Previously appeared in Blood Brothers (2007), from Gold'n Lily Press (Teajunkie (at) comcast (dot) net)

Impala Therapy
K Hanna Korossy

There were hunts that blew up impressively in their faces, usually involving great quantities of blood and bandages and alcohol, for both external and internal sterilizing. And then there were the occasional ones that went bad and Dean didn't even see it coming.

He was already covered in mud, which was not his favorite way to spend a hunt no matter how it turned out. The added layer of mucus from the bear-with-antlers thing they were chasing was the disgusting icing on the cake. Sam would figure out later what the thing was, but right now all Dean cared about was killing the sucker and torching it. As long as it wasn't impervious to blades or bullets, it really didn't matter what it was.

It was, however, turning to charge him, which was kind of important.

"Hey, over here!"

That was Sam behind the creature, trying to draw its attention away from Dean. Only a couple weeks back on the job, and it was already clear Sam had forgotten half the Winchester hunting handbook, such as that little brothers never played bait. Ever. Dean huffed in frustration and took aim one more time at the turning creature.

His aim was true. The location of its heart was not. Well, at least Dean had gotten its attention again.

The thing wheeled on him, snorted, then surprised Dean by jerking to one side, neither toward Sam nor him. Making a run for it, maybe, because two bullets hitting anything corporeal was bound to hurt even if it didn't kill it. Unfortunately, that direction lay the third member of their hunting team, one that was a lot more helpless than the two of them.

Dean started running. "Oh, you are so not going after my car!"

He listened for and heard Sam crashing through the underbrush after him. It wasn't a sound Dean was used to yet; for years he'd been hunting with only his dad, and John led rather than bringing up the rear. It had been a long time since someone had really watched Dean's back, and Sam had no friggin' idea how good that felt or he would never have taken off like he did in the first place.

At least, that was what Dean told himself.

They raced after the thing, which, with four long legs, was outdistancing them easily. Thankfully, it also had a lousy sense of direction, and Dean soon gave up chasing it and headed straight for the Impala. If he got there first, he could head the beast off, maybe even trap it between him and Sam, who followed his trail unerringly instead of the creature's. At least Sammy had immediately thrown himself into making up for three-plus years of damaged trust.

Finally, Dean broke through the tree line, hearing the rustle and crunch to his right of the beast still trying to get away, or maybe get to; who knew with a freak of nature like that? At any rate, Dean turned and plunged back in after it.

And immediately saw the reflecting eyes of the thing coming straight for him.

He cursed and did a one-eighty, nearly mowing Sam down. His brother dove to one side, raising the shotgun to his shoulder. Dean again broke from the trees, this time pursued instead of pursuer. The creature emerged after him, and Sam's shot did nothing more than make it veer a little off-course.

Right back onto the path that ended smack in the Impala's passenger side door.

"Uh-uh, you ugly bastard, there is no way," Dean muttered, and planted himself between his baby and the beast, drawing bead on the creature straight between the eyes. It might keep its heart in a different place, but there weren't too many mortal things that could survive a centered head-shot.

The creature closed the distance between them incredibly fast. Dean could barely hear his brother's frantic shout as he sighted and pulled the trigger.

Front legs buckled, but momentum continued to exert its force. The creature fell and kept sliding, tumbling in a splatter of mud and torn grass, right toward Dean. He cringed, one arm coming up in front of his face.

It stopped less than a foot away, close enough that Dean could smell the reek of its matted fur and fetid blood.

That didn't stop him from sighing deeply in relief and refilling his empty lungs. It was all the easier to breathe when Sam appeared running after, whole and hearty and a lot cleaner than Dean. He grinned at Sam with tired victory. "Not bad, huh? Had it worked out to the inch."

Sam's face was a little more ambivalent, white and gaping and eyebrows going up and down as if he were trying to figure out what had happened. Well, only just back on the hunt, right? It was probably hard going from frat parties to fighting. Sam crept forward a few more steps until he could get a good look at the creature and where it had dropped.

Dean's smile slipped when he saw Sam's confusion change into something darker.

"You did it, didn't you?" The words came at him low and hard and completely out of the blue.

Dean frowned. "Did what?" he asked, puzzled.

"You were afraid it was going to hit the car, so you got in the way." Not hard. Hoarse.

Okay, this was quickly departing the realm of logic Dean lived in. "Yeah, so? It was the only angle I could shoot it in the head from, which, by the way, was the only way it was going down."

Sam was just a few feet away now, close enough that Dean could see he was trembling. Adrenalin he got, but this was something else, something that made his insides shift uncomfortably. "You could have distracted it," Sam said. "You could have let it go so we could come back better-armed another day. Man, you could have even let it hit the car and probably knock itself cold."

Dean's own temperature rose a few degrees. "You know what kind of damage that would have done? Suspension, axles, frame—they could have all been shot. She'd have been totaled, Sam." There were more logical arguments: they didn't have money for repairs, they needed the car to get to their jobs and to find their dad, but right now the thought of his baby mangled by those antlers was still too vivid an image to work past.

"You know what kind of damage it could have done to you?" Sam asked, voice dropping even lower.

Oh. Being worried about was another thing Dean had mostly forgotten those last few years. He glanced at the body in front of him and bent his head in concession; yeah, it wouldn't have been pretty if Mutant Yogi had slammed into him. It was something he didn't usually think about, though. He gave Sam a sheepish look and a shrug for apology.

Sam wasn't buying. Face growing unbelievably even more thunderous, he lurched into Dean's personal space. "You put the car before your own life, Dean. You almost died for steel and rubber."

And a pretty paint job, he nearly added, because that was how he and Dad had always defused the post-hunt tension, except…Dean hadn't forgotten completely how Sam worked. Humor when he got this upset, or rather when Dean's well-being was the subject, would have only been a match to the powder. Dean tried to look contrite, which he really was in the face of how shaken Sammy looked, and held up his hands in supplication. "I'm sorry, okay? I wasn't thinking."

"You were thinking. You were thinking about your car. God forbid anything happen to it because it's irreplaceable, right? Not like you…" And then, aw, geez, Sam's breath hitched and he turned suddenly away from Dean.

Oh, for God's sake. Talk about making him feel like a heel. Dean took a step toward the bent back, one hand raised. "Sammy—"

One touch, and all six-foot-four of his brother exploded like some emotional grenade. "Stupid piece of—" One arm knocked Dean's away, and then Sam was braced against the top of the car and kicking it—kicking it—like it was the root of all evil. "It's not worth it, Dean, I can't lose…" A rush of furious language accompanied the violence, but Dean wasn't wasting time trying to make out any of the tirade.

Okay, lines had just been crossed. Dean didn't know if he was more worried or angry as he flung himself after Sam and yanked him away from the car. "What the—? What's wrong with you?!"

Sam freed himself with a wrench that would have dislocated his arm if he'd been shorter, and started in on the Impala's wheels.

All right, better target, but still harder than flesh and blood. Dean flinched at seeing the mutual damage being inflicted on two of the few things he loved. "Sam, stop it!" He grabbed Sam again, using actual restraint now instead of just a back-off shove, only to find his grip nearly torn free as Sam smacked at the roof of the car. "Stop it, Sam! Enough!"

Every hold he knew, Sam knew how to get out of. Dean finally used the only restraint he knew Sam wouldn't break, and imposed himself between his car and the second threat of the day. Except, this time he was more interested in protecting the threat than the car.

Sam's fractured rant broke down even more as his attack slowed and stopped, and Dean could finally make out a few words. "Jess," made him wince. "Dying," tore him up completely.

Because it was never about the car. Humble pie, anyone?

Sam was sobbing now, whole body shaking in soundless misery. Dean hesitantly switched grips, holding him up instead of back, and wasn't too surprised when Sam's legs folded under him. Dean just followed him down, pulling him over so he leaned against the car—neither he nor his baby held grudges—and dropping an arm around quaking shoulders. "It's okay, Sam," he said quietly. Just a heart breaking again, no big deal.

Sam hadn't cried much since Jessica had died. There had been the one real meltdown the week after, which Dean figured was long-overdue mourning, and a few times he pretended not to see the red and puffy eyes in the morning or hear the choked sounds in the shower. But if growing up around John Winchester had taught him anything, it was that grief wasn't quick or clean. It lingered and refused to heal and sometimes needed release. What it probably didn't need was to be poked with a sharp stick and threatened with an encore. Dean hadn't meant it like that—not being scared to die wasn't the same as having a death wish—but, yeah, okay, he could see how it might have looked that way through the prism of fresh loss.

Which was perhaps brilliant insight, but wasn't helping a lot with the whole Sam-falling-apart-next-to-him deal.

Dean sighed, grimaced, and wrapped his other arm around Sam, dropping his chin on the dark hair. "It's gonna be okay, Sammy. Sooner or later, it's gonna get better," he promised soberly. And held on so he wouldn't end up the liar.

They were in the middle of nowhere, the body of a creature that wasn't even supposed to exist only a few feet away, and Dean was getting his brother all muddy. It seemed a thoroughly appropriate way for the two of them to do grief.

He only let go when Sam started pulling away. His brother wouldn't even look at him, wiping abashedly at his eyes with the back of his hand and blotting his nose with the handkerchief Dean fished out. "I'm sorry," he rasped, voice breaking even on the few syllables.

"It's okay," Dean said honestly. "Grief is always okay, Sam." His one hand still over the back of Sam's shoulders came up to tousle his hair, just like Dean had done for all the years until Sam had pushed him away and left. "But touch my car again, and I'm taking you down."

Sam chuckled, soggy but amused.

They got up like old men, hanging on to each other, stiff. Sam leaned against the car as if he was too tired to hold himself up, and Dean glanced at the dead beast and made an executive decision. "Forget burning the thing. It's not gonna come back to life."

"But if someone finds it—"

Ever practical, his Sam. "So what? Maybe it'll start a new legend," Dean said with a facial shrug, because he couldn't have quantified just how much he didn't care right now what happened to the bear-thing. Which they would really have to come up with a better name for before they wrote it up because they'd get laughed out of the demon-hunters' association calling it "antler-bear." Dean opened the car door, folded his weary brother inside, then lingered. "You okay?"

Sam nodded, gave him that sort of sideways, through-the-bangs glance. "How's the car?"

"Don't go there, Sam," Dean grumbled. Those soft-toed wussy sneakers had probably barely left a mark, but, truth was, he hadn't looked. He was only able to deal with one damaged soul at a time, and Sam had his full attention that afternoon. Maybe once Dean got him asleep back at the motel he'd slip out to check.

"I'm sorry," Sam apologized again, and Dean almost repeated the mantra about it being okay, forgetting it, moving on and let's not talk about this anymore, until something made the words change in his mouth.

"I am, too," he said quietly.

It turned out Sam had eyes under all that hair, after all. Who knew?

Dean smiled a little, shut the door, and walked around the car, patting her hood as he went. She'd always be his baby, no matter what. But Dean had new priorities now.

And the three of them went home.

The End