First appeared in A Small Circle of Friends 14 (2009), from Neon Rainbow Press
Based on the Mysterious Ways episode, "Camp Sanopi"

In Between
K Hanna Korossy

When Winchesters didn't know what else to do, they hunted.

John had turned to the hunt as an outlet for his rage and grief after Mary's death. Dean had sought escape in it, Sam knew, after his own departure to school. Sam had thrown himself into it headlong after Jess had burned. It was what they knew, their default setting, and when life was otherwise too much to think about and deal with, it was one thing that still made sense.

Sam was hoping it would help his brother this time the same way.

"So why are we out here again, Sam?" Dean's voice was ill-concealed impatience as he pushed aside branches that hung low over the trail.

Sam bit back a sigh. That was assuming Dean would let him help.

He'd never had the patience with Dean that he had with just about everyone else. The blessing of growing up a younger brother, he guessed. But all that had changed since their father had died. Grief had put his brother in a different light, revealing to Sam for the first time a cracked human being who hurt and struggled and was adrift under that cocky, confident exterior. And for this previously unbeknownst version of his brother, Sam found whole new reserves of patience.

"Water nymph. They usually live in water, Dean."

The gentle tease had its desired effect as Dean rolled his eyes Sam's way. "Gee, thank you, Mr. Science. You know what I mean—why are we here? There's that chupacabra next state over and the skunk ape Ellen—"

"Ellen can find someone else for the skunk ape, and Bobby said Jefferson's got the chupacabra," Sam cut in smoothly.

Dean eyed him a moment, then his mouth tugged into a smile. "I didn't know you've got a thing for water nymphs, Sammy. You could've just told me. Hey," he expanded into a grin and a tilt of the head, "does that make you a nymphomaniac?"

Sam scowled at him even as he easily scrambled over a knot of tree roots. "Just…do you think you could concentrate on the case, please? Three people have drowned around here, Dean, all in front of witnesses who say the water suddenly overflowed and washed away the victim. It's classic water nymph, all right? This is our kind of case, man."

Dean's grin dropped. "Yeah, okay. Whatever," he muttered, and took point again.

Sam paused, just for a second, then slumped and followed him. His patience had definitely stretched and grown, but he ached with grief for their dad, too, and sometimes… Sometimes he just…

But this case, it was perfect for them. Basic, something they knew how to hunt, a clean kill. It was just what Dean needed after the grays of Gordon and Lenore and…and Dad. And Sam… Sam needed his brother. He kinda hoped to reach him in a simple hunt, the classic Winchester method of communication.

"So why do we think it's a nymph and not a kelpie or an elemental or something?"

Sam winced at the mention of an elemental; they'd tangled with one not too long before that had nearly drowned Sam in water, and Dean in despair. Dean seemed ambivalent, though, so Sam just stepped up his gait to match his brother's and relaxed into the shop talk. "The witnesses. Kelpies are almost always visible, and there were no reports of anything like a horse carrying the victims off. And an elemental probably would've washed away everyone, and appeared with more omens: electrical storms, whirlpools—"

Dean squinted over at him. "So because it's a nice day, you jumped right to a naiad?"

Sam felt a small swell of irritation; Dean was just baiting him now, trying to get a reaction. "No," Sam said with forced mildness. "It just added up. If you don't want to do this hunt, man—"

"I didn't say that," Dean said quickly. "Simmer down, Samantha, I just wanted to know what we're up against." He raised an eyebrow. "You brought a plastic bag for your cast, right? We're not doing a water hunt so you can weasel out of the work?"

Sam bit his tongue and counted down from ten in Latin.

Dean seemed to know when he was done, only then flicking Sam a smile. "You know, nymphs are always hot. And, dude, they don't wear any clothes. That's why Dad wouldn't let you go on any naiad or oceanid hunts when you were a kid. Didn't want to have to put you on a leash." His eyebrows danced.

And Sam found himself smiling back. "Maybe you should wait in the car then, Dean."

Dean jabbed him in the ribs, and Sam chortled in surprise.

Yeah. This was just what they needed.

00000

Sam would've made Jessica a good husband.

The thought was still so foreign that it would've taken some getting used to no matter what. The fact that it was now a moot point, that Sam would never get the chance to try, made it far worse. One more person Dean had failed in his life—two, if you counted Jessica. Just like…like their…

But for having grown up the one who was always cared for, Sam was good at taking care of others: traumatized victims, shaky witnesses, and now, to Dean's surprise, a broken big brother. It had rankled, it had hurt, it had just felt wrong. But Sam had persevered, and Dean hadn't had the energy to push him away, and sometimes…when he wasn't being a total know-it-all pain in Dean's ass…it felt…good. Having someone to lean on, just for a little bit, when he was so tired.

Because truth be told, he was really tired most of the time these days.

They made temporary camp around the river bend from where the nearest victim had disappeared. While Sam kindled a small fire and heated up coffee, Dean sorted through his brother's research, brow furrowed and lip pulled into his teeth. After a few minutes, he dug out his own journal and a pen and started taking notes.

Didn't take long to figure out geekboy was right: they had a nymph on their hands. Not just the M.O., but the location—near a tributary where the creature could have come from—the geography, the time of year all fit. She even left her vics carefully laid out on the banks, arms folded like they were just sleeping. Dean filled a page of his journal with data: where the vics were taken, when, where the bodies showed up, river flow charts, and started calculating.

"Here."

Sam sidled over in a crouch, huge hands dwarfing a tin mug of hot coffee, the cast on his right hand just adding to the effect. He peered at where Dean's pen tapped the map. "Next attack?" he asked.

"Yup. Probably today or tomorrow."

"Huh." Sam absently stretched to grab another mug and pressed it into Dean's hands, then a pack of Oreos he'd obviously secreted in his pack, the sly dog.

Dean stuffed two cookies into his mouth, washed it down with hot coffee, and watched the wheels turn in his brother's head. "I figure another hour's hike and we'll be there," he finally added.

Sam glanced up at him, hair sliding across his forehead in the breeze. Dean still wasn't used to the way he was wearing it now, parted and swept to the side. It made him look…older. Less innocent. "This is good work, man," Sam said with quiet respect.

Dean felt a well of pride at the words he'd rarely heard from his family, and shook his head. "It's no big deal, Sam," he muttered.

Sam snorted but let it go, thankfully. Dean filled his mouth with more Oreos to distract himself.

Sam finally nodded. "All right. Wanna go after lunch?"

Dean shrugged back. "Might as well." The words spit crumbs, and he grinned at the mildly revolted look on Sam's face. "Got any beef jerky?"

"Got something better." Sam turned away and dug in his pack for a moment. He turned back with a foil package. "MREs."

Dean gave him a reverent look. "Dude."

Sam laughed and tossed him one. "I swear, man, you're the only person I know who thinks these are edible, let alone gourmet food."

And it was mac & cheese, his favorite. Score two for Sammy. Dean ignored the barb and dug in, watching Sam pick his way more slowly through his own meal. Dean finally nodded at him between bites. "Can't dry up the whole river."

Sam nodded. "Right, and we don't know the nymph's name. Best shot we have to kill it then is to keep it from the water long enough for its hair to dry."

Dean chewed a bite. "None of the witnesses said they saw a woman, let alone a hot, naked chick."

"Yeah, 'cause people always see what's right in front of them," Sam drawled.

Dean scraped the tray clean and hitched a shoulder. "Hey, I'm just saying. What if it's hiding behind a glamour?"

Sam silently held up a charm on a thin cord.

And Dean grinned at him. "Seriously? Let me guess—Bobby?"

"Bobby," Sam confirmed.

"Sweet!" he crowed. Dean slipped the cord over his neck and looked around. The charm gave the slightest overlay of unreality to the scenery, an extra tint of color, soft movements where there had been stillness before. "That's awesome."

"Any more questions?" Sam asked dryly, but he looked pleased with himself.

"Just one." Sam waited for it, and Dean watched, fascinated, as his brother's eyes seemed to glow with inner light, turning them a gold-flecked emerald.

Love. He was seeing his brother's invisible love.

Dean felt his own face soften. "Uh, got any more Oreos?"

00000

The first thing Sam had seen his brother eat after their father died was, of course, pie.

It was not, by far, the first thing he'd tried to coax Dean into eating. A dripping cheeseburger, M&Ms, Doritos, steak, donuts, and meatloaf had all crashed and burned. Sam tried cooking, carryout, and even mail-ordering from the little diner in Mississippi Dean spoke of with an awe most people saved for religious experiences. But it was apple pie from the best bakery in Sioux Falls that first tempted his brother out of his wasting grief, that had made him meet Sam's eyes and offer a gruff thanks, giving Sam hope again.

So the success of Oreos as a peace offering didn't really surprise him. Nor that a little mainlined sugar, and affection, had gotten Dean moving with new energy.

"You know these things are pretty strong, right? Even when we've got the net over it, we're gonna have to dig in to keep it trapped until its hair dries."

"I know," Sam said automatically. "Hey, did Dad ever try something like this?"

The question only registered after it was out of his mouth. After all, Dean had hunted with Dad far more than Sam had and was Sam's primary source of information even over the journal as to what Dad had gone up against and how. It wasn't anything he hadn't asked Dean dozens of times over the last year.

It was, however, the first time since.

Dean cleared his throat. "I don't know."

Sam scrambled to fix the damage before hard-won ground was lost again. "But you're sure the iron woven into the net will be enough."

Dean was quiet a moment, but Sam quickly realized he was thinking, not sinking. "It should. I mean, all the creatures of nature—elementals, fae, nature spirits—they all hate iron. Might even be able to kill it with an iron blade, but…yeah, I'm pretty sure. It shouldn't be able to get out."

"Pretty sure?" Sam asked, amused.

"Really pretty sure?" Dean offered with an almost playful tilt of the mouth.

"Yeah, that's really reassuring. Thanks." He adjusted his pack more comfortably on his shoulders. "So, we getting close yet?"

Dean looked around, as if Sam didn't know he'd been keeping track of exactly where they were. "Another half-mile, maybe. Past those rocks." He pointed to a small heap half grown over with trees.

"What are—?"

The feminine scream dragged them both to a halt, and then they were running full-tilt, jumping over underbrush and ducking branches. Dean's drive was always a close match to Sam's long legs, but he outpaced Sam easily this time as Sam's feet got snagged in the greenery. By the time he reached the riverbank where the screams were coming from, Dean was already waist-deep in the water.

It was a girl, her blonde hair in her face, barely visible in the splashing water. Her pack was half-submerged in mud at the edge of the water, and she flailed against whatever had dragged her in, crying out and choking. Sam began to throw off his own gear to go join his brother in the rescue.

He was just pulling his second boot off, Dean less than a dozen feet from the girl and closing, when Sam saw it. Her hair parted, just for a moment, and with the charm's clarity, Sam could see eyes that were too electric blue to be human peering out. A pointed-teeth smile glinted.

It was a trap. She was a trap.

"Dean!" Sam bellowed, and gave up on the boot, already running for the water.

But Dean, always a good swimmer, had already reached her. He stretched out for her, and even from the banks, Sam could see the moment his brother saw through her glamour. Dean recoiled, splashing as he tried to backpedal.

It was too late.

The water rose in a sudden spontaneous wave. The nymph rode it, cresting a good ten feet above Dean. And then she swooped down on him in a crash of foam and an unearthly cry.

"Dean!" Sam swam hard, spitting water as he called for his brother. "Dean!"

He didn't even know it when he pulled the iron blade. It was pure instinct; there was nothing in the lore about iron being able to kill water spirits. All Sam knew was that he had to kill it, and there wasn't time to trap her and let her hair dry. He thrust the blade at the strands of blonde hair, merciless and hard.

Its shriek was deafening, unnatural.

Dark blue blood spread across the water, too much for it not to be dead. But there was nothing else, no bubbles, no movement below the surface as the river settled again.

Dean was just gone.

Sam dove. Heedless of his cast, of his clothes, of his safety, he submerged again and again. He pushed himself a little further each time, sifting the bottom of the river with his hands, pushing his lungs until they felt like they'd burst, screaming for Dean every time he came up for air.

But there was never any answer besides the quiet burble of the flowing water.

00000

Sam had always been the one to have nightmares.

After his first kill, Dean had had a streak of insomnia that lasted four days. After he kept nodding off in class, he got sent home, where Dad had dosed him with—Dean later learned—a shot of whiskey in some warm milk. It had made him foggy, like he was sleepwalking, but it hadn't put him out. It took Sam for that finally, curling up on the couch with him to watch some stupid chick-flick movie, his brother's arm casually tossed over Dean's back. He'd fallen asleep that way, drooling a wet patch across Sam's ribs, slept clear through morning, and been fine afterward.

It was probably fitting that Sam, who was the one who regularly woke choking on screams, also found his peace when Dean sat on the bed with him and rubbed his back until he drifted off. Dean could feel that same soothing touch now as he dreamed.

There were low voices sometimes, too far for him to make out. He was turned, careful hands checking for injuries, then lifted, swaying with movement. More voices. More touching. His leg hurt kind of distantly, his chest, and calm, competent hands bound him up, held him while he emptied his stomach of water and reintroduced air to his lungs. He kept dreaming.

Until he realized he wasn't dreaming.

The light was dim, turned down to just comfortable for his sore, crusty eyes. Dean squinted nonetheless as he took in the plain room he was in: the rough wooden walls, the simple table and two chairs, the wildflowers on the sill and the lace curtains on the one high window. They stirred in the breeze.

"Wh—?" It felt like his throat had been sanded clean, and he coughed around the words. "What?"

There was the sound of movement behind him, and even as he tensed, wondering whether he was armed, a figure moved into view at his side.

Not Sam. Definitely not Sam.

"Who?" Dean seemed to be reduced to single words. "Sam?"

"Easy." The man's voice was a rumble, oddly pleasant. His warm hand slipped under Dean's neck, counterpoint to the cool glass that was put to his lips as he was lifted.

He was leery of taking drinks from strangers, but that seemed like the least of his worries right now, so he drank. It was water, fresh and cold, and it sated his thirst like few things he'd tasted.

It also made speech a little less impossible. Dean peered up at his host and tried again in a dull whisper. "Who are you? Where's Sam?"

The man, middle-aged with soft features and bronze skin and short-cropped dark hair, smiled at him. "I don't know where Sam is, but I'm Doc. 'Least, that's what most folks call me. And you are…?"

He studied the man—Doc—suspiciously, but there was no guile in his face that Dean could see, and he was pretty good at reading people. "Dean. I was with my brother, Sam."

"Well, I'm guessing you got separated in the river. Two of our people found you at the water's edge half-drowned. You're pretty battered and bruised, and your right knee and ankle are hurt."

Dean blinked. It was hard to think; his brain felt like pudding. Still, he remembered enough to put the pieces together: there'd been a girl who was really a nymph, and Dean had fallen for the bait like a total sucker. He was pretty sure Sam had come in after him, too, but his brother had been a lot farther behind. Surely he wasn't…the nymph only went after one victim at a time…but Dean was still alive…

He started to push up. "Sam. I gotta find Sam."

Gentle hands pushed him back down. "We can send some people out to look for your brother, but you're in no condition to go, Dean. You need to rest."

It felt like there were weights on his chest, and he wasn't sure he had clothes on. "Can't," Dean wheezed, nevertheless continuing to push up. "Gotta… Sammy… He needs…"

"Shh." There was a sting in his arm, and a wave of exhaustion washed through him. Too many waves: he was drowning, and Sam…Sammy… "Rest."

"Is he all right?" Another voice, even farther away. A girl. Nymph? Dean tried to focus on her, but everything was swimming.

"He'll be fine, Julie. He just needs some time."

They hadn't had enough time. Dad had died too soon. Sammy had left. Too much time now. He was sinking in it.

"Sleep now, son," the deep voice coaxed, almost sounding like John Winchester.

Dean always had followed orders.

00000

When Sam had been five, Dean could do everything.

He cooked…their kind of food, anyway. He found junked toys and fixed them up for Sam, repaired his tattered clothes, and bandaged his scraped knees. He always knew the answers to Sam's kindergarten worksheets, and answered all the questions Sam could think of.

Then Sam became a teenager, and Dean had gotten stupid. He lagged behind Sam in math, thought social graces meant the fastest way to get a girl into a closet, and considered Stephen King classic literature. But most of all, he took Dad's word as law, and Sam knew just how far from the truth that was. Dean was blind and dumb and just one more thing in Sam's life that had let him down.

And then his brother had saved him from a fire, and kept saving him, patiently retraining him for the hunt, murmuring the right things when Sam's grief grew too big, revealing skills Sam had never really seen that he had: a gift with all things mechanical, an eye for patterns, a general's ability to strategize, an empathy for kids. Funny how clever Dean had gotten while he'd been away, Sam thought with no little irony.

Dean would find a way to survive this, too, Sam was sure of it. He had to. There was no way Sam was losing all his family in the span of two months.

He'd searched the water until his cast was mush, until he was chilled to the bone and he'd had to drag himself out or risk drowning in exhaustion. Sick with fear at the thought of the previous victims and the stark terror he'd glimpsed on Dean's face before he disappeared under the wave, Sam lay limp on the grass and just panted. Salt water mingled with fresh on his face and dripped off onto the bank, and it was quiet around him.

So awfully quiet.

There was no cell signal out there, and bringing in any rescue personnel risked further victims if the nymph wasn't truly dead. But it was a big river, and if Dean had struggled out on the banks somewhere downstream, it could be a day or more before Sam found him. If he was hurt…

Sam rolled onto his side, retching up river water and bile.

He pounded the soft earth with the pulped cast when he was done, feeling with satisfaction the ripple of pain clear up to his shoulder. This hunt was supposed to help, to heal. Dean was supposed to find some purpose again, get his feet more firmly under him. Sam was supposed to find a way to ease his pain, to show his brother he could trust Sam to look after him as Dean had done so for him all his life. It was supposed to be Sam's chance to save Dean.

And he'd lost him. He'd lost him.

Aching with misery, Sam dragged himself up and went to find a clearing where he could call for help. His brother was the smart one, the caretaker, the hunter. He needed so much more than just Sam.

He'd been delusional to think otherwise.

00000

Sam had asked him once why he didn't oil the creak out of the Impala's door. Dean had looked at him like he was nuts.

Not that he couldn't do it, or hadn't considered it. There was something to be said for stealth when they were pulling up outside a building that housed a rawhead, or just outside the woods in which lurked a berserker. All it would take was a little WD-40 and they'd be in silent running.

But Dad had never gotten rid of her creak, the rusty noise a herald of his father's arrival back home through all of Dean's childhood. It was the sound of safety and his family's return and comfort in the dark. Getting rid of it would be like taping Sam's mouth shut. Not that Dean hadn't considered that, too.

The squeak of the door opening was a moment of familiarity as it woke him from sleep, but only a moment. Then his brain registered the not-quite-rightness of the sound, and Dean was alert and pushing himself up.

And dropping back with a groan as his bruised body started screaming complaints.

"Hey, Doc says no getting up yet." The voice was soft and feminine and young, matching the small hands that pressed him back down to the bed and rested on his forehead.

Dean frowned up at their owner. She was just a kid, probably ten or eleven, with twin braids of golden hair over her shoulders. Hazel eyes assessed him with curiosity and concern that looked sincere. Still, it was hard to keep the suspicion out of his voice as he asked, "Who are you?"

"Julie. I brought you some breakfast."

His stomach lurched once at the smell of hot food that was now starting to register, then settled in the hollow of his belly. He felt like he hadn't eaten in a week even though there'd been…Oreos?

Dean lunged up again. "Sam!"

"Whoa, wait." The girl couldn't push him back this time, and finally just folded her arms and watched crossly as Dean made it to sitting and swung his legs over the bed. If he'd been undressed before, he was back in his clothes now, freshly cleaned and dried. His jeans felt tight around his right knee.

As soon as he stood, he found out why. His right leg buckled under him in a wash of pain, and he went down hard. Dean groaned as his tailbone struck tile floor and jarred injured flesh all the way to his toes.

"Happy now?" Julie asked him.

Dean glared up at her. "Oh, yeah, frickin' ecstatic. Where's Sam?"

"I don't know. You washed up alone out of the river not far from here—Ruth and Eric brought you in. Your leg's hurt—Doc says it's gonna take a couple of weeks to heal, but only if you—"

Dean wiped at the sweat that had broken out on his forehead and shook his head. "Sorry, sister, but if you think I'm sticking around here for a couple of weeks…" He groped above his head for the edge of the bed and, grunting, started to lever himself up.

"Fine." Julie stepped back. "You want to leave so bad, you go ahead."

"Fine."

"Fine."

Great, he was arguing with Pippi Longstocking. Sammy would have been laughing his head off. With a grimace, Dean pulled and pushed until he was leaning heavily on his left foot and the bed. He gingerly tried to put weight on the right, which he could feel now was wrapped tight with an ace bandage at knee and ankle. The toes that stuck out at the end were already a nice shade of lavender. The foot held him up surprisingly well…until Dean tried to take a step.

Julie caught him this time as he fell, her small frame stronger than it looked.

She pushed him carefully but matter-of-factly toward the bed. "You ready to quit being so stubborn and take it easy?"

"I have to find Sam," Dean gritted out against the sheets he was now folded over.

She helped him up, gentle with his leg until Dean let out a whistling sigh of relief as he relaxed into the bedding. He watched warily as she slid a pillow under his injured limb. "Who's Sam?"

"M'brother. He's gonna be worried." Which was an understatement. Sam would be ready to dredge the river by now, and had probably called in every search-and-rescue unit in the state. "I need to reach him. My phone wasn't…?"

"Sorry." She pulled a blanket over him and tucked it in. Dean tried to remember the last time a woman had done that for him and came up blank. "All you had on you were your clothes—even lost your shoes. Oh, and these."

Dean squinted at the bedside table—his amulet and Sam's charm—then dropped his head back and glared at the ceiling. "Okay, fine, maybe somebody could go find Sam then? He's gotta be close somewhere."

"I'll see if I can get someone," Julie said vaguely as she set a plate on his stomach. "You like eggs?"

"Why, you gonna see how many hard-boiled ones I can eat?" Dean sniped back.

The girl gave him a puzzled look.

"Never mind," Dean muttered. He snaked out a hand for the amulet, instantly feeling a little better as it settled back in its spot on his breastbone. "What kind of place is this, anyway. You camping?"

"Sort of. It is a camp—you know, like the kind you go to when you're a kid? Only, anybody can come here, and you can stay as long as you like." She handed him a fork and a glass of juice.

Dean frowned. "Seriously? What, like a sort of commune?"

"I don't know what that means, but it's a nice place to stay. You'll like it, when Doc says you can get up." The last was delivered with a pointed finger before she marched back to the door. "Holler if you need something."

Dean cowed a little before the maternal order. "Yes, ma'am," he grumbled, then focused on the food. Which looked good, eggs and sausage and hashbrowns mounding the plate.

Well…it wouldn't hurt to eat before he looked for a way out.

00000

Sam's life was full of graves.

Mom's was in Lawrence, a marker over an empty box. Pastor Jim's was outside his beloved parsonage; he and Dean had visited it just a couple of weeks before to pay their respects. Caleb was buried in a family plot in Oklahoma, and Dad… They'd cremated Dad, but Sam had secretly put up his own tiny monument to the man with a small cross of stones where they'd consigned their father's ashes to the Dakota winds. And that was besides all the graves they searched out and dug up and resanctified and filled in. Sometimes, all he could taste was graveyard dirt.

The idea of not even having a body to bury for his brother was unbearable.

"Sir." The search-and-rescue leader—Sam was pretty sure he'd had a name—spoke with kindness but authority. "It's been twenty-four hours, sir."

"So what?" Sam snapped. "That doesn't change anything."

"It's getting dark—we'll keep going, but…I just want you to know, it's rare that we find someone after this much time."

Sam wheeled on him, away from the bushes he'd been looking under. "You mean alive, right? You don't usually find someone alive after this long."

The man had tanned skin and weather-worn lines around his eyes. "I'm sorry, you just need to know at this point we might be looking for a body."

The kindness got through to him when no words could have. Sam's face crumpled, eyes filling. "Don't tell me that," he quietly pleaded. "Please, you have to… Just don't tell me that."

The man nodded in quiet sympathy, his hand curling over Sam's shoulder. "We'll keep looking, just…try to prepare yourself, all right? We might not find him the way you're hoping." A thump of Sam's shoulder, and the man moved away, shouting to a few of the men who were spread across the area.

Sam rubbed at his eyes with his good hand. No. When that elemental had washed Sam away, it had taken him a long time to straggle back to Dean, but he had. It hadn't killed him. No way was a little water taking down the mighty Dean Winchester. He was maybe hurt, maybe not close, maybe needing some help. But he was alive and trying to find a way back to Sam, Sam knew it. He wouldn't give up.

Sam's chin trembled as he remembered the hollow look in the mirror of his brother's hazel, the reckless way he'd been hunting recently, like he didn't care if he lived or died.

But he wouldn't…wouldn't give up. Sam would kill him if he did.

He turned back to the bushes, hands rolled into fists. Then he tilted his head back and yelled to the woods at large.

"DEAN!"

00000

"DEAN!"

His name had been Sammy's first word, shortened somehow by a letter or two the way only a toddler could. Dean had been torn between pride that Sammy had said his name, and mortification that it hadn't been Dad. But Dad had just smiled and been happy with them over Sammy's achievement.

Dean would soon wish Sam would forget his name when he proceeded to call every single thing he came across "D'n," then when he yelled for Dean every single time he got frustrated or stuck, then when he trailed after Dean full of questions, every single one of them starting with "Dean, why…?" He'd feign sleep sometimes when an elementary-age Sammy whined his name because he was bored in yet another empty motel room, and roll his eyes when teenage Sam spat "Dean" like it was a curse word.

But it also filled him with indescribable warmth whenever Sam murmured "Dean" in his sleep, or called out for him first even as an adult when he was hurt or scared, or just said his name with an affection Dean never heard from anyone else, including Dad. He knew his brother's every "Dean," just as he did Sam's every mood.

Dean gasped awake, the echo of his brother's call in his ear. That one was fear and desperation.

He'd dozed off after breakfast despite his plans, waking only to gathering dusk and Julie with another meal. Doc had been just behind her, and had pleasantly dodged Dean's questions even while rewrapping his leg. The damage was real: bruising was coming up the whole length of the limb, and there was swelling from his knee down to his toes, not to mention all the other parts of his body that were aching and stiff. But that didn't mean he wasn't growing more and more wary of his good Samaritans. Especially since it didn't seem like anyone had made an effort to go find Sam, nor were explaining to Dean exactly where he was, nor even helping him out of the bed any farther than the small bathroom.

And somewhere, Sam was calling for him. Dean knew it.

The room was dark now, cricket music swelling in the silence beyond. No, not quite silence: Dean heard the low murmur of voices. They sounded…friendly. Calm. Happy.

Yeah, nothing suspicious in that.

Dean glanced around the room, finally spying a pile of wood in the far corner, long slender struts and flat planks, like pieces of a disassembled bookshelf.

Dean carefully rolled off the bed, taking care not to jar his right leg. There were slippers tucked under the bed, and he put them on after a brief hesitation. He found his balance, then took an unsteady hop toward the pile. Righted himself, hopped again, then again. By the time he plopped down by the wood, he was doing pretty well, if sweaty and sore.

It only took a minute to find what he'd been hoping for: a piece of wood about two-by-two, a little longer than his leg. Dean hummed in satisfaction and tested its strength, then used it to push himself upright. It was a little tall for a proper cane, and a handle would have helped a lot, but he was used to making do. When he was sure he was steady, Dean hop-limped toward the door.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting to find, but it wasn't the campfire.

About thirty people of different ages, kids to senior citizens, were gathered in a loose circle around a large fire, some toasting marshmallows, some softly singing, others just talking or watching the flames. They certainly didn't seem to be any kind of prisoners, or jailers. Low shacks flanked both sides of the fire, disappearing into the night, and to the left was a long building that could have been a cafeteria. Dean took it all in in bewilderment. A year-round camp that hadn't been on any of the maps? With a lot of able-bodied adults, none of whom seemed interested in finding his brother? What the…?

"You shouldn't be up."

The voice was so mild, it barely made him start, even though it was next to his elbow. Dean quickly turned, keeping his balance, and warily watched as a tall figure stepped out of the shadows.

"Yeah, well, no offense, Doc, but when nobody's telling me anything, I get a little…concerned."

Doc smiled. "There's nothing to tell, Dean. We find people sometimes in the woods, injured or lost. They can rest and heal here, and some of them choose to stay. You are welcome, too."

Dean snorted. "Right. And all I have to do is sign over everything I own to you guys, right?"

The man, seeming genuinely amused. "We're not a cult. There's no preaching here—there's no need. Perhaps you're not used to offers without conditions, but there are none here. You're free to stay…or go."

"Yeah?" Dean stared at him suspiciously. "So if I want to leave now, you'll just help me get out."

The dark head tilted. "I didn't say that. We're all busy here—there's no one to spare. When you're better, you're free to walk out on your own. But until you heal, I'm afraid you'll have to stay our guest."

Dean's scowl deepened. "What about my brother?"

"He'll be all right." The answer was so calm, so dispassionate.

"No, see, that's not how it works. I disappear, Sam's not just gonna sit around waiting for me to show up again. He's gonna think I'm—" Dead. Sam would think he was dead. He'd look for Dean, he'd never stop searching, but another piece of him would die every day Dean stayed gone.

Dean knew that feeling far too well.

He cursed, pushing away from the older man. "Thanks for the first aid, Doc, but I gotta go."

"Dean—"

Dean ignored the call and kept limping.

It took a while to find a path in the dark, but he finally did. The uneven ground forced him to slow, but if he didn't bend his knee or ankle, the pain wasn't too bad. It was awkward and creeping, though, and the rough end of the two-by-two dug into his palm with every step. Dean swore softly under his breath as he stumbled on.

The woods grew darker as he left the camp and the fire behind. There was a half-moon out, but the trees blocked most of its light. Dean started moving more by feel than sight, searching for where the foliage parted for the path. "Smart, Dean," he muttered to himself "Couldn't wait for daylight so you could see where you were going?"

But Sam's cry lingered in his memory, and there was no way Dean was not responding to it.

The throbbing of his bad leg seemed to increase with every step he took, until it felt like someone was hacking at his ankle with a dull blade every time he put weight on it. His hobbling grew more labored, his breaths shortening to pants, and he could feel his hair and his shirt dampen and stick to his skin with sweat. Dean leaned harder on the makeshift crutch, cursing at the splinters that jabbed him, and struggled on. Damned if he was gonna stay here any longer, even if he had to crawl back to Sam.

He stumbled, wearily righting himself. His vision swam in the dark, and his head pulsed with his heartbeat. Each step took more effort than the last.

His bad foot unexpectedly landed lower than Dean expected, in a depression in the path. Before he could stop himself, he was tumbling forward, landing roughly on hands and knees. His crutch went flying, and his vision filled with fireworks of bright pain from his knee and ankle.

Dean managed to swallow everything but the small moan that leaked out the sides of his gritted teeth. It wasn't even broken. He'd staggered on a cracked femur once a few dozen feet to get to Sam. This should've been nothing.

Dean tried to push up, and fell back with a hiss as his ankle refused to straighten.

There was the sound of movement behind him, and Dean groped for the piece of wood. At least it would make a good weapon if not a support.

"Dean?" It was Julie's voice. "Are you all right?"

"Peachy," he said hoarsely, sagging back into the dirt. His stomach swam sickly at the pain.

A flashlight bobbed into view, then another. Doc and Julie, coming to bring the prodigal back. Or maybe the escapee. Even a young girl and an old guy were captors enough in his condition.

Dean didn't fight the hands that helped him up, nor the hazy twilight that settled over him before they even reached the camp.

00000

Dean had gotten hurt badly twice before Sam had left for school. He was pretty sure the second time had contributed to his decision to go.

But Dad had been there then, and no matter how deep the rebellion had gone in Sam's heart, he'd still believed his dad could fix anything. So when Dean had gotten electrocuted on the rawhead hunt and the doctors gave up hope and there was no Dad there to promise he'd be all right…Sam had floundered. It was the first time it had truly sunk in that his larger-than-life big brother was mortal.

The car crash had cemented it, had shifted Sam's worldview to include taking care of his brother, not just being taken care of. It had been a lesson neither of them had wanted Sam to have to learn, but it was part of growing up. And as scary as it was to be needed like that by the person you usually leaned on, to see your hero as flawed and weak…there had been some gratification in it, too, in the ability to give, not just take. In finally getting to be for Dean what he had always been for Sam. They were becoming truly brothers, after a lifetime of caretaker and child.

He didn't, wouldn't, couldn't lose that now.

Search-and-rescue had given him a small tent—too small, really, for his six-four frame, not that it made a difference—and forced him to rest a few hours. It was true that they could miss something important in the dark, and that Sam's balance and vision had started to waver in his exhaustion. But lying there safe and warm while Dean was at the mercy of the river…how they expected him to sleep this way, Sam didn't know.

He pressed his gritty eyes shut against the burn of tears and buried his face between the pillow and his ruined cast to muffle the soft sounds of despair.

Please, God. He'd always prayed, ever since Pastor Jim had introduced him to God. Please. I need him. And he deserves more. He's gone through so much already. Please don't let it end like this. I can't lose him, too.

And then, Hang on, Dean. I'm gonna find you. Just…hang on.

The promise dried up the silent tears. Not feeling quite so alone, Sam fell into sleep without even realizing it.

00000

He didn't remember what it was like to have his own room anymore.

Oh, sure, there'd been solo hunts—more than he liked to think about—while Sammy was away at school and Dad took off on his own missions. Dean still got double rooms then, seeking out motels on the interstate or pay-by-the-hour dives where everyone was loud, just to keep from hearing the silence. He was used to having to retreat to the bathroom for a few moments' privacy, to getting kicked in bed and having the covers stolen, to listening drowsily to morning ablutions and late night TV, and drifting off to snores.

So bird song being the only sound to break the silence of being alone was kind of jarring.

Dean snapped awake, and almost snapped upright until his body reminded him with a groan that it wasn't at its best. He was used to ignoring injuries, though, and when the only sound he continued to hear was the birds and realized the thin light streaming in was from early dawn, Dean didn't linger.

One way or another, he was getting out of there that day.

His crutch, surprisingly, was leaning against the wall by the door. Even more surprising, the end was sanded down now, smooth to touch and easy to grasp. Not exactly the actions of people who wanted to keep him trapped, but Dean's suspicion only deepened. He'd seen too many victims die in velvet traps, lulled by comfort or lust or sleepiness while succubae and dreamweavers killed them softly. But in the end, dead was still dead. And prisoners were still trapped.

He palmed the crutch, eased the door open to a silent, misty morning, and made his way outside.

No one was around to stop him, and Dean soon found the path he'd trod the night before. Grinning to himself, he started back toward the river, and Sam.

The increasing light made it easy to pick his way around and over low branches and forest debris and uneven ground. The birds sang brightly above, a good sign nothing dangerous lurked in the area, and the path more or less meandered away from the mountains, which should mean he was heading back to the river. The pain began to increase again with every step, but Dean pushed on, muttering curses and lines of song under his breath, focusing on the trail and what he needed to do rather than what stood in his way.

He didn't see where the path was opening to until he was almost in the clearing. Dean stepped out from amidst the trees, jaw dropping in disbelief. "What the…?"

The camp was just starting to stir before him, people in singles and couples strolling between the cabins and the washhouse.

Dean's head whipped around, taking in the mountains and the position of the sun. No. There was no way he should've doubled back at all, let alone without noticing. He should've been a half-mile away by now, not back at camp.

He turned to go again, movements sharp and less careful.

Twenty-five minutes later, sweating and exhausted, he hobbled back into camp.

"Son of a bitch!" Dean spat, jabbing the crutch down so hard, it embedded itself an inch into the dewy grass. His amulet bounced against his throat at the agitated movement.

That reminded him. Dean dug into his pocket where he'd absently stuffed Sam's charm, hesitated a moment as he stared at it, then slipped it over his head.

The clearing was suddenly full of such brilliant light, it almost seared his eyes. Swearing, Dean yanked the charm off, blinking his vision back.

"You're not going to let yourself rest, are you?"

Dean jerked his head around at the rueful words to glare at Doc. The man could creep up on him like no one else, and if he hadn't been so frickin' sick of all this, Dean might've been wary. "What are you?" he asked bluntly. "What is this place, some kind of dream world? Or just cursed? Some kinda 'you check in but you don't check out' Hotel California thing?"

The man's lips twitched up. "Julie said you'd fight us, but I underestimated you, Dean."

Dean's fingers flexed on the crutch, his jaw set and his belly full of fire. "You tell me right now what's going on, or I'm taking this place apart, starting with you."

"We're not trying to hurt you, Dean."

The small voice from behind him had Dean dropping back a step, hiding a grimace as he put weight on his bad leg, so he could keep both Julie and Doc in sight at the same time. "Yeah, you just won't let me leave," he shot back at the girl.

She smiled sadly at him. "We're not the ones keeping you here. You haven't decided yet."

Dean's brow furrowed; every instinct he had was saying she wasn't a danger, but none of this made sense, and he felt the lengthening separation from Sam like pain. "Decided what?"

"Whether you want to go back."

He scoffed. "Right, my taking off three times now was just me going for a walk. Try again, kid."

"It's not about leaving," Doc picked it up. "It's about going back."

Dean could feel his blood pressure rising. "If one of you doesn't start talking English here, I swear to God—"

"This is an in-between place, Dean," Julie said gently. "Those who come here are hurt and weary and need rest. They find it here, and when they're better, they must decide: will they stay, or will they go back to the life that wounded them."

Dean blinked at her, switching his gaze from Julie to Doc and back. They both looked serious and earnest. "Wait. So, you're saying…this place is some kind of…purgatory?"

Doc smiled. "It has no name, but if that's what you wish to call it…"

"And that means both of you are…dead." Dean squinted at Julie doubtfully. "Seriously? You expect me to believe—?"

"Dean," and Julie didn't sound like a kid anymore. "You have your mother's stubbornness, but also your brother's faith. I know you've been hurt, deeply, but try to open your heart, just a little."

Dean stared at her, speechless. There was something… "Julie?" he whispered. "Aunt Julie?"

Her smile sparked memory in him. "It's been a long time, Dean. You've grown up into quite a man."

"But…" His mind reeled. Those days after the fire, his memory was sharper than most four-year-olds', clarified by pain and fear. He remembered her now, Mom's friend they'd stayed with for a few days while Dad tried to make sense of things. She'd died while they were there. Dean couldn't remember the details, just the knowledge that something terrible had happened, from his dad's shaken expression and the way he'd clutched them tight, and the fact that they'd never stayed in a house again, just moved around from motel to motel after that. Dean cleared his throat. "So…I'm dead?"

"No, Dean," Doc said patiently. "Not yet. You're injured and lost, but the choice is yours: return to the life that scarred you, or stay here and heal."

"And then?" Dean peered at him. "What, Hell? Heaven? Coming back as a fly?"

The older man chuckled. "Whatever lies for you beyond. Even I don't know that. But surely it's better than the pain and emptiness of life?"

That drew him up short. It was true…sort of. Life had become an obstacle course, gray and exhausting and a struggle every friggin' minute of the day. Dad was gone, had left Dean with unbearable final orders, and Sam looked at him as if Dean had the answers, as if he was in charge now, and…he didn't. He couldn't be. He was so very tired. Every morning, it took all he had just to get out of bed.

Stay here and rest…heal. He longed for that, more than he'd even realized.

But Sam was still out there, scared and searching for him and alone. If he gave up—and, God, Dean couldn't even believe he was considering giving up—Sammy would be all alone, just when he needed Dean the most. Not to be his dad or judge or executioner. Just his brother, looking after him, saving him the way Dean always had. It was the one thing that gave him purpose and strength now.

It was enough. He'd make it enough.

"I need to go back." Dean met Doc's eyes, then Julie's. "You want a decision? I'm deciding. I want to go back."

Julie's eyes were bright. "Are you sure?" she whispered. She lifted a hand to his cheek, and Dean closed his eyes for a moment at the maternal touch. "You carry such a heavy burden."

"Yeah," he said hoarsely, "but it's mine. Thank you. But I'm not dropping it."

Her touch left his face. And when he opened his eyes, the camp was gone. He and Doc stood alone by the side of the river, trees all around.

"Where'd she—?"

Doc smiled. "She's said her goodbyes. Now it's time for mine." He held a hand out. "I hope to see you again someday, Dean."

Dean eyed him a moment, then stretched to take the hand. "Yeah, well, no offense, Doc—or whatever your name is—but I'm kinda hoping that's not gonna be for a lotta years."

The man tilted his head. "Maybe. Maybe." He squeezed Dean's hand gently. "It's time."

Dean looked at him, then the river. "So, uh… I should just…"

The dark head inclined, a hand sweeping out to indicate the water. "Right where you came out."

"Right," Dean mumbled. He limped to the edge of the river, dropped the wooden crutch, then eased into the water. It was cold, and the current already pulled at him. He turned back. "Hey, you sure—?"

Doc was gone. Dean was alone in the silent woods.

He looked back at the water and took a deep breath. "C'mon, it's not the craziest thing you've ever done." Another breath, and he closed his eyes and dove forward.

For a forever moment, there was only cold and wet. He was tossed and churned, body tumbling, water filling his lungs until he choked for air. He fumbled for something to grab on to, yelping when his bad knee banged into something hard. He couldn't see for all the spray and murky water, and when a wave closed in over his head, he started to thrash in mindless panic.

"Dean!" Something solid looped around his chest, and he automatically clutched at it. "Easy, man. I gotcha. I gotcha."

His head was pulled above water, and he hacked out silty river water, trying to drag in air. Foam splashed up in his face, and he struggled harder, desperate not to drown.

"Dean, stop!"

The barked command penetrated even the instinctive part of his brain, stilling him momentarily. The band across his chest eased, then heaved him up, something pressing against his stomach now.

He folded over, vomiting up water.

A broad hand, wet but warm, smoothed against his forehead, and he was braced from behind. As his knees hit solid ground and buckled painfully, he was heaved over onto his side, cheek dragging against wet material. Dean retched a few more times, then curled miserably, freezing and short of breath and burning with pain.

"Easy, easy. You're okay, you're out of the water, just breathe." The hand on his forehead swept up, pushing his hair back, then curled around to support his heavy head. "You're okay, Dean. Thank God, you're okay."

He waited until he could focus on something else besides raspy, painful breathing, then opened his eyes, blinking water out of them to look up. Sam's face loomed above him, so close, Dean could see the puffy redness of his eyes and the water beading on his sodden hair. Sam. Just trying to say that much set him coughing again, but he saw the recognition and relief in his brother's eyes.

"I'm here. I found you." Sam curled forward in what had to be an uncomfortable position, one arm under Dean's head, the other snug around his chest, holding him tight against Sam's belly as if he were afraid the river would yank Dean away again. Sam was dripping on his face. There were shouts, voices in the distance, but Sam leaned down close enough to whisper, only for the two of them. "You're gonna be all right, Dean."

Dean just looked back at him, blinking slow, frozen fingers stiff around Sam's wrist and head tucked into Sammy's hold. Even if he'd had the strength for it, Dean wouldn't have argued.

At that moment, wet and cold and beyond tired, he would take his brother's word for it.

00000

They could always count on being sore and tired November third. And the day after Mom's birthday, and after their parents' anniversary.

Their dad didn't take those reminders well, and would bury himself in training and activity as distraction. Unfortunately, he took his sons with him. Sam dreaded those days for a whole other reason than his dad and maybe even Dean, because John's way of grieving was not his own. At Stanford, he'd gone to church instead, talked in abstracts with Jess, spent time in solitude.

After their dad had died, Sam had tried at first to push Dean to grieve with him his way, to share his memories and pain. After that had failed spectacularly—and resulted in a hole in the Impala's trunk—Sam had tried Dean's way, following his lead on a zombie hunt, finding this "easy" one for him to distract himself. But really, that was just Dad's method all over again.

Maybe Dean needed to mourn his own way.

Or maybe Sam just sucked at this looking-after-his-brother thing, because "easy hunt"? Yeah, right. He hummed out a breath and drove his hands through his hair, the edge of the cast catching on stray strands. He dropped the casted arm onto the edge of Dean's bed, the fingers of his other hand absently pulled between his teeth.

They were in the hospital—again. That in itself was bringing up all kinds of anxiety and bad memories, let alone the fact that Dean was once more lying pale and still in the bed. He'd been rewarmed out of his hypothermia, had a messed up leg in a soft splint, and had compromised his lungs with the bucket of river water he'd swallowed. But the doctor said he'd be okay, and he was just sleeping now under a pile of blankets, a simple IV in his arm.

The doctor hadn't seen him on that riverbank, though, silent in Sam's grasp. Or on that empty mountain road as Dean had begged him for an answer Sam didn't have. He hadn't seen the deadness in Dean's eyes since that hellish night, or the way he killed things now, like he needed it. That was so far from okay, Sam didn't have a word for it, and he didn't know if Dean would want to come back from there. Maybe he'd just let himself wash away like the river had almost succeeded doing.

Something brushed against his hand.

Sam frowned and looked down at his freshly casted limb, resting on the bed. And next to it, Dean's hand, two fingers rubbing along the plaster's edge.

"Got a new one, huh?" Dean sounded like he'd been gargling sediment, rough and painful and tired.

Sam stared at the two hands until his eyes watered. "Yeah," he answered, hushed.

"Huh."

Sam glanced up at him finally, finding his brother's eyes already on him. They looked as sore as his voice sounded. No one could tell him how Dean had survived so long in the river, close to two days; Sam had thought he was imagining it when he'd seen his brother suddenly bob to the water's surface, coughing and choking. But whatever he'd been through those last two days had taken its toll. "You want some water?" Sam asked dumbly.

Took him a second to realize the cough was really a laugh. "Think 've had enough water for a while, thanks." Dean still seemed parched, but Sam wasn't going to push it. The IV wouldn't allow dehydration. Dean rolled his head back to look at the ceiling. "Dude, I had this weird dream…"

Dean's fingers had explored the upper width of the cast, and Sam turned it over absently to allow the inspection to continue. "Yeah?"

Dean shook his head loosely, his eyes creeping shut. "Yeah. Julie was…" He licked his lips. "I'll tell ya later, 'kay?"

"Okay." Sam kinda doubted he would, but at least it didn't seem like it'd been a bad dream. He glanced around the room, his knee bouncing, then back at his injured brother. "You warm enough? I can get you another blanket." He couldn't think of what else to say, to offer.

Dean's eyes reopened, moving to follow his own a little too shrewdly. "This isn't your fault, Sammy."

He breathed a laugh. "Oh, yeah? I don't seem to recall you being so keen on doing this hunt, Dean."

Dean shifted a little, eyes tightening with pain but otherwise showing—allowing himself—no sign of discomfort. "Okay, first, nobody's used the word 'keen' since the Fifties, Sam. And second, you didn't make me do anything I didn't want to."

Sam sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I just…I thought this hunt would be good for us, you know, get us back on track? Things have been so screwed up lately, man, and I'm just…" He dropped his hand into his lap. Worried would not be taken well. Tired didn't even begin to cover it. And scared would just have Dean worrying about him. How was he supposed to help when he didn't know what Dean needed and his ideas only made things worse?

"I'm okay, Sammy," Dean said softly.

Sam peered up through his bangs, the edges of his mouth softening. "Yeah?" he said doubtfully.

Dean's eyes slid away for a moment to something Sam didn't see. That had been happening a lot lately, but whereas his big brother usually lapsed into bleak silence after such a retreat, now he just seemed thoughtful. When his gaze returned to Sam, maybe…maybe there was even a little more peace there, a little more certainty than there had been before. "Yeah," he said, and he sounded like he meant it.

Sam mustered a tremulous smile.

Dean quirked it back, then his eyes slid shut. "'Be even better with a cheeseburger when I woke up," he slurred, already sounding half asleep.

Sam laughed. "Yeah. All right," he murmured.

Dean's curled fingers remained cushioned on Sam's open palm, though, and for the time being, Sam wasn't in any hurry to move at all.

The End