It Takes a Lickin' and Keeps on Tickin'
Disclaimer: Still not mine.
Timeline: Season 1
A/N: This story was first published in the fanzine Blood Brothers 4 in Spring 2010. Congratulations to all the other authors and to our fabulous editor Jeanne Gold, as BB4 just won the Fan Q Best Zine Award at the 2011 MediaWest Con. Jeanne (A J Wesley) is in my favorite authors list and she is the one to contact if you're interested in purchasing Blood Brothers 5! Many thanks to Jeanne for support and patient editing throughout the entire process. Thanks also to Phx, Carocali, Geminigrl11, and Charlie Girl 79 who all saw this story in different stages of completion and listened to my neurotic blathering!
They'd been tracking it for hours.
Traipsing around the snowy, forested Strawberry Mountain wilderness had proven challenging. The high elevation meant less oxygen, less shelter from the wind, and while the craggy outcroppings added welcome landmarks, the tall pines and larch trees provided better protection from the weather. It was home to elk, deer, bear, cougar, and not so coincidentally, the bulchin.
The research Sam had done the last three days seemed like such a waste of time now. The bulchin wasn't just elusive, it was simply not to be found. Period. Sam trudged through the snow next to him, his breath escaping in white wisps. He looked as tired as Dean felt.
"It's going to get dark soon," Sam said with only the smallest hint of what could have been classified as a whine.
Dean ignored him.
"Maybe we should head back, try this again tomorrow?"
"We've got a good thirty minutes yet, Sam," Dean said, his voice rough. "I want this thing. It's killed three people already."
"I want it too, Dean," Sam replied with a light sigh, "but it's not here."
"It's here, I can feel it." Dean plowed through the white drifts, determination spurring him onward. "Thirty minutes and if we don't find it, we'll turn around and come back tomorrow."
"Fine," Sam said, stopping to hitch his backpack further onto his shoulder. "Maybe we should split up, cover more ground?"
Dean pursed his lips, considering his brother's proposal. He pulled out his phone and checked the signal strength. It was only two bars, but it was enough. "Call if you spot it."
"You, too." Sam jerked his thumb east. "I'll head that way, circle back towards you?"
Dean watched briefly as his brother strode away before heading in the opposite direction. It turned out "thirty" was eight and half minutes longer than he needed. He spotted the huge, almost pudgy panther-like creature crouched in the snow, blue-green eyes glinting in the afternoon sun.
He slowly crouched to set the duffel on the ground, raising his weapon as he stood. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, but he didn't move for it. Sam was just calling to say he hadn't found it, and right now, Dean had the bulchin in his sights.
The white-furred creature moved silently over the snow, headed in Dean's direction. As it drew closer, he could see bloodstains on its stubby muzzle, and it appeared to be favoring one of its back legs. The bulchin didn't seem to notice his presence and he took full advantage of it, using the time to sight his weapon with a care he didn't usually have time to take. Inhaling deeply and letting it out slowly, he gently pulled the trigger.
The massive beast yelped in pain as it fell to the ground. A cloud of powder rose from the impact. Dean lowered his gun to his side, striding closer to the bulchin. Sightless, glazed eyes gazed from the creature's sockets. The pupils weren't vertical like a cat's, but rounder like a human's. Not that any of it mattered much because it was definitely dead.
The phone in his pocket started vibrating again, and this time he fished it out, thumbing the talk button. "I got it, Sam," he said, hunter's high adding excitement to his tone. "I'm about two clicks northwest of where we split up. Get over here and help me take care of this thing."
"Dean." Sam's voice was weak, just above a whisper.
"Sam?" Dean froze, his heart stuttering. Silence sounded through the open line. "Sam?"
Dean was moving, rushing back to the duffel and swinging it over his shoulder as he ran through the snow, headed east. "Sammy, where are you?"
Sam panted in irregular bursts, his breath sounding labored and harsh over the phone. "Dean, please."
"I'm on my way, just hang in there," Dean said. He needed to hang up the phone, pour all of his energy into running, but he couldn't leave his brother alone like that.
"It got away," Sam whispered, his voice barely audible. "Careful."
"I got it, remember?" Dean said, picking up the pace. "Don't worry. Just keep talking to me."
"Stay awake, Sam, talk to me." The phone line remained silent. "Sam?" When his brother didn't answer, Dean kicked it into high gear, running as fast as he could while sinking to his knees on each step through the dry, powdery snow.
It started snowing harder, but Dean could see a large outcropping of rocks ahead. It would have been a perfect place for the bulchin to hide and therefore, the first place Sam would have looked. Dean picked up the pace and soon a dark outline on the ground, that could only be Sam, came into view. Dean fell to his knees next to his motionless brother, brushing the light dusting of fresh snow off his face. "Sammy, hey, talk to me."
Sam's shirt and jacket were ripped to shreds. Blood oozed from the cuts on his chest and soaked into the snow next to his arms in a slowly growing ring. "Dean?" His eyes fluttered open.
"Yeah, kiddo, it's me," Dean said, ripping open his brother's shirt wider to get a better look. Angry crimson lines ran from his right shoulder and disappeared near Sam's left hip.
"You get it?" Sam's eyes darted from Dean to the nearby surroundings.
Dean put on his best mock-offended look. "Of course I got it." He ran his fingers over Sam's head, checking for lumps. It concerned him that his brother's computer-like brain couldn't hold onto a simple fact, and it had Dean thinking possible concussion. There it was—a sizeable goose egg on the back of Sam's skull.
Sam nodded, offering a weak smile before he grimaced. "Arm hurts," he panted. "Think it got me."
"What?" Dean hadn't noticed anything wrong with his brother's arm. Frantic, adrenaline-clumsy fingers fumbled with the torn material, ripping the sleeves on Sam's jacket and shirt wide open. A bite mark on the younger man's left shoulder was raw, flesh torn; the feline's fangs had continued to sink in and tear down his arm to almost the elbow. Blood ran in rivulets from his injuries. Sam was damn lucky it hadn't severed any of the large veins or arteries running through his upper arm. Yeah, lucky, that was it.
"Help me up," Sam said. He shivered, teeth chattering.
"Not yet," Dean said, continuing to triage his brother. He rummaged through the duffel bag until he found the medical kit. Several pads tightly bandaged around Sam's arm helped control the bleeding. Dean kept his hand pressed against the injury, leaning over Sam's head to keep the snow off him. "Where else?"
Sam's face puckered in confusion as he shook his head. "Where else?"
"Where else are you hurt?" Dean asked, the concern for his brother growing. "Sam?"
"I, uh, nowhere?"
"That a question?"
Dean's palm felt warm and sticky. He lifted his hand, staring at the crimson coating his fingers and the bandages. It was too much blood, the injury too severe to simply patch Sam up and walk him out of there. Not without risking his life and Dean wasn't taking that chance. He had his phone open and dialing before his mind fully registered the automatic response.
"John Day dispatch, what is your emergency?"
"My brother and I were out hiking and he was attacked. He's lost a lot of blood."
"Sir, can you tell me where you are?"
"I can give you the coordinates."
After giving the dispatcher their location and gaining her reassurance she was sending help, Dean hung up, ignoring her instructions to stay on the line. He knew what he needed to do to help Sam until the medical team arrived. He didn't need the calm, well-meaning woman trying to help him stay grounded. He could fake being in control of a situation better than anyone.
He didn't want to leave the duffel with several of their weapons stashed out there in the elements, but frankly, he didn't see any way to sneak it into the hospital, either. Glancing around, he saw a niche in the rocky outcropping. Within seconds, he had the bag discreetly stowed away and had returned to kneel beside Sam.
"Help's on the way," Dean said, plastering on a false but hopefully reassuring smile when Sam opened his eyes to half-mast. "They'll be here any minute."
"You called for help?" Sam's forehead wrinkled with confusion briefly, then smoothed into understanding. "That bad, huh?"
"Don't know what you're talking about," Dean lied. "Just didn't feel like carrying your heavy ass out of here, Cinderella, since you can't seem to stay awake."
"Never mind." Shivers chased up and down Sam's tall frame. "Sorry."
"Letting it get the jump on me." Hazel eyes reflected guilt through the pain.
"Sam, this is not your fault," Dean said, his voice rough and harsh. "Shit happens during hunts, to everyone."
A smile ghosted across Sam's face, his features softening to relief and the hint of self-satisfaction when he made eye contact with Dean.
The kid had tricked him into absolving himself for the injuries as well, the sneaky bastard. Dean smirked, letting his younger brother know he understood.
The bleeding wasn't slowing, so Dean applied more pressure.
Sam winced, a low groan escaping. "I can't feel my fingers."
Dean frowned, twisting to examine his brother's hand. Sam's fingers were white and cold. He didn't know whether it was blood loss or poor circulation, but either way Dean needed to warm the freezing digits. He curled his fingers around Sam's as the younger man's eyes drifted closed. "Hang in there just a few more minutes, no sleeping."
Sam opened his eyes. "Sorry, m'tired."
"Looks like you took a pretty hard knock to the head, Sam. That's not helping." He glanced around, willing the rescue team to appear. Come on, come on, come on, hurry. "But it's all the more reason you need to stay awake, okay?"
"Yeah," Sam said in a voice barely above a whisper.
An arctic gust blew over them, carrying with it the sound of approaching help. The distinctive beat of a helicopter's blades was unmistakable. Dean closed his eyes. It looked like he'd be flying today. The smart thing to do would be to hike back to the Impala and drive into town, not leave the car and all their belongings out in the woods unattended. It may be the most logical choice of action, but Dean wasn't about to leave his brother.
The whirring beat grew louder. Dean leaned down, closer to Sam's ear to be heard. "Help's here, Sam. I hope you're not too comfortable, because we're leaving."
Sam puffed a tiny laugh. "Nah, definitely ready to go."
Dry snow blew in their direction, kicked up by the fast blades of the helicopter as it landed. Two paramedics carrying a stretcher ran toward them. "Sir, you'll have to move so we can work," one of the men said.
Dean nodded, releasing his grip on Sam. "I'll be right over there," he said, jerking his head to the side. He stood, backing away even as Sam's fingers blindly searched for his.
The second paramedic jerked his head in Dean's direction. "He's over there," he reassured Sam.
Sam glanced around, glassy eyes searching for his brother. He groaned low in his throat when the bright, yellow cervical collar was fastened around his neck. Sam shivered when his shirt was opened wider for a stethoscope. His lips were bluish as one of the medics placed an oxygen mask over his face. He startled, puffing Dean's name in a muffled plea for help.
Dean worried his bottom lip as he crouched low by his brother's feet. He wrapped a warm hand around Sam's cold ankle and squeezed gently. "You're okay."
He stayed there, tethering Sam to him with a single touch until the paramedics shouldered Dean to the side to lift his brother onto a gurney. "We're loading him for transport," the first man said—Rick, according to the name written on his jacket. "Are you riding with us or picking up your rig?"
"I'm with you," Dean said without hesitation. He'd have the Impala towed if he needed to.
"Good enough. We'll get him inside and then you'll be able to find a spot. It'll be crowded, so I hope you're not claustrophobic."
Claustrophobia was the least of his worries. His first concern was Sam. Second, they'd be flying. "I'm good."
Rick nodded, then turned to his comrade. "On my count of three, Jim. One, two, three."
The paramedics lifted the stretcher in one smooth motion and quickly made their way to the waiting helicopter. By the time Rick waved Dean in, the other man was cutting Sam's shirt and jacket off. The door slammed closed as Dean found a small pocket of space near his brother's feet.
Rick started an IV while Jim cut away the bandages Dean had applied so they could work. All went fine until Jim attempted to remove Sam's watch. In spite of being strapped to the gurney, Sam resisted, twisting his wrist and jerking against the restraints. "No," he puffed behind the oxygen mask. "Stop."
"Sam," Dean said, giving his brother's ankle a light squeeze. "Hey, let the paramedics do their job, bro."
"No." Sam desperately sought to make eye contact with Dean. "Not my watch, please."
Dean looked down at the bloody timepiece and its cracked face. "It's a total loss, kiddo, sorry."
"No, it's not," Sam said, the infamous Winchester stubborn streak lacing his tone. "Dean, please."
"Okay, Sammy, what if I hang onto it?" Sam's frantic, but weak struggle ceased and he nodded his head. Dean leaned forward, undoing the metal clasp. He held the watch up so his brother could see it. "I'm putting it in my pocket."
"Thanks," Sam panted, finally relaxing and allowing the paramedics to continue working.
Dean smiled, once again softly squeezing his brother's ankle in response. He didn't remove his hand, leaving it in place to reassure Sam he was there, or maybe it was to reassure himself, at this point he couldn't tell anymore. Dean answered all the medical team's questions, easily explaining the attack by what looked like a small, white bear or a huge mountain lion. He knew how idiotic it sounded, but if someone found the bulchin's corpse, his story would hold true.
"A white bear?" Jim asked, forehead bunched in consternation.
"Yeah, or a big cat of some kind," Dean said, pouring his heart into his cover story. He'd heard frightened witness accounts enough times in his life to do a fair approximation thereof. "It all happened so fast."
"Right, well, we'll be landing soon," Jim said. "The hospital will have papers they need you to fill out while you're waiting."
"I know the drill." He knew it far too well, actually.
"Dean, one of us will update you after we relinquish Sam into the ER staff's care," Rick said, clasping Dean on the shoulder. "We'll take good care of your brother."
"How'd you know he was my brother?" Dean asked, his brow knitting.
Rick smiled, jerking his head in Sam's direction. "I heard you call him 'bro' earlier. 'Sides, a guy his size isn't a Sammy unless he wasn't always a guy his size."
Dean laughed, a short, shaky sound. "As a matter of fact, he used to be quite the shrimp."
"Hard to imagine."
A smile of fondness spread across Dean's face. "Sometimes, it's hard for me to imagine him any other way."
Rick returned the smile before turning his attention back to the younger Winchester.
As promised, the hospital had copious amounts of forms for him to fill out while he waited. Dean's left leg bounced in time to his inner agitation while he worked on the last page. The small waiting room only had a few other people in it and they were speaking in hushed whispers that grated on Dean's nerves. The need to do something fueled his fidgeting.
The ER doors slid open revealing Rick, minus his jacket and hat. Dean stood, his feet nailed to floor.
"They're prepping him for surgery," Rick said, his voice the kind of calm only experienced medical personnel used when explaining dire patient conditions. "He's stable. They've managed to control the bleeding. He lost a great deal of blood and they're trying to replenish some of his fluids and blood volume before taking him to OR."
Dean's knees buckled with relief, sending his bottom plopping back into the chair. "So, he's okay?"
"They're taking him to surgery," Rick repeated, "but his life is not in any immediate danger." The salt-and-pepper-haired medic glanced around. "I can sneak you back to see him for a minute."
Dean was out of the chair and striding to the doors before Rick had a chance to react.
"Hey," Rick said, grabbing his arm, "the operative word here was 'sneak.'"
"Got it," Dean said, pausing at the doorway. "Just tell me what to do."
Two minutes later he was sandwiched into the crowded exam room with three bags of different fluid dangling on the IV pole, the heart monitor, the oxygen monitor, some machine that was automatically taking Sam's blood pressure, and countless other tubes and wires connected to his younger brother.
"You said he was okay," Dean hissed.
"I said he was stable," Rick corrected. "You gotta hurry, Dean. Amelia's only giving us a minute and she's hovering right outside the door. The only reason she's allowing this at all is because I'm here, but you're wasting time."
Dean nodded, acknowledging the validity of Rick's words. He knew he was wasting precious time, but Sam actually looked worse than before: pale, unaware, and incredibly young. Dean gazed at the slumbering giant doubling as his brother. It was almost impossible to believe Sam was really going to be okay. There had been so much blood.
Obediently, Sam's eyes fluttered open. "Dean?"
"Hey, they're getting ready to take you to surgery, but Rick here bent a few rules and got me back to see you."
Rick snorted. Apparently "a few rules" was an understatement.
"You're going to be fine, Sam," Dean said.
Sam's gaze flicked over to Rick. "Thanks."
"Your brother was terrorizing the Admitting staff. I didn't really have a choice," Rick quipped.
Sam puffed a laugh, wincing at the slight movement. He returned his attention to Dean. "You have my watch?"
"Yeah, I do, remember?" Dean asked.
"Good," Sam said, his eyes closing. "It's all I have left."
"Rick, you guys have to scram," Amelia said from the doorway. "Now."
Rick pulled on his arm, but Dean gripped Sam's cold fingers lightly. "I'm here, Sammy. I'll be here."
Dean couldn't be certain, but he was almost positive Sam whispered something about the fire taking everything else as they were herded out of the room by the insistent nurse.
"I'm off duty in two hours. Do you need a ride to your car?" Rick asked as they entered the waiting room.
"I'm not leaving my brother," Dean said.
"He'll be in surgery and then recovery." Rick took a seat next to Dean. "You have time. He won't know you're gone."
"I'm not leaving." Dean held out his hand to the older man. "But thanks."
Rick shook his hand, smiling broadly. "Sure, no problem. I can always take you out there tomorrow."
"That'd be awesome," Dean replied.
"Catch ya then," Rick said.
The medic stood and walked away as Dean picked up the clipboard of forms. He put the finishing touches on the last form and turned the papers in to the admitting nurse, who eyed him suspiciously, looking at him as if he'd been busted for his recon mission with Rick. After which, Dean settled back into the unusually comfortable waiting room chair.
Sam's words from earlier bothered him. He knew he didn't think about it often, because neither one of them had very many possessions, but everything Sam owned that wasn't on his back or in his duffel at the time of the fire, had been lost.
Dean had seen the picture of Mom and Dad on a shelf in his brother's apartment, several of Sam and Jessica together and with friends, the rows of books, their CDs, and movies. He'd taken a good look around Sam's place, trying to get a feel for what his brother had been doing, the man he'd become. The loss of Jessica had eclipsed everything, but Sam hadn't only lost his would-be fiancée in that fire, he'd lost his whole new life.
Dean fingered the blood-encrusted watch in his pocket, pulling it out. The face was cracked; it was just one more casualty in the losses they'd suffered their whole lives. One more thing his brother had to relinquish to the greater good. At least this time it was just a watch. The irregular pattern on the back of the timepiece felt rough on Dean's finger, garnering his attention.
He flipped it over, gazing at the inscription: To my son, with love. A lump settled in Dean's throat and refused to budge. How could he not have recognized it? No wonder Sam had freaked when they'd tried to take it away from him. Dad had given Sam this watch on his eighteenth birthday, his last real birthday at home. Sam hadn't been able to stop looking at it all night, his face lit up with a glow of happiness that Dean hadn't seen since. By his next birthday, Sam had already told them about Stanford and he hadn't received much of anything from either their dad or Dean that year.
Now Dad was missing and somehow asking Sam to part with his watch seemed impossible and heartless. After he picked up the Impala, Dean was finding a repair shop. Decision made, he slipped the timepiece into his pocket and settled into the chair to wait.
AN: This fic was actually inspired by Jared. I was watching a few clips from the—I think Chicago convention—and he was auctioning off his Season 3 watch for his mother's students. I started thinking about how Sam doesn't really have that many things of his own, presumably having lost anything he might have had of consequence in the fire. He'd had the same watch for (at the time) nearly four seasons and it seemed like a perfect item that he'd actually had on him at the time, therefore it wouldn't have been lost.
Of course, literally the day after I finished this story, "Sam Interrupted" aired and we haven't seen that watch since! D'oh!
I'm running with Sam took it off knowing he was going to have to surrender it at the hospital and just tucked it away for safe keeping.
Darn Winchesters, always conspiring against me!
Incidentally, if you are old enough to not only know where I snagged the title from, but actually remember watching the commercials on television, you're old like me!
The story is complete, but Jeanne's notice of it being released for on-line posting took me by surprise and I haven't finished formatting and such. The second half should be up no later than tomorrow. Assuming, that is, that the sun doesn't finally shine and I get a chance to mow my lawn!