Thanks to everyone who's stuck with this story, especially those who've reviewed, added it to their favorites, or put it on alert. Your support for this little "experiment" has been a huge encouragement.

I hope you'll let me know what you think of this chapter, and the story as a whole, even if you've never reviewed before.

Always With You

VII.

"C'mon, dude, rise and shine! I am so ready to put this state behind us." Dean's voice was obnoxiously cheery for the time of morning and Sam had to fight the urge to throw something at him. But he was glad that his brother was feeling better, and he'd known this was coming, so he just sighed dutifully and rolled out of bed.

In the days since Dean's fever had broken and his memory returned, he'd been rarin' to go. Sam figured he was lucky to have convinced Dean to stay in town long enough to recover from the worst of his injuries. Since Dean wasn't the most cooperative patient at the best of times, Sam thought it best not to push his luck any further.

Minutes later, they were settled in the Impala. Dean had grudgingly let Sam take the wheel because he was still experiencing some blurred vision and vertigo left over from the concussion. Not to mention that he still wanted to pass out every time he moved his arms. At least the infection from the bird's filthy claws had passed.

"So…Piasa Bird, huh?" Dean ventured as they made their way out of town.

"Yeah, guess so."

"Thought the Indians killed them off a long time ago."

Sam shrugged. "Guess they missed one. Or it migrated. We're a little east of where they were first seen."

"Huh. Hey—y'think they're where dragon legends come from?" Dean pondered.

"Yeah, maybe. There are a lot of similarities between the two." It'd be worth checking into, Sam decided, intrigued by the idea. Maybe the birds had been more widespread than they'd always believed.

"Flying—why's it always gotta be flying?" Dean groaned, shuddering at the memory of those too-long moments when he'd been airborne. He silently vowed not to hunt anything with wings ever again. His feet were staying firmly on the ground from now on.

"Nobody told you to charge a 20-foot man-eating bird. What'd ya think it was gonna do?" Sam countered mildly, trying not to smile at his normally fearless brother's phobia. To be fair, Dean's recent flying experiences had been fairly craptastic. Though it'd been long enough now that they could begin to joke about it, Sam still had nightmares about his brother being carried off in those terrible talons, far beyond where Sam could reach. "Seriously, man. It's a miracle you didn't break something—or worse—falling the way you did."

The memory of that fleeting half-breathed prayer he'd uttered before shooting the bird surfaced, but the thought made him uncomfortable so Dean shoved it back down and covered it with his usual snark. "Yeah, well, next time I see some bird tryin' to make a man-wich out of you, you're on your own. I'm not jumpin' in front of you," Dean warned grumpily.

Sam snorted. "Yeah you are." He did smile then, a grin of amused affection. Few things in his life could be counted on, but his big brother's protectiveness definitely topped the list. Even when Sam would've wished otherwise, he knew that would never change.

"Yeah," Dean sighed gloomily, "I guess I am. Freakin' Big Bird."

Sam just shook his head, still smiling, as he turned his attention back to the road. Dean ever underestimated his importance to Sam, but this experience had shaken the younger man far more than he'd let on. Dean not knowing him had felt disturbingly like being lost in a large dark wood, not knowing the way home and not sure anyone would come looking.

In more ways than one, his big brother anchored him, and Sam didn't want to think about how he would've coped if Dean's memory had been gone for good. He'd missed Dean in the few days he'd been out of it, missed him like you'd miss an arm suddenly severed, though he hadn't been further than a few feet from his brother the entire time. But Dean was awake now, and back to his normal obnoxious, overprotective, snarky self—thank God—and Sam felt the relief of being known again warm him from the inside out.

Dean was home now…they both were.

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Special thanks to Miyo86 for the picture of the "real" Piasa birds and to her ancestor for writing the story down.

Now that this story is finished, I'll begin regular updates again to "The Soul Collector." It's an action/adventure hurt/comfort fic where Dean gets taken in the aftermath of a hunt gone wrong. I really hope you'll all check it out.