Dean Winchester: The only person who can get me out of this thing is me.

Sam Winchester: And me.

The Road Less Traveled

One of the few certainties in Dean Winchester's life was the remarkable difference between waking up and coming to. There was a vast difference between either of those and coming back from the dead. From the dead in Hell.

It was…uncomfortable.

And disorienting. The world was upside down, just what the hell (no pun intended, but Dean sure wasn't going to stop swearing now) had Sam done? The moaning and groaning was getting on his nerves, until he realized it was his moaning and groaning. So he shut his mouth. Then he figured out he was sprawled across the steps of Bobby's house, head toward the ground, feet toward the porch.

Scrunching his abs tight, Dean righted himself, which made the world spin and twirl in sickening waves for a few minutes. He sort of ungracefully tumbled off the steps, which made his stomach roll with more viciousness, and landed face down in the dirt.

Yeah, this was dignified.

His head hurt, his sinuses tried pounding their way out. It was hot in Hell, but it was a dry heat, whatever that random thought was supposed to mean.

Pressing palms against the ground, Dean pushed up until he was kneeling in the dirt. Where was Sam? He'd have thought the kid would be there, hovering, fussing…hugging. Which, being honest, Dean wouldn't have minded a hug just then. Leave it to Sam to bring him back, dump him upside down on Bobby's front steps and then be nowhere in sight.

Bracing hands against knees, Dean looked around. Things hadn't changed much in…he had no clue how long it'd been.

"Sam? Sammy?" He tried calling for his brother, who he knew damn well was responsible for this, but what came out was a dry, cracked whisper. Seems his throat dried up. "Ungh."

Pounding in his ears joined the pounding in his head (wasn't that just dandy?). Turning, muscles popping and joints creaking, Dean's ears were assaulted by shouting.

"What in creation is going on—Dean! DEAN!" The pounding in his ears had been from Bobby's feet as he charged down the steps. Bobby looked…good…normal…himself.

The world whipped around again, as he was grabbed up by the shoulders, spun around, and crushed against Bobby's chest. When Bobby pushed him back, held him at arm's length and looked him up and down they both saw how the blood from Dean's shirt smeared over Bobby's. Leaning into Bobby's grip, Dean used shaking hands to pull up his shirt; jagged, red, nasty scars covered his chest, abdomen. The thought there was no reaction to the scars from Bobby skittered across Dean's mind, then was gone.

His breath caught in his throat, his heart nearly stopped. Sam had seen this?

When he lifted his eyes to meet Bobby's, there was understanding, relief. Wrapping one arm around Dean's shoulders, Bobby steered him into the house. "Sam," he croaked again, the word barely recognizable. Bobby knew, and nodded.

Hauled into the kitchen, Bobby shoved water at him. Dean smiled as he drank, it was holy water. Bobby smiled when nothing happened, other than Dean's seized up throat finally unclenched.

"Where's Sam?"

Shaking his head, "I don't know."

"You don't…how long?"

"Week. It's been a week."

"That's it?!" Somehow it seemed a lot longer. Dean was sure he'd face a brother hunched with age, hair white.

"Isn't that long enough?"

Dean looked down at his chest, covered in still wet blood, even though his blood no longer oozed from his body. Yanking the shirt off, throwing it across the room, vaguely aimed at the garbage he ground out, "Can I get a shower?"

The water did little more than wash away the outer filth. What was inside, left there, even after Dean left Hell, was likely to stay. Unconscious habit had him snagging his amulet between forefinger and thumb. What Hell left inside retreated to a dark corner, went silent and still. He'd deal. He had other things to worry about, cope with. Things, in the size and shape of one little brother.

The smell of coffee, and food…how the hell long had it been since he'd eaten…assaulted him the second he was clear of the bathroom. Leave it to Bobby to be practical enough to make sure there was a hot meal. Clothes lay outside the bathroom door, extras kept here by both he and Sam.

Grabbing up the waiting cup of coffee, he strode through the kitchen, lips twitching up when he saw Bobby had their food ready for the road.

"I figured we'd take it to go."

"I gotta get to Sam."

"Son, I don't know where he is. That night, after—" Bobby's voice trailed off. "Dean, I tried. I told you I'd look out for the boy, and I tried. That brother of yours is a freight train when he doesn't want to be stopped."

Dean snorted, "Tell me about it. He's a slippery rabbit when he wants to be." Dean was going to beat the tar out of the little snot when he caught up to Sam.

"I don't even know what happened. I got into the house, he wouldn't let me near your…you."

"I know where to look." The words just blurted out of his mouth. When Bobby gave him a confused look, Dean couldn't help the shrug. "How do I always know where he is? Better fill the tank, we've got some driving to do."

Bobby didn't argue, and didn't question, he drove and filled Dean in on the details while Dean ate everything Bobby handed him. Hell and torture, it seemed, left a guy hungry.

SNSNSN

Dean was spared no detail. Bobby, bless him, told everything. How the Hellhounds left Dean slashed and torn. How he'd found Sam, crumpled over Dean's body. How'd he'd tried and tried to get Sam to leave, seek safety. How the demons surrounding the house had just somehow gone away, Bobby had no idea why. Sam hadn't let Bobby near Dean. He'd taken Dean's body, piled him into the back of the Impala and taken off.

That had been a week ago. Nowhere Bobby searched could he find Sam, or even a trace of him.

Dean didn't say anything other than, "Wyoming. Hell Gate."

"I thought of that too, first place I tried, it made sense but he wasn't there."

"He's there."

So, Bobby drove. Dean's chest itched and pulled, from the inside. The closer they got, the stronger it grew, until it was like some ten legged monster, clawing and desperate against his ribs. Sam was there. He was. Dean was certain. Dean knew.

White hot agony lanced through his chest, across his back, he never realized how much blood a man's body held. Dean would have thought there'd be flames, but there wasn't, just heat. Unbearable, miserable heat. Heat and terror. Loneliness so intense it seared through him. Screaming. His screaming.

"Dean!" Rough hands grabbed his shirt, shook him hard, as he'd done many times to Sam.

"Whaaa…??" Shoving upright, Dean looked around. The bright of day was mellowing out to twilight. "Sorry, I was…was…" Was what?

"Dreaming. Just a dream." Bobby patted his chest, the same way Dean would pat Sam's after waking him from a nightmare. "I'll be damned." Easing the car to a stop, Bobby shifted it into park and sat gripping the wheel. "I was here, twice."

Dean leaned forward, held his breath, waited for the mirage to pass. It didn't. "My car."

He was out and to the Impala, sprinting through mud and dirt and who knew what else. Hands on the car, leaning down to see inside, Dean circled it. The backseat had been carefully covered with a tarp and blankets…'cause blood's a bitch to get out of the leather, Sammy. Take care of my wheels.

"This way." How did Dean know Sam was in the old caretaker's shack? It was just another thing added to the list of things Dean didn't know, but knew. Bobby's footsteps behind him, plain and loud and clear, grounded him as they ran.

Dean expected drawings all over the floor and walls, books spread out, candles burnt down. He didn't see anything he expected. Anything except Sam.

Lying on the floor, arms sprawled, head turned so one cheek rested on the dirty concrete floor, Sam's fingers were inches from a whiskey bottle. A few bottles of water littered the place. Dean's leather jacket clutched in Sam's other hand, and that was it. Hands covered in blood. Dean's blood. How long before a man died of starvation, dehydration? Dean couldn't remember.

Bobby's harsh, "Christ," from somewhere behind him spurred Dean forward.

Three steps in, knees bending as he went, Dean dropped to the floor beside his brother, hand immediately on Sam's head, fingers trying to work through the knots and dirt that was his brother's hair. There was breath and warmth, life to Sam.

"Sam." He turned Sam's face gently to him. "Sammy."

Blood smeared Sam's cheeks, streaks mingled with dried tears covered his face, down his neck. The blood had dried days ago, Dean was sure. He groaned when Dean rolled him to his side, pulled Sam in closer and sat him up to lean against Dean. Sam's fingers tightened to a fist against the leather of Dean's jacket, he bent his arm, pulling it under his chest as Dean moved him.

"Dean?" His voice was rough, barely there. Sam's eyes fluttered open for a second, unfocused. He sobbed once, collapsed against Dean.

"Here." Bobby handed Dean a damp, cool rag.

Shifting around on the floor, pulling Sam closer, into his lap, Dean used the material to wash the dried blood and tears from Sam's face. Sam moaned again, face tilting up into the gentle movements of Dean's hands. "Dean."

"Yeah, I'm here kid."

Sam blinked, eyes finding focus on Dean's. One hand moved slowly to grip the shirt covering Dean's shoulder. Sam swallowed, nodded, pressed his face to Dean's chest and sobbed.

SNSNSN

Wrestling Sam back to the Impala was surprisingly difficult considering the guy had nothing but a liquid diet, and not a very good one, for the past week. He was still as heavy as Dean remembered.

They found the keys in Dean's jacket. Bobby managed to hold Sam up between himself and the side of the car, while Dean slid into the back seat. Arms stretched out to grab Sam when Bobby maneuvered him into the car beside Dean. Wrapping his shivering sibling in a blanket Bobby dug from the trunk, Dean pulled Sam against him. Catching Bobby's eye reflected in the rearview mirror as he slid behind the wheel. Dean knew what was going through Bobby's mind; it was going through his own.

Nudging Sam gently until he stirred and looked up at Dean, "Sammy, I need to know, what did you do?"

"I don't know." Sam was quiet after that, slept against Dean's chest the entire ride home, waking only when Dean prodded him to drink from a bottle of water.

Sam was a bit more cooperative getting him inside Bobby's house; his legs nearly worked right, almost went in the direction Dean steered him. After depositing Sam on the couch (cause no way he was wrestling the kid up the stairs), Dean settled in the old, over stuffed arm chair. Pulled it up next to the couch, feet propped near Sam's ankles, one hand resting beside Sam's shoulder.

He barely registered the sounds of Bobby moving about the house, talking to someone on the phone. A few minutes later a set of blankets were laid in his lap. Glancing up, "Thanks. Hey Bobby, I hate to ask, but…Sam, I need some time—"

"Buddy of mine is going to drive me back to get my car, since we drove yours home."

"Thank you."

Nodding, Bobby sighed then tapped Dean's shoulder. "You just be sure the two of you are here when I get back."

"We will be."

The house was dark and quiet, shadows stretched long across the room when Sam finally stirred. Dean was barely awake when he felt Sam's fingers reaching for his shirt. Dean did nothing, just watched as Sam moved the material, then traced the scars with one shaking finger. Sam's entire body trembled when he finally met Dean's eyes. Sam's skin was warm and dry, his cheeks a bit flushed, eyes slipping in and out of focus.

"Do they hurt?"

"No." Dean shook his head, at least not physically they didn't. Leaning forward, hand brushing over Sam's hair, Dean asked again. "Sammy, what did you do? You gotta tell me, please. How? Did you make some—" He couldn't even say the word.

"No deals." Sam said quickly. "I don't know. It just. I don't know." His hand fell away, his voice trailed off. Pulling back, Sam's eyes squeezed shut, but that didn't stop the tears. Sam's scars were just as deep. "I'm sorry. It's my fault, I couldn't stop it, I turned my back on Jake, and then those things, they just tore at you. I couldn't do anything, and I'm sorry. You died and it's my fault, and I couldn't stop it—"

"Hey, hey." Dean's fingers pressed against the back of Sam's head, his other hand gripped Sam's shoulder, halting the string of words. "Stop it. Sam, I'm here, right here. It's all right. You did what you promised, you saved me, or helped me save myself. I'm not sure. But whichever, it's over, it's done. We're both here." He pulled one of the blankets over Sam's shoulders. "We'll talk about it tomorrow, okay? Get some rest."

Bobby hadn't seen the scars on Dean's chest, yet Sam had. He couldn't help but wonder if Sam would see them tomorrow, when he was no longer exhausted and half delirious. Somehow, Dean knew in the morning, and forever after, the scars, the physical ones, would be invisible to Sam too.

SNSNSN

Dean was up first. The sun shone through the windows, the day cool, crisp, clean, new. He was on a mission. There was coffee in the kitchen; he aimed to get it brewing. He stretched and hummed a bit as he got the coffee going, then dug through Bobby's refrigerator for a few minutes. It didn't take long for Sam to pad quietly in, settle at the table behind Dean.

"I didn't sacrifice any virgins, or drain anyone of blood, hang a goat from a flag pole."

Setting a mug of coffee in front of Sam, Dean smiled softly. "That's good to know."

"I don't know what I did, or how. There was something. I've no idea what. Your body just vanished."

"I woke up here. You sent me home." Turning on the faucet, Dean filled two glasses with water, handing one to Sam. "Drink up."

Sam gave him a curious look, but drank. Leaning across the table, Sam moved Dean's shirt up, as he'd done the night before. "No scars. I thought I woke up last night, and saw scars on your chest from—"

Dean looked down at the webbing of flesh gone from angry red to whiter than the rest of his skin, shrugged and smirked. "Bad dream, Sammy. It's holy water." He emptied his glass. When Sam said nothing, just raised his eyebrows, Dean put the glass down and chuckled. "When I woke up here, Bobby kept giving me water, holy water. He noticed I could tell the difference. That's when he told me he'd blessed his well and tossed a few rosaries in his septic system about twenty years ago. Dude, we've been drinking and showering in the stuff for years." He patted Sam's arm. "I thought that might make you feel better to know."

"It does. Thanks." Sam's eyes focused on the table top.

"Which brings me to add, you stink. Go take a shower."

Sam laughed at that, rolled his eyes and stood up. "Hope I don't melt."

SNSNSN

Wandering out to the front porch, Dean took his coffee. When Sam was clean and socially acceptable again they'd make some breakfast, clean up around Bobby's house while they waited for his return.

Two steps beyond the door, in one fluid movement, Dean set down his mug, grabbed up a pipe wrench setting by the door.

"As if that'd hurt me." Ruby snorted.

"I was wondering how long it would take you to show up." He kept on going, down the steps, stopping a foot from her. Movement behind him, something ghosting to his side registered, but he kept his eyes trained on Ruby's. "Which one are you anyway? Ruby? Lilith? Or you got a whole demon commune hiding in there?"

"You're funny." She stalked a few steps to one side. "Can't tell?"

"No." Dean sidestepped, keeping in front of her, staying between her and Sam. It was important, staying between them. Dean didn't know why, but he knew it was something he had to do.

"So, how's it feel? Being one of us now?" The thought hit Dean, which one of them was she talking to? He wasn't sure.

Dean felt Sam suck in a breath, heard the low growl kept in his throat. Sam didn't move when he ground out, "Stay away from us."

Ruby stepped back.

Dean turned, looked at Sam. There was something, he couldn't quite grasp what, but something. That's when Dean knew Hell hadn't taken everything, it had given something to him.

"Interesting thing there, Ruby, I brought things back with me. But I don't think it's exactly what your kind thought or wanted or planned." His eyes slipped to Sam's again. This time he saw Sam, just Sam, no more, no less. Fingers winding around Sam's arm, stepping away, and gently nudging his brother with him, "Come on Sammy, nothing here."

Sam nodded, followed willingly, but not before he glanced back over his shoulder, glared at Ruby. "Go away."

They stopped, turned, Ruby was gone.

Dean's eyes rested on Sam for another minute. It was just Sam, just his kid brother. Dean had gone to Hell, come back, and he knew a few things were certain. He knew in war, casualties weren't always lives, but souls. Whatever Hell wanted from him, from them, it wasn't going to get. He and Sam, they weren't going down that road, not at all. Instead, Hell had given up to Dean valuable knowledge.

There were weapons and secrets and Dean knew now exactly what he had, what he was charge of. Dean planned to use whatever means, whatever weapon at his disposal, to defend what was his.

End