A/N: Yes, this update has been long in coming. No excuses, other than the fact I had a very hard time working on this chapter. I knew this was the last chapter, and I am just so sad to be ending the story. I feel like so many of you are friends now, and I will truly miss you.

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profits made, thanks for letting me play.

From chapter 17:

He sank down onto the plastic chair next to the bed and transferred his gaze to Sam's face. He needed Sam's eyes to open. That would be the final step to erasing the dread that had filled him on those rocks. It would be the final step in convincing him that he wasn't about to lose his brother.

Because of the placement of the IV, Sam's right arm was slightly twisted, the palm of his hand facing up. Almost on its own Dean's hand reached forward, until it was hovering above Sam's right wrist. It held steady for a moment above the dark thread of veins visible through the pale skin on the underside of his wrist. He lowered it gently until his fingertips were just lightly brushing the soft skin there, afraid it would still be cold, still clammy.

Instead, a gentle warmth radiated from the skin. Not the heat of fever, merely the normal warmth of his little brother asleep. The warmth that he had felt hundreds of times over the years when he tucked his brother into bed, or checked on him during the night.

He lowered his hand the rest of the way, resting it on Sam's skin. It might have been wishful thinking, but he swore the tension around Sam's mouth eased a bit at his touch. His thumb slipped around to the back of Sam's wrist and began to move back and forth gently.

"I'm here, Sammy. It's all good kiddo. You're going to be fine."

He edged the chair forward a bit so that he could sit back without releasing his hold on Sam and began the wait for his little brother to wake up.


Hozho Chapter 18

Sam was floating.

It was dark and peaceful, the only sound a low beeping. He felt safe, watched over and protected. He was content to drift for a while, caught in the strands of a dream of warm sunshine and golden curls.

The dream faded and he was sad as it slipped away, but he didn't try to hold on to it because he sensed it wasn't the right time for that dream. He was somehow sure that now, at this time, there was someplace else he was supposed to be. A place where someone was waiting for him. He could feel their presence in the deepest part of him. There was no urgency to the feeling, just a steady reassurance. He knew…he trusted…that the person would wait as long as they had to. They wouldn't leave him alone.

And so he rested. Until the desire to reach that warm presence grew so strong he could no longer ignore it and he began to push through the darkness.

Numbness was replaced by heaviness in his side and the dull thud of a headache. He turned his head, trying to ease an ache in his neck. The movement triggered new sounds, low murmurs that joined the beeping.

He followed them like a beacon leading him home, and they coalesced into actual words, into a voice that was as much a part of him as his own.

"That's it Sammy. Come on…open your eyes for me. Come on man, I'm getting bored just sitting here. Your nurse is a guy and you don't even have a TV."

Dean… This was where he was supposed to be. A slight grin pulled at the corners of Sam's mouth and Dean's voice changed. It became a little faster, a little louder, more nervous and happier all at the same time.

"Hey! C'mon Sleeping Beauty! I know you're in there. C'mon out."

He turned his head again, facing toward the sound of his brother's voice. Dean's voice dropped a bit and Sam could hear the need laced through it, the traces of fear. "C'mon, Sammy. Enough's enough dude. You've gotta open your eyes and let me know you're all right. The doctors say you're doing okay…but you've got to open your eyes for me, man."

It was harder than Sam expected to pry them open. He felt like he was moving in slow motion, but millimeter by millimeter his view of the world expanded. Green eyes stared at him from under lowered eyebrows, filled with a hope so intense it was almost a demand. Pressure increased on his right wrist, anchoring him.

Sam's hand stirred, his fingers reaching for the solid warmth on his wrist, and the weight moved. Instead of retreating it moved closer to his questing fingers until it covered the bottom of his hand. Sam's long fingers found the purchase they were seeking, pressing against the back of Dean's hand, his hard knuckles and strong fingers.

He drew from the strength there and held tight as he fought to open his eyes the rest of the way. The creases cutting across Dean's forehead smoothed as a smile began to curve his lips.

"Hey Rip," he said softly, "you with me here?" The slightest hint of 'Smartass Dean' made its way into his tone. "Just blink once for yes."

Sam rolled his eyes and mouthed the word 'jerk'.

The corners of Dean's eyes crinkled as a huge smile lit his face. "I was starting to think I had to find a handsome prince to come kiss you." He leaned closer and whispered. "I don't know how to tell you this, Sammy, but I think your nurse would have volunteered." He sat back in his chair, giving Sam's wrist a final squeeze before dropping his hand into his lap. Sam could still feel the heat and weight of the touch, even with the hand gone. He could still feel it anchoring him.

Sam's eyes moved around the room and he took in his surroundings as the last several days put themselves in order in his mind. Things were a bit hazy towards the end. He opened his mouth but no sound came out at first. It took a couple of tries before he was able to get out one word in a simple croak.


Dean's smile dimmed a bit and his eyes clouded. "He's done. Crispy critter. Do you remember what happened?"

Sam didn't trust his voice to work a second time and gave a little nod.

Dean glanced over his shoulder and leaned in close to the bed again. "Alright, listen up. They're going to be in to check on you any second. Remember the names on the ID's? Sam and Dean Walker. If anybody asks…we're bounty hunters chasing Betzgai." Dean's grin was back to its full brilliance. "Just call me 'Dog'!"

Sam narrowed his eyes in confusion.

"Don't sweat it, I'll explain more when you're really awake. I'll be in here with you to head anybody off who wants to ask questions." The smile turned into a smirk. "Visitors in the ICU usually get kicked out pretty quick, but we're getting special consideration." His eyes positively gleamed with glee. "Dude, we're heroes!"


The climb out of darkness got easier each time. The beeping was quieted, the nasal cannula no longer needed. Most of the catheters and wires that had been hooked to his body were gone and he could move now without the tape holding them in place pulling at his skin.

He was in no rush to open his eyes, luxuriating in the lack of any major pain and the feel of a clean bed under him. For a Winchester that was practically the definition of a vacation. If Dean had the TV turned on he must have had it muted, because the only sound was the slow rustle of turning pages.

He vaguely remembered Dean attempting hushed and hurried conversations a couple of times when he woke in the ICU, but he was drawing a blank as to the gist of those rushed words. Except that they were bounty hunters named Walker. Dean seemed inordinately pleased with that turn of events.

There were some hazy memories of the move into a private room, and the doctor saying the exhaustion was to be expected after all he'd been through. That memory stuck with him because he'd had to hold in a laugh at the sight of Dean behind the doctor's back, rolling his eyes because the doctor didn't know the half of it. They weren't about to explain that Sam was most likely also suffering the aftereffects of being witched.

Sam cracked his eyes open slowly and blinked at the sunshine pouring through the windows facing the foot of his bed. The head of the bed was slightly raised, giving him a clear view of the backlit figure relaxing in the chair in front of the windows, slowly turning the pages of a magazine.

"Dean." Sips of water the last time he was awake had eased the dryness and his voice was stronger.

"Yah-tah-hey, Samuel," a deep voice answered.

Sam's world froze. A feeling of equal parts disbelief and dread started at the top of his head and swept down his body, taking what little color he had regained with it.

The figure stood and his height and the width of his shoulders was enough to block the sunlight as he began to move towards Sam. Sam pushed himself against the head of the bed, awakening the dull pain in his side. His eyes cast around the room, looking for a weapon, for some way to defend himself. The remaining IV in the back of his wrist pulled as he twisted to grab the edge of his blanket, ready to free his legs from its confines. Where was Dean?

"Whoa! Whoa! Calm down son!" The figure held his hands up above his shoulders in a gesture of surrender and stepped to the side so that the sunlight illuminated his form and features.

Sam began to see the differences. This man was big, but not as freakishly huge as Betzgai. His hair was longer and jet black, missing the touches of gray. His face and nose were broader. But perhaps the biggest difference was that this man's face was alive. It didn't look like a painted mask over a husk empty of emotions.

Sam slumped against the head of the bed, the adrenaline rush draining away as quickly as it had exploded inside of him.

The man dropped his hands and lowered his head apologetically. "I am sorry I startled you. You and I have never actually spoken, but I've talked to your brother several times. I'm Nathan Betzgai."

"Where's Dean?" Sam's eyes darted around the room, searching, finally settling on the private room's open door as if he expected to see his brother walk through it any second.

"He left with a woman from the Forest Service. She was taking him to retrieve his car from the park. You were asleep when he left, but he assured me that he had told you about his errand, and about me, when you were awake."

Sam ran his hand through his hair and grimaced. "I think he told me a lot of things, I just don't remember any of them. Was it Deb he left with?"

Nathan nodded. "I believe that was her name. She seemed to know you both. She left them for you." He nodded at the small table next to his bed. A battered looking paper plate covered with crinkled aluminum foil sat on the edge of it. Nathan looked at Sam and his eyebrows drew down in confusion.

"She said to tell you they were male brownies."

Sam began to chuckle. "That means they have nuts," he explained, feeling like he was on steadier ground as the man smiled. The smile was warm and generous. Sam held his hand out for a belated hand shake and Nathan reached out slowly to grasp it. He held onto Sam's hand while his eyes searched Sam's face.

"My family owes you a great debt," Nathan finally said. His voice was low and rich, lightly accented by his Navajo heritage.

"I think it's Dean and I who should be thanking you," Sam replied.

Nathan released his hand and pulled the bedside chair closer to Sam before settling himself down into it. "Are you familiar with the concept of hozho?" he asked.

"I'm familiar with the concept, but I don't know if I truly understand it," Sam answered truthfully.

"I have never tried to explain this to someone who is not…" The Navajo officer trailed off and stared steadily at Sam for a moment before continuing. "I think you are not like other biligaana. I think you understand there is more to the world than most biligaana see. To put it very simply, my people, the Diné, believe that everything is interconnected." He held his hands up and laced his fingers together.

"There is a very fine balance between all things. Between all the creatures and the earth they walk on…between health and illness…between the members of a family—a clan…between the people and the Yei—the holy ones…between good and evil. Hozho is harmony between these parts, it is balance, it is beauty. When hozho is disturbed, the balance lost, there is much suffering. There is misfortune, there is discord between brothers, there is illness…until hozho is restored."

Nathan looked down into his lap, silent for a moment as his expression contorted in grief. He ran a hand over his face and took a deep breath before looking back up at Sam, his features calm. "My cousin's actions disrupted hozho for my people, for my clan, and we have suffered greatly because of it. Dealing with my cousin is just part of restoring the balance we have lost. But it was the most important part, and it has eluded us until now. I thank you for giving us the opportunity to help right things."

Sam nodded, accepting the man's thanks. He knew some of what the man was feeling first hand. The loss of balance between him and Dean had almost led to disaster.

Whatever comment Sam might have made was lost when a whirlwind in the form of Dean Winchester appeared in the doorway. Dean's eyes lit up when he saw his brother sitting up and a relieved smile chased the last of the worry lines from the sides of his mouth. "Jesus, Sammy! Are you finally awake? I mean REALLY awake?"

Dean edged his way past Nathan's chair to stand next to Sam's bed. He held a large cardboard cup of coffee in his right hand. His left hand was busy trying to unobtrusively reach behind his back and snake a brownie off of the foil covered plate.

Sam's eyebrows lowered and he scowled when Dean brought the square of chocolate to his mouth.

Dean smiled around a big bite of brownie. "Don't worry, I left you some," he said, spraying crumbs. His expression turned serious and he ran his eyes over his brother. "Seriously, man, how you feeling?"

"I'm still a little tired, but fine. How are YOU doing?" Sam, in turn, examined his brother. Brief flashes came back to him of Dean at the side of his bed every time his eyes opened. A Dean who looked like he should be the one IN the bed. Eyes red and smudged with black underneath, skin pale and unshaven, but still a welcome sight that made Sam feel warm and protected every time.

Dean had obviously stopped at the hotel on his way by in the Impala. His clothes were fresh and his hair still damp from the shower. He was a little pale and looked sleep deprived, but he looked a hell of a lot better than he did earlier. The relaxed smile might have had something to do with that.

"Me?" Dean's smile widened. "I'm doing great!"

There was a loud snort from the room's doorway and Dean's expression froze.

"Yeah, you gonna tell him how you fainted in the Loft parking lot?" Deb asked with a smirk as she walked into the room.

"You what?!"

"I did not faint!"

The brothers spoke simultaneously, one's voice tinged with fear, the other indignation. And both loud.

"I didn't faint. I don't 'faint'," Dean explained, scowling at Deb. "I just got a little wobbly."

"Okay Mr. Weeble," Deb said. She walked to the foot of Sam's bed, still smirking. "Wobbly my ass. You practically face planted."

"Dean?" Sam's eyes were wide and worried.

"I'm fine Sam. I was a little dehydrated, a little tired, nothing new," he said with a twist of his mouth. He met Sam's eyes and his expression grew serious. "I really am fine, Sam. They gave me an IV and I was good to go."

"He is telling the truth, son," Nathan said quietly. "His doctor seemed…mostly pleased with how well he followed directions. He even followed doctor's orders and ate."

Dean gave a little shrug. "What can I say? I'm a model patient."

Sam raised a single eyebrow and looked back and forth between Nathan and Deb. "Which one of you forced him to eat?"

Deb raised her hand and pointed at Nathan.

"Then I owe you another sincere thank you, Nathan."

Nathan stood up, shaking his head. "No thanks necessary. I am in your debt." He stepped to the side of the bed and looked down at Sam with a slight smile. "We will talk some more, but right now I believe I should leave you with your friend and your brother while I call my home."

"I'd like it if we could talk some more, later," Sam said simply, lifting his hand to shake Nathan's. He was surprised at the amount of effort the small gesture required.

Nathan turned to Dean and the two shook hands without a word, just exchanging a quick nod. Sam got the impression they had already covered some territory together.

Deb stepped into Nathan's spot near the bed when the big man moved towards the door. "I've got to go too, sweetie. Gotta get back to work." She leaned over and wrapped her arms around him, her hug amazingly gentle, the warmth of it seeping into him. When she straightened up there were tears in her eyes. She laid her hand against his cheek, her palm rough against his skin. "I'm really glad you're doing better, hon. You got me a little nervous…and you scared the hell out of your brother." She dropped her hand to her side and smiled at him as she started to turn away. "I'll be back later."

"Hey Deb? How are things going out at the fire?"

Sam's words stopped her halfway to the door. She turned with a huge smile on her face. "The winds died down, and we're kicking its butt! I'll give you a blow by blow later. Good times, baby! Good times!"

The room was quiet when the two were gone, the brothers taking the opportunity to really look each other over.

Dean sank down on the chair next to the bed. "That was a close one, dude," he said, shaking his head.

"Too close," Sam agreed.

A sudden smile lit Dean's face. "Did Nathan bring you up to speed?"

"Dude," Sam snorted, "my wheels aren't even on the road, much less up to speed. What the hell were you trying to tell me all those times I woke up? I don't remember any of it."

"I'll give you a quick rundown because the cops are gonna be here as soon as they hear you're awake. Whatever they ask that you're not sure of, just play like you're still groggy. The doc will back you up. Don't worry, they're not going to dig too deep. The Feds aren't going to want it to get out how they've had a serial killer roaming the country and they didn't even know it."

Sam looked at his brother expectantly, enjoying the sight of the smile that had been too rare lately.

"You remember we're Dean and Sam Walker?" Dean started, "Ok. Story is, Nathan got in touch with us on behalf of an association of ranchers out near the Navajo Reservation. Turns out Nathan's uncle was VERY well respected. The association's been offering a reward for the capture of his killer for years."

"I thought the family was being close mouthed about everything?"

"The family was. This association is an outside organization. It's not tribal. So the story is, they weren't getting very far with finding the killer until Father Jim told Nathan about us. We tracked the truck down on the east coast, saw the pattern…"

"Well, that much is the truth," Sam muttered.

"And the rest is history," Dean continued, ignoring the interruption. "We stick with the story of him snatching you after the mountain lion attack in the park, and the way things panned out after that. Nathan and I have already come up with a story that covers any evidence they might find. Don't worry, we'll go over the details. Nathan's making sure our asses are covered in Arizona."

"I take it we're leaving out the part where Betzgai turned into an animal?" Sam asked with raised eyebrows, earning a 'well, duh' look from his brother.

"They're already pinning that new fire near Madison Run Road on him. They found a gas can near the ignition point." Dean's smile faded. "They found his truck. A bit singed on the outside, but most of the stuff inside survived. He kept trophies, Sam." Dean looked around the room and Sam could see the muscle in the side of his jaw working as he tried to control his anger. "Wallets, ID's, jewelry…he had the bank bag from Susan Macy's restaurant. They've solved a hell of a lot of missing person cases off of this. And not just the ones around the AT. Looks like he was a busy boy before he got anywhere near the east coast."

Dean stood up and began pacing around the room. "That's why they're going to accept this as a gift without looking into our story too closely. The Feds don't even want to talk to us. The fact that this guy has been operating as long as he has without them even knowing it… It just doesn't look good. He's dead and they just want the whole thing to go away."

"But the stuff they found…they're going to let the families of the victims know…right?" The months of worry for their father was too fresh in Sam's mind for him to be willing to ignore the torture other families must be going through, not knowing.

"Yeah, they'll come up with some story to cover the bases, I'm sure." Dean stopped near the foot of the bed and cleared his throat, staring down at the blanket over Sam's feet. When he looked up Sam could see a slight glimmer of moisture in his eyes. "I…uh…I called Susan's restaurant this morning. Chrissie was…" He stopped and cleared his throat again, running his hand through his hair. "She…uh…thanked me. For letting her know."

Dean turned away and walked to the room's window. He stood looking out, his back to Sam. The sunlight outlined his figure, making it easy for Sam to see when his head dropped slightly and his shoulders slumped. "The people around here are calling us heroes, Sammy." He shook his head from side to side and Sam watched silently, waiting to see where this was going.

"Wilson Betzgai was seriously bad news. We'll probably never know how many people he hurt. And I was ready to put the skids on the hunt because I didn't trust your motives. I'm sorry." He said the last so quietly that Sam would have missed it if the room wasn't so quiet.

"Dean, you don't have anything to be sorry about. I didn't exactly make it easy for you to trust me…talking to people at Stanford and shutting you out. Just remember, no matter how screwed up everything was when this all started, we got past the bull when it mattered."

Sam reached for a cup and straw sitting on the tray next to his bed, allowing the silence to stretch. He sipped slowly, letting the moisture ease the growing thickness in his throat. When he knew he could continue talking without his voice cracking he put the cup back on the tray.

"I'm not going to lie to you. They're my friends and I'm going to stay in touch with them. I'm not going to hide it anymore…and you're going to have to learn how to deal with it. But dude, they're friends…and you're my brother. You're always going to come first with me. You've got to trust me. Because if we can't trust each other…then we've got nothing." Sam leaned back against the head of the bed and watched Dean through half opened eyes. The short speech, or maybe the strong emotions behind it, had zapped much of his depleted energy.

Dean squared his shoulders and turned slowly. "So…what we said a couple of days ago…the hunt is over. Do you still want to leave?" Dean raised his hand and scratched at the back of his head, trying for nonchalant. His eyes flitted around the room resting briefly on seemingly every object in it before finally settling on Sam.

Sam had been ready to lash out at his brother's question, that after everything that had happened, after the things that had just been said, his brother could still wonder if Sam was about to walk out on him. The look in Dean's eyes drained the anger from him. The fear was plain to see, but so was the hope. "Let me ask you," Sam said quietly. "The hunt is over. Do you still think I should leave?"

A small smile tugged at the corners of Dean's mouth. "When you put it that way… We were both asses that night. No, I don't think you should leave. I need you where I can keep an eye on you and keep you out of trouble."

"You keep ME out of trouble? You got that backwards Calamity Jane," Sam snorted. "And you were the only ass that night. I was witched," he said smugly.

Dean moved back to the side of the bed. "If I change my vote to 'yes you should leave' do I still have to share the reward?"

Sam's eyes widened. "We're actually getting the reward?"

"Hell, yeah. It's not huge, but it's enough to keep my baby gassed up for a while. Nathan's already getting the paperwork rolling. I don't want to hang around here waiting for it though. I think we'll get while the getting's good. So after they spring you from here, I figure we'll take our time and head to Arizona. Maybe we'll swing south, there's a witchy woman in Louisiana I'd kind of like to stop by to see, and then west through Texas…eastern part of the state's a little boring…but there's a great barbeque place…"

The steady drone of his brother's voice turned into a quiet hum in Sam's ears. A hum that promised that, at least for the moment, he was safe and protected. Dean had his back.

He could relax back into sleep knowing, deep in his bones, that no matter how screwed up things could sometimes get between them, no matter how much they argued and sniped at each other, no matter how different they sometimes seemed…their commitment to each other would always be there. That fact was a basic truth in their lives. It was what gave their lives balance. It was what made them strong.


yah-tah-hey Navajo greeting

biligaana Caucasians, non-Navajo

Diné 'The People', the Navajo people

hozho beauty, harmony, balance

Yei an abbreviation of the term Yei-Be-Chai, a deity or holy one

Next Up: I am working on my next 'long' story. It will be called 'The Highwayman' and is loosely based on the Alfred Noyes poem, and the Loreena McKennitt song that made me fall in love with it. I'm about 50 pages into it, so it's coming along. I might write something shorter in the meantime…so you don't all forget about me. Try as you might.

A/N I would like to give my sincerest thanks to everyone who has joined me on this adventure. 'Hozho' combines so many of my passions that you will never truly know how much it has meant to me to have readers embrace it. Your kind words and encouragement throughout have made me laugh and made me cry. I shared a big part of myself in this story, and you humbled me with your generosity of spirit.

Yes, PITA, I'm still a sentimental slob.

Remember to always 'have the backs' of the people you care about, and believe in them. It is one of the most valuable gifts you will ever give them.

This story would not be here if not for the group on the SFTCOL(AR)S board, because I would never have had the guts to start posting. And Jenilee, it would never even have been written if not for you.

I'll end with a very well known Navajo chant. It is used in a ceremony which helps to restore hozho that has been lost, including harmony with the natural world. The word 'beauty' is used to signify hozho.

In beauty may I walk
All day long may I walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk
With dew about my feet may I walk
With beauty may I walk

With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me may I walk

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty