2.17 Heart tag

This is my 2009 Secret Samta gift for Fandrea (It has been so long she has changed her screen name to Cinca!), who is the most patient and understanding person on the planet! Andi, I am so sorry. I cannot believe how late this is, real life and all…along with that terrible double curse of perfectionism and procrastination. Guilty as charged!

The story turned out longer and more involved than I originally planned, but I hope it was worth the wait. Ugh…how could it possibly be worth this wait? Sincerest apologies. *hides in a corner*

I tend to write from Dean's perspective, just naturally more in tune with older bro, but I always hope I give Sam his due. I try really hard to get inside his head but I worry that my Dean-sensibilities sometimes override my best efforts. And trying to fulfill a Sam girl's expectations is scary. I only want to do justice to Sam's issues and concerns and get it right. I hope my interpretation of Sam works and is consistent with those who know him better.

Andi asked for hurt!Sam, protective!Dean, angst (I offer both the Sammy and Dean variety, with a bonus for Bobby), stubborn and determined Sam, let's-poke-around-in-Sam's-head insight, and that deep, brotherly concern we all love so very much.

And we both wanted more fallout from Sam being forced to kill Madison. Even Winchesters can only take so much…and from the ending of the episode, it was clear it shattered both our boys. Whew…I hope I delivered on some of those prompts, and I hope you enjoy. - B.J.


"Even the strongest have their moments of fatigue." – Friedrich Nietzche

This is How a Heart Breaks

"Sam, you were lucky. Most of the men in her life ended bloody."

"She didn't know…"

"I know." Swallowing hard he took a moment before repeating the words, gentler, ever softer, if not a bit exasperated. "I know…" Dean scratched at the back of his head, his eyes brimming with emotion, love and protective concern intertwined as he stood beside his brother in another nameless motel room halfway across the country from San Francisco. Still, it wasn't far enough. "Sam, she was a nice girl and what happened to her is terrible, it is…but we have to face facts, she left a trail of dead bodies behind her." Dean licked his lips, his eyes flickering to the ground before rising up to lock with his brother's. Once the connection was forged it never faltered but his eyes betrayed the truth spoken, unable to hide the hurt gleaned from his brother's pain, tender eyes soft and moist, just like when he'd stood in Madison's kitchen as Sam shook out his broad shoulders and returned to the living room, gun in hand. Worry was laced within the reluctant words as he continued, "Three guys are dead that we know of…" He paused, damp eyes shimmering with a persistent ache as he added, "You could have been next."

Snapping to attention, shoulders back with jaw set firm, Sam quickly defended. "No, she wouldn't have hurt me." His voice was low but solid. His tone somehow reaching out around the edges to find the comfort only his brother could offer…yearning for Dean's understanding. Sensitive eyes wounded and searching out something to hold on to, some hope that could mask the pain of losing Madison, of being the one to pull that trigger. He spoke with conviction, but the words were lost in longing, like he wished he could rewrite history, take back the night and the full moon. Change her fate, and in so doing, change his. His eyes reflected the lingering hurt still trapped within, an unrelenting pain that a million tears could never wash clean.

"Sam, we don't know what she would have done. She couldn't control it." Rubbing his hand down his face, he released a soft sigh in contrast to the harsh cut of his words before he again eased back, pleading while still insistent, as if he could make it better by taking away the difficult decision. "We had no choice."

"I know, all right! I know!" The words exploded out of him, too loud, too forceful, too angry and reviled. Sam paused, sucking in a heavy breath, his lips moving but no sound escaped as he pulled himself back, trying to temper the desperate anguish that battered his heart and tore at his very soul. Sensitive eyes glistened with tears that didn't fall, the conflict within played out in the contortions of his expressive face and the ragged breaths as he tried to calm himself down. All the words he couldn't voice shouting through the pain locked down deep before again falling silent, shunted away to the depths to be denied. Those fluid eyes the only window to his torment, shuddering through the pain from then and now, and yet simultaneously trying to apologize for his outburst, for his actions, for not being able to save her. The war within waging on but only offering brief flashes, hints to the depth of his agony and the totality of his regret. When he finally found his voice it was on the precarious edge of defeat, releasing a small taste of his pain in a soft whimper. "That doesn't make it any easier."

Dean gently nodded. He knew all too well the truth in that statement, having faced too many hard choices in his own life, having been forced to bear the weight of too many life or death decisions. But this was Sammy and it wasn't supposed to be like this, not for him. He should have protected him. That was his job, his purpose. He should have insisted on doing the deed and spared Sam this unrelenting agony…and in the process spared himself the pain of watching his brother slowly self-destruct.

Three Days Later

"Sam, I want you to talk to me."

"Talk?" Sam huffed. "About what?"

Dean closed his eyes to the sight for one brief moment before he pressed onward, unwilling to let the tension continue to mount, unable to simply stand by and watch his brother wrestle so unsuccessfully within his guilt. Not on my watch. He stared Sam straight in the eye, his voice sure and steady as he forced the issue. "You know what. Madison and…"

With a burst of intent, skating on the brink of fury, Sam cut him off. "No, Dean, I am not talking about that…" He physically shook, internally quaking while his exterior displayed only the slightest movement, motion that only a brother would notice. His face then turned fierce, determined and impenetrable, a mask of absolute conviction. His voice was brittle, almost broken, as he rasped out, "I can't."

Faced with such anger, familiar with this brand of denial, Dean's gaze never wavered, intent eyes analyzing the outburst, cataloging the reaction and gauging his chance at success. The odds that he could reach his brother in this agitated state, that pushing now would ultimately prove beneficial to Sam. Taking a moment to breathe through the hurt he was again witnessing, Dean reconsidered and retreated. Just as he had when Sam refused to share his pain and guilt after Jessica, just like he had when Sam pushed him to talk about Dad's death and how he felt. Dean Winchester was hardly a coward, but he also wasn't the sort to push the sappy heart-to-heart talks. Not when it was clear that Sam didn't want to talk, that his brother was not yet ready to talk. Just like he'd done so often in the past, he let it slide, for now, giving himself permission to surrender to his brother's desires. Once again giving Sam what he wanted, what it appeared he needed at this point in time. "Fine. But sooner or later, we are going to talk about this."

Sam answered with another huff and turned back to his computer screen, purposely reading what he'd managed to pull up about whatever supernatural slug he'd been researching before Dean interrupted him. After a few seconds, his eyes drifted upward to follow his brother as he turned his back and ransacked through his duffel, careful to look away again when Dean glanced his way.

After a few minutes of fruitless and increasingly aggravated searching through his bag, Dean's focus turned back to his brother, even if it did appear off-hand and casual. "So…you find anything?" he asked. His voice perfectly modulated and controlled, as if this was just another day, just another hunt.

That was how the Winchesters handled adversity, by moving on to the next hunt. It had always worked in the past so neither had any reason to suspect this would be any different.

Interesting how life doesn't always follow pattern.

Eight Hours Later

"Sam, watch out!" Dean was moving as soon as he saw the thing rush his brother, his Colt leading the charge but not offering up a shot, the angle wrong, Sam's body a freaking target blocking his aim. His gut clenched and then dropped, spasming through raucous calisthenics as the wolf clawed its way through his brother, blood painting the wall behind him and chilling the air.

Everything ground to a stop in an instant.

His heart seized and his breathing halted and then his mind began to race. Every hunt gone wrong blew through his head. Every mistake, every misstep, every good opportunity turned bad catastrophe. He was sucked back to the present and the urgency of this disaster in a whoosh of emotion as sound exploded all around him.

Sam screamed as he went down. A raw and ragged gasp drawn out of him as shock and searing pain collided, a dull thud echoing through the hollowed-out cabin to punctuate his fall as his body crashed to the floor in a broken and bloody heap.

Once Sam dropped, Dean had a clear shot and he took it, drilling five silver bullets through the creature's heart with a vindictiveness that only comes when the kill is personal. Once the werewolf crumbled to the ground, he barely offered it a parting glance, confident his skill with a weapon had ended its pathetic life as he rushed to his brother's side.

"Sam? Sammy? Talk to me, man."

Sam's eyes fluttered as they tried to open. When he finally managed that daunting feat his gaze was wild and disconnected, unable to fully focus. The touch of his brother's hand on his arm was the only thing pulling him back from a thick fog, grounding him in the reality of this hunt and the injury it had brought. His voice was hoarse, pain throbbing within a fractured whisper as he gasped out, "Dean?"

"Yeah, Sammy, that's it…stay with me." Dean quickly pulled back the shredded remains of his brother's jacket and shirt, inspecting the bloody mess and pressing the palm of his hand to the most serious of the wounds in a failed attempt to stop the bleeding. The groan his action elicited reverberated up his arm compelling him to release his hand for an instant before he locked down his surging emotions and pressed harder. "What the hell were you thinking?" His anger lashed out at their dire circumstance as his heart thrummed with dread. "God, Sammy…"

Sam grunted in response, his gaze loopy, his eyes trying, as best he could, to follow the familiar voice and find his way out of the depths. He tried to speak but his tongue was thick and unwieldy, useless in its present condition. He reached for his brother, flailing about until Dean found him, grabbing hold as Sam responded back with his own desperate clutch at his brother's forearm. Their eyes met, Sam's finding focus for a split second while Dean's seemed momentarily distant, distracted and lost, too many thoughts hammering away inside his head as his mind took him down a dark and dangerous road. He immediately snapped back to his brother and his needs as soon as that bond was forged. Neither had to say a word, everything they need say conveyed within that fragile connection. Both sorry, sorry for the pain in the other's eyes. The brothers' hands gripped tightly to each other, frantic in their need, until Sam's hand gently slipped away.

As his brother's grip released, Dean's heart stuttered, panic rising up as despair settled in. With the fierceness and protectiveness of one unable to accept defeat he shook the now limp body. "Sam! Sammy!" In desperate denial he clutched him to his chest, fists pressing into his back to draw Sam closer, holding tight and refusing to let go. The sensation of warmth soaking through as the blood from his brother's wounds bloomed across his shirt the only thing pulling him back, back to the reality of the moment and what needed to be done.

Cradling the back of Sam's head in his hand, Dean held on for one desperate second before his training engaged and he gently laid his brother down on the cold, hard floor. His hand found its way to Sam's chest, the faint beating of his brother's heart offering a glimmer of hope as he went to work. His switchblade snapped open and he quickly dispensed with the tattered remains of Sam's favorite plaid shirt, the t-shirt beneath sliced up the front and drawn back exposing the full extent of his wounds.

Sam sputtered and moaned, drawing closer to consciousness, his chest heaving as it took on its new color. A swath was cut across his flesh, deep furrows running red. A flash of memory assaulted Dean, the last time he'd witnessed one of his family this tore up haunting him. Absolute terror coiled deep in his gut, stirring all those latent fears he'd tried so hard to deny through the years. Another dire moment stealing all thought. Dad had taken a bad hit, been carved up pretty good…but he'd had Bobby with him on that one, Bobby's skill and calm keeping him steady.

Bobby wasn't far, but he wasn't here.

In his life as a hunter, Dean had never had the luxury of panic, and he certainly couldn't fall apart now. Sam needed him, was depending on his skills as a field medic to save him. He drew upon every lesson their dad had drilled into them, focusing on hunter triage, assessing the injuries and prioritizing his actions as he worked to contain the damage. He pulled out a large pressure bandage from his pack, quickly ripping off the back and pressing it against the gaping hole in Sam's shoulder, ensuring the edges took hold before moving on. He repeated the action for the abdominal wound, cringing as the slightest touch caused a spike of pain for his brother, Sam's face contorting in renewed agony. He took out a length of rope, tying off a makeshift tourniquet above the deep gash on his right arm, adjusting it to stem the flow of blood without cutting off the circulation too severely. The other claw swipes weren't nearly as bad, not demanding immediate attention, minor when compared to the worst of his wounds.

Of all the hunts and all the injuries incurred in their war with evil, this was…different. Dean didn't know why exactly, just knew that he couldn't handle seeing Sam in this much pain, physical pain now on top of all the emotional pain he'd been witness to since Madison. It was wrong, so freaking wrong… Sammy didn't deserve this. He should have protected him, stopped this…saved him.

Seeing his kid brother broken like this, his body shredded while his mind was still punishing him for what he'd been forced to do to Madison, made him shudder and quake, his hands trembling as waves of dread pulsed out from his core. The blood-soaked image ultimately succeeding in shattering any forced bravado and determined calm Dean had managed to latch on to through the years, undermining his foundation and plunging him headlong into his own worst nightmare.

He closed his eyes to the vision before him, tunneling inward, hoping his instincts held and that phantom Winchester luck would miraculously reappear. By sheer will he ignored the rattlers deep in his gut, focusing instead on his training, the conditioned response to danger that had served him so well through the years. His hands doing what needed to be done despite the pain his actions inflicted upon his brother, while his mind desperately tried to shut down the nagging doubts and condemning what-ifs.

In his disoriented haze, Sam tried to shift away from the pain Dean brought as he tended his injuries. A sharp intake of breath and the moan as it was released triggering a mountain of recriminations in the older brother, but not allowing any hesitation as he swallowed down his apologies and stayed on task, furiously working to contain the damage.

When the best he could offer was done, Dean's hands shook like a drunk jonesing for a drink before he purposely wiped the blood marking them onto his jeans, tightly gripping his thighs to still the insistent tremors. He sucked in a gulp of cool air, his eyes sweeping over the ruined hull of the cabin in one final reconnaissance before determining it was time to leave. His mind was feverishly working out the logistics: the hike back to the car over rocky terrain, the distance between his injured brother and medical attention, the time it would take to reach help, the odds…long and hard, that things were going to go their way. The end result harsh and unforgiving, Sam's survival hinging on him and him alone, a heavy weight except for the fact that it was as it had always been, his brother's life in his hands.

For all his size and normal, robust strength Sam somehow looked small and frail now. The fierce hunter he had become over the years lost within his pain. His face seemed almost innocent, displaying an unnatural stillness. The agony of his injuries buried deep within his unconscious mind. He was again, as he would forever be, the boy Dean had nurtured through all his childhood cuts and scrapes, through dozens of hunting mishaps, through every life event that left a scar on Sam's body and Dean's soul. The list seemingly endless, with each serious injury bad enough to steal the breath from Dean's lungs and send him spiraling down that path toward panic, frantic that they'd finally managed to wear out the last in their stockpile of miracles.

Suspended in a surreal calm amid this maelstrom, Dean whispered a silent prayer along with a promise, no penance too great, if only God or angels or someone would listen. Then, in a rush of intent, he looped the strap of his pack across his shoulder, braced his hand against the wall for support, and with a grunt hefted his brother up and over his shoulder in a fireman's carry for the trek back out of the woods.

Sam was no longer that lanky teenager. He'd taken on the challenge and worked out faithfully since he was fourteen and was now a lean, fit 230 pounds of pure muscle, an impressive mass draped over the smaller man's back. The back of Dean's shoulder was soon sticky from the constant blood loss, soaking through his jacket and shirts to soil his skin. Every step was jarring and Dean hated the muffled sounds that escaped Sam's lips as he was jostled about over the rough terrain. He almost went down once when the uneven ground tripped him up and the weight bearing down on his shoulder set him off balance, eliciting an even deeper groan out of his brother and making him curse his misstep even as he picked up his pace.

It was hard going, but the adrenaline coursing through his body offered Dean all the strength necessary to traverse the distance in record time. When he reached the Impala he didn't bother with covering the seat to protect his baby from all the blood and grime. His only concern was his brother, gently easing him onto the bench seat in the back, shushing his cries as he awoke in a fog.

The pain of his injuries seemed to ignite Sam's awareness causing him to shift in renewed agony as he was squeezed into confines too tight. His body tensing and withdrawing, silently fighting the only way he could.

"Sam? Sammy…just hold on, okay? I got you." Gentle hands skated over his brother, light touches of reassurance and need. A compulsion to feel him, to maintain that tenuous connection, to fiercely hold on to life itself.

Sam's eyes opened, distant, yet flickering with recognition, maintaining his gaze for a mere second before rolling back again, fluttering about, distracted by every noise and movement, unable to fully focus. Dean's hand trembled as he brushed the too-long bangs out of his brother's eyes, the touch garnering a softer moan and the slightest lean towards the warmth. Sam started to shudder then, his teeth chattering as the cold within took hold, another freezing night on the mountain only adding to his chill.

Dean stumbled back through the open door, his breath a wisp of frigid air, his eyes darting about in the dark, only able to make out distant trees and the vast nothingness of their surroundings. His hand braced against the cold metal of the back fender as he rose and staggered to the trunk, popping the lid and reaching behind the weapons hold to pull out a sleeping bag. He quickly returned to wrap it as best he could around the shivering body of his brother, tucking in the edges in a cocoon of safety.

"Easy, Sammy… You're gonna be all right. I got you." Dean clasped Sam's left forearm in a firm grip, squeezing to make his presence known as he reverted to his dad, issuing an order and hoping the soldier John had tried to drill into his son was listening and not the temperamental teen intent on rebelling. "Sam? You hold on. You hear me? Don't you die on me…don't you do that." His voice was raw, rough from worry, thrashing about amid the breathlessness of his exertion. Dean bit into his bottom lip, his eyes floundering within a soft misting. His hand moved to mold along his brother's jaw, only wanting the touch to linger, willing those eyes to flicker open one more time, just one more second to know that his brother was still there. He was rewarded with a grunt of acknowledgment and a slight smile that was probably a grimace, twisted by need into something more. "That's it, Sammy. I got you." Dean gave one final pat along the length of Sam's face as he moved back to close the car door with a heavy thud. "I got you. Won't be long now."

Dean raced around the back of the car, slamming the trunk closed before piling into the driver's seat and turning over the powerful engine. The tires spun and kicked up dirt and rock as the Impala barreled back down the dirt road to the two-lane blacktop twenty minutes back. His jaw clenched as the movement pulled a sharp groan from his brother behind him. His eyes darted between the speedometer and the rearview mirror, tilted down to reveal the backseat, gauging the lesser of two evils, jostling his brother and causing him more pain or delaying getting him back to the motel room and stitched up properly before he bled out. A hospital was out of contention. The hick town they'd holed up in was hours from a town large enough to have more than a country doctor.

The muscle in Dean's cheek below his left eye kicked into hyper-drive, twitching as he tried to control himself. A few insistent tears finally breached the surface as the need to hold back dwindled, wetness rolling down his cheek as the pressure exploded outward. His voice cracked as he tried to reassure his brother and himself, whoever might listen and believe. "Sam, it's not that bad…you're gonna be fine." The added emphasis on 'fine' was a command, a refusal to accept anything less. A sharp gasp answered, the sound echoing within the confines of the car, and he reacted like he'd been gut-punched, gritting his teeth and pushing down harder on the accelerator. "I'm sorry…'m sorry. Just hold on…won't be much longer." It was as if talking helped settle him, as if further explanation kept him close to his brother, his voice rattling on, focusing him on the task at hand and keeping his mind from going other places, places he didn't want to venture. "I just need to get you back to the motel and then I can stitch you up. This is nothin', I've seen worse… Sammy…" His voice trailed off when the tears he'd momentarily allowed briefly fogged his vision, but he shook them back where they belonged and stared into the dark, each mile that whipped by offering the distant promise of safety.

Time seemed lost, suspended within an endless journey as the Impala and her occupants were swallowed by a thick black void that refused to release them. Every creak of the shocks as the uneven road took its toll was met by a groan from the backseat which in turn brought on the same response, apologies and reassurances. The give and take only lasted ten minutes before the backseat turned deathly still. In response Dean punched the accelerator, the car careening down the road like a moonshiner on the run from the law. He never considered stopping and checking on his brother, holding firm to the only thing he had left to believe in. The only possible explanation for the still was that Sam had passed out and was finally free of his pain. Their only option was to get him back to civilization as soon as possible so he could tend to his injuries.

Anything else meant failure and Dean Winchester was not going to fail his brother.

Not now or ever again.

Thirty-five minutes later

Sam was still breathing when the car pulled into the motel parking lot, still hanging on as his brother leaped out and rushed around to pull open the back door. Dean laid a shaky hand atop his brother's chest, forcing his own heart to still so he could register the gentle rise and fall beneath anxious fingers. It had taken thirty-five minutes of terror to bring them here, thirty-five minutes of hell-bent-for-leather frantic, desperate panic. And they weren't yet out of the woods; the worst was still to come.

Winchesters are inherently strong and resilient, used to injury, schooled in perseverance, their jobs as hunters demanding it. Most men would have never stirred, would have blissfully surrendered to unconsciousness and the tentative peace that would bring. But Sam wasn't most men. He was a warrior, trained to be alert, expected to fight through injury and hang on. Once the rocking of the Impala ceased, once it ground to a halt on the gravel of the motel parking lot, Sam shifted, his senses pulling him back to awareness, ready for the coming battle.

His mumbled response both heartened and distressed Dean. He wanted his brother with him, engaged in this fight for survival, but he dreaded the coming pain and the lack of medicine to ease it. "Hey, Sammy? You with me, dude? Just gotta get you inside. It's warm in there, okay? You hold on." Sam moved, his limbs shifting slightly beneath the sleeping bag, a part of his brain trying to help. Dean patted his thigh as he backed out of the backseat. "Just wait up. Give me a sec." He rushed to their room, fumbling with the key before unlocking the door and kicking it in, quickly flipping on the lights and tossing his pack inside. He turned in a rush and was again by his brother's side, pulling back the sleeping bag and gentling easing him out as Sam gasped when another spike of pain assaulted him, clutching at Dean's arm, his fingers digging in painfully. Still unable to walk, Sam was again hefted over Dean's shoulder, his shout piercing as his injuries were jarred from the impact. "'m sorry, Sammy. Just hold on…not much further."

It was a short distance from the car to the motel room and with as much care as possible, Dean stretched his brother out on the bed nearest the bathroom. Sam's head gently placed on the pillow, his boots quickly discarded on the floor. Dean was a flurry of motion, running back outside to ransack the trunk and pull out the needed supplies: a one-burner hotplate, an aluminum sauce pan and the emergency medical kit. As he returned to the room, he turned up the heat on the thermostat and plugged in the hotplate, filling the pan with water and setting in on the burner.

He turned back to his brother and paused for a moment, just a quick assessment of their situation, a second to take a breath and think. Once he was focused, sure of his course, he moved to Sam's side and released some of the tension on the tourniquet, relieved the blood flow had finally eased. The gash on his arm may have quit gushing blood but was gaping wide, ragged and ugly and in need of a dozen stitches, at least.

The deepest wounds on his shoulder and abdomen were still covered by the pressure bandages, a hint of red rising up to the surface and tainting the white, but they had held and would continue to hold until he released them from their duty. Separately none of the wounds were too overwhelming, not for hunters like them, but combined, with the loss of blood Sam had already suffered, it was bad. Just the risk of infection was worrisome, and he'd need a transfusion, that was a given. His skin had already turned a pasty white, bringing on the cast of death to darken the night further. Despite the heat in the room rising, the heater having finally kicked on, Dean shuddered against the cold; a gust of dread fluttering within his gut as the frigid night entombed them.

Sam moaned and shifted, his lips trembling as if he wanted to speak, his eyes racing beneath closed lids, a dream or nightmare grabbing hold and not allowing him any peace. His chest started heaving, anxiety or pain pushing him, prodding him. "Hey, Sammy…hang on. I've got you." Dean's hand found its way back to the side of his brother's face, the warmth of his palm soothing the mostly unconscious man, settling him and easing him away from whatever anguish had been assaulting him.

Dean smiled, hesitant and hopeful, his dimples flashing as he tried to convince himself that things would work out on their side. "That's it, Sammy…you rest. You'll be good as new in no time."


The open med kit was sitting by his side as Dean threaded the surgical needle, laying it back down as he rose to check on the heated water. He turned the burner off and pulled the pan close, setting it on the small nightstand between the beds as he grabbed up a clean towel off the stack he'd laid nearby. With total concentration he immersed it in the water, careful that the temperature wasn't too extreme before gently using it to wash his brother's chest and arm, careful not to disturb the pressure bandages still doing their job. The warm touch against his wounds caused Sam to shudder and groan, blindly moving away in a bid to escape the coming pain. Dean grimaced as he continued; forcing himself to be a party to his brother's agony, knowing it was a necessary evil. As each towel was saturated in blood it was discarded on the floor and a new one took its place until a mountain of bloody towels rose up claiming the area at the foot of the bed. Once the pale skin was clean, as sterile as he could possibly make it under these conditions, Dean again picked up the threaded needle.

With hands steady as a surgeon he started to close the wounds, fine even stitches, as exact and precise as he could make them, careful to keep the scars to a minimum, unwilling to mark his brother's body more than necessary. There were already too many reminders of past mistakes, too many jagged scars detailing Sam's life as a hunter. The slip-slide of the needle took on a rhythm, in and out, in and out, swiftly fulfilling its mission, accompanied by moans and sighs as Sam trembled in his unrest. His mind unable to fully comprehend what was happening while his body tensed, reacting subtly to the piercing stabs that didn't end. Dean had to rethread the needle multiple times, each time wiping fresh blood off his hands and patting at the wounds as he finished, dabbing up the blood and cleansing Sam of all trace of red aside from the fine, thin lines indented along his promised scars.

When the gash on Sam's arm and all the lesser chest wounds were taken care of, he turned his attention back to the worst and he gasped, his stomach dropping into a vast chasm as he removed the pressure bandage on his abdomen. That wound gaping huge, needing medical tape to pull the sides back together to hold their shape as he stitched up each layer that had been damaged. Over the course of his actions, more blood was soaked up by fresh towels, only adding to the pile on the floor, blood loss now past the point of critical. His actions were replayed on mute as he silently worked on the shoulder wound, the time necessary to repair such a deep wound dragging on, every minute beat out by the breaking of his heart.

When he was finally done, when the wounds looked as good as he could possibly make them, he again prayed it was good enough, that infection or the venom from that vile creature wouldn't thwart his efforts, that Sam would heal quickly and without further drama. They'd already suffered enough. Sam had suffered enough….he deserved a break here. They both did.

Dean had only ever dealt with an injury so severe with his dad, that one hunt where he'd tumbled to the realization that John Winchester wasn't invincible. He'd never thought of Sam as invincible, always protective of him as if he were some precious treasure worthy of being locked away, safe and secure. Never believing their jobs could turn this deadly, that evil could gain the upper hand. He'd always gone out of his way to keep his kid brother safe from any harm that could incur this severe of an injury. He'd lowered his guard and failed this time out. He hadn't done his job, but he wouldn't allow his mind to consider that failure; not now, not when he still had work to do.

The sweat on Sam's brow was starting to bead, a fever building, an infection probable. Dean cursed that they'd run out of antibiotics and he'd failed to restock. Of all the freaking times to run out of drugs. This was stupid, friggin' ridiculous. A quick perusal of the phone book in the drawer listed one doctor in a hundred mile radius…one. His fingers trembled as he dialed the number, the phone ringing too many times before the answering machine finally picked up, the message advising the caller that the good doctor would be out of the office for a week…a hunting trip.

Dean cursed their bad luck.

It was times like this that Dean lamenting their vagabond lifestyle. That they didn't have anyone to depend on…at least, no one within shouting distance. He'd learned long ago to never rely on others, to only believe in his family. But what was left of his family was lying deathly still beside him and he could use a hand here, if only to have someone he trusted to watch over Sam as he got the drugs he so desperately needed. He hated the thought of leaving him alone, but he needed antibiotics and pain meds, and while the Doc might be gone, his office would be well-stocked with the needed supplies.

Before he headed out on that task, Dean had one thing he needed to do first.



Dean didn't need to say more, didn't have to explain. The guttural rasp of his voice over the clear connection told the older hunter that something bad had happened. The hesitancy…the unmistakable undercurrent of panic could only mean one thing.

"Dean? What is it, boy?" Bobby steeled his own emotions, dreading the next words he might hear. He pushed past the terror and jumped headlong into Dean's pain. "It's Sam, ain't it?"

"Bobby, he's hurt…it's bad…"

Bobby clutched at the phone in his hand, his voice going deeper, all the way down to bedrock as he responded. "I'm here, Dean. Tell me what happened." An agonizing silence followed, harsh breathing hijacking the connection. "Dean, it'll be okay. C'mon, now, tell me what happened."

Time slowed, thoughts ran rampant and one stifling moment of silence seemed like an eternity.

The life of a hunter is treacherous, danger a constant, but somehow Dean always seemed to brush over that fact…until danger came stalking his brother. Only then, with irrefutable evidence of the peril their lives warranted, would he stop and consider. Only when backed into a corner with no way out could he face the devil of that truth.

Nothing much shook Bobby Singer. He'd been around too long, witnessed too many tragedies, endured too many losses. The story told would have been the same as any other hunt gone wrong, except for the players. Sam and Dean were…Sam and Dean.

It wasn't like they'd never been here before. Both Winchesters had seen their fair share of injuries, but there was something frantic in Dean's voice, something that placed this injury beyond any previous ones. Something within the gritty, hollowed-out whisper that caused Bobby's throat to tighten as he offered up the standard reassurances while his heart raced with dread for what was coming.

The phone went dead as Dean struggled to tell the tale, the hitches in his voice betraying all attempts to appear strong. He'd done the best he could for his brother, soldiering through the panic and the terror, only falling apart once his part was done. Once he'd finished stitching Sam up, he'd been left alone with his guilt and pain. The silence burying him in darkness as he awaited the final verdict. The only refuge he'd allowed himself was the call to Bobby, a desperate plea for help, unspoken and unbidden, but mutually understood.

"Dean? Dean, stay with me. How much blood did he lose?"

The young hunter stammered, battered within his self-inflicted recriminations, tossed about in a sea of rage and regret, unable to see beyond the broken image lying silent before him. "A...a lot, Bobby…god, everything was bloody. He's so pale. He looks like…"

"Dean…" Bobby pressed onward, forcing Dean to focus simply by the tone of his voice. Insistently he asked, "Does he need a transfusion?"

"Yeah…yeah, I think so…but Bobby, we're in the boonies." Defeat teetered on edge, the hopelessness of their situation imposing the greatest threat now. "There isn't even a doctor here, much less a hospital," he choked out, his tone condemning of the town and their decision to go there, and of the general bad luck of their situation and the curse of their lives.

"It's going to be all right, Dean. I'm only a few hours out." Bobby was already heading out the front door of his house. "I'm coming, boy, don't you fret. I'll be there by morning."

The line went dead as the call disconnected. Both men focused on the task at hand, both barreling towards that common goal.

The Winchesters were a sturdy lot, numerous scars from previous wounds reaffirming their innate strength and stubborn tendencies, their refusal to simply give in and die. Both John and Dean had recovered from injuries that could have gone south. Injuries that had caused this same familiar rumbling of terror, but Sam…well, Dean had always managed to keep him relatively safe. Truth was, Dean handled his own injuries with little drama, with an acceptance and que sera casualness, but any injury to Sam triggered a wealth of latent fears, bringing home the horror of their jobs and the promise of danger ever present.

Bobby knew Dean needed him now as much as Sam, possibly more. And Bobby, he just needed to be there, be there for both his boys.

Four hours later

Morning came with Dean maintaining his vigil, dark circles forming beneath solemn eyes to complete the haggard look from no sleep and too much worry. Sam was still lying as he had when Dean finished stitching him up. His face a death mask, the pasty pale of his skin blending into the white of the sheets beneath him with only the barest rise and fall of the blue flowered comforter refuting the promise of death that hung in the air.

Dean startled, his head jerking up as soon as he heard the familiar growl of Bobby's Chevelle. He staggered upright from his place on the floor with his back against the side of his bed and headed for the door, throwing it open and moving outside as he pulled the door closed behind him in an attempt to lock in the heat. Shivering in stocking feet he stood waiting. His filthy grey tee stuck to his heaving chest where his brother's blood had dried, caking the material to him as a reminder of the night before. His jeans were also splattered with splotches of blood, nerves and the cold causing him to shift from foot to foot, anxious for Bobby to park. He offered a hesitant, hopeful smile as Bobby got out and purposely strode towards him, locking his arms around him in a warm embrace.

"It'll be all right, Dean. I'm here."

Digging his fists into the back of his old friend, Dean reveled in the solid warmth and the strong grip at the back of his neck for a second before pushing back and away, again focused on the work still left to do. "Bobby, I got the stuff you wanted…but how…"

"Trust me, kiddo. Just need a little know-how is all." Bobby squinted beneath his trucker cap. The familiar pat of his hand on the side of Dean's neck conveying confidence; his voice steady and sure, as always. He examined the young man standing before him, sad eyes fixating on the trail of blood soiling his clothing. "Dean…you..?"

Absently swiping his hand over the dried blood, Dean offered a nervous grimace trembling with denial as he witnessed the concern in Bobby's eyes, the same concern he'd seen for Sam when Bobby first stepped out of his car. "No…I..I'm fine." He swallowed as Bobby's eyes registered the truth. "This…" His hand halted its movement, the dried blood hard and brittle, his skin crawling from the memory. "No…no, this is Sam's blood…" He barely got the words out. Sam's blood…god! Wounded eyes again sought out compassion…reassurance. He found all he needed in Bobby's genuine smile, tender eyes assuring him they were going to make it as he steered him back on task.

"C'mon, Dean, help me get the rest of my gear."

Dean tried to force a smile. His heart easing as a fraction of the tension coursing beneath his skin receded. He locked eyes with Bobby and nodded. Any action welcome, giving him back his purpose and diverting his mind from bad thoughts.

Turning back to his trunk, Bobby popped the lid and pulled out the needed items; piling most of them into Dean's waiting arms before grabbing the rest and following the younger man back into the motel room.

Dean dumped his armful on his bed, his eyes forever drawn to the still form of his brother before rising to absorb the look of terror that flittered across Bobby's face as he got his first glimpse of the youngest Winchester. The words their old friend offered hiding well the horror in that moment. "Well, then…let's see what we got."

Bobby pulled back the covers, the patchwork of bandages covering the impending scars drawing out a muffled gasp, always the stoic hunter, braced for the discovery and only temporarily showing in his eyes and the tremulous pitch of his voice how bad he knew this to be.

Dean stumbled over his next words. Seeing the wounds in the light of day again drove home the nightmare of this hunt…how close he'd come to losing Sam…and how much danger still existed. "I tried, Bobby. I don't know if I..."

"Dean," Bobby softly cautioned, "You done good. Would've been worse without you there."

Locking down his surging emotions, Dean wiped his hands down his jeans, the friction against the hardening of the material where the blood had plastered them to his legs caused him to get momentarily lost in the past before Bobby's voice again pulled him back.

"Dean, Dean?"

"Yeah… yeah…" He took a deep breath, averting his eyes from his brother's still form and concentrating on Bobby, drawing on his strength to move forward. "Okay, what now?"

With a gruff matter-of-fact practicality, purposely avoiding his own anxiety, Bobby directed their course. "We take care of your brother."


"Bobby, you know how to do this?" Dean asked as he handled the plastic tubing, watching intently as Bobby focused on his task, rigging a contraption from the light over the bed that would hold the bag of blood when it was filled, setting the pump on the nightstand and laying out the clamps and surgical tape needed to keep the lines connecting the brothers in place.

Bobby looked up from beneath his worn trucker cap, his eyes taking on the same weary cast as Dean's, worry and hope fighting for dominance. He answered, but seemed distracted, still fitting all the pieces together, preparing for his part in saving Sam's life. "Yeah…done it a few times. Once on your daddy…actually, that was my inaugural try."

Dean offered a slight smile, the tense situation easing by default once Bobby arrived. Bobby's steady presence helping to reassure him, allowing him to take a step back and share the load. Not that he would ever release his responsibility for Sam, but with his dad or Bobby…it helped to have them near, to not be totally on his own. "So it worked?"

The reply was casual, a stark contrast to their situation. "John lived."

"So, what do I do?"

"Just lie down and let me do the work."

With resignation that he couldn't actively do more, Dean did just that, lying down on the bed across from his brother and offering up his right arm. He silently watched as Bobby wiped the antiseptic swab over his inner elbow, tying the rubber tourniquet along his bicep and pulling it tight, the vein bulging as Bobby drew nearer with the needle.

As soon as the needle was in and taped in place, blood started running down the plastic tubing, the gentle sound of the pump a distant accompaniment. The blood quickly started to fill the bag over Sam's head and when it was almost full, Bobby released the lever in the bottom and the blood flowed downward, completing its journey and flowing into the left arm of the young hunter unconscious on the bed.

Relegated to lying still, Dean alternated between staring stoically at the ceiling and observing his brother, time dragging as he waited for that coming miracle, the end result of all their determination and hard work allowing Sam to wake up, good as new. Too soon Bobby announced they were almost finished.

"Just a few more minutes and then you're done, Dean."

"Wait! No, Bobby, he needs more. He lost a lot."

"Dean, you can only give so much."

"No…more, Bobby. I can handle it." Steely eyes stared deep and true, not offering any compromise as they pleaded their case.

Bobby sighed, not surprised by this exchange. In fact, if he were being honest, he'd have said he expected it. "Just a bit more then. But then you stay put…" His voice was pointed as he growled out, "Don't need you passing out on me."

Smiling over this small victory, Dean eased back into the mattress, his eyes now a constant on his brother, looking for a sign, some indication they were on the upward swing of this disaster. The still form before him so unnatural, not who his brother was. Sam was always laughing and full of life. Even when he was angsty and tormented, he was constantly in motion.

Nothing could keep his brother down, nothing except this.

Three hours later

"Bobby, how's he doing?"

Bobby rubbed at his red eyes and studied the still form that had not moved since he'd arrived. He thought his color was better, but it was hard to tell, he was still so pale, lifeless, ghost-like. Nothing like the vibrant young man he'd known for most of his life. He was now an empty vessel waiting to be filled, waiting for life to breathe back into his withered form. Dean had refused sleep despite his exhaustion, instead resting his eyes only when assured that Bobby would stand guard and alert him to any change. He was lying on the bed across from his brother, still tense and expectant, eyes darting to his brother after only a few moments of quiet withdrawal, always alert for a shift in his breathing. The promise had been given that he would rest for a few hours if Bobby relented and drained him of more blood, rest meaning he stayed horizontal. Three hours had passed and now Dean's question haunted him. Even if Bobby couldn't be sure of the answer, he saw no reason to let Dean in on his doubts. He was sure the boy harbored enough of his own. "He's better. How you feelin'?"

Dean eased up into a sitting position, intense emerald eyes never leaving his brother as he pulled his legs off the bed and hunched over into the aisle, his hands gripping his knees as he shifted to get closer. "I think he needs more, Bobby."

"He does, but not yet."

Angrily Dean snapped, "Then when?"

"When I say so," Bobby barked back. His ire rising in an attempt to maintain control, knowing full well how obstinate all the Winchesters could be and not wanting to engage one now.

Fire burned within Dean's gaze, his mouth twisting into a snarl as he lashed out. "Bobby!" His eyes flashed with a dozen emotions, the strongest frustration and anger, buffered by love and longing before he settled down, pleading with his old friend. "I'm good, Bobby…just do it."

Releasing his own anxiety to again focus on their needs, Bobby tugged at the brim of his hat, his other hand reaching for the coffee pot plugged in by the sink. He poured a cup of coffee and took the three steps toward Dean and handed over the mug. "See if you can get that down…then why don't you take a shower? You're looking mighty ripe." He paused then, everything shifting as he softly added, "Then we'll see."

Responding to the overture, both men on edge, steeped in roiling emotions, Dean took the coffee mug, inhaling the aroma and swallowing down a gulp. His left hand raked across his chest, the hardness beneath his fingers again drawing him back. His mind forever traveling over what happened, the dried blood on his tee and jeans keeping him locked in that night and the resulting nightmare. Still, he hesitated, not wanting any distance between himself and his brother. "Bobby, when's he gonna wake up?"

"Don't know…but I can tell you this, it ain't gonna be in the time you're in the shower." He moved back to check Sam's pulse before he addressed Dean again. "Go on. You'll feel better once you get cleaned up. I've got him."

"You'll yell if anything happens?"



After his shower Dean was next expected to eat. Bobby sure could be a demanding bastard. He'd ordered delivery, pizza and chicken wings, and had it waiting when Dean stepped back into the room, freshly dressed in a clean tee and jeans, looking only half like death warmed over. Bobby watched expectantly, like he somehow wanted Dean to fall into pattern and just wolf down his food like normal while his kid brother fought for his life. Only after being threatened that he wouldn't be allowed to give any additional blood until he ate, did Dean relent, managing to force down one slice and a wing. Eyeing Bobby with a look steeped in defiance as he swallowed down the last angry bite.

Dean then resumed his watch, staring at his brother's still body as if he could will him to rise. Time had not been kind to any of them; six hours of non-stop intensity followed by eight hours of restless waiting had taken its toll.

Bobby held out as long as he could, until Dean's insistent nagging wore him down and he didn't have the heart to deny him further.

Dean breathed easier as soon as the blood started to drain from his body, like he was releasing his pent up anxiety and worry along with the crimson. His eyes closed in satisfaction as he rested on the bed, on the brink of exhaustion but unwilling to give in.

Fifty-two hours later

"Well, 'bout time. How you feelin'?" Bobby moved closer to the bed, his eyes lit up as the promise of a smile finally broke free. He squinted, studying the young man who had shifted in his slumber and at last opened his eyes.

Sam seemed disoriented, still groggy but he managed a somber response. "I'm alive."

Bobby's smile broadened. "That you are."

Grunting as he tried to ease up, Sam's hand scrubbed at the sleep in his eyes before they swept over the empty motel room. "How long was I out?"

"Total or this last time?" Bobby looked weary but relieved. "You were out cold for a full day, then it's been a little over another with you coming in and out." His voice was pleasant, gruffly comforting, nudging the memories of the injured man and leading him back to his family. Bobby eyed him with a slight quirk of his head. "You don't remember coming to the last time?"

"No, not really…everything's kind of a blur."

"I imagine. Might have somethin' to do with the pain meds. Last time you took to talkin', seemed coherent enough…enough to let Dean relax a bit."

Sam's brows knotted, his lips forming into a quizzical frown. "Where is he?"

"Outside, cleaning up the car."

Sam gazed past the thin curtains pulled back from the window. The wind was howling as a light dusting of snow circled about in the parking lot. "In this weather? It's got to be freezing out there."

"Yeah, well…it needs doin' and he put it off long enough." Bobby sighed in defeat. "Still…I practically had to chase him off. He hasn't left your side since I got here." To drive home his point he elaborated on the state of the older Winchester. "Won't hardly eat…refuses to sleep more than an hour or two, just waiting for you to wake up. Most wired I've ever seen him." Bobby motioned out the window with the tilt of his head. "He needed the fresh air." Sam's eyes followed the motion through the window to observe Dean working on the car, a familiar sight if not for the strange circumstance; even Dean Winchester wasn't prone to washing his car in the middle of a storm. "Air in here was getting mighty stale." Bobby leaned forward and patted Sam's thigh in a casual motion, his breathing evening out as he seemed to relax a little. He then smiled. "Maybe now we can convince him to get some shut-eye."

Sam's voice was rusty, hoarse from disuse and unsteady with weakness. Focusing on his brother seemed to give him the much needed energy to continue on with his longest conversation to date. "So, how'd you get him out now?"

"Threatened him…" Bobby bluntly replied. "Told him your daddy would come back to haunt him if he didn't get all that blood cleaned off the seat."

"Blood?" Sam croaked out in shock. Incredulous, he continued, "He let the blood soak in for days? He's never gonna get it out."

Bobby scrubbed his hand down his face, absently scratching at the stubble on his chin. "I reckon that's the least of his worries." He paused, gauging how alert Sam was, whether now was the time for this talk or if he'd be better off waiting. Deciding there was no time like the present and knowing he'd used up all his patience with the older Winchester, he pressed onward. "Sam, what the hell were you thinking?"

Startled Sam protested, "What?" His eyes blinked back his confusion, attempting to piece together what had happened all those days ago and where Bobby might be headed. "What'd Dean tell you?"

"Not much. He can be as tight-lipped as your daddy…or you," he emphasized. His eyes squinted in consideration before he elaborated. "Times like this, ain't hard to get a drink or two down 'im…" His lips quirked in a lop-sided smile. "Helps to loosen him up some."

With considerable effort Sam pulled himself into a sitting position, his back pressed firm against his pillows squished against the headboard, grunting softly as he struggled to find a semi-comfortable position. The exertion taxed him, causing him to breathe heavy, his eyes closing to recapture his strength or to hide from the coming words, both possible. Finally he opened them, softly asking, "So, what'd he say?"

"Oh, not much…" Bobby growled out, noticeably irritated, fundamentally concerned. "Just that you seemed intent on throwing yourself between him and that fugly." He stared down at the younger Winchester, eyes piercing and demanding. "You got a death wish, boy?"

Sam's voice was tender and low as he defended his actions. "It wasn't like that."

The hunter's gruff voice rose, unable to contain his simmering anger. "No? Dean told me about this Madison too." Once Bobby got started he found it hard to find the brake, needing to push until he found an acceptable explanation for this little fiasco and a means to deflate all the resulting turmoil. "Said you'd been moping around. That you might have loved her and then you had to go and shoot her."

Tears welled in Sam's eyes as all his torment came tumbling back, filling out his face with blotchy color, at last defeating the pallor his injuries had cast upon him. His voice was brittle, trembling from the onslaught. "Bobby, I can't… I don't want…"

Bobby seemed to soften, kind eyes shimmering with understanding. "I know." It was only a temporary reprieve as he steeled his emotions to the necessity of this discussion and pressed on as gently as he could. "That's what got us in this mess in the first place. Dean said he tried to get you to talk but you kept shutting him out."

"What's the point?" Sam softly responded. "She's dead; talking about it…it's…" He blinked back those insistent tears, looking beyond Bobby to the cold whipping around outside the artificial warmth they were sequestered in, his mind taking him back over the past week, the ecstasy and the agony of knowing Madison. He caught a glimpse of his brother beside the car, Dean's face fixed in determination, stoic against the obvious cold that wisped out in frozen breaths. He turned back to Bobby, better able to proceed, hoping he could satisfy the man and once more ignore the root cause of all his pain. He offered the one truth he knew. "Talking about it…it's not going to change anything." Stubborn tears burned within his eyes. He tried to blink them away, push them back down into the depths, but he was weak and unsteady, not yet up to full strength. His voice was barely a whisper. "It's not going to bring her back."

"No, it won't," Bobby agreed. "But maybe it could help you see you had no choice."

"Bobby, I know that…I do." Sam tried to offer a hesitant smile, so desperate to dig out but unable to find the means. "It doesn't make it any easier to live with."

Bobby offered a curt nod, intense eyes drilling past the words. "Well, since your self-sacrifice plan got thwarted…guess we need to figure out somethin' else…like maybe you need to sit down and talk with your brother."

Stubbornly, Sam maintained his position. "I don't need to talk."

"Yeah, maybe…but I can tell you this…your brother sure does."


Sam had a lot to think about and he had the time to do it. Dean was outside for a long time, too long in this weather and he knew Dean hated the cold, hated how his hands cramped up. How they ached when they thawed out, possibly the start of arthritis which ran in the family. Dean always said it didn't matter. He'd never grow old and have to worry about the long term effects. For the time being he could handle it, the minor aches, the annoyance. He was used to handling things, accepting what he couldn't change and then boldly molding everything else to his whims.

Bobby was silent after saying his piece, letting Sam stew and ponder his choices, telling him that he called the shots from here on out. Laying down the gauntlet and waiting for him to pick it up. Turning the focus from what Sam wanted to what his brother needed. That was a low blow, but damn effective.

And the truth was, maybe it was what he needed too.

He still wasn't sure what he would say or how. If he could talk to Dean, really talk and explain. A part of him wanted to, wanted to trust and respect Dean enough to share this part of his life. The kicker was he did trust and respect Dean. Dean wasn't the problem, Sam was the problem. He was always the problem, the one unable to conquer his demons, half afraid to confront his fears. A part of him certain that if he voiced his thoughts then he'd have to face the truth, have to admit that he was a failure. He was so used to running, chasing after some elusive goal, looking outward rather than in. Running hadn't solved his problems and now he'd lost another person who dared love him. When would it end? When would this darkness release him?

He wanted to share like Dean had when pressed. He knew it wasn't easy on his brother and he knew how honored he'd felt that Dean trusted him enough to let down his walls and reveal his pain. Sam hadn't known what to say, what to do when Dean pulled to the side of that mountain road and bared his soul. As the kid brother, he'd never been in that position before and it was overwhelming, seeing Dean like that, hearing his confession about Dad, watching his tears fall. And if Dean was scared to open up, worried his brother would think less of him, that fear had been proven groundless. If anything Sam respected him more, seeing, perhaps for the very first time, how tough his brother had it and yet he was always there for his kid brother, always fighting, always everything Sam aspired to be.

But that was the difference, wasn't it? Dean stood and fought and Sam ran away, off to Stanford, running from his dad and his destiny. In denial…pretending he could have a normal life, that what he was deep down inside wouldn't eventually win out and ruin everything. And it was Jess and now Madison who'd paid the price. Sam couldn't forget or forgive. Their deaths were on him. He honestly didn't know what good would come from him unburdening himself on his brother. Dean had bore the brunt of too much responsibility already, spent his life taking on the weight of the world and the safety of his family. He sure didn't need kid brother dumping more on him.

Sam was still pondering how far he could go, just how much he could reveal when the door opened with a gust of cold air blowing in. Dean struggled against the wind hammering the door, pushing it closed with a bang and shaking the snow off his jacket and boots before turning, eyes opening wide at the sight of Sam fully conscious, smiling at him to offer reassurance.

"Sammy? Thank god!" Dean exclaimed, relief saturating his face and displacing the scowl the cold had instilled. He moved closer, a hundred questions playing out across his expressive face as his lips turned up in a brilliant smile, the tension and exhaustion wiped clear as his eyes brightened with a contented glow. His voice was layered in awe, soft and melodic within his concern. "How you feelin'?"

Smiling broadly, reflecting back the good vibes, and feeling the warmth as Dean drew nearer, Sam relaxed, safe in the close proximity of his brother, only wanting to stay in the moment, enjoy that they were alive and together. His voice sure as he answered. "Good, Dean…little achy, but good."

He didn't think Dean could look any happier than he had when he first spied him awake, but he was wrong. The smile on Dean's face grew wider and brighter, his entire face telegraphing his complete and utter joy, his eyes glistening with tender tears of happiness while his brows arched in a comical manner that punctuated his glee. You'd think Dean had just won the lotto…or gotten the go-ahead from Shakira.

"Good…" It was as if Dean had been holding his breath for hours…days even, a whoosh of contentment rushing out of him in a relieved gasp. "Man, you had us goin'." Relief quickly turned to apprehension as the underlying terror reasserted itself and Dean issued another directive, unable to override the horror the memories inflicted. "Don't you ever do that to me again, you hear me?" Dean then shuddered, quaking in his boots, a chill exerting itself well beyond the range of the weather. His eyes immediately clouded over, his mouth quirking in a sad representation of a broken smirk as his mind processed and quickly regretted the sharpness of his tongue. "Sammy…it's just…" Dean was warring with himself, fighting between relief and uncertainty, still reeling from the emotional fallout. "Sammy...I'm sorry…it's just…man, just…don't you do that… don't ever…"

Interrupting to fill in the disquieting moment and release Dean from yet another torment, Sam stuttered out, "Dean, I'm sorry." It was all he could think of to say, and it seemed to hit the mark, Dean calming down, the slight smile reappearing, tremulous but hopeful. And Sam meant it, he did, all he could feel was sorry. Sorry for hurting everyone he cared about. Sorry for Jessica and Madison, for making Dean worry, for being such a screw-up, for being the lesser of all the Winchester men. He'd asked Dean before how he did it, how Dad did it, and while he'd heard the answer, he couldn't bring himself to follow the program. He tried, he did, but every time he attempted to save someone, especially the ones closest to him, he failed.

With Dean's lead, as a team, they were able to save innocents. They saved a lot, but they didn't always win and somehow the failures were always personal. Sam had started to doubt that he was an effective hunter at all without Dean's confident lead. When it mattered, when he most needed to save the ones he loved, his track record was dismal. He'd only loved two women in the past two years and both were now dead. Dead because he failed to do his job, dead because they had the bad luck to love him. He was cursed. He was tainted and a danger, a danger to everyone around him…a danger to anyone he dared love.

The kindest thing he could do was keep his distance. Sarah was lucky. Lucky he left her behind, lucky he put an end to it before it ever got started. Why did he think Madison would be any different? Why had he let down his guard? Why did he risk it? Why?


Dean's voice was soft and the concern flowed as effortlessly as it always had, that soothing gentleness that most would never witness, let alone be privileged enough to feel, never allowed to get that close to him, never knowing the warmth that infused his words when the subject was family. To an outside eye Dean appeared hard, toned and ready for any fight, a warrior primed for battle, and he was, but he was far more when it came to his brother. For Sam he was always there, always supportive, always nurturing in spite of their brotherly spats and pranks. Sam knew Dean would do anything for him and it eased his burdens…before the weight of living up to that devotion took its inevitable toll. He only wished he could do the same for the ones he loved. It had always been his wish to be just like his big brother, strong and true, a protector of innocents and those he loved. Dean had never failed to protect his loved ones. Why couldn't Sam do the same?

Sam looked up to see Dean was still expectantly looking on, still searching out the answer to his unspoken question.

Sam couldn't do this now…not now. Dean looked like hell and he felt like it, his wounds still healing, the pain too recent and raw. He was weak, both in body and spirit, still unsure if he could open up, if honesty truly was the best policy. Right now he only wanted to retreat from the potential of this too tender moment, shake loose from these doldrums and not think. He released a heavy sigh and closed his eyes to the sight. He found his voice and waited for his brother to protect him, just like he always had. "Dean, it's okay…really. I'm good, but I think I could use some more rest, y' know?"

It didn't take much, just the hint of need and Dean was backing off, anxious to do whatever he could to help. "Sure….right. Rest, you need your rest."

Smiling at the change, Sam eased back into his bedding, willing his eyes to close and find blessed sleep again, a place to hide for awhile. He lazily slurred out his last thought, "You best get some sleep, Dean." With a flash of brotherly teasing, his eyes opened and he offered his best attempt at a smile as he added, "You look like hell, dude."

Dean scratched at the back of his head, his grin acknowledging the truth of that statement without any hint of a retort. "Yeah….yeah." It appeared that on this day he wasn't in the mood for smart comebacks. On this day he seemed happy to simply revel in the knowledge that they'd dodged one more bullet and his kid brother was again safe. As Sam drifted off to sleep he heard soft words muttered barely above a whisper. Words that lulled him back to his childhood and safety. "Sleep, Sammy…you sleep. I've got you."

Ten hours later

Daylight was streaming through the motel window before Sam stirred, before the sleep dragging him down deep and offering him refuge finally eased and relinquished its hold over him. The truth was it was more the jagged pain that pierced his chest when he shifted in his sleep that finally shook him awake.

"How you feelin'?" The voice was old and weathered, not Dean's. It took him a moment to remember Bobby was there, to adjust and pry his eyes open. Tender eyes gazed down at him. That dirty trucker cap still perched in place, familiar and safe. Still, Sam glanced about for Dean, somehow needing him, wanting further reassurance his family was near. Dreams or nightmares had rocked his sleep. The sound of a gun exploding, a sweet smile and tender eyes, a beautiful girl blasted away, blood and darkness claiming him. He closed his eyes to the images, shook his head and reopened them. Bobby was still there, smiling, concern throbbing within the insistent tone of his voice as he questioned, "Sam?"

Clearing his throat, swallowing to draw down much needed moisture, Sam rasped out, "Yeah…little sore." His hand idly ran along his chest, feather-light touches eliciting revealing grimaces, his hand stopping and resting on the one area that didn't hurt.

Bobby quickly moved forward, a glass of water in his hand, offering it hopefully. "Here."

Sam gingerly scooted up and took the offered drink, a soft moan escaping before drawing the glass to his parched lips and partaking of the coolness, wet coating his throat and offering him a balm. "Thanks, Bobby."

"Don't mention it."

Bobby didn't say more, just stared. It was disturbing how he managed to make Sam feel guilty without saying a word. Or maybe it was Sam who was making himself wallow in his guilt, guilt that seemed to be growing instead of diminishing. Everything Bobby had previously said was still rattling around in his head and he was no closer to a decision now then he had been the first time, still waiting for an omen, a sign pointing him in the right direction. When the silence threatened to doom him he ventured out into the wild. "So, Bobby… I've been thinking."

"Thinkin's good." Bobby raised an interested brow as he continued, "You come up with any major revelations?"

"Bobby…I don't know what you or Dean want. Talking's not going to change it." He sighed and wounded eyes misted over as he tried to release Bobby's concern so he could hide again. "It's over," he stated matter-of-factly. "Maddie's gone and I just need to live with what I did."

Pondering that thought, the wheels behind those beady eyes whirling silently, Bobby stepped right back in it. "And just what did you do?" He then displayed a wry quirk of his head, his eyes narrowing as he offered up a rational response. "Besides give that poor girl a way out of a bad situation?"

"Nothing…you're right," he lied, shattered eyes holding their own, refusing the torment behind them any further outlet.

"Well, then…if you done nothin', then you ain't got nothin' to be feeling guilty about then. Do you?"

"No, nothing at all."

"Uh-huh…" The pause was excruciating, the truth lingering there in Bobby's eyes, no amount of denial able to derail his purpose. "Then you wouldn't have a problem having a sit-down with your brother? You know, just to clear all that up."

Sam swallowed, tender eyes glistening at the thought. Dean was always so willing to take on more pain, always there to ease his kid brother's load. When was Sam going to step up to the plate and accept that who he was and what he did wasn't Dean's problem? When was he ever going to release his brother from some damn childhood pledge to protect him?

Silence again engulfed them, all Sam's concerns locked in his head, only his eyes speaking.

Bobby had been around the Winchesters a long time, knew their ways, all the tells that signaled the conversation wasn't over, it had only gone still and was waiting for something to prod the sound back into it.

Bobby pondered for a moment and then he spoke. "You'd be doing him a favor."

"What?" It was honest and sincere, backed up by inquisitive eyes brimming with need. The need to be all that Dean was to him, to be sure and steady when all he felt was lost.

"Sam, since when did you get this notion that sharing what's bothering you is such an imposition?" Bobby sighed with exasperation which quickly turned to disgust, totally at odds with Sam's position and what it imposed on Dean, a man who only lived to help his brother. "Like you're putting something on your brother by talking to him?"

"It's not like that."

"No? Then what?" Bobby raked his hand along his beard, his frustration growing within sad eyes, all the gloom of this near miss and the coming fallout almost as disturbing as that first image of Sam. Sam's body might be on the mend, but the boy was still broken. "How about you explain it to me?"

"This isn't Dean's problem, it's mine. He can't help me, no one can."

With an underlying fury barely contained Bobby barreled back on offense. "How can you not know your brother by now? Nothin' concerning you ain't his problem. Son, taking care of you, keeping you safe, that's the one good thing Dean has in his life. Don't you go takin' that away from him." He shuddered to a stop, every hurt from the Winchesters' lives bombarding him with the truth of their dependent relationship. His voice pleaded to the depth of that bond and what they'd suffered through throughout the years as he offered one simple truth. "He's already lost too damn much."

"That's my point, Bobby. He's always taking on my problems. I'm a man. I'm not a kid anymore. He's not responsible for me…or what's bothering me."

"He's your family…that's what family does, they care," he growled out. He offered one last furious look before he eased back, his best efforts given, the end result now up to Sam. "You best sort this out and find a way to let him help. Not talking is doing more harm than good…to both of you."

Sam closed his eyes and sighed, the weight of that truth pressing him, pushing him towards acceptance…almost managing to wear through his reluctance. He wasn't going to change Dean, the patterns too long ingrained, the need too great. He was about to offer up another comment when the door to their room opened, a howl of cold weather intruding as Dean entered, jostling a fast food tray with three steaming cups of coffee as he kicked the door closed with his boot.

Hunter instincts seemed to hone in on the tension in the room, the sheepish look on Sam's face and the frustration that lingered on Bobby's telling the tale. "I interrupting somethin'?" he inquired.

"Apparently not," Bobby answered as he moved forward to grab a cup of coffee, flipping off the lid to smell the enticing aroma before pulling it to his lips for a quick gulp. "What else you got?" he growled as he grabbed the accompanying bag that Dean had dropped on the small table.

"Help yourself…" As had been the norm recently, Dean's focus wasn't on food. After he offered Sam a cup of coffee and stepped back, he barely drank his own, the bag of food ignored as all attention stayed on his brother. It was only when Sam indicated he'd like something to eat that Dean flew into motion, offering him up his choices and attentively watching as each bite was chewed and subsequently swallowed. "It's good he's eating, right, Bobby?"

"Yeah, he's percolating pretty good." Bobby gave Sam a pointed look as he continued, "Guess my work here is done." Then Bobby hesitated, his eyes sweeping over the floor in a nervous reaction before rising to meet Dean's questioning gaze.

Dean looked baffled but accepting. "Yeah, all right…if you got someplace you gotta be."


Bobby took off at noon, his goodbyes and his pleas for reason said. He left the boys on their own, as they'd been for much of their lives. He wanted to stay, wanted to force the issue and fix the problem. To somehow be able to give them both the peace they deserved.

Unfortunately, that was beyond his means.

Matters of the heart weren't his strong suit. His grizzled old heart had long since worn out, only brought back to life by two young boys, boys who were now men.

Both Winchesters had hearts too tender for hunting and this life they were forced to lead. Hearts that had been battered and bruised, shredded and torn, but they were also stout hearts, hearts that refused to stop beating. Hearts that held the line with a warrior's strength as they railed against all the injustice and evil in the world. Hearts that allowed them to care deeply, even if the cost of caring only added to the weight they were forced to bear.

It was in quieter moments, when evil was temporarily pushed aside and they could just be men, instead of larger-than-life heroes, that the truth won out. That despite their courage and fierceness, their hearts yearned for comfort and safety, for tranquility and peace. The battle to achieve balance turning into their most intense struggle, waged against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Most remarkably the Winchesters possessed hearts that refused to be hardened by the harsh lives they lived, or silenced to their overwhelming need to feel.

As Bobby left them to the task at hand he hoped they could find peace within their bond. That together they could give each other a place of comfort and safety, a refuge from the dark. That maybe one day they'd find that life wasn't only tragedy.

If they could only hold tight to their brother, stand firm beside each other through all the trials to come, then it was possible, if not improbable, that one day they might know happiness…or at least some measure of contentment beyond the hunt. It was the most a hunter could hope for, and the very least that they deserved.

Bobby knew it was too much to ask; still, it was the one wish he had for the boys.

Sam's recent brush with death and the guilt his actions had brought were one more obstacle, one more pain they needed to face to find forgiveness, for themselves and for what they were constantly asked to do.

Only by helping each other could they find salvation. Only through the smile of a brother could true joy be felt. The Winchesters were intertwined like that, family at their core.

It was the curse and the blessing of being a Winchester.

Six Days Later

It was by the side of a beautiful natural lake, blue sky above with clear waters below reflecting back the low hanging clouds, that the brothers finally attempted to hash out Sam's issues. Dean had been patient, more than he was known for, quietly waiting for his brother to crack open that door. It was Sam who took the initiative, once he was fully mended and up to the discussion. It was the first day he'd been allowed to drive, Dean resting in shotgun, the tension low as miles of blacktop stretched out before them and the silence eased their way. Once he came to his decision, Sam pulled the Impala off the mountain road and parked, quickly yanking open the driver's door and stepping out, drawing in a deep breath of fresh air as he rounded the back fender and proceeded to pull out two longnecks from the cooler in the back seat.

Pulling open his door and getting out, Dean looked on, apprehensive but ready, silently watching to see what his kid brother had in mind.

Sam offered up a beer to his brother before walking to the front of the car, leaning back against the hood and taking in the scenic view before him. He cradled the beer in his hands, his breathing starting to quicken as he pondered his choices, still on edge, almost ready to talk.

Dean moved to sit beside him, swallowing down two gulps of his beer and nudging at the opening. Somehow knowing what his brother needed, like always. "Sam, I think I know what you're going through…but I don't know for sure unless you tell me, until you let me in." His eyes settled on his brother as Sam continued to gaze at the peaceful scene before them. "I want to help, but I need to know, know what's going on in that freakish head of yours, know what you're feeling."

Clearing his throat, Sam struggled to respond. Every protest stuck in his throat, every denial heavy in his gut, but the determining factor was his brother sitting beside him. Dean was there, always there…waiting and willing to listen. One look in those expressive eyes longing for the chance to help opened the vaults and released his hesitation. He found he no longer wanted to hide, no longer had the will to shut Dean out. He wanted his brother's understanding and insight. He needed it, just like he had when he was eight and first learned the truth of what Dad did, just like he had when he'd wanted Dean's approval before heading off to college. He hadn't been honest with Dean then, denying him the chance to understand and it had caused a two year rift between them. Dean was all he had left. He couldn't shut him out of his life, not when he needed him beside him, now more than ever. Sam pulled the bottle to his lips to quench the dryness, the cool liquid releasing all doubt as he removed the last of his barricades. "Dean…you've always been there for me and I appreciate it but…I take advantage of it too."

"Advantage? What? You kidding me?" Dean gasped out. His eyes betrayed the tender spot Sam's words dug into. That twitch beneath his left eye emphasizing his fight for control as he attempted to slough off his own pain and reach out to share his brother's.

"Dean, please, just hear me out."

Looking baffled, those huge eyes widening as he tried to further comprehend, Dean softened and his voice went ever lower as he offered another plea. "Okay…okay, Sammy, but I just need you to talk to me, straight-up."

Drawing in a huge breath, Sam then released it and started down that long road in a rush. "I'm sorry I haven't been honest with you. I'm sorry I tried to keep how I was feeling from you…it's just…" Sam paused, this honesty more taxing than he'd imagined. He felt an unrelenting pressure within his gut to just release all his fears and hurts and yet he also felt an overbearing need to not burden Dean with all his crap. It felt like opposing forces, his own needs battling against what he wanted for his brother. Dean was always so protective, so giving, and he felt like he was being selfish to continue to lean on that. He wanted to quit being so dependent on Dean's care, quit being the kid brother. It felt like this war was never ending and he was tired of the battle, tired of denying Dean, tired of fighting his own nature, just tired. "Dean, my whole life you've been there, taking care of me, protecting me. I'm grown… It's not your job to protect me. I don't want to be a burden to you."

The look on Dean's face turned to pure incredulous hurt. "What the hell, Sammy? You think you're a burden? You're family." Dean was fierce in his certainty, his voice subtly cracking as if he'd been betrayed. "Sam, you could never be a burden."

In Dean's mind it was so simple, so clear cut. No room for doubt or protest, no desire to shirk that long-standing responsibility. Sam faltered, pride and love for his brother filling the emptiness he felt within himself. He only wished he could feel so sure about his own purpose, his own destiny. If only he could be the man he saw reflected in his brother's eyes, if only he could live up to all Dean's faith in him. If only he could be worthy of all Dean's dedication and love. "Dean…I know you don't think of me as a burden, but the truth is, I'm a man and you aren't responsible for me. You aren't…" He paused for emphasis, only continuing on once he saw the slight shift in Dean's shoulders, his body tensing as he braced for more truths. "Not for my happiness…or my safety. And that's the way it should be. I don't want you to ever feel like you are."

The flicker of a smirk did nothing to hide the hurt glimmering within his eyes. Dean's dimples flashed, his lips gasping out his response in a voice unfamiliar, distant and on the edge of broken. "You think that's what this is? That you're a burden?" He raked his hand down his face, the tension building as the muscle beneath his left eye twitched, the control he so normally exhibited throbbing beneath the surface, finally breaking free with a raspy rebuttal. "I thought you knew me better…I thought you understood. Being there for you, watching over you…that's the one good thing in my life, the only good thing." Nervous laughter intruded upon the emotions of the moment, Dean trying to diffuse the severity of his words while unable to deny their impact. "So don't you go taking that away. Don't you go getting yourself killed. We've already lost Dad…I am not losing you too."

Without even realizing it, Dean had hit the sore spot, that one unrelenting anguish that trumped all else. Sam's heart seized, the breath sucked from his lungs, tender eyes wounded from the pain of constant loss. His voice broke as he responded. "But what if I lose you?"

Dismissing the thought, denying the threat, Dean was his typical cocky and defiant self. "You're not gonna lose me." His voice was firm and determined, as steady and true as always. "I'm here, Sammy, and I'm not going anywhere."

His certainty only broke Sam a little more, his own doubts countering what Dean said. His brother wasn't bullet-proof, no one was…and with their lives, with Dean's constant brash moves, danger was a constant. A danger Sam found increasingly harder to face in light of the facts, when all he knew was everyone he loved died. It felt like it was inevitable, like he was only being teased if he thought it wouldn't happen. It wasn't Dean…it wasn't that he thought Dean was sloppy or reckless or unable to protect himself. It was Sam. Sam's curse, Sam's fate…to watch everyone he loved die. He couldn't help but think back to Dean's promise: "As long as I'm around, nothing bad is gonna happen to you." His mind twisting that promise into another more sinister one, that as long as Sam was around something bad was inevitably coming, that Dean was in danger and marked.

Dean was silently watching him, his eyes pleading for insight, for truth, for a way to help.

It killed Sam to be the cause of such pain, such longing. He closed his eyes to the sight and forced himself to carry through on his promise. On why he'd pulled to the side of the road, on what he wanted to say. His own pain insistent, gouging his insides, demanding it's due. Dean's pain…his pain…it was all tangled up into their pain. The gulf between them growing with his refusal to share. This separation worse than anything, this distance bringing even more hurt.

Sam sucked down another ragged breath and reached out, the longing overriding his restraint. "Dean…back at the cabin, when I saw that wolf rush you…" He shuddered to a halt, the image again at the forefront of his mind, the end result insignificant, his own injuries inconsequential when weighed against the threat to Dean. He smiled then, all his love and admiration for his brother bringing him comfort, offering what little relief he'd managed to grab hold of. Only Dean's tender eyes pulled him back to the present, back to explaining himself as best he could. "Dean, this life is dangerous and when I thought you were going to get hurt, I just reacted. I didn't think…I just moved to stop it. I couldn't bear the thought of you getting hurt…" his voice went lower, barely able to utter the words, "or killed."

Exhibiting true understanding, coming from the same place concerning his family and the fears inherent in their jobs, Dean responded, "I know…I know…" His voice turned more forceful, strong and true as he defended his abilities, "But I can take care of myself, Sam, always have." And then the truth of what happened, the injuries his brother's rashness caused hit and he again fought for his own desperate needs. "You getting yourself killed, throwing yourself between that creature and me… How do you think that made me feel? You think I want to lose you any more than you want to lose me?" The pain rippled through his features, schooled and determined, but unable to negate the wear. "Promise me you won't do that again…ever!"

With a voice mournful and soft, teetering on that slippery edge Sam offered a piece of himself, that insight into his motivations and fears. "Dean, I only wanted to be there for you, like you've been for me."

The words came out in a rush, desperate and pleading and heartfelt. "You are, man, can't you see that? Just having you here…knowing you're here…that's enough, dude. I don't need you throwing yourself in front of some rampaging fugly. I had it covered…you gotta trust that."

Nodding his head, offering his reassurance, promising even though he couldn't say for sure what the heat of the moment might bring, Sam agreed. He knew Dean was strong. Knew he was capable. But the need lingered, the desire still pressing on him.

As always, Dean sensed there was more. Searching eyes burrowed deeper, his gravelly voice pressing. "Sam, what is it?"


"What?" Arching his brow, leaning in with the question etched on his face, Dean awaited an answer.

"My whole life you've taken care of me, protected me."

"Yeah…so?" He smiled, that tender, loving smile that lit up his face making him shine with confidence and caring, his words sounding prideful, never resentful. "I wanted to be there for you."

Sam's lips twitched as a sly smile flickered and then consumed his face, the pride and respect evident along with the warmth of knowing he mattered, mattered to his big brother. "And I've always wanted to be like you…just like my big brother. So, how do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Protect me, keep me safe."

"I just do." Dean seemed confused, baffled as to what Sam was getting at, the answer so plain. His voice was steady as he responded, "That's my job, Sam."

Sam's voice was breaking, all his sensitivity rushing out, everything he'd always admired about his brother within the soft whisper. "And you always do it." This next part he found hard to say, warring within himself to force out the words, to admit his failings. Finally barreling forward, so broken and needy. "So why can't I? Why does everyone I love end up dying?" His voice was plaintive, crying out through his pain. "Why can't I save them?"

At first Dean seemed startled, his eyes widening before turning tender as realization seeped in, his voice warm and compassionate. "Sam, it's not your fault. You're not responsible for what happened."

"Yeah, you keep saying that…but first Jess and now Madison."

"Sam, you didn't kill them." Dean's brows arched over insistent eyes, pleading with his brother to listen to reason. That persistent twitch in his jaw throbbing as his brother's pain became all.

"I killed Madison."

"No…you helped her, you did what she asked you to do." Dean wiped his hand along his jawline in a nervous gesture, his voice increasingly determined as he fought for his brother. "You saved her, Sam. Saved her from an awful life." He leaned in, gentle eyes mirroring all the pain, feeling it and trying to wipe it clear. "You kept her human."

"But I didn't save her."

"No, but no one could. You did the best you could…all you could."

"But it's never enough."

Leaning in, brows arching as his face twisted to understand, Dean softly whispered, "What are you saying?"

"It just feels like everything I touch, everyone I love…is going to die. Like I'm doomed or something, like no matter how hard I try, what I do…I'm never going to be able to save them." His voice trembled, the truth burbling up, those shattered eyes throbbing within the building moisture as all doubt and self-flagellation rose to the surface. "This thing inside me, it's like I fight and fight and it's still there. Dean, it's always going to be there."

Taken back by the brutal honesty, Dean only needed a moment to recover, one quick second to come back fighting. His tone was as fierce and bold as always, battling for his brother as he always had. "Sam, we don't know that. You can fight it. And you'll win."

"How do you know, Dean? Face it, my track record is pretty pathetic."

With absolutely no hesitation Dean responded, his face fixed in pure love, his eyes conveying total trust and belief. "You'll beat it because you're you. Because Jessica and Madison have nothing to do with you. The evil that's out there, it's to blame." Dean stood up to his full height, his entire body braced in support of his words. "Sam, you make your own choices and you choose to fight. You always have and you always will. That's who you are. Bad things happen but it has nothin' to do with you. It's not your fault!"

Sam wanted to believe, need to believe. Somehow with Dean beside him he felt like he could. It wasn't leaning on him or depending on him, it was simply knowing he wasn't alone, knowing Dean cared and would be there through all the trials to come. Regaining his footing, he took comfort in knowing that it was a two-way street. Dean would be there to back him up and he would be there for his big brother when the need arose. Together, they were in this together and somehow that made the journey easier. It would never be easy, but they could do this. It gave him back his purpose, a reason to fight all these doubts and regrets and move forward again.

Dean was expectantly watching him and before Sam could respond, he continued on with an insistent voice, rumbling within his need, "Sammy, all you can do is keep going. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere, so together we'll face down anything that comes our way." He sucked in a steadying breath, all his worry and anxiety held tight as he offered one final plea. "In the meantime, don't go throwing yourself in front of any more rampaging monsters, okay?" His brows arched to punctuate his loving command, while his eyes waited on tenterhooks for the needed response.

This picture of his brother was so familiar, so endearing, and all Sam wanted was to preserve the care it represented. He found himself sighing in relief, the love embracing him with the warmth from their childhood on through the years until now. That steady presence somehow managing to ward off the lingering doubts. He felt a weight lift, the pressure easing ever so slightly, but enough. Enough to let him breathe again. He smiled at his brother, his eyes holding forth all his love and care as he sought out one last reassurance. "You do the same?"


They fell into an easy silence, neither feeling compelled to talk further. They were on the same page, united in the struggle and determined in their approach to this life that seemed to constantly test them. The outside world might tear at them, mark them with doubts and scars that were either visible or not, but none of that mattered now. They were together, side by side facing whatever came as brothers.

They finished their beers and Dean retrieved two more from the cooler, both enjoying this time to simply be. They hadn't yet found another hunt and the unspoken thought was to let it present itself in due time. This was their time, time to enjoy nature, time to bask in the comfort and safety of simply existing as two men, friends and brothers, tired of the journey and taking a much deserved break before being hurled back into the fray.

It was nice to simply enjoy the still. Of course nothing is ever simple for the Winchesters; nothing ever stays peaceful for long.

Dean's radar seemed set and it didn't take long for him to turn to his brother sensing the tension still there, the rising guilt as something else fought its way into the light. Sam tried not to think on it, tried to shove it back down, but it raised its gnarling head and refused to be denied. And honestly, he didn't want to hide further. It felt good to be open with Dean and even though he knew it was more pain to bear, he wanted to share it. Not to get relief, but simply because. Because it was a part of him and he no longer wanted to hide who he was and what he felt. He owed Dean that much.

"Sam, what is it?"

"Nothing." The word came out on reflex and Sam shuddered at his lack of control. He wanted to share, wanted to speak truth, it was just old habits were hard to break.

"Sam, what else?" It was as if Dean had an EMF detector tuned to his brother. As if years of worry and watchfulness had wired his brain directly into the source. He didn't know what the issue was; he just knew there was something else wearing on his brother.

"She smiled."

"What?" Dean arched his brow and his lips pursed as he spoke the word. He expectantly watched and waited for more.

Sam's lips twisted into a tender smile struggling to hold its shape. His eyes shimmered with glistening tears as he blinked back his pain and opened his heart. His voice was soft, wondrous and yet shattered, as he shared that last moment with Madison. "When I went back into the room, she was looking out the window. The same window we watched the sunrise through when we thought we'd cured her. The same window we were standing by when we kissed that first time." He paused for a breath and a quick glance to his brother. Dean was watching him with rapt attention, hanging on every word. Sam fixed his eyes on his brother, finding strength through the connection as he continued. "She turned and took a step toward me, then she nodded… Just as I raised the gun, sighted and was pulling back the trigger, she smiled." Sam's tremulous smile faltered, flickering between the sweetest memory and the most agonizing grief. He tried to hold on to the former, his lips trembling from the effort. "She kept smiling until the bullet hit, throwing her back against the wall by the window." He needed another breath to finish, a pause to collect himself before the end. "She collapsed to the floor right in front of it…right where we kissed."

"God, Sammy, I'm sorry."

"I know."

"You had to do it…it's what she wanted."

"I know."

Dean tensed, struggling to make things better, his brother's pain becoming his in the attempt. "Sammy, I'd do anything to take away this pain…to fix this."

"I know you would, Dean. I know…and thanks. Thanks for being here."


Two hearts again broke. Two men stood silent, no words able to deny the pain, nothing capable of mending the hurt. Their only comfort came from each other, from sharing the moment as only two brothers could.

The silence was no longer stifling, no longer buried in hesitation and longing. The truth was out there, no longer hanging in the shadows waiting to pounce. They eased into the solace of simply being together, of reflecting on this shared moment and the beauty still to be found in this world. They stared out at the peaceful scene before them, each stealing a glance toward their brother to gauge their reaction, to make sure the other was truly all right. Each allowing their tears to silently fall.

After some time had passed, as the tears ran dry and a quiet settled in, Dean again offered what insight he'd gained through the years. "It will get easier, Sam. I know it hurts, hurts like it's never going to stop hurting but it will. It won't ever go away, but the hurt won't be so insistent. Time eases the jagged cut, turns it into a dull throb and then finally, after enough time it fades into a distant memory that only comes out on really dark nights." Dean shook his head, casting off his own terrors, as he focused on his brother and easing his way. "It ain't easy, Sammy, but you learn to live with it. And you try to move on. That's all you can do."

It was the voice of experience, the echo of a child's pain that took years for the man to comprehend. Sam smiled at the concern brimming in his brother's eyes, his heart reaching out.

More time passed, until the itch to move could no longer be denied and Dean took lead, waiting for the perfect moment to gently ask, "Dude, you ready to roll?"

Sam looked up, into eyes brimming with love, the hesitation and concern on edge waiting, waiting for a sign and the all clear. He closed his eyes to the memory of Madison and opened them back to the vision of Dean. "Yeah…and Dean…thanks."

"For what?"

"Just for, y'know, being here."

"That's my job." And then he smiled, smiled as if it was the most important job he'd ever taken on.

Sam returned the smile. He felt his heart ease past the pain, towards something more important. He finally understood. He now knew where his place was. Knew what his job was…to watch over his brother and share the load. To take care of his family, all that was left. To care for Dean, just like he knew Dean would be there to care for him. Together…they were in this together.

It was a comfort, all a Winchester could expect in this life.

But then, I suppose that's all any of us can hope for in life…to have someone who's truly there for us.

The End


May 2011

All standard disclaimers apply.

Thanks for reading, and Andi, thanks for the inspiration and the incredible patience. I think I love getting inside Sam's head now as much as Dean's. These Winchesters are such fascinating men, so compassionate and human, showing us the best of mankind under the most trying of circumstances. It is a pleasure to explore them further. Thanks again and take care, B.J.

Oh, and reviews would be lovely.