Whew, that was close. Wanted to get this finished before the episode tonight.

Chapter Seven

Dean came to with a groan in his throat. Sonofabitch, he hurt. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew he was in the back seat of the Impala. He'd know the feel of her old springs and leather anywhere. Except he wasn't quite all the way on the seat, more like just his back with his hips and legs sprawled downward out the open door. A cooling breeze blew across him. Which was just . . . weird. Last thing he remembered was the mountain man's ghost doing the huggy-bear mamba on him while little brother Sammy went off dancing with the sugar plum fairies in his own head.

Eyes snapping open, Dean sat up. "Sammy?" Ow, ow, ow, ow. He pulled his arms around his chest, hissing in a breath. Damn, that hurt. Exhaling, he took quick inventory. Nothing broken, ribs probably just bruised, hurt like a mother. "Sam!"

Scooting across the seat, Dean looked across the moonlit night. They were still in the mountains, in the same place he'd parked the car before hiking and setting up their tent the previous day. Holding onto the open door, Dean gingerly pushed to his feet, glancing down . . .

And found Sam. Lying on the ground not two feet from him, moonlight illuminating the shiny black liquid covering most of his still face.

Steel bands seemed to clamp around Dean's chest, tighter than the mountain man's hold had been. Dean dropped to his knees. "Sammy."

More blood had soaked through Sam's shirts, glossy and pooling lengthwise across the kid's torso on the side he laid on. Feeling for a pulse, the pads of his fingers sliding in the accumulation of blood on Sam's neck, it was easy for Dean to take in what had happened. The long slice across his brother's forehead and the hastily put-together travois a few steps beyond of two long saplings running inside the sleeves of both Sam's and Dean's jackets. His brother had somehow snapped himself out of his Hell-induced illusions, almost been scalped by the mountain man, somehow gotten both himself and Dean away, and dragged Dean all the way back here, nearly getting him into the back seat before he passed out.

It scared the crap out of Dean, but he also felt incredibly incredibly proud.

He sighed, finally finding a pulse. Thank God, kiddo. The only thing he didn't have an explanation for was the amount of blood coating Sam's shirts. Not wanting to jostle him too much until he knew what he was dealing with, Dean pulled his knife from his boot and cut Sam's T-shirt down the middle and then carefully pulled the material away from his brother's side. That band of steel tightened incrementally around Dean's ribs. A thin slice ran from Sam's shoulder to just below the side of his navel as though someone had wanted to pull back the curtains and look at his ribcage. It wasn't too deep, but damn, it was long. A significant amount of blood loss and keeping infection from settling in was probably the biggest concern. Not counting that he didn't know how long Sam had been out cold, lying in the dirt, pumping out blood he didn't have the luxury of losing. Damnit.

Gritting against his own pain, Dean stretched over Sam and fished his keys out of his jacket stretched between the travois poles. He hurried to the trunk and pulled out the first aid kit, grabbing a blanket that he tossed into the back seat for later and set the kit next to his brother before pulling his outer shirt off.

"Kay, Sammy. I'm gonna patch you up a bit, then we're out of here." He tipped the water bottle over his shirt, wetting the fabric and began dapping at the blood on Sam's face. "We'll stop at the first hotel we come to, get you warm in a nice bed, rested up. You'll like that, huh? Come on, Sam, you need to wake up."

Dean had most of the blood cleaned away from the slice on the kid's forehead and was holding the skin tightly together with all of their butterfly bandages on it when Sam started moving, long legs kicking at the soil, a hand lifting and falling, then lifting again toward his head. "Owww."

Dean grabbed Sam's wrist, pulled his hand down. "No touching. Your hands are dirty." Crusted in blood. "You with me, Sam?"

"Nmmmmph."

"Come on, gotta do better than that. Prove it to me."

Sam's face scrunched in annoyance. Dean smiled, rejoicing in every little nuance of pure unadulterated Sam emotion.

Sam's eyes slid open, settled on Dean before his forehead pulled into those horseshoe crinkles, puckering the butterfly bandages. Sam's lips curled downward. "I feel like crap and you're smiling."

"I'm smiling because I'm such an awesome doctor my bandages are holding out even against your bitchiest of expressions."

"You're an ass."

"An awesome ass." Dean started mopping at the blood on Sam's shoulder, stopping when Sam flinched. "Cold?"

Sam nodded, mouth tight. "Hurts."

"Sorry. I'll be quick." He pressed the damp shirt onto the wound again, noting how Sam's fists clenched. "You almost had the haircut of all haircuts. Wanna tell me what happened?"

Sam's eyes drifted closed. "Found the mountain man's scalp. Burned it." His head lolled to the side.

Dean taped several large squares of gauze over Sam's wound. They were stark white in the moonlight. "Little vague on details there, pal." He nudged his brother. "Sam?"

Sam's eyes wrenched open on a gasp.

"Talk to me, what else happened?"

But Sam didn't answer him. His gaze tracked to a point over Dean's shoulder. His eyes widened in fear. Dean looked behind him, saw only the gleaming chrome of the Impala.

"Go away," Sam's strangled whisper raised the fine hairs along Dean's arms.

Dean slipped his palm beneath Sam's neck to offer comfort, let him know he was there ready to help Sam fight his inner battles with him, but something else happened. Sam's features relaxed, a slight smile curved his lips.

Dean narrowed his eyes, wondering what was going on now. "You seein something?"

Sam's gaze ticked back to his, held. "Was. Gone now."

Dean didn't know what to make of that, but if the peace settling onto his brother's features was any indication, it was a good thing.

"Okay, Sasquatch. Let's get you into the car." He pulled Sam to a sitting position, pausing while the kid's torso clenched tight and waited for Sam to breathe through it, Dean's arms around him, ready to lift. "So the mountain man's gone?"

"Yeah." Sam's voice was pitched high and tight with pain.

"Good, 'cause I don't really want to deal with him." He shuddered theatrically. "What if he would've gone for my hair."

"Uh—um."

Now Dean flinched. "He went to scalp me?"

Sam shrugged within Dean's grip.

"Holy crap." A mental picture of himself with a scarred bald head made his stomach roll and clench. Shaking if off, he hauled Sam laboriously to his feet, guiding his brother the few steps to the back seat.

"Left the tent, all our supplies." Sam sat heavily on the seat, legs still outside, leaning his blood-caked head against the metal edge of the open door.

"Screw the tent." Dean reached beyond Sam and unfurled the blanket, spreading it across the seat. Well, except his favorite rifle was still out there and a bunch of supplies in the duffle. He'd come back for their stuff in a day or so while Sam was on the mend at the closest motel, which made him stop short at the thought, that he'd consider going someplace that was more than a few hours away from Sam and out of cell range.

He thought about that as he helped him lower to lie across the seat, pulled the rest of the blanket up around him, then went to get their jackets off the saplings and put the first aid kit back in the trunk. Something had changed within Sam, something significant. He didn't know what it was, but Dean knew his brother, knew every expression, and he knew that somehow, in some crazy Sam way, his sibling was beating Hell.

#

Sam stared at the little mom and pop gas station. After several days of rest, it had seemed important to come here, to try once again to make amends to the father who owned the place. He was ready for that, ready to face him, to beg forgiveness for allowing his wife to believe she could turn their daughter back when he'd really only used her as bait to draw the werewolf in.

But now that he was here, he wasn't sure this was what the father needed. Sure it would ease Sam's conscience, but was that really the point anymore? How would him showing up out of the blue, seeking forgiveness, help the man inside?

"Sure you don't want me to come with?" Dean startled him out of his musings.

Sam turned back toward his brother. "Actually." He scraped his teeth over his lower lip. "I'm not sure this is the best thing." He tilted his head toward the gas station. "For him."

To his credit, Dean didn't react, didn't point out that they'd come all this way. He simply nodded and Sam nearly wept at the infinite well of his brother's patience with him.

"I mean I can't bring his wife and daughter back. I can't make that right for him. All I'd be doing is bringing back bad memories to the surface, making things worse."

"You sure? You'll be okay with walking away?"

Sam glanced back over his shoulder. "Yeah." His gaze swung back to the car where a flock of vultures tore bits of flesh away from the bloated body slumped across the Impala's roof. A sharp beak lifted, long neck arched to gulp down a rotting hand.

"Sam." Dean's palms curled onto his shoulders, earnest face looking into his. "You seeing something?"

Sam nodded. "A dead guy. Vultures."

Dean cursed. "I hated that one. And then when the vultures turned on me . . . ggga." He shuddered.

Sam looked away from the grisly scene to stare at Dean. "That happened to you too?"

"Guess they can't always come up with original stuff on the fly."

Sam didn't like that Dean had gone through something like that, but in a messed-up sort of way, it also helped that they had that in common and his brother came through the other side and was able to joke about it.

"The point is . . ." Dean's hands curled tighter. "I've been there, bro. Whatever you see, any time you're seeing it, we can talk about it."

His throat closing, Sam nodded.

"Okay?"

"Yeah."

"That's my boy. I'm just . . ." Dean swallowed, visibly pulling himself together. "I'd give anything for you not to have to go through this, not to have these visions pop up all the time."

"No, it's good. Because when I see one or three or ten at a time, those are ten that have gotten beyond the wall. And that's good."

"How is that good?"

"Because I can deal with them in small doses. It's when the entire wall finally crashes that worries me."

Dean's hand slid down to Sam's wrist. "That's when we'll deal with it together."

Sam looked at his brother, knowing that Dean couldn't possibly know how much that was true. He was only able to deal with any of these memories of Hell because of the memories he had of Dean.

"Hey!" The door to the little gas station slammed open, banging against the outside wall. "You! You . . . should never have come here! I swore if I ever saw your face again . . ." All rage and emotion the father charged across the asphalt, tears burrowing into the weather-beaten features.

Instinctively Dean moved in front of his brother, but Sam shifted to the side, needing to face this on his own, and the man rammed into him, shoving him to the ground, toppling over with him. "You killed them, you killed them, you killed them!" Wailing, the man punched him, slapping wildly, with no real skill, but with a ferocity edged in hysteria. Sam didn't even try to curl in on himself, but opened himself to each jab, each punch, unable to keep from crying out as the gash running down his chest reopened.

"Hey, hey, enough!" Dean was hauling the guy off him, though the fellow thrashed, sobbing, clawing to get back at Sam. "That's it, man! Lay off or I will put you down."

"You think I care?" the father screamed hoarsely, fighting so hard he and Dean went down in a tangle on top of Sam. "This thing killed my family!"

"No, he didn't!" Dean roared, getting the man's elbows up behind his head.

"Dean, let him go," Sam begged, tears wetting his face. "If this is what he needs . . ."

"Nobody needs this. I sure as hell don't need this. Not gonna watch you get a beatdown over something you had no control of. And you . . ." Dean flipped the guy down to his back, got right up into his face. "I know what went down with your family. Your girl was dead the minute she was bitten by a werewolf. Nothing my brother here did was going to change that."

Sam clamped down on his heart at hearing it so bluntly stated. The man stilled in Dean's grip. If possible, his lips trembled more. "But my wife . . ."

Dean faltered. Sam stared at him, afraid to breathe at what Dean might say.

His brother's face hardened. "There is no way to change a person back from being a werewolf." Dean looked at Sam. "Believe me, we know."

The man started shaking. "But he said . . ."

"I know. He was wrong." Dean eased his grip, letting the man sit up. "Look. My brother . . . he wasn't himself. He . . . he was sick . . . in the head. He's better now."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? He let my wife believe she could save our Jenny and our little girl ripped her heart out."

Sam squeezed his eyes closed. He'd let the woman believe she could do something when he should have said something, but he'd thought he could kill the werewolf without the wife throwing herself in the way. It was a gross miscalculation. He'd still killed the wolf though and then left, not caring about the casualty. He remembered it clear as day, yet couldn't comprehend how he had ever thought those things.

"I am so sorry." Sam's voice was quiet. He opened his eyes to face the gas station owner's condemnation.

The man jerked. "Nothing could have saved my Jenny?"

Sam shook his head.

The man's Adam's apple bobbed. He raised a shaky hand to his chin, eyes filling with more tears. "I . . ." He swallowed hard. "I often wondered . . . if maybe I had believed my wife . . . or stopped her. She wouldn't listen to me, was hell-bent on getting Jenny back. She wouldn't have ever given up." His voice broke. "Why did you come here?"

Tears streamed down Sam's face. "I shouldn't have. I'm sorry."

"I told you," Dean said. "He wasn't himself, but now that he's better, he just wanted to set things right."

To Sam's astonishment, the man nodded. "So now I know."

Sam shrank back into himself. "I won't bother you again."

"Good." The man rolled to his feet even as Dean kept a wary eye on him to lash out again. The guy took a few steps away before stopping. He didn't turn back to face them, but his voice carried to them just the same. "Knowing this, it doesn't make it better."

Sam hung his head.

"But it will make it bearable."

Sam looked at the man's retreating back, then up at Dean.

Dean's smile was sad, but full of acceptance and understanding. "Come on, big guy. I think that's enough for the day. Let's get out of here." And Sam felt strong arms wrap around him, lifting, always supporting, always there for him.

#

Dean took a sideways glance at Sam in the passenger seat. The kid's chest was bleeding, some of the stitches most likely broken during the three-way brawl on the asphalt, but he hadn't wanted to remain at the gas-station any longer to look at them when the motel wasn't that far away. Sam stared at his hands in his lap, deep in his thoughts.

"You okay?"

Shiny eyes looked over at him. Those crazy forehead crinkles showed up again. "Actually, I think I am. That . . . was tough. Really tough. But you were there with me." He pressed his lips together for a moment while he gathered his thoughts. Dean didn't press him, just let Sam say whatever it was he was trying to say. "I feel, I don't know. Lighter somehow?"

And damn if Dean didn't feel a lightness suddenly spread through his own chest as well.

"Dean? Can you pull over?"

And so much for that feeling. Kid was going to be sick. Should have seen that coming. Dean pulled off onto the shoulder.

"I need to get something out of the trunk." Sam quickly climbed out of the car.

Oh. That wasn't what he'd expected. Curious, Dean followed his brother to the back of the Chevy, brows raising as Sam reached far back inside the trunk, moving salt canisters and propane tanks out of the way and pulled out a clumsily folded taped newspaper package.

Sam stared at it, shifting his weight onto his heels nervously. "I, um, have had this for a while. Was waiting for the right time."

"The right time for what?"

Sam's eyes lifted to meet Dean's, fear and apology collecting in the liquid depths. "Dean, I remember letting that vampire turn you. I remember the whole thing, what I was thinking when I let it happen." His breathing hitched up. "I can't ask you to forgive me, not for that, never for that, but I need you to know, I am so so sorry."

Dean's first inclination was to step back, get away. This was the conversation he had wanted to set things right, but it was also frightening. He wanted to run from it, pretend none of it had ever happened. But he couldn't move back, couldn't retreat from his brother anymore than he could have left his soul suffering in Hell. This was just another part of it they'd have to deal with, so Dean moved closer, cupped Sam's face between his palms. "You don't ever ask me to forgive you for that, never."

Sam's gaze strayed away. He nodded tightly.

"Because it's always been given."

Sam's eyes ticked back. A tear slid onto his cheek.

Dean slipped a palm onto Sam's shoulder, squeezing, making sure the message was delivered because he never wanted to repeat this conversation. Never.

Sam's smile was tentative, his eyes so full of love and hope if Dean looked into them anymore he was going to lose every fraction of his sloppy composure, which would certainly serve the kid right for messing with his big brother emotions on a continual basis.

"Now tell me what you have in that funky wrapped package."

Sam pressed the newspaper into Dean's hands. "It's, um, a sort of apology . . . for you know . . . everything . . . It's not much, but here. Take this. I want you to have it."

Dean's fingers closed around it. "You got me a sorry-for-getting-you-turned-into-a-vamp present?"

Sam shrugged self-consciously.

"You sure?"

"I'm sure."

Dean tore through the paper, letting out a silent gasp at what he found nestled within. Twining his fingers around a black cord, Dean lifted the little gold head and cradled it in his palm. It wasn't exactly the same as the other one, the weight and feel was different, but it was close.

"I had it specially made, had to draw the picture from memory for the smelter. It's not exact and I know it can't replace the other one, but I was hoping . . . maybe it could mean something too." Sam's lips twisted. This was important. This was Sam's way of trying to make things right with him, trying to rebuild. This wasn't a symbol of their past alone, but an added promise of their future, a new step toward unconditional trust and nothing on earth, Hell, or Heaven could make Dean not give his sibling—his Sammy—the acceptance the kid was reaching out to him for. He slipped the cord over his head, felt the new weight settle over his heart.

"Thank you, Sam. I . . . I love it."

FIN