a/n: Well, guys, here is the last chapter. Thanks so much for sticking with me. I really appreciate your feedback. You rock!
The Devil Made Me Do It
By AJ Wesley
Dean burst through the door of the cabin, splintering wood when it slammed against the wall. "Sam!?" He grabbed the jamb to hold himself up as he heaved in great lungfuls of air. Once he managed to focus, he rapidly scanned the dark interior. Without the aid of the moonlight, he could barely see, but even before he pulled out his flashlight, he knew his brother wasn't in the room. There was no movement or sound from the loft, but with the ladder in the state of decay it was, he didn't think that was an option. Dean got his legs moving again and headed for the doorway in the rear. They hadn't made it that far before. He held the gun ready as he advanced, floorboards creaking ominously beneath his feet.
The back room was small, a lean-to, once a pantry. Pegs were hammered into the wall on the right, and under them a bench ran the entire length of the room. On the left was another window, this one boarded up, and next to it what Dean assumed was the back door. There was another door a few feet ahead to the right. Still fighting vertigo, he hurried to the only other option he could see. A cellar?
Dean yanked the door open. Shelves lined the inside of the small storage space.
He turned into the small room. There was nowhere else to look. Dean collapsed onto the bench. He was wrong. Sam wasn't here. He wasn't—
The noise made him look back. Now that his breathing had returned to normal and the blood wasn't pounding so fiercely in his ears, he could hear it. It sounded like…
Taun-tauns? They had just recently watched a marathon of Star Wars movies, and that was the only comparison he could think of.
What the—? Dean listened. It did sound like taun-tauns. And something else. A sound that made Dean's blood run cold. Screaming. Someone was screaming. Muffled as it was, Dean could still hear it, and he knew. He just knew.
"Sammy!" Dean shot to his feet, ignoring the pain in his head.
Frantic, he scanned the small closet, noting the recess in the wall on the right, the arcing scrape marks on the floor. A hidden doorway. Holding the flashlight under his arm, Dean grabbed the closest shelf and pulled. The false wall shifted, swinging toward him to reveal a door. A sturdy, solid wooden door that was obviously a more recent addition. It was padlocked.
One carefully aimed silver bullet took care of that problem.
The metal was still hot when Dean grabbed it and tossed it aside. He didn't care. The screams were waning. God, no. He bounded down the stairs and stopped dead.
It was blocking his path.
Years and years of training told him not to take his gaze from the threat before him, but his eyes were drawn to what lay behind the creature.
His brother lay staked out on the dirt floor, struggling weakly against his bonds.
And then there were those…things. Three of them. They were like little vultures, snapping at each other over their prize, their sharp little claws drawing fresh blood that they greedily lapped up.
Sam's head arched back, the muscles in his neck taut with strain, then he collapsed back with a feeble cry.
The macabre sight made Dean sick. It terrified him. It infuriated him.
Dean turned that fury loose.
He put three bullets dead center in the creature's chest, then one between its eyes. Before it even hit the floor, he dropped his flashlight, drew out his machete, and took off its head. His rage made him want to hack it to pieces, but he reined the anger in and stepped over the twitching body to the more pressing matter: the one that threatened his brother's life.
Sam was no longer moving. And as much as Dean had hated hearing those screams, at least they'd assured him his brother was alive. The silence was even more terrifying.
The little abomination on Sam's chest hissed at Dean. They were too close to Sam to shoot, so Dean stepped in and kicked the one atop Sam, sending it crashing into the dirt wall. It hit the floor with a shrill squeal, but was on its feet and scurrying back with surprising speed. Dean took it out with one shot.
Another of the little devils attached itself to one of Dean's legs, the tiny claws piercing the denim of his jeans with ease and embedding in his skin. With a growl of pain, Dean grabbed the thing by the neck and tore it off. He drop-kicked the sucker and shot it mid-air.
One to go.
This one was in a frenzy, squawking and running in circles. When it was far enough from Sam, Dean bisected it with the machete.
The job done, Dean ignored the carnage and slipped from soldier mode to big brother in the space of a heartbeat. He dropped to his knees beside Sam, letting his weapons fall.
Sam's eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and now that Dean was looking, he could see the trembling rise and fall of Sam's chest and knew his brother was alive. But as his gaze took in the angry claw marks, the nearly shredded skin, and the blood, Dean felt the knot in his stomach tighten. With just a little more time, those things would have—
"God, Sammy," he said on a breath, laying a gentle hand on his brother's abdomen.
Sam's cry held little strength and quickly faded to a whimper. Dean could feel him shaking.
Dean's other hand went to the sweat-soaked tousle of dark hair, stilling the rocking head. "Sam, it's me," he said softly. "It's okay. You're okay. Shhh." He brushed back the damp hair, his hand sliding down to rest against the right side of Sam's face. His thumb wiped away the wetness that escaped when Sam's eyes blinked open.
It took Sam a moment to focus. Then Dean heard his name, understood it even through the gag.
"Yeah, it's me, little brother," he assured.
Sam's chest heaved with great breaths, his relief palpable. He leaned his head into Dean's hand with a muffled sob.
Dean took the embrace for what it was, his own eyes welling at the raw emotion. He quickly regained control and patted Sam's head. "Let's get this thing off, okay?" The gag was too tight to pull out, so he pushed Sam's head to the side to get to the knot in back. It took him longer than he expected, and damn his shaking hands, so he finally dug the small knife out of his boot and carefully cut the thing off.
The words came tumbling out with the gag.
"I'm here, Sam." He went to work on the ropes.
"Dean. They were…they were…"
"I know, Sam."
Dean let him ramble, offering quiet reassurances as he worked through the thick, coarse rope. He didn't dare cut the binding around Sam's abraded wrists; he could get those off later. Instead, he sawed through the length attached to the stake. He got Sam's right arm free, then moved on to the left, noting with dismay the missing bandages and torn stitches on that shoulder.
"I can…s-still…feel them on me." Sam shuddered through the memory. His breathing was becoming more erratic; relaying the story was sending him into another panic attack.
Dean shifted, set down the knife, and took Sam's face in both his hands. "Sam. Sammy, look at me. Look at me." He waited until his brother's eyes met his. "Pull it together for me, Sam. I need to get you outta here, but you gotta help me, okay? You hear me? I need your help."
"Okay," Sam gasped. "Okay." He closed his mouth, lips pressed together in a hard, thin line. He breathed through his nose, deep, shaky breaths at first, but they slowed, evened out.
Dean felt a surge of admiration at the effort. And he knew Sam was doing it for him, because he'd asked. He tousled Sam's hair. "Attaboy." He returned to the task of cutting the ropes.
With nothing left but sheer exhaustion, Sam closed his eyes. Dean got the left arm undone and noticed his brother barely flinched when he moved it down to his side. Dean paused a moment to gather his strength, but knew he had to move. He walked on his knees down to where he could reach Sam's ankles. The stakes were loose at the surface, and Dean wondered at the strength it took to do that. They had to be buried deep, or Sam would have gotten himself free.
Left leg down, one to go. Dean shifted around between Sam's feet to get a better angle on the final length of rope. Then he heard the noise, turned. He lifted his arm, managing to block the blow that was aimed at his head, but the force was enough to knock him to the floor.
His head protested the jarring, light and pain exploding behind his eyes. Dean felt himself topple. A jumbling of words reached his ears: Sam calling his name. Another voice, familiar, something about returning the favor. And…
Dean squeezed his eyes shut, trying to clear his aching head. He pushed upright on one arm, looked up.
Pete stood over Sam, his booted foot keeping Sam's hand from lifting the pistol in his grasp. Dean's pistol. The one he had dropped. He'd also dropped his machete. The one Pete was holding to Sam's throat. But his hateful gaze was on Dean.
"What did you do?" Pete snarled.
Dean tried to push himself up further, but at Sam's gasp, he froze.
"What did you do?!"
A deep growl came from the stairs.
Dean turned. "Oh, man," he groaned. "How many of these things are there?"
This one was huge. Well, that explained the inconsistencies of the witness reports. There was a big difference between four feet tall and seven feet tall. Guess nobody figured there was more than one.
Its hooves clacked on the wooden steps. Its eyes took in the massacre. Then it wailed.
Dean covered his ears, gritting his teeth until it stopped. When he looked up again, the thing was looming over him. "Geez!" He scrambled back, but the creature ignored him and took another step toward Sam.
It was looking at the machete. The bloodstained machete in Pete's hand. Its eyes narrowed as its gaze lifted to Pete.
And suddenly Pete realized what it was thinking. He backed up a step, shaking his head. "JD, no. I didn't do this. It was them!"
The creature kept up its advance, backing Pete into the shadows. Apparently, it could put two and two together and come up with four, but anything more was beyond its ability.
Dean took advantage of the distraction to crawl over and slice through the final length of rope to free Sam. He ignored the death screams as he climbed to his feet and helped his brother up, pried the pistol from his hand, and pulled Sam's right arm across his shoulders. Sam hissed in pain, but he was moving.
The stairs seemed so far away.
The silence was deafening. More so than the screams.
Dean knew they were in trouble. He was no math whiz by any means, but it wasn't hard to figure out that the clip in the .45 was empty. Damn.
In what he could honestly say was the blink of an eye, the creature was in front of them, blocking the stairs. Man, it moved fast. Apparently, one kill wasn't enough.
Dean pushed Sam behind him, shielding him for all the good it would do. He raised the pistol, hoping the thing would recognize it as a threat.
"Dean, your head…"
"Not now, Sam," he growled. Out of habit, his finger tightened on the trigger. He heard the report, but…he hadn't pulled the trigger. Had he?
Three more shots.
The Jersey Devil hit the floor.
Dean looked up the stairs, at the man who had saved his life for a second time that night.
"Huh," Ernie said, regarding the pistol in his hand. "Silver bullets work."
The trip up the stairs wasn't too bad. Sam teetered every so often, but Dean held onto him, kept him from falling. The kid was still shaking, and Dean knew it wasn't all from the cold.
The creaking of the staircase behind them startled Sam. His reaction was so violent, it nearly sent them both tumbling backwards.
Dean grabbed the railing—it was a more recent addition, too, thank goodness—and got them both steadied before taking hold of Sam with both hands. He glanced down the stairs and saw Ernie, Sam's shirts and jacket in his hands, frozen mid-step on the lower stairs. Dean nodded to him, then gave his full attention to his brother. "It's okay, Sam. They're dead. They're all dead. Remember?"
Sam's chest was heaving again, but he closed his eyes and nodded. He was trying so hard. "I know," he panted. "I know. 'M sorry…sorry."
Dean carefully got them moving again, awkwardly since Sam's grip on him was approaching painful. "Quit apologizing, Sam. None of this was your fault." Halfway there.
Dean stopped. "What?"
"My fault. It could sense me. It knew…why we were…here." He was fading fast.
"Shut up, Sam." Dean wanted nothing more than for them to be far away from this place. "Save your strength. We'll talk about this later." And damn it, Sam would, too.
It took a little longer than he'd hoped, but Dean finally got Sam up into the lean-to and settled on the bench there. Sam sat leaning back against the wall, exhaustion, blood loss, and shock sapping his strength. His eyes slipped closed, and it seemed like he had passed out. Except for the grip he had on Dean's left arm. Sure, it restricted his movement some, but Dean wasn't about to break that contact. He turned slightly, reaching out a hand to Ernie for Sam's clothes, and the flashlight he'd dropped on the cellar floor. Once he had them in hand, he nodded to the hunter. "Thanks, Ernie."
Ernie clapped him gently on his upper arm. "See to your brother. I'm gonna go check on Charlie." He left without another word.
Dean crouched beside the bench and fished the flashlight from the jumble of clothes. The beam illuminated the mess that was Sam's side, and Dean noted with a frown that he was bleeding again. He set the light on the bench to Sam's left, then bundled up Sam's t-shirt and pressed it against the largest of the wounds.
Sam jerked, whimpering softly as he tried with his one free hand to push away what was causing him more pain. His breathing was becoming erratic again.
Dean caught his brother's hand and guided it to the bundled shirt. "Hold that for me, Sam, okay? You hear me? Sam." It sounded a little harsher than he'd meant, but it worked.
Sam's eyes opened, his gaze searching for a moment before settling on Dean.
"You with me?" Dean softened his voice, offering his brother a smile. Sam swallowed, nodded. Beneath his own, Dean felt Sam's hand press down on the shirt. "Good. Now just hold that a minute." As quickly as he could, Dean picked up Sam's flannel shirt and folded the body of it up, leaving the arms hanging loose. With only a little difficulty, he slipped it around Sam's waist and tied off the sleeves. Sam's hand hit the bench, his knuckles rapping wood as if holding the makeshift bandage in place had used up the last of his strength. His eyes slid closed again. Not good, considered the walk they had ahead of them. The rest of the first aid could wait until they got back to the motel. The challenge now was getting Sam on his feet and moving.
Dean shook out Sam's jacket and carefully threaded his brother's left arm into the sleeve. He stood and nudged Sam away from the wall to get the jacket around him. "A little help here, Sam," he grumbled without annoyance. With effort, Sam sat up, his shoulders slumped. Okay. Now for the hard part. "I need you to let go, Sam." He got a confused look in response. Dean lifted his left arm, bringing Sam's right up with it into view. It took some doing on both their parts, but Dean finally managed to get his grip pried loose and the jacket on Sam. He picked up the flashlight and sat on the bench beside his brother, and carefully drew Sam's arm across his shoulders. "Ready, Sammy? On three."
Sam nodded, setting his feet, drawing a breath. A moan rumbled in his throat on the way up, and for a minute there, Dean thought Sam was going to crash. But he managed to steady himself, the death grip once again taking a fistful of Dean's jacket.
"All right?" Dean asked.
"Yeah," Sam gasped.
It was a lie, but one Dean would allow. Trying not to think too hard about the long road ahead, Dean started moving.
The walk back to the car was déjà vu. Well, almost. The last time—was it only yesterday?—Dean had been at full strength. This time, he could only wish he was. His head was pounding to the heavy beat of his heart. He kept swallowing, hoping the nausea would pass, but the forest kept tilting this way and that, making it worse. His legs were shaking with strain, but he had to keep going. For Sam.
Who was getting heavier and heavier.
Dean took another step, then felt himself sinking. "No," he growled, and cursed himself for his weakness.
Then suddenly, he was being hauled up.
"On your feet, Dean. Come on," ordered the gruff voice.
"Yes, sir," left his lips automatically. Dean blinked, focused.
Dean locked his legs, took a deep breath. Okay. He could do this. Even Sam's weight felt lighter. Dean turned his head, saw Charlie supporting Sam on the other side, thankfully cautious with Sam's arm. Neither man tried to separate them. Which was a good thing. With all they'd been through together, Dean would have hated to have to beat the crap out of them.
He had no idea how far they'd come or how much farther they had to go. He simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Just like that Rankin Bass song. Dean grinned. He remembered singing it to Sammy when he'd taught him how to walk, so long ago. Another lifetime.
"Are you…hum'ng?" Sam.
It was good to hear his voice. "Yeah, so?" Dean tried his best to sound indignant.
So they recited lines the rest of the way. Not just from Here Comes Santa Claus, but other Rankin Bass classics as well. It gave Dean something else to focus on, and seemed to make Sam more alert. Dean was just about to launch into his rendition of the Heat Miser's song when they stopped. The Piney Power pickup—say that three times fast—sat before them and, just to the right of it, the Impala. And what a beautiful sight she was. Dean moved in her direction, but Ernie held him back.
"Where do you think you're going?" the man asked.
Dean straightened, rising to the challenge. "I'm taking Sam back to the motel. You got a problem with that?"
"You bet I do," Ernie shot back, not intimidated in the least. "You're in no condition to drive, and the motel is a half-hour away."
"Not the way I plan to drive."
"The gun club is a few minutes away. I've got a back room and all the supplies you need. Now get in the back of the truck."
"Don't argue with me, boy."
A snicker from Dean's right drew his attention, and he turned to his brother. "What are you laughing at?" he growled, but he couldn't hold the anger at the smile on Sam's face. "Shut up," he said finally. He turned back to Ernie. "What about my car?"
"You can leave it here. Or Charlie could drive it back to the club."
Dean tossed a glance a Charlie. "He's not in much better shape than I am."
"He don't have a concussion," Ernie said.
"Yeah, yeah." Dean sighed. They were wasting time, and he was losing this argument. And Sam was getting heavy again. "Fine." He supported Sam with one hand long enough to dig the keys out of his pocket and pass them to Charlie. "One scratch, and it's coming out of your hide."
Charlie raised one hand in mock surrender, then helped get Sam to the back of the pickup. Ernie opened the tailgate, then headed around to the cab as Dean hopped up into the open bed. Sam was able to boost himself up onto the edge and use his legs to push himself back. Shrugging out of his jacket, Dean sat in the back corner, stretching his legs out along the width of the cab. Sam's face screwed up into a wince as he listed and tried to catch himself with his bad arm.
"Easy, easy." Dean reached for him, caught him as the arm gave out. It took some maneuvering, but he finally managed to get his brother settled onto his back, Sam's head pillowed on Dean's thigh.
Sam gave a shaky sigh, finally able to let exhaustion claim him. He sank even deeper when Dean covered him with the leather jacket.
A rap on the cab's window signaled Ernie they were ready to go.
The ride to the gun club was a lot longer than "a few minutes." Ernie was taking it slow along the bumpy road, and still Dean's head felt like it was going to explode. He held onto Sam, trying to keep him from being jostled too much. Which proved worthless when they turned onto the dirt road to the club. Forget potholes. These were craters.
Sam groaned. "Are we there yet?"
"What, you don't like the accommodations?"
Dean laughed, mussing Sam's hair fondly.
When they finally rolled to a halt in front of the cabin, Dean sighed with relief. He watched the Impala pull in alongside the pickup. Charlie got out and waited for Ernie to open the tailgate.
"Okay, Sam," Dean said, shifting under his brother's weight, "last leg." Speaking of legs, his left was asleep.
Ernie climbed up into the bed and eased Sam upright. Getting out of the pickup proved harder than getting in, and he paused at the tailgate to let Sam catch his breath. That gave Dean time to catch up. He grabbed his jacket and slid off the edge, shaking out his leg that now stung with the pins and needles of returning circulation. It didn't matter, though. He muscled his way in to take Sam from Ernie with a gruff, "I got him."
"I said, I got him."
Ernie didn't say another word; he simply moved on ahead into the club. Charlie hovered, just in case. But Ernie had parked right next to the cabin. Dean only had a few more paces to go before he reached the…
Steps. Oh, man.
Dean paused, gathered his strength. "Three steps, Sam. Ready?" A nod of the lolling head was his answer. Good enough.
Sam stepped with his left, then drew his right leg up to meet it. Dean matched him and held on as Sam shifted his weight and repeated the process.
"One more, bro," Dean said.
Sam groaned a bit on the last one, but he made it. The trip to the back room was a piece of cake after that. It was with a sigh of relief that Dean lowered his brother onto the edge of the bed. Ernie had already laid down garbage bags and covered them with towels to protect the mattress. Dean eased Sam out of his jacket, then got him settled. Sam sank gratefully into the pillow, the sweat-soaked hair in stark contrast with his pale skin and the white of the pillowcase.
The bed was small, not much wider than a cot, but at least it had a real mattress. Okay, so Sam's feet hung off the end. At the moment, he didn't seem to mind. With no room to sit on the edge of the bed, Dean sank to the floor by Sam's head, his back to the wall. The wooden frame sat only about two feet off the floor, so Dean propped his left arm on the edge and watched his brother give in to the exhaustion. Sam was safe.
And Dean felt his adrenaline rush slipping away.
So not good.
Dean blinked his eyes wide and sucked in a lungful of air, hoping to clear the cobwebs clouding his brain. He had work to do. Shifting onto his knees, Dean slid across the wooden floor until he could reach Sam's wrist. The remains of the bonds still encircled the abraded skin. Thankful for the calluses on his fingers, Dean worked at the coarse rope until the knot finally loosened.
Ernie entered the room with the promised supplies. Charlie followed him in carrying a basin of water. He set his burden on the floor beside Dean, offered a sympathetic look, then left the room without a word. Ernie remained, tackling the ropes around Sam's ankles as Dean eased them from around Sam's right wrist. Next, he washed his hands thoroughly with the antiseptic wipes from the supplies their host had brought, wincing at the sting from all the tiny cuts. Damn thorny vines. He grabbed up a washcloth and dropped it in the basin. The water was warm. He didn't realize how cold his hands were until they were bathed in the warmth.
"When you're finished," Ernie said, tossing aside the last of the bindings, "I want to take a look at that head of yours."
"I'm fine," Dean said without looking up from sorting the supplies.
"Are we going to do this again?" Ernie kept his voice low and calm. "You're not fine, you—"
Dean lost it, retorting loudly, "I swear, if you—" then cut himself off, his head feeling like it had split in half.
"Uh-huh." Ernie stood, patted Dean's shoulder. "Lose your temper; lose the argument. I'll see you out by the bar when you're through."
Dean watched him leave and cursed under his breath. The fact that the man was right made him mad. Dean knew he had a concussion. He could feel it. But he wasn't used to accepting help from outsiders. They either didn't care, were too scared, or were just totally oblivious. He should be grateful, but right now, he was too angry.
The weak call drew his undivided attention. "Hey," he said warmly. "You should be asleep." And, damn it, he'd really hoped Sam would be out when he cleaned the worst of the wounds.
"Kinda hard…with all that racket." Sam's brows drew together. "You okay?"
"Don't you worry about me." Dean offered him a smile but it quickly faded. "Look, I…uh…"
Sam nodded. "I know. Just do it."
Dean turned his attention to untying the knotted sleeves of the flannel shirt. The t-shirt was a little harder to remove; Dean had to wet it where the blood had dried. Tiny rivulets of bloodstained water slipped down Sam's waist and dripped onto the towel beneath. The t-shirt came away easily, revealing the damaged skin.
Dean chewed on his lower lip as he took his first good look at the wounds. Sam's shoulder was a mess, there were three tiny punctures on the center of his chest, and a gash on his right side, across his ribs. But the worst of the bunch was the one at his waist.
Glancing up, Dean saw his patient had lifted his head and was looking down at the bloody mess. Sam uttered a curse and let his head fall back onto the pillow.
"It always hurts more when you look, Sammy," Dean admonished. Well, that's what Dad had always said when they were growing up.
"No," Sam shot back, his voice strained, "it hurt just as much before I looked. Now I just…feel sick."
Dean picked up the washcloth and wrung out the excess water. "Well, if you're gonna hurl, do it that way." He stabbed a finger at the wall on the other side of the bed. "Besides," he added, his voice softening, "it looks worse than it really is." He hoped that was true. The largest of the gashes was still seeping blood, but he had to get it cleaned up before he could really tell. "Okay, here we go."
Dean took a breath, then went to work, starting with the punctures on Sam's chest, then the gash. His brother's body jerked beneath his touch, the pale face creasing in pain, but he made it through the first part with no more than a strained groan. Dean rinsed out the washcloth, watched the water swirl with red. He squeezed out some of the excess water from the cloth and returned to the cleaning.
Sam jolted again, breath hissing through his teeth. His fists clenched and unclenched, then his legs started to move.
"Hold still, Sam."
"Easy…for you…to say…"
"You know," Dean said, trying to keep his brother focused on something other than the pain, "this is becoming a habit with you."
Sam barked a laugh that turned into a growl of pain. Then he told Dean exactly what he could do with himself.
"Nice. Where'd you pick up that language?" He grinned. "Oh, wait. Never mind."
Another laugh, short and breathless. Sam was silent for a moment, then the conversation Dean had been dreading began.
"Do you think…?" Sam paused, gritting his teeth. "Do you think I could…sense it because of…you know."
Dean shrugged. He didn't like talking to Sam about his "abilities," for no other reason than he didn't have the answers. But Sam needed answers. Without looking up, he said, "Maybe. Or maybe it was a freak like you." When Sam didn't comment, Dean glanced up, caught the glare. "Well…it was already pretty freaky, huh? Would that make it a freaky freak?"
Sam wasn't amused. Dean cleared his throat and went back to work.
Dean set the washcloth aside and picked up the antibacterial cream. He slathered on a generous amount, then opened a package of gauze.
Sam sighed. "Maybe you're right," he said finally. "I only felt the connection with the female."
"What is it with you and chicks on this trip, Sammy?" Dean finished taping the gauze in place, then his eyes slid to the right, to the oozing mess at his brother's waist. Now for the hard part.
Sam gave a strained laugh, his eyes squeezing shut for a moment as Dean started the cleansing again. "Yeah. What I don't get is…" He grunted, hands clenching to fists. "…where did it…ow…find a mate?"
"Dude, I don't even want to go there." Damn, this looked awful. "But you know all those sketches we saw? Remember how different some of them were over the years? Maybe it has changed that much over three hundred years. It mated with…you know…whatever." Dean shuddered at the thought. "Hey, just like Jurassic Park, right? Nature finds a way."
Dean looked up.
Sam was impossibly paler. Sweat beaded along his upper lip and across his brow, and there were tears of pain pooled in the corners of his eyes. Dean hated this. It was so much easier in the days when Dad would do the first aid and Dean's only job was to hold on to Sam, offer him what strength and comfort he could.
Sam's fingers curled around Dean's arm in a painfully tight grip. "Dean…" he gasped. "Dean, stop…please. Just…give me a sec…"
Dean sucked in a breath, nodded. "Okay." He watched as his brother tried to regain control of his breathing, of his trembling limbs. "Ernie's got whiskey."
The dark head rolled against the pillow.
"Not for you, man. For me."
Sam smiled. "Jerk."
Dean pulled his arm gently from Sam's grasp. He shifted back toward the head of the bed, laying a hand over Sam's and giving it a squeeze. Sam grasped it like a lifeline. Dean's other hand brushed back the damp bangs, lingered on Sam's head. "Go to sleep, Sam. I'll wait."
Sam nodded, a tear breaking loose and tracing its way down to the pillow.
And Dean waited.
Waited until the tension melted from Sam's body. Until his brother sank impossibly deeper into the mattress. Until the soft sigh escaped Sam's lips. And finally, the grip on his hand loosened. Dean waited a little longer, just to be sure.
This time, Sam barely flinched.
Dean closed the door behind him as he stepped out into the main room. It was so quiet, for a moment Dean thought no one else was there. Then Ernie emerged from a door behind the bar, a case of beer in his arms.
"How's Sam?" the man asked, setting the case on the floor.
Dean glanced back at the closed door. "He's sleeping. He'll be fine. Charlie?"
"I sent him home."
He nodded, then gave Ernie a serious look. "Thanks."
Ernie waved off the recognition. "You get all the credit, son. I ain't never seen anyone with so much grit."
Dean slid onto one of the bar stools with a shrug. "He's my brother," he said, as if that should explain everything. "He's all I got. Our dad…" He stopped, deciding not to go there. "Well…we're looking for him."
"You'll find him," Ernie said with certainty.
Dean smiled. He wished he was so sure.
A bottle of whiskey and a first aid kit hit the bar in front of him. Dean looked up.
"Your turn," Ernie said.
Sam blinked his eyes open to a darkened room. A small night-light cast an orange glow, giving him just enough help to see. He was used to waking up in places he didn't recognize; that came with the job. But something was wrong. He took in the unfamiliar surroundings before taking stock of himself. His shoulder was bandaged once again, there was gauze taped to his chest and over his ribs on the right side, and his waist was wrapped with layers of white. He recognized Dean's handiwork. So…where was Dean?
Panic stole his breath. His brother would be there. He always was.
Sam threw back the covers and sat up a little too quickly. Once the room stopped spinning, he pressed a protective arm around his middle and stood. He made it across the room with surprising speed and yanked open the door.
Ernie looked up from his newspaper, a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. "He's right over there, son." He motioned with his head toward the living area, and Dean sound asleep on the sofa.
The tension slowly melted from Sam's body, leaving him worn out from the exertion. He hitched his left side onto a bar stool and rubbed a hand over his face. "How long was I out?"
"On and off for about twelve hours," Ernie said, setting his paper aside. "You don't remember getting up a couple of times?"
Sam shook his head. "It's kind of a blur." He glanced over at Dean again. "Is he okay?"
"He had a pretty nasty gash on the back of his head. Concussion. He's probably black and blue, too, but he wouldn't let me do more than patch up his head. He wanted to get back in there and make sure you were okay."
Sam smiled, nodding.
"After a couple of hours I checked in on you two. He was sitting against the wall by the head of your bed, sound asleep. I finally managed to get him to lay on the couch, but only after I promised I would keep an eye on you."
Sam felt his cheeks flush. His brother's over-protectiveness could be embarrassing at times, but Ernie didn't seem to think anything of it. Dean would always be his big brother; nothing would ever change that. And truthfully, Sam wouldn't want it to.
Besides, little brothers could be protective, too.
So Sam claimed the chair beside the sofa and sat his own vigil. The trophy wall kinda creeped him out, but with the exception of shuffling to the bathroom, and bidding Ernie good night, he didn't leave his brother's side.
It was morning when he woke again, judging by the clock on the mantel.
Sam stretched carefully and picked up the remote from the end table. He flicked through nearly ninety channels—no cable out here, but Ernie had satellite—before settling on "The Three Stooges." It was a good one with Curley. The one at the golf course. He'd seen every episode at least a dozen times, so watching it on mute was not a problem. He didn't want to disturb his gently snoring brother.
Dean was on his stomach, his right arm dangling off the side of the sofa, knuckles brushing the rug. Unfortunately, his six-foot-one frame didn't quite fit, so his knees were bent, his lower legs leaning against the padded arm. His feet, clad only in dingy white socks, were hooked over the arm. One side of Dean's face was crushed comically into his pillow, his mouth hanging open. Sam grinned, shaking his head, but the grin faded when his gaze settled once again on the bandage wrapped neatly around his brother's head.
The front door opened and Ernie stepped inside, a large brown paper bag in his hands. "Morning," he said softly.
"Morning," Sam returned just as quietly. He shot a glance at Dean, but his brother never stirred.
"I brought breakfast. Hope you like steak and eggs."
Sam's stomach growled in response. When was the last time he'd eaten, anyway? "Sounds great." He began working his way out of the chair. "But what are you doing here so early?"
"Well, my wife passed on about six years ago, and my son Jeff—that's his picture on the mantel—he's in the Corps. He's serving in Iraq now, so I spend most of my time here."
When Sam finally made it to his feet, he glanced at the picture of father and son, Jeff in his dress uniform. "You must be proud."
By the time Sam made it to the bar, Ernie had the aluminum containers opened and waiting. It smelled wonderful. Sam claimed a stool and picked up a plastic fork.
Ernie humphed, looking at Sam's bandaged shoulder. "Huh. I forgot. You gonna be able to cut that steak?"
"I'll manage," Sam said with a smile. He dug into the fluffy scrambled eggs.
"I brought some for Dean, whenever he decides it's time to wake up." Ernie shook his head. "Stubborn cuss."
Sam laughed. "That he is." He cut a piece of steak one-handed, the plastic knife sinking right into the tender meat. It was heavenly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had one.
They fell silent for a few moments, enjoying the food. A twinge of anxiety gripped Sam as his curiosity got the better of him. "Ernie?"
"How well did you know Pete?"
Ernie stopped chewing, his gaze meeting Sam's. Then he nodded as if he'd been expecting the subject to come up. "Apparently not as well as I thought I did." He reached over to grab two large cups from a take-out tray and set one in front of Sam. "I may be a bartender and a good listener, but gossip's not my thing. But I tell you, I never once thought—" He stopped, clearly still shaken.
Sam changed his line of questioning. "What can you tell me about the cabin?"
"The old Shrouds place?" Ernie gave a cynical laugh. "Well, that was something. Few years ago, they were going to tear the place down. I remember when Pete found out about it. He came in here yammering about this and that, said he was gonna have to do something about it. That the place had been in his family for years. Then suddenly it was named a historical landmark. We all figured he had a hand in it somehow."
"Did he…?" Sam paused, not sure how to pose the question.
Sam gave a short laugh. Might as well just say it. "Pete told me the Jersey Devil was his kin." He shook his head at how crazy that sounded.
Ernie wasn't laughing.
"That's not…" Sam's smile faded. "It's true?"
"Pete's a…was a descendent of the Shrouds. His family's lived in the Pinelands for over three hundred years. Talked like he owned the whole reserve sometimes, you know? His father was like that, too. My God, you don't think…"
"Family business?" Sam suggested. It wouldn't be the first time he'd seen it.
"Did he have any other family?"
"Not that I know of. He was never married." Ernie shook his head. "He never really talked about the Jersey Devil. Least not more than anybody else. I can't believe he had a hand in all those disappearances. What he almost did to you…"
Sam shrugged with one shoulder. "I guess—"
"I smell food."
The muffled grumble brought a smile back to Sam's face. "It's alive."
The response might have been "shut up," or it might have been something else.
Turning his head still hurt his shoulder, so Sam swiveled on the bar stool in time to see his brother push himself up on his knees, then sit back on his heels. "Steak and eggs, dude."
Dean rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "And coffee?"
"And coffee," Sam said on a laugh. He watched as Dean struggled off the sofa and shuffled zombie-like toward the bar. With a grin, Sam turned back to his breakfast.
Dean inhaled deeply and, with a sigh of contentment, settled on the stool to Sam's right. He reached up and clasped the nape of Sam's neck and gave it a squeeze. That simple display of affection said more than any words ever could.
Then he was all about his food, clapping his hands together as his eyes scanned the bar top for a fork, found one, then looked hungrily at the steak. "Ernie, this is…this is…"
"It's great, thank you," Sam finished for him. Dean nodded and dug in.
Ernie waved it off. "Hell, this was nothing. You boys took quite a beating out there. And yet, here you sit."
Sam paused. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean freeze, his mouth full of food.
Ernie folded his arms on the bar and leaned forward. "When you were spinning those tall tales the first night you showed up here, you said you thought the Jersey Devil was just a myth. Yet you looked that seven-foot son of a bitch in the eye and didn't even blink. You knew. And silver bullets? What hunter carries around silver bullets?"
Sam remained silent, his gaze sliding over to Dean. His brother chewed slowly, swallowed. Finally, Dean set down his fork. "Our kind," he said. "The Jersey Devil was real, Ernie." He shrugged with his expression. "So are a lot of other things."
Sam's eyebrows shot up at his brother's honesty. But Ernie had been there. He'd seen the thing. And he'd saved their lives. Sam figured they owed him something, even if it was simply the truth.
The laughter faded when they didn't join in.
"You serious?" Ernie asked.
Dean shrugged again. Sam offered a sheepish smile.
The color drained from Ernie's face. "Your breakfast is getting cold," he said, and pulled a bottle from under the bar.
When they had finished, Sam could tell Dean was itching to go. Truthfully, he was ready, too. He so needed to put this all behind him, and getting back on the road was the first step. When Dean returned from the back room with his jacket on, Ernie knew it, too. He regarded them a moment, then held out his hand. Sam shook it.
Dean took the proffered hand as well, and Ernie clapped him on the arm.
"You boys take care of yourselves."
"Yes, sir," Dean said. He held the grip a moment longer. "Thanks."
They stepped out onto the porch, the crisp late morning air chasing away the rest of the sleepiness. The Impala sat waiting, the sun reflecting off the back window. Sam waved off his brother's offer to help him down the steps. It was slow going, but he made it.
They had just reached the car when Ernie's voice stopped them.
They turned as one.
"When you go back to the motel for your stuff, no need to check out. It's covered."
They stood there for a moment, not sure what to say. Ernie spared them a response when he waved and went back inside.
With a smile, Sam opened the car door and slid carefully onto the sun-warmed vinyl. Closing the door was a bit of a challenge, but he managed, then sank back into the seat with a sigh.
Dean was already behind the wheel, turning the key in the ignition. "Good man."
"And you didn't want to come to New Jersey."
Sam quirked an eyebrow. "Neither did you, as I recall. You kept complaining that they don't let you pump your own gas."
"Well, they don't. I mean, what's up with that?"
Shaking his head, Sam turned his gaze to the window and the forest passing by beyond it. Shafts of sunlight beamed through the trees, giving it an almost ethereal look. There were—
Sam blinked, sat up.
Sam scanned the woods again, but there was nothing. "Yeah," he said finally. "I'm fine. Let's just go." He sank back in the seat again and rubbed a hand over his face. For a second, just a second, he thought he'd seen a set of glowing red eyes.
But that was stupid.
Sam leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He couldn't wait to get out of New Jersey.