Dean gripped Sam's elbow hard, willing his brother to keep up. Sam's long legs scrambled but he was lagging behind. When Sam stumbled, Dean adjusted his hold from Sam's elbow to his wrist, continuing to yank him along.
Whipping his head around to check on both the progress of the bear and his brother, Dean couldn't help but notice the bear had gained ground. In contrast, Sam's progress was slowing. Sam's mouth moved but the blood pumped so loudly in Dean's ears he couldn't hear a word his brother said.
Dean's imagination was running wild--he could swear the bear (a freakin' bear!) was breathing down the back of his neck. Another glance behind him showed that it wasn't the bear; Sam had found a burst of energy and was right at Dean's back. Dean slowed to a jog, pushing Sam ahead of him, into the cave. It was fool hardy to duck into a dark cave but what other option did they have? Sam's eyes were dark pools in his pale skin but Sam's brain was working in tandem with Dean; his brother reached into his pocket for the lighter fluid he always carried as Dean pulled out a book of matches.
Liberally splashing the entrance of the cave, Sam stepped back just as the bear growled its unhappiness at having to chase its prey so far. Dean wasted no time in striking the match and throwing it on the accelerant.
The bear roared as the flame exploded toward the ceiling in a loud whoosh. Through the fire, Dean could see the bear's nose was twitching, its teeth gnashing.
Something pungent filled Dean's nostrils. The unmistakable aroma of singed cloth and skin.
Eyes rolling wildly about, Dean located the source of the smell--Sam's pant leg was smoldering, flames licking at the denim. Dean shot forward, his foot catching Sam behind the knee, forcing his brother to the ground. Sam, burning on the funeral pyre. Dean shook his head to clear the image but everywhere his eyes darted, he saw his brother's clothing curling around his still body, dark smoke rising in the air.
The smoke. The stench. Dean was losing Sammy again, the fire consuming him. Dean's inner eye displayed nothing but flames consuming the last of his family but he couldn't turn away, shake the image. Hands gripped his shoulders, lightly shaking him. A familiar voice blasted Dean's name in his face and he could swear it was Sam's voice calling to him. But that's impossible, Sam's dead. "Dean, you okay? Hey, man, we need to move back. Don't want you going up like kindling." It is Sam's voice, soft with concern. Sam with his puppy-dog eyes turned full force on Dean.
Dean allowed himself to be tugged away from the front line, warmth licking at his exposed skin. The movement snapped Dean out of his trance, his eyes raking over his brother.
His brother who was standing in front of him, fully dressed on top in jacket and knit hat, his lower half showing way more skin than Dean wanted to see, overexposed in boxer briefs. His smoldering jeans were clenched in his hand. The only apparent damage seemed to be a quarter sized area on Sam's shin, the skin intensely red and peppered with blisters. A second degree burn although due to its size, they should be able to treat it like a first degree burn as long as it didn't show signs of infection.
Kneeling down in front of Sam, Dean lightly cupped the back of his brother's leg to hold him still while he checked out the damage up close. Definitely a second degree burn. Pain and swelling were the major considerations but there was little Dean could do at the moment to address them. The first aid kit with the Tylenol and bandages were back at the car and there was no cold running water. Maybe the snow would...
"Dude, out of my personal space. We've got bigger fish to fry at the moment, don't you think?" Sam's hair flipped all over the place under the hat but it was his eyes that got to Dean, pleading with him to pull himself together.
Dean reluctantly rose to his feet, feeling winded and shaky. If he didn't know any better, he'd think he was the one going into shock. Sam shook his head ruefully, patting Dean gingerly on the back. The bear's growl reached a crescendo and Dean found Sam practically planted in his side. Dean wasn't the only one suffering from shock if the way Sam jumped was anything to go by.
Laughter bubbled in Dean's throat and burst from his lips in a snicker. They were in the middle of a forest, trapped by a bear and Sam had lost his jeans. Maybe he was suffering from hysteria or maybe it was just relief but Dean allowed himself to laugh until tears stung his eyes.
Sam was alive. Dean must have been caught up in his own nightmare, reliving what had happened following the events at Cold Oak. At least he'd gotten Sam to stop and drop. His brother must've taken over with the roll portion of firefighting 101 without Dean's help. Sam wasn't saying anything which was unusual but if his eyes got any bigger, his face wouldn't be able to contain them.
Sam was injured which meant it was time for Dean to regain control of himself and the situation. "Move as far back into the cave as you can while still being able to see the bear. And get off that leg. I'm going to gather whatever I can to feed the fire so Smokey here doesn't feel like dropping in for a snack."
His brother looked like he wanted to say something but instead pivoted akwardly and limped toward the back of the cave.
Reaching down, Dean scooped up a handful of branches so he could add it to their little bonfire. Some animal had probably dragged them into the cave, hoping to make a cozy little nest. The bear was pawing and snorting and Dean did his best to filter out the noise while he gathered together all the scraps of kindling he could find and made a pile.
Despite his all important task of wood gatherer, most of Dean's attention was on Sam who was sitting against the cave wall modifying his jeans with his Swiss army knife. There was no way the blistered skin could tolerate the rub of denim and it was too cold for Sam to run around in his underwear. Dean only hoped the blade didn't slip and open up an artery; with the way their luck was running, it was a distinct possibility. In fact Dean was having a hard time not marching over to Sam and taking over. Two things stopped him--Sam's strong streak of independence and the bear pacing in front of the cave. The possessed bear was definitely their biggest threat at the moment.
Dean knew he'd plugged the animal through the heart with multiple bullets so how was it even possible that it was upright? A junky full of stimulants could withstand a lot of damage in the pursuit of the next score but it seemed hard to believe that a black bear would have the same drive.
"Damn it, ouch," Sam bit off softly and that was all the impetus Dean needed to drop his pieces of wood and hurry over to his brother. Convinced he would find Sam saturated in blood, Dean was surprised to see Sam hopping around on one leg, trying to pull his jeans on. Ordinarily Dean would want to pull his cell phone out and take a picture--Sam staggering and hopping on one leg was too good to pass up--but right now Dean was hard pressed to even dredge up a smile.
This hunt had gone to hell-in-a-hand-basket and it was all Dean's fault for talking Sam into it. Dean rushed forward and steadied Sam before his brother could do more damage. His balance restored, Sam was able to draw his pant leg carefully over the wound. Sam was a sight; covered in mud with his torn jeans he looked like he'd wrestled an alligator in the bayou. And lost.
Winded from his efforts, Sam slunk down against the wall, wincing. Dean slumped down next to him, wary of the bear's efforts to gain entry and the fire that needed constant stoking. Right now Sam was his priority. "How's the leg?"
Sam shrugged his shoulders, an answer that could be interpreted as good, bad or indifferent. The glow of the blaze in front of them danced over Sam's face, a painful reminder to Dean of Sam's close brushes with fire over his young life. But Sam was here, living and breathing, and that meant everything. If only Sam didn't look so drawn. Maybe Dean could distract him from his pain, at least for a while. "So, what do you think the Worst Case Scenario Handbook would say about meeting a bear?"
That earned a snort from his brother. "Well, for a grizzly bear attack the handbook says you should lie still and be quiet. Guess we blew that one. However, I don't think the handbook said anything about what to do when faced with a possessed bear."
Dean returned the snort. Leave it to his knowledge seeking brother to have committed the Worst Case Scenario Handbook to memory. "No shit. I don't think there's anything in any handbook about that one." A shiver jerked Sam's body and Dean slid closer, hoping his own body heat would warm Sam up. "Hey, you okay?"
Sam leaned against the grimy cave wall and let his head roll toward Dean. It was eerie the way the light flickered over Sam's face, highlighting the contours of his brother's face, hollowing out his already prominent cheekbones. Making Sam look deathly ill. "Just peachy." Dean flinched at the flat, toneless reply. Sam's eyebrow quirked in question and his face became more animated. "Really, relax. I'm okay. Remember that time you burned your arm on the oven when you were making us pizza? That was way worse than this little burn. And anyway, we just need to wait out Yogi.
" At least Sam's sense of humor and memory were still intact. Dean remembered the burn on his arm vividly. Five year old Sam had been sick with the chicken pox and when he got his appetite back, the first thing he asked for was pizza. Their dad was gone on a hunt and Dean had done his best to heat the frozen pizza. A little incident concerning a potholder jumping out of Dean's hand had caused a commotion and resulted in Dean losing his balance. He'd righted himself...bare skin against the side of the oven. And it had hurt like a bitch.
The old war wound of Dean's did nothing to mitigate his guilt over dragging Sam to Montana. His little brother sure looked like crap and it weighed heavily on Dean's mind.
His brother's voice interrupted the self flagellation. "So why do you think the bullets didn't take it down? I mean I know we both plugged him over and over again. What are we missing?"
It was Dean's turn to shrug his shoulders. "I keep going back to possession but I've never heard of this extreme of a case when it comes to animals. And then there's that stupid ghost horse. What the hell?"
The bear continued to crash around the vicinity, desperate to get inside. Dean dragged himself to his feet, weariness starting to hit now that the burst of adrenaline had passed. Sam's voice, drowsy and quiet, mumbled behind him, "Too bad we can't get a good WiFi connection inside here. I could check out incidences of bear possession and maybe a ritual to banish it."
Dean threw more shrubbery on the bonfire, waiting to make sure it caught and stoked the fire. Once it was burning to his satisfaction, he pulled out his cell phone to see if he could get reception. Nothing. It didn't surprise him. They were surrounded by solid rock. Maybe he could make a break for it, get a signal. If Sam got any worse it was worth trying.
Dean turned around to face Sam who was frowning up at him. "Don't what?" "Don't sprint out of here, bent on getting a cell signal. I'm fine." Sam's voice was soft but steady. If a shiver hadn't rippled through his frame, Dean would have bought into that last statement more.
Easing back down next to Sam, Dean bumped his shoulder into his brother's. It was a sign of camaraderie. A sign of affection. It let Dean move close to Sam to feed him his body warmth again without Sam throwing a fit.
Dean started to shrug out of his leather jacket, intent on throwing it over Sam. "Don't, keep it. I'm doing okay. Anyway, I'm hoping we aren't stuck here much longer."
Sam shifted against the wall. "I think I've got mud in places I'd rather not know about."
There was a distinct possibility they were going to have to spend the night in the cave but Dean wasn't going to mention it right now. They'd cross that bridge--rickety with parts falling off it--when it came to that.
He tried to direct his attention elsewhere, he really did, but he couldn't stop staring at Sam. He'd really thought Sam had gone up in flames for a second time in front of him and just the thought of it made Dean's heart thunder in his chest.
When Sam shivered yet again, Dean slid his arm around Sam's shoulder and tugged him closer. He could feel the little tremors rippling through his brother's body and when Sam didn't pull away, he knew the kid was in some distress. But Sam was still with it enough to prod at Dean. "What happened earlier, when you realized my jeans had caught fire? You threw me on the ground and then you just kind of checked out. Are you okay?"
Only Sam would be concerned for Dean's mental well being at a time like this. The Earth could stop spinning and Sam would want to know what Dean's thoughts were on the subject. It used to be a source of bemusement to both his dad and to Dean, how Sam had to identify the problem and look at it from every angle before he was content to move forward. Such a contrast with how Dean and his old man operated. Had operated.
Dean refused to dwell on that. He couldn't go there. Not now. Maybe not ever.
Once Sam dug his teeth into something, there was no stopping him. Especially here in a cave where Dean couldn't just up and leave to get away from the searching eyes and gentle questioning. He might as well give in gracefully. "I froze. I saw the flames, smelled something acrid burning. It was like I was reliving it again. I mean I saw the flames on your pant leg and I was thrown right back there, right back to Cold Oak. You dead in my arms, blood on your lips. Me torching your body. I was all alone. The memories just wouldn't stop."
Silence met his heartfelt confession. Dean turned his head to find Sam had conked out, head lolling against the uncomfortable wall of the cave, the steady even breaths of deep sleep filtering into his ears now that he'd stopped talking. Scooting closer, Dean tugged Sam more firmly against his own side. He tucked Sam's knit-clad head against his shoulder. As a makeshift pillow it wasn't much but at least his body heat was preferable to the cold seeping from the cave.
The bear had finally quieted and Dean should get up and check to see if the coast was clear. But Sam was sleeping so peacefully, and he looked so damn vulnerable curled against Dean's side, that Dean didn't have the heart to disturb him. He'd give it a few minutes and then see what was happening. Sam deserved at least a few minutes reprieve.
Sam came to and found himself lying on something hard. The smell of damp earth greeted his sharp inhalation. He was on the ground. But where?
Pain flared up and down his body but it mostly concentrated in his low back.
Jake stabbing him.
Azazel taunting them at the cemetery.
Something touched Sam's shoulder and his eyes flew open. His body jerked, unsure of the threat. His blood was pumping so hard he thought his head might pop off.
"Easy Sam, it's just me." Dean's voice was steady, his touch careful. "I think Gentle Ben is finally gone."
Sam scrambled to his feet. Hissing as the blisters on his leg flexed and let their unhappiness be known. Dean's shoulder bolstered Sam up and he leaned into the contact. His mind was shaking off the dream--memory--whatever he'd had and he was slowly getting with the program.
Too slowly. Dean was giving him that look again. A look made up of equal parts frustration and worry. Sam wished he could marshal his thoughts more quickly but his brain wouldn't cooperate. Dean had enough on his mind these days. He didn't need the worry and hassle of keeping up with Sam's little neuroses now.
Dean guided him toward the fire and Sam's feet planted themselves, refusing to move another inch. Sam rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. His body was telling him to stay put but his brain was urging him on. His brother's grip was strong on his arm, drawing him forward. They edged around the bonfire, strong enough to throw off enough heat that Sam turned his face from it. Right into the crook of Dean's neck.
Without a fuss Dean hauled Sam out into the crisp air. Dean's breathing was every bit as agitated as Sam's but as they staggered out into the open that eased up.
Embarrassed at his reaction, Sam forced his hands to uncurl from where they gripped at Dean's jacket. It was the dream that had him off kilter.
Dean's expression was dubious, eyebrow quirked with concern. "Why don't you see if you can get a signal, check in with Bobby. I'm going to see if the coast is clear."
Sam lunged forward, wrapping his hands around Dean's arm. "No! Wait, I'll go with you."
The thought of being left alone had Sam's heart rate kicking right back up there again. This wasn't like him. It was starting to freak him the hell out.
Dean was rubbing his hand on Sam's back. It should have been irritating but Sam found it soothing. Another sign that something was off with him. "Fine. I'll try Bobby and then we'll see about getting back to town."
His brother pulled his cell phone out with one hand and towed Sam along with the other. His feet kept tangling, his coordination off. He kept expecting Dean to rag on him about it. Instead Dean kept shooting him more worried glances.
At last Dean had a signal. His brother's eyes darted around the area, on the look out for another episode of When Animals Attack! while he dialed up Bobby without even looking at his contact list. "Yeah, it's me. We ran into a little problem."
Sam was feeling steadier with each passing minute and despite the frown Dean threw at him, he edged away from his brother's side. The least he could do was make sure the area was secure.
"We shoulda come loaded for bear. One chased us and we've been waiting him out in a cave."
"We're not complete morons, Bobby. We built up a bit of a fire and it didn't really care for that." Sam's lips edged up a little at that. Bobby sure was good at yanking Dean's chain. Sam listened to Dean's half of the conversation while widening his search.
"Don't go too far, Sammy." Sam turned to find Dean cupping his hand over his cell phone, motioning him to stay put. He resumed his conversation once Sam moved closer. "Sammy got a little singed but he's okay," followed by a short pause and then Dean barking at their friend through the phone, "You don't think I know that, Bobby?"
"He was better but now he's a little...yeah. Exactly." Sam wondered who the he was--Sam or the bear. He didn't much like being the subject of conversation and he frowned at Dean. His brother turned his back on Sam which irritated him all the more. Although it wasn't Dean's fault Sam had been acting weird.
"I suppose it coulda been a grizzly. We didn't stop to chat." The smirk was evident in his brother's voice.
"Yeah, it had a hump between its shoulder blades. Uh huh. Definitely had a flat head."
"Fine, we were chased by a Grizzly. But I think we heard a horse, too. A ghost horse. One of the witnesses mentioned it and we found hoof prints at some of the crime scenes."
"I don't know either. If you find something, let us know. Any helpful hints on what we should do if we run into the bear again?"
Dean snorted. "Real cute, Bobby. Okay, we're going to see if he's moved on and make our way into town. We'll call you later."
Dean snapped his cell phone shut. Without his voice talking to Bobby the forest was quiet. No bear rampaging around. No horse neighing in the distance.
Slapping Sam lightly on the shoulder, Dean smiled. The smile didn't really reach his eyes though. "Bobby said we're idjits for coming out here. And that we'd better hope we run into Grizzly Adams if we encounter another bear otherwise we're screwed. Ready to hike for the car?"
"I think I've had enough of the great outdoors to last me quite a while." A shiver slithered down Sam's spine and he spun around.
Nothing was there.
Dean didn't say anything, just walked as close to Sam's side as he could without them tripping up each other. They picked their way across the rocky, uneven ground, both relieved when they crested the hill where they first met the bear.
Sam stumbled, his feet dragging from exhaustion and Dean was there with a hand on his arm to hold him upright. "You wanna stop for a minute, catch our breath?"
Dean wasn't out of breath in the slightist. Sam was the one slowing them down. When another shiver crawled down his spine, Sam jammed the hated knit hat further down on his head. "Let's just keep going."
His brother just shrugged, stepping into the lead. They had found the path they'd taken in and the hiking was getting easier for Sam. Whenever he got to feeling too cocky, his right leg would throb reminding him to take it easy.
Sam found himself plastered against Dean's back as his brother jumped between Sam and something he couldn't see.
His brother stood there tensely, not moving a muscle, and Sam did the same.
Dean moved forward cautiously, Sam peering over his shoulder.
A bear was lying to the side of the path.
Sam's fight or flight response kicked in but he hovered behind his brother. There was no way Sam was going to leave Dean to face down a bear by himself.
Except the bear wasn't moving. Dean made as though to kick its torso but Sam hauled him back. "Don't. Let's just go."
Dean of course ignored him. Bending over, Dean scrutinized the bear's chest. Sam held his breath, waiting for the thing to suddenly rear up and stuff Dean's head in its mouth. But it just laid there.
"You gotta see this, Sam. I swear, we plugged him in the heart at least 15 times. How the hell was the thing able to stay on its feet after that kind of damage?" Dean's eyes were round with wonder as he turned around and looked at Sam.
Sam scratched his chin. He really didn't want to linger out here anymore. But this was why they'd come to Montana in the first place. "My money's on the possession angle. I mean you heard the horse, right?"
Dean narrowed his eyes, looking around. "I definitely heard something. Bobby's looking into it. Come on, let's get back to the car before it gets any colder out here." Dean shoved Sam's hat farther down on his head, pushing his hair into his face. "Can't have you turning into a popsickle on my watch."
He should have been tired of Dean manhandling but when Dean grabbed his forearm and pulled him along, Sam relaxed.
Things had been all screwed up since Cold Oak but the one thing that hadn't changed was Dean looking out for him. Sam realized he depended on it. It was the one constant left in his life.
The events at the cemetery in Wyoming had certainly blown apart everything else Sam thought he knew.
It had been two days since the boys—they could be in their fifties and to Bobby they would always be boys—had made it back to Hungry Horse and they were due at Bobby's any minute now. Bobby was eager to see them.
Dean had insisted they stay while trying to figure out the ghost horse angle and he'd also wanted to give Sam a chance to catch his breath. The kid had suffered second degree burns on his lower right leg and that coupled with everything had taken the starch right out of Sam. That's why Bobby had felt a touch of guilt when he'd told, no, ordered Dean to get the two of them back to his house.
But damn it, it was important. Bobby needed to have them safe under his roof and he needed to figure out what was going on. Dean was no slouch when it came to problem solving and Bobby could surely use his help. It would've been nice to have Sam's help but Bobby was pretty sure the kid wasn't up to this kind of heavy duty thinking yet.
Bobby heard gravel churning in his driveway and mosied on out to the porch to greet the Winchesters. When Dean exited the Impala and gave Bobby a distracted wave before moving around the hood of the car to the passenger door, Bobby hustled down the rickety stairs to meet him.
The older brother was pale, the dark stubble on his face a contrast to the doughy skin. Dark circles under his eyes spoke of the strain Dean was under. More concerning was the fact that Sam hadn't exited the car yet. "I sure am glad you both made it back in one piece, boy."
Dean's smile was crooked. And distracted. "What's so important that we had to come back today? Sam coulda used another day to sleep."
Bobby bent over and looked into the passenger side window. Sam was leaning heavily against the door, head bent at an awkard angle, and Bobby was pretty sure he could hear snoring. "I don't know, Dean. Sounds to me like Sam's sleeping just fine."
The smile was wiped from Dean's face. Big hazel eyes stared at Bobby, pleading. "I don't know what to do, Bobby. I thought getting Sam back on the road, back into the routine, would help him. But he's exhausted all the time. And jumpy. I just don't know..."
It wasn't like Dean to be unsure of himself, at least not when it came to his brother. "Let's get him inside. You look like you're wiped out, too. I've got chili on the stove if you're hungry."
Dean, who could always eat and loved Bobby's chili, declined. It might have been the first time since he'd been stuck in Bobby's guestroom with the chicken pox when he was ten that Dean had said no to eating. Bobby knew Dean had been tense and worried from his brief conversations with him but he'd underestimated how bad things were. Unfortunately Bobby's news wasn't going to help with the stress.
Bobby wondered how exactly Dean planned on getting his taller, and heavier, little brother inside. His own back sure as hell couldn't withstand that kind of strain. Looking at Dean, it didn't look like he felt up to it either.
The older brother whipped open the door and caught the younger as he started to tumble to the ground. It wasn't the most pleasant way to wake up and Bobby half expected Sam to come up swinging.
Sam flinched awake but stared dazedly around. Dean was kneeling next to the car, holding Sam up. "Where are we?"
Dean helped Sam unfold himself from the Impala and as Bobby got his first look at Sam, he understood Dean's concern. The kid had absolutely no color in his face which made his panda eyes stand out all the more. Bobby leaned forward, thinking Sam had two black eyes, but no, that wasn't the case; the skin around and particularly under the usually bright eyes had a bruised quality. Venous pools Bobby thought it was called. And Sam's eyes were bright but not due to his inquisitive nature; they were shiny with moisture.
Bobby hooked an arm around Sam's waist and began guiding him to the porch. With each step Sam seemed to gain momentum and it didn't take long before Sam was deposited on Bobby's couch. Sam lifted two fists toward his eyes, looking every inch the tired toddler. "Don't rub your eyes, boy, you'll only irritate 'em."
The younger brother blushed but dropped his hands. "Dean said you maybe had a break in the case but you wanted us to come back here. What did you find?"
Dean dropped two duffel bags on the floor and shucked out of his jacket before dropping into a chair. "You know I hate leaving a job done half-assed. So I figure this oughta be pretty important. Spill."
Bobby hadn't planned on getting into things so quickly, especially with both brothers looking like they could sleep for twelve hours. But this is what he'd called them home for after all. Walking to his study, he grabbed the King James Bible on his desk. "It took me a while but I think I figured out something. Seems there's a famine in Georgia and no one could make heads or tails out of it."
He let that sink in for a moment before continuing. Dean was frowning and his lips were parted, as if he was going to start bitching and moaning. Sam's lips were pursed but he appeared to be deep in thought.
Handing the bible to Dean, Bobby told him what passage to read. "Revelations 6:8."
Sam's head jerked up at the mention of Revelations and he grew more pale if that was possible. Bobby thought about getting a bucket for him in case he was going to puke.
Bobby hadn't expected him to but Dean chose to read aloud so Sam could hear. "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
Dean hadn't even finished the passage before Sam was bolting to the bathroom.
The older brother stared up at Bobby, eyes wide and incredulous, the bible held loosely in his hands. "You can't be serious."