Whew, this took a lot longer to post than I expected. I don't like it when I have to wait for a story, so I don't like to make others wait, but stuff happens. So here we go, the last chapter.


Before…

A hot prick on his neck had Dean's instincts screaming loudly. He whipped around and was faced with the vicious grin on the tourist's face as he cast aside a syringe. When he spoke, his voice had smoothed out and was no longer nasal.

"This would have been so much easier if you'd just let your brother die," the guy said.

Damn it, Dean knew that voice. "Jeremy," he snarled.

Dean made to lung at him but didn't get far, suddenly finding his limbs were impossibly heavy. The world began to spin slowly as rage fogged his brain. He felt himself tip and begin to fall, his body powerless to stop it.

Jeremy smirked. "Watch your head."

Dean dropped.

Now…

The minutes stretched and bent until Sam was sure time wasn't really passing, more convinced that it was just going in a big, stupid circle. He flipped another page in his book, not really reading any of the words his eyes skimmed over. He was trying to figure out why he felt so uncomfortable, besides the life-threatening curse on him. Unease whispered delicately in his ear, sending a chill through his bones. He looked around the room, eyes landing on the big red symbol over the gnarly wallpaper; he shifted and looked away.

A glance at the clock let him know that Dean had been gone for too long. Sam frowned and swung his legs out of the bed, feeling his muscles constrict and threatened to cramp. They trembled as he stood, but he ignored it and made his way to the window.

Raising a hand to brush back the stained cream curtains, Sam peered out into the parking lot. The impala sat alone in her spot…its spot, and Dean was nowhere to be seen. Sam's heart kicked hard – no, Dean wouldn't just leave him. Part of him wished for it, another part dreaded it. In the end, his knowledge of all things Dean Winchester prevailed; Dean wouldn't have left, especially without his baby.

Frowning, Sam walked to the door and yanked it open. "Dean?" No answer. Not a soul was around.

Taking another step forward, Sam swept the areas for clues as to where his brother had gone. Probably just to get a drink or something, maybe even… Sam's thoughts died with a silent choke – his eyes caught on the small plastic syringe lying abandoned on the asphalt near the Impala. He strode quickly toward it and scooped it up in one clammy hand. His eyes slid closed for a moment, curses flying through his mind.

Paper on the hood of the car drew his attention. It was an atlas for…Georgia? Worry shouldered its way past Sam's mental walls and began wreaking havoc. Something had happened to Dean – Sam could feel it as clearly as the ground beneath his feet. His vision fuzzed and tipped to the left as he felt his brain melt and began to swish loudly in his skull; his body protested and clamored to rest. But at the moment he cared about only one thing – Dean was gone, and Sam hadn't saved him.

Clenching the syringe in his fist, Sam hurried back to the motel room and snatched his phone off the table. He hit Bobby's number and waiting impatiently for the older hunter to pick up. As soon as he heard the click of the call being answered, he spoke. "Bobby, it's Sam. Dean's gone; I need to find him."

"What d'ya mean 'gone'? Did he…?" Bobby's voice was dubious and surprised.

"No, no, he didn't leave me here," Sam said, convinced that was the truth, "I think…Bobby, I think someone got him. Maybe the guy who cast the curse, maybe something else, but I need to get to him. What's the fastest locating spell you know?" Sam was banking on the hope that if it was Jeremy who had taken Dean that he didn't know enough about magic to block locating spells.

For a moment Sam thought Bobby was going to ask if he was sure Dean hadn't just stepped out for a minute. Or maybe point out that Sam was quickly approaching obsolescence for rescues.

"Gimme a minute, kid," was the actual response.

Sam responded affirmatively and let out a quiet breath of relief; he didn't have time to fight with Bobby. Besides, something told him the older man knew there was nothing he could do to stop Sam, and he would be right.

"Alright. You got candles?"

"Yeah." Sam reached for the bag of supplies at the end of his bed. Face grim, he jerked it up onto the comforter and unzipped it. "We need to hurry."

x.x.x.x.x

Wake up…

…Come on, Winchester…

Dean groaned, swallowed, felt like he'd just been hit by a truck. He blinked blearily in the florescent lights, his pupils working hard to adjust. A dark blob moved in front of him, shifting and swirling as his vision gradually returned. He shouted and jerked back as he saw it was a face inches from his own, the mouth open and leering – just like that freaking seahorse he'd smashed. "Holy crap," he hissed, his head swimming.

"That'll hurt for a while. You banged your skull pretty nice when you went down. I told you to watch it."

"Son of a—"

"Language, Winchester. Well, I suppose murderers don't care that God can hear them, do they?" The face moved back and forth, answering its own question. "No, they don't."

Head screaming in agony, Dean forced his eyes up and was once again face to face with… the tourist…Jeremy. Damn it. He'd let his concern for Sam overshadow his instincts – or perhaps they were already so wired that he hadn't noticed the bad vibe from the tourist guy, or Jeremy, or whoever. "What the hell? This part of your vacation?"

He grinned. "No, it's just a pit stop. You Winchesters are a pain in the ass – anyone ever tell you that?"

"Might have been mentioned once or twice." Dean quickly took stock of his situation. It looked like they were in the storage room of some abandoned shop, judging by the dusty boxes of chips and large jars of pickles that littered the room. A glance out a window let him know they were on an upper floor, second by the look of it. There was a door just beyond his captor, open to reveal a set of stairs the led down to who knew what. Dean was currently strapped to a chair, his arms twisted painfully behind him, ankles lashed to the chair legs. The chair was metal and infuriatingly sturdy. Crap.

Jeremy leaned close to Dean, sneering unpleasantly. "Always with the emotional barriers, eh? How does your brother like that? Does it make him feel safe, or does it make him close up? Is that why he doesn't want you touching him?"

Fury ripping through him, Dean barely thought before his head shot forward, cracking sharply against his captor's skull. Jeremy yowled and went down in a heap, one hand grasping at his injured head. He screamed insults as he scrambled back, eyes watering and blinking rapidly. Even as his own head throbbed, Dean grinned at him, slightly woozy but sharp enough to enjoy Jeremy's pain.

"I hope you left the heather with your brother," Jeremy spat, stumbling to his feet, blood dripping between the fingers over his head, "Kid won't make it much longer if you didn't. We'll find out soon enough, I imagine." Jeremy straightened and smiled menacingly at Dean, large teeth set in a pointed face. He looked nothing like his mousy brother.

"You stay the hell away from Sam," Dean growled. As Jeremy laughed, Dean took the opportunity to wiggle his knife in his sleeve; thank God he'd kept it on him. It was wedged painfully into his skin by the rope fused with his arm. He pushed it harder, ignoring the pain as it pinched and pulled but didn't budge.

"I don't have to go anywhere near him. His expiration date passed a while back – all we have to do now is wait. Then as soon as you're both dead, I can be with my brother."

Dean shot him a snide look. "Are we talking zombie action or plain old stick a gun in your mouth?"

Jeremy's face grew cold. Pain blossomed across Dean's cheek as a fist lashed at him, striking him just below one eye. He grunted and took the hit, seeing static fizzle in front of him. A hand curled into the collar of his shirt, jerking him roughly forward, but not close enough to deliver another head strike. Stale breath broke over his face. "Don't talk about my brother like that. I would never put him through that – I'm supposed to take care of him."

"Bang up job with that." A fist slammed into his head twice, both times sloppy hits driven by anger. They still hurt like hell. Dean took the shots and continued to work at the knife. It slid out another couple centimeters, dragging at his skin as it went. Damn, the guy tied knots like a marine.

Dean spit blood and rotated his jaw until he heard it crack. "So this is your big plan? Let Sam die and then let me die? Real brilliant. Only, we already found a way to break the curse."

"So I heard," Jeremy hissed, moving closer, "I've been listening to you make plans; I've heard you plotting to take revenge away from my brother. I won't let you. You have to pay for what you did to him."

"Your brother was a murderer, Jerry. All we did was stop him. He did the rest."

"Shut up!" Jeremy screamed, shoving Dean back. The chair rocked dangerously before slamming heavily back to the ground. "You can't lie to me; I know the truth. I've been with you the whole time. The walls of the motel are thin, Winchester."

Comprehension dawned quickly on Dean – Jeremy had been next door to them from the beginning, spying and stewing in his crazy juices, waiting to see if he had to take care of things himself; he'd been in Dean's reach the whole time. Murderous rage funneled through Dean's veins, coating his vision with crimson. He shoved harder at the knife, feeling his skin scrape and tear. The thing was practically cemented in place by the rope – already he couldn't feel his hands, his joints swelling.

"Yeah, well, then you know Sam already knows the ritual to stop this thing. He's probably broken it already." He prayed that was true. Please let Bobby have made it okay.

"Really? Is that so? Because I don't think he's in any condition to perform that ritual alone. And I don't think your friend can make that good of time." Jeremy gave Dean a sneer look before continuing. "I checked into you Winchesters, you know. I know a lot about you. For example…" He strolled closer, hovering just outside of Dean's striking distance. "The things you'll do for your baby brother." He spat the last two words like they were venom. "Tell me, how's it been going with Sammy? I hear he doesn't want you around so much anymore. He doesn't think you can protect him anymore. And you can't, can you? Can't even break a little curse."

"Shut up," Dean growled.

"Doesn't matter now, I suppose. He can't last much longer, especially without help."

An image sprung unbidden to his mind, Sam lying alone in the motel room, those back-breaking coughs wracking his body and no one was there to help him. Dean shoved it away; his brother was more than capable, and he was as stubborn as their father.

And yet every big brother instinct inside of him screamed that something bad had happened. How long had he been unconscious, how long had Sam been alone? He needed to get free. If he couldn't get to Sam, if he couldn't see with his own eyes that his brother was still alive, he would lose his mind. And he didn't know how long the curse would take to take to him if something happened to Sam. Snarling, Dean waggled the knife hard and it slid forward just a bit more.

"Sam's stronger than you think," Dean snapped.

Jeremy's features twisted as he contemplated. "You're right, there's a chance he might survive. I thought he would come for you, but I imagine his own life is of greater importance at the moment. Murderers don't take care of their family, do they?" He shook his head. "No." His eyes raked up and down Dean's bound form, examining his options. "Even if he has broken the curse, he'll still be weak. I still have time to… Yes, much better to end it now. Then I can be going."

"Hey, hey, whoa." Dean strained to scoot back as Jeremy flipped open a switchblade, its wicked edge grinning at him in the florescent glow of the room.

"I'll kill you, and then I'll go back and kill him. Yes, a much better plan. Thank you, Winchester," Jeremy said with a smile. He advanced on Dean, aiming the blade at his throat. Dean struggled with the knife at his wrist – he wasn't going to be fast enough.

"Hey!"

The barked word was loud even in the pickle and chip padded room, surprising Jeremy into taking a step away from Dean as he whipped around. Striding across the floor was an extremely pale Sam holding a gun level with Jeremy's head. "Back the hell up," he snarled, moving closer to his brother.

Dean's heart hammered in his chest as he kept his eyes trained on Jeremy and watched Sam in his peripheral. Jeremy spread his arms away from his body, blood from his forehead sliding unheeded over his eyes, leaking red tears over his face. He was watching Sam as a snake would watch its prey; as if he'd like nothing better than to rip the flesh from his bones.

Slowly complying with Sam's order to back away, Jeremy's smile clung stiffly to his lips. "When is the last time you had some heather, Sam? Been about an hour, has it?"

Dean's heart clenched painfully.

"Shut up and move back. More." Sam gestured roughly with his gun as he inched nearer to Dean. Glancing at him quickly, he asked, "You okay, man?"

"Watch him, Sammy. He's a tricky bastard," Dean grumbled, still working at the knife near his wrist. He could barely feel it anymore, tactile abilities fleeing from his bloodless hands.

"Nasty curse, isn't it? Tell me, how much control do you actually have over your body? Nerves shutting down, are they?" Jeremy asked, pleased.

As if on cue, Sam's body gave a heavy shudder and the gun shifted a bit, moving to train center mass on its target. He opened his mouth to order Jeremy to back off farther, but a cough tore through his body and out his throat, blood flowing from broken vessels.

"Sam!" Dean barked in warning.

Jeremy darted forward in Sam's moment of weakness. Pain slashed across the back of Sam's wrists, followed by a sharp hit that sent his gun skittering toward the door and down the stairs, clattering loudly as it fell. A fist slammed into his side, driving the air from him. He swung an arm up to block the next hit and the next, his body on fire. He fell back as Jeremy assaulted him mercilessly, insanity and grief fueling the incompetent sorcerer.

His muscles were shredding under his skin – Sam was going to lose, he could feel it; he didn't have the strength. Until he took a glance toward Dean and found his brother's gaze full of enraged terror, his shoulders straining as he fought against his binding. A red mark stained his neck, the mark from the syringe.

Dean was bloody and battered, and it was Jeremy's fault. Sam let his anger burn its way through his limbs. He yelled in rage and thrust forward, catching Jeremy around the middle. They crashed to the ground and a lance of pain imbedded itself in Sam's chest, wedged tight between his ribs.

He cried out as his muscles locked him into place. A foot connected with his side, causing his vision to recede at the edges. No. He couldn't lose consciousness; he couldn't leave Dean to die. His leg lashed out and he felt his heel connect powerfully with Jeremy's kneecap. Jeremy screamed stumbled back, clutching at the lump of dislocated bone halfway up his thigh.

Pain fogged Sam's mind as he tried to roll to his feet. He staggered up, blinking to clear his vision.

"Sam!"

Cruel arms clenched around his middle and pushed. Sam felt himself falling, weightlessness sucking at his stomach. Then he came crashing down on the stairs, the unyielding wood crushing his body from every angle as he tumbled down.

x.x.x.x.x

"SAM!"

Dean watched in helpless horror as Jeremy shoved at Sam, sending him into the gaping hole of the stairwell. Dean could hear Sam's body being ground up by the stairs as he fell, every sound biting deep. "No!" Dean shouted, yanking fiercely at his restraints. Slick blood flowed over his hands, and he felt the wetness creep up his sleeves. He rubbed his wrists frantically against the ropes, the blood lubricating his knife. Finally, it slipped into his numb hand, nearly dropping to the floor. He held on with all the strength that his rage and terror afforded him.

Breathing heavily, Jeremy limped over to his blade. He lifted it with a trembling hand, the other clutching at the sickly bulge of his relocated kneecap. "Your brother shouldn't be able to move that quickly, not with this curse." Blood dribbled from his chin, ignored completely. "If I didn't want you both dead, I might respect you."

"You son of a bitch." Working faster on the ropes, Dean swung his head toward his approaching captor, hate clogging his heart. "I'll kill you."

Fear raked painfully across his skin, and Dean couldn't keep his eyes off the stairs. Over and over, one thought raced through his mind, repeating in time to the knife being pulled across his flesh. Watch after Sam, protect Sam. Watch after Sam, protect Sam. It was rusty, unused for some time, but still there, just as strong as ever.

"No, you won't." Jeremy stopped in front of him, switchblade raised threateningly. Dean couldn't cut the ropes fast enough. "Goodbye, Winchester." The blade came down.

Two shots rang out in the room. Jeremy jerked sickeningly, his eyes widening in shock. Blood flared from two new holes in his chest, painting his shirt blue-red. With an enraged gurgle, he fell forward, lunging for Dean's chest. Another two shots exploded, hitting Jeremy square in the back. Jeremy's aim veered to the side and the switchblade buried itself two inches inside Dean's shoulder. He cried out and twisted away from the pain. Jeremy fell bonelessly to the floor, his skull cracking heavily against the boards. Blank eyes stared fixedly at nothing, and Jeremy's heart gave one dull thump before it stilled.

Dean's eyes shot up, searching frantically. They locked on Sam's bruised and bloody figure leaning against the doorjamb. The younger Winchester's shoulders heaved as he struggled to breathe, his eyes fogged over. Dean shouted wordlessly as Sam tipped forward, the gun falling from his hands. He hit the floor without making a sound, unmoving.

Snarling, Dean ripped furiously at the fraying ropes tied around his wrists. They snapped. Reaching up to his shoulder, he gritted his teeth and yanked the knife out of the wound, choking on a cry of pain. Ignoring the lack of feeling in his fingers, Dean bent and sliced through the restraints on his ankles, not even feeling the cuts that his wide swipes were making in his shins. He fought a losing battle against his panic as he shot across the room, his hands seeking his brother.

"Sam! Sammy, hey, come on." Sam's body was chilled in his arms. "Please, God." He fumbled for Sam's throat, fingers pressing into his flesh. Please, no. At first he felt nothing, trembling too hard to locate the throb of his brother's heart. But then, there it was. It was weak and palpitating, but it was there. A sob ripped itself from his throat as he gathered his brother close, his forehead resting on Sam's hair.

"De…"

Dean's head flew up. "Sam?"

Sam's eyes opened slowly, painfully against the light. "You…'kay?"

His brother was dying in his arms and he wanted to know if Dean was okay. He was so freaking far from okay… "Where's the heather? Did you bring it with you?" Dean demanded.

"Pocket," Sam croaked.

"That's my boy," he murmured absently.

Not pausing to ask which pocket, Dean searched them all until he found the packet of heather wedged into the back of Sam's jeans. He ripped it open and poured some onto his palm. Shifting Sam so that he leaned back against Dean's chest, he eased his brother's jaw down and dropped the heather inside. Sam worked to swallow it, Dean tipping his head back a bit to make it easier.

"Can't 'wallow…" Sam mumbled around the plant.

"Have to," Dean said, casting around for something liquid. There was nothing – no pop, no juice, not even alcohol. What kind of crap establishment was it?

"Can't…" Sam began to cough the heather out of his mouth, bits of it hitting the floor with soft thunks.

"Damn it," Dean hissed, "Hang on Sam."

Gently, he shifted his brother so that he was leaning against the wall. Reaching out, he snagged a jar of pickles and broke the seal, popping the lid off and throwing some of the sopping vegetables out. "Open up for me, Sammy."

Sam's eyes widened in disgust, but he did as he was told. Dean poured some of the pickle juice into his brother's open mouth. Sam swallowed convulsively, choking, but the pickle juice and heather went down, mostly.

Dean tossed the jar aside, the pale yellow liquid traveling in ripples out over the floor, and drew Sam back against him, tilting him forward so he could spit out residual juice and blood. "Just hang on, Sammy. We've gotta get you back to the motel to do that ritual you wanted," Dean murmured to him. Even as the thought of the ritual drove dread through his spine, Dean knew there was no other option now. If they didn't try it, Sam would die anyway.

Struggling in his brother's grasp, Sam turned surprisingly sharp eyes on him. "You got…stabbed, Dean."

"What? Oh." Dean glanced down at his shoulder, aware for the first time that it burned like crazy. "Yeah. Let's get you up, okay?"

Sam nodded slowly, his face becoming impossibly paler as his eyes slid closed.

"Hey, Sammy, stay with me, little brother," Dean beseeched. He cupped the side of Sam's face, watching as the younger man's features relaxed the smallest bit. Dean's jaw muscles jumped. He had to get Sam back to the motel.

How the heck was he going to get him down the stairs?

"Sam, I need you to hang onto me, okay? Can you do that?"

Mumbling something incomprehensible, Sam pried his eyes open and lifted an arm to drape over Dean's neck.

"Okay, just hold on. I'm gonna get you out of here, Sam." Dean wrapped an arm firmly around Sam's waist and pulled him tightly against his side. Taking a quick breath to steel himself, Dean pushed hard against the floor, pulling Sam with him as he began to rise. Sam worked with him, and soon they were vertical once again.

"Let's take it slow. Walk with me, Sam. That's it," Dean encouraged, cinching Sam closer to him. He moved forward at an agonizingly slow pace, but there was no help for it.

x.x.x.x.x

Blood from Dean's wrists had smeared the steering wheel with brown, a fact that in another situation would have sent him into a tailspin. Now he barely noticed the ugly tearing around both wrists that were leaking blood onto his car, his focus divided entirely between Sam and the road, with just a little too much devoted to Sam.

He glanced over at his unconscious brother. Sam was wedged into the front seat, having deliriously refused to sit in the back, away from Dean. So much for Sam's new "Don't touch me, I'm just bleeding out" routine.

The Impala ate up the road as fast as Dean could feed it. Glad for the nearly empty streets, Dean opened her up and blew past the landscape. The convenience store he'd been taken to was only about twenty minutes from the motel. He tried not to think about how Sam had gotten there. He'd taken the Impala, and that meant he'd had to drive in his current state. The thought sent tendrils of fear skimming along Dean's ribs.

Not for the first time in the last day, Dean wondered why Sam had been struck by the curse first. Why had it singled him out? The creator had intended it to be the end to her unfaithful husband, so how did it apply to them? Consciously not looking at his brother, Dean tried not to think about the implications – that maybe Sam was doing something he didn't know about, and that maybe it was freaking dangerous or even demonic. But no, his brother had told him he was done with that, and that was good enough for Dean. It was.

Sam made a pained sound, tensing visibly. Dean rested a hand against his arm and Sam calmed down, a frown tugging at his mouth. Dean decided that if Sam was doing something stupid, it could wait until his head wasn't on the chopping block.

Ten minutes later Dean was pulling into the parking lot of the motel, finally starting to come down from the adrenaline-fueled rage at Jeremy. He started in surprise – a familiar truck was sitting outside their room. Bobby was there. The tension inside Dean uncoiled just a little; if anyone would be able to help, it would be Bobby.

As soon as the Impala was parked outside the room, the door swung open and Bobby stepped out, his continence serious. Dean gave him a nod and killed the engine. Movement next to him let him know Sam was awake – he murmured something unintelligible.

"What?" Dean turned to him.

"Bobby. He's…here."

"Yeah, he is. Just hang on, okay? We're gonna fix this."

Sliding out of the car, Dean hurried to the passenger side and opened the door. His heart caught in his throat at the sight of his brother; they didn't have a lot of time. Hooking an arm around Sam's back, he gently drew the mammoth little brother out of the Impala. Sam leaned into him as they straightened, his head rolling weakly against Dean's shoulder.

"Sorry," he croaked.

"For what?" Dean asked gruffly, grateful that Bobby opened the door wide for them to come through, grateful he didn't try to take Sam from him. Dean didn't think he could handle someone else holding Sam at that moment – he needed to be near his brother.

"Fer…leavin' you…"

"You're not going anywhere, Sam. Trust me, okay? I've got you." Sam's body was now too warm against him, and he wheezed every time he sucked in a breath. Sam mumbled something that sounded like "I do," or perhaps "moose shoe," and Dean led him slowly into the motel room, time rushing loudly past his ears; they needed to hurry.

"Get 'im inside," Bobby said, quickly closing the door once the brothers crossed the threshold. "On the bed."

"Come on, Sammy." Dean lowered his giant onto the mattress, muscles straining with the weight.

"Dean…"

"Yeah, Sam, I'm here."

"You…do the…"

"I will, Sam." Dean had no idea what his brother was talking about, but it didn't seem to matter; he was slipping away. "Bobby." He locked gazes with the older hunter, noting the fear reflected there. "Will this work?" It needed to work.

"There's no other choice, kid. It God damn well better work." Bobby took a step forward, an old book balanced in his hands. "Out of the circle, or this'll all go to crap."

Dean looked down. He was standing on the edge of a white circle adorned with several sigils. The thing went all the way around the bed, enclosing Sam inside. Bobby had known how bad things would be and had acted accordingly. Dean took a step back, something in him cracking when he moved away from Sam. "Do it."

"No." The word was a mere gasp. Sam's eyes flew open, his hand reaching blindly.

Unable to stop himself, Dean stepped forward and let Sam grab his hand in a bruising hold. "Sammy, we're doing the ritual. It'll be over in a second, kiddo."

Shaking his head weakly, Sam pulled him closer, struggling to draw enough air for conversation. "Not…me."

"We don't got much time," Bobby said from behind Dean.

Dean nodded and started to pull back, but Sam's grip was surprisingly strong for a dying man.

"Dean…'s too late. You…do the ritual… for you…after…" Sam stopped, his chest jerking as a cough stole his voice.

"You'll be fine, Sammy. Let go."

Sam's eyes slid past him and searched desperately. "Bobby. Have to make…Dean okay…"

"I'll take care of it, Sam," Bobby rumbled.

"Damn it, no! Nobody's dying today. Sam, let go – you're not dying today." Dean pried his brother's fingers off of his hand with as much care as possible. Fighting every instinct in his body, Dean backed away and left Sam looking scared and helpless in the middle of the circle. He looked so young; Dean's heart nearly broke.

Latin began flowing swiftly from Bobby's lips, the words whispering of years long dead. And without really thinking about it, Dean silently said a prayer, willing to do anything. He watched avidly as Sam's breathing began to slow. His brother took a breath, and then another, the lengthening time in between them tying Dean's guts into painful knots. Three minutes later, Bobby's voice fell silent at the end of the spell.

Sam cried out, his back arching at an inhuman angle. His hands clenched tangled in the bedspread as he began to thrash in pain.

"Sam!" Dean rushed forward only to collide forcefully with an invisible wall. He stumbled back from the edge of the circle, dazed. A hand caught the back of his jacket, steadying him. "Damn it, Bobby! What the hell is that?"

"You have to wait 'til the spell's over. There ain't no going back from here." Bobby released him.

Dean's mouth set in a hard line. He turned back and watched helplessly as his brother continued to writhe. He had to make it, he had to. Sam screamed again, his fingers grabbing uselessly at the bed, at his chest. He gave one final cry and then was still.

Powerless to stay away, Dean strode forward, one hand extended to check for invisible barriers. His fingers passed through the air without resistance, and he shot to Sam's side, falling to his knees at the edge of the bed. "Sammy? Hey, come on, bro. Open those pretty eyes for me, kiddo." For the thousandth time that day, Dean checked for Sam's pulse.

There was nothing.

Dean readjusted his grip, forcing himself to hold still and ignore the frantic pounding of his own heart. He pressed down on Sam's wrist and focused on finding a heartbeat so soft it could belong to a kitten. He didn't even get that. Shaking, he moved his hand to Sam's throat and found the same hollowness that his wrist had offered.

A wordless cry tore itself violently from Dean's throat. Or it might have been a whisper – he didn't know. All he could see or understand was that he had failed his brother again. Sam had been taken from him again, and Dean hadn't stopped it. Once again, he'd been two feet away, one second too late, and he had lost Sam.

Panic seared every inch of his skin as Dean leaped to his feet and pushed Sam's arms off his chest. Hands together, Dean started compressions at as rapid a pace as he felt safe. …Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. He breathed into Sam, feeling his chest expand and deflate. He started again.

"Come on," he growled. …twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Breathe. Breathe, damn it. "Don't you do this, Sammy. Don't you dare do this."

Dean kept going, not pausing when his arms began to ach or when his chest felt like it was being pried open, his lungs set on cracking them. He kept pushing, kept breathing for Sam, kept working to save him. Nothing could stop him now, not even his body's screams of protest. His brother was going to live.

"Dean."

"No." He kept going, kept Sam's heart beating and his lungs expanding.

A hand on his shoulder jarred Dean from the nuclear world in which he now lived, where the only thing that was real was Sam not breathing, Sam dead in front of him. "No!"

Bobby backed off. Dean couldn't see him, didn't want to see him. The only thing he wanted to see was Sam inhaling. Adrenaline-fueled fear lent Dean strength and stamina, and he used it all, driven by need born of twenty-five years watching over his little brother. If Sam didn't make it…

Sometimes his need for Sam was so strong that he didn't know what to do with it. It would ball in his throat and block his breathing; it would pull at his ribs, it would pound inside his skull. Sometimes it got so strong, it felt as though he might be dying. He needed Sam where he could see him and check him over to make sure he was okay, or where he could help him if he was not alright. He just needed Sam. Because the bottom line was that he loved his brother and would do anything for him. Even now, even after Hell, after demon blood and death, Dean couldn't let his brother go.

"Breathe, Sammy, please." His brother's lips were turning blue, his skin dulling. What little hope Dean had kept alive began to sputter and die, drenched by acrid failure. "God. Please, don't take him away from me," he prayed wildly.

The body jerked roughly under his hands, dislodging his hold as Sam bucked against him and drew a breath. Immediately he started coughing hard enough to pull his back, but no blood flew from his mouth.

Relief screamed inside of Dean as he gathered his brother to him, tipping him forward. "Breath through it, Sam. Breath with me," he murmured into his brother's hair, only partly aware of what he was saying.

"I'll be damned," Bobby whispered.

Dean tightened his grip on Sam, one hand against his back as he continued to suck down air. After a few moments, Sam sagged against Dean's chest, his body trembling slightly. Dean's hand went to the back of his head, tangling in his hair as he held him close.

"You boys got some hell of an angel watchin' out for you," Bobby murmured, his voice low and rough with emotion.

As Sam's hacks began to quiet, he shook his head. "Not…mine. His…angel."

Reveling in the pound of Sam's heart against his body, Dean was inclined to agree. He scooted farther onto the bed, one hand still at Sam's back trying to soothe his brother's intermittent coughs. He felt Sam's body working, living, and he wasn't sure he'd ever find something better than that. A cold finger dug through his relief and traced the outline of his heart; that was the second time he'd had to watch Sam die. But he had him back, Dean told himself firmly, Sam wasn't gone this time; he hadn't failed.

Reaching for a glass of leftover water on the nightstand, Dean brought it to Sam's lips and slowly tipped it as his brother drank thirstily. When he'd had half the cup, Dean took it away and replaced it on the nightstand, ignoring the glare Sam tried to shoot him.

"Dean. You…okay?"

Looking down at his brother, Dean swallowed and nodded quickly. "Yeah, Sammy. I'm good."

"Look…like crap." A smile tugged at Sam's bloodless mouth.

"You're both idjits," Bobby grumbled from the end of the bed, his hands still clutching the spell, "For being dead set against living how your daddy lived, you both have his damned luck."

"Family trait," Dean said with a shaky grin.

Sam groaned. Two sets of eyes shot to him immediately, both looking for any sign of damage. Sam shook his head, one hand flailing dismissively. "Not the curse - heather's… a bitch."

The two older hunters visibly relaxed. Bobby nodded. "Should be outta your system in a while. Until then, you'll feel like sh—"

"Sam, you feel anything? You know, like it's still there at all?" Dean asked somewhat awkwardly. He still wasn't sure what he thought about the idea that Sam could feel a hex bag or whatever kind of magic crap. Useful, but very weird. But it was Sam's kind of weird, he supposed.

Taking a second to self-assess, Sam finally shook his head. "Nah. Gone." His eyes shot to Dean, worry clear inside of them. "You?"

"I'm fine, Sam."

Sam snorted. "Wrists," he said pointedly, fumbling to find one of Dean's hands.

Moving them so Sam couldn't reach, Dean nudged him to stop. "Dude, I'm good. You're the one who choked up his kidney a minute ago."

"You were…drugged. Beat…you. Stabbed you," Sam croaked, panic and anger edging his words.

Uncomfortable with both his brother and Bobby's sharp eyes watching him, Dean shrugged, aware of the pain in his shoulder. "Nothing I couldn't handle. That trip down the stairs you took was impressive, though."

Rolling his eyes to the ceiling, Sam mumbled something impolite and worked to lie down. Dean lowered him back onto the mattress and grabbed at the covers, drawing them up around Sam's chin. "I c'n do it," Sam grumbled, closing his eyes.

"Yeah, I know. But you don't have to." Not while I'm here to watch your back. Dean fought the urge to avert his eyes, but he couldn't seem to look away just then.

Sam's eyes opened to slits, and Dean could see the gratefulness in them – I know – then, just as suddenly, sadness. Dean watched, confused, as Sam rolled over a bit and immediately fell asleep, one hand curling into the fabric of Dean's shirt. Not sure what he'd just seen, Dean shook it off and looked at the mess in the room. Candles were still burning, herbs were scattered, and there was too much blood for Dean's liking. Too much of Sam's blood.

"You stay with your brother, I'll take care of this," Bobby said firmly, "He'll wake up in a tizzy if you move. Just sit there and try not to do anything stupid for the next few hours."

Grateful, Dean moved back against the wall and rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Thanks, Bobby."

Bobby brushed off his gratitude and tossed Dean a blanket before hurriedly cleaning up the mess in the room. The last thing Dean saw before darkness swept over him was Bobby blowing out a candle and then swearing as hot wax splashed over his fingers.

x.x.x.x.x

Consciousness slammed into Dean with all the force of a jealous boyfriend – something he'd been hit by before – ripping sleep out from under him. He lurched to a sitting position, confused beyond belief. His vision swam as he glanced around the motel room, scrambling frantically to remember what had happened. Alarm rang through him and he whipped his head around to search for Sam. The other bed was empty. Just as panic began to settle in, Dean felt the rise and fall of a breathing body next to him.

Glancing down, the sight of his sleeping brother delivered a soft shock that rocked him into full wakefulness. Sam's skin had regained some color, and his breathing no longer seemed inhibited. The regular rhythm of blood pumping through his body could be felt through Sam's side that was pressed against Dean's hip.

Blinking, Dean was baffled as to how he'd gotten into a bed at all, let alone next to Sam. As unmanly and almost chick flick as that might be, he couldn't bring himself to be irate just then. Maybe later, not so soon after Sam's sudden death. A soft pressure against his shoulder had him reaching for its source – a bandage met his probing fingers; someone had dressed his wound.

"It's 'bout time one of you idjits woke up. I ain't got the time to sit and watch you both snore through all hours of the day and night." Bobby's voice had its regular gravel, but the tone behind the words was weary and relieved.

Dean scrubbed a hand over his face and through his hair. "Yeah, sorry about that. I guess near death can take it out of a guy."

Bobby snorted. "There was nothin' 'near' about it," he said gruffly, "I got no clue what happened or how you brought him back, but divine intervention has crossed my mind once or twice since you both went under."

"It wasn't an angel, believe me, Bobby. They turned me down flat when I asked."

"Supposing their boss had something to do with it? Ever thought about that?"

Dean shook his head, determined not to go there. God, no God, whatever. All he cared was that he still had Sam – anything else could be left alone for a while. He managed a small smile. "You watched us sleep the whole night? I'm flattered Bobby, but you know we don't swing that way."

Flatly ignoring Dean's joke, Bobby stared contemplatively at now snoring Sam, who appeared to be more an oversized six-year-old than bad ass hunter with demonic powers. Dean huffed – some evil demon leader.

"I don't wanna go post hoc ergo propter hoc on nobody's ass, but this seems damn near divine intervention to me."

As much as he didn't want to think about it, Dean knew what Bobby meant; he'd pleaded with God not to take his brother, and then Sam had come back to him. However, denial and rationality were still on his side.

"Whatever you say, Bobby." Dean groaned as he swung his legs out of the bed, his back cracking several times when he stretched it.

"What happened?"

Dean halted his stretching and looked up, confused. He followed Bobby's eyes to his shins and saw the bloodied cuts in the fabric of his jeans. "Uh, yeah. Had to get loose quick," he said, running a hand over the back of his neck, "It's fine." His tone left no room for argument; he didn't want to deal with anything just then.

Bobby took the hint. "You hungry, kid?"

Dean suddenly became aware of the food spread that was laid out on the small motel table. There were pancakes, sausage, eggs, and… "Oatmeal?" he asked.

"Don't give me that look. It clears the arteries," Bobby replied defensively.

"Right, the old person food of choice," Dean joked.

"You hungry or not?"

Nodding tiredly, Dean slipped out of bed and, with a lingering glance at Sam, joined Bobby at the table. He grabbed a paper plate and loaded it with everything but the oatmeal – he figured Sam could eat that when he woke up. The thought of his brother had him turning to check on him again, just in case. But Sam slept peacefully, sprawled over the mattress like he used to when he was a kid. Well, he was still a kid to Dean, but to the world… Geez, he'd grown up fast.

"Hey, Bobby."

"Yeah?" he asked around a bite of maple oatmeal.

Dean swallowed hard, trying to shake the image of Sam lying on the bed, his body still in death. "He's…he's okay now, right? I mean, this is over."

Bobby studied Sam closely for a moment, and then nodded. "It's over. Don't know about the ritual, but… The curse should be completely gone, if that's what you're askin'."

"Thanks…for everything. If you hadn't… Sam and I, we…"

"Don't strain somethin'. Besides," he said, waving his hand dismissively, "Family don't have to go through that crap. We both know where you'd both be without me." Bobby gave a half grin as he dug back into his warm breakfast cereal.

Unable to argue that point, Dean took a bite of his own food. He chewed slowly, eyes busy going from Bobby to Sam to his food and back again. It was true – they were a family. Maybe even more of one than Sam, Dean, and John had been, in some ways. As much as it pained him to think it, they all trusted each other more.

But their dad had done the best he could, and Dean would never take that for granted. Cold bastard or not, John was their father and they both loved him. But Bobby was there for them through everything since then, and that meant a helluva lot. Briefly, Dean wondered if Bobby was an honorary Winchester or if it would be safer for everyone if he and Sam were honorary Singers.

"Well, I should be gettin' back. Gotta get a translation for a friend of mine before his next hunt – the guy doesn't know Latin from Portuguese," Bobby said, drawing Dean out of his odd thoughts. Bobby glanced at Sam. "You call me when he's up. Shouldn't be any more problems, but I'll be back if I'm needed."

"I will. We'll see you soon, Bobby." Dean stood and allowed Bobby to pull him into a hug. After a couple slaps on the back, they let go.

Rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, Dean asked a question that had been bothering him since the ritual. "Bobby? When Sam…uh, when his heart stopped, was that because of the curse or…?"

Pausing for a moment, Bobby shook his head. "Hell if I know. Coulda been either, might have been neither one of 'em."

"So, he might be off the hook with the whole years as payment thing."

"Could be. Don't really know how the thing works for sure."

"But they didn't know about any real sort of resuscitation when it was created, so he could be fine," Dean pressed.

"It's possible," Bobby answered without much conviction. He huffed. "With you boys, not sure I'd say anything was completely impossible."

Dean grinned at him. "Damn straight."

Bobby snorted, gave him a nod and was out the door.

Two minutes later, the guttural growl of Bobby's old pickup truck faded quickly into the distance, and suddenly Dean found he wasn't hungry in the slightest. Pressing his fingers to his brow, Dean tried not to think about how much of their lives consisted of close calls. This one had been nasty.

Finally, unable to sit all the way across the room, Dean moved back to sit next to Sam, surreptitiously checking to make sure he was breathing okay. As the minutes dragged by, he found himself wondering why Sam had been so adamant not to be helped; it was irritating, but there had to be something behind it. He knew Sam had had a rough time while Dean had been gone, but this? It just didn't make sense.

He could understand Sam being more independent and having changed some, but he had the feeling something was underlying all the rest. He just didn't know what it was, and that was killing him. There had been a time when he'd known everything passing through his brother's head. At least, he thought there had been a time. Now he wasn't so sure.

If Dean was honest with himself, he knew exactly what Sam had been doing while Dean had been dead. He had been doing his own thing, the same thing he had been doing when he had gone to Stanford, lied to him about Azazel's blood and Lilith wanting him dead, and it was the same thing he was doing now, Dean suspected. He just hoped "Sam's own thing" wasn't something to do with a certain skanky demon.

Though he had no foundation for it, Dean couldn't shake the feeling that Sam was doing something he shouldn't be – call it brotherly intuition or some such crap. And if Sam hadn't quit whatever he was doing with his powers… With a sudden pressure in his chest, Dean realized with icy dread that there might be something from which he couldn't save his brother: Sam himself.

Over the past day, Sam hadn't been concerned for his own life. From ordering Dean to leave him and refusing most of his help, to his quick willingness to try a ritual that might kill him, Sam had let Dean know that his own life wasn't much of a priority.

Can you say any different about yourself? a voice asked him. With a small tickle of fear at the back of his mind, Dean had to admit that yes, Sam had been right – Dean was afraid to die, to go back to Hell. So, what, now Sam was the one with a death wish? No, Dean wasn't sure he believed that, but something was sure going on.

Dean's eyes swept over the sleeping figure. In his sleep, Sam looked once again like the little Sammy he'd raised from six months to twenty-five years old. An old protectiveness and swell of pride inflated in Dean's chest. His Sam.

"What's going on in that freakish head of yours?" he asked softly, running a hand over his brother's forehead to clear away his bangs. "Whatever it is, Sammy, we're in this thing together."

Sam gave no answer.

x.x.x.x.x

The next morning, Sam was up and around with relatively minimal amounts of soreness. Most of it was in his chest from the bruises Dean had given him with his compressions. He's ribbed Dean good-naturedly about it and acted like his old self. It at once settled and unnerved Dean, who knew how well his brother could hide anything of importance. Sam had even wolfed down the oatmeal Bobby had left them, a sight that had disgusted Dean – why eat soggy grains when eggs and pancakes were available?

Dean couldn't even bring himself to be irritated when Sam insisted on cleaning Dean's wrists and shins, something Dean had neglected. He had shrugged it off; they would heal after a while, and he didn't want to think about it. Sam, however, had refused to leave it alone, practically dragging him to the bathroom with the first aid kit. Dean had thrown out some joke about Sam recovering suspiciously quick, and things had begun to settle back into normal. Half an hour later and they were packing up, ready to hit the road and follow it until something else sucked them into danger.

Grabbing the last of his meager wardrobe, Dean stuffed it into his duffel and gave the room a quick once over, just to be sure they weren't leaving anything of importance. However, he didn't want to stick around long enough to be questioned about the copious blood stains all over the room. He didn't want to see them himself, either.

"Dean."

He lifted his head toward Sam. "Yeah?"

Sam shifted slightly – it was the first uncomfortable, unnecessary move Dean had seen his brother make in a long time; it let Dean know that Sam was human, still his brother, and he clung to the sight like a drowning man to a raft.

"I just wanted to say…thanks."

"For getting your giant head off the chopping block? Routine, Sammy," Dean said, tossing his brother a grin.

Sam gave a wan smile. "Yeah, that too. But… you stayed, Dean. It was stupid, but… just, thanks for not…"

"Ditching your ass?" Dean supplied, raising his eyebrows.

"Yeah."

The kid was thanking him for sticking around, for not abandoning him. Dean felt himself crack a little more under the weight of the thanks. Where the hell else was he going to go? The thought of leaving Sam had never crossed his mind as an option. Choosing to be somewhere Sam was not… It was like asking him to rip out his lungs and keep breathing.

"You ready to go?" he asked, sidestepping the thanks.

"Yeah. I just wanted to run across the street to get a drink. You want something?" Sam asked, heading for the door.

Dean's heart jerked once in reaction to having his brother out of his sight even for a minute, but he shook it off; it was just across the street. "Coke, I guess."

"Okay. Back in a minute."

"Hey."

Sam paused, one hand on the doorknob. He lifted an eyebrow in question.

He cleared his throat. "You okay?"

Shoulders straightening slightly, Sam tried to smile. "Yeah, I'm good. I'll be back." And he was gone.

The door clicked shut with ominous finality.

Dean shook his head, thinking maybe he should have asked Sam to pick him up something a little stronger than pop. Maybe a beer or something. They could stop on the way out of town. After making sure all his belongings were all situated safely in his bag, Dean turned glanced out the window to see Sam enter the gas station across the street. Shaking his head, but feeling relief, he turned away and headed toward the bathroom.

x.x.x.x.x

"Are you sure?" she asked, her voice sharp, "You know what could happen. If you die before we kill the bitch—"

"I won't. I'm not going anywhere until she's dead."

Ruby nodded slowly, clearly not totally convinced. "Okay. Just…watch it, okay? We don't have another shot at this."

Clutching the one coke and one beer tighter in his hand – despite what Dean had said, Sam knew his brother would be craving alcohol – he sighed softly. "Ruby, I don't… You know why the curse chose me."

Dark eyes met his, and in them he found a measure of sympathy. He didn't believe it. Ruby wasn't someone he trusted per say, but he did believe she would help him end Lilith, and right now that was more than enough for him.

"The curse targets the 'unfaithful,' Ruby." Sam ran a hand roughly through his hair, hating where his thoughts were. "I've lied to him, and I've betrayed him. What we're doing…"

"Sam, you could tell him what's going on. Maybe it'll make things easier," Ruby suggested slowly.

"Yeah, sure." He breathed a laugh. "That'd go over well. 'Dean, I know you hate my psychic whatever, but tough. I'm—'" Sam broke off and exhaled slowly. He wanted to tell his brother everything, he wanted them to be able to totally trust each other again. But he was changed, Dean was changed, and they could never be the same. And it wasn't safe for Dean to know.

He heard his dad's voice in the back of his mind, telling him to suck it up and keep going – if he wanted to stop Lilith and save Dean, just do what he damn well knew he had to do. He unconsciously straightened his posture.

"No, he won't understand this." And he won't forgive me for going back to this.

"Then we keep going."

He nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, we do. But we need to pick up the pace. If I'm going to die, it has to be after all this is over."

Ruby raised an eyebrow, surprised. "You want to do more?" When Sam said nothing, she merely nodded. "Fine. I'll meet up with you soon." Turning, she strolled back to her car, shoulders tense.

Sam ran a hand through his hair again and glanced around the corner of the gas station back toward the motel. Dean was out by his car, wiping away some smudge that was more than likely all in his head. His brother's love for that car was something Sam had never truly understood, but if it made Dean happy, he was all for it. He watched as Dean stood back to admire his baby, looking proud. They had all made it through so much, some of them to Hell and back.

Putting his back to Dean, Sam made sure Ruby was completely out of sight before he started back across the street to the motel. He would stop Lilith and whatever she planned on unleashing, and he would keep Dean safe from all of it. His brother wasn't going back to Hell, not while he was around. And if it was the last thing he did, he would make sure Dean was safe from Lilith and her army of demons. That was something he would die for.

As he walked, Sam's mind reverted to his plans for Lilith's death, to what he was doing with Ruby. He was consorting with a demon against a demon and using demon-given powers to do it all. His life was screwed to hell, but that didn't mean it wasn't what he should be doing. None of it was going to stop if he didn't stop it – there was no one else.

Dean's head jerked up as he caught sight of Sam. He raised a hand in greeting, a gesture which Sam returned.

Determination broke over Sam like a whitecap; this was something he had to do, and it was something Dean couldn't save him from. And this time, Sam couldn't let him try. No one was dying in his place, least of all his brother. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what it would cost; this time, he would be the one to pay the price.

But the thing he hated most about what he was doing? How it hurt Dean. But he needed to do it, all of it; if he didn't use the curse Azazel gave him, if he didn't keep Dean at a distance, everything would go to hell. Even as it threatened to break him in two, Sam hoped the wedge between his brother and him would save Dean.

Sam wanted him to have a life when it was all over, maybe be a mechanic, get married and have kids, something; Dean would make an amazing dad, and he deserved to have that if he wanted it. And he knew that if Dean was going to live past all the crap that was going to happen, he had to be able to let go of his brother when Sam was gone.

He could hear Dean's voice in his head, shouting at him that what he was doing would lead him straight down the path to Hell, and that there would be no miraculous return.

Sam already had an answer for that.

"I know."

End


And that's it. Like it? Dislike it? Neutral? Let me know. Even one word works fine. I mean, "atrocious" or "periphrastic" lets me know exactly what you think. Even if this has been posted for a while, I'd still love to hear what you thought!

I was going to revise this once more, but sometimes I just loathe editing. This was one of those times.

Not so sure I like posting multi-chapter stories... they take too long to edit. But this was fun to write, especially over that long hiatus. Oy. Especially the first chapter - that's my favorite.

A big thank you to everyone who read this story, and an even bigger thank you to everyone who reviewed.

It's been fun!