Sam wakes up drenched in sweat. His head feels groggy and slow, like he has a bad cold and is swimming in Nyquil. The sky above him is pitch black, dotted with endless white stars. Fluffy crystal-like snowflakes are lazily floating down like specks of dust; some of them fall on Sam's face and melt on his over-heated skin. His leg hurts less than it should, all things considering. Sam wonders if it's because he's delirious with fever or if there's some kind of nerve damage. He wouldn't be surprised if there was.
Sam rolls his head to the side to find Dean; the world shifts with him slowly, lagging like a skipping video. His brother is wrapped in one of their army grade sleeping bags; the only part of him that's visible is his hair and the hand he's stuck out to rest on Sam's chest. Now that Sam's paying attention, he realizes he's cocooned in a matching sleeping bag. He can also see the thick salt line circled around them and the shot gun resting on the other side of Dean.
Another wave of heat rolls over him and Jesus, you'd think after sleeping in that sauna they call a house he'd be used to this, but he isn't. Uncomfortable and unbearably hot, he shifts, planning to shimmy his way out of the sleeping bag. Without warning, agony blazes and spreads like an avalanche from his thigh, up through his chest, and back down again. Sam's ears ring and his vision whites out as the pain consumes him, he doesn't even know if he breathes. After what could've been seconds or minutes, the world slowly starts to come back into focus. Dean is the first thing he sees.
"…Sammy? You ok? Sam!" Dean's hands are on the sides of Sam's face, digging into his scalp slightly as if to hide the way they shake.
"M'ok," Sam finally gasps.
"Yeah, you sound ok. Jesus." Dean takes one of his hands off Sam's face so he can scrub at his own hair, "You scared the hell out of me, man. You just started screamin' outta nowhere, woke me up out of a dead sleep. Think I damn near had a heart attack."
Sam doesn't answer, just leans forward as if trying to curl into himself to make the pain more tolerable. Dean moves his hand to grasp the back of Sam's neck.
"You're too hot, think you have a fever. Gonna have to look at your leg to see if it's infected. I can finally give you something for the pain at least, as long as it hasn't started bleeding again," Dean rambles. He does that when things spiral out of his control. Sam's never really figured out if Dean talks to make himself feel better or if he does it for Sam, or if he even realizes he's doing it at all. Sam always takes comfort out of it regardless.
"I gotta look at your leg. Think you can move?"
Sam glares, thinking no, he damn well cannot move, but he nods anyways. Either way Dean was going to make him try.
"Slow, ok? Don't need you fainting on me again."
"I didn't faint," Sam mutters and then grits his teeth as he slowly starts to slide out of the sleeping bag.
"Sure you didn't, Sammy," Dean says and Sam thinks that if he wasn't in so much pain he'd smack his brother.
Dean works on easing the sleeping bag away as Sam gently (painfully) pulls his leg out of the encased fabric. By the time it's all said and done Sam really does feel like he's going to faint; he steadies himself out of sheer pride and stubbornness. Dean slowly peels off the bandage. Sam stares at the damage, feeling sort of detached. He's never had a wound this severe before and he almost can't believe he's staring at his own leg. The only way to describe it is barbaric. The laceration is indented like a shallow trench, sealed over with shiny skin that's a deep, angry red. Sam can feel every painful inch of the bastard, so he knows there isn't any permanent nerve damage or anything scary like that, but it's going to leave one helluva ugly scar.
"Doesn't look like it's infected," Dean says as he carefully inspects it, even going as far as to put his nose close to it to see if there's a stench, "Unless it's blood poisoning, in which case we are really and truly screwed."
"That's encouraging of you."
"…But I don't think it is. You're not sick enough," Dean finishes and slides his hand over Sam's forehead, grimacing at the sweat, "I think it's just shock, maybe more mental than physical. Getting clawed and branded will do that."
He takes his hand off and stares at Sam, "You ok?" Dean's face is pinched with worry but his eyes are narrowed like he's trying not to show it; it's a look Sam's too familiar with.
Dean snorts, "When, five hours ago?"
Dean rolls his eyes but his expression turns remorseful, tinged with lingering fear. Sam feels his chest tighten at the look.
"Hey. I'm still here," Sam reassures gently, knocking his knee against Dean's even though it hurts like hell. His head still feels too light, and his skin too hot, blood loss, Sam thinks, but he's alive. He's alive because of Dean.
"Yeah," Dean replies, just as soft but not as certain.
It's enough, but at the same time, it really isn't.
The sun is half way over the horizon line the next time Sam wakes up. There's a thin layer of snow over his sleeping bag and he feels drained, like there's literally no life left in him. When he turns his head it feels like he's trying to move a bowling ball with his neck. Dean's not next to him and the sleeping bag is rolled up.
Christ, even his tongue feels like it weighs fifty pounds.
Footsteps come from somewhere to his left, quickly followed by the sight of boots passing in front of his face. Dean crouches down next to him, "Bout time, Sleeping Beauty. How ya feelin?"
Like I have sludge for blood and it's in short supply, Sam thinks, but figures that saying as much would alarm Dean. He settles with grunting in the Winchester way that implies that he feels like shit.
"Don't blame ya," Dean replies as if he knows exactly what Sam's trying to say, "Getting back down this damn path is gonna suck."
The very thought of it fills Sam's stomach with dread.
"Might have to leave the supplies," Dean continues.
What Dean really means is, he's probably going to have to carry Sam and he can't do that and carry the packs too. Even if Sam bit the bullet and handled the pain from the injury, the blood loss combined with the cold would knock him on his ass in under an hour. It took them four hours to get up this trail the first time and that was when they were both in one piece.
"Maybe we should radio for search and rescue," Sam offers.
Dean looks like he's contemplating it but then shakes his head, "Not unless we're still on this damn rock when it starts to get dark. We can't spend another night out here." Decision made he says, "I'm gonna get you some pills and food. Then we gotta work on getting out of here."
Sam's tired just thinking of it. His bones feel like lead and his brain is mush. If Dean would let him, he'd lay in this sleeping bag until he either froze or starved. Dean would never let him.
He swallows the extra strength Tylenol (it's the strongest Dean will give him) and eats the granola bar Dean shoves into his hands. Then they both stare at nothing, prolonging the inevitable, wishing that things hadn't gone so wrong.
"What're we gonna tell dad?" Sam asks.
Dean doesn't answer for a while, long enough for Sam to wonder if he will at all. Eventually Dean says, "The truth."
For some reason the idea really bothers Sam. Dean will inevitably take the blame for it, some crap about being the oldest and it was his idea, yadda yadda yadda. John will inevitably lecture him and knock Dean down a peg or ten by saying he's disappointed. Sam hates the idea of that. They went into this together. They did the research, climbed the mountain, screwed up, and survived together. So to Sam there are only two options here: either they take the fall together or they don't take it all.
Sam shakes his head, his mouth pressed into a tight, determined line, "We're not gonna tell him."
He's expecting a fight. He's expecting Dean to tell him that they can't lie to dad, and he screwed up so he should take the heat for it. The last thing he's expecting is for Dean to say, "Ok," all soft, and sincere, and relieved.
It kind of makes Sam want to cry. It's probably the blood loss.
Ten minutes later they finally force themselves to move. They settle on taking one pack filled with the weapons, food, first aid kit, and both sleeping bags. John may not notice a missing backpack but he'd definitely notice a missing sleeping bag. Dean puts the pack on his back and Sam carries the second sleeping bag under his arm. The arm that isn't carrying the bag is wrapped around Dean's waist for support. Dean's holding most of his weight but Sam's head is still swimming, and it feels like there's a hot poker jammed in his thigh.
"Ready? If you feel like you're gonna hit the deck…"
"Yeah, I know. Sound the alarm. Let's go."
It's a long, painful, hellish journey that takes twice as long as it should because Sam has to stop every half hour or so. They argue about Sam walking instead of being carried by Dean ("You almost fuckin' bled to death last night, Sammy.") And about Sam taking a few days off school ("You are." "No, I'm not, Dean.") And whether or not the Batmobile is cooler than the Impala ("That's blasphemy, Sam.")
It passes the time and makes them think of something other than the biting cold, Sam stumbling, and the darkening horizon.
By the time they get to the bottom of the mountain night has fallen, and Dean's carrying Sam, who's passed out, shivering, and in a lot of pain. Dean mentally curses non-stop about goddamn adlets and their stupid poisonous claws, and this stupid over-sized rock they had to camp out on overnight in the snow, and this total screw up of a hunt.
The Impala is waiting for them, a shiny black beacon of safety, glittering with light snowflakes. It may be the most beautiful thing Dean's ever seen. He eases Sam into the back seat, throws their gear in the trunk, and turns the ignition over. If the sight of the Impala is the most beautiful thing on earth, then the sound of her rumbling underneath them has to be a close second.
"Home free now, Sammy," Dean says softly, throwing a glance to the back seat.
Sam doesn't answer, still out cold, but he does curl into the seat tighter, as if he recognizes the safety of the soft leather.
Sam wakes to familiar heat and mugginess, and the smell of gun oil and aftershave. Home, he thinks. It's the only place on earth that feels like the damn tropics without being the tropics. The room is dark and silent, lit up only by the moonlight creeping in through the thread-bare curtains. He doesn't remember half of the walk down the mountain, the ride home, or Dean tucking him into bed like a child, and he guesses that should be alarming, but it's not. Sam can feel Dean's presence without turning over to look. He knows from a lifetime of close proximity that his big brother is in the other bed sound asleep and safe.
Sam forces himself to drift back to sleep before the throb in his leg can turn into something less bearable.
Three days later Sam's sitting on the sofa in his boxers and a tee shirt, staring at the healing mess on his leg. Dean walks in but stops short, seeing the troubled, verging on depressed look on his little brother's face. He watches as Sam reaches out to gently run a finger pad along the edge of the wound, flinching slightly as he aggravates the tender flesh. Dean sighs and plops down in the chair crosswise from the couch.
"What's up, Sammy?"
Sam jumps and colors slightly, "Nothing. Just seeing if it's healing alright."
"We looked at it this morning, dude. Wanna try again?" Dean raises an unconvinced eyebrow before drinking down some of the beer he has in hand.
Sam looks aggravated for a second but it deflates into something much more vulnerable and distressed. Dean's immediately tense. He hates seeing that look on Sam's face almost as much as he hates the claw mark in his thigh.
"It's just that…it's gonna scar," Sam mutters as he toys with a string hanging off the sofa's cushion, and decidedly does not look at Dean.
Dean frowns in confusion, "Yeah, wouldn't be the first time."
"No. I mean it's gonna scar."
Oh. Oh. Dean thinks as he stares at his morose little brother. They've all had injuries before that left behind permanent marks but nothing as large or gruesome as this one. Sam had a diagonal chunk carved out of his leg and then sealed with a white-hot knife; something like that doesn't just smooth over like a paper cut. Sometimes Dean forgets that his brother is still just a teenager, a teenager who's dying to fit in and be normal, a teenager who's still insecure about his body. Dean would wear the scar like a war medal; Sam would wear it like a shameful flaw.
"It's only skin, Sammy," Dean says softly, "Anyone who cares isn't worth your time."
Sam shrugs, unconvinced. "What if dad sees?"
Dean's been thinking about that and coming up short. It may be a while, maybe even years, but eventually John would see the mark. Sam will inevitably get hurt at some point, they'll inevitably go somewhere too hot to wear jeans, John will inevitably know something's up. Not for the first time since this whole thing happened, Dean questions their decision to not tell their dad about the hunt. He already knows what would happen if they did: extra PT time, a look of disappointment that might not fade for months, eroded trust, not to mention a berating that would make a drill sergeant proud. Dean feels like he might deserve all of these things but at the same time…he doesn't. He, they, did what they felt was right. Their job is to hunt, to save people from things they don't even realize they need saving from, and they did that job. The one thing he's guilty of is not taking the snow into account when they were hunting the adlet, and that led to Sam getting hurt. That's on him. And there's nothing their dad could do or say that would punish him more than he's punishing himself.
"We'll take care of it," Dean says. He tries to sound more confident than he feels.
Because taking care of Sam is his job. He's going to do his job.
A huge snow storm hits two weeks later, burying the town in almost five feet of snow in just over two days. The power miraculously stays on (for them, at least) but the phones and cable are out, and the radio news anchor says it may take up to a week to get everyone in working order again.
They knew the storm was coming ahead of time so they stocked up on groceries and emergency supplies, covered the Impala with a tarp ("This is messed up, Sam. She shouldn't be left out here in this crap,") and settled in for the long haul.
On the second day of the storm Dean marches into the living room with a six pack, a pint of Captain, and a deck of cards. Sam raises an eyebrow and Dean shrugs, "Gotta pass the time somehow. You wanna learn how to play poker, or what?"
Sam pushes aside his homework and settles in on the floor across from Dean. Dean cracks his first beer and then hands one to Sam, "Drink responsibly, Sammy," he says with an amused smirk. Sam rolls his eyes and snatches the beer out of his hand.
"Alright, first things first, poker is all about reading people. You need to learn the tells to know where you stand in the game, and at the same time, mask any of your own. It's like hustling pool only harder because there's less interaction and no distractions to cover up the con."
Sam watches Dean deal the cards, feeling more content than he has in a long time. These are his favorite moments, when he gets to just hang out with Dean, and they're becoming sparser as they get older and Dean becomes more involved in hunting. He'd never admit it out loud but sometimes Sam just misses his brother.
"Are you payin' attention?" Dean demands, squinting his eyes into a glare.
"Yeah. I'm paying attention."
Four hours later the beer's gone, so is most of the pint, and the cards are scattered all over the floor. Sam and Dean are sitting side by side on the floor, leaning back against the sofa. Sam stares at the huge picture window from his spot, marveling at the stark white-out that's whirling in the wind.
"You can't see anything," Sam says in amazement.
"You're drunk, Sam."
Sam snorts, "Look who's talkin'"
"Can hold my liquor better than you any day, kiddo," Dean replies with a smirk, even though Sam can hear the way his words slur together just slightly, as if he's tired.
"Sure you can," Sam says, just to humor him.
The living room's hotter than usual, thanks to the alcohol, and Sam's sticky with sweat. He's too lazy and uncoordinated to take off his over shirt though, so he tries to compensate by tugging the sleeves up to his elbow.
"S'hot in here," Sam says and leans his head back against the sofa.
"Why'd you agree to not tell dad?"
Sam doesn't know where the question came from. He's been thinking about it, sure; he's been thinking about it ever since the mountain, but he never intended to question it. He figured that for once Dean was going to make his own decision and Sam wasn't about to call it into question, because that might make Dean change his mind. Talking about it would most definitely piss Dean off so he doesn't know why he said it. Then he remembers the near empty pint of Captain and thinks that maybe it's not so surprising that he can't keep his mouth shut.
He's about to apologize or back track or say something to just blow it off, but Dean says, "Dad wouldn't understand. And it was ours, you know? He just wouldn't understand."
Sam opens his mouth and the closes it with an audible click. There's a lot he wants to say and even more that he wants to ask, but he doesn't. He feels ashamed of thinking that Dean's gonna back out of it and tell anyways, because lately Dean's been aligning himself with their dad more times than not. But Dean hates lying to their dad and this is one big lie, and what if John starts getting suspicious? What if he sees the newspaper or something? What if Dean starts feeling guilty? What if Sam starts feeling guilty…
"You're really emo when you're drunk, you know that? Stop thinking before you ruin both of our buzzes," Dean says and drops a hand down to squeeze the back of Sam's neck reassuringly, like he knows.
Sam suddenly feels ashamed for a different reason. True, Dean does tend to side with their dad about everything, and true, he does hate lying to the man. But one thing Dean doesn't do is break a promise to Sam because they're brothers above all else, and that's untouchable, even to their dad.
They fall asleep in the living room. Morning comes and is unbearably bright; the sun reflects off all the snow and bounces right in through the uncovered living room window. Sam wakes up with a king of spades stuck to his sweaty cheek. He peels it off with a grimace while Dean grunts in a hung-over parody of a chuckle. They drag themselves into the kitchen for aspirin, water, and pancakes, all without a word.
Their dad's due back in four days. He's been calling about once a week to make sure they have enough cash (they usually do), that they're keeping up on their training (they're kinda slacking, adlet hunt not included), and to make sure social services haven't been by (they haven't.) Sam's almost ashamed to admit that he doesn't want their dad to come home. He doesn't want his dad dead, not by any means, but when he's not around things are easier. Sam feels like he can breathe, and Dean's safe, and for once it feels like they're living instead of just surviving. Maybe it's irrational but Sam resents his dad for the moment he's going to inevitably walk through the door, unknowingly and carelessly shattering their small piece of normal.
As it gets closer and closer to John's return date, Sam gets more nervous about his injury being discovered. The adlet hunt was a month ago and the pain from the wound has pretty much faded to nothing, but the scar is just as gnarly as expected. The claw mark is six inches in length and maybe half an inch wide, all covered with rough, shiny skin that's still red. If he's lucky the skin will rebuild itself to where there isn't an indentation or a huge keloid. But as Sam's learned over the years, Winchesters aren't well equipped in luck.
Dean's checking over the wound one last time, pressing a thumb gently into it to check for pain, smoothing a silicon sheet over it to help heal the scar.
"I talked to Pastor Jim," Dean says absently as he makes sure the edges of the silicon sheet aren't going to peel up.
Sam eyes him, thinking that the lack of eye contact and the 'this is no big deal' tone of voice suggests that Dean's about to talk about something that makes him uncomfortable."So?"
Dean shrugs, "I mentioned we might need some legit insurance, maybe a good cover story, and a distraction for dad. Might take a few months but…" Another shrug.
"You know you're making no sense right now, right?"
"Figured we need those things if we were gonna do something about your scar. Plastic surgeons aren't exactly local clinics, you know."
Sam stares until Dean shifts uncomfortably and snaps, "Dude, stop staring."
"Did you just bless me?"
Sam squints, wondering if he saw a flash of black or if it was just the shadows in the bathroom, "It's not normal for you to want to lie to dad this much."
Dean huffs and scratches a hand through his hair, clearly irritated that Sam's pushing to talk, "Look, it was our hunt, ok? We're seeing it through until the end and that," Dean points to the scar, "Is the end. And besides, it's my job to look after you."
Dean starts gathering the wrappings to the scar sheet to throw them away and stands to leave the bathroom, apparently having decided that the conversation is over.
"Dean!" Sam calls before his brother can shut down too far or get too far away. He turns back around and Sam says, "Thank you." Dean grunts in recognition but Sam can see the way his face softens and lips quirk.
John returns that Tuesday. He walks in the house looking visibly fatigued but content, relieved to see his boys in one piece. Sam and Dean meet him at the door and take turns hugging him, ending the embraces with clapped shoulders and squeezed necks.
"You take care of your brother?" John asks Dean.
John nods, satisfied, then smiles, "Good job, boys."
He goes into the kitchen to get a beer or some food or both, and Sam and Dean are left in the living room, staring at each other with the weight of the adlet between them.
John wants to leave ASAP, of course, something about a possible wendigo in Washington. So it's Friday morning and Sam makes Dean drive him to the high school before they leave town.
"What the hell for?" Dean asks, "We're about to finally blow this town."
"Just something I wanna do, ok?"
Dean rolls his eyes but relents.
First period has already started so the hallways are virtually empty, which is exactly the way Sam wants it. Quickly he searches down the rows of lockers before he finds the one he wants, and slips in a piece of paper through the door seam.
When they're putting Eureka, Montana in their rear view mirror and the mountain's getting smaller in the distance, Dean says, "I hate that friggin' town," but Sam can hear a new found fondness in the words.
"Yeah," Sam says, "Me too."
The locker is yanked open harder than necessary. As a book is shoved in a folded-up piece of paper tumbles out and floats to the ground. Rough fingers pick it up and pause at the unfamiliar weight. Inside is a simple note written in slanted print:
One day things will be different. I promise.
Robert grins, balls up the note, and throws it away on his way to homeroom.
Notes: So I just realized that in chapter one I had Dean in high school with Sam, even though I clearly stated multiple times that Dean's 21 *facepalm.* Let's just assume that the scene between Robert, Sam, and Dean happened after school and Dean came looking for Sam when he was taking too long to come out to the car.