Disclaimer: No profit is made from this story...unless you count the fun I've had making our boys squirm a bit and in getting to know all of my readers. I appreciate every last one of you.

A/N: I'm re-posting the final chapter of "Crotalus" as a preface to "Atrox" so that readers can have a quick refresher on the storyline before heading into "Atrox", proper. I hope to post the first chapter later tonight!!! I am doing better health-wise and will do my utmost to update regularly.

Crotalus (Atrox Preface)

Chapter 14: Pandora's Box

The mention of his brother's name was all it took for the tears to wash down Sam's face. Couldn't Bobby understand that Dean was precisely the reason why he couldn't sign that form? If Sam lost his arm, he was out of the game. And if he couldn't hunt, how was he going to save Dean from the deal he'd made with the Crossroads Demon?

"Oh, my God," Bobby sputtered breathlessly. "That's it, isn't? You won't sign because of Dean's deal. You think that if you lose the arm, you won't be able to get Dean out of that damned deal. This whole thing, all of it, it's about Dean, isn't it?"

"What about Dean?," a familiar voice boomed from the doorway. Turning towards the sound, Sam and Bobby saw the older sibling leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe, arms crossed casually in front of his chest and a smugly cherubic grin lighting his face.

"Dean," Bobby said hesitantly, wondering just how much of the horrible things he'd said to Sam that the older boy might have heard.

Dean watched lustfully as the irritatingly jaunty Kelli flounced back into the room, her ample bosom bouncing with her motions nearly as much as her golden curls. "Sorry, I'm interrupting, guys," the nurse twittered with a schoolgirl giggle, "but it's time for Sam to get washed up and his bed linens need to be changed. You can come back in when we're done."

Bobby was actually relieved for the interruption. He really needed to talk to Dean. The article about Samuel Colt that he'd read in "Guns & Ammo" was troubling enough, but the bombshell that had been dropped regarding Sam's arm had put a twist of desperation into his mood.

The older hunter followed Dean out the door, having to give him a firm nudge to keep him moving as he looked confusedly back over his shoulder at his younger brother. Sam sat passively on the bed, his eyes averted downward as he tried to hide his attempts to swipe at the wash of tears still trickling down his cheeks. "Is Sammy ok, Bobby? He looks really pale."

Once outside the door, the eldest boy got his first good look at Bobby's face and the rather strained and severe expression it held. "Look, Bobby," Dean gushed, "before you jump all over me for being back here so so-..."

"I'm glad you're here, Dean. We've got to talk."

"You are?," Dean questioned, the astonishment clear in his voice. "I thought for sure you'd be tearing me a new one becau-..."

"We've got trouble, Dean. Big trouble, and plenty of it."

"It's Sammy, isn't it?," Dean questioned anxiously as he subconsciously began to pace furiously back and forth in front of the closed door of his younger brother's room. "I knew something would happen if I left."

No, Dean, Bobby thought ruefully, something would have happened had you stayed. Most likely, you'd have knocked Hartzell's ass into next week and ended up in jail with Hendrickson just drooling over the prospect of getting his mitts on you. "Dean, just calm down and listen to me. You have to promise me that you won't interrupt until I'm done."

A growing pit was carving its way into Dean's stomach at the implications behind the elder hunter's words. Bobby was serious...deadly serious. "What's going on, Bobby? I could swear Sam was crying. Aren't they giving him enough pain medication?"

"While you were gone, there was a Dr. Hartzell that came in. He's a surgeon. A real arrogant S. O. B.," Bobby explained, holding up his hand to stop Dean when it looked as though he was going to butt in. "The nurses say he's the best at what he does...and it's a good thing. Because, despite all of his medical prowess, he's about as tactless as they come. He dropped a real bombshell in Sam's lap and he wasn't exactly sympathetic in his approach."

Bobby took a deep breath before forging into the most difficult part of his story. "Hartzell says that all of that black tissue on Sam's hand and arm is dead. He needs to cut away the dead tissue to prevent infection but Sam is refusing to sign the surgical consent."

"What?! He damn well better sign it or I'll make him sign it," Dean blustered as he reached to push the door open, not caring that the nurse was still assisting Sam to bathe.

"Dean, wait!," Bobby blurted, stepping in front of the younger man to block him from opening the door. "It's not that simple. There's a chance cleaning out the dead tissue won't be enough. Dean, Sam won't sign the consent because the surgeon said he'd most likely have to amputate the arm."

Bobby had wanted to ease gently into the possibility of Sam losing his arm but Dean hadn't really given him any choice and his words had tumbled out much quicker and harsher than he would have preferred. Their impact was easily measured by Dean's stunned expression. He almost appeared as though Bobby had physically reached out and slapped him in the face.

Dean's eyes searched Bobby's face, hoping he had somehow misunderstood what the older man had said. But the anguished and sympathetic mien of his trusted friend was plenty of evidence that Dean had understood just perfectly. "Oh, Sammy," Dean whispered out, his facial expression twisting with the heartbreak he felt for his little brother. "But, Bobby...if he doesn't get it taken care of and infection sets in..."

"It might kill him," Bobby finished for him quietly, the sudden glistening of Dean's eyes not going unnoticed by the older man. "He's convinced himself that he can't get you outta..."

"It's the deal, isn't?" Dean didn't really need the affirmative nodding of the other hunter's head to know he was right. "He's more worried about trying to find some way to get me out of that deal than he is of taking care of himself. We don't even know if a way out even exists, Bobby. I've got to talk to him. I've got to get him to sign that consent," Dean proclaimed, a tone of desperation leeching into his voice.

"I was counting on it, Dean," Bobby assured, a strong hand gripping Dean's right shoulder and giving it a firm, encouraging squeeze. "But there's more."

"More? Jesus, Bobby, how much more can Sammy deal with right now?"

"That's precisely why we need to talk. There's potentially some big shit going down out there and if Sam finds out about it..."

"Big shit? What kind of big shit? Quit talking in riddles, Bobby, and just spit it out," Dean growled irritably. The stress of the past few days had taken its toll on Dean's nerves and the revelations about Sam's arm certainly hadn't helped. He already had a lot to deal with right now and he just didn't have the energy to try to decode Bobby's cryptic statements.

"Here," Bobby grunted as he shoved the article from the "Guns & Ammo" magazine at Dean. He pointed to the area on the second page of the expose on Samuel Colt. "Start reading here."

Dean's eyes flashed back and forth across the page as the words printed there unveiled the story. Occasionally, his lips would silently mouth the words as he read. By the time he'd read to the end, his jaw hung open in shell-shocked disbelief. "Holy shit," Dean muttered, his arm dropping limply to his side with the magazine still clutched tightly in his fingers.

"Yeah. You can say that again," Bobby acknowledged. "I had the same response."

"Do you think Colt's journal really exists or is this something this Scruggs dude is making up for a few quick bucks and some notoriety?"

"Pretty damned accurate shit if he's makin' it up. And he'll get some notoriety, alright. If he doesn't get himself locked in a rubber room first, he'll have every hunter and demon on earth wanting a piece of him."

"Yeah," Dean agreed with a chuckle. "Nothing quite like the risk of exposure to piss off a bunch of hunters. Still, if he's not just some nut job and that journal really could lead us to those castings, being able to outfit an army of hunters with more of those Colt revolvers would definitely give us an edge."

"An edge no demon is gonna be willing and happy to let us have," Bobby cautioned. "If Scruggs doesn't shut the hell up and continue to lay low, he's likely to find himself face to face with one of the 'unnatural things' he read about in that journal."

"He's playing things pretty close to the chest, though, Bobby," Dean reasoned. "He's not revealing the location of the journal and it sounds like he's gone into hiding. Pretty smart, if you ask me."

"Yeah, but there's too much at stake here, Dean. There's no tellin' what all there might be scrawled in that journal that could win or lose this war for us, depending on which side gets hold of it. This could put a lot of good people, hunters, at risk, not to mention Scruggs, too. Hell, give a whiz-kid researcher like Sam a few days and he could probably ferret this guy out of whatever hole he's crawled into, no matter where it is or how deep it goes."

"And that's why we can't let Sammy know about this," Dean implored. He flipped the magazine shut and peered at the publishing date on it. "This issue's nearly a month old already and things have been quiet. I say we just sit back, keep our ears to the ground and let this blow over. Once Sam's better, we can follow up the leads and see if there's any truth to them. It's going to be hard enough to get Sam to sign that consent, but if he catches wind of that article now, I'll never convince him to get his arm taken care of."

Bobby was thoughtfully shaking his head in agreement. "We're on the same page, then. I figured, if Sam knew about this, he'd sign out of here to chase down that journal and play guard dog to Scruggs instead of gettin' the care he needs. So, I'm with you on this, Dean. We keep quiet and concentrate on Sam."


"Hey, Dean," Sam greeted as his older brother strolled back into his room. "Where's Bobby?"

"There's a dude down the road that owns a shop. He's got a '67 Ford Mustang Coupe that he's restoring. Bobby's got an original '67 'stang grill back at the salvage yard that he's trading the guy for letting him use his shop and his tools so he can give his heap a little CPR. I guess it took a bit of a beating getting through that wicked storm to get here."

The half-truth slipped off Dean's tongue so easily that it made him feel sleazy and despicable. Sure he'd spent most of his life lying. He'd lied about his identity, lied about his home life, lied about his "job" and it had all rolled out of his mouth without really a second thought and even less guilt. But, somehow, lying to Sam always sent shards of shame slashing through Dean, even if, just as in this case, it was for his little brother's own good.

Bobby really had traded the classic grill in exchange for use of the owner's garage and all of his tools. But there had been more reasons behind Bobby's disappearing act than just the storm-battered truck. First and foremost, Bobby and Dean both wanted that magazine and its article about Samuel Colt as far away from Sam as they could get it. Secondly, Bobby wanted a nice, out of the way spot with as few eavesdropping ears as possible in which to ring Jefferson. And what better place to make the call than to slip out back while any prying ears would be occupied by the sounds of air wrenches, hydraulic lifts, clanging tools and the shop's small radio that constantly blared the local station's rock and roll playlist.

The two older hunters had decided that Bobby should call Jefferson and place a few well-crafted and ambiguous inquiries as to any scuttlebutt that might be sloshing around the very informal hunter's grapevine. Although Jefferson was a trusted ally and had collaborated on more than a few hunts, they had nixed the idea of direct questioning regarding Samuel Colt, feeling that the fewer number of people that knew of the article and its possible leads, the better. The information could make Jefferson a target if any demons came looking and even some of the best hunters had been known to crack in the face of torture from a supernatural adversary and blown another hunter's cover or divulged some sort of compromising information.

"I don't think there's been a vehicle made that Bobby doesn't have parts for," Sam hypothesized.

"Yeah," Dean agreed simply, a sudden awkwardness descending over the brothers.

Sam knew Bobby would have told Dean about his stubbornness in refusing to sign the surgical consent and he sat tense and rigid waiting for the explosion of anger he was sure would follow. The suspense pulled at his aching muscles, taut kinks forming in painful disapproval of the stress. Unthinking, Sam rolled his shoulders in an effort to loosen the rocklike constrictions and regretted the hiss of agony that pierced its way through his entire right arm. He tried determinedly to suppress the nearly involuntary grimace of pain that flashed briefly across his face but it was just too little, too late. It was clear by the way Dean paled that he had seen it and Sam supposed that would be the only catalyst needed to light the fuse on his brother's powder keg of fury.

Dean had fully intended to come at Sam with both guns blazing and keep on blasting until his baby brother backed down and agreed to the surgery. But seeing the pain such a small and simple movement had caused his brother, drove home the seriousness of the situation and just what might lie ahead if he was unable to change Sam's mind.

Suddenly, the familiar feelings of panic and overwhelming despair he'd endured all too frequently of late, picked at his fraying nerves as a bombardment of horribly vivid images assaulted Dean's mind. They were images of the past and they were images of the future. In the blink of an eye, Dean re-lived the painful memories of Sam dying in his arms as they crouched helplessly in the South Dakota mud, a final embrace the only thing that passed between them. Then there were flickering images of their trek out of the woods, Sam pushing with everything he had even as his strength slipped silently away, the endless hours spent at his bedside praying for even the smallest of miracles and then images of Sam's arm, festered and oozing with pus as severe infection overwhelms his baby brother's vitality and Death steals him away once again.

Sam watched in wide-eyed concern as Dean's trembling hand unconsciously rubbed across his chest. "Dean? Dean, are you ok?"

Dean wordlessly rose from the chair he'd settled into at Sam's beside and, turning his back to his little brother, limped his way to the window. It was taking everything he had to hold the panic at bay and keep himself from dissolving into yet another round of hyperventilating. Dean's chest felt incredibly tight and his stomach rolled viciously as the ramifications of Sam's refusal tore at his defenses.

"Dean? Come on, man. Talk to me." Sam's voice broke over the last few syllables as his anxiety over his older brother grew. His unease only intensified as the trembling that he'd seen in Dean's hands seemed to engulf him and the older boy reached for the windowsill to steady himself.

"It hurts, Sammy," Dean breathed out in a whisper so soft that Sam almost couldn't hear him, his right hand still tracing a path back and forth across his tightening chest. "It hurts so damned much and I can't do it."

Sam's face twisted in confusion and anxiety. Bobby had said Dean was ok; that the doctors had given him a clean bill of health. And now here's Dean in front of him, barely able to stand on his own and admitting he's in pain. What was going on? Had Bobby and Dean been lying all this time?

"What hurts? What can't you do?"

Dean turned on shaky legs to face Sam, the hopeless and lost look of a man trapped in his worst nightmare staining his face. Fat tears had brimmed over his lower lashes and raced downward across the pale landscape of Dean's cheeks. The fact that Dean seemed not to notice that he was openly crying caused Sam to break out in a cold sweat.

Dean had only just rebuilt the walls around his emotions and the mortar he'd used to smooth over the cracks was still so thin and weak that Dean knew the walls were in danger of crumbling completely again. The tears fell faster and his breathing hitched unevenly as he raked both hands into his hair. Knotting clumps of golden-brown spikes in his fists, Dean curled his arms down over his head, as though doing so could cork off the flow of unwelcome emotions.

"Dean, please. Just tell me what's wrong. You're scaring me."

"I can't do it anymore, Sammy," Dean muffled out past his clenched arms before allowing them to fall limply at his sides. "I can't sit here again and watch you die, watch you kill yourself, because you won't sign that release. I'm done in, Sammy," Dean lurched out between his tears. "I'm dangling off the edge of an emotional cliff and I can't hold on anymore. I just can't."

"Dean, I just..."

"No, Sammy," Dean interrupted, raising his red-rimmed eyes to meet Sam's. "I shouldn't have waited to tell you this. I've made so many mistakes. I've tried so hard to stay strong. I've tried to bury things away so that no one can see the hurt; tried to bury the awful things I've seen and done. In the process, it's also buried away the things that are the most important; things that should never have gone unsaid."

"They didn't have to be said, Dean," Sam responded softly. "Even when it wasn't said, I've always known."

"Yes, it did, Sam. It did need to be said." Dean's face filled with regret. "I love you, Sam. I've always loved you. And sitting here, watching you die, it tore me apart, Sam. It tore me apart so bad that I wanted to die right along with you. I can't go through that again. I can't watch you kill yourself over a bunch of 'what if's' we're not sure even exist. I know you don't agree with what I did, with making the deal. But I know you've got to understand why I did it. I love you. Please, Sammy, please sign the consent."

Sam sat in quiet reflection as Dean slumped bonelessly back into the bedside chair. The sudden onslaught and release of emotion had completely spent the young hunter and the continued tossing of his stomach was only further sapping what little energy he had left. Dean used his forearm to wipe at the wet tracks left by his tears as he worked to keep his breathing even.

"It was real, wasn't it?," Sam questioned softly.

Dean looked up tiredly, his mind trying to catch up with the sudden shift in the conversation. "Was what real?"

"When I was...," Sam began, but then fumbled to a stop, searching for the right words. "...I guess I was unconscious...and something happened...I felt like I had been lost in the dark. But then I heard your voice. You were telling me that you loved me...that you'd always been too afraid to say it. Suddenly, it felt like I was snatched out of the darkness and you were there, holding my hand. When I woke up, I figured it was just a dream. But, it wasn't, was it?"

"No," Dean confirmed softly. "It wasn't a dream. It was a nightmare...my nightmare. You were leaving me and I'd never told you. You were dying, and you still might if you don't sign that consent. You can't leave me to do this alone, Sam, please." Dean swallowed heavily as his stomach lurched sickeningly with the strong emotions that coursed through him. "I love you and you've just got to sign it, please."

Tears welled in Sam's eyes and he looked away guiltily. Why did love have to be so complicated? Why did it seem that loving someone always meant hurting them, too? "I do understand why you made the deal, Dean. I love you, too. And that's why I can't sign it. I may never find a way to get you out of the deal, but I have to at least try. If I can't hunt, I can't do that. Dean, I just can't sign that paper if it means he might take my arm."

A syrupy thick silence descended over the room as both boys sat with their heads bowed, each one unable to watch the impact their words and decisions had on the other. Dean felt his stomach shifting badly as his thoughts and emotions tumbled crazily between sincere gratitude for the sacrifice his baby brother was prepared to make for him and his desperation to prevent that sacrifice from occurring. There had to be something he could do. Something that would wake him from this never-ending nightmare.

Dean could feel a sourness filling his mouth as the bitterness began a slow crawl up his throat. He swallowed repeatedly, trying to force his stomach into submission even as his turbulent emotions continued to agitate it. The churning only increased the harder Dean tried to quell it and he knew it was only a matter of time before the battle would be lost. Dean rose from his chair and quickly hobbled for the door. He was going to be sick, he knew that. But he'd be damned if he was going to fall apart and hurl his guts into some trash can as his little brother watched. He'd already been weak in front of Bobby and Dean remembered all too well the way that Bobby had looked at him. Sam had always looked up to him and he knew he wouldn't be able to stand it if Sam looked at him the way that Bobby had.

"Dean? Dean, please don't leave," Sam begged. "I know you're angry with me and I'm sorry, but..."

Dean had just reached the doorway as he felt his guts reel violently and he dove wordlessly through the opening, dashing down the hall towards the bathroom. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of his younger brother calling after him.

"Dean! Dean, come back! Please!"


He sat back on his haunches and wiped his shaking hand across his face, the acidic sting of vomit still strong in his mouth. Dean's stomach had finally quieted but his thoughts continued to spin crazily. Sam wouldn't sign as long as the surgeon threatened to take his arm. If he didn't sign, it could take his life. It was a no-win situation and no matter how you looked at it, the options sucked.

It was obvious to Dean that there was no way he was going to change Sam's mind. He's never going to get his arm looked after as long as he might lose it, Dean mused as he sat dejectedly on the men's room floor. He reached a hand out and slapped it down on the toilet lever, happy to see the foul contents he'd brought up into the bowl making their escape. His stomach gurgled unhappily from its recent purging and he scrubbed a hand across his abdomen in hopes of soothing it. "Oh, knock it off," he grumbled out loud to his stomach. "I've already puked, ok? It kinda screws with the whole 'trying to look cool' thing, so don't you dare make me lose it again. Not that I look all that cool sitting on the bathroom floor and talking to my-..."

Dean stopped abruptly, his mind whirling and his heart racing as his own words and those of his younger brother bounced through his head. He quickly scrambled to his feet and pushed his way out of the stall, the door banging back and forth several times with the force of his rushed exit. Stopping briefly at the sink, he hurriedly swished a handful of water around his mouth to remove the lingering bitterness and spat it into the sink. Cupping his hands, he splashed some cool water on his face and ran a quick hand through his spiky hair. He jerked a few rough, institutional paper towels from their holder and dabbed hastily at his dripping face before tossing the crumpled wad in the direction of a nearby receptacle and bolted from the restroom, disappearing down the hallway in the opposite direction from Sam's room.


"Have a seat in here, Mr. Winchester," the graying receptionist directed as she motioned Dean into a narrow, cramped room. "Dr. Hartzell will be in to speak with you as soon as he can."

The sign outside the door had read 'Family Consultation Room' but Dean wondered just how a real family was supposed to fit into such a tiny space. He extended his arms out to his sides across the narrow room and wasn't at all surprised when the fingertips of each hand brushed the walls.

"Frickin' broom closet," Dean muttered irritably. Two upholstered chairs were situated side by side on one of the longest walls. Dean removed his leather coat and tossed it on the seat of one of them before settling into the other. A small table with a telephone and a lamp sat just to the left of Dean on the short wall and another upholstered chair was arranged beyond that, canted slightly so that it fit nicely into the corner of the room and faced the other chairs. A magazine rack, sparsely populated with tattered and outdated periodicals, sat against the opposite short wall, just under the wall-mounted TV set.

Forty-five minutes of drumming his fingers on the chair's wooden arm rests, bouncing his knees and nervously humming Metallica finally came to an end when Dr. Hartzell burst through the closed door of the room and slammed it loudly shut behind himself.

"So, which one are you - Curly or Shemp?," the surgeon spit out acerbically as he flopped into the corner chair and propped his feet on the chair next to Dean, heedless to the fact that his shoes were grinding dirty streaks into the younger man's leather coat.

"Excuse me?," Dean sputtered out, his surprise at the tornadic arrival of the physician and the explosive delivery of his off-beat question clearly evident in the stunned expression on his face.

"I've already met with the other two Stooges so that only leaves Curly or Shemp. Let's make this quick and not waste any more of my precious time than we have to, shall we?"

"You're my brother's surgeon and..."

"I know very well who I am and I also know that I recommended a surgical procedure that your brother has refused." Dr. Hartzell rose to leave. "Unless you're here to tell me he's reconsidered, then we obviously have nothing to discuss."

Dean was completely floored by the physician's horrendous attitude. It wasn't like Bobby hadn't warned him about Hartzell's temperament but Dean had expected arrogant, not downright offensive. Calling this guy arrogant, Dean thought, is like calling a demon a little 'unfriendly'.

"You don't get to leave yet," Dean growled as he stepped in front of the door, placing himself between the man and his only route of escape. "I don't know what the hell your problem is that's made you the asshole you are. Maybe your diapers were in a bunch when you were a baby or you drove a shitty car as a teenager or maybe it's because you haven't even been able to buy a good lay lately, I don't know. And I don't really care, either, because I'm told you're the best surgeon around and there is nothing in this world that's gonna stop me from doing whatever I can to get my kid brother's arm fixed. Somewhere between Asswipe 101 and Bad Bedside Manner 102 you took the Hippocritic oath to..."

"Hippocratic. It's the Hippocratic oath, dimwit," Dr. Hartzell corrected.

"No. No, in your case I'm pretty sure I got it right," Dean shot back. "You took an oath to help sick and injured people and you're too busy being the world's biggest hypocrite to actually take the time to do that! You knew Sam wouldn't sign that consent as long as he stands to lose his arm and all you did was walk out on him!"

"I advised your brother of the treatment that is necessary and, whether you and Uncle Bubba like it or not, I'm not in the business of holding hands and wiping noses. If an idiot wants to refuse treatment, there's not much I can do about it."

"Oh, come on, Dr. Hardass! You can do more and you and I both know it," Dean accused loudly, his index finger jabbing the air threateningly.

"That's Dr. Hartzell," the indignant surgeon hissed.

"Yeah, whatever. They say you're the best surgeon around but, if that's the case, then you need to do something to show me you've earned that reputation honestly," Dean challenged. "As far as I can see, you're just an arrogant, self-absorbed and spiteful tyrant who thinks he's God because no one has ever had the gonads to stand up to you and let you in on the truth!"

Dean was breathing heavily by the time he was finished and suddenly realized he had unconsciously adopted a fighting stance. He relaxed his body but his eyes never wavered from the surgeon standing just an arm's length in front of him. Dean knew he could easily take the older man if it came to blows, but he wasn't going to let his guard down too much and let the obnoxious pain in the ass get the satisfaction of getting the drop on him.

Hartzell's fist was balled so tightly as he held it against his equally tightly pursed lips that his knuckles had gone white. His facial expression appeared hardened, the skin so reddened it looked to Dean as though the man would soon be blowing steam from his ears. Although Dean blocked the physician's path out the door, Hartzell stood between Dean and the telephone, a fact that Dean now regretted not planning for.

All it would take to get Dean barred from his brother's bedside would be a quick call from Hartzell to the Security office. Dean's mind was occupied in formulating ways to prevent Hartzell from making the call and he was caught off-guard when the surgeon's arm suddenly snaked out towards him. The older man's hand had already landed and clamped firmly on Dean's shoulder as he tried to block it by bringing his arm up in a defensive maneuver.

"Easy there, Rambo. You sure got a set of stones on you, you know that? And while we're reviewing personality traits...you're cocky, you're brash, and above all else, you're as ballsy and insolent as hell," Hartzell explained with a laugh and a friendly shake of Dean's shoulder. "I like that about you. Kind of reminds me of myself at your age."

"God help me," Dean grumbled under his breath, glancing up suddenly to see what Hartzell's reaction would be.

The sixty-something surgeon chuckled. The warm smile that spread across his face looked almost out of place after the heated exchange that had occurred between the two men. "In all of the years I've been practicing, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people - patients, families, nurses and other doctors - that have stood their ground with me. I respect you for the gutsiness you've shown. It's made you a most worthy adversary."

"Worthy enough for you to help my brother?"

The surgeon bobbed his head up and down a few times before speaking. "Yeah. I think I can spare the ink to re-write that consent for just the debridement...no amputation. Although, I'm still not sure Sam will sign it...or that that bulldog of an uncle of yours will let me get near him, for that matter."

"You just worry about making arrangements to do the surgery. I'll worry about calling off the dogs and getting Sam to sign."

"Deal. But," Dr. Hartzell added quickly, "this comes with a few caveats and concessions."

"Great," Dean groaned sarcastically. "Something tells me I've just become your bitch."

"In order that Sam agrees to some form of treatment, I'll do the debridement alone but I still consider amputation to be Sam's best course of treatment and will include that information in his records."

"Just protecting yourself if things get ugly," Dean assured. "Got it. Now, what about those concessions?"

"Don't you dare let it get around that I'm anything less than Dr. Hardass. Got it?"

Dean laughed openly. "Yeah, sure, Doc. You got it. Dr. Hardass it is."

Hartzell clapped Dean on the back, turned and pulled the door open. As the older man strolled out, Dean could hear him muttering and chuckling to himself. "Dr. Hardass. Never heard that one before. I kinda like that."


The following day, 10:30 AM

"Dean, will you sit down, already?" Bobby snarled. "You're as jittery as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."

"I can't help it, Bobby. I'm worried."

"Look," Bobby reasoned, "they said we'd be able to see Sam in about ten minutes. He made it through the surgery just fine, so there's nothing to worry about. They just need a chance to get him settled in Recovery, is all. Now will you please sit down and relax before you have your fingernails chewed down to nothing but bloody stubs."

Dean stared out the waiting area windows, absently twirling the pull string for the vertical blinds around his index finger before releasing it and starting all over again. "What if this surgery isn't enough? What if it's so bad that they still want to take his arm?" Dean turned towards Bobby, his eyes moist and filled with apprehension. "I barely got him to agree to do this much, Bobby. I'll never get him to sign for anything more. So, yeah, don't even think I'm gonna come close to relaxing," Dean confessed quietly, "until I hear what Hartzell has to say about the condition of Sam's arm."

Bobby glanced away guiltily, suddenly taking an interest in the abstract design of the room's carpeting. He understood the younger man's nervousness and, somehow, making any more of it just seemed like rubbing salt in a wound. "Yeah, Hartzell," Bobby said with a small chuckle. "Did you really call him, 'Dr. Hardass'?"

"Yeah," Dean confirmed, an amused small lighting his face and the tension leaving his shoulders. "Yeah, I guess I did."

"You sure know how to sweet talk 'em, don't you, boy?"

"Yeah, well, he pissed me off. Anyway, I didn't exactly see you getting anywhere with him," Dean gently chided his friend.

Bobby had just opened his mouth to retort when a female voice called out and interrupted him.

"Mr. Winchester, Mr. Singer. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to see Sam."


4 hours later, Sam's room

"You're sure he didn't say anything about how things went?"

Sam shuffled slightly in bed, a hard wince shattering his boyish features before he could find a comfortable position. Although his right arm was throbbing nearly mercilessly now, it wasn't the arm that was aggravating him the most.

"You having pain, Sam?," Bobby asked, a tinge of concern fluttering through his voice. Sam had appeared pretty comfortable when they'd moved him from the Recovery area and back to his room almost three hours ago. Lately, though, Sam was looking really washed-out and acting even more irritable.

"Yeah, Bobby. I am having pain. I'm having a pain in my ass," Sam griped tiredly, another wince broadcasting his increasing discomfort. "...and it's named Dean. I've already gone through this. How many more times do I have to tell the same story?"

"Just humor me, ok? As hard as you made me work to get you to agree to having the arm looked after," Dean pouted, "you owe me as many 'story times' as I want. Now start again from the beginning."

"Bobby..." Sam hoped a healthy whine and a flash of his best puppy-dog eyes to the older man would grant him a reprieve from reciting the same litany of boring and uninformative facts he'd already reviewed.

"One last time, Sam," Bobby cajoled, knowing just how freaked out the older sibling was that they had yet to hear Hartzell's take on the success of the procedure. "But your brother's just going to have to settle for the CliffsNotes version. You're looking really beat."

Sam sighed deeply. He hadn't felt this exhausted since he awoke in the ICU. And, if the pain level was any clue, the regional anesthesia they had used to complete the procedure was quickly wearing off. Nerve endings that had previously been content to go unheard from before the surgery to cut away the dead tissue were now shrieking malevolently.

"Pay attention, Dean," Sam scolded testily, "because I'm not repeating this again. Because of my throat, the anesthesiologist said it would be safer to do the surgery under regional anesthesia, so they injected medicine that numbed my whole arm."

"But you were awake, right? You heard everything that was said during the operation," Dean interrupted impatiently.

"Yes. I was awake. And, no, I didn't hear anything important. Mostly, it was Dr. Heartless berating his OR staff for one reason or another. When he was done, they wrapped it and then packed me off to Recovery. He claimed he was going to talk with us about it, but it never happened. And you know the rest of the story."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean groused. "The nurse said he had an emergent trauma case and would talk with us later in your room. And here we are still waiting. I bet he's in the lounge, kicked back and swilling coffee and laughing his ass off that we're up here sweating it out. I swear I'm gonna go hunt that old bastard down and drag his sorry ass back here."

"No need, Curly, the old bastard's already here." Dr. Hartzell bustled into the room. "And the coffee was pretty good, too," he stated as he set an empty paper coffee cup on a nearby stand. On his way to Sam's side, Hartzell's shoulder collided brusquely enough with Dean's to knock the younger man back a step. "Excuse you," the surgeon spat out.

Bobby was ready to tear into the aging physician but held his tongue only because he was just as desperate as Dean to hear about Sam's arm. Afterwards, though, Bobby was determined he would find a way to give the arrogant jerk a piece of his mind.

Hartzell was already bent over Sam's right arm, inspecting the bandaging that encompassed the limb from fingertips to shoulder. The ends of Sam's fingers barely stuck out beyond the bulky gauze dressings and the physician peered intently at them as he pressed his own finger into each one successively to check for circulation.

"Well?," Dean could hardly contain himself. He just had to know if Sam would still be in danger of losing his arm or, worse yet, succumbing to infection because he was too pig-headed to see reason.

"Well," Dr. Hartzell began tantalizingly, "once I removed the necrotic tissue, the underlying structures on the arm looked better than I thought they might. The human hand has very little tissue protecting the vital motor structures. In Sam's case, nearly seventy-five percent of that tissue is damaged to some degree - some places not so much, some places rather significantly."

"That's why he had better movement in some fingers than others," Dean guessed.

"Ooo, another successful graduate from Redneck U. Impressive. But, in a nutshell, yes. I debrided the entire area as best I could, but I doubt Sam will regain much useful movement in that hand. Providing, of course, that further tissue death and infection don't force the amputation that I'm still recommending."

"If you're such a damned good surgeon," Bobby sneered, "why would there be more tissue death or chance of infection?"

"Jinkies, Fred! It's probably because Scooby and Shaggy, here," Hartzell retorted, pointing first at Dean and then at Sam, "chickened out on letting me do what needs to be done. If we'd proceeded with the amputation that I had recommended, then it wouldn't be a factor. But since I'm fresh out of Scooby Snacks, I was only permitted to do what I warned you bozos was a half-assed job. I cleaned out what I could. But if the remaining tissue was already in the process of dying off, just cleaning the arm out might not be enough to prevent that tissue from eventually dying, too. Not to mention that I had to remove so much tissue that I was only able to completely close about fifty percent of the wound. The remaining fifty percent is going to have to granulate in on its own. Until it does, Sam's got a large open wound that's practically the frickin' Ritz-Carlton for a whole smorgasbord of germs."

The room fell eerily silent as each of the hunters dealt with the repercussions of Dr. Hartzell's words. It was Sam that spoke first, cutting Dean off just as he was readying to ask a question.

"No, Dean," Sam began softly. "I did what we agreed on. I had the wound cleaned out. Don't ask me to do more than that."

"But, Sam...," Dean pleaded.

"Damn it, Dean. You know my reasons. I'm not going to let him take my arm."

"Boys," Bobby broke in, knowing he needed to do something to gain control of the situation before the brothers were outright yelling at one another. "So what's the next move then, Dr. Hartzell?"

"We keep Sam on IV antibiotics to help prevent infection, do meticulous dressing changes under sterile conditions and monitor the health of the wound. I also want to get him started with someone from Physical Therapy. The exercises can help improve circulation and that, in turn, can improve tissue health and lessen the chance of infection. What it will do for mobility - well, let's just say I wouldn't go expecting any miracles. Now, if we're done here, I have other patients to see."

The surgeon turned to leave and Dean followed closely behind. Judging by the look on Dean's face, Bobby was pretty certain the chip on Dr. Hartzell's shoulder was going to get knocked off by some pretty serious Winchester-style justice. He wanted to follow to prevent Dean from making a mistake that would surely put him in jail, but after enduring Hartzell's harsh words and raw appraisal that his arm would likely never being useful again, Sam was looking downright ill. Bobby opted to stay with Sam, but threw a word of caution at his older sibling by drawling out his name, knowing the boy would understand the meaning behind it.

As the door to Sam's room swooshed shut the surgeon turned and faced the younger man. "I really wish I'd had better news, Dean."

"Yeah, me too. But I still have to thank you," Dean asserted solemnly as he shook the physician's hand in a strong grasp. "I know you did everything you could."

Hartzell placed his other large hand on Dean's shoulder and squeezed slightly. "I really did. But I've got to thank you, too, for letting me keep my cover in there. Can't have it getting around that old Hardass Hartzell is really Heartstrings Hartzell."


The next day, Sam's room

In some ways, it had been a bit of a fight and Sam was certain, had the nurses not insisted, that Dean would have stayed right there at his side. Sam also knew that Dean would have been nosing into everything, flirting with the nursing staff and generally irritating him until he'd be ready to crawl right out of his skin.

As it was, though, the nurses and Dr. Hartzell's orders had actually rescued Sam from his brother's overzealous good intentions. Because the dressing changes to Sam's arm were to be done under the strictest of sterile procedure both Dean and Bobby, and any unnecessary personnel for that matter, were to be barred from the room. The less bodies that were breathing the air and rustling around the room, the less germs there would be floating around the room and potentially setting up housekeeping in the open wound on Sam's arm.

The nurses had worn what they had called isolation gowns and hair caps, in addition to their sterile gloves and disposable masks. They had given Sam some pain medicine before starting the dressing change and tried their best to be as gentle as possible, but the arm had protested more violently than Sam could remember since receiving the bite. In the end, he was glad that Dean and Bobby had been forced out and had gone off to work on Bobby's truck. If nothing else, it give him some time to collect himself and appear more comfortable than he really was before they got back.

The nurses had turned the TV on before leaving the room, hoping the distraction would help Sam relax and allow a second dose of pain medicine to work better. Sam had turned it off after only a few minutes, finding the cacophony of 'The Price Is Right' more than his shattered nerves could bear. Instead, he sat quietly on the bed and tried to distract himself from the throbbing in his arm by analyzing Dean's interaction with Dr. Hartzell. The surgeon had been his usual rude, crude and obnoxious self and Sam had expected Dean to be so infuriated that Bobby would have had to hold him back just so he wouldn't kill the man. But Dean had hardly batted an eye and then followed the man out of the room. He and Bobby had been certain there was going to be a round of verbal assaults in the hallway, but Dean merely returned minutes later looking rather dejected and defeated. Just what had gone down between the two men? And why was the surgeon's antagonistic behavior not conjuring up the typical badass response from Dean?

Sam had kept his cell phone charged and resting on the bedside stand so that he could reach Dean or Bobby if the need arose. As he sat considering the Dean and Dr. Hartzell mystery, the phone began buzzing and vibrating around the top of the stand. Sam gingerly reached over and answered.


"Hey, Sam, it's Jefferson."

"Hey, Jefferson. It's been a while, you old dog. How you doing?"

"Better 'en you I guess, Sam. Sorry to hear about you being laid up."

"Well I'm doing a lot better now, thanks. What's up?"

"I've got some information on what Bobby and Dean called about. I can't reach them, though. Keep getting an "Out of service area" recording. I figured I'd try the brains of the operation and, well, if you didn't pick up, huh? Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I haven't heard anything about that Scruggs guy, but Bennett's turned up dead - very messy dead. Like pretty obvious it was 'at the hands of a demon' kind of dead."

"When did Dean and Bobby call you?"

"Bobby called a couple days ago. Just asked a few questions about some guys named Scruggs and Bennett. Asked me to keep an ear out about them. Said it had something to do with a case the three of you had been working on. Hey, Sam, hate to cut you short, but I've got to run. I'll call again next week and see how you're doing."

"Uh...yeah, ok. Talk with you later, Jefferson."

Sam flipped the cell phone shut with a slap and bounced the hand clutching it up and down on his left thigh as his mind tried to pick apart the puzzling call. "Ok," he said aloud to the empty room. "What the hell was that all about?"

Sam's thoughts were interrupted when a light rapping came from the doorway. An elderly gentleman dressed in a light blue, button-front smock stepped into the room. The patch on the left chest of his smock said, 'Volunteer'.

"Hey, Clarence," Sam greeted, forcing a thin smile to his face in an attempt to cover his discomfort.

Clarence was a silver-haired octogenarian that volunteered at the hospital several days a week by pushing the magazine and book cart to patient rooms, engaging them in idle chit-chat and assisting them to pick items from the cart that might help to take their minds from their troubles for at least a little while. He'd met Sam not long after he'd awakened and immediately took to the well-mannered and gentle-natured youth.

Although the boy had obviously been very ill, Clarence could see that nothing ever got past him, he always seemed to notice even the smallest of details. So it was that Sam had seen and recognized the tiny portion of Clarence's Marine Corp tattoo that stuck out from under his upturned shirt-sleeves. Sam had asked him about it and Clarence had enjoyed regaling the mop-haired boy with stories of his time with the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines and how they played a big role in capturing Mount Surabachi during World War II.

"Oh, dear," the amazingly robust elderly man crowed. His young friend was exceptionally pale and a thin sheen of sweat had sprung across his forehead. He was doing his best to appear normal, even pasting an artificial smile on his face, but something was clearly not right. "Are you alright, Sam? Do you want me to get a nurse?"

"No, that's ok, Clarence. They just finished my dressing change and the arm, well..."

"It's screamin' like a two-dollar whore, isn't it?"

Sam chuckled heavily. Even in his eighties, some fifty or sixty years after serving in the war, Clarence still couldn't seem to wash away the blunt and rugged part of him that had been built by the United States Marine Corp. In some ways, though, Sam mused, it was that rough around the edges, no-nonsense part of him that made Clarence seem so much younger than his years.

"Spoken like a true Marine, Clarence," Sam poked. "Don't know that I would have put it that way but, yeah, it's hurting quite a bit. I was just sitting here trying to distract myself until the pain meds took effect. I just couldn't take anymore of that TV."

"Baahh, that drivel," Clarence lamented. "Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne - now that was when they knew how to make good entertainment. Unfortunately, my cart's fresh out, so we're gonna have to settle for something else. Kinda slim pickin's I'm afraid but...oh, hey, I just got the newest issue of "Guns & Ammo" in. I'll even throw in a left-over copy of last month's issue for nothin'. My treat, seein' as how you need the distraction so bad and all."

The kindness of the old gentleman touched Sam and a genuine smile dimpled his cheeks. "That sounds great, Clarence. Thanks."

The aging veteran hurried back into the hall towards his pushcart, pleased that he could do something, even as small as it was, to try to distract the young man from his pain. Returning to Sam's room, Clarence placed the two magazines on Sam's overbed table and positioned it to extend across his lap like a desk.

"This issue's got a dandy article on the M1 Garand," the older man stated as he tapped on the top issue. "She was one of the first semi-automatics issued to American GI's during World War II and was quite the workhorse. Carried one of them myself. Quite the beaut, she was. And dependable as hell, too. Always ready when you needed her, you know. She was a damned fine weapon, in my opinion," Clarence reminisced. "But if you need a good laugh, check out the older issue. Some nutcase going on about 'magic' guns. It's amazing what they'll print today. Well, best get movin', Sam. If I don't get this cart back and hoof it to Mrs. Pulaski's room in time to eat lunch with her, she'll have my hide. She's a widow, you know, and I think she's sweet on me."

Sam chuckled at the antics of the boisterous senior citizen as he scooted quickly out the door and trundled his cart down the hallway. Pushing the issues so that they lay side by side, Sam opened each one to the contents page. He'd only just begun scanning the contents of the oldest issue when his eyes fell upon an intriguing article title. Flipping quickly to the listed page, he read with interest the article titled, "Samuel Colt: Fabled Firearm or Fanciful Fiction?"

When he'd finished the last word, he slowly laid the magazine back down on the overbed table. His head was a gyrating flurry of thoughts and emotions about the two men he'd read about in the article. Apparently, the same two men that Dean and Bobby had asked Jefferson to inquire about. Sam's fury flared as he realized that Bobby and Dean had kept the information from him and he crushed his thumb angrily onto the nurse's call button.

"Did you need something, Sam?," the young nurse questioned as she breeched the doorway to his room.

"Get me all the paperwork I'll need," Sam growled as he shoved the bedsheets aside with his left hand, "because I'm signing out against medical advice. Now!"

A/N: "Pandora's Box" is a track from Aerosmith's 1974 album, 'Get Your Wings', as well as the name of their 1991 compilation album. In Greek mythology, when Pandora's Box was opened all the evils and nasties of the world were accidentally released to wreak havoc upon the world. I thought it was a good choice for this chapter since Sam's injury and his discovery of the article about Sam Colt has pretty much opened up a Winchester-style Pandora's Box.