Not Always the Enemy
K Hanna Korossy
Everything had gone wrong on this one, Sam thought darkly.
There was the weather for one. Minnesota. January. Enough said. Dean had taken one look at Sam's meager SoCal wardrobe, and detoured to buy him a parka and gloves before they even started the hunt.
Then there was the fact that they didn't know exactly what they were hunting. "Glowy lights" that killed people could be everything from a poorly described apparition, to the visible manifestation of a spell, to some unusually aggressive will o' wisps. Dean had voted for will o' wisps and Sam hadn't disagreed, but there was a problem with that, too. For one thing, will o' wisps had no known way of being defeated. And two, they were usually passive killers, luring people into swamps and off cliffs to die, not tearing them limb-from-limb. Which was an unusually accurate description; Sam had seen the autopsy photos.
Last but not least, there was the small issue of not being able to find Dean.
Sam had been the one to suggest they split up, having an awful lot of cold, barren Minnesota land to cover. Dean had reluctantly agreed that was probably the best bet, and they'd discussed keeping in touch via phone. Sam had left his brother's speed dial up on the screen so he could summon Dean with one button if necessary, for all the good it had done. It'd only been after two hours of fruitless searching that he'd realized the silence from Dean wasn't because of equal lack of success. His brother hadn't answered his phone then or since, and Sam had switched from hunting will o' wisps to hunting Dean.
The snow wasn't even helpful in tracking, and if that wasn't unfair, Sam didn't know what was. It was hard-packed and slick as ice at some parts and bore no signs of passing, nothing to show where Dean had gone. Without even an M&M for a guide, Sam had finally started a grid search, suddenly feeling every square inch of that desolate Minnesota acreage.
That had been half the night ago.
He was almost at the end of another row, bordered by fence and dense woods, hoping Dean had at least kept that part of their agreement and not crossed any of those boundaries. But there was still no sign of his brother, nothing but silence and I'm sorry, the phone you are trying to reach is out of service and Sam's over-active imagination. The sun would be coming up soon, and instead of helping, it could easily mask any lights that might have lured Dean, too. Sam was trying not to panic, he really was. The burning, scared feeling in his gut was the reason he'd left hunting in the first place.
"For God's sake, Dean," he murmured, "where are you?" He'd talked to his brother about almost everything for all his life, and Sam wasn't stopping now.
Reaching the row's end, he called Dean again—no answer, of course—pulled out the spray paint can they used for just such occasions and marked where he was, then took out his phone again. Dean had always called him a dreamer. Sam just considered it not losing hope: for an education, for a home and kids, for a normal life. For not becoming an only child.
"I'm sorry, the phone—"
Sam disconnected and tried to blink back aggressive tears as he stared at the miles he still had left to cover and felt Dean slip further away with each one.
Something moved in the edge of Sam's vision.
"Dean!" He whipped his head around to…the sight of nothing. Empty, ghostly white land stretched across his field of vision, broken by the occasional tree and, in the distance, a lot of trees. It should've been easy to see anyone or anything within miles, except the ground was uneven enough that Dean could be behind any of a thousand dips and ditches. Sam had nearly fallen in one, himself, not seeing it until he was right on top of it. Or Dean could be behind a tree. Or just…gone.
People did disappear, even if others kept looking for them. Sam dropped the phone into his pocket, pulled his gloves on, and started a new row.
There were more trees in this one, solid but brittle-looking leafless silhouettes that made the landscape even lonelier. Sam circled each one as he came to it, sliding his flashlight's beam over virgin snow and gnarled roots and untouched bark. Nothing, no sign Dean had ever been that way. He sighed softly to himself, beating down panic again under mere deep worry, and kept going. More trees waited up ahead.
And underneath one…a dark lump?
"Dean?" Sam called, and started running, boots crunching against the hard-packed snow.
A dozen steps already had him fairly certain it wasn't Dean, but anything out of the ordinary was good, could be a clue.
Then he reached the body and decided "good" wasn't exactly the right word.
It was a berserker, crumpled dead in the snow. Blood gleamed on the ground and its matted fur, and as Sam wrinkled his nose and got a hand under the thing to turn it over, he could see the source. The creature's left eye was ruined, blood frozen around the torn eye socket. Knife wound, Sam clinically diagnosed, just like the gashes that rent the beast's torso.
Okay, so…his brother had found what they were looking for and killed it. That was good. And the fact his body wasn't lying there next to the mutant bear was also a good thing. Nor did any of the blood around the berserker seem to have a different source, and its claws weren't stained.
But then where was Dean?
Sam examined the area around the creature a little more closely. Saw the signs of a struggle, and put together the battle in his head. A knife meant close-contact fighting, which was necessary because Dean had a silver knife but no silver bullets, not for hunting will o' wisps. But it also meant all kinds of injuries were possible. But no blood…
On the snow, anyway. Sam paused by the tree, frowning at the trunk, and leaned a little closer to see.
Blood, black against the dark brown bark, was smeared at about his brother's height.
Sam grimaced, dropping his eyes from the damning evidence. They caught a glint of something below, and he leaned down to free the object wedged between the twisted roots.
Dean's cell phone, its screen cracked.
Sam squeezed it tightly, the link, and the lost link, to his brother, and tried very hard not to picture Dean sprawled in the snow, bloody and cold and just out of Sam's reach. Tried very hard not to feel utterly alone in this empty country. He squeezed moisture from his eyes and sniffed, then tilted his head back.
Silence. Oh, God, where was he? Sam felt the hopelessness press down on him like artificial gravity.
Something bright and light danced in the corner of his eye again. Sam whirled.
He growled, wishing he had Dean's EMF meter because something was still there, playing with him. And Sam wasn't in the mood.
Light streaked by on his left, and Sam jerked around, did a 360. Bellowed a very Dean-like, "What do you want with me!"
And then saw it. Or rather, them.
The lights looked like oversize fireflies, tinged yellow and perfectly round. They stayed in a cluster but fluttered as if a breeze were blowing them, perhaps a dozen little pearls of light. They didn't approach or withdraw, just floated in place, playful and ephemeral, not two hundred feet away.
Sam stared at them with slack-jawed amazement for a moment. "Okay, so maybe they're real," he murmured. He'd had his doubts for a while, after seeing the pictures of the corpses. But no, these sure looked like will o' wisps. Maybe these wisps had worked in tandem with the berserker, luring people to the creature to be slaughtered? Sam had seen stranger partnerships. If the berserker was dead, that only left the wisps. Which they still had no way of destroying. Sam hefted his shotgun thoughtfully, then made his decision and stalked after the lights. Fine. If they wanted him, they could have him. At least it was a direction to go in.
The lights waited until Sam had closed half the distance between them, then started to move. Still flowing in and out like an amorphous cloud, they managed to stay together even as they matched his pace, moving away from him. Clearly drawing him along. Sam gritted his teeth, wondering if this was what had happened to Dean and why his brother hadn't called upon sighting the things. Then again, knowing Dean, he wasn't about to call for help in dealing with a dozen fireflies. He'd probably just insulted them and followed.
Sam stopped occasionally to check his direction and mark the snow, the lights pausing and waiting for him, then kept going. If they were enticing him to his doom, they were being very patient about it. And…they didn't feel evil. Sam didn't know why, and Dean would have had a good laugh over that scientific conclusion. But they seemed too warm and inviting to be malicious. Of course, so did a la llorona, but…
Well, that was the best he could come up with. And it wasn't like he had any other clues to follow to find Dean.
Dean. Sam groaned softly to himself, grimacing. Dean had to be all right. He'd be mortified at the thought of a stupid berserker bringing him down. In Minnesota, of all places. But injury in this weather… Sam rubbed a hand across his numb nose and kept going, chasing lights.
If this didn't work, Dean would never let him live it down.
"Dean!" He stopped to call occasionally, and the lights didn't seem to mind. The sky was starting to soften to grey in the east, and Sam had to focus a little more to see his guides, but they moved obligingly closer, unperturbed, just as joyful. If they really were good, maybe they'd been trying to warn people off instead of drawing them to their deaths. All the witness reports had said was that the victims had seen the lights, disappeared, then been found dead later. He and Dean had assumed the cause-and-effect. Unless… maybe Dean had tried to hurt them, and they'd turned on him instead?
Sam suddenly stopped. Maybe he was following what had really attacked his brother. Or maybe they were drawing him away from Dean. The two of them hadn't had much chance to look into the local lore, but every culture had a trickster being. Maybe that's where the lights' malice lay, in play.
The lights paused, waiting on him. When Sam just glared at them, they ventured a little closer, one small globe breaking away to twirl around within a dozen feet from where he stood. The invitation was clear.
He didn't know what to do.
Sam glanced around, the land unchangingly empty and cold around him. If this wasn't the right way, he didn't know what was, and Dean could be anywhere. Dying.
Sam turned back, eyed the adventuresome little light. "All right, fine. But if you're taking me away from him, I swear to God, I will find a way to destroy you."
The light didn't seem the least bit troubled by his threat, merely retreated again to the others, still bouncing contentedly. They all started moving again.
The rising sun climbed higher, painting the snow pink and yellow. Washing out the lights until Sam had to squint to see them. And just when the despair pooling inside him was starting to drown him, he saw the lurching figure up ahead.
His brother's name died in his suddenly tight throat. Sam didn't need to call; he knew.
He dashed forward on cold-numbed legs, oblivious to where the lights were, seeing nothing but Dean's bent outline up ahead, staggering as he walked away from Sam. He wasn't moving very fast, though, not with those halting steps, and Sam reached him easily.
"Dean!" He finally breathed, and reached out to his brother's shoulder to stop and turn him.
Dean's entire body tensed at the contact.
Before Sam had time to utter more than a sharp curse, the best hunter he'd ever known whirled on him. With a feral growl, Dean sank his knife into his brother's arm.
Sam hissed as he stumbled back, hand pressed just below the protruding knife. Okay, that hurt. It was only because Sam was a hunter himself that he'd dodged enough for the blade not to bury itself in his heart, but he wasn't exactly covering himself with glory here. He'd been stupid, sneaking up on Dean when he was obviously not all there. And Sam hoped to God Dean had been with it enough to clean the berserker's blood off his blade before he'd started off.
But there was no helping any of that now. Dean had fallen back, too, and stood bowed, the heel of his hand pressed to his forehead but still in hunting stance. Sam kept his eyes on him as he gritted his teeth, fighting vertigo. It took him a handful of seconds to pry his grip loose to dig out a handkerchief: a million and one uses, first and foremost as tourniquet. Sam clenched his jaw, then yanked the knife out of the muscle it was buried in, choking the moan that the pain elicited.
Dean's head tilted a little at the sound.
Sam dropped his head until a moment of dizziness passed. Then he quickly wrapped the handkerchief around his arm twice, pulled it hard with fingers and teeth, and clumsily tied it off. All right. Fine. He was good. A little nauseated and weak and, God, that hurt, but good.
Sam had learned his lesson. He tucked the knife away and crouched lower, one arm clenched around the other, trying to catch his brother's eye. "Dean?" His voice was coaxing, trembling only once before he steadied it, as non-threatening as he could manage. "Dean, it's me. It's Sam."
Dean's hand fell away from his face. He looked grey even in the pastel hues of the sunrise, shivering and exhausted and confused, eyes unfocused. But his pupils were responding normally and he was trying to see Sam.
"Dean, man, it's okay," Sam soothed. "You're hurt, but I'm here now, everything's under control." He'd been back on the road with Dean for just a few weeks when Sam had realized that his big brother knowing he was there—safe, not leaving him to be alone—was a source of comfort. It didn't seem to occur to Dean that the same might be true the other way around.
Dean blinked, the hazel clearing a little. "Sam?"
He hadn't quite let himself feel the relief, not even at the sight of Dean alive and on his feet. Not until that hesitant, beautiful venture of his name. Sam's mouth stretched. "Yeah, big brother. It's me."
Dean's eyes slid past him to the emptiness beyond. "There was something—think I got it, but…" He winced, scrubbing at his forehead.
Sam almost laughed. "Yeah, you did. Hunt's over, dude—time to go home."
And then he did laugh when Dean's eyes slid to the right, and the bright red handkerchief around his biceps. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing." Sam shook his head, joy making him more lightheaded than the blood loss. "I'm okay. You're the one who got knocked into a tree, remember?"
Dean's face was still pinched, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he growled an epithet. "No."
"It's okay." Sam finally crept forward, still moving slowly as he reached out to touch, first Dean's shoulder, then around to the back of his neck. Dried blood flaked under his fingertips. Sam nodded. "Let's get back to the motel so we can fix you up, huh?"
"Don't talk to me like I'm two," Dean grumbled. But his voice lacked strength and he was swaying where he stood, still hunched a little, braced against pain.
"I bet you were a handful when you were two," Sam said, glancing around. It only now occurred to him to look for the lights, but they were gone, washed away by the dawning sun. The road was just in sight to the south and was closer than the car, but that would mean leaving Dean to go get it, and Sam wasn't willing to do that. In his brother's uncertain mental state, who knew what he'd do in the meantime. There was only one choice that Sam could see. Moving by inches, he pressed up against Dean's side, threading his good arm around and under his brother's. "I'm surprised Mom and Dad even wanted any more kids after you."
"I asked for you," Dean said absently, leaning against Sam without even seeming to realize it, but his head still swiveled, restless. "I don't have my knife. Where's my knife?"
"I've got it," Sam said with zero irony. "It's okay, I've got your back, Dean."
That was the other fact that reassured Dean. And Sam wondered why he'd suggested they split up in the first place.
Dean straightened, and he started to move under his own power at a nudge from Sam. He seemed as unimpaired by his head injury as Sam was nauseated by the knife wound. It throbbed as they walked, the pain growing sharp every time one of them slipped or lurched.
"Where is it?" Dean asked, words slightly blurry.
No, despite appearances, Sam was the only one who was really functional here, and he had to get them to safety. He swallowed bile and kept leading the way. "Where's what?"
"The…" Sam could feel Dean's whole body work to retrieve the threat his mind had let slip. "Why're we here again, Sam?" Dean asked roughly, knowing he was damaged and trying not to be freaked out by it.
"The lights," Sam said gently. "Remember? Which I found, by the way, or they found me. I don't think they're a threat, Dean. I think they were trying to warn people away from the berserker you killed. That was what was tearing those people apart."
A long minute of Dean's sluggish mind trying to process that. "I killed it?"
"Knife in the eye."
"Huh. Should drag its carcass back and get it stuffed."
Sam smiled. "Sure, we could keep it in the trunk."
"Don't be stupid. It wouldn't fit in the trunk. We'd keep it in the back seat."
"Right. That wouldn't draw attention."
"No more than…" Dean seemed to lose that train of thought. A few seconds passed, then he twisted in Sam's grasp. "Dude, where's my knife?"
Sam sighed. "I'll explain everything when we get back to the room, all right?"
"Yeah. We need to get out of here. It's not safe."
"We're okay, man, just hang in there, all right?" Sam blinked tiredly. "The car's only about a mile away."
"It's cold as Hell out here." Dean hadn't stopped shivering since Sam had found him.
"I know. We'll turn the heat on in the car, I promise."
Dean's steps stuttered. "Sammy, your arm's bleeding."
"It's okay, Dean." He hugged his brother a little closer, and Dean, for once, didn't protest, just dropped an arm around Sam's waist like he was the one that needed supporting. And maybe he did. "I'm fine, I swear."
And the kicker of it, he really was.
Still, the Impala coming into sight sent a jolt of powerful relief through him. Dean had grown increasingly quiet and less coordinated as they went, his occasional mutters a disjointed and slurred amalgam of worry for Sam and agitation over an incomplete hunt or his lack of weapons. Sam had taken on the weight willingly, but his sleeve and coat were soaked to the elbow with blood and the landscape had started swaying several hundred yards back and hadn't stopped. They were both cold, Dean's lips and nailbeds blue, and moved like frat boys after an all-nighter. He would've carried Dean across the state if he had to, but Sam was more than happy to fold his brother into the Impala's relative warmth and comfort.
He slid behind the wheel, then just sank back into the seat for a moment.
"I'll drive," Dean suddenly announced from next to him, and started an uncoordinated attempt at sliding over into Sam.
He braced his hand on his brother's shoulder. "Not happening, Dean."
"What state are we in?"
Silence. Dean's glazed eyes stared at him without comprehension.
"Do you know where we're going? How to get there?" Sam continued more softly. At the lack of response, he gave Dean's shoulder a gentle shove. "Just take it easy, okay? I've got it covered."
Dean was sinking back in the seat, equal parts chagrined and perplexed. Sam heard mutters of "car" and "ice" and "kick your ass," and grinned.
"I'll be careful."
But Dean's chin was already sinking to his chest.
Sam reached for the door to shut it, stifling a gasp when he realized that was the wrong arm, and hugged the limb to himself as he reached across to slam the door shut with his right. Still gritting his teeth, he turned the key in the ignition and flipped the heat on, basking in the sound of the powerful motor. Finally, one thing was going right.
A twinkle to his left had him rolling his head along the back of the seat to look. Was it…? But only the scattered early morning sunlight bounced back off the glittering snow.
Okay, so maybe more than one thing.
They had a room already, for which Sam was profoundly grateful considering they both looked like they'd just returned from the Manson family barbeque. Dean, ironically, appeared the most unscathed of the two of them, but considering he hadn't stopped trembling from cold despite the heat of the car nor had done more than twitch in his sleep while they skidded and slid back to their room, Sam wasn't feeling too envious. It took some shaking and an outright plea for Dean to wake long enough to stagger into the room, and even then he sank down on the bed and promptly fell back into a stupor.
Sam was too tired for the usual patter of reassurance they tended to engage in during such times, both so the other would know they weren't alone and because they were bred hunters and tended to snap aware on the offensive at inopportune moments. But Sam kept his bad arm resting across Dean's knees, a reassuring weight, while he manhandled boots, then jacket off one-handed. He stripped off Dean's chilled socks, intending to replace them for warm and dry ones, only to find that wasn't something you could do with one hand, so Sam bundled his brother's feet in the electric blanket instead. Dean's hands he tucked against his sides, then piled all the blankets they had over him. Lastly, he checked the back of Dean's head, running light fingers over the bloody lump there. It had clotted, and ice was the last thing Dean needed. Sam decided to leave it for when he was in better shape to clean the injury.
Dean dozed through most of Sam's work, cracking open one eye sometimes to study Sam as if making sure he wasn't being taken advantage of or something. But he must have been reassured by what he saw because he would drift off again without more than a murmur of sound.
Sam smiled, then sagged onto the side of the bed, feeling suddenly exhausted.
A minute passed before he could coax his weary body upright and into the bathroom. There, Sam pulled out the knife, checking the blade carefully. Clean, only his blood on it. Thank God at least for that bit of Dean's ingrained hunting instinct. Sam dropped it into the sink, then untied the handkerchief before he eased, groaning softly, out of the parka. The shirt was a loss, and he tore the sleeve off with clenched teeth, peeling fabric from the congealed cut. Fresh blood welled in the wound, but not a lot. Sam braced his feet before leaning down to wash the cut out under the faucet, swallowing the sounds of pain that pushed up his throat. He sat on the closed toilet seat to disinfect the wound with alcohol, unable to stop the yelp this time. But he couldn't afford to fudge this one, not if Dean had used the same knife on the berserker, and Sam kept cleaning until black was encroaching on the edges of his vision. Then he dug out a square of sterile gauze and pressed it hard against the puncture, leaning his forehead down to his knees to keep from passing out.
The bleeding had stopped by the time Sam could raise his head without everything going grey. He rolled a fresh strip of gauze over the whole thing to keep the pressure in place. There was a stitching kit in their first aid box, and Sam's hand lingered over needle and thread. But the tremor in his hands was visible, and Sam finally shut the kit. He'd never sewn himself up, not like Dean had, and apparently he wasn't about to start now.
Back out in the room, Dean slept in the same position Sam had left him. He was both relieved his audible distress hadn't woken his brother and concerned by that. Head injuries could be tricky; he had to make sure Dean wasn't slipping too deeply under. But they both needed rest and warmth, and Sam barely gave his own, barren bed a glance before going round to Dean's. He'd shared a bed the majority of his life and it still felt strange sometimes to have all that space to himself. When he'd just gone through the rollercoaster of hoping Dean wasn't dead and finding him bloody and bewildered, proximity mattered more than usual. Just sharing body heat, he'd tell Dean if his brother asked later, although he doubted Dean would. The older Winchester was just as used to those shared beds, and while he didn't climb into his brother's like Sam had all his life, he had his own ways of sticking close, and was tolerant of Sam's.
Which was the long way of convincing himself he had every right to nudge his brother's sprawled body over and climb in behind him. Dean muttered petulantly in his sleep but rolled to make room, and Sam smiled, reassured his brother was still at least that with it, or maybe that the instincts just ran that deep. He curled up behind Dean, breathing out slowly as his body relaxed at soft warmth and being horizontal.
His eyes caught on the dried blood on Dean's hair and neck, and Sam's smile faded. Not that the day had come without a price. They'd been lucky they hadn't gotten worse, splitting up on a hunt where it turned out they weren't even hunting what they thought they were. Things always seemed to go badly when they split up; Dean had been trying to tell him that for over three years now.
Sam sighed, staring up at the ceiling where no one bled or burned. Once it had seemed so clear what he should do with his life. Now…
Dean rolled back, jarring Sam's arm, and he gave an involuntary gasp of pain.
"Sammy?" The murmur was half-asleep but no less concerned.
He rode the wave, swallowed. "I'm okay. Go back to sleep." Sam carefully rolled onto his side, his back pressed against Dean, to move the injury out of harm's way. "Go to sleep, Dean."
It was good advice. He felt Dean's shivers slowly taper off behind him. The heater chugged quietly in the room, and Dean breathed softly in counterpoint. Sam was warm and exhausted, and they were safe.
His eyes slowly sank shut, and stayed that way.
Sam finally climbed out of sleep as the sun was starting to set, and lay still for a while listening to Dean's light snore, doing a mental inventory. Dean safe— Sam reached back and touched a light hand to his brother's neck. Temperature normal, heartbeat steady and strong, breathing regular. Check. Hunt finished successfully—check. Knowing what they'd been hunting—not exactly. The berserker had been obvious, but Sam still wanted to do some more research on those lights even if they'd turned out to be good. And Sam himself…
He tested his arm gingerly, flinching as injured muscle flexed. It felt tight and warm, which could just be trauma or could be incipient infection. He dropped the arm back to the bed, curled it tight against his chest. He should probably check it, but venturing back into that stark bathroom to poke and prod at his own injury, alone, was extremely unappealing.
Sam couldn't help but wonder how often Dean had had to do the same.
With a stifled groan, Sam slowly levered himself upright. They needed food and drinks especially, and his bladder didn't care how sore and tired he felt. Besides, those lights were really bugging him. Sam tried to remember the last time a supernatural had helped them on a job and couldn't.
He rode out the dizziness at being vertical, then pushed himself to his feet. Dean muttered in his sleep and flopped onto his back. Sam smiled at him and went to attempt to make himself presentable.
It was hours later before Dean snorted, then blinked himself awake.
Halfway across the room at the table, Sam looked up. "Dude, next time you give me grief about how long I sleep, I'm totally reminding you about this."
Dean immediately focused on him, body relaxing as he confirmed Sam was there and they were all right. The elder Winchester stretched cautiously, clearly doing a mental inventory of his own. Sam sat up straighter, ignoring the computer as he watched his brother.
"Dean? Remember where we are?"
There was only a second's pause. "Iceland."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Close enough. You seeing double?"
Dean had turned on his side with a groan. "No, just one of you, thank God." His hand went to the back of his head, and he winced. "What happened?"
"Berserker. You killed it, but it looks like it introduced your head to a tree first."
"Terrific," Dean grumbled, a thread of embarrassment in his voice. He never liked being bested by prey, especially mindless prey.
Sam shrugged genially; brotherly competition didn't extend as far as being glad your brother had proved mortal. "You got the thing in the eye, man—I'm sure it's sorry it messed with you."
Dean sat up with care, body slumped with lingering weariness, but his mouth twitched as he peered up at Sam. "Oh yeah." He turned his head, slid a hand under his pillow. "Where's my knife?"
"Bathroom. It's still…got blood on it. I was too tired to clean it when we got back."
"Dude, you shouldn't leave weapons dirty—they'll corrode." Dean climbed to his feet with the same muted exhaustion Sam felt and headed toward the bathroom. "We have anything to eat?"
Sam finally stood, reaching over the table to snag the bag he'd left there unemptied after his return, and started unpacking one-handed. "I went out for some sandwiches and drinks. You're probably a little dehydrated—you should start with that."
"Feel like I could drink a keg," Dean muttered as he detoured from the bathroom and dropped into the chair Sam had vacated, reaching for a soda.
And stopped. Sam took another few seconds to realize Dean was staring at him, brow furrowed. Sam quit setting out the food and gave his brother a defensive look. "What?"
"What's wrong with your arm?"
"Nothing," Sam said quickly, already wincing at the lie. Like Dean wouldn't notice in the days to come that Sam was impaired. It would be at least a week before he would be anything near fully functional, probably a lot longer before the arm was as strong as ever.
"Uh-huh. 'Cause you never use your left arm. I mean, who needs two of them, right?"
"I'm fine," Sam shook his head, "I just hurt it a little." And he proceeded to compound his stupidity by demonstrating his fineness by lifting the left arm toward the bag. He felt himself pale and made a face, only his tight jaw smothering his groan.
Dean was on his feet, his own jaw clenched. "Sit down and let me see."
So much for Dean being the one who needed looking after.
Sam dropped into the one free chair, feeling shame and protectiveness at once. Okay, so maybe he hadn't had a chance of hiding his injury completely from Dean, but he'd hoped at least for a day or two's grace until he could self-treat a little more and Dean was steadier on his feet. Springing this on him now…
But his brother's face was drawn with anger and worry, and there would be no delaying this. Sam sighed and very, very gingerly eased out of the shirt he'd taken forever to shrug into a few hours before. Then he sat in unhappy silence as Dean leaned forward to inspect the white-wrapped arm.
"Geez, Sammy, what did you do to yourself? Looks like you ran into the berserker." Dean's eyes sharpened on his face. "You didn't, did you?"
"No," he answered quickly and wholeheartedly. Great, this just kept getting worse. "You iced it before I got there, Dean." Sam grimaced. "No pun intended."
Dean suddenly went silent and still, and Sam swallowed, because his brother knew.
"Where's the knife?" Dean asked, face and tone suddenly expressionless.
"In the sink," Sam answered in a hushed voice. "Dean—"
But his brother was already on his feet, striding into the bathroom as if he wasn't coming off a head injury. Adrenaline did that to you. Sam heard the clatter of metal on ceramic, then Dean emerged looking more ashen than when he'd gone in. "Berserker blood's black," he whispered, and his eyes were no longer meeting Sam's.
Sam rose to his feet. "It was my fault, Dean, all right? I could see you weren't with it, but I grabbed you anyway. I should've known better. You'd just come off a kill, you'd hit your head, you thought I was attacking you—it makes sense. I don't—"
"Don't. Okay? Just…don't." Dean was suddenly wobbly, crossing the room in unsteady steps to sink down on the edge of his bed. "How bad?"
"Not too bad," Sam said honestly. "Just muscle."
Dean's mouth curved, and the effect was more frightening than reassuring. "Who needs a berserker when you've got a strung-out brother around?" He knuckled his eyes with a fierceness that Sam thought might leave bruises. "Crap, Sam, I could have killed you."
"Hey, don't kid yourself, you're not that good," Sam ribbed, trying to be light but feeling as miserable as Dean looked. And they both knew he was lying. "You didn't mean it, Dean," he tried again more softly. "I'm all right. Okay?"
Dean just shot him a look. They both knew how untrue that was. Dean's jaw clenched, unclenched, and his eyes never lingered on Sam long. "You should've decked me."
"Would it make you feel better?"
"Yeah, well, not me. I'm not sorry, Dean, all right? I'd rather have you fighting out there—even me—than just giving up and getting yourself killed. I knew you weren't helpless—I was the one who made the mistake here, not you."
Dean shook his head, shoulders hunched hopelessly. He'd just violated his prime directive, the one inviolate rule of his life: protecting his little brother. And Sam knew what ashes tasted like.
He rose and collected the first aid kit from the bathroom where he'd left it that morning, then crossed the room to sit next to Dean. His brother was so frozen and brittle, he might have broken at the wrong touch. Sam wasn't about to let that happen, not after everything they'd gone through the last twenty-four hours, the last twenty-two years. He held out the first aid kit like the peace offering it was. "I don't think I did a very good job on my own."
Dean stared at the kit. Stared up at him. His eyes were red and stark.
"Dean," Sam said gently, because he couldn't be any other way in face of love like this, "if that's the space you needed to be in to stay alive, then I'm glad, man. This," he waved at his arm, "is fixable. Losing you wouldn't have been. All right?" He nudged Dean's shoulder. "Now, you gonna help me, or are you gonna sit there wallowing like a girl?"
Dean's face twitched. A little life filtered back into his eyes. "You're a girl," he finally said roughly.
Sam broke out into a smile. "Ouch! Okay, do you have some setting between apologetic and lamely insulting? Because, dude, this is kinda bi-polar."
"Yeah, whatever." Dean plucked the first aid kit from his hand and nodded at the bed. "Lie down."
Sam glanced at the bathroom. "I don't know, Dean, maybe we should—"
He lay down. Concentrated on Dean's impassive face as his brother unwrapped the old bandage, saw the mask slip a little as Dean saw the actual wound. Grief and pain chased their way through the hazel eyes, followed by determination. Only when Sam saw that last did he let his own eyes sink shut, his good arm curling over his brother's leg for something to hang on to as Dean worked.
His brother's hands were steady as he slid a towel under Sam's shoulder and arm and started cleaning the wound. "Too old to stitch," Dean murmured.
Sam nodded, head swimming with fresh pain. He cast around for something, anything, to take his mind off the sensation of having the newest hole in his body flushed and prodded. "I think I figured out what the lights were."
"Hmm?" Dean said, distracted.
Dean's hands paused. "Aren't they supposed to show lost travelers the way home or something? And I thought they were a myth."
"Well, it's not like we'd hunt something like that." Or like half the things they hunted weren't also supposed to be myths. Sam was impressed Dean knew even that much about the lights, but his brother knew more about the supernatural than Sam ever would about the law. "I think the point is that they help people. And with the berserker on the loose…"
"They were trying to warn the victims."
"Right." He felt vaguely faint and sweaty, his voice growing a little distant. Dean paused. The next thing Sam knew, his bangs were pushed back and a cold compress was draped across his forehead. The chilly wetness cleared Sam's head. "Thanks," he whispered.
"Almost done." Dean's voice was laden with apology and comfort.
Sam cleared his throat, trying to ignore the tug of torn skin. "The lights led me to you."
Dean was silent as he spread the antibiotic cream Sam had forgotten into the gash, then rebandaged it gently. He finally patted Sam's chest. "It looks okay, you just need to take it easy with that arm for a few days."
Sam slid the compress off and opened his eyes to look at his brother. "You do, too. That tree really clobbered you."
Dean reached up to finger the knot on the back of his own head, wincing. "I'm all right."
"Yeah?" Sam asked quietly, seriously.
A pause. "I swear, I don't know how Dad was immune to those Saint Bernard eyes of yours, dude."
Sam's eyebrows climbed. "Saint Bernard?"
"Yeah, well," Dean motioned abstractly. "Look at the hair."
Sam shook his head. "Whatever, man. Okay, my turn." He sat up slowly, waiting until the room settled and Dean let go of his arm, then turned his reluctant brother so Sam could see the back of his head.
Even though he worked as gently as possible, he felt Dean tense at the probe of the wound, the bite of alcohol. But he didn't make a sound. Always the stoic, bearing everything in silence.
"Dean, there's a lot of good out there, too, you know," Sam said softly as he finished up. "Sometimes we forget, staring at the darkness all the time, but it's there."
As Sam's hands fell away, Dean craned back to look at him, but Sam didn't have the right angle to see his expression. "I know," he said just as quietly.
Sam was pretty sure they weren't talking about the same thing.
"Let's eat," Dean suddenly announced, rising. There was only so much serious discussion even his guilty conscience would tolerate. "I'm starving, and you need fluids." A glance at Sam. "And quit looking at me like that."
"Like what?" Sam asked, blinking in surprise.
"Like you think I'm the reincarnation of Gandhi or something. Save it for some night when I drag your sorry body back home, instead of trying to kill you."
Sam made it to his feet on the second try, not missing that Dean was watching him like a hawk. "Ghandi was a pacifist, Dean—I don't think anyone's gonna confuse the two of you."
Dean kicked laundry out of his path and pulled out the chair for him, piling food in front of Sam as he sank down. "Shut up and eat, Einstein."
It was love and apology and a we're okay, Sammy, and Sam knew it. And answered in kind, so Dean would get it, too.
"Fine. But you're doing the laundry and the weapons cleaning this week, bro."
And this time when Dean smacked him, he meant it.