Author's Note: set in season 6 in the hiatus between episode 11 and 12. Written for a prompt at the ohsam fic challenge.
It feels like he's drowning. Murky darkness all around, he has no idea which way is down and which is up, and there's a pressure crushing his chest. But Sam doesn't panic, not right away. He's a Winchester. His senses start to sharpen; he decides he's not under water, even though he doesn't remember what happened. He takes a shallow breath and tears prick behind his eyes at the stab of pain in his ribs. His limbs are sluggish but he concentrates and gets one arm to move. It flops to his right, and the back of his hand hits something solid but yielding, and produces a small moan.
"Dean!" Sam comes fully alert, like being sling-shot out of a nightmare, and his hand closes tight on a leather-clad shoulder. But it's a small shoulder.
Sam blinks hard to clear his vision while his hand flutters to feel the face of the person beside him. Recognition and memory collide and he sees, he knows.
It isn't Dean.
He remembers what happened now.
Sam knows Dean doesn't understand the real reason he does this every morning – probably because Sam never bothered to explain. There are some things they don't share yet. Not secrets. Just private thoughts that need a little more time. Like Lisa and Ben. All Dean has said is that it didn't work out. There's got to be more to it than that – Sam knows in his heart that Lisa and Ben really cared for Dean, and he knows how hard Dean would have tried to be good to them. But that's one of those things they aren't talking about for now. That's okay - he has time. A gift of time he never expected. So he can wait.
It's dark. Quiet. Sam's feet pound the deserted highway, a steady cadence, regular like a heartbeat. He can see his breath condensing in wispy puffs in front of his face. His thigh muscles burn in a satisfying way. He relishes every irrefutable sign that he's alive. But it's more than this that brings Sam out jogging at what Dean called the 'ass crack of dawn' every day.
The sky hangs above like a giant blackboard, and with every stride Sam takes, it fades further away like a cloud of chalk dust, until it seems the day itself is wiped clean. A fresh start.
Sam knows he'll never hear the end of it if he confesses to Dean that he actually likes seeing the sunrise.
He slows his pace as he gets closer to the motel, and every step makes the feeling of coming home swell in his chest. Maybe, Sam thinks, maybe he'll tell Dean that he runs at dawn because he likes watching the sun painting the soft underbelly of the clouds pink. Just to see if he can get Dean to snort his coffee out his nose.
His hands are numb with the cold as he fumbles the key card out of his zippered pocket and feeds it into the slot above the door handle. It clicks, and he nudges the door open, daylight cutting a slow swath through the darkness on this side of the blackout curtains. The corner of a small table emerges from the shadows first, then Sam's cell phone recharging next to his laptop. A mortar and pestle sit next to a small jar filled with a lumpy purple paste.
He pushes the door open wider, pausing to scrape the slush off his running shoes before stepping inside. Sunlight fans across the two rumpled double beds. Sam sees his gear where he left it on the foot of his bed. Dean's bed is empty.
Dean's bed is empty, and his duffel is missing; everything that's Dean's is missing. There's an overturned Styrofoam cup next to the coffeemaker, spilled coffee puddling on the dresser, still dripping ominously onto the threadbare carpet.
Sam pivots slowly, running a hand through his hair, his chest tight.
His brother is gone.
No. No… C'mon Ben… please…
After that first soft moan, Ben doesn't make a sound, doesn't move, and Sam's hand trembles as he presses his fingertips under Ben's jaw. He shuts his eyes in relief when he feels the boy's pulse, strong and steady. Sam twists then, careful of his own ribs, and looks around. The car, he finds, is leaning at an angle, left side wheels off the ground, his seatbelt keeping him from sliding over on top of Ben. A single functioning headlight beam shows him that they're pointing nose down on a steep slope, wedged tight against a pair of thick trees. The front of the car is crumpled like a beer can, and Sam can smell the acrid scent of deflated airbags.
They're alive. They'd careened down the ravine like an out-of-control rollercoaster, and they're alive. For now, anyway. The shattered windshield is doing nothing to block the arctic night air and despite his jacket, Sam shivers.
Before anything else, Sam needs to get a better look at Ben without moving him. He tilts the rear view mirror, and now he can see where Ben's head is resting against the cracked passenger side window. From this angle, he can't see how much blood there is.
His fingers flutter to the boy's face; after a beat he can feel a soft puff of air that reassures him Ben is breathing okay. But there are shards of glass and melting snow in his hair and his skin feels cold. Sam glances in the back seat, but he knows even before he looks. Nearly everything he needs - extra clothes, blankets, first aid kit – everything - is still in the Impala. All Sam has is his laptop, an overnight duffel with a single change of clothes, and the stuff he'd scooped up off the motel room table when he'd charged out of their room, heart racing, and stolen the first car he'd seen. Everything he had was dumped haphazardly across the back seat, but none of it would help Ben now.
Ben! Duh – he has a sleeping bag and backpack they'd tossed in the trunk. Sam shakes his head to loosen the cobwebs. He needs to be sharp now more than ever. Ben had been camping with his Boy Scout troop. What was their motto – Be Prepared? Sam needs to get into the trunk. Who knows what Ben has there?
Sam can't help remembering Dean hiking with his super-size bag of peanut M&M's for provisions, and he wonders, has Dean passed that wisdom on to Ben? He wishes he could have seen them together. Nobody knows better than Sam what a good father figure Dean would have been for the boy. Maybe he still could be? Or maybe it's not in the cards – that's not his call to make. Sam just wants him to finally be happy.
Assuming Dean's even okay…
It's been an undercurrent of worry all day. He hasn't heard from Dean, and the more time passes, the stronger the need to be at his brother's side, backing him up. He has no idea what Dean's walking into. But what Dean is counting on from him isn't there, he reminds himself sternly. It's right here, right now. Sam's got a job to do, making sure Ben is all right.
The driver's door is on the side of the car that's tilted up, about a foot or two off the ground. Sam thinks he should be able to open it and get out, but he tugs on the handle and the door doesn't budge. He takes as deep a breath as he can with his ribs in the shape they're in and shoves against the door with all his strength. Pain rips through him, any complaints from his ribs drowned out by the new incandescent fire racing up from his right knee. The momentum rocks the car; it wobbles and teeters from its angle of repose, and then slams flat on the ground with a bone-jarring crash. His door flies open and it's the knee that keeps Sam from tumbling out. His leg is pinned under the broken steering column.
Ben slumps against the passenger side door, sullen and suspicious. "Mom didn't really send you to get me, like you told my Scout leader, did she?"
Sam takes his eyes off the treacherous patches of black ice just long enough to look Ben in the eye. "No," he admits, and has the grace to feel guilty. He turns his attention back to the road. "I'm sorry about the lie."
"Yeah, well. It's what you do, though, isn't it?" Ben huffs, folding his arms across his chest. "Hunters? You lie all the time."
Sam winces. When he first met Ben, the boy was a pint-sized dynamo who worshipped the ground Dean walked on. Something had happened in the last year… something Dean isn't talking about. Sam's in the dark here; he's going to have to tread carefully. "I'll make a deal with you," he says after a long minute. "You know the game Twenty Questions?"
Ben stares stonily out the side window, even though dusk is falling fast and there's nothing to see in Manistee National Forest but half a million acres of trees.
"How about we play a variation of that?" Sam tries a smile, gets no response. Ben's not the agreeable eight-year-old Sam remembers. He's eleven now, and Sam remembers what that feels like. Recognizes that attitude, resentment bubbling under the surface, like lava pushing at rock fissures, because Dad wouldn't tell him the truth, wouldn't explain. He knows he's got to do a better job here; there's too much at stake not to. "Look, I need you to not fight me here," he says sincerely. "So, how about, you agree to cooperate, and in return, I promise to give you true answers to twenty questions. Any twenty questions you want to ask."
Ben slowly straightens and brings his gaze around, chin jutting forward, but he still doesn't look at Sam. The silence lasts long enough that Sam decides Ben isn't speaking to him, but finally there's a sigh, and a muttered, "Okay." Ben scuffs his heels restlessly on the floor mat. "Do they have to be yes-or-no questions?"
"No." Sam sneaks a sly glance at his passenger. "Nineteen left."
"Sa-am!" Ben glares at him, but Sam just tilts his head, and then turns his attention back to the road, flicking on the wipers as fat snowflakes dance in the headlights and start to clump on the windshield.
For a long minute, the metronome of the wipers is the only sound inside the car, and then Ben finally takes a deep breath and asks, "So. What're you doing in Michigan? Have you been…" His voice wobbles a little and he stops and starts again. "Have you guys been spying on us?"
The words are indignant, but Sam hears the note of longing in them.
He wishes he could tell Ben that Dean's been watching over him. But he promised the truth, and the truth is, Sam has no idea. He has no memories of the past year; it's just a black hole. "Honestly, Ben?" he says finally, resigned to the facts. "We just caught a case in the area." Sam pauses. "Dean told you there were other things out there, right? Other things besides changelings?"
"I know, I know." Ben gives a bored shrug. "I got the Monsters Are Real speech."
"All right. So. We came to Michigan because we got word about something attacking hikers up in Huron National Forest. Something not natural." Sam doesn't tell Ben about the victims found ripped to shreds, some of them hunters holding freshly fired guns, some with gut hooks and skinning knives still clutched in their hands. But there was never any trace of the creature's blood. "Witnesses say," Sam confesses, knowing how ridiculous it sounds. "They claim the creature's got hide like armor, like it's bulletproof."
"Like the Nemean lion?" Ben blurts out, excited in spite of himself, hostility quickly forgotten.
Sam darts a surprised look Ben's way. "You know the lore?"
"Yeah!" Ben bounces in his seat. "In The Titan's Curse! Percy Jackson fought against it in the Air and Space Museum. It had metallic fur, and arrows just shattered when they hit it. Even Percy's sword, Riptide, just bounced off it."
"But he did defeat it, right?" Sam isn't sure exactly who Percy Jackson is, but he's pretty sure there's a whole series of books about him, so the hero must have survived.
"Of course!" Ben's tone conveys a wordless 'Duh!' "He stole some astronaut food from the museum gift shop and threw it at the Nemean lion's mouth. And it was so nasty it made the lion gag, and that kept his mouth open long enough for Percy's friends to shoot their arrows down its throat." Ben leans forward, gleefully pantomiming the archers. "'Cause that's the only way you can kill it," he explains with conviction. "From the inside."
Sam snorts. If only it would be as easy as freeze-dried ice cream in real-life.
But it's actually not that far off from the Winchesters' plan. The lore he's found agrees – the Nemean lion's hide is impervious to any weapon. That's why Sam's got a jar of toxic paste tucked in his duffel: a blend of snake venom and the ashes of an herb called leopard's bane that they'd burnt at a crossroads. The tricky part is administering the poison, and Dean had come up with the plan for that. Doing his reluctant share of the research, he'd stumbled across reports of farmers in Kenya who baited carcasses with poison to kill the lions who were attacking their livestock. Dean proposed that he and Sam do a little out-of-season deer hunting themselves when they get to Huron, and bait a trap for a ginormous armored mountain lion with their fresh kill. After brushing just enough of their secret formula on its hide to be fatal. (And if Dean somehow got a hold of some of that highly toxic, fast-acting, EPA-banned pesticide the Africans were using, and stirred it in with their concoction, well, Dean always did love a good science experiment.)
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees Ben suddenly deflate, shrinking back against the seat. "So. You came here for a hunt. Not for us." Ben's voice sounds small, tentative. "I mean. I know that. Dean's probably forgotten all about us."
Something catches in Sam's chest, aches like a muscle rusty from disuse. "Dude, if only you knew." He shakes his head, remembering the look in his brother's eyes when he'd told Sam simply, 'It didn't work out'.
"Ben," he says softly, "you know what? Your Mom's number is still in Dean's cell. And he's still got the Wendigo mask you guys made together, too. He kept that. I even know all about how you've got glow-in-the-dark stars on your bedroom ceiling. Dean thinks they're really cool!" Of course, Dean had to be maudlin and drunk on Christmas Day to have shared that little detail, but Ben doesn't need to know that part.
Sam nods, smiling. "Really."
"I, um…" Ben starts, timidly. "I got Dean something for Christmas. But I never sent it." He shrugs. "I didn't know where… or if it would be okay."
"It would've been more than okay." Sam's sure. "You know, Dean's got a birthday coming up in a week. You still can give it to him when this is over, if you want. What'd'you get him?"
"Well." Ben tucks his hands under his knees and ducks his head shyly. "I noticed he doesn't wear that thing any more, that necklace he used to have? So I got him a St. George medallion. 'Cause he's a dragon slayer, and that's kinda like Dean. Right?"
For a moment, Sam can't talk past the lump in his throat. He knows he's missing some memories. But he does remember what had happened to the amulet. "That would be – that would be great," he says finally.
Ben doesn't seem to notice the catch in Sam's voice. "So – where's Dean now?" he asks. "Are we gonna meet up with him?"
"Dean…" Sam takes a deep breath, sighs. This was the question he was dreading. "Dean's making sure your mom's safe."
"Mom? She's in trouble?" Ben squeaks. He twists in his seatbelt to sit up straighter and face Sam, eyes huge in his pale face. "But – why? How?"
The urge to sugarcoat it is strong. How do you explain to a kid that his only parent is in danger? Might never make it home? How do you tell a little boy that he might be an orphan?
But Sam's not going to lie to Ben. He promised. Dean was only thirteen when he'd been put in this situation, Sam realizes. He doesn't know how his brother did it.
He clears his throat. "Dean and me, you know, we've made some enemies over the years. The law, the things we hunt, even other hunters. Dean said… he thinks someone's after us now, and they might be looking to use you guys as bait."
"But how do you know that?" Even belted in, Ben somehow manages to pull his legs up and hug his knees to his chest. "Where is my Mom?" he asks shakily. "Is she okay?"
Honestly, Sam doesn't know much more than what he's already said. Dean had left him an abrupt voice mail message; said that Lisa was being held hostage and he didn't know who or why yet. Just told Sam to pick up Ben and get him someplace safe, and Dean said he'd call again when he had Lisa. It had taken Sam all day to discover where Ben was and finally catch up to him.
"Well, she won't be okay if I let anything happen to you, squirt. She'd be pissed at me. And we can't have that!" Sam gives the back of Ben's neck a quick squeeze. "You've got to remember," he adds, with all the reassurance he can muster, "they don't have any reason to hurt your Mom. Or you. It's Dean and me they want, Ben. So your Mom - she'll be fine."
Ben chews his lip, and slowly unfolds himself, rubbing his palms on his knees. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Honestly, I don't even know who's behind this yet," Sam admits. "But one thing I do know? If I were in trouble, there's no one on earth I would rather have riding to the rescue than Dean. You know that. Right?"
Ben gives a tight nod and slips his hands back under his legs to still them. "Yeah. I know."
He's trying, Sam can see. And Sam does believe every word he just said. But he also knows they'd both feel a lot better if Dean were to call and tell them the crisis was over, and everything was okay.
It takes time, and there's not much farther back Sam can adjust his seat, but he gains another inch and he's finally able to wriggle his leg out from under the steering column. There's no blood, at least not that he can feel, and the denim isn't torn. Maybe, he thinks, his kneecap just got one hell of a bruise. Still, he waits to put any weight on it, dragging first his left leg then his right leg out of the car. He plants one hand on the top of the car door, hauls himself gingerly to his feet, and nearly loses his footing on an exposed tree root slick with ice.
He has to put weight on his right leg then, to keep his balance, and that's a mistake. The knee buckles, and Sam hits the turf hard. His leg explodes in pain and he writhes in the snow, eyes squeezed shut, both hands clenched around his knee. Finally, panting shallowly, he lies limply on the ground, and opens his eyes to find snowflakes clinging to his lashes. He really wishes his annoying big brother was here to laugh at his spectacular fall and then give him a hand up. In the end, though, he sucks it up and rolls onto a hip and then drags himself to a tire he can use to lever himself back to his feet.
Cruising along the side of a car like a toddler learning to walk, he slowly circles the stolen Mazda. The one high beam's still on, and the light bounces off the snow, so Sam can see well enough. Well enough to realize that the car must have rolled on its flight down the ravine. There are dents everywhere, and the trunk is jammed shut. At least there's no sign of a broken fuel pump, no leaking gasoline.
Sweating, he finally reaches Ben's door, but he can't wrench it open. The fender is crushed against a tree trunk, too, and it looks like Ben's leg is probably pinned under the wreckage. Ben looks peaceful, almost like he's just asleep, cheek pressed against the glass. Except for the open gash on the boy's forehead, and the glistening dark blood matting his hair behind his ear.
His headlights pick up a signpost warning of hairpin turns and Sam brakes to ease into the first curve. The park seems to go on forever. The forest creeps closer to the road like a sentient thing; there isn't any shoulder any more, just pavement hemmed by a thin strip of gravel, encroached by dense trees. As he coasts around the bend, a glittering pair of eyes stares out at him from the shadows of the night, unseen.
Sam hasn't decided on their destination yet. He figures if he doesn't even know where he's headed, then the bad guys can't be setting up a trap there. Right?
But he's torn. The farther he takes Ben away from Dean and Lisa, the safer he'll be. But that means it's that much longer Dean is on his own, without backup… Sam's heart starts to pound.
His phone picks that moment to ring and he digs it out of his pocket. He glances at the screen to see who the caller is, and relief ripples through his veins. "Dean. Hey. You find Lisa?"
But the caller on the other end has a cultured accent, smooth as brandy. "Sam. Yes. I'm quite happy to report that your brother is with Lisa as we speak."
Relief turns to something else, sluggish and chilling. Sam's hand clenches around the phone, the plastic case digging into his palm. "Who is this?" He senses Ben reacting, tensing beside him.
"You can call me... Chaney. Yes. That will do nicely." The voice on the other end drips with smug amusement. "Sam. Sam. Do you have any idea how many enemies you Winchesters have? All these years, you've been hunting our kind. And we just let it happen to our brothers and sisters; we did nothing to stop you. But that's going to change. Starting now."
Sam's hands clench on the steering wheel. He feels trapped. It feels like he's tied up, being taunted by his captor, and he struggles to keep his temper, to think. "Your kind?"
"Ah, very good, Sam." Chaney sounds patronizing now. "I've always admired that about you. You don't waste time with ridiculous posturing and threats. You're always looking for more information, for answers. So I'll give you one… or at least a clue. 'Our kind' isn't just one kind. Not anymore. All monsters welcome in the Great Winchester Hunt."
"What the fuck?"
"You must know the movie Ghostbusters. Right, Sam? 'Human sacrifice - dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria'?" Chaney laughs. "Mass hysteria – that's our end game. Dogs and cats living together? That's our strategy. And human sacrifice?" Sam can practically hear the feral smile. "That's where you and Dean come into play."
"What. Have. You. Done. With. My. Brother?"
There's a throaty chuckle. "How do you like being hunted, Sam?" And then the line goes dead.
Sam hobbles back around to the driver's side, eyeing the road above them. There's no sign of any traffic up there, no headlights illuminating the night. No one is coming.
The car door groans as he pulls it open, and Sam pats it sympathetically. "Me, too."
It's not that much warmer inside the car with the windshield gone. The wind picks up some snow off the evergreen boughs and tosses it in the front seat like a slap in the face. Ben flinches and mutters.
"Ben?" Sam struggles to peel off his jacket and he spreads it over Ben's chest, tucking it carefully under his chin and around his arms without jostling him, mindful of unseen injuries.
Another soft sound escapes Ben's lips, and this time a word is distinct enough to make out. "Dean?"
Sam's heart jumps. "Ben? Can you hear me?"
"Dean? Where are we?"
"It's Sam, Ben. Don't try to move. Do you hurt anywhere?"
"Sam?" Ben turns his head groggily, despite what Sam had just told him. "What happened?"
"There's um… gonna be a little delay on our escape, I'm afraid." Sam flashes a crooked grin that he hopes is reassuring.
Ben almost smiles back, then he frowns and his eyes flutter shut. "M'head hurts."
"I know, buddy. You just hang in there." Sam pats his shoulder, and then he digs out his phone. Shivering hard, he draws his arms in close to his chest and dials.
"9-1-1. What's your emergency?"
Sam sags back, teeth chattering despite pulling on a hoodie from his duffel. The adrenaline is already leeching away, taking his strength with it. "It's um, a car accident. With injuries. In, uh, the northwest section of Manistee National Forest."
No one answers for a few long seconds. And then the woman says rhetorically, "This is Sam Winchester. Isn't it."
"Oh, Sam, honey." Her voice sounds pitying. "Chaney told me you might be calling."
Any answer is stuck in Sam's throat, so the dispatcher continues blithely. "You know, I thought that smarmy old bastard just had delusions of grandeur. Thinking he could impress his alpha with his leadership skills by organizing a Winchester Hunt. Werewolves aren't particularly known for their brains, you know." She chuckles. "But you know what? So far, everything has gone exactly according to plan."
Sam finds his voice, brittle with anger. "Who are you? And why the hell would you be helping that monster?"
"Careful who you call a monster, sweetie," she croons. "I used to be weak, like you. No future. You think it's a coincidence that Chaney planned this when little Ben was off on a camping trip? He wanted to separate you two pains-in-our-asses. And because he thinks of everything, he sent a vampire over here to the county 9-1-1 office. And here we are. The vamp turned me, and now I get to live forever. And tonight is your last night on earth."
"You can't – Listen," Sam sputters, "I don't care what Chaney wants, what you want. You can have me. But there's a kid here. He hasn't done anything to anybody. You have to send help for him."
"Collateral damage, Sam. Yours, I mean. Not ours. That's the price you pay when you make friends." She laughs, a tinny sound over the airwaves. "Don't get too comfortable out there, Sam. Chaney's still get a special surprise in store for you!"
There are headlights in the rearview mirror, like two glowing yellow eyes watching Sam.
It's the first vehicle Sam's seen in the park since he picked up Ben.
There's no way Chaney can know where they are. Can he? Sam can't begin to list all the things they've hunted that could pass for human and might have human resources at their disposal. Werewolves, vampires, shapeshifters, changelings… and if any of those could band with more supernatural creatures… well, Sam knows better than to limit his imagination to past experience only. He has no idea what organized monsters might be capable of.
He leans a little more on the gas pedal and briefly, the other vehicle falls behind, but then the road starts to climb and twist, and he can't maintain that speed. His only chance…
There! His lights pick up another road up ahead to his right. With the snow drifting across the surface, he can't tell if it's paved or just a dirt road, so he warns Ben to hang on, and he brakes hard, barely making the turn, and he prays that whoever is behind them is still a curve away and doesn't see it.
"Sam? What're –"
Sam holds Ben off with a gesture, and switches off the headlights, easing to a stop. Darkness blankets them. "I think we're being followed," he says, more calmly than he feels. He thumbs open his seatbelt and then Ben's, and with a push of a button unlocks their doors. "Stay low," Sam hisses, pressing on his shoulder, and Ben scrunches down. "I don't think they saw us take that turn, but if they did…" Sam stretches a long arm into the back seat where his duffel sits, and hauls it forward between the seats. The weapons bag may still be in the trunk of the Impala, but he knows he has his handgun.
He just doesn't know if the bullets in the clip will stop whatever's on their trail.
"If they did see us…?" Ben asks from his curled-up tuck under the dashboard.
"If they did, and if anything happens to me, you run." Sam turns away from rummaging in his duffel to look Ben in the eye. "You hear me, Ben? You abandon the car, and you get away."
"But what about –"
Ben's whispering, even though no one else can hear them, and Sam whispers back, fiercely. "You run, Ben! They won't come after you if they've got me." Sam takes his phone, shoves it in Ben's hands. "You get away and call Bobby. You got me?"
Ben gulps. "Okay. I got it." He's not panicking though. He sounds worried but he's listening and he's doing what's needed. He's a good kid. Just like Sam remembers when they rescued Ben from the changeling three years ago.
Sam watches out the back window, a very bad feeling settling in his gut. Seconds drag, and then the pine trees are suddenly backlit by the arc of headlights, and just as fast, the glow is dimming, the sound of another engine is fading, and then it's quiet and dark again.
Sam releases a shaky breath, turns on the overhead light to confirm his sinking suspicion, and looks down at his gun. He checks the ejection port, and he can see the chamber's empty. The slide's locked back; there's not even a round in the chamber. He's right – he'd never reloaded since emptying his clip into that bearwalker a few days ago. And all the spare ammo is in the trunk of the Impala.
Right now? They're defenseless.
But they've lost whoever is tracking them – they just need to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. Sam turns off the overhead light and switches the headlights back on, and they creep down the bumpy fire road till it emerges onto a T intersection and something that feels like asphalt under his tires.
The car idles at the crossroads. "Hey, Ben. D'you see a park map, in the foot well, somewhere?"
"Yeah. Here, take this!" Ben hands the phone back and ducks his head, rooting around for a second, and then comes back up triumphantly waving a sheet of heavy folded paper. "Got it!"
Ben's eyes shine, fearless and capable, and he reminds Sam so much of Dean at that age that Sam feels the tension he hadn't noticed in his neck and shoulders begin to ease. He smiles. "You wanna be the navigator, kiddo?"
Ben lights up. "Yeah!" His finger pokes at the map. "I – uh. It says there's 10,000 miles of road in this park. And I'm not actually sure where we are right now. But the 115 is north of our Scout camp, and it's the only major road that leads to the 31 or the 37. And we didn't cross it yet. So I guess we wanna go north?"
"Ummm… to the right?"
Sam hopes that internal GPS that his brother seems to have in his brain is something else Ben has in common with Dean. "Your guess is as good as mine, kid," he grins, and he dials the steering wheel clockwise.
The road slithers like a snake, with a sheer rock face on the driver's side that has posted signs warning of the danger of falling rocks. On Ben's side, there's just a black abyss, and when the road curls that way, the headlights pick up the narrow shoulder and a low steel guardrail: the only things separating them from a steep ravine pockmarked with pine trees.
On the next curve, the car starts to fishtail on the icy pavement. Sam stays calm, remembering the CPR he'd learned watching Dean – Correct, Pause, Recover. He takes his foot off the gas, and steers gently, but the car continues to slide toward the edge of the road and the black hole beyond.
"Sam?" Ben's voice warbles, but Sam's hands are steady and he stays focused.
But then the piercing light is back, high beams slashing across the rear view mirror, and Sam knows he can't hit the accelerator to outrun it. The headlights' glare behind them swells, until it's blinding and he can't see anything at all.
He jerks forward against his seatbelt when their car's rear bumper is tapped, and he instinctively throws an arm across Ben's chest.
There's another bump, and the bang as they slam against the aluminum guardrail sounds like a gunshot. And then they're airborne.
There is nothing left to do now but sit and watch the snow fall. And wait.
And think. But not about what's probably going to happen before the night is over – that's something Sam can't really bear to think about.
Instead, Sam thinks about how he doesn't have a will. He doesn't have any possessions of personal value anyway. He'd like to leave Dean with something, but he doesn't own anything really – he has nothing to share but….
Maybe there is one thing left to do. He can't call Dean's cell – if Dean had his cell phone back from Chaney he'd have called Sam already. And Sam's not going to call that number and listen to anything that rat bastard Chaney has to say. But he can call Dad. Dad's phone anyway, and leave Dean a message.
Dad's not on his speed dial. Sam's hands tremble, cold making them stiff, but he gets the right numbers punched in on the second try, and then finds he doesn't know what he's going to say after all.
"Dean." He pauses, clears his throat. "I, uh, I know you'll get this message. Because if I learned anything watching you, it's that you always come through when someone needs you. So I know. I trust you. You'll rescue Lisa, and get away. Safe.
"And I just. I wanted to let you know that you can count on me, too. I've got Ben, like you told me, and I won't let anything happen to him." Sam's quiet for a minute, but the voicemail doesn't shut him off, so he starts again. "I've been thinking about what you told me. Just after I lost Jess. You said, 'I figure, our family is so screwed to hell, maybe we can help some others.' I guess I'd forgotten that for a while now, but I get it now. I do. We gotta quit worryin' so much about our own family, about each other. We should be focusing on helping the people who need us.
"And now that I've finally figured that out, I was kinda looking forward to that. Starting over. Together, you and me… But now -"
The voicemail cuts him off. Sam lets the phone fall from cold-numbed fingers.
Minutes pass. Maybe hours. Sam doesn't know. It was around midnight when he'd finally figured out Chaney's cryptic clues. Dogs and cats living together. And the E911 operator who couldn't resist gloating about another surprise. Chaney's a werewolf. A dog. And the Nemean lion – a cat. Working together.
It doesn't make sense that Chaney could communicate with the big cat, much less recruit it to his plans. But Sam isn't going to bet Ben's life on that.
He'd tried to think of a better way to protect themselves. A nearby cave? Maybe even hiding under the car – would the mountain lion be able to crawl under it and drag them out? But in the end, it doesn't matter. Ben's right leg is trapped under the crushed fender, and he can't get him out. And Sam isn't going to leave Ben alone inside the car.
He'd spread broken evergreen boughs across the gap where the windshield used to be, but that was just to keep out the icy wind. It wouldn't stop a hungry cougar.
Maybe, Sam thinks, someone will drive by, see the broken guardrail, will come help. But he knows that's not going to happen. Not here - in the middle of a remote wilderness, in the middle of the night.
He wishes he had his brother here to brainstorm with him. He can't count the times Dean's come up with some ridiculous plan that somehow always works. But Sam's freezing and exhausted and the pain in his ribs and his knee is making it hard to think. He can only see one option.
So he'd taken off his watch and slipped it on Ben's wrist for safekeeping. And then he'd spread the toxic paste on the sleeve of his own left arm, and hoped the poison would act as quickly as the lore claimed.
The car battery had died, and the headlights with it, some time ago. It's dark, and cold, and very, very quiet.
A mountain lion is silent, padding on snow. But when anything that size steps on a dead branch, there's an audible crack. Sam hears that sound first. A heartbeat later, the car rocks with the weight of something leaping onto the buckled hood. There's a hoarse, spitting yowl, and then a tawny blur rushes straight at them through the shattered windshield. Sam shifts his weight to get Ben behind him, the big cat lunges, and Sam has only a second to throw up his arm to protect his throat before the jaws snap.
Sam thinks he might be drowning. Murky darkness all around, sound is muffled, and he has no idea which way is up and which is down, which way is life and which is death. Everything hurts. He thinks maybe he'd like to just sink into oblivion again.
Someone is talking to him, he realizes, but it's just unintelligible noise. Like the grownups on those Snoopy cartoons: wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. But gradually it sharpens, becomes clearer, more familiar. It sounds like Dean. It sounds like Dean saying, "Stay down, Sammy." But that doesn't make sense. Does Dean want him to drown?
His left arm feels like an anchor and the tide is tugging at it but it's too heavy to move. Another tug, harder. Another. And then something rips through his forearm, like a shark tearing through flesh and muscle and snapping bones. Sam's back arches and he screams.
"You're free now, Sammy. I've got you. Hang on. I gotcha."
It is Dean. He's leaning across Sam and he's doing something else with Sam's arm now and it hurts! ohgoditfuckinhurts!, but as much as Sam wants to drift under again, he needs to see his brother more. He needs to know if Dean is real and alive and okay.
His eyelids feel like they have scuba weights holding them down, but he pushes past that, and - he blinks.
"Dean." It comes out a rasping whisper, but the way Dean's eyes light up, he knows Dean heard him. Actually, just one of Dean's eyes lights up; the other is bruised and swollen almost shut. Dean's breathing hard, and sweat slides down the side of his face. When Sam tries to lean forward, Dean reaches out to press him back against the seat and Sam can see blood on his brother's hands. He frowns. "Dean." It takes almost more strength than he can spare to talk. "You okay?"
"Dude." That's all Dean says. He says it again, shaking his head. "Dude." His hand withdraws, touching Sam's shoulder and sliding down toward his left elbow and Sam's gaze starts to follow it, but Dean says, "Don't look at it, Sammy. Don't look." And so Sam doesn't. He stares straight ahead, sees broken glass everywhere and a hole where the windshield should be. So he's in a car. It's daylight. Pine needles and snow-covered branches are littered across one side of the wreckage. Dead ahead, on the driver's side, the crumpled hood appears swept clean, not even snow settled there. There's nothing but some long thin grooves carved into the metal, like… claw marks?
Sam notices some shredded cloth clinging to the dashboard, stuck there with something tacky and congealing and dark red, and suddenly he recognizes the fabric. It's part of the sleeve from his hoodie.
And he remembers everything.
"Ben!" Sam whips his head to the side and sees the boy staring wide-eyed back at him, conscious and alert, with a goose egg on his temple, his face pale. There's a blanket spread across both of them, a red and black wool blanket that Sam knows came from the Impala's trunk. "Hey, Ben," he says, eyes crinkling. Too tired for more.
"Hey, Sam," Ben echoes back, and offers a worried smile. "You were right! Dean got my Mom out okay. See?"
Ben's knuckles rap his window and Sam can see Lisa now, crouching just outside Ben's door, her hand splayed open against the cracked glass. She looks disheveled and tired, like she hasn't slept, and there are tear tracks on her cheeks.
"EMTs are coming, Sam," she tells him, offering a small, encouraging smile. "Hang in there."
But Sam doesn't think he can hang in there any longer. His eyelids are too heavy. And despite the blanket, he's so cold.
"Sam? Are you okay?" he hears Ben ask, and he wonders crazily if Ben has used up all his questions, or if Sam has to tell the truth.
From far away, he hears Lisa call out something, something urgent that sounds like 'tourniquet', and then his arm is an explosion of pain again.
"Don't you give up on me, Sammy," he thinks he hears Dean say. "Not now. Not after everything." He feels Dean's hand warm and strong on the back of his neck, feels his brother's breath close to his ear. "We were – we're just startin' to be brothers again."
Sam isn't sure he heard that right. He's drifting away; maybe he's just remembering something he said to Dean once instead. Or maybe not. But he knows he does want this. He does want to stick around and be brothers again. He hears sirens in the distance now, and when Dean reaches under the blanket to squeeze Sam's good hand, he squeezes back.
~ end ~