K Hanna Korossy
Dean walked back to the car, keys cupped in one hand, and nodded to Sam as his brother came into sight. After two fruitless tries, they'd finally found a motel with wi-fi access, and Dean had gotten them a room. Sam smiled at him through the windshield, pleased with the news.
Dean wondered when a simple smile would stop seeming like a miracle. Or when the buoying happiness at the mere sight of his mostly healthy brother would last more than a few seconds. He wasn't usually one for navel-gazing, but the emotions of late had been too strong to ignore. Especially in contrast to what might have been.
Dean deliberately didn't think about that as he didn't so many things these days, and slid back into the driver's side seat, door still open. Just sat, gazing through the front window, ignoring Sam's curious look from the passenger seat.
"So…are we going in, or are they bringing the room out to us?"
Dean's mouth twitched. "What, you haven't heard of drive-through motels? Man, get with the program." Okay, so it was lame, but Dean still felt like he was getting his bearings sometimes, and missing more than hitting the mark.
"Dean…" Sam started next to him.
He glanced over, serious now. "Sam, you sure you're—"
"If you ask me one more time if I'm up for this, there's going to be bloodshed on your precious vinyl seats."
Dean canted his head thoughtfully. "You know, you have a lot of bitterness in you, Sammy. You should do something about that."
Sam got out of the car, a slower version of his usual fling and glide, muttering about pots and kettles. The stab wound to his gut had mostly healed, but he was still stiff and guarded, tiring more quickly. The doctor had warned it would be a few weeks before he was a hundred percent again, but there was only so much sitting still either of them could bear. Sam had been almost as stir-crazy as Dean by the time they'd heard the news about the strange deaths out west. Something relatively easy, they'd both agreed, and they would back off if it turned out to be more than Dean could handle alone.
Well, not alone, he kept reminding himself a lot. Sam was stuck on the sidelines for now, but he was there and alive and relatively whole, and Dean had nothing else to ask for.
Sam had already collected his bag, and Dean quickly reached back for his own. He had the key, and he was just sitting there in the car while Sam waited outside. Stupid, he shook his head, and climbed out.
"Where to?" Sam asked, eyeing the row of rooms.
Usually they drove up to the one they ended up getting, but their door wasn't far. Dean pointed with his chin. "Fourteen."
Sam headed that way, Dean picking up the pace to catch up. There was only the barest hitch in Sam's stride to show he'd been injured—nearly died—and even that was something probably only Dean would notice. It was more obvious when Sam was tired, or when he moved too fast. Then he'd pale and wince, and for a second Dean would be back in the Wisconsin clearing with all the blood…
He bumped shoulders lightly with Sam. "Grab a shower, then we'll get something to eat before we hit the library."
That was their compromise, that Sam would help him with the research. It was his strength, anyway, and required nothing more strenuous than lifting a few books. The flop of hair nodded, then Sam glanced sideways at him through the strands. He really needed a haircut after all that recuperation time. "Where do you want to start?"
Dean shrugged. "All we know is four people have been poisoned, right? Maybe check out the local news, find out more about the victims and the details. Hack into the ME's files?"
Sam grinned. "You know that's not as easy as it sounds, right?"
"You can do it," Dean said carelessly, confidently. He stepped forward at the door and slid the key into the lock. A hand on his shoulder had him glancing back even as he jiggled it open.
Sam was watching him solemnly. "I'm all right, Dean."
It was a sucker punch. Dean blinked, momentarily caught in a wave of memory—you're gonna be all right, Sammy, just hang in there—eyes wide and blank. Or maybe not so much, if the way Sam's face softened was any sign. But Dean pulled himself back together, tucking all the pieces of confusion and why? and his shattered moral compass away again, and gave Sam a bright smile. "'Course you are, Sammy. You're a Winchester." Dad's line. The mantras of his childhood seemed to be his default script.
Sam didn't take it badly, just shook his head with exasperation and fondness. He pushed past Dean into the room, heading for the bathroom. "I'll be out in ten," he called over his shoulder, something new since Wisconsin. Like he was aware Dean always wanted to know where he was and how long he'd be.
Yeah, Dean sank down into the closest chair in the room, his face buried in one hand with no one there to be strong for now. They were both just fine.
Dean had an edge on him, Sam was man enough to admit, when it came to physical fighting. What he, er, lacked in height, Dean more than made up for in power and endurance, not to mention honed skill. It didn't stop Sam from going at it sometimes with him, for practice, for fun, for fraternal bonding. Sam just usually lost, face mashed into the carpet for a moment of victory before Dean would pull him up again with a grin and clap on the shoulder.
But Sam made up for it with the less obvious side of their profession. What miracles Dean could perform with a blade or a bow, Sam could with books and the internet. It had always been his strength, and he recognized with no small irony that three-plus years of college had made him an even better hunter in that respect. He knew where and how to look, and, more importantly, remembered everything.
So it was no hardship to be restricted to library duty now, while Dean went to charm some information out of the locals and check out the site where the bodies had been found. They would go together to visit victims' families if that turned out to be necessary; dealing with the bereaved was also more Sam's bag. But for the time being, sitting and reading while surrounded by the old-paper and glue smell of books was a balm to body and mind. If Sam hadn't been worried about his brother, he would have been in Heaven.
Not that he was afraid of Dean running into trouble. He definitely worried more about his brother these days, the image of a dying Dean in a hospital bed still too fresh in Sam's memory. But all the victims had disappeared at night, from their beds. There was no reason to think Dean would run afoul of the same fate in broad daylight in the center of town. No, the danger to his brother was far more subtle than that.
Sam sighed, rubbing idly at the scar above his hip. The knife had gone deep, wreaking all kinds of internal damage, but it was the torn abdominal muscle that was taking so long to heal. Every movement seemed to pull on the tough, less-elastic tissue, no matter how much Sam soaked and moisturized and cautiously exercised it. The only thing healing slower was the damage in Dean.
Two hands suddenly planted themselves on the tabletop in front of Sam. A circuit closed in him at the sight, his own recent near-loss leaving gaping holes in the paths of his thoughts and feelings that only Dean's presence really filled. Unconscious worry cleared, and Sam smiled up genuinely at his brother.
Dean was smirking, which usually meant success. Actually, it usually meant, "ha, ha, I got more than you did," but whatever. Their games had a softer edge these days.
"What?" Sam asked.
"Nothing at the site besides a lot of dirt and rocks, so I swung by the coroner's office. Guess what?"
"The coroner's assistant is young and blonde?"
"Brunette," Dean flashed a grin, "but that's not the point. Guess what showed up on all four of the victims' bodies?"
Sam shook his head, hands up in a tacit, I don't know, what?
"Two puncture wounds on the neck, about an inch apart."
Okay, he hadn't expected that. "What, like, vampires?"
Dean plopped into the chair across the table. "No such thing as vampires, bro, you know that. Think animals."
It didn't take much thinking. "Fangs? Snakes?"
"Bingo. Except we're not talking about your garden-variety rattler here. The venom isn't like anything they've got on record, and the bites are too high for a snake-strike unless the vics were lying down."
"Well," Sam canted his head, "the victims were taken from their beds…"
"Right. So a snake nobody's ever seen before gets into the bedrooms of four different people and bites them, then they all wander approximately to the same area to die. Yeah, that makes sense."
"Or, the snakes had a little help."
Dean looked at him levelly. "You thinkin' this isn't our kind of case, after all?"
"No, I think it's definitely our kind of case, just maybe this isn't about a simple snake."
Dean took a deep breath, hands toying with one of the books on the table. For once, Sam had no idea what he was thinking, whether he was hoping this wasn't their kind of job so they could have a little more time off, or looking forward to something he could unleash himself on. "Okay, well, I still say we find the snake, we stop the killings. Any ideas where to start?"
"Actually," Sam turned one of open books around to face Dean, "I do." He pointed to a page of newsprint. "I was looking for anything that coincided with the first death, and besides the usual construction activity, births, and meteorological events, I found this."
Dean bent over to read. "'Farm bequeathed to town.'" He looked up with a tiny smile. "Ooh, scary."
"It also just so happens that while the four victims weren't related, they did have one thing in common." Dean's raised eyebrow invited Sam to continue. "They were all vocal about wanting to have the farmland sold to the state for development."
"Huh." Dean was slowly nodding. "So, the snake lives on the farmland, gets wind he might be evicted soon, and goes hunting. Pretty smart snake."
"It could be a lindorm, or some sort of Native American spirit—some of them took the form of snakes."
Dean thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Whatever it is, after tonight, it's gonna be toast."
Sam leaned back gingerly in his seat. "You sure about this, man? I mean, this thing's killed four people already, controlling them some way we don't know yet. And you're gonna be on its territory."
"Sam, it's a snake, and I'm not gonna be flat on my back asleep. I'll take along the usual spread just in case bullets and blades don't work on it, but this isn't a big deal. I tackled worse when I was hunting alone."
"You are hunting alone," Sam pointed out.
"No," Dean said firmly, "I'm not."
Sam knew when to back off. Dean wasn't ready yet for anything that even smacked of a reminder of how close he'd come to losing Sam, and that seemed to include any reference to his being on his own. Sam just raised a placating hand—sorry—and shook his head. He couldn't do denial indefinitely, but a little longer wouldn't hurt anything.
A moment of bafflement filtered through Dean's eyes as his brother also seemed to wonder where that had come from, followed by a look of silent apology. Then Dean suddenly grinned and swatted Sam's arm. "You hungry? Research always makes me hungry."
Sam pushed himself onto his feet under watchful eyes, hearing the slightly too-bright tone but willing to play along even though he knew Dean would eat even less than he did. "Everything makes you hungry. What took you so long, anyway? You and the morgue girl didn't…you know."
"In the morgue? Dude, what do you take me for, a freak?"
Sam laughed, aching stomach be damned.
Sunset was still two hours away when they returned to the room. Dean started pulling out the weapons. Sam sat reading over his notes and chewing on a nail, pretending not to watch him get ready for battle. He looked uneasy, and Dean knew how he felt. He didn't care so much about the hunting alone part, but he wasn't crazy about leaving Sam alone, even in the relative safety of the motel room. It hadn't been a supernatural that had almost taken his brother from him in Wisconsin, just a stupid human with a knife. Sam had looked as stunned as Dean felt when the knife had buried itself in his gut. And Dean had just stood there again, healthy and safe, while another had taken his place…
Dean shied away from the memory and kept sorting through what he needed.
Sam finally spit out his thumb. "Dean—"
"You're not coming, Sam," he said flatly.
"I don't have to get in the fight. I'll just hang back and watch. You know, just in case."
"Yeah, and we'll just ask the nice snake not to go after you. Forget it—you know it doesn't work that way. If you're there, you're a target." He could have pointed out that he would have enough to do watching his own back without watching Sam's, too, but there was no reason to be mean. Sam worried about him more since the electrocution, and while Dean didn't like it, he understood it.
"This wasn't why you were saved, so you could do something reckless."
"No, it was so I could almost get you killed," Dean muttered without thinking. His head shot up as soon as he realized what he'd said, to see Sam's wide eyes.
"Is that what you think?"
"No," Dean said quickly. Raked a hand through his hair. "My mind's on tonight, sorry."
"You get focused before a hunt, Dean, not distracted. You weren't responsible for—"
"Shut up, Sam, okay? Just…shut up."
Sam leaned forward, not listening to him, as usual. "Dean, man, what happened to you has nothing to do with what happened in Wisconsin. All right? That was just…bad luck."
The words, the topic, stabbed deep into places that still hurt, and Dean jammed the knife he was checking back into its sheath with tightly-controlled anger. "Right, the bad luck of running into someone who blamed me for the death of his sister and took it out on you." He stared hard at his brother. "So why did Roy pick me, Sam, then, huh? Why not Layla—she's a good person. Or even Marshall—he was a teacher. You tell me, Sam, why?"
"I don't know, Dean," Sam said earnestly. "But Marshall would have died even without you there, and if we'd let Roy save Layla, then someone else would have died in her place, too. It wasn't about you."
"Feels like it," Dean muttered, turning away to check boots that were already laced and knotted, because he didn't want Sam to see his eyes. Or to see Sam's in return.
"Dean," Sam said gently, the way that always reminded Dean how very much he'd missed this kid the last three years. "Roy said you still had an important job to do, right? I mean, it's almost like he knew what we do, how many lives you've saved. Don't throw it away doing something stupid, all right?"
He wanted to stay mad, to yell at Sam and all that stupid little-brother sincerity that had coaxed Dean into Roy LeGrange's tent in the first place. But his brother's life was a far greater gift to him than his own, and Dean just couldn't find the anger. It had been replaced in Wisconsin with a more nebulous ache. "I'm not going to do something stupid," Dean finally mumbled, hands finally stilling.
"Fine." He heard Sam exhale, but apparently his brother still wasn't done. "I don't like you going out alone like this, Dean."
Dean finally looked up, because that objection wasn't ignorable. "Dude, would you cut the mom act? It's a straightforward track-and-kill. It doesn't get a lot simpler than that. I let you say your thing, I said I'd be careful, and I have my cell, okay? Anything goes wrong, you'll be the first to know."
Sam snorted. "Yeah, and then I'll just jog on out there, right?"
rose. "You want me to leave you the car? Would that make you feel
Sam blinked at him. He was clearly shocked by the offer, as if he'd ever come after the Impala. "No," he said quietly, shaking his head. "Just don't make me regret not having it, all right?"
Dean suddenly grinned. "Hey, you know me."
"I rest my case," Sam said dryly.
The banter relaxed Dean and the tension between them, and made leaving a little easier. Dean waved away his brother's protest, checked his gun one last time, and slipped it into his pocket. He was ready. He gave Sam a serious look. "While I'm gone, you don't let anybody in the room. I don't care if it's Carmen Electra in a bikini, you don't open that door, got it?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "I'm not you, man."
Any other time, the teasing response would have elicited an answer in kind, but that was before they'd been given a very costly second chance. "Exactly. So just…be careful. And if I don't come back by morning, you call Matthew—he's the closest to us right now, he can be here in an hour."
"Dude, I'm not helpless," Sam said without heat. For all the protesting, he would know why Dean was doing this.
"No, but you're not at your peak, either. And if you see any snakes at all, I don't care if it's a baby garter, you blow that sucker to pieces, you got it?"
"Yes, Dean." Sam had moved on to long-suffering.
He was humoring him, but Dean didn't care as long as he listened. He couldn't stand the thought of coming back to the room and finding… Dean swallowed, wondering once more about the near-misses of the last month, of being chosen to live, then Sam nearly dying. Would life ever make sense again? "Good," Dean said thickly, nodding. "Make sure you do."
"Dean," Sam said. "I'm safe here, all right? Entries are salted, I've got a whole arsenal on hand, and I can move if I need to. Don't worry about me, just get this done."
Don't let the distraction of worrying about me get you killed, Dean could hear the unspoken. He wasn't the only one who'd come out of this gun-shy.
"Dean," Sam repeated forcefully, and Dean realized he hadn't responded.
"All right, all right," Dean groused, but not joking. "I get the message. You're a big boy."
"I'll get some pizza and beer while you're gone."
"You better leave me some." He managed a grin that was mostly like his old self, and slipped out the door.
Sam sank back in his chair as the door closed, feeling drained and ready for bed. But now came the hardest and most demanding part of all. Now, he waited.
He managed to shove down the memory of Dean dying when he was with his brother and could see his healthy, un-pale face. But left alone, ghosts of memory crowded Sam's head. For days, Dean had been dying, and Sam helpless to do anything about it. The reminder still sent painful shivers down his back. The horror was fading with time and distance, but not gone completely, especially when Dean wasn't there as visual proof it was just a memory. In their own way, both of them were still struggling with the events of the past month.
Well, that didn't mean he had to sit there and dwell on it, right? After only twenty-four hours, their room was a disaster. Sam got up stiffly and started to clean, putting most of the weapons away, throwing out remnants of food wrappers and gluey leftovers, sorting laundry.
Gone from their meager inventory of supplies was the shirt and jeans Sam had been wearing when he'd been stabbed. He had few enough pairs of pants to begin with and they'd have to seek out a thrift store soon to stock up. He knew Dean's stuff almost as well as his own, and his brother was down a few, too. Probably got some things saturated with Sam's blood and threw them out. Their own blood in their clothes was washable; the other's was unbearable. He'd lost a few shirts to Dean's injuries, too, and never regretted them.
Sam sighed, separating dirty from clean for a laundry run later. Not now because he'd promised he'd stay put, and Dean would freak out if he came back and Sam were gone. And not in the disobeyed-big-brother kinda amusing way, but in the terrified I-thought-I-lost-you-again way that Sam would do anything to spare him. They'd both skirted death that last month, but Sam had been so intent on finding a way to save Dean, while Dean had been just as sure he couldn't save Sam. What pained Sam sometimes in solitude was a raw wound for Dean. The conversation they'd just had confirmed that the two near-deaths were as much on Dean's mind as ever.
Sam's near loss had at least seemed to bring some clarity to Dean: he no longer resented Sam's part in his healing, was no longer mad at the world for it, nor regretted being alive. Sam had risked Dean's trust in his desperation to heal his brother, and lived in fear for days after that he'd lost the brother he knew in the process. Wisconsin had proven he hadn't, and Sam was profoundly grateful for that.
But Dean hadn't bounced back completely. Anger had changed into bewilderment, a lostness Sam had never before seen in his brother. Dean had accepted that his life was a gift, but the why of it still escaped him. He was floundering without that certainty of purpose, the black and white he'd always lived in, no matter how much he tried to hide it. And Sam didn't know how to help him find it again. All he could do, all he continued to do, was be there for his brother, reassuring and distracting and nudging by turns as Dean needed it, and hope that was enough for him to eventually figure it out.
In the meantime, they had a job to do, and the work was good for both of them. Sam quit pointlessly turning the matter over and dropped the laundry pile by the door. There. The room wasn't much, but it was their home for the moment and it was clean.
And he was already tired. With a weary groan, Sam flopped down on his bed and grabbed the remote. TV would take his mind off the what-ifs and the image of Dean in that hospital bed. Sam was as good at self-distraction as his brother.
The next thing he knew was the rattle of the door, and Sam fell instantly from sleep to alert, gun in hand before he could even process he wanted it or think about where he'd put it.
Dean stepped inside, barely glancing at the armed greeting, although Sam could see the flicker of amusement and approval in his face as he turned away to shut the door and shuck his gear. "Miss me?" he asked lightly.
Sam studied his every motion, looking for signs of injury, blood, limited motion. But besides some dirt and sweat, Dean looked the same as when he'd headed out, and Sam's pounding heart slowly settled. "No. You woke me up."
"Good." Sam couldn't tell if that was for his having slept or for Dean waking him. "You get the pizza?"
"Oh." He yawned, rubbing his eyes self-consciously. "No. Sorry. I fell asleep first."
"S'okay, I'll call it in in a minute." Eyes shrewdly swept him. "You okay?"
"I'm fine. Dean—"
"Just give me a minute and I'll tell you all about it." And then, because he had a brother, too, "I'm fine, Sam," he added with a sideways glance. "Found the snake—it wasn't a spirit or god or whatever, research boy, just a mean mother—chopped it into sushi and burned it, no sweat."
"Yeah, right—dude, I can smell you from here," Sam said with a wan smile, pushing himself up against the headboard. Pizza was starting to sound better and better, even at, he glanced at the clock, almost one a.m.
Dean sniffed delicately under his arm and grimaced. "Good thing you're doing laundry tomorrow," he said with a grin.
Sam muttered something that had Dean choking on a surprised laugh.
And even though he was tired and sore, and Dean kept looking at him with that dark, speculative gaze he'd had of late, sharing pizza, beer, and the late-night creature feature with his brother made it one of the best evenings Sam could remember in a long time.
Maybe they would manage to find their way back to normal, after all.
Dean's eyes opened to darkness. After a second of disorientation, he expanded his senses, searching for what had woken him.
He checked Sam first, but his brother's soft breaths nearby indicated deep, dreamless sleep. He was fine. Dean passed him over, kept searching for the source of his disturbance.
There. A fine rattle of the lock, like someone trying to pick it.
"Sam," he whispered, and heard the rhythm of his brother's respirations change. "Door."
Without a sound, Dean slid his hand under his pillow and grasped his knife, and knew that Sam would be similarly armed.
And then the door burst open.
Dean's eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, and even against the faint light from the parking lot, it wasn't hard to make out the dark shapes pouring in. But there was a whole stream of them, and suddenly a knife seemed like scant protection.
Didn't matter now. Dean lunged between the threat and his brother and dove in.
It didn't take long to confirm what the threat was. Soft flesh yielded to his blade, and the resulting cries and yelps were human. So were the fists that sometimes dealt him glancing blows, but he barely felt them, just kept fighting.
Sam, to his left now, grunted under some impact. Roaring his rage, Dean stopped holding back and plowed in all the harder. If a human died under his knife, it would be their fault, not his. They'd invaded his home and hurt Sam, and that made them fair game.
But for every one that went down under his fists and feet and blade, there were two more. The numbers were overwhelming. Dean started falling back.
"Dean!" There was sheer panic in Sam's voice, whether for himself or for Dean.
It had the same effect. Dean's vision went red, the dark bobbing shapes mere obstacles to be mowed down to reach his brother, who needed him. There was a shriek as Dean buried his blade to the hilt in something that was hard to pull it from, but he wrenched it free, kept going, fighting to reach Sam with every trick he knew.
Another cry from his brother, more inarticulate than the last, and something primal and desperate heaved in Dean. Thrust, kick, twist the blade: moves he'd learned not from his dad, but the hard way, fighting for his life, for Sam's life. He couldn't lose Sam, not again, this wasn't why he'd gotten Sam back, his own life back, damn all these people to Hell.
Something hard contacted the back of Dean's head, and his limbs suddenly became boneless.
"No!" Sam again.
God, Dean wanted to get to him. Tears of frustration, of fury and impotence burned his eyes, but another blow, this time to his upper back, drove him to his knees. He fought to rise anyway on legs that had no strength.
The third strike, to his temple, crashed him headfirst to the ground, knife clattering out of his grip.
Sammy. Pain. Fear. Little brother. Protect.
Dean couldn't move.
Feet shuffled around him, soft moans and curses. A few unceremonious jabs in his side and arms, like he was being tested for doneness, and then motionless silence. He was alone.
Sam was gone.
This wasn't supposed to happen this way, not after everything they'd survived. Dean's purpose couldn't be to live and fight alone. He didn't want that "gift."
But Sam was gone.
Dean allowed one moment of stark anguish at the thought, tasting saltwater on his lips. And then he started fighting again.
It was hard; his body didn't want to listen to him. His limbs spasmed, out of control, and his head rolled uselessly on the carpet. Dean kept pushing. He'd given up on himself a few times over the years, and though he'd never tell Sam, he'd even briefly given up on John after their father's failure to put in an appearance either in Kansas or in Nebraska. But he never had, never would give up on Sam.
Dean's fingers slowly crept up to and closed around the hilt of his knife.
He gained his knees, head hanging heavily. Car doors slammed in the distance. Knelt upright, fighting a rush of bile and a spinning room. Blood was trickling down his collar, Dean noted with disinterest. On his feet, swaying, as an engine started. They were taking Sam.
They couldn't have him. Simple as that. Dean staggered toward the door, every step firming.
The van was just lurching out of the parking lot as Dean reached the doorway, and he cast a photographic gaze over it. The license plate was too far to read, but he caught every other detail, memorized the sound of the motor. He would know that van if he had to find it.
But that wasn't Plan A. Dean threw himself at the Impala, car already started as he slammed the door. Even his baby was scant comfort now, but she would help him get to Sam, and that made her priceless. Dean threw her in reverse and peeled out after the van.
It was the middle of the night, and they were outside town. The streets were empty. Dean kept his distance and the lights off. He'd flicked off the radio as soon as the first chord of music started blaring, concentrating on nothing else but staying on the road and the distant dark van. After a few miles, he already had a suspicion about where they were going.
Two more turns, and Dean edged up close enough to read the plates. Gotcha. Dean fished out his cell and called the police. Different game, different rules. Not that he had any qualms about taking out people himself, but the numbers were against him and, as in Wisconsin, the enemy wasn't from their world.
And that had turned out so well. Dean was really sick of the evil of his supposedly own kind. Give him a banshee or a black dog any day. With Sam at his side.
Dean felt just plain sick. He swallowed and kept driving.
The van turned onto the farmland property he'd prowled just that evening. So, the snake had had accomplices, after all, Dean grimaced. He watched the vehicle park near a line of trees, disgorging a small, robed horde. Four of them carried a bound and gagged body between them, and Dean's heart pounded until he saw it struggle. Sam was still alive. It was all that mattered now.
Dean parked just down the road where the cops would easily see his car, slipped out the door, and went in.
It wasn't hard to trail the group without being spotted. The moon was new, and there was plenty of tree cover in front of the farm. It was where the treeline ended and the open farmland began, now just a tangle of knee-high weeds and grasses, that Dean crouched to watch.
There was a large stone construction at one edge of the field that Dean had taken for an outdoor grill on his first visit. Apparently, it also served as an altar in a pinch, because Sam was heaved on top of it. Had to be some kind of ritual, but Dean was still baffled about the why until two of the robed figures held up an effigy of a snake and circled the altar with it.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Dean muttered. The snake was these guys' god? No wonder they were ready to sacrifice Sam. Two more robed people cut his arms free and tied them to either side of the altar, his legs left bound together. No creativity in these rites, Dean shook his head. The humor was an effort to hang on to what sanity he had left as two more worshippers stood on either side of Sam and started to paint his chest. Dean would have bet good money their paint was deep red and not available in stores.
Sam writhed, trying with all he had to get loose, and for all his admiration for his little brother's fight, Dean winced at each lurch of his body against stone and rope. He wished he could let Sam know he was there, that he was all right, to quit struggling so hard and hurting himself. Instead, all he could do was watch.
He was too mad to feel the fear.
Torn out of bed in the middle of the night would have been insult enough. Tying him up and dragging him out to some sort of stone altar didn't win them any points, either. But having seen Dean go down while trying to come to Sam's rescue, that made him lose it. He knew how much it required to take out his brother when Dean was fighting for Sam's life.
Maybe the anger really was fear.
Sam struggled against the ropes, knowing it was fruitless. He'd only been semi-conscious when they'd tied him up in the vehicle, and they'd been able to do a good job. The snug, rough fiber sawed at his skin with every movement, until his wrists throbbed and stung. But he wasn't going down without a fight. Dean needed him.
And he desperately needed Dean.
Two figures in long, dark robes came up on either side of him, faces hidden in the shadows of their hoods. A shiver of fear went through Sam at his vulnerability: feet tied together, arms tied down, clothed only in the shorts he'd been sleeping in. The knife wound in his belly pulsed hot with all the exertion, but Sam felt it and the cold air on his skin only distantly, too busy twisting away from the hands that reached toward him.
Holding paintbrushes. What the—?
The bristles scratched his skin lightly and left something cool and wet behind on his chest. They were decorating him with sigils of some kind; Sam couldn't see what. But he knew what they were for. Sacrifice.
He struggled harder, chest and throat going tight with terror. He was going to die here, alone. Dean would be called to identify some grotesque remains, and if the last month had nearly broken him, Sam's death would be the final devastating blow.
Sam yelled around the fiber of the gag and lurched again, smearing the brushes' work on his sternum.
One of the painters drew back and called to another robed man, who soon came, cup in hand. Brutal fingers yanked the gag free and squeezed Sam's jaw, forcing his lips open. His eyes widened in panic as he realized what was coming, but there was no escape. Most of the bitter liquid ran down his throat before Sam could cough, and the gag was jammed back, living up its name as Sam heaved. For a minute, he thought he'd choke on his own vomit, but the nausea quickly passed, bringing with it the first wave of lassitude.
The beginning of death. Sam raged against it even as it slowly gained ground.
Oh, God, please, not like this. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought. Sam was torn between wishing his brother were at least with him if he was going to die, and not wanting Dean to see what had happened despite his best efforts to protect Sam. Dean had been trying so hard to see the meaning behind everything that had happened, to find his way again. What sense did this make?
He wanted Dean. If they killed him… well, being a sacrifice suddenly lost a lot of its horror.
Sam's head grew heavy, sagging to one side. The scenery was a smear of darkness, the voices around him a distant buzz. There was a tiny splotch of color in the distance, a face in the trees, and Sam tried to use that as a focal point for his thick thoughts. Something wasn't right, but comprehension had grown fuzzy. Sam was scared and just wanted his brother. The distant spot bobbed, and he closed his eyes, feeling sick again.
Something warm dribbled over his ribs and stomach, then down his legs, and Sam yanked his attention back with effort to what was going on around him. One of the robed men—they all looked alike—was pouring some kind of oil on him. Definitely preparation for a sacrifice, but Sam could only buck weakly now. It didn't discourage the libation at all.
That was when he saw another hooded man approach, a small flame in his hand.
Oil and fire. A burnt sacrifice. Fear sharpened Sam's blunt thoughts. He was not going to die a sacrifice to a pagan god. His mind was muddy, swollen and pressing against his skull and hard to focus, but you couldn't drug twenty-two years of instincts into submission.
Sam watched the man approach, lying still and fighting the stupor that lapped at his thoughts as he waited. His body would know the right moment.
There it was. Sam heard a scream, not sure if it was his own as he drew back his legs and kicked out, hard. He connected with the robed man's chest, sending him tumbling away as Sam collapsed back to the stone, spent. His eyes fluttered shut, the lethargy too pervasive to fight anymore.
And then the world went bright around him.
When the third guy had come up to the altar, Dean thought it was to tie Sam's legs down, and his heart had slammed into his chest at the thought of Sam spread-eagled and helpless. But no, apparently they believed in a different kind of bondage for their sacrifices. The cultist had drugged Sam instead, and Dean thought his bones were going to snap from the tension of staying hidden and watching Sam be violated like that. But wading into the twenty or so cultists alone, with no back-up, would have been suicide, for him and Sam. No, he had to wait, and grind his teeth to keep from screaming.
His brother's motions slowed, legs pawing only lazily at the stone now. The dark head lolled his way, and if Dean would have been closer, he could have looked right into the now doubtlessly dull eyes. Frustration and grief briefly supplanted the anger: why? Why Sam, why after everything, and why not him? Sam kept getting hurt for Dean's hunts—was this the big gift, being given his life back so others could suffer in his place? So that he could continue the hunt alone, leaving Sam in a grave back in Kansas? Layla, Marshall, Sam—they'd all deserved better. There was no justice in Dean surviving them all.
Not that he would if he lost Sam.
The painting was apparently finished, the robed figures stepping back. Sam moved only sluggishly, barely struggling, even when they poured something over his body. It looked clear, probably wine or oil, maybe some sort of ritual purification. Dean saw the nearly naked body shiver from it, and he strained to hear sirens. But there was nothing. They had to be nearing the end of the ritual. Should he go in anyway, hope help arrived in time? If it didn't, Dean would be killed. Far worse, Sam would be, too.
Then the decision was made for him.
No primitive knives for this ritual. One robed guy went up to the altar and flicked a lighter on.
Dean's whole body lurched in sick realization. Oh, God, no.
With an inhuman cry, he sprang from the trees. Just as Sam coiled and kicked, sending the guy sprawling, the flame tumbling from his hand. It flickered out.
Dean ran with everything he had, closing the gap between himself and his brother. He aimed the gun when he was close enough to be able to start picking off cultists.
And then with movie-perfect timing, the cavalry arrived.
"This is the police. Stop where you are and put your hands up!"
Flashlights and spotlights flicked on from behind him, illuminating the aborted sacrificial scene ahead with stark light. Men in black jumpsuits and gear appeared from the direction of the road, weapons trained on the cultists.
Probably him, too, but Dean dropped the gun and kept running.
He was close enough now to see that Sam's eyes were closed, his body limp on the stone surface. The head cultist, a few feet away, was struggling to regain his lighter. Dean kicked the object away, and stomped on the reaching wrist hard enough to crush bone. The guy screamed and grabbed his hand back, but Dean's attention had already moved on.
A second more and Dean could smell the blood and oil now, and see Sam's chest rising and falling, the rhythm fast. He was still fighting, and Dean felt a stab of pride to go along with the relief as he closed the final gap, knife already in hand. No use to making himself a target; Dean angled himself between Sam and the approaching army, hiding the blade from their view, and started sawing at ropes.
His face was bruised and flushed below the gag, and his pulse throbbed heavily under Dean's grip on his wrist. But Sam's head rolled at the sound of his voice.
"Come on, Sammy, open your eyes." One wrist free, if chafed through to muscle. Dean eased it down onto Sam's ribs before moving on to the other. "Sam? Listen to me—it's over now. You're safe."
He was trying to open his eyes; Dean could see the effort. He eased the rope off the second abraded wrist, then ran hands down shoulders, arms, ribs. Nothing broken, just scraped and bruised, the scar above his waist an angry red. Dean was careful as he moved back up to Sam's head to ease the gag free. It had bit into the corners of his mouth, leaving small flecks of blood. Sam's jaw moved, first in apparent stretching to relieve the soreness, but then managing a dry whisper. "Dean." It seemed all he was capable of saying, but it was enough. Had always been enough.
Dean scooped his brother up, leaning the shivering body against himself as he awkwardly worked himself free of his coat and wrapped it around Sam. "I've got you, Sammy. You're safe. You're safe."
He had to be freezing and sore and confused, but he curled into Dean, the dark head dropping onto his older brother's shoulder with knowing trust.
Dean grinned, feeling wobbly and broken and mended and high. "Okay," he conceded with a tilt of the head, "Raincheck on the eye-opening bit. But I'm gonna hold you to it, Sam."
He could feel Sam's mouth twitch, head turning with difficulty toward the warmth Dean offered. Sam dragged a hand across his lap as if it weighed as much as his whole body.
They'd still have to figure out what he was dosed with. Dean belatedly realized Sam's feet were also still tied, and cut the rope with one hard slice of his knife and a murmur about kinkiness that Sam was too out of it to appreciate. Dean found his throat tightening again as he held his brother close, watching the cops approach. He rested his head against Sam's, closing his eyes against his own weakness and aches and scrambled emotions. But it was with more certainty than he'd felt in a long time that Dean whispered into the dark hair, "Everything's okay, just rest. We're okay."
Sam opened his eyes as if snapping out of a nightmare. But the fear that lingered was more distant, and this was no motel room dream. Hospital, if the bland walls and the smell were any sign, but it didn't matter: upon waking, he always sought Dean out first as touchpoint no matter where he was.
The dark blond head came into sight on his left, face hidden in slowly scrubbing hands. Not quite despair, but a soul-weary fatigue Sam hadn't recalled seeing before Stanford but had glimpsed more than once since. Sam's instant relief faded into something more uncertain. "Dean?" he said hoarsely. He was sore and weak and far too tired to have just woken.
"Yeah, Sam." Dean's voice was low, measured. He didn't look up.
"What happened?" The fear had crystallized into memory.
Dean's hands fell away. There was a purpling bruise on the side of his face, leaking into the skin around his left eye, and his sclera were red with fatigue and strain. Sam wondered which of them looked worse. "Our friendly neighborhood snake had its own cult." The words were spoken on a sigh. "They weren't too happy about me killing their god, so they were gonna sacrifice you instead. I don't know, something about making atonement."
Dean's eyebrows rose. "You nearly get barbequed as an offering for a friggin' snake and that's all you can say? 'Huh?'"
Dean scoffed. "Yeah, for the cops, maybe. I had to sit there and watch you get tied out and marinated and, oh yeah, almost lit on fire. If you hadn't kicked that guy…"
That part was a little hazy in his memory, but Sam knew whatever he had tried would have ultimately failed, just as he knew without question Dean had saved his life. "Are you okay?" He thought he could remember Dean going down under a mass of bodies, and the old fear stabbed him again briefly.
"I'm fine, Sam," Dean said roughly, in a voice that was anything but.
They weren't talking physical here, though, and Sam rolled back to look at the ceiling with a sigh. "I didn't know if they'd killed you," he admitted in a whisper.
There was a pause, then a pat on his arm from a hand that always comforted instinctively even if it grew awkward when conscious of what it was doing. "Know the feeling, bro."
It had taken him a while to understand why Dean hadn't fought death harder after the electrocution. Sam knew his brother thought it was a good way to die, saving kids in a fight, and that some part of Dean thought accepting his fate would make things "easier" for Sam, as if that were in any way possible. As if they'd ever done things the easy way. The simple fact, however, was that Dean was better at giving than getting. The last donut, the first shower, the you're safe hug after a last-minute rescue, his life. All of it offered freely to Sam, all so hard for Dean to accept in return.
Which was just who his big brother was, and Sam got that and could live with it, usually. But if Dean had lost sight of his own importance, that Sam needed him as much as the other way around, that he couldn't turn a blind eye to. If Sam's going to school had made his brother feel in any way expendable, well, then he just had to change Dean's mind.
Yeah, because Dean wasn't at all stubborn.
Sam gazed at the blond head miserably, throat and heart tight with how much he thought of and loved the jerk, and how bad he was at showing it. The last few serious talks they'd had, one of them had been dying, he'd just walked out on Dean, or had drilled his brother full of rock salt. Not an impressive history.
"Dean," he started, stopped when his brother's uncertain gaze met his. Oddly, it made Sam a little more certain. "You saved my life back there."
"Maybe it wouldn't keep needing saving if—"
"Would you just shut up for a minute!" The snap surprised them both. Sam grimaced apologetically. "Hey," he continued more softly, "what we do, I know I give you grief about it, but it is important. You've saved a lot of lives—you saved my life, again. And, I don't know, Dean, but maybe that's what Roy saw in you, too. Maybe that's why you were chosen."
Dean chuffed helplessly. "To save your sorry ass?" But he was flailing, trying to find a foothold.
Sam gave him a tiny smile. "Among other things, maybe."
"Gee, Sammy, conceited much?"
"I meant what I said at the bus station—I'm not leaving. But I can't do this alone, Dean." His brother would have laughed at the irony of how much Sam missed seeing him confidently taking the lead again.
Dean looked away.
And Sam lay back to wait for him as long as it would take.
The funny, stupid, sad thing about all this was, he could accept watching Sam's back as a reason for living. When saving others and himself paled as reasons for another to die in his place, Dean could believe he'd been saved for his brother. How…well, pathetic was that?
But this was the kid he'd raised, loved more like a parent than a brother no matter how much Sam chafed, and put everything good of himself into. Dean would die for Sam without a second's hesitation.
Now Sam was asking him to live for him.
Well, not just for him. There was also the job Dean had clung to during those years when Sam was gone and John might as well have been, and hunting was all Dean had. Sam's return had showed him how tarnished that purpose really was. But while the motel room and girl and fake credit card in every port thing got old, helping people didn't. He let Sam's anger get him defensive sometimes, but the truth was some part of Dean still believed in what he did. That what they'd done in Nebraska was right. That Roy had seen something in him, and that letting him save Layla at that cost would have been wrong, would have made things even worse.
And that Sam needed him.
If that didn't make it all okay, at least it made it bearable.
"Sammy…" Dean choked, hating this, hating Sam seeing him this way, but so relieved at the same time Sam was there to see him at all. He felt broken and put back together all wrong, but Sam kept picking at the pieces, determined to sort him out and fix him. And with his brother's determination, Dean could believe he just might do it.
Dean heard him sit up, waiting for him.
He took a breath, and the plunge. "Look, I…I'll think about it. Okay?" It was also a promise to talk, to let Sam help him try to figure it out, and right now that was the best Dean could offer. Events were still too fresh to hash out in one conversation or one hospital vigil no matter how much they both wanted it. But, yeah, he did want it. Dean glanced up into those hopelessly soft eyes. They would have accepted nothing less from him.
Sam smiled at him, that same smile when he'd asked for something as a kid and Dean said "maybe" and they both knew it meant yes. He didn't mean yes now, but…maybe. Time would heal, Dean was still praying for that miracle for Layla, and Sam for all his touchy-feeliness had given him a lot to think about. At the least, hanging around to watch his brother's back was a purpose he could get behind.
Dean sighed at Sam's unrelenting joy, knowing he'd just filled yet another big brother role: being twisted around little brothers' fingers. It didn't matter if it had been for Dean's sake; it never had. "Jessica totally ruined you, you know that?" he grumbled, before things dissolved utterly into mush. "Next you'll be wanting to discuss our relationship and feelings about each other."
"Naw, I already know you love me."
"Sam," Dean growled. It was good to see him happy, but enough already.
A moment passed, then Sam winced and swayed, dropping his head forward dizzily against his bent knees.
"Whoa!" Dean jumped up, easing him back down flat. "You okay?" Sam nodded once, eyes closed and brow drawn. Dean's shoulders didn't relax. "The snake priest gave you some kind of sedative—it should've worn off by now, but you also got knocked in the head and you were already supposed to be taking it easy. No sudden moves, okay? I don't want to be picking you up off the floor."
"Dean, I wanna go home."
"How about we wait until you can stand without doing a face-plant?"
"How about you find a wheelchair and get me out of here?" Sam countered.
It hadn't escaped Dean that Sam hadn't reopened his eyes. The way he was hanging on to the sheets, too, gave Dean some idea how much things were still spinning. He switched to coaxing instead of pushing; Sam hadn't reacted well to being told what to do since way before his teen years, but he wasn't the only one good at fraternal manipulation. "How about I stay here while you get a little more sleep, then I'll break you out? I can't promise home, but the motel owner's afraid we're gonna sue him and he upgraded the room. Free mini bar and everything."
Sam exhaled. "Fine." He suddenly chuckled. "Afraid we're gonna sue him, huh? I wonder how he got that idea."
"No clue," Dean said blithely. "Rest, dude." No need to mention the blood on the carpet, the half-dozen cultists that were in the hospital, two critical, nor the hour of interrogation by the police before everyone had conceded they were the victims here.
Victims. Not the bad guys. Not this time.
It was shaky, but more than he'd had in Wisconsin, or Nebraska. And Sam was fighting for him, unwilling to let him believe anything else. That part was bedrock.
"Dean?" His brother sounded five when he was drowsy.
Dean smiled. "What, Sam?"
"We should go see that movie when it comes out."
"What movie?" he asked, eyes narrowing.
"Snakes on a Plane." Sam cracked an eye at him, and convulsed once in a silent laugh.
Dean couldn't help the shudder, and the smile that threatened to sneak past his best glare. "Shut up and go to sleep, Sam."