody and upset. Time to lighten things up a bit.

"You know what?"

Sam cocked an eyebrow. "What?"

"I've just thought of one real silver lining in all of this."

"Yeah? What's that?"

Dean cocked his head. "Well, you got some genuine Dean Winchester blood in you now, right?"

Sam snorted. "That's a silver lining?"

"As it happens, yes."

"I'm gonna regret this, but lay it on me."

Dean smirked. "I'll do better than that. I'll show you. Let's hit the town."

"You want to hit the town?" Sam's expression turned incredulous. "Dean, aside from the concussion and cracked ribs and the fact that a few hours ago you fainted like a girl, you look like something Godzilla dragged back for dinner."

Dean waved a hand to dismiss Sam's objections. "The chicks dig the rugged, battered look. But you're missing the point." He reached over and clapped Sam on the shoulder, happy to see that the intense look had faded into reluctant amusement. "Chicks, Sam. Now you got my blood, you're bound to score, right?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "You're kidding me, right?"

Dean spread his hands. "Sam, it makes sense. And we'll never know 'til you try."

Sam snorted, but his lips were twitching. "You're unbelievable."

Dean waggled his eyebrows. "That's what all the chicks say, Sammy."

The End

Author's Note: Thank you for reading. I particularly want to thank everyone who's sent encouraging reviews for each chapter - I haven't yet had time to respond to all your messages, but I will soon. I'd like to say I'm sorry for all the cliffhangers, but I really can't because I'm evil like that (!), and I hope the final chapter doesn't disappoint.