A/N: Thanks to those who have taken the time to review. Thanks to Tidia who worked on this over the weekend and who kept telling me I would finish it despite my waning faith…and I even made it before my friend's birthday.
Sam thought the box seemed much further away than it had looked from the bunkhouse. Time was skewed, marred as they made their way to where Dean was being held. Light was fading in the camp, night lowering her veil. Sam wasn't lulled by the minimal cover. He felt exposed, a walking target, but the desire to get to his brother overshadowed the prickling sensation along his spine.
Keeping his eyes focused on the colonel's quarters he gripped the weapon at the ready. Henry was crouched in front of him low to the ground, nearly crawling on his knees. It was awkward for Sam to follow suit. For the first time since hitting his most recent growth spurt, he was irritated by his new height that left him feeling as if he were possessing a stranger.
"Keys." Sam tossed the ring to the other teen as they reached the iron box. Henry fumbled nervously with the padlock. Sam continued to cover the guard shack. He tracked movement in his peripheral. Edward waved another two recruits from their quarters towards the fence line.
Things had gone as planned so far. Sam tried not to think of the heat he could feel seeping through his layers of clothing as he pressed flush against the box where his brother had just spent the last five hours. There were no sounds coming from inside. Dean had yet to acknowledge their presence.
"This one-I think."
Henry's thick accent had Sam taking his eyes from his post, glancing to the key the teen was holding in his trembling hand. He gave a quick nod. "Try it," he whispered.
The tumbler's faint click echoed around them. Sam darted his eyes towards the colonel's door, heart thundering against his chest. The rational part of his brain said the noise was far too quiet to be heard at any distance. Sam closed his eyes and sent up a silent thank you when no one appeared.
He waited until Henry removed the lock from its latch before lowering his gun to help the other teen with the door. They eased it open. The stench of vomit and sweat had them reeling.
"Dios mio." Henry started back, landing on his butt in the dirt. He gagged, bringing the back of his hand to his mouth. "El esta muerto."
Sam understood Henry's Spanish well enough. His heart leapt to his throat, stealing his breath. "No. That's not possible." Sam ducked his head, wedging his upper body inside the small space. Dean was not dead. Sam would not allow that to happen.
Dean was slumped on the floor. He was unmoving except for the slight rise and fall of his chest. Sam touched his brother's cheek. Dean's skin was hot and dry, his pulse rapid. Neither was a good sign. Bits and pieces of information on heat exhaustion and heat stroke filtered through Sam's mind. He needed to get them out of there where Dean could cool down. "Dean." Sam tried rousing him. "Wake up. Open your eyes, damn it."
Sam sagged with relief, the annoying nickname not so annoying now. "Yeah."
Dean blinked, his eyes unfocussed. "I'm… hot."
Sam let out a choked laugh, resting his hand on Dean's arm. "So you're always telling me and any girl who will listen."
"We go now." Henry had recovered from his initial shock, relief evident on his face as he hovered next to Sam in the entrance of the iron cage.
Sam nodded, handing him the gun. "Take this." He shifted his hands under Dean's shoulders. "You keep an eye on the colonel's quarters."
The other teen reluctantly took the weapon, sliding back out of the way. Sam pulled his brother free from the box. Despite the care Sam attempted, Dean groaned at the jarring.
"They will hear," Henry said.
The cooler air brought Dean around. He tried to free himself from Sam's grip, his green eyes dulled with confusion. "Sam…watch out."
"It's okay." Sam clenched his jaw, shooting another look towards the colonel's quarters. He had no time to be gentle. "I've got you. We're getting you out of here."
"No." Dean struggled weakly. "Zombie…is here. You need to go…run."
Henry's fearful gaze darted from Dean to Sam then back to the guard shack. Sam could read the unspoken worry in his eyes. Dean was going to get them busted. "Shhh, Dean. We're safe. Just relax. I have this covered."
"No…no. Nick hates me…going to take you. I think he took Caleb."
"I'm not going anywhere. Caleb's fine." Sam put a hand to his brother's mouth, speaking softly next to his ear. "But I need for you to be quiet, understand. Dad said we had to be really quiet. The zombie can't find us if you don't make a sound."
Dean pulled away, shaking his head. "Dad? Where's Dad?"
Sam sighed. "He'll be here soon. I promise."
"Not in time," Dean muttered. He shoved weakly at Sam's hands. "I have to protect you."
"Not this time, big brother." Sam reached out and took the gun from Henry, switching it to his left hand as he used his right to pull Dean's arm over his shoulder. "Help me with him."
Henry took sentry on Dean's left. Sam peered around the box, noting that Edward was no longer at the door to the bunkhouse. He assumed the others had made it to the fence then Edward had followed. If the older cadet stuck to the plan, he was stationed at the back of the building waiting to pull up the rear as Sam and Henry made it to the fence with Dean.
Sam glanced at Henry, nodding. "Now." They stood as one. Dean was dead weight, having lost consciousness again. His head lolled heavily against Sam's chest. "Let's move."
They stumbled across the courtyard, making it past the colonel's quarters. Victory was in sight when the door to the bunkhouse opened with a bang. Mulroney stood framed in the fading light. The straps Brett had used to tie his hands were dangling from one wrist. His ankles were still bound together. He hopped forward, pulling the gag from his mouth as he shouted, "Break! They're making a goddamn break!"
Henry froze, his eyes like a frightened animal's framed in the glare of an oncoming truck. "Sam?"
"It's okay. Just stay calm." Sam tightened his grip on his brother, lifting the gun to point it at Mulroney.
"What the hell is going on?" Sam didn't turn at the sound of the colonel's booming voice, keeping Mulroney in his sights. "Put that weapon down, Boy."
Mulroney hopped onto the covered stoop, his face red and twisted with rage. "There's two guns trained on you, Winchester. You better do as he says."
"I just need one shot before they take me out. I'm fast enough to pull it off." Sam knew the guards on either side of the colonel had drawn their weapons, but he meant what he said. He would at least have the satisfaction of killing Mulroney for what he did to Dean.
"And your south of the border pack mule?" Mulroney sneered. "You willing to see him take a bullet for his trouble?"
Sam felt Henry's eyes on him, the weight he was shouldering became much heavier than moments before. He slowly lowered the weapon, allowing the colonel to pry it from his hand.
"Where are the rest of the cadets?" The colonel prodded Sam with the barrel of the gun. "Where is Smith?"
"The boys have taken off." Mulroney jumped to the ground, wavering unsteadily as he brought a hand to the back of his head. "Smith is out cold. You better call the other men, check the stations."
The colonel took a radio from one of the guards beside him. "Barkley? Majors? Report!" There was silence on the other end.
Sam felt hope flutter as the colonel tried again. "Bible? Anderson? Answer me, goddamnit."
"Something's wrong." Mulroney bent to untie his feet. "They should have responded."
"You're goddamn right something's wrong." The colonel threw the radio to the ground. "You let this little shit break his brother out and the whole troop escape, you idiot."
"There's something else going on." Mulroney tossed the scrap of rope aside, striding towards Sam. "And Baby Winchester is going to tell us what that is."
Gunfire erupted, bullets striking the dirt at Mulroney's feet. The sergeant cursed, but froze in his tracks as another shot pinged off the iron box.
Dean jerked in Sam's arms, rousing enough to lift his head at the commotion. Sam tightened his hold, wishing he could get them to some kind of cover. "It's okay, Dean."
Henry ducked to the ground, arms covering his head as the colonel and the other guards searched for the source of the sniper.
"All of you stay where you are!" It was Edward Jonas. Sam grimaced. That wasn't part of the plan. "Or the next one draws blood."
"You've got to be kidding me." Mulroney laughed. He looked at the colonel. "It's Jonas, Sir."
The colonel's chest puffed as he turned towards the bunkhouse, clenched fist pumping the air. "You ain't got it in you to kill anybody, Son. Why the hell do you think we've kept your sorry ass for the last two years? Now get out here before I ship that no good scrawny brother of yours to the farthest regions of the Sudan."
They waited for several long moments. Mulroney growled. "This is bullshit." He started for Sam again, but never made it. There was no eruption of gunfire this time but Mulroney hit the ground with a pained cry. The sergeant rolled in the dirt, clutching his right thigh where a dark swatch blossomed against the uniform.
"Shit!" One of the guards yelped, his hands going to the front of his shirt where a red dot danced over his heart.
The other guard glanced down where an identical blip marked him as the next possible target. "First a silencer and now fucking laser sights. We didn't sign on for this shit."
The colonel stepped closer to Sam pointing the gun he'd taken from him directly at Dean. "This is your doing. I should have put you down as soon as I suspected what you were."
"Drop your weapons and back far away from them."
Sam looked up at the sound of the new voice. It wasn't Edward. "Dad."
John watched the scene play out through his scope. The guard Caleb had taken out was writhing on the ground. The fact he had no weapon saved his life. The other two guards were armed, an imminent threat. They would be dealt with; ignoring Mac's strong suggestion they not kill anyone. He ordered them to put their weapons down, gesturing for Caleb to hold his position as he moved closer to the buildings.
Things had been going as planned. Between the three of them, they had easily and quietly taken out the ill-trained men posted at the front. They were working their way into camp when they heard the gunfire. It wasn't expected since as Mac had so kindly pointed out - they were dealing with humans.
John sent The Scholar to handle the recruits that were streaming out in a single file from the camp. He took comfort in the fact the teens were out of the hot zone as he edged around the building; but was surprised there was still a young man trying to hold the wardens at bay. The kid must have been the one elected to pull up the rear until his men were safe.
John's boys weren't safe. He kept his sight on the farthest guards until the men put down their weapons and stepped away from them. Caleb would cover them both, taking the shot if he needed to. That left the guy with his back to them-the one Caleb pointed out as the commander of the farce unit. He had yet to move with Sam, Dean and another boy directly in front of him.
John made it around the corner just in time to see the man's arm move. It only took one look at Sam's face to know what was happening. The son of a bitch intended to kill his sons. John drew a bead and eliminated the target before advancing into camp.
He trained his weapon on the wounded guard. "Show me your hands." He slipped a pair of cuffs from his side, tossing them to the ground. "Put these on before I put you out of your misery." John waited until the man did as he said before moving to the prone victim. He knelt, taking the gun from the old man's limp fingers, checking the bastard's pulse to be certain. "Sammy? You with me?"
Sam was standing a few feet from him, struggling to hold onto Dean. He was staring at the dead man, but managed a tight nod. The kid next to Sam backed away as John neared.
"Dios Mio. Dios Mio."
"Move to the back of the barracks, Son. There's a man there who will help you," John said. When the kid continued to stare at him unmoving, he lowered his voice and motioned towards the barracks. "Esta bien, estas seguro. Ir ahora."
"It's okay," Sam said. "It's my Dad. You're safe."
John watched the boy go before turning to the last two guards Caleb was covering from his vantage point. He put the gun he'd retrieved in his belt, gestured to them with his rifle. "You two get on the ground, face first and put your hands behind your head." When they didn't move fast enough he shouted. "Now!"
They hit the dirt and in seconds pounding feet heralded Caleb's approach. "John?"
"Secure their hands, collect their weapons and lock them and their bleeding buddy in the bunkhouse." Caleb hesitated briefly, his eyes going to the boys. John met his gaze. "Go, Junior. I got this covered."
John went to his sons. He reached out to wipe a trace of blood and gore from Sam's face. "Hey, Tiger? You in there." He moved to take some of Dean's weight, but Sam pulled back. "Hey. It's okay. You can stand down."
"Dad." Sam licked his lips, swaying slightly.
John steadied him, reaching his other hand out to rest against Dean's bruised cheek. "I know."
Sam sighed, a familiar scowl replacing the look of shock and fear. For once, John didn't mind the attitude.
"It took you long enough."
John brought his arm around Dean, shouldering the brunt of his eldest son's weight, content in the fact both his boys were breathing in arms reach. "Looks like you had matters under control."
"I almost got us killed."
"But you didn't. That's all that matters."
Sam's face went to Dean, his eyes reflecting the guilt that should have been solely John's. "Tell that to Dean."
"Talk to me about Dean, Sam. What happened?" Caleb had recounted some of the details but John wanted to keep Sam occupied.
"He locked him in that," his son pointed to the metal box. "He was hurt before that, too, Dad."
John shifted Dean, freeing Sam from the burden. Dean's head rested on his shoulder. Dean was too hot, his breath rapid. John gave the weapon he'd taken from the dead man to Sam. He remained calm for Sam, though he wanted to lift Dean up and run to the doctor. "Your brother will be fine. Go get Mac."
"Dad?" Sam took a few hesitant steps forward before turning.
John pulled Dean up higher so his chin was resting against his son's matted hair. "Mac's just past the gate." Sam was like a skittish colt. John had no one but himself to blame for this most recent trauma. He felt his stomach drop at the realization. There would be many more times to come that he would be the root of the drama in their lives. For now he could provide a minimal reassurance. "I promise we'll be waiting for you."
"I'll always be waiting for you."
Dean jerked awake, Nick's taunting voice still ringing through his mind. "No! Sammy!"
"Take it easy, Ace."
Dean blinked at the sound of his father's voice, trying to orient himself. He was lying prone on a soft surface, cold air blowing over him.
"Dad?" His mouth felt full of cotton, his voice was rough. He shifted, the IV in his hand pulling as he attempted to push himself up.
His dad rested a hand on his shoulder. "You're safe. Your brother is fine."
"Where…" Dean's battle with gravity wasn't going well. The mattress absorbed any force he managed to exert.
"We're at a motel." His father maneuvered the portable IV as he helped Dean turn over. "Sam and Caleb ran into town for more supplies. Mac is in the room next door getting some sleep. We're going to sit tight for a while until your doctor gives us the okay for you to travel."
Dean closed his eyes for a moment as the room spun; his head seemed to revolve with it. He remembered bits and pieces of their flight from the camp. He had been in the backseat of the Impala with Caleb and Sam. "Everybody okay?"
His dad's touch steadied him. "They're fine. You were the only casualty this go around."
He nodded, categorizing his myriad of aches and pains. Mac must have come with the good drugs because there was only a dull throbbing from his wounded back and shoulder as his father eased him against a stack of pillows. The only real discomfort he was feeling was the cold, an odd sensation after cooking in his own juices.
His father sat on the bed beside him. "How you doing?"
"What's with the wet shroud?" Dean shivered, looking down at the damp bed sheet covering him. He lifted his head to glare at the box fan on the night stand blowing in his direction. "And the air conditioning?"
"One of Doc Ames's backwoods medical innovations." His dad brought his hand to Dean's forehead, a thoughtful look wrinkling his brow. "We couldn't exactly waltz you into the local ER. Mac spent the entire night bringing your body temperature down."
"You sure he's not trying the hypothermia thing again? Did I hit my head?"
"No head trauma." His father frowned. "I think the burn and beating you took are bad enough. Don't you?"
"I personally could have gone without roasting in the oven." Dean's mind recalled his hallucination of Nick.
His father chuckled, but it did not reach his eyes. "You must have really pissed somebody off, kiddo."
Dean snorted. "Try everybody."
This time his father laughed more heartily. "That sounds about right."
Dean looked at his dad. "You pissed at me?" He thought of all the ways his brother could have been hurt.
"Why would I be?"
"The gig didn't go down exactly like we thought it would." Dean gripped an edge of the wet sheet. "I couldn't make contact. Sam could have been killed. If I'd figured out what they were before we made it to that camp…"
"Dude, you did everything right." His father leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees. "You rolled with the punches despite our faulty intel. You kept your brother safe until we could get you out of there. As far as I'm concerned it was a successful mission."
Dean licked his lips, not quite sure what to make of the quasi praise. He must have been closer to death than he thought. "What happened at the camp?" Except for the few lucid moments in the car, Dean was drawing a blank. "I don't remember much after Sammy and Hank got me out of that shithole."
"We shut down the operation." His father's lips formed a grim line. "Mac made a call to some of his FBI cronies. Your recruit buddies will be taken care of, including your friend with the immigration issue."
"The colonel…" Dean thought of the pompous windbag with his riding crop and wished he could have whipped the colonel himself.
"Has retired to the desert."
Dean sat up straighter. "Dad?"
"I did what I had to do. Sometimes people are worse than the supernatural, and they give you no choice."
Dean knew his father did what was needed to protect and defend his family. "I understand."
"Do you?" His dad held his gaze. "Because Caleb said you're still having a hard time dealing with that whole zombie job from last month."
The image of Nick turning to look at him just as Dean pulled the trigger was so clear. The fear in the young man's eyes, then the emptiness that took its place... "Damien doesn't know what he's talking about."
"Junior and I may not agree on everything, Ace, but I have to give credit where it's due. He knows you."
Dean sighed. Caleb was there for him after the whole zombie incident. "It's just…the guy's always with me."
"Nick was sick, and he would have hurt Sammy if you hadn't done what you did. You had to protect your family." His father ruffled his hair, which was sticking flat to his head. "I should have made sure you were clear on that."
The speech was one Dean was familiar with. Shoot first, ask questions later. Most days he had no problem with it. "I know that, but it doesn't make it easier."
"You're right. It doesn't."
"Then what does?" The answer was interrupted by Caleb and Sam's noisy entrance.
"Hey! I told you he'd be awake, Runt." Dean wondered at the timing.
"You did not." Sam shoved past Caleb to make it to Dean's bedside first. "I was the one reassuring him." Sam looked at his brother with a huge grin on his face. "I'm glad you're back with us. Caleb was about to cry. He wouldn't even unload the supplies until we came and checked on you."
"Shut up." Caleb growled. "You're the one who held his hand all night, Samantha."
"You held my hand?" Dean looked at his brother, trying hard to maintain a disgusted face. "Dude."
"Caleb was here too," Sam said. "He read to you like he used to when we were kids."
"Yeah. From the Hunter's Handbook. Section 5.4 –Offensive Strategies 101." Caleb reached out and mussed Dean's hair. "Or as I like to call it, Deuce- when to keep your mouth shut so not to piss off the guy with the upper hand and a bullwhip."
Dean shoved his hand away. "Like you don't need to commit that part to memory, Damien."
Sam chuckled. "It's truly sad how Caleb's extremely low IQ requires he consistently relearn material."
His brother's insult resulted in Caleb putting him in a headlock, dragging him back towards the door. "For that, you're carrying in all the supplies while I supervise, Runt."
John squeezed Dean's wrist, jutting his chin at the door where his brother and best friend had disappeared. "That answer your earlier question, Ace?"
"Yeah." Dean might not always like what the job required, but he knew the alternative was much worse. Whatever was asked of him, whatever pieces of himself he left on the battlefield the love for his family would always give him the will to carry on.