The Strong One

Chapter Three

On the banks of a hidden alcove of water about sixty miles from where his life viciously changed no more than a week ago, Sam Winchester stared into the fire he'd built and tended to himself while tossing various items into the flames as it burned but found it hard to throw the final bloody item into the fire.

"Sam."

"Hey. How'd it go?" Sam didn't bother looking back since he knew the other man would join him by the fire in his own time.

"Well, I called in some favors to take care of the mess at the motel and I smoothed over the incident at the hospital. Which wasn't easy since you practically put the head of the ER in his own Emergency Room, ya idjit," Bobby Singer didn't bother to mention the strings and favors he'd called in to accomplish those feats since he knew the younger man was still emotionally on the verge himself and this wasn't helping. "Sam, why don't you let me handle the fire while you go inside?"

Hazel eyes locked on the fire to see things only he could, Sam shook his head while something else got tossed and made the blaze shoot higher. "No, it's my job," he replied, lowering his voice when he added while staring at the set of rubbery bands he held but didn't toss yet. "I'm a Winchester and I can't fail him in this."

"Boy, you didn't fail anyone," Bobby argued, knowing this was an old argument since he'd been trying to drill it into Sam's head since he arrived the tiny outlet outside of Shreveport, Louisiana only a few hours after Sam had called him from a hospital with the dire news. "Not your Daddy, not yourself and certainly not your brother."

Long ago learned manners kept Sam from laughing in the older man's face but he couldn't quite bury the snort that surfaced as he stared at the black bloody T-shirt he'd been gripping since he began the fire according to hunter tradition. "Oh, I failed Bobby. I failed or I wouldn't be out here right now."

"You burning the clothes?" this Bobby supposed shouldn't surprise him so he was glad he'd made that stop before coming back to the old fishing cabin he and Jim Murphy once shared ownership of.

"It'd bring more questions than I want if I tried to have them cleaned," Sam shrugged, finally giving in to toss his brother's black shirt into the blaze and blinked back the tears burning his eyes. "I'll just stop and pick up some stuff…whenever."

Hearing the way the boy's voice tightened, Bobby knew Sam was doing the typical Winchester thing when fighting to bury his emotions and once again cursed their late Father for teaching his sons that emotions made them weak. "You know I would've handled the burning and…"

"I just appreciate you clearing up the mess I made in the hospital but they were…" Sam shifted a look next to him before reaching into the bag at his feet for more bloodied items to toss onto the fire. "I couldn't leave him there, Bobby. I never should've called 911 and just handled it myself but…there was so much blood. I just…you and Dad always taught us to stay cool but…" he bit his lip as he looked at his own bloody shirt before pitching it. "I panicked."

Carefully laying a hand on the younger man's rigid shoulder, Bobby practically feel the waves of guilt and pain rolling off this boy. "No, you tried to save your brother is what you did, Sam," he responded seriously, glancing back to the cabin. "I told Nate to stay clear until he hears from me. Figured you'd want the time to…"

"I appreciate you telling me about this place. After the hospital…I needed out and I needed someplace private to…" Sam looked back to the flames with a grimness that worried Bobby. "…to do this. How much trouble was there?"

Debating on telling Sam the truth, Bobby decided it might take the kid's mind off what he was doing since he didn't like the way Sam was staring at the flames. "Couple friends handled cleaning the motel and I took care of the cops and the hospital but Sam? Next time, don't try to kill any doctors. It's harder to keep your nose clean if a supposed FBI agent goes postal on a medical professional."

"That 'medical professional' had just looked down his damn nose and asked me why my partner was still in the field with what was clearly a history of attempted suicides. He's lucky I didn't just empty my damn pistol into him," Sam gritted, fist clenching at the memory of hearing that and then swallowed the bile that threatened to come up again as he also remembered kicking in the motel bathroom door to find his brother's body with a pool of blood forming. "How the hell many times had he tried before this, Bobby?"

Scuffing the soft dirt around them, Bobby knew he wanted to avoid this subject but also knew that Sam deserved to know the truth so maybe he wouldn't take all the blame for this act. "I know of one time about a year after you left for school. Caleb told me that he, John and Dean worked a job, something happened between your Dad and Dean and John stormed out. Later that night, I guess Caleb said he stopped Dean from cutting the other wrist. This ain't the first time, Sam so you can't blame…"

"How'd I miss it?" the younger hunter cut in bitterly, finally just tossing the bag of bloody clothing and other articles into the blaze but stopped himself from throwing certain other pieces along with it. "I grew up with him, Bobby. Dean was always the strong one. If I had problems, he found a way to fix them so when the hell did it all change? How the hell did I miss how bad he'd become this time?" he turned away from the flames to face the next thing to a father figure he and Dean had and once again Sam's hazel eyes weren't the serious ones of late but they showed a confused, frightened boy whose world had just crashed. "I've been with him and I knew it was bad but I never saw him falling this far…I just want my brother back."

Taking the time to remove his battered trucker cap, Bobby coughed to cover the emotion he felt building. "Dean had too much of John's crap drilled into him too early, Sam. Your brother covered his own fears and insecurities with that damn cocky attitude and those one-liners he was always tossin'," he took a part of the blame for this since he'd known with the stress the boys had been going through that Dean needed to expend those emotions or crash. "I should've stayed closer, helped you boys out more or…"

"Dean didn't want my help half the time, Bobby so I know he'd've refused you hovering over us," Sam sighed, knowing all he had left were his old school papers but found that he couldn't burn those or the more personal items yet. He had to hold onto something. "Like you said, Dean was Dean. Even at the damn end he tried to protect me by making sure I wasn't around when he did it. I just wish I would've seen it and maybe I wouldn't have been so damn selfish. Always dumping my problems on him and still expecting him to make things right even when I'm telling him that I'm an adult."

"Son, Dean grew up protectin' you so that was just him," Bobby took a final look to the burning pile. "You staying here awhile?"

Nodding, Sam understood his friend's ultimate concern and shared it. "Yeah, for a few more days," he acknowledged, coughing. "You staying or moving on?"

Debating on how wise it was to leave, Bobby finally sighed. "Nah, I gotta lead on a possible hoodoo thing over Texas way so I'm gonna pop over there to check it out," he replied, keeping a hand on Sam's shoulder and was slightly relieved to feel some of the tension leaving it. "Jim left his share of this place to you boys so…you stay for as long as you need to, Sam," the older hunter told him, pausing. "I left a couple bags of stuff on the porch…just in case."

"Bobby…thanks," Sam called before Bobby had pulled away in his old car leaving the youngest Winchester standing alone in front of the moderate sized cabin. Looking to the cabin, he debated going back inside but after a couple moments made his legs move.

Taking the two large plastic bags that Bobby had deposited on the porch, Sam stepped back inside the cabin to feel the warmth of the fire he'd started in the stone fireplace and was surprised he could feel anything. Sitting the bags down, he emptied them on instinct and was forced to grin as he removed several articles of new clothes along with other things the older hunter would figure was vital to have.

Those he set aside to place the foodstuff in their proper place before he slowly sit down on the older style sofa to lay out the items he hadn't burned on the gouged coffee table.

His report cards, that old report on the strongest person he knew along with other drawings, essays and his Stanford LSAT score sheet…Sam wasn't sure he really wanted to know how his brother had come to have that since even he didn't still have a copy. What brought the tears back to his eyes aside from the amulet and ring that belonged to his brother were the notes addressed to him that he found in Dean's battered leather jacket. One was from when he'd been in Stanford while the other was written shortly before Dean's deal had come due.

"Damn it," reading the first note made rage surge in Sam for John Winchester yet again since he knew how much of himself Dean had given up to please their father but nothing was ever enough. The second letter was enough to bring back all the gut wrenching pain and loss he had felt those days after losing his brother to Hell. It also brought back the pain, guilt, and loss he was feeling now so Sam gripped the jacket tighter as a way to restrain the emotions that threatened to break free. "Why?"

"Back then it was because Dad had just thrown in my face every failure I'd ever made and decided he was better off hunting alone which sort of drove home the point that I was very literally on my own for the first time…ever," the weary voice replied grimly. "I'd always either had you to take care of or had been living up to Dad's expectations so that fight just left me too numb and with you at school there was nothing to stop me…except Caleb."

Always accused of having a vivid imagination, Sam had no problem picturing that night since he knew how deep John Winchester could cut without even trying. So if he had been trying to hurt his oldest son, the words would have been three times harsher but as his finger's closed on the amulet he felt the tears drop on his hand. "And this time? Why the hell'd you do it this time?" he demanded in a whisper, fighting to keep his voice from breaking, to not let it be known he was losing the fight against the feelings that had built since hearing his brother's tape.

"I guess it was a combination of guilt over what I did in Hell, guilt over leaving you alone for all that damn time without making certain you knew it wasn't your fault what happened. Guilt over knowing you thought you had to use…those in order to make a difference because you've always been just as good a hunter as me or Dad and finally I was just too damn tired of it all."

Hearing the sob escape before he could catch it, Sam felt like he was five again and just wanted to run to his brother to have the nightmares taken away but this time he knew he had to deal with the problems now. "I could've helped. I was there. Was it so bad that you felt that you couldn't talk to me?" he asked, still not moving. "You always were there for me. After Jess, after Madison…when we were kids there wasn't anything that I couldn't tell you so why…damn…"

Knowing he was going to break if he thought of what he had seen on that bathroom floor and later at the hospital when he'd gone for the doctor's throat after the final word had come down but when he went to move a hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"I was the big brother. I was always supposed to be strong for you and there are things that you didn't need to know, Sammy and there still are."

Reaching back to grab the wrist of the hand that gripped his shoulder, Sam just wanted to be sure it was real and solid. "Gonna do it again?" he asked, keeping his face turned down until he could wipe it free of tears.

"Doubt it…you turn into such a damn girl over a little blood and a graze," Dean Winchester replied, moving so he could ease down on the sofa next to his still clearly upset younger brother.

Still pale from the loss of blood loss caused by the graze to his head, Dean winced a little as his head twinged slightly but was quick not to let his brother see he was in pain since as he learned quickly Sam was prone to panic attacks now if he thought Dean was in any type of distress. "You wanna get it over with now before either you bust a gut keeping it all in or you drive me nuts waiting for it?" he asked finally, glancing over the items laid on the coffee table. "I know you're mad about it, Sam but…" Dean broke off when he unexpectedly had to deal with an armful of overly emotional little brother who had finally had enough.

"My first memory, my first real memory, was of you sitting in my crib with me and letting me grab your fingers," Sam began in a hushed voice, having felt his older brother tense at the sudden hug but was relieved when he slowly felt a strong arm shift around him. "All my memories mostly revolved around you, Dean. You were always my foundation, not Dad but that didn't mean that you had to bear all the weight alone. We had Bobby, Caleb, Pastor Jim…any of them could have helped if…"

"And Dad would've gone postal if I had called on any of them," Dean told him seriously, surprised when Sam didn't immediately break the hug but didn't make the normal comment the moment he felt how badly the younger man seemed to be shaking. "I did what I had to and some of those times…were harder than others and I coped the best way I could at the time."

Eyes shut tight, a bitter childhood memory surged back and only Dean's arm holding onto him kept Sam from jerking back. "Cutting," he guessed, frowning. "Would you have ever…I mean, if you tried with Caleb…would you have…"

"You being there always kept me from going through with it, Sam," sighing, Dean really hated this but accepted it had to said or else Sam would always wonder what he'd done wrong. "I never cut myself. I just usually sat alone and thought about it, thought about what I'd be losing if I gave in to the damn urge but the main reason I never did it back then was because I wouldn't leave you alone with Dad."

Shifting so he could ease Sam back enough to look at his face, Dean felt the familiar pang he always did whenever his little brother was hurt and he knew that no matter how old Sam got to be he'd always want to find a way to fix that lost broken look. "Sammy, there will probably always be things I don't tell you…not because I don't trust you but because as your big brother it's what I do. I'm not asking you to like that but it's…how I am but I…will never keep something from you if I think you have to know it for a life or death reason," he declared, silently crossing his fingers since there were at least two things he never planned to reveal to his brother.

"I just don't ever want to go through this again, Dean," Sam told him, exhausted but refusing to sleep as he had been refusing to sleep since arriving here. "Listening to that tape, realizing what you were planning to hearing that shot and finding you…" the nausea rose too swiftly to be ignored or fought this time and Sam bolted for the kitchen sink.

He still could smell the blood the pooled out of the graze on Dean's head, he still felt the feel of it on his hands as he tried not to lose his phone while calling for help. Above all, he could recall the feeling of holding his brother in his arms once again as it seemed like he was bleeding out and his stomach emptied violently.

"I swore…I'm supposed to be the strong one…for you now…" leaning his head onto his arm, Sam felt his head swim and prayed he didn't black out when he felt something cold slap against his face but the cloth that was pressed against the back of his neck was held with an easy touch he remembered from childhood. "I'll…be good in a second, just give me…God…"

Leaning against the counter next to his brother, Dean took this time to examine their location since he hadn't seen much of it if he considered that Sam wasn't letting him move too much until now.

The cabin seemed familiar to him and after a brief search of his memory, he recalled their Father bringing him and Sam here one time as kids when he needed to do research with Bobby and Pastor Jim. The interior seemed well kept with just enough furniture for a couple people. He knew it had two bedroom but Dean would bet a months worth of pie that only one room was getting any use since he already knew Sam probably wasn't sleeping much…if he slept at all.

Dean closed his eyes for a moment. He knew from past experience that his head would be hurting for awhile but he had no intention of ever telling Sam about that job his worked solo about six months before going to Stanford after him that he'd been grazed in the head after a wild shot by an inexperienced hunter nearly killed him.

Keeping a hand on Sam's neck as he used to when he was a kid and sick, Dean squeezed it firmly while trying to recall the past few days. He remembered everything clearly up until the moment he heard the fear in his brother's voice upon his return and the .45 jerked at the last second of moving it. Things went blurry after that for him with only the occasional flash of what else happened.

Grabbing a clean rag to wet, he pressed it into Sam's hand while wrapping an arm around his brother to not so easily maneuver him back to the sofa. "Sammy, when was the last time you slept?" he asked, figuring what the answer would be even before he heard the mumbled reply.

"The night before you decided to put a .45 caliber round in your skull," flopping onto his stomach, another childhood habit Dean knew his brother reverted to when tired or sick and which wasn't easy considering his brother's height in comparison to the sofa, Sam opened bleary hazel eyes to watch his brother closely. "I'm fine…you need to rest," he argued, pushing up onto an arm only to find himself push back down. "Dean…"

"If I promise not to leave this spot, not to move from this room will you sleep for an hour, Sammy?" Dean asked, remembering a time when he'd been fifteen and had gotten sick while their Dad had been away that Sam had gone manic like this. "You couldn't have stopped me, Sam. I would've done something like that sooner of later because everything was just too much at once. I was still exhausted from coming back, from learning about Mom and Dad, to you, to that damn Siren…" lifting a finger to stop the apology that he knew would be coming from Sam, Dean sat on the edge of the coffee table. "Sam, I won't…I can't pretend to like what you do when you use those powers and yeah, I wish we could have back what we had when it was just us fighting evil…fighting Wendigos but…"

"You want the little brother you left back," Sam whispered, knowing this and wishing he could give his brother that but nearly recoiled at the hand that gripped his chin.

Ignoring the flinch he felt and saw in Sam, Dean narrowed his eyes though in a way he supposed he deserved the kid's fear considering how he'd been acting since the Siren and finding out about how Sam killed Alastair. "I want my brother period, Sam," he spoke firmly, having flashes of memory of hearing his little brother's broken emotional gut wrenching voice as he swirled in a darkness of pain and just wanting to reach out to remove that pain. "We've both changed in four months and it'll take both of us time to get used to those changes but the one thing that will never change is we're brothers. I may not like some of the things you've done and you may not like some decisions I make but at the end of every damn day, at the end of every job, we will be brothers and that's what I want. What do you want, Sammy?" he asked carefully, making certain to hold large hazel eyes with his own.

Blinking at that unexpected question considering it had been a long time since Dean had asked for his opinion on anything, much less asked him what he wanted, Sam had to think a second before he answered honestly. "I just don't want you to kill yourself over my mistakes, De'n," he yawned, unaware of dropping a letter in his brother's name while moving so he could reach out blindly as if grasping for something. "Just wan' you to still be proud of me…for something…anything…"

"Sammy…" Dean swallowed, going to run a hand through his short hair only to stop himself when he felt the bandage still wrapped around his head. "I've always been proud of you, Sam," he told him quietly, looking down to see the scattered papers. "I wish you could've taken this LSAT score and gone ahead to law school but no matter what you are I'll be proud of you because you're my little brother but you need to back off some now or I'll smother you in your sleep."

"Just wanna take some pressure off of you," Sam blinked, suddenly tired and fighting it but drew in a breath when he noticed his brother putting the amulet back over his head so it rest on his chest again. "I can be the strong one occasionally too, De'n. Just let me help or talk to me or…just don't scare me like this again…please."

Carding fingers he swore he wouldn't let shake through hair that he decided not to mention to Sam needed cutting again, Dean took a deep breath to settle his own emotions. "Okay, I'll try to let you take some of the weight and maybe I'll try to talk more than I normally do," he conceded reluctantly, slipping the silver ring back on his hand in addition to the black band before holding out the other set. "I think this belongs to you."

"I…left it with you when I…" Sam stopped, unable to say when he buried his brother but took the band with trembling fingers. "I thought you were dead, Dean!" those words just burst out to take both Winchesters by surprise but Sam carried on before his brother could come back or stop him. "All the blood and those doctors whispering and talking about you like you were dead and they wanted to put you someplace else and…why didn't Caleb call me before and…"

"Sammy…" Dean was quick to grab for the younger man before he fell off the sofa in his haste to reach for him. Watching his brother, he began to understand how much his actions had hurt the boy and Dean closed his eyes wearily. "I just was trying to do what I thought was right for you since I knew that you believed me to be…"

Lunging up, Sam's hands grasped his brother by the arms with a strength that reminded Dean that his little brother was also a lot stronger than he had been once as well. "You're not weak, Dean. You are still the strongest man I know and I don't give a crap if Dad didn't break in Hell. You lasted longer than I ever could've and if I could've switched places with…" he stopped when he caught the way his brother's eyes dropped. "Dean, you survived what Hell threw at you because you were strong. You did what you had to and I don't care what that was because it's over but don't shut it up inside all the time, alright? Let me help…unless you don't trust me."

"You're the only one I trust with my back, Sammy," Dean murmured, reaching up to grip his brother's neck firmly and pull it closer. "I may not like your choice in companions all the time but I know Castiel makes you edgy so we'll cope, we'll do what we have to in order to keep these Seals intact. I promise, little brother, I will never scare you like this again," he promised, voice husky as he decided to bend his no chick flick rule a little to move next to his brother to offer a tight one-armed hug that he knew Sam would accept willingly. "We good now or should I just prepare to have you hyper manic for the next few weeks?"

"Months," Sam mumbled, rubbing his eyes tiredly in a way like he had when he'd been small and Dean would be trying to get him sleep. "You're not suicidal, Dean. Told that doctor that when he tried to…when he tried to take you to…you're…"

Dean did recall the hospital. He recalled the nurses and doctors who handled the graze and he knew as soon as they tested his hands what that outcome would be. A part of him knew that he needed to get him and Sam out before the cops or the shrinks tried to restrain him but it was then that he heard the shouting and the sound of his brother's temper soaring before he was signed out AMA.

"No, Sammy. I'm not and I…won't do it again…while you're here," he spoke quietly, voice gruffer with emotion as he eased Sam down on the sofa and sighed when his hand was gripped tightly as if in fear of being left. "I'll be here with you, Sammy. Go to sleep for awhile and…we'll talk about things after you wake up."

"Don't leave…" the mumble tore Dean's soul because he knew his brother was still worried about him either leaving him behind or taking his life again. "No blood again…don't want…"

Using his leather jacket as a blanket, Dean laid it over his brother before he sat still to watch Sam sleep until he reached for the report Sam had written as a child. "I don't know if I can be this man again but Sammy…I'll go back to Hell before you ever have to see or experience what I did," he spoke to the now silent cabin. Carding his fingers again through Sam's hair but smiled when his brother only moved to shake the annoying touch away which was so normal that Dean chuckled.

The thin annoying headache between his eyes reminding him of the graze, Dean was careful to put all the papers back in the duffel that belonged to his brother before noticing that Sam's rubbery band was clenched in his fist. "Remind me to call Bobby to find out just what the hell you did in the hospital too. I think I remember you throwing a doctor through the ER doors," he kept his voice low as he eased the band onto Sam's wrist and for the first time he noticed the thin scar on his brother's wrist, which stilled him. "Looks like I'm not the only one who needs to talk about some stuff, little brother."

Waiting to see, Dean smiled slightly the moment Sam rolled to his side while clutching the jacket. He knew it was safe to close his eyes for a couple hours as he eased into a worn out recliner near the sofa to sleep himself because now that Sam had been reassured that he wouldn't do anything he was more relaxed and able to sleep himself.

"I'll keep us both safe, Sam because you're right. Hell didn't beat me because I didn't let it claim you," he yawned, taking another look to be sure his brother was sleeping soundly before letting himself go under fully while muttering softly. "Love ya, Sammy and I'll call do over once one of us is awake."

"Can't do that, Dean," Sam called back sleepily, burrowing his face into a couch cushion. "Dean?"

Groaning, Dean felt like smacking his brother. "Yeah? Aren't you sleeping?"

"Promise me that you won't try to kill yourself again?" the quiet fear was there but only a brother who had raised Sam would have heard it. "I can't do this alone and well…no one can replace you, Dean."

"Damn straight," the older Winchester muttered with a typical smirk, nodding. "I promise, Sammy. Now go to sleep."

A soft mumbled " 'kay'" was heard as Sam fell to sleep fully and missed the flash of emotion in his brother's green eyes.

Dean slowly fell to sleep, knowing that Bobby Singer was probably close by since the older man wouldn't have left them alone this soon after what had happened. He mentally prepared himself for the ass chewing he'd get from Bobby for doing what he had, he was unaware of the trench coated figure in the corner who watched them.

Castiel frowned as he took in the sleeping Winchesters. He had kept his distance after learning that Uriel had allowed Alastair's release and that it had nearly cost Dean his life but now he watched the brothers sleep he also took in that a lot of the stress between them seemed to have vanished. As the one who had brought Dean from the Pit, he understood more than others what the young mortal had suffered below but he also knew the real reason that Dean gave in to the torments of Alastair and why he would never reveal that to Sam.

"I wish it could be different," he whispered, giving what he could to both hunters even though his superiors would frown on him giving any emotional or physical relief to Sam Winchester the Angel had quickly learned that to keep Dean's help it was always best to keep his brother safe. "I will protect what I can but you may not always be able to shield him, Dean."

After another look assured him that Dean and Sam were safe in the cabin and that Bobby Singer was parked up the road having a rather strong disagreement with a rod and a fish while he kept watch on his boys, the Angel vanished.

The End

A/N: This is the end of this one. I know, I know. I was evil to draw it out whether or not Dean survived but blame the muse. Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed this story. I'm working on others including Mirror Images so stay tuned for new Sam and Dean stories.