For bhoney, my generous bidder in the recent fic auction
To the End
K Hanna Korossy
"I hate camping."
Sam wriggled the pack more comfortably on his shoulders, rolled his eyes, and kept hiking.
"I mean, seriously. What's the point of inventing running water and a/c and pay-per-view if you're just gonna chuck it all and head back out into Ned Beatty country?"
The terrain wasn't too bad despite the fact they were technically in the mountains. The shimmery fog hung low over the peaks around them, giving the Smoky Mountains their name, and it was actually a near-perfect day for a hike. Besides the accompanying soundtrack, of course.
There was the sound of a slap, flesh hitting flesh, then a grumble. "Friggin' mosquitoes. I swear, they're gonna eat me alive before we get there."
"I wish," Sam muttered, and lengthened his stride to move past his brother to take point.
Dean followed him gamely as long as there was no threat ahead, just continued to talk to Sam's back. "I still think we shoulda gone after that banshee in Virginia first. 'Least that one's going after total innocents. People didn't come out here, they wouldn't be getting offed, right? We can't protect everyone from their own stupidity."
Sam blew out a breath and ground to a halt, suddenly full-up. "Right, because wanting to get away from the people and the noise and the insanity of life and take a walk in beautiful, untouched hill country, is just begging for being kidnapped, gutted, your leg tagged, and being strung up for the next hiker to find. Everyone should just head to the nearest bar like you do if they want to get away, right, Dean?"
Dean's surprised look quickly morphed into a pained one, then, just as fast, the blankness he'd perfected those last few months. The smile overlaid on top was just as plastic. "Knew you'd see it my way, Sammy." He edged past Sam on the trail, wincing a little as his torso twisted, and started hiking again.
Sam stared at his back a long moment in silence, then hung his head, giving it a little shake. Two months ago, he'd have seriously considered offers on his soul to get Dean to start talking again, about anything. Now, he was ready to bite his brother's head off just because he was finally doing what he always did, fussing about the small things of life in order to help distract and deal with the larger ones. Like heading into the wild to take on an unknown, dangerous foe whose MO was snatching people in pairs. Or doing so with Sam's arm in a cast and Dean still achy and stiff from being tossed around by a dirty cop on their last hunt. Or not having Dad as backup just in case, not ever again. Bobby knew where they were, but it wasn't the same. And he'd be little help from halfway across the country if they got into trouble, anyway.
So Sam knew he should be glad for this running monologue of complaints, and Dean's interest in something besides the car and a bottle of whiskey. It just figured that Dean's version of normalcy rubbed chafingly against Sam's. Story of their lives, he thought ruefully.
Dean had slowed to a crawl, clearly having expected Sam to follow and not sure what to do about it when he didn't. Sam took a breath and hurried to catch up. He felt a twinge of guilt when he saw Dean's shoulders lose their starch at the return of Sam at his back. Yeah, Sam was mourning and he had the right to be short-tempered sometimes. But Dean's overwhelming grief had almost finished the job the semi had started. When Dean wasn't irritating the crap out of him, Sam was humbly grateful to have him back at all.
"You think the mosquitoes are bad now, wait 'til we reach the water," Sam said mildly, then slipped past Dean to reclaim point. He caught a glimpse of his brother's face as he did and found the tease had had the desired affect: the mask of stoicism had been replaced by genuine amusement and maybe even a little of what Sam would have called affection if Dean Winchester wasn't above such girly sentiments. Sam smiled to himself and kept hiking, mindful to set a pace that was comfortable for them both.
"There just better not be any horseflies around here," Dean muttered behind him, feeding Sam's smile with the unspoken we're good.
The sound of voices coming from ahead had Sam slowing a few minutes later. They'd already passed near other hikers twice, and while they had no reason to hide, not out there, by tacit agreement they'd hung back and avoided other people. Less witnesses to remember they were there, less distractions to slow them down. Less emotional entanglements if something went wrong and someone besides them got hurt. It was a lousy way to live, some part of Sam was well aware, but he was more or less resigned to it now. It was Dad's way.
The voices grew louder, coming from the east, probably crossing their path and heading toward the river. The Winchesters had forged their own trail in order to meet less people, but Dean was careful to keep them near the real ones both to avoid getting lost and in case they—or some civilians—needed help, and it was a popular area so encounters with others weren't unusual. Sam melted back against a tree to wait them out, feeling Dean still and sticky warm at his back in the unusually early spring.
Sam suddenly frowned, attention pulled forward again to the chatter and laughter of the oblivious hikers. Voices that were oddly familiar, that he could have sworn he knew in a different context. A girl, high and clear, the guy who answered her, a pleasant alto just as Sam had expected. He leaned up.
"Just a minute, I—" He took a few strides forward, not even paying attention now if Dean followed, then surged ahead as a third voice broke in. Trudy. And Louis and his girlfriend…um, Abbie? Addie? And that must've been Chris before, then, if Trudy was there… Man, what were the chances of meeting here, clear across the country? Sam's pace picked up a little more.
Then stopped so fast, he heard Dean curse behind him.
"Sam, what the—?"
He swallowed, eyes still glued ahead. "It's…they're my friends. From Stanford. Four of…" Sam licked his lips.
"Huh." There was a pause. "You don't think it's…you know, like Meg?" It was offered guardedly.
Sam turned appalled eyes on his brother. Yeah, it had been too coincidental meeting Meg in a Chicago bar, too, but that was…Meg. "You think my friends are demons?"
Dean gave him an easy shrug, but there was no humor in his smile.
Sam scowled at him, then swiveled forward again. He couldn't make out the words, but the voices sounded light, happy. It tugged at the still-hooked piece of his heart.
His ribs were lightly jabbed. "So go say hi."
Sam blindly half-turned, his attention riveted by the unexpected wash of memories. "But we're…"
"We can take a few. Go make nice, dude."
Sam's palms were oddly clammy. They were his friends, people he'd gone to bars with and played soccer on the main quad with, studied at Green with. People who knew Jess, who knew a side of him his family never had, a side that was all but extinct now. Would they even recognize him? He felt like a completely different person. He was a different person.
More slowly, he started walking again, following the conversation that was now in retreat. Not even really listening if Dean was following.
A feminine laugh made him swallow. It was throaty and unfamiliar, not at all like Jessica, but something about this crowd, a real sound of joy, had his head swimming with old emotions. Feeling safe. Falling in love. Being independent and in charge. Missing his family.
Sam swallowed and drove ahead, ducking some foliage to break out onto the trail, not a dozen feet away from the knot of hikers.
There was a startled pause, then a babble of voices.
"Oh, my God! What are you—?"
He smiled, bending down to accept Trudy's hug, letting Louis's handshake pull him into a rough slap of the back. His smile grew, feeling strange but good on his face. "Hey, guys. Long time no see."
The next few minutes were a blur of ten-second catch-ups—very heavily edited on his part—and introductions. Turned out Louis had moved on to Allie, Abbie's twin sister, and there was a fifth person in the group, Beth, the owner of the laugh he'd heard before. His friends had moved on and made new friends, and it gave Sam an odd sort of pang. Beth had probably never even met Jess.
The soft clearing of a throat behind him reminded Sam there was someone else who hadn't met everyone. With a quick apologetic look to Dean, who'd moved on from stoic to downright inscrutable, Sam introduced his brother. He saw Dean take in that Beth was the only unattached member of the group and the brunette's attractive figure, then lose interest. Sam had to force his smile as he turned back to the group.
"So, what're you guys doing here? Shouldn't y'all be working high-paid jobs by now?"
A chorus of laughs at that. "Spring break, dude," Louis crowed. "Grad school. Well, for the rest of them, anyway. Me, I snuck off the base for a few days. They won't even know I'm gone."
Allie slipped her arm around him. "Don't listen to him, Sam—they gave him a few days' leave before he's deployed. We just thought we'd do something as kind of a last hurrah."
Deployed? Sam blinked at his old friend, wondering when that happened. "That's—wow. So, what're you, man—land, water, or air?"
"All three, my man—I'm one of the few and proud."
Marine. Sam's smile only slipped a notch. Dean was utter silence behind them. "Huh. Congratulations, dude. I need to buy you a drink or something before we leave."
"What're you two doing here, Sam?"
The inevitable question. Even as Sam hesitated, Dean slipped up and answered Trudy smoothly. "Camping. Kinda indulging me, actually—I can't get enough of the great outdoors."
Sam's mouth twisted. "Yeah. Dean, uh, loves roughing it." His laugh sounded odd to his own ears. "My brother—go figure."
Chris was nodding. "We're setting up camp not far from here, too—you guys wanna join us tonight? Maybe swap some stories around the fire?"
Sam finally glanced at his brother, and saw…nothing in Dean's eyes. No silent message, nothing but opaque green. It rattled him more than he would have cared to admit. "Uh, you know what? Dean and I are kinda—"
"—tired," Dean cut in. "We were just talking about setting up camp soon, too. Sam could make it in about an hour."
Sam blinked at his brother.
"That's great, but you're invited, too, Dean. How else are we gonna hear all the embarrassing when-Sam-was-a-kid stories?" That was Louis who, Sam remembered, had met Dean a couple of times now, after the fire and then at Stanford's graduation, and had quickly accepted him as part of Sam's package deal, more than most of his friends.
Dean smiled, looking to anybody but Sam like he was sincerely amused. "Naw, I'm kinda beat, think I'll turn in early." He smacked his little brother's shoulder. "Sam here can do the entertaining. Just don't forget to ask him about the crush he had on the neighbor's cat when he was in first grade."
Beth laughed again, drawing Dean's eye, but once more he disengaged just as quickly, smirking at Sam. Sam stared back at him, not sure if he was more angry or worried. Allie's light touch on his forearm, though, drastic counterpoint to Dean's rough handling, pulled him back to his friends. "Uh, yeah, okay. Sounds fun. I'll bring some Oreos."
There was a chorus of approval at that, and quick directions to their camp. Then his friends chirped their goodbyes, Trudy giving him another squeeze and Louis a lingering look that said he'd seen the sobriety in Sam's face but wasn't asking…yet. And then they were gone, leaving Sam feeling discombobulated and adrift in their wake.
"I know a place near here we can set up camp," Dean said from behind him. Even as Sam turned, his brother was already moving off.
Sam ate up the distance between them with long strides. "Okay, you wanna tell me what that was about?"
Dean didn't even spare him a look. "What what was about?"
"Oh, I don't know, have you forgotten we're here on a hunt? Victims disappearing in pairs, disemboweling, weird marks—ring any bells?"
"So? You go off and hang out with your college buddies, nobody's gonna be in pairs, right? We can wait a day." Dean made a dismissive hand gesture and kept walking.
"No, no, man." Sam was shaking his head. "That is not what this is about. You're not just killing time here—you practically threw me at them. Why are you trying so hard to get rid of me?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "Geez, Sam, drama queen much? I'm not trying to get rid of you. It's been, what, at least six months since you last saw your friends? Go hang out a little, have some fun. Could be another week before the pattern repeats."
"Or it could be tonight. You know we're already in the cycle."
"So, don't wander off with that hot little Beth. Although, might be worth it just to—"
Sam snorted. "Like you're even interested in Beth. Or anyone else, for that matter."
Dean's jaw shifted, smile vanishing, his pace picking up a little.
Sam easily matched it. "Why don't you just say what you mean, Dean?"
Dean wheeled on him at that, looking exasperated. "I am! Why don't you just believe what I'm saying, Sam?"
"Because I know you, man. You don't want me to go. Even when you can't look me in the eye, even when you keep pushing, you don't really want me to go. Why is that so hard to say, huh? I mean, I get it, Dean. I do. It's only you and me now. Don't you think I—?"
Dean barely shifted, but the change in his body language startled Sam into silence. His voice was low and steady when he spoke. "Go be with your friends, Sam." No give, no emotion, no room for doubt. "Water's about a hundred yards north-northeast; I'm gonna set up for the night there."
Sam's eyes burned. But he had his pride, too, and nodded stiffly. Fine. If Dean didn't want his company, there were others who did. Might even be good to check out where they were setting up, make sure they were safe and stayed together. That was why he was going, protection. That was their job, after all. "All right. I'll be back before midnight."
Dean acknowledged that with a bare lift of the shoulders, and started hiking again.
Leaving his brother standing there watching him disappear into the trees, feeling more than a little lost.
"You and Dean ever hook up with your dad, dude?"
It was…not what he'd expected. Which, as Sam thought about it, he couldn't have explained why.
The topics of conversation were exactly the same as when he'd been at school: other friends, work/school experiences, politics, TV shows. Besides the fact that he hadn't really kept up with the last two, Sam enjoyed hearing the rest and spoke up when he had something to say, laughed with the others when they laughed. When talk turned to his dad, and Sam and Dean's recent loss, the empathy was genuine and comforting. These were his friends. He cared about them and enjoyed them.
And he had nothing in common with them.
"So, Sam, what happened to your wrist?"
The realization dawned slowly. They'd spent three years together. They'd known Jess far better than Dean had. They shared many friends, experiences, in-jokes. In many ways, he'd become an adult with these people. But three years of Stanford living hadn't wiped out eighteen years of Winchester life. His friends' concerns, their aspirations, their knowledge of the world was so outside his paradigms now, they might as well have come from different planets.
"Sam, what kind of things does Dean like to do?"
He searched his memory, trying to figure out if it had always been that way. Yeah, he'd never totally fit in, and those first few months at school had given a whole new meaning to culture shock. But he'd watched their shows, gone to rallies for their causes, attended their parties. He'd shared common ground with them once.
It just seemed kinda meaningless after you found out you had special powers and your mom had died because of you and your dad had made a deal with a demon to save your dying brother's life. Not exactly what his friends meant when they talked about Save the Planet.
"I bet you've seen some interesting places on your road trip."
Sam smiled at that one, flushing a little. "Some, yeah. Checked out the second biggest ball of twine. Lot of weird museums and memorials. Oh, and I finally saw Old Faithful." And the water nymph that had taken up residence in it.
It was just…weird.
Conversation turned to landmarks others in the group had visited. And right in the middle of a spirited description of Dinosaur Land, the hair on the back of his neck prickled.
Sam straightened, glancing unobtrusively around. Night had fallen, and there were soft forest sounds around their little bubble of light, faint above the crackle of the fire. It didn't feel like danger, but there was definitely a sense of being watched…
Well, yeah, he should've known that even mad—or pretending to be mad, anyway—Dean would still check up on him to make sure he was okay. And maybe get a glimpse of Sam's other life in the process.
Sam stirred the coals with a stick, then jabbed a pair of marshmallows onto the end. "The places we stopped were cool, but you know what's the best part?" he said casually. "Flying along a long straight road with the windows down and Zeppelin on the radio and not having to talk 'cause it's just perfect and there's nothing to say." He met the others' eyes, lingering on Louis, listening for Dean. "It's like…it's only the two of you and the car in the whole world. And the Coke's warm and your throat's sore 'cause you were playing 'I went to…' for the last hundred miles, and you don't really know where you're going, but it doesn't matter, you know? Because you've got everything you need right there…"
Trudy was nodding, although she looked faintly puzzled. Chris's attention had wandered, and Beth was looking at him oddly. Louis had sobered, and Allie gave him a wan smile.
The marshmallows, ignored too long, caught flame and burned to black. And that feeling of being watched, of maybe being understood, faded and died. Or it felt like a death, anyway.
Just like that, Sam was done. He tossed the stick into the fire, unable to muster much of a smile for Louis and took the others in by periphery. "Look, uh, I should head back. Kinda left the whole setting-up-camp thing to Dean, and…" He fumbled awkwardly to his feet. "Thanks for the beer and hotdogs, guys."
Louis rose, as did Trudy and Allie. Beth barely glanced at him. "We'll miss you, Sam." There was a sadness in Trudy's voice; and he felt it just as keenly.
"Yeah. Me, too." But he wasn't one hundred percent sure he felt it for the same reason.
Louis walked him to the edge of camp alone, the usual happy-go-lucky attitude that had always reminded Sam a little of his brother, muted. "You good, Sam? Not really sure this life agrees with you, y'know?"
Sam gave him a soft look. "It's not gonna be forever, man. But…right now…I have to do this. You know how that is, Lieutenant. Dean needs me, and…I kinda need him, too. It's a whole…family thing, you know?"
Louis nodded slowly. "Not exactly the Bradys, huh?"
Sam smiled at him, then curled down to embrace his old friend. "Dude, stay safe over there. I mean it."
Louis nodded against his shoulder. "Take care of yourself, man." Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
They separated with a pat on the back, Louis returning to the others without looking back. Sam breathed out low and long. It was a relief to turn back toward Dean, to head home.
His old psychology prof—Markus? Merkel?—would have had some scathing things to say about being too dependent on one person and not having social connections and networks. But what if nobody else even remotely understood the world you lived in? He and Dean saw Bobby and Ellen a lot, kept in touch with Jo and Jefferson and a few other hunters. They'd stopped once at Jim's house—Dean's now—to take a few days to cook and watch DVDs and live like real people. But how were you supposed to connect with folks who, no matter how well-meaning and sincere, lived in total blindness? Were you supposed to give up seeing, too? Give up the one vibrant source of color in your life?
Sam picked up his pace a little. He really did get it: Dean had no one else, either, and was terrified of being alone far more than Sam even. But he would always be Sam's big brother, and if he thought Sam's happiness, or freedom, lay in another world, he would kill himself before he'd stand in his little brother's way…or would let the separation kill him. He just didn't realize that Sam had stopped straddling both worlds when he'd looked into his dying brother's eyes in the Impala's rear view mirror, and there was no going back from that. Dean was stuck with him.
It should have felt oppressive, but it felt like freedom.
Sam covered the last few dozen feet feeling better than he had in a long time, lighter and more sure. He'd sit on Dean if he had to, make the jerk listen to him. But Sam wasn't letting one more day go by with this elephant between them. Maybe Dad was gone, but Sam wasn't. He wouldn't.
Sam could just see the glimmer of their campfire, when the presence of another suddenly brushed his awareness. Unlike before, though, there was malice in this, stalking instead of protecting. His skin itched, and while he kept his pace, he eased his hand around his ribs, into the gap in his pack, searching for his gun.
The sting against his neck puzzled him for a second, until he tripped, his balance suddenly uncertain.
He'd been shot. Drugged.
Sam stumbled forward, body increasingly heavy, unwieldy. Dean's name on the tip of his desperate tongue, but he couldn't seem to find the air to push it out. Just a few more feet to camp, then Dean would be there, Dean would help.
Sam fell through the last barrier of trees, hitting the hard ground with a muted gasp. His cheek lay inches from the curve of their dark nylon tent.
A few feet from the sprawled figure of his brother, a tuft of bright red at Dean's neck.
Dart. Drug. Dean down.
Sam felt a stab of real fear at that, but his cry only came out as a thin, garbled moan. His mouth gaped, tongue heavy, eyes sinking shut even as they tried to stay focused on Dean, looking for any sign of life. He heard a footstep, saw a shadow move to the side of his darkening vision. Felt a hard shove against his kidneys.
He rolled his head, chasing a dream. Dean pulling him out of a fire, while Sam's legs barely worked, his weight heavy on his brother.
But he must've fallen because he was lying down, and it was cold and hard. His leg ached. Why would Dean leave him here?
His eyes jolted open, then winced shut from the stream of sunlight that hit them. "Gah…huh? Dean?"
"Over here, bro."
Sam blinked a few times until he could more or less see, then rolled on his side, half-coming up on one elbow.
Not exactly to the sight he expected to see.
Dean sat back against a tree, legs drawn up to his chest. He wore only jeans, a t-shirt, and boots despite the cool morning air. But he looked uninjured, completely normal…except for the iron manacle around his ankle, and the chain that disappeared around behind him.
"You've got one, too," Dean said wearily.
Sam's head flicked around to take in the cause for his aching leg. The iron was heavy, and it stretched his leg straight as it bound him to a nearby tree. There was a good dozen feet between him and Dean, maybe half that if Dean stretched his chain and his body. Sam had also lost his jacket and flannel shirt, and the chill in the air only now registered. There was nothing else in sight, no water, no camping gear, and the mountains seemed nearer than before.
"Yeah, I'm…" Sam tugged at the chain experimentally, then glance up at Dean with confusion. "What…?"
Dean shrugged. "Heard a sound, thought for a second it was you coming back. Next thing I know, feels like the world's biggest mosquito at my neck and it's lights out. You, too, huh?"
Sam nodded, slowly shuffling his stiff body up to sit in mirror position to his brother. "Yeah. Right as I reached camp."
"When was that?"
Sam hitched a shoulder. "Ten, maybe?"
Dean's eyebrow rose. "Figured you'd hang out longer with your buddies."
Sam was examining the chain, the manacle, and the thick band that also encircled the tree. "Turns out we didn't have all that much to talk about." He glanced over his shoulder. "How's your back?"
"I'd say we kinda got bigger things to worry about, Sam." A pause. "I already checked—whatever it is, it knows what it's doing."
Sam made a face but continued to test every link in his shackles, as he knew Dean had. "Great. So, you didn't catch a glimpse of what did this?"
Dean tilted his head back against the tree. "No. Chains and darts? Could just be your garden-variety psycho human."
Sam made a face. "Hunting every five years for the last sixty-five? That's a pretty old serial killer, Dean. Wendigo, maybe?"
Dean made a face at him. "In Tennessee?"
His brother's face shuttered, as it always did at the mention of the sadistic creatures. "Wrong MO."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Fine, what do you think it is?
Dean shrugged. "My guess? Some kinda Cherokee protective spirit or something, maybe a nun or a winago."
Sam frowned. "Cherokee? And aren't winagos supposed to be evil?"
"This is old Cherokee territory, isn't it? And winagos hate people." Dean shifted against the tree with a wince. "And they're related to mosquitoes."
Despite the situation, Sam's mouth twitched. "Always with the mosquitoes, Dean." He grew serious again. "That wouldn't explain the chains, though. Cherokee didn't forge iron."
"Three words: Trail of Tears," Dean said succinctly.
Sam's mouth fell open. "You think this is revenge, inflicting on others what they went through? Some kind of curse?" He considered that. And finally frowned. "I don't know, man, seems kind of a stretch."
"Hey." Dean nodded at him. "Take a look at your ankle."
Sam was about to protest that he just had, when he twisted down for a closer look. Where the manacle was locked, there was a protrusion that had rubbed his skin raw. Leaving a mark familiar from a dozen crime scene photos. Sam exhaled in a slump. "Crap."
"Yeah, that about sums it up."
"But…it's supposed to take pairs."
"Guess it knew we were together." Dean's eyes weren't on him anymore.
Sam frowned. The elephant was back, but he didn't exactly feel like tackling it when he was chained ten feet away from his brother, disarmed—disarmed, right? Sam quickly checked: yup—and facing God knew what. They had to focus on the problem of getting out of there alive. Then he could sit on Dean and make him talk.
Sam hooked an arm around his legs, trying to warm up a little, and looked around again. "You have any idea where we are?" There were no drag marks around that he could see, and neither he nor Dean were light. Whatever it was that had brought them there had to be strong.
Dean also glanced up around them, but it was an automatic reaction. "Too far into the park for anyone to hear—I already tried. From the look of the mountains, I'd say about ten miles from the trail? But the river curves around, should be about a mile that way." He pointed past Sam's shoulder.
Thank God for Dean's sense of direction; at least they wouldn't be lost once they got out of there. When they got out of there. "And you haven't got anything on you?" Sam asked.
"No," Dean said curtly. But…his eyes said something else.
Sam's narrowed, a flick of his head an acknowledgment only Dean would recognize.
Silence fell, both of them tense and alert. Sam found a small branch to try to pick his lock with—unlikely but better than nothing, while Dean idly rubbed one hand against his jeans. His voice, when it came again, almost surprised Sam. "Sorry you can't hang out with your buddies."
"We weren't planning on meeting up again," Sam said tightly. Just a little more bend…
"Seemed like you were getting along just fine last night."
The twig snapped under the pressure, and Sam threw it aside with a curse. "Stop trying to tell me what I want, Dean. I don't like it any more than you do."
Dean cocked his head, his expression deceptively casual. "I'm just sayin'—"
"Well, don't," Sam said irritably. "If you're not gonna listen to me when I keep saying I'm not going anywhere, then I don't want to hear it."
Another silence, this one uncomfortable and edgy. Sam looked everywhere but his brother, picking up a piece of forest debris to chuck it against a nearby tree, then another.
Dean's snort caught him mid-throw, and Sam looked up at him, startled. "Well, you got the part about not going anywhere right." He lazily rattled the chain on his leg and smiled.
Sam stared at him a moment, then found himself slowly smiling, too. They broke into a totally inappropriate laugh, and Sam shook his head, surprised at how much better he felt despite the situation. "You're an ass, Dean."
Dean's shoulder hitched, undenying. "Yeah, well… Told you I hate camping."
Sam dropped his head with a huff of laughter.
"You won't have to worry about that much longer," came an unfamiliar, smooth, and very human voice from the thicket on Sam's left.
His head snapped up again, and he and Dean shot to their feet as one. Sam cast around uselessly again for any kind of weapon. But there wasn't anything short of twigs and leaves and small stones. His eyes swung back up to the crunch of greenery announcing their captor's approach.
Captors. Five forms appeared out of the trees, all human, male, and armed with rifles. They all looked to be in their thirties, with clean, aristocratic features, expensive hunting outfits and gear, and identically shrewd expressions. Sam felt a small shiver go down his back. These were no backwoods Benders or mindless animals. These were hunters. Maybe not their kind, but the same principles applied. Sam dared exchange a glance with his brother, and saw the same startled realization in Dean's eyes.
"You brought us here." Dean tilted his head. "You know, engraved invitations, phone calls, email work fine, too."
"We've been watching you since you first arrived," the man, apparently the leader and also seeming to be the eldest, continued, unruffled. His dark, slicked-back hair and wire-rimmed glasses wouldn't have been out of place in a board room. "You're hunters. It's been a while since we had a challenge like you."
Sam hid his surprise. Dean's hands had curled into fists, and Sam quickly broke in before his brother did something rash. Like open his mouth. "What do you want with us?"
Sharp, dark blue eyes squared on his. "Simple. We're hunters, too. But this time, you're the prey."
Sam had been calculating, and he wasn't surprised to find Dean had, too. Before the hunter had even finished talking, Sam's brother lunged.
Leaping up would have just had him yanked back by the chain. Instead, Dean went low, leg sweeping out and just clipping the leader's ankles, pitching him to the ground. In a blur, Dean had an arm tight up against his neck. "Not looking so much like prey now, huh? Let us go or you're gonna be the one tied to the front of my car, you son of—"
Two of the other hunters moved almost as fluidly as Dean, guns cocking in tandem. Pointed at Sam's head.
Sam didn't wait for it, though. He had one guy laid out before the click of the hammer even faded, and had unbalanced the other. That one bounced off the tree with a yelp, and Sam turned quickly toward the remaining two.
But it was five against two, and they had no weapons and limited freedom. A third gun instantly, painfully dug into the base of Sam's neck, and this time there was no getting away from it. His eyes snapped up to his brother's, saw panic bleed into the hatred in Dean's eyes.
"Let him go." Dean's voice shook with intensity, and his arm tightened.
"They will kill him," the man he held rasped, sounding way too calm for being an inch away from a broken neck. "Release me and you both have a chance."
Dean only hesitated a moment before loosening his arm, lifting his hands a little even as he glared retribution at the leader, who climbed to his feet and stood back. And smiled as he massaged his neck. "I knew you'd be worthy. Even just one of you would be enough. Maybe it would even motivate you more." He cast a casual glance at the man behind Sam, and the rifle dug so viciously into his skin that Sam went down to his knees under its pressure, gritting his teeth.
"No, wait!" Dean strained forward. "You want a challenge? Two's better than one, right—that's why you usually take two? You kill him, I'm not goin' anywhere but Hell, and taking as many of you Dr. Moreau-wannabes as I can with me."
"Is he worth begging for?" Sam heard, the guy's voice almost sounding amused. He flushed, slid his hands to the ground in preparation to launch himself up, but felt the rifle instantly force his face almost into the dirt, cruelly bending him in half. It felt like it would gouge right through his neck, and any shot now couldn't help but obliterate his spinal column.
"Wait—yes! God…yes, all right? Don't hurt him…please. That's want you want to hear, fine, I'm begging you. Please."
The words would have flooded Sam's eyes even if the raw tone hadn't, and he was suddenly glad Dean couldn't see his face. And vice-versa.
The barrel slowly pulled back from his neck. The two men Sam had taken on retreated back to the others, one limping away, and finally the one with the gun stepped back. Sam sat back on his haunches, resisting the urge to rub the nape of his neck. He cast Dean a fleeting I'm okay look before glaring at the hunters. Dean was wound tight enough to break, on his knees but still managing to radiate rebellion instead of subservience.
"What are the rules?" Sam asked quietly.
Again that cold gaze swept over him, and Sam found no satisfaction in the touch of respect it now contained. "We'll leave the keys to your bonds. As soon as you can free yourselves, you're welcome to go. You have an hour head start. After that, it's open season."
"So, no weapons, no map, no—oh, yeah—choice? Yeah, that sounds fair," Dean growled.
The lead hunter threw him an amused look. "I'm sure you'll adapt, hunter. And, of course, that ups the ante a little."
The man looked down at Dean, who pushed back to his feet to meet his gaze head-on. "You know, we hunt two at a time because it's interesting to see what the prey will do—cooperate? separate? turn on each other?" Their captor glanced at Sam, then back at Dean. "So I'm curious, does he feel about you as strongly as you feel about him?" The sharp eyes narrowed. "I know a way to find out."
And before any of them could react, the hunter pulled out a handgun and fired at Dean.
Dean wasn't braced for the shot, a cry escaping him as he went down. There was a bloom of red already spreading across his shirt just below his ribs.
Sam lunged for him automatically, cursing as the chain drew him up bone-jarringly short, his eyes flicking between Dean's twisted face and his injury. Gut shot, high and to the right. Deliberately missing the heart, the intestines, the spine: carefully placed to slow down, not to instantly kill or totally incapacitate. Just another part of the game.
Sam hadn't even realized he'd barked Dean's name until the leader's gaze swung to him. "Start your watches, gentlemen. One hour." All Sam could see was his brother, though, writhing on the forest floor, hands clutched around his middle as he muttered curses under his breath.
There was a soft clink of metal as a small ring of keys was dropped. Then the five hunters disappeared back into the woods.
Sam instantly scrambled for the keys, stretching his six-foot-four plus chain until it felt like his ankle would pull apart. He wasn't even close. Two branches he found also tried and failed to add to his reach. No, the keys had been left there deliberately in Dean's reach, not his own.
Sam tamped down his frustration and rolled back to his knees to focus on his brother. "Dean. Hey."
"Listen, hey, I'm right here, but I can't reach you, man—I need the keys."
"Little…busy, Sam…" Dean was trying to press down on his side, eyes rolling back from the pressure.
"Dean!" Sam snapped, jerking his brother's head up. He ignored the small gasp that caused. "I can help you, but I need the keys. They're right over there—can you see them?"
Dean's face was already damp with perspiration. He blinked it out of his eyes, then the dark green cleared. He clenched his teeth as he twisted back to see where Sam was pointing. Three feet away from him. "Crap," he groaned.
"Yeah, man, I know," Sam said sympathetically, nose wrinkling. "We gotta get outta here, though—you have to get the keys. I'll take care of the bullet for you, just focus on this, okay?"
"Not a…kid, Sam. Don't need a…friggin' pep talk," Dean panted as he forced himself out of his curl and slid by inches along the forest floor. He had to straighten to reach the keys, though, and as his torso unfolded and stretched, even more color bled from his face. He paused to pound a fist into the dirt, cursing.
Sam opened his mouth to offer more encouragement, but he should have known better. Dean wasn't quitting, and it was sheer determination on his face as he started pushing himself along again, jaw clenched against the pain. He only closed his eyes and swallowed when his fingers curled around the keys.
"Can you toss it?" Sam moved anxiously in his semi-circle of reach. Dean's body was already shaking with effort; he was in no shape to unlock his bindings and come free Sam.
Dean didn't even look at him, just flung his arm out unerringly in Sam's direction.
He caught the keys in mid-air, had his manacle unlocked about five seconds later. Five seconds more, and Sam was at his brother's side, peeling bloody fingers from cotton. "Let me see," he coaxed.
Peeling back the blood-sticky shirt tore a few more choice words from Dean. But with his head propped on Sam's leg against his hipbone and his fingers finding purchase in Sam's shirt, he had loosened his tense curl a little. He rolled easily in Sam's arms as he tilted Dean to see if there was an exit wound. Surprisingly, no; the gun must've been a smaller caliber than he'd thought to not punch through…or it could have ricocheted around inside and done God only knew what damage. Sam's main reassurances were the absence of a lot of blood, relatively, and that Dean's stomach wasn't rigid. At least he wasn't bleeding out before Sam's eyes. But belly wounds…they hurt like little else, let alone if you had to move.
Sam made a face and tore off the short sleeves of his shirt, then Dean's. "What'd they leave on you?" he asked tersely as he ripped open the seams and bound them together in one long strip.
"Boot knife," Dean forced through his teeth. He didn't react to Sam tearing the bloody bottom of his shirt off, but his eyes fluttered when his brother pressed the folded material tight against the leaking hole in his abs.
"Sorry," Sam murmured, but he didn't have time to be kind. There was just enough length to wrap the strip around Dean's middle and tie it off. "So much for Cherokee spirits…but I think you were right about people being crazy, Dean." He finished the knot and tried fruitlessly to rub the blood off his fingers and cast against his brother's ruined shirt. "So, you got a plan yet?"
It took a few puffs of breath before Dean answered. "You take off."
Sam stopped halfway to his boot, stared back at him. "And…?"
Dean shrugged. "'S it. You're fast. Be back 't the car…'n an hour. No way…'m I gettin' outta…here like this, Sam." He was already pale under his freckles.
"No way am I leaving you here like this, Dean," Sam said flatly. He pulled off Dean's right boot and found the knife, easing it into his own boot. "New plan."
And that was it. His fragile hold on his composure snapped like a thread, and Sam grabbed his brother's upper arms, shaking him once. "No. Don't you even dare ask me that. You wouldn't leave me and you know it, so just…give me that much credit at least, Dean. I'm not—" He choked and bent his head. "You're all I have, too, you jerk."
There was a pause, Dean's eyes a weight on him. Then a hand knocked against his head in what could have been a caress or a swat. With Dean, there wasn't much difference. "Sam." His brother's voice was gruffly gentle now.
"Shut up," he muttered. His cheeks burned, and he didn't even know if it was embarrassment or anger.
His hair was pulled hard enough to hurt, but even as he jerked up with an ow! Dean silenced him with a look. "Just gonna say…guess we need 'nother plan then." He smiled tiredly.
Sam's return smile flickered and caught hold, the scream inside him dying to a low hum. "Guess we do."
It wasn't like they had a lot of options.
With every variation of splitting up firmly taken off the table by Sam, that pretty much left two choices: staying there together or leaving together. Staying there was suicide. They'd be picked off without effort, even if they tried to hide in the trees. There was no way a clearing was defensible.
Which meant they had to get out of there. With a bullet in Dean's gut.
"So, you're sure the river's close?"
He was jammed up against Dean's good side, the less to pull on injured muscle, and he could feel his brother's trembling gasps with every step, every breath. "…pretty sure."
Sam slid another finger into his brother's belt loop, cinching him a little tighter, lifting him as much as possible. But every stumbling step was a stab of hot pain, he knew. He'd been gut shot once and had been pretty sure he'd die from the agony alone. "Pretty sure, Dean?"
Dean's forehead rolled against his shoulder, leaving smears of sweat. "Really…pretty sure?"
Sam snorted, tightening his grip on his brother's arm across his shoulder as much as his cast allowed, as he maneuvered them around a fallen tree. "Okay, so assuming we can keep the water to our backs and they can't circle around that way, what about the front line? If we don't have more than trees and bushes for cover, we're still screwed, Dean." It was an effort to keep his own voice steady; Dean was no lightweight, and they'd been tripping over uneven ground for at least fifteen minutes now. Sam was deliberately not looking at his watch.
Dean's voice was starting to slur, his head barely rising from his chest. They needed a break, but there was no time. Sam ruthlessly jostled his shoulder, nudging his brother's head back up with his forearm. "Hey. Gotta keep awake, bro. One of us needs to watch for bears."
"Bears?" It was thin, dazed, but Dean's head rose, then wobbled to the side against the ball of Sam's shoulder. "They don'…go for…smell of…blood."
"Yeah, well, still don't wanna meet one on the trail, right?" Was that…? Sam's head turned, trying to hear over their loud breaths. Dean sounded like the chugging train effect he'd do for his brother when Sam was little, trying to get him to eat. "I think I hear the river, man."
"…bears…God. Always somethin'…S'mmy," he mumbled dully. "Bears…people…friggin' deals…'n Stanford. Never liked…Stanf'rd. Card'nals—what kinda…team's buncha…birds…?" He groaned deep as his ankle buckled under him, jolting him harder against the ground, and Sam automatically tucked him closer, higher.
He was only half-listening, storing away Dean's openhearted ramble for later analysis. Now, Sam was focused on the sound of running water ahead. Darned if Dean hadn't been right, both about the proximity of the river and the direction. No surprise there: Dean soaked up maps and patterns like Sam did rituals and lore. "We're almost there. Almost there, Dean."
There was no answer, just a tightening of the fingers clawed into Sam's t-shirt, and a mumble about birds.
Sam caught the flashes of the water through the trees first, and then, thank God, they were breaking through, about twenty feet of clearing between the tree line and the shore. The river was wide there, at least thirty feet, and swift enough that no one would be crossing it to come up behind them. Craning in either direction revealed no obvious bridge. It wouldn't stop anyone from shooting at them across the expanse; the rifles the hunters had could easily span the distance. But Sam was counting on them all staying on this side of the water. Which meant the water was someplace they could put their backs to.
And, there were rocks.
Not big ones, but enough to hunker down behind, to wedge Dean behind. There would be no sneaking up on them here, and Sam felt a stir of new hope. They might just win this one yet.
"Traps," Dean blurted out.
Sam glanced down, looking into pain-bright but surprisingly lucid eyes. Dean's face was carved with pain lines, he was flushed and sheened with sweat, and he held up very little of his own weight. But Sam's partner was still there, ready to do his part. "You got a plan yet?" he asked with a small smile.
Dean almost managed to roll his eyes. "Always got…a plan." But he didn't push Sam away when he started coughing and Sam let go of his hand to wrap around his stomach. "…sucks," he just murmured at the end, and even as Sam briefly dropped his chin on the damp hair, he had to agree.
He eased Dean down as gently as possible and got him settled, propped between two of the largest boulders, legs loosely drawn up to provide less of a target. He let Dean rest as he checked the bandage—blood-soaked but not leaking, which was about the best they could hope for at that point—and tried to ignore the labored way his brother breathed or how he barely seemed to have the strength to lift his head. His belly was a little swollen, and Sam didn't have to ask if it hurt or if he felt nauseated, judging from the quick way Dean kept swallowing. The bullet had done some kind of damage inside. Sam just didn't know if they had minutes or hours.
Speaking of which, he braced himself and looked at his watch. Twenty-three minutes of their lead gone. Huh, he'd thought it was more than that; the walk had felt eternal. But that meant more than a half-hour to prepare, and that was something, too. They had no hope of outrunning the hunters or getting to help in time, but they were someplace defensible now. They could stand their ground here. He could protect Dean here.
Sam shifted in his crouch, bending lower even as he cupped a hand around Dean's cheek and lifted. "Hey. Hey, man, you with me?"
"No. 'M in Bermuda…wi' Kirsten." An arm crept across his middle, unresisting when Sam gently moved it back. Hazy eyes blinked at him. "Y'r not…Kirsten, S'mmy."
He grinned, just a little. "Yeah, and you have no idea how glad I am you can tell the difference." With the heel of his good hand, Sam rubbed away a trickle of sweat that was about to drip into his brother's eye. "Tell you what, Dean, next time we're trapped in the woods with a bunch of crazy hunters, we'll invite your dream girl along, all right?"
"Not crazy," Dean said flatly.
Sam blinked at the flat words, and sobered. "Right." Not crazy: evil. Which meant clever and dangerous. Which meant they had to be ready. "So…traps?"
There was no confusion in Dean's eyes as they drilled into Sam's now. "Traps," he affirmed.
Of course, Sam did most of the work, the motions—weaving, sharpening, tying, digging—familiar and practiced even with the cumbersome cast. But it was Dean's murmured instructions, his shaking hands checking Sam's work, his assessing eye moving over their makeshift tools, that Sam leaned on. It was how Dean had taught him as a kid, too: quietly directing, working alongside him, making small corrections that felt like praise instead of criticism. That made him feel like an equal instead of a novice little brother. Maybe their dad had been a good general, devising strategies and giving orders, but Dean had always been a teacher. Even now when sometimes his face blanched and screwed up in such pain that he barely kept breathing, and Sam couldn't help but pause to flatten a hand against his wrist or shoulder or ribs in support. That would only last through the worst of it, though, then Dean would shove him away, telling him in a strained whisper to get back to work.
They didn't have much time, but Sam maximized it. Six covered gopher-hole traps dotted the soft soil along several paths of attack. The strongest, longest sticks he could find, he sharpened with the boot knife into makeshift shivs, and Sam tied a few lengths of braided vine down low to make tripwires. Smaller rocks were gathered in a pile beside Dean, and Sam had stuffed a wad of his blue t-shirt in a rock heap a half-dozen feet away. He'd have felt better with a homemade bow or spear, even a fire, but there wasn't enough time. They'd have to make do with this. Sixty-seven minutes after the clock started, Sam skittered back to the rocks where Dean was hidden and huddled down to listen and wait.
Dean's abdomen was a little more taut, and his eyes burned with rising fever. They were running out of time on more than one front. Sam swallowed, and spared a moment to wrap an arm around Dean's shoulders and press him carefully closer, leaning his forehead against his brother's warm and sweaty temple. "Hang in there, man. This'll be over soon," he promised.
"Could still leave, S'mmy," Dean whispered.
"Shut up," Sam said heatlessly. "You're stuck with me, dude—get used to it."
Dean sucked in a breath; it might have been pain, or laughter. He leaned his head a little into Sam's, sighed quietly. "Sam."
"'Least m'back doesn' hurt anymore."
Sam snorted a wet laugh.
That was when the birdsong went silent.
It was time.
"You let them come to you, Sammy." Dean sounded so much older than the young teen he was when he talked like that. "Don't try to track them down on their terms—you make them come to you on yours." Dad's maxims, Dad's training, but it had always sounded more like encouragement than command coming from Dean.
Sam had drawn himself down tight into the brush, listening, waiting. Terrified out of his wits but determined to hide it.
And unbelievably reassured when a hand not much bigger than his own flattened against his shoulder blade. "I've got your back, Sammy, just watch for them. They'll come to you…"
Sam peered around the rock, watching for any movement. He'd eased Dean back against the shelter of rocks, pressed one of the sharpened sticks into his hand, then coiled himself against the other side, ready and waiting. Time for the prey to become the hunter again. He reached down to the loamy soil to smear some across his neon-pale skin, his eyes never stopping scanning the tree line.
He could hear it when one of the hunters found a gopher-trap, his cry and even the startling snap of bone. One down. Just as they'd hoped, the hunters were experts at tracking, not the kind of evasion John Winchester's military training had drilled into his squad of two. Their previous prey had doubtless always just tried to outrun them. Sam smiled ferally, shifting to a crouch, and waited.
He'd pinpointed two others by the noise their passage made, when there was sudden movement from the right, then cursing. Maybe a tripwire. Not taking the hunter out, but at least destroying the element of surprise, the best Sam had hoped for. The hunters weren't stupid; they wouldn't fall for the same trap twice, but Sam knew where four of them were now, one still whining on the forest floor over his broken ankle. Sam's heart thudded dully in his ears as he sought the fifth.
Someone was trying to slink over to where his shirt played lure from the other stand of rocks.
Sam paused a second, debating: break cover and reveal his location, or let the guy go free. But a tumble of rocks blocked the view of the others, and he couldn't pass up the chance to take another hunter out. He lunged low and hard.
It took two punches, one snapping the guy's head back so hard he slumped beneath Sam without a sound. Sam quickly searched him, cursing under his breath when he didn't find a gun, just a knife. Old-school hunters: great. He shoved the guy aside and quickly reassessed.
Too late. Another hunter had come up on Dean's flank and was closer to his brother than Sam was. Even as Sam scrambled back, he knew he wouldn't get there before the hunter did. He pulled the boot knife out to throw.
But Dean was already shoving his homemade dagger hard and up. Sam guessed Dean had been going for the belly, but the guy shifted and the spear got him in the groin. He gurgled a cry, flopping back like a gutted fish, and Sam almost felt sorry for him for a moment.
The blood splashed across Dean's hand killed the inchoate thought.
Sam slid back to his brother's side, closing a hand around Dean's shoulder even as he pressed a fresh weapon into his shaking hand. Dean's fingers were having trouble closing around it, and Sam spared him a low "y'all right?"
"Super," Dean said weakly after a moment.
Sam squeezed his shoulder and tracked the shadow detaching from the trees to the left. "Think we're down to two, dude."
Dean only nodded, or maybe his head just wobbled.
Sam pulled himself away with effort and went prowling.
This hunter was a little more clever. Sam had last seen him inching to the right around the boulders. He was a little more surprised when stone pinged off stone to the left—Dean's attempt to meet the attack from the left—missing the form that hurled Sam to the ground a moment later.
But he was hardly down. One slam of the guy's wrist sent his handgun flying—naturally, this one had a gun—and then Sam was rolling them over. He got a good punch in, took one in turn that dripped blood in his eye. But he had the upper hand, and lifted his fist, ready to put his considerable muscle mass into the blow.
The new voice froze him for a second. Heart plunging, Sam pivoted slightly so he could keep both his wheezing opponent and the new threat in sight. His mouth tightened when he took in the scene.
It was the leader, the missing fifth. He'd caught a flagging Dean off-guard, apparently, and was planted behind him now, an arm pulling his head back at a painful angle. Plenty of room for the knife—a real one, sharp, wicked, dark steel—pressed into Dean's jugular. Dean was shivering against him, teetering on the edge of shock and exhaustion, but the eyes that locked on Sam's were…ticked off. He was chagrined the guy had gotten the drop on him, that Sam was now in this stand-off because of him, and the feverish green was brimming with anger.
And confidence in Sam.
"Get off him," the lead hunter snapped.
Sam's eyes flicked from Dean's to the man's—he really didn't deserve the title of hunter—then back. Carefully, he let go of his prey and eased back into a crouch.
The guy scrambled a few feet away with a grunt, fumbling for his weapons.
Sam saw the understanding and agreement in Dean's eyes. Saw the moment it was time.
Dean went limp. Sam went ballistic.
He slammed so hard shoulder-first into the guy he'd been fighting, that Sam felt it clear down his legs. The guy folded with a tiny oomph of sound, bouncing off the rocks behind him and unconscious before he hit the ground.
Sam didn't even pause to make sure he was still breathing, already charging in the opposite direction, where Dean and the last hunter grappled.
It was a woefully uneven fight; Sam was pretty sure a determined five-year-old could have taken Dean out just then. But weakness and pain had never stopped Sam's big brother before, especially not when he was fighting for Sam. And he was always fighting for Sam.
But even in the two seconds it took to get to him, Sam saw Dean's corded arms folding under the strain of keeping the knife from his chest. They collapsed altogether when the hunter reached down and dug his hand into Dean's wounded side.
He screamed. Dean, who'd been completely opaque in his grief, who rarely let even the one person he truly trusted to glimpse his pain. The naked cry rocked Sam like a blow.
A wash of helpless rage he hadn't even known he had inside him, flooded out, wiping any thought but pure vengeance from his brain.
His long arms reached the guy while the rest of him was still two steps away. Sam used the momentum to swing the man up and around. Startled, he stumbled back, only just managing to keep his feet.
Sam made himself a wall between the threat and his downed brother, fists clenched and face hot with fury. He narrowed his eyes at his foe, looming over the monster as he straightened, and saw with satisfaction the fear that flashed in the blue eyes.
It wouldn't save him.
Sam roared and charged. His weight hit the guy as hard as it had his compatriot, but there were no rocks behind him to smash against. He went down to the ground, instead, his head splashing against the edge of the water.
"You're not touching him again," Sam snarled, laying down two punches with driving force, one breaking the man's nose in a spray of blood, the other shattering the expensive glasses. "You shouldn't have touched him at all." He was pretty sure the cheekbone gave way under the next blow.
The man gurgled, eyes terrified.
Sam just growled, yanking out Dean's boot knife. He forced his cast up against the hunter's chin, much as the bastard had with Dean, and pressed the blade to soft flesh.
The guy's struggles increased, body bucking under Sam's as he panicked. Uselessly.
Sam tilted his head.
He blinked. Looked at the frantic face beneath his red-stained cast and scraped and swollen knuckles, the indent where blade was ready to draw blood, really seeing it. And felt a sudden revulsion. Sam turned the knife over and knocked the man out with a swift blow to the temple, then tossed the limp body aside. Sick to his stomach, Sam swayed to his feet, feeling lost, empty.
It was just a whisper now, but he could always hear Dean, even in silence. Sam looked at his brother with blurry eyes, then lurched the few steps to him, going down onto his knees in front of him.
Dean was gray, bloody and bowed and wracked with pain. But he still fumbled for Sam's hand, drew him down close to where Dean was sprawled back against the rocks.
He had to lean close to hear.
Sam laughed, or maybe cried, dropping the knife to wind his hand tight in Dean's bloody shirt. If he'd known this was what it took, he might have shot Dean himself sooner. "I'm right here, man." Really him, not the crazed stranger who'd nearly… God. Sam pressed his face against his brother's trembling shoulder.
Dean's hand tangled in his hair with a surprisingly solid grip, like he was afraid one of them would fall away.
Sam just hugged him close, knowing he had to go secure some of their captives, figuring at least one of them was bound to have a phone on him. But wanting a moment first to rest, to just sit there and soak up being wanted and needed and a brother instead of a hunter again.
It was the last thing that made sense for a while.
The phone Sam had found on the lead hunter had had a GPS in it. Only the best for high-class homicidal hunters, apparently. Even Sam was surprised at how quick it summoned help. A half-hour later, they were being airlifted out in some bucket contraption that would utterly terrified Dean if he'd been conscious to appreciate it.
Oddly enough, leaving behind the scene of carnage, the red-spattered rocks and the sprawled bodies and the homemade weapons, had dropped Sam back into the surreality of the real world. Threats and protection and fighting he could understand. The sympathetic voices asking him questions and all the tubes hooked up to Dean and the trees shrinking beneath him were what didn't make sense.
Or maybe it was just letting go of Dean.
Some part of Sam knew they were treating him like a victim, too, not pressing too hard for details, talking slow and soft to him. And some part was grateful for it because he couldn't have made up a good lie just then to save his life. They'd been hiking, been drugged and captured, but their dad had been a marine and they had Red Cross training, and they'd fought back and gotten lucky. No one seemed inclined to look further than that, or likely to connect this Dean Winchester with a buried serial killer in a neighboring state.
They checked his cast while he was still huddled in Dean's ER cubicle, then they were wheeling Dean off to surgery and Sam was left standing there. There was no reason not to go with the nice nurse who covered his cast and pushed him into the hot shower, then forced some clothes and an ice pack on him. His knuckles were swollen and his split brow needed two butterfly bandages and he had bruises on top of bruises, but otherwise he was fine. It was just Dean…
Sam sank into the seat in the private waiting room and waited.
He barely looked up when Trudy wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, when Louis sat next to him and dropped an arm around his shoulders and Abbie—no, Allie—pressed a cup of steaming coffee into his hands. He must've told the authorities about his friends, but Sam couldn't remember it. He was pretty sure he nodded when Louis said they'd brought the Winchesters' gear with them, knowing he should have been grateful the weapons were accounted for. But none of it really seemed to matter, to even be real, and Sam just shook his head at the questions until the others finally lapsed into silence, sitting and waiting with him.
The surgery went well. The bullet had lodged in Dean's liver, the doctor told him along with some other things about bleeding and infection that Sam understood added up to Dean being seriously hurt but eventually okay. He nodded at the right times, and they finally took him into the recovery room.
Dean actually looked better. His face was a little swollen from the fluids, and his hair was smoothed down in a style that would have made him cringe. But the blood was gone, and the haggard look of pain, and even the worst flush of fever. He just looked asleep, and when Sam ghosted fingers over his once-more yielding abdomen, Dean sighed and rolled his head fractionally toward him.
Sam sank into the chair by his bed, took a deep breath, and rubbed his eyes. Just sitting.
The soft sound of the heart monitor eventually filtered in, then the buzz of people out in the corridor. The chair shifted and creaked under Sam's weight, and his eyes felt gritty with fatigue. He was clean and changed, but he could still smell the blood and damp earth on his cast under the antiseptic hospital odors, and it made his nose twitch. It was a little like coming up out of water, the sensory babble sorting itself out in his head and settling into some kind of order. Sam didn't even stop to think any more when this—simply being alive and together—had become his new standard of normalcy, just rubbed lightly at the back of Dean's wrist and let the final pieces fall into place.
They'd survived. Handicapped and outnumbered but together, they survived. He'd been ready to kill to assure it.
He figured if Dean wasn't awake to know Sam was clutching his arm and hiccupping a little, it didn't really count.
"Rebecca Warren's a friend of mine, you know."
His friends had taken turns stopping in to see if he needed anything, and Sam was equal parts touched and discomfited. Usually it was just Dean and him. The unexpected support system threw him, and he knew without question Dean would hate it if he were awake for it.
Sam blinked at Beth. He'd gotten to know her a little over the last two days, enough to think they probably would've been friends if they'd met at school. "Yeah?" he asked cautiously.
She hesitated. "She hasn't told me exactly what happened—I know it's hard for her. But…I do know you helped her and Zach. You and Dean. And that he didn't hurt her." Her eyes slid over to the sleeper, then back to Sam. Like they said on the news, was the unspoken corollary. And it's kinda obvious he's not dead.
"Uh, right. No. That was…someone else." And somewhere over the last year-plus, Sam had apparently lost the ability to carry on a conversation that didn't include creatures most people didn't believe in, visions of suffering and death, and whether diners with animals on their roofs served better food.
"So this is what you two do? Go around the country helping people?"
He looked at Dean, the swell of the blanket over the bandages on his right side, and the dark half-moons under his eyes that had already been there before they'd ever ventured into the park. "Yeah," Sam said quietly. "We try."
Dean eventually began waking some by that evening. Well, sort of: he squinted at Sam or muttered something or turned his head, then was asleep again, Sam's fingers curled over his. Sam spent the night there again as he had the previous two, slumped with his head on the mattress next to Dean's arm and his legs tucked under the bed. It killed his back, but it was the most rest he'd gotten in weeks, and how sad was that?
The police came by again early, long enough to tell him they had plenty of evidence against the five hunters to put them away for good, three of them after they got out of the hospital themselves. Trophies collected at their homes had also indicted four others; the hunt had been generational, spaced out enough to avoid drawing too much attention. Some twisted rich man's sport, down to carving up the corpses as if they were dressing game, and Sam winced wearily at the thought of sins of the fathers. Maybe he hadn't agreed with John Winchester's methods, but at least the man had done his best to raise good sons. Sam hoped he'd succeeded.
Louis came alone the next morning. Even without him saying it, Sam knew it was the last time. He wasn't even sure how the group had stayed this long, or where, and hadn't asked.
"So, uh." Louis fidgeted in the chair he was straddling. "Is this, you know, because of what happened to Jess? What you guys do?"
Sam started, staring at his friend. "What? No. Well, kinda, I mean, if she hadn't died…" He couldn't even begin to picture that future anymore. Sam swallowed. "But I'm not…trying to make up for that or anything. It's just…kind of a family business, you know?"
"Hmm. Sounds more like Kung Fu than Cosby."
Sam huffed a laugh. "Yeah, kinda. Dean tried that whole 'grasshopper' thing on me once when we were growing up." He picked at the edge of his cast, now brown-speckled. One of the nurses had promised him they'd get the blood off before he left.
Louis lifted an eyebrow. "What happened?"
"Freak coincidence, actually—he found a bunch of grasshoppers in his duffel the next day." Sam grinned over Louis's laugh. "I swear, man, I have no idea how they got there." He glanced over at Dean, dropping his uncasted forearm to rest against his brother's, fingers light on his elbow.
"Yeah, right." Louis leaned forward against his crossed arms. "Just tell me one thing, Sam: you good? I mean, wasn't that long ago you were totally law school-guy, and now…"
He thought about that a moment, not wanting to give Louis the stock answer. They lied enough as it was. Besides, he was pretty sure someone else was listening, and Sam wanted to lie to him even less. "I'm where I belong," Sam said quietly, finally. "I know it's kind of crazy, but…" He nodded slowly. "This is where I'm meant to be right now."
"Hey, kinda makes sense to me. You always were one of those weird do-gooders who only wanted to help people. You're just doing it now on the road instead of a courtroom." Louis shrugged. "Six o' one, dude."
Not quite, but in a strange way it was a comforting thought. Sam smiled a little, glanced at Dean again, then stood. Louis mirrored him. "Thanks for coming, man. It's not exactly how I would've wanted to spend more time with you guys, but…it sucked a lot less with you here."
Louis gave him a lazy, knowing grin that reminded Sam again of his brother. "Yeah, well, just remember that one of you doesn't have to get shot to get some attention. Door's always open, all of ours. I think even Beth likes you a little." His grin grew.
"Yeah, yeah, I know." He punched Sam's arm lightly. "Take care of yourself, man. Send me some postcards. Oh, and Oreos. Lots of Oreos."
Sam laughed. "Yeah, okay. You take care of yourself, too."
Louis's gaze lingered on him in acknowledgement of the respective fights they were both leaving for. Then he slipped out the door, shutting it quietly behind him.
Sam stood there a moment, staring at it, his back to the bed. Then, "He's gone, Dean."
He could hear his brother exhale. "Mmm."
It sounded less than coherent, and Sam turned back, wondering if he'd misjudged his brother's awareness. But half-circles of green peered at him from below heavy lids, and Sam smiled back with his whole face. "Hey." A step took him back to Dean's bedside, dropping a hand on his shoulder. "Y'all right?"
"Knew those…grasshoppers were you." Dean's voice was thin and rough.
Sam glanced around, found the water pitcher on the bedside table, and poured a plastic cupful. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Hmm." Dean blinked slowly, but he took a few sips when Sam prodded his mouth with the straw. His gaze wandered tiredly back to Sam's face and his mouth quirked. "Beth, huh?"
He was shivering faintly, and Sam let go of him to cross to the small alcove by the bathroom door and dig out a blanket. "Don't even start, man. They're leaving today. I'm probably never gonna see her again." He snapped it out over Dean, tucking it in at the feet.
"Could go with 'em," Dean said thickly. It was the most conversation they'd had in days.
"Did you hear anything I said?" Sam said, exasperated, although he knew this was more final offer than real argument now. He wasn't sure what Dean wanted or what would help him half the time, but he was certain now his brother wanted him to stay. And that Sam wanted that, too. His friends had played an important role in his life, but Dean was the one who'd really raised him, the one was the most responsible for making Sam the man he was today. He was the reason, on so many levels, that Sam was sitting there now.
Funny how Dean seemed to know everything important about Sam except for his own worth to his little brother.
"This is where I'm meant to be," Sam said, low and firm: final answer. "Besides, you always get into trouble on your own."
Dean mustered enough strength to bestow a hazy glare on Sam.
Sam smiled at him. "Go to sleep, Dean. You can grind me into the dirt with a brilliant comeback tomorrow." He sat back in his chair, shoving his feet up on the bed against Dean's hip. "I'm not going anywhere."
Dean's fingertips brushed the side of Sam's boot, and his eyes sank shut. That way they could both pretend it hadn't happened when he whispered, "'M glad you're here, Sammy."
Sam swallowed and just pressed his heel in a little harder.
Dean sighed as he settled to sleep, turning his head away from the door, toward Sam. Trusting his brother to watch his back.
Sam leaned his head back against the edge of the chair and smiled. "Yeah, me, too. But, dude, we're gonna have a little talk about Cardinal football…"