Author: Cheryl W.

Disclaimer: I do not own Dean, Sam or any rights to Supernatural, nor am I making any profit from this story.

Author's note: Kind of a long chapter so settle in….


Chapter 31


Reaching forward, Paytah picked up the one of the Winchesters' lost knives and came to his feet. He bowed to his father and the tribe before he turned with cold, menacing purpose to Wanikiya. "Come brother, let us find peace." Then, with a blood curling Indian yell, he charged for his brother, tackled Wanikiya at the waist. That sent them both careening toward the Winchesters who, thanks to the ice, had no way to dodge out of the way.

"This might hurt," Dean muttered, tilting his head away and closing one eye as he braced for impact.

But Paytah and Wanikiya disintegrated seconds before they collided with Sam and Dean, left the Winchesters sputtering on ash that swirled in their wake.


Looking over his shoulder, Sam found that the brothers had truly vanished, had gone off into their punishment doing what they had been doing for over a two hundred and seventy years: fighting. He turned around in time to see Paytah's father bow to them before he faded away …along with the rest of the spirits of his tribe.

Suddenly Sam stumbled, found that he was once again in charge of staying on his own feet, that the ice in the cave was gone. Beside him, Dean's kneeling pose listed to the side and Dean threw out a hand to brace himself on the now dry cave floor.

Wade was the first to speak. "Holy crap! Did that just happen?" he incredulously questioned as he sank to his knees. Carefully maneuvering Nathan off his shoulder, he settled his friend into a soft landing onto the ground beside him. Keeping his hand resting on Nathan's chest, his eyes met Dean's across the cave, looking for reassurance that it was all over.

"Happened and you own the copyright to it," Dean wearily quirked, knew it would make one heck of a movie script…if it wouldn't get the author institutionalized.

"Call me a disloyal coward but I've had about all the Indian culture I can deal with right now. I say we get out of here," Greg stridently suggested, already on his feet and stepping clear of the magic circle that had kept him safe, yes, but trapped him too.

"No complaints here," Sam readily agreed as he crouched down to check on his brother. Settling a hand on Dean's shoulder, he met his brother's eyes and softly asked "Hey, you alright?" hoped Dean was willing to trust him with the truth after the trial of fire their brotherhood had just been through. But before Dean could decide upon his answer, Sam saw all the evidence he needed to make a verdict. "You're bleeding!" Shifting Dean's jacket aside, he worriedly scowled at his brother's torso where Dean's blood saturated shirt clung to the arrow wound. Grabbing the hem of Dean's shirt, he intended to measure the extent of the damage for himself but Dean's hand clamped around his, halting his motion.

"So are you," Dean countered, concerned eyes on the trickle of blood making its way across Sam's collarbone, confirmation that his little brother's vision induced shoulder wound was busy doing its own bleeding. In surprise, Sam looked to his own shoulder, saw blood stained skin peeking out from under his jacket collar. With all his other concerns, namely Dean's survival and the rest of their rag tag group's, his own pain hadn't even really registered with him.

Meeting Dean's eyes again, Sam assuaged his brother's fear with a light smile, "I'll live but it does give me a nice starting handicap for the golfing we're gonna do."

"Sammy, Sammy, already making up excuses for when I beat the pants off you," Dean liltingly taunted, cheered that Sam was actually still looking forward to them golfing, to spending time with him that wasn't job required. And since the first step toward their upcoming R&R was getting out of this friggin' cave, Dean tried to move his stiff legs, to shift into a position to push himself to his feet.

But Sam shortcut his attempts, used the heavy hand he still had on his shoulder to stall his very meager progress.

"Slow your roll, Arnold Palmer," Sam commanded as he gave Dean a light nudge that sent his brother sagging back to take a seat on the cave floor. Having detected the rigidness in his brother's leg movement and remembering Dean's feet, legs and thighs had been cocooned in ice only moments ago, he carefully lifted Dean's pant leg and held back a curse. Dean's skin was pale at his shin and red at his ankle and when he lightly touched his brother's ankle, Dean stiffen in pain. "You have frostbite," Sam grimly diagnosed, gaze flickering up to his brother's.

Instead of giving a thought to his own condition, Dean's mind went to another member of their team, someone who had far more insidious contact with the ice than he had. "Nathan?!" he anxiously inquired, eyes darting part Sam to where Wade was leaning over Nathan, an edge of panic to the medic's tone as it echoed back to Dean.

"Nathan, you gotta stay awake for me," Wade half cajoled and half commanded as Nathan's eyes fluttered, threatened to close and not open ever again. Fisting his hand in his best friend's shirt, he clung to Nathan as if he could keep his best friend with him, keeping him alive by sheer willpower, by his soul decimating need to not lose someone else he considered a brother. Suddenly, Wade wanted to unlearn all the knowledge that he had garnered over the years as a medic, knowledge he thought for sure would guarantee that he never again helplessly watched someone that he loved die. It was cruel irony that that knowledge was now only good for callously predicting Nathan's slim odds of survival. For recognizing that Nathan's frostbite had given way to severe hyperthermia.

A moment ago, when Wade had checked Nathan's pulse point, he had nearly flinched at the painful coldness of his best friend's neck, had found only a slow, weak throb under his fingers. Then he took notice of the shivers coursing through Nathan's body, of his best friend's shallow, slowing breaths. And when his eyes flew up to Nathan's, it was like he was meeting Oliver's gaze for the last time, all over again. That same light was threatening to flicker out in his eyes, the same apology…the same unwanted goodbye.

When Nathan's eyes slipped shut, Wade gave Nathan a rough shake, triggering Nathan's eyes to jolt open, to latch onto his best friend. "You don't get to quit on me too!" Wade growled but some of his ferociousness was undermined by the crack in his voice.

"Trying…not…to," Nathan stammered, mentally shaking himself from the lethargy dragging him under, struggling to stay awake, to not betray Wade by leaving him, by hurting him just like his brother had, albeit not willingly. On either of their parts.

"Try harder!" Wade gritted out, eyes piercing Nathan's, begging his friend to do what Oliver could not: stay with him. Tell Death to go screw itself. And the battle, he knew now that it had to be fought on both sides, that he had to fight too, had to use the knowledge he had and wage his own war to keep Nathan alive.

With a twinge of heartbreak, Wade released his white knuckled grip on Nathan's shirt and hastily stripped off his coat and tucked it around his best friend's chest. Then he demanded and promptly received Strongeagle's jacket, which he used to cover Nathan's legs. But it wasn't going to be enough, he knew that.

Leaning over Nathan again, he warned, "I'm going to move you a little bit, gotta do something to warm you up faster."

Before Nathan could hazard a guess to his friend's next move, he felt hands slide under him, choked back a cry of agony when his back was lifted off the ground. But he wasn't pulled to his feet, instead he was levered back down, not onto the ground this time but against the warmth of another body, namely Wade's.

Settling Nathan back to rest on his legs and chest, Wade coiled his arms around Nathan's freezing body, trying to lend his body heat to his friend. Propping his chin on the crown of Nathan's head, he tenderly coached, "Concentrate on your breathing, thinking warm thoughts isn't a bad idea either. Just hang on, stay with me."

Nathan found the agony starting to shoot through his body was bearable, hearing the fear in Wade's voice wasn't. "Apparently you missed …..the sexual harassment…. seminar…. segment….. about inappropriate …..touching," he managed to stutter out, wanted, needed to assuage some of Wade's fear, to prove to Wade that he was still putting up a fight, in his own cornball way. A way only Wade could truly appreciate.

Wade found himself chuckling at his best friend's snarky complaint. He remembered how he and Nathan had exchanged looks the whole seminar, vigorously shaking their heads or nodding them, depending on whether or not they had ever committed or wanted to commit the offense they were being warned about. "Like you didn't want the blonde bombshell hosting the seminar to demonstrate the do nots," he zinged back.

Nathan smiled too at the memories. "Yeah….her. Not you."

"You get what you pay for," Wade quirked back, pulling Nathan's frigid body closer to his chest.

"Want my…money back," Nathan returned, closed his eyes a moment to regain some strength before reopening them. Reaching up, he wrapped a hand around Wade's forearm, needed an anchor to this life.

"That's a shocker, coming from Mr. Cheapskate himself," Wade taunted but there was a rawness in his tone as Nathan's shivering increased, seemed on the verge of turning into convulsions.


Watching the exchange between Wade and Nathan, Dean fought down a shout, a scream, couldn't watch another person he had come to care about die, because of them, because of him. Because he wasn't fast enough or smart enough or strong enough to keep them safe. He might have made a sound, might have moved, had done something to garner Sam's attention, to cause Sam's eyes to worriedly fly to him, for his little brother's hand to come up and gently cup the side of his neck.

"Dean…" Sam compassionately began, but Dean couldn't take whatever comfort Sam was about to try and give him. Not when Nathan was dying, when Wade was going to lose another person he loved, not when he knew it was his fault, all over again. That he was a curse, had the knack for getting everyone around him killed. Just ask Bobby and the long list of people that came before him. "Don't," Dean choked out, eyes welling, didn't want Sam trying to mitigate his pain, his blame. It was more than time he shouldered it on his own.

Reading the guilt and the abyss of pain gathering in Dean's eyes, Sam felt a fierce stab of sympathetic pain before resentment took over, resentment for the way things always played out, for the people they had lost, for the weight Dean always willingly bore for any failings, whether he was at fault or not. And if they lost Nathan…it would shatter another layer of his brother's soul, and Sam didn't know how many Dean had left to spare after Bobby.

So Sam's sudden resolve that Nathan wouldn't die, it wasn't all for Nathan's sake, or even Wade's. Was for his own brother's peace of mind, was for Dean. Figured that, if he had stopped the friggin' end of times for Dean….keeping one icy deputy alive didn't seem all that unmanageable.

Meeting Dean's suffering gaze, Sam gave Dean's neck a reassuring squeeze. And Sam's hoarse, resolved utterance of "OK", it was a fervent vow to make things better for his brother. "Stay put," he ordered before he pushed to his feet, went to Nathan's side. But his confidence to make everything alright faltered when he saw Nathan up close, because, his life as a hunter had made Sam only too aware of how unforgiving such afflictions of nature could be on the human body. Raising his eyes to the only one in the cave with a paramedic license, he intently asked of Wade, "What do you need me to do?"

As grateful as he was for Sam's offer, Wade knew that what really had to be done wasn't possible. That there wasn't a way to whisk Nathan to the hospital in the next ten minutes, that there was no way to elevate his friend's body temperature to where it needed to be in their present surroundings. That his medical expertise didn't mean much when he was lacking basically all the tools of his trade. But he touted out the tried and true responses to a condition of hyperthermia. "Call for a medic evac…. get a good fire going."

It wasn't going to be enough, Sam knew that already. Had watched death steal across more people than he ever wanted to count, had beyond adequate experience to know that Nathan was on the precipice of that now. And Sam suddenly needed to fight down his own shout of 'no!' because he couldn't let Nathan die, couldn't let more despair fracture Dean's soul, couldn't just sit back and watch a man he had come to consider a friend take his last breath. Especially since Nathan was only in the cave, in his present dire medical situation because he had wanted to help him and Dean, had given a crap about saving his town, was a good man. A man that didn't deserve to be taken out by some vengeful Indian with a thing for fire and siccing nature on them with demented curses...

"Curse…" Sam dazedly said aloud, eyes widening before he surged to his feet and ran to the outskirts of the cavern. Dropping to his knees, he frantically dug through his bag, pulled out a tin cylinder container campers used to keep things dry. Pushing to his feet, he crossed quickly back to Nathan. Trading his gaze between Nathan and Wade, he declared, "The ice in here, it wasn't just normal freezing water any more than Dean's burns were normal contact with fire. It was a curse Paytah put on Dean…on us in this cave." And then he unscrewed the container's cap, tilted it for Wade to see that it was the hoodoo concoction that they had used on Dean's burns. "Might work," Sam hazarded, clinging to hope for all involved.

"Worth a shot," Wade allowed as he dabbed his fingers in the ointment.

"Do I…" Nathan began to wheeze out, leery eyes on the goop on his best friend's fingers.

Anticipating his friend's protest, Wade finished his sentence for him, "Have a say in this? No." And then he smeared the hoodoo down his friend's cheek and nervously waited for the results.

Wade's concerned scowl transformed into a blinding smile as Nathan's cheek lost its red hue and the pigmentation returned to that of healthy unfrozen skin. And it kicked off a chain reaction, started the same miraculous recovery across Nathan's face, down his neck.

Surprised to be able to draw in a full, unfettered breath, Nathan greedily inhaled the stale air in the cave. "It worked?" he asked in stunned disbelief, eyes going to Sam, who was smirking.

Sam gave Nathan a confirming nod before he turned around and unleashed a joyous smile to Dean, watched as Dean's strained features softened and his brother closed his eyes in relief. Turning back to Wade, he wasn't quite ready to handle the well of gratitude in the medic's eyes, but he understood the sentiment, knew the jubilant feeling of getting to keep someone you loved after thinking they would be lost to you forever. Had felt the same way on too many occasions when it was Dean's life in the balance. Instead of offering up a 'you're welcome' Sam simply patted Wade's shoulder in silent acceptance of the man's gratitude. Then, after scooping out a small helping of the hoodoo, he stood up and walked away, trusted the friends to take care of each other.

When Nathan went to sit up, Wade allowed it, dropped his hold on his friend with only a twinge of hesitation, knew that Nathan was going to be ok. "I'll put some on your legs," he notified, as he maneuvered out from behind Nathan, started to crawl to his friend's legs. But Nathan caught his hand before it made contact with his ankle.

"I can take it from here," Nathan gently said, knew that his friend had done enough for him already, didn't need to continue to be his own personal medic.

"Who's the medic around here, huh?" Wade lightly chastised, clung to his place in the world, to the place he had hewed out of his loss, a place meant to shelter him from any future storms. A shelter that had taken a fierce battering with the day's events, with his inability to save Nathan.

But Wade was a thousand more things than just a medic and it seemed Nathan's job to prove that to him. "Medic? I thought you were a world record long jumper, or hopscotch champion." Nathan's awe and praise turned into chastisement with his next words. "A best friend who doesn't listen to common sense to stay back when I say he should stay back."

"If this is your way of saying thank you….it kinda sucks," Wade teasingly drawled, enjoyed the raising frustration in Nathan's eyes, eyes that no longer contained pain.

"What sucks is your disregard for your own life," Nathan bit out, warming up to his subject now that he had the time to properly berate his friend. "A dead medic helps no one, I think I established that as rule number one."

Wade only smiled wider. "Yeah, and a know-it-all deputy is a bore. I think I established that day two of our friendship."

"Was that the day I saved you from turning into a chew toy for Mrs. Garner's pitbull by telling you to get out of her yard?" Nathan haughtily questioned as if he didn't know that answer already. Before Wade could deny it, Nathan's eyes narrowed at his friend. "And rule number two: You should always see to your own injuries, dumbbehind," he reprimanded as he poked his finger into Wade's cheek, the cheek that had come into contact with Nathan's frozen shirt earlier and was spiking pain now to beat the band.

"I'll get around to it," Wade groused, had the audacity to move the container out of Nathan's reach when his friend made a grab for it because he knew Nathan would waste some of the hoodoo cream on him and not on himself. He attempted to shut down Nathan's predictable whining with a "Zip it or I'll zip it for you."

"You and what army?" Nathan gamely grumbled back but couldn't maintain his glare, not when Wade was wearing his cocky smirk, the one that always signaled trouble ahead, for both of them. So instead of protesting he shook his head and good-naturedly submitted to Wade's ministrations, trusted Wade's skills as a medic and even more so his explicit loyalty to him. "Fine, but don't get any of that crap on my boots," he stipulated, laughed when Wade threw him an exasperated 'you're worried about your boots, you gotta be kidding me' look.


Reaching Dean, Sam wordlessly knelt at his brother's feet, didn't need to hear Dean's words of gratitude for saving Nathan, could read it in his brother's eyes. Honestly, he didn't want it verbalized, especially when he felt a little guilty, knowing that he had had his own selfish reasons for wanting Nathan to be ok, for seeking out a fix for the hyperthermia…for the frostbite. Frostbite like Dean had on his feet, legs and thighs.

Course Dean hadn't given a thought to the ramifications for him, that Sam's right guess about the hoodoo also meant he would be spared continued pain. Not until Dean saw the gook on his brother's fingers, knew he was about to be treated to the foot/leg rub down, same as Nathan. "Dude, I can…."

But Sam chose that moment to dab the hoodoo on first one then the other ankle before he pushed Dean's pant legs up and slathered the mixture on his shins. "You have an itching to be a massage therapist or what?" Dean groused, didn't want Sam to know the level of pain he had been in, that the sudden, blessed relief from that onslaught made him want to just lay down and give into his exhaustion. But the jolt of concern in Sam's eyes told him that maybe Sam knew all that anyway, his brother's next words almost confirmed it.

"Hey, why don't you just lie back, let me put some on your feet," Sam casually suggested because he knew how a worried command would go over. It was why he was purposefully leaving out verbally announcing that 'check your bleeding side' was on his to-do list if Dean let down his guard.

"Nah, I'm good. Want to tell me why you stowed that hoodoo lotion in your pack?" Dean interrogated, saw Sam's face still with a 'crap, I've been caught' expression before Sam pulled on his innocent demeanor.

"You know…pack everything because you never know what you might need," Sam aloofly offered, focusing on untying Dean's shoe laces, hoping he had derailed Dean's astute deductive reasoning.

But Dean wasn't buying the Boyscout 'always be prepared' logic. His eyebrows rose as a thought came to him. "You brought it along for me…in case the curse came back, in case your touch burned me again," and there wasn't criticism in his tone but awed warmth.

"It wasn't out the realm of possibilities," Sam logically stated, hoped Dean was too dazed with his brilliance to continue to hound him over his mother hen move.

"Yeah, and if our contact jinx came back, did you have something in your goodie bag to bring you back to life if I put a surge of electricity through you?" Dean challenged, didn't have to guess if Sam thought of his own well-being in the scenario.

Keeping his eyes on Dean's warming ankles, Sam shrugged and softly said, "Already had shock therapy at the psychiatric hospital, another hit probably would do me some good, right?"

"What the…you didn't tell me that," Dean tersely replied, felt fury sing through him at the abuse his brother had taken, that he had allowed to happen when he left Sam in a friggin' looney ward.

Feeling the anger ebbing off of his brother, Sam forced himself to face Dean. But it didn't take a second before he realized that his brother's anger wasn't directed at him, wasn't about him keeping that tidbit to himself. No, it was outrage that he had undergone that type of treatment/torture. So not the point he wanted to get across. Wanting to down play the event, he clarified, "Wasn't actually prescribed, was one of Crowley's goons at the dial and Cas got there before he upped the wattage."

"Yeah, well…who needs one of Crowley's douchebags around to torture you when I can get the job done right," Dean sardonically drawled. Sam grabbed his wrist so quickly, Dean startled, found himself pinned by his brother's sharp gaze.

"You didn't torture me, Dean!" Sam sharply rejected his brother belief before it had a chance to stick in Dean's brain somewhere and be shaped into a guilty point of false truth. "And if we're keeping score, you're the only one of us who got seriously hurt in all that. It's my touch that burned you…more than once."

"Rrrriiiggghttt and you hacking up a lung just at the sound of my voice, no harm, no foul, huh?" Dean shot back, wasn't about to forget the fact that he had nearly killed his own brother…with his friggin' voice.

Sam's lips pinched together in frustration at the turn the conversation had taken. Knew that it was time to stop beating around the bush and just say what he meant. "We stayed together, so all that …it was worth it." 'You were worth it, Dean', he silently clarified, eyes holding his brother's, hoping that the deeper sentiment seeped through to his brother all the same.

Stunned a little, Dean knew he should protest Sam's statement, after all, he had nearly electrocuted his brother and yet….he knew he'd take a thousand burns if it meant Sam didn't go away, stayed with him. If it ended with them leaving town…together. Course it won't do his image any good if he admitted that. "Actually, I stayed just to stick it to Paytah," he falsely proclaimed, but knew the charade was pretty flimsy since he couldn't quite keep a small smirk from emerging on his features. A smirk Sam returned.

"Oh, yeah, of course. You downing poison and doing a vision quest had nothing to do with me," Sam knowingly said, eyes shining with merry amusement that his brother was actually trying to downplay his loyalty to him.

Dean scowled at the proof Sam was touting but before he could formulate a worthy comeback, another voice interrupted their one on one.

"Me personally, I think it was that song that swayed him," Wade mockingly offered as he crouched down beside Sam and his eyes hit Dean with a dare to just try and sound tough and manly after caving to a song dedication, a song called "Lullaby"?!

"You stay out of this," Dean groused back, didn't need Wade and Sam ganging up on him, hoping to get some emo response from him when his defenses were down, when he was just so glad that Sam was still breathing, that they all were, that he was feeling a little sappy with happy relief.

Though Wade was giving him a wide cocky smile, the medic raised his hands in surrender. "Got it. Saw how things turned out for Paytah when he screwed with your brotherhood."

Almost petulantly Dean mumbled, "Yeah, right…exactly."

Then flicking on his medic persona, Wade outlined, "So, Nathan's nearly good as new, Strongeagle's unscathed and I'm as golden as ever. So us three humping it out of here's not in question. But you two…."

"We've had worse," Dean and Sam said in unison, didn't bother fighting the matching smirks as they looked at one another.

"Somehow I knew you'd say that. And since I knew offering up common sense solutions like stretchers and ambulances would be a waste of breath, I'm going to go set up the ropes, turn them more into a pulley system…" When Dean opened his mouth to deny he needed to be lifted out of the cave like a friggin' girl, Wade cut across his inhale, raised his voice so it echoed across the cave "…for Strongeagle. For an Indian, the guy's hopelessly inept at surviving outside of an office environment."

"Hey, I heard that!" Greg retorted, stopping his hasty shoving of his possession in his backpack to glare at the medic's back.

"You were supposed to," Wade sing songed back, winking at Dean, which earned him a small chuckle from the other man before it turned into a groan of pain.

"Whoa, take it easy," Sam worriedly cautioned, watching as Dean braced his arm against his side and bowed forward to try and alleviate his pain. Winced himself as he raised his arm to give Dean's shoulder a squeeze, the arm attached to the shoulder that had had a knife blade piercing it a day ago.

Shaking his head at the sorry state of his friends, Wade unzipped his medic bag he had had the forethought to snag before coming to the brothers' side and dug out some bandages to stop the bleeding. Knowing in his gut that Dean would obstinately refuse to be tended to before his brother, Wade purposefully turned to Sam, wasn't expecting the younger man to flinch away when he merely tried to shift his jacket to get a look at his bleeding shoulder wound. Like a punch to his gut, he knew Sam's reaction wasn't about pain, was about trust. That any relief his medical knowledge could afford the wounded man came in as a long second compared to the reassuring touch of someone that Sam had complete faith in, of someone that Sam knew would safeguard his vulnerability, never exploit it. It was how Wade had felt around Oliver, why his brother had known him best of all…because he had always trusted his brother to never hurt him.

Seeing the mortification in Sam's eyes for his unintended recoil, Wade simply gave a soft smile in return. "Yeah, you know I should get to work on the ropes. Besides, I'm guessing this won't be the first time you've patched each other." He didn't wait for acknowledgement from either brother before he stood up and headed toward the tunnel that would lead to the cave opening. Understood that some healing was best left between family.

His head still bowed, Dean said, "Wade not wanting to play Dr. Quinn, that's a first," having missed the byplay between the medic and his brother.

Not wanting to enlighten Dean, Sam did one of his brother's tactics: insult to deflect attention from the real issue. "With a patient like you, it's not surprising he's given up his Hippocratic Oath to do no harm."

"Nice, kick a guy while he's down." Dean grumbled, trying to shift into a position less painful and quickly determining there probably wasn't one. Thanks to Paytah and his love for throwing him against every wall in the cave, there wasn't a part of his body that seemed in good working order. Hit with the knowledge of how badly he felt, he suddenly started to give Sam a meticulous visual onceover, to see the harm done to his brother, because, yeah some he had helplessly witnessed but there was the worry of what Sam had endured the few times when Dean had blacked out. But to his relief, Sam didn't have any outward bruises on his face and, though he was moving a bit stiffly and his shoulder wound was apparently bleeding again, his brother didn't seem to have provoked Paytah's sick brand of bromance like he had.

As if sensing Dean's thoughts that went along with his big brother's obvious inspection of his injuries, Sam reacted with a sad grimace and an almost bitter reassurance. "I'm ok. Paytah was having too much fun bonding with you to pay me much attention."

Dean forced a cocky drawl into his tired words. "It's my curse for being so charming," felt his efforts were worth it when Sam snorted.

"Yeah, I'm sure that's why, on every job, there's someone who wants to smash your head in," Sam retorted, wished he was exaggerating. But that was part of his duty, to recognize if anyone was a threat and stand between them and Dean. 'Yeah, by the looks of Dean, that worked so well this time," he chastised himself, knew that he had done a piss poor job of protecting Dean, physically and emotionally, lately.

"Jealousy doesn't become you, Sammy," Dean smart mouthed, having no clue where his brother's thoughts were at that moment. Probably wouldn't believe it if Sam confessed to them either.

"Yeah, and blood doesn't become you," Sam parried, scooping up one of the bandages Wade had left behind, sweeping it across the cut on Dean's throat before pressing it to Dean's still bleeding head wound. Dean made a groan of protest but Sam preempted his brother's intention to dislodge his hold by grabbing Dean's right wrist …and guiding Dean's hand to the bandage. "Keep pressure on that," he commanded.

"I know how to stop the bleeding, Sam," Dean moodily volleyed back but kept his hand where Sam had positioned it.

With Dean's attention and perchance to protest any acts of nurturing diverted, Sam lifted Dean's shirt and saw the blood soaked bandage wrapped around Dean's waist. He winced in sympathy …right before he picked up another bandage and mercilessly applied pressure to the site of his brother's arrow wound to try and stop the bleeding.

To his credit, Dean didn't cry out like he had every right to. Instead his breath caught, his teeth clenched and his left hand flew from the ground to latch onto Sam's thigh as an anchor against the onslaught of agony. It made him realize that some of his ribs might be bruised, if not cracked. No need to clue Sam into that though.

Badly wanting to offer Dean comfort, to not let Dean drown in the pain he was seemingly pitilessly doling out to him, Sam cupped the back of Dean's neck with his left hand, rubbed his thumb in the ends of his brother's hair and leaned close. "I gotta slow the bleeding," he choked out, apology and desperation and guilt coiled in the declaration.

Squeezing his eyes shut, hoping tears of pain didn't escape, Dean wheezed back, "Know," because he was familiar with the medical practice Sam was adhering to…and that his brother hated to hurt him, even when he did it for a good purpose. Even when he followed his own path in life that left a hole in Dean's heart he had never been able to fill. Hurting him, it had never been Sam's goal, not when he left him behind at 18 and not right here, right now. He knew that now, trusted that truth like he hadn't before. Because, unlike Wanikiya, he knew that Sam, if he believed his life was in real danger, would have never left his side, had come back time after time to save his butt when things had fallen apart: Dad vanishing, the Scarecrow fiasco, Gordon holding him hostage. Sam had even come back from comas, insanity, soullessness and even death, and all, in one way or another, to save his big brother. Because Sam valued him, loved him, forgave him for all the wrongs he had done to him, for all the loved ones Dean had cost him.

Opening his eyes, Dean met Sam's worried gaze, wanted some way to tell Sam all that. "You're not like him, Sam. You never were."

Sam's breath caught in his lungs and his hand fell from Dean's neck like he suddenly felt unworthy of the contact. In shame, he looked away from Dean, knew that the similarities between his choices and Wanikiya's were brutally clear, that Dean had seen them too, no matter the absolution his big brother was offering. "Dean, I shouldn't have….."

"What? Stabbed Cas in the back when he was going all God –complex?" Dean's purposely misinterpreted Sam's unfinished declaration, which had Sam's startled gaze snapping up to his. "Came after me when Gordon had me, knowing it was a trap, that he wanted to kill you? That you shouldn't have broken down and started brainstorming with Lucy to find me before Jeffrey sacrificed me to revive his sick, possessed bromance?" Dean smirked. "Yeah, I agree."

Knowing what Dean was doing, what Dean was offering, Sam couldn't greedily take it, not like it was something easily given, or that he deserved. "I've made decisions that hurt you and I'm sorry. You have to believe me that I'm sorry."

"I know you are," Dean earnestly accepted, raising his hand to give Sam's chest a pat before his fingers coiled in his brother's shirt, hung on as he made his own confession. "Like I'm sorry for the crap I've put you through. For needing….."

But Sam didn't need to hear his brother apologize for needing him, for wanting him with him. It wasn't something that should ever be apologized for, not when it was what kept him alive, kept him finding reasons to smile. "To hog all the attention yourself," he interjected, his forehead crinkling in a not-so-fake reprimand. "You wouldn't look like you just crawled out of a ten car pile-up if you hadn't insisted that Paytah direct all his love your way. And your freakish need to taunt every fugly to kill you?! I've had it with that move, Dean. Next time you do that, they won't have the chance to make good on it because I'll do the job for them," a little heat coming into his tone because, didn't Dean know what a chill that put down his spine, his brother taunting something to kill him.

Dean started to object but Sam aired out another of his pet peeves.

"And if we're playing the 'you-shouldn't-have-done-that' game, I wouldn't have had to stab Cas in the back if you hadn't gone after him without me, didn't incite him to try his new godlike powers of smiting on you. Then there's you ingesting the phoenix ash in the friggin' "hope" that Eve would try and take a bite out of you. Tackling Chronos instead of, oh. I don't know, shooting him. Trusting Garth, of all people, to have your back on a hunt when I was whammied by Becky. Not to mention…"

Before Sam could add more offences to his list, Dean steely growled, "You done?" a clear threat of 'you better be' in the unflinching gaze pinning Sam.

"No," Sam mulishly retorted but soon a twinkle sparked in his eyes. "But I guess I can save the rest of the list for another time."

"Oh goodie, something to look forward to," Dean sarcastically drawled, knew that Sam probably wasn't lying about picking up his lecture on a later date. Releasing his hold on Sam's shirt, he dropped it to his brother's right forearm and gave it a little tug to try and pull his brother's hand away from his wounded side. "I think this is good, you can stand down Florence Nightingale," meaning Sam could cease and desist on the pressure he had on his side, that it was time for the roles to be reversed.

Wanting to protest but, at the same time, instinctively wanting to trust Dean's decisions, Sam eased up on the pressure he exacted on Dean's side, lifted the bandage and noted that no new blood was welling up in the hospital donned bandage. That Dean was right. "I should wrap it…" he began but Dean cut him off.

"We both know Wade's going to insist on playing prima donna paramedic when we get back to town. Where he'll undo your pretty work and probably criticize your form," Dean predicted, not with frustration but amusement, had come to know the medic was even more of a mother hen than Sam. Ok, more of a mother hen than he tolerated from Sam. After all, the big brother / little brother status quo had to be maintained.

Exhaling, Sam dully nodded, knew that Dean had allowed all the fussing he was going to accept from him. 'Stupid, macho jerk,' he affectionately mumbled in his head.

"Take off your coat," Dean commanded the next second, shut down Sam's resistance with a sharp, "I wasn't asking, Sam." Because it was bad enough that Sam had seen to his injuries first, that he hadn't rallied his strength enough to insist Sam's were tended before his own.

Recognizing Dean's standard, 'I'm-the-big-brother-and-I-take-care-of-you-whether-you-get-pissy-about-it-or-not' tone, Sam sighed and started to shrug out of his coat. He hissed in pain as he tried to move his wounded shoulder enough to free his arm of the jacket sleeve. Instantly his brother's familiar hands were there, stilling his movements and tugging his sleeve free. Then his brother ripped his t-shirt from the collar down to uncover his shoulder. As Dean's deft fingers probed the bandage that mirrored Dean's blood soaked one, Sam grumbled like a five year old, "You owe me a shirt."

Scowling at the heat coming from his brother's shoulder and the saturated bandage, Dean returned Sam's ministration of a few moments ago, pressed a fresh bandage against his brother's shoulder even as he quipped, "Sure, if you promise to wear whatever shirt I buy you." Clenched his teeth at Sam's sharp inhale at the pain he was inflicted on him, all for the sake of brotherly love.

Breathing though his nose, it took Sam a few seconds to tramp down the scream bubbling up inside, aching to be released, before he managed to almost evenly reply to Dean's setup. "Yeah, I don't think so. Last time you went clothing shopping you bought me a shirt with a huge, hot pink peace sign on it."

"Come on, you loved it. You are the long haired hippy in the family," Dean grinned.

Simultaneously, the brothers' attention shifted to the company they sensed approaching.

"Good to know that you don't harbor prejudice just against us red skins," Strongeagle directed at Dean with a wide smile. Knew that it was his euphoric high of having survived and not failed his friends or his heritage that was causing him to drop the reserve and fear he usually felt around the two Winchesters.

Surprisingly, it was Sam who saucily supplied before Dean could, "Dean's an equal opportunity insulter."

Instead of taking offense, Dean brazenly gloated, "What can I say, some of us have a way with words."

"And psycho ghosts making you their BFFs, that's probably a byproduct of that talent," Wade conjectured as he joined the gathering, Nathan at his side.

Sam's laughter echoed in the cave. Dean gave a playful shove to his uninjured shoulder for clearly taking sides against him.

Allegiance to Dean came from an unlikely source.

"By the standards of seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, you friending Dean like a fanboy puts you two moves away from Paytah's BFF pool," Nathan helpfully pointed out to his BFF. Dean and Sam watched in amusement as Nathan laughingly dodged out of range of Wade's hand, skillfully avoided a slap to his cheek.

Shifting nervously on his feet as he gave the cave contours a wary glance, Strongeagle interjected a dash of reality into the other men's hilarity. "I know we sent Paytah and his bro away but this cave, it could retain some residual power."

Sobering, Sam nodded his head, felt that tinge of something too. And whatever other ghosts remained here, they seemed at peace and he wanted them to stay that way. "Yeah, let's get out of here." And he made to reach for Dean, to help his brother get off the ground but Wade was already beating him to the punchline, was bending down and wrapping his arm, not around Dean's wounded waist but around Dean's shoulders. Pulling Dean's arm over his own shoulders, Wade carefully but surely got Dean onto their feet.

Sam almost started when he realized Nathan was bending down beside him, was giving him an assessing look. But there was something else there in the deputy's gaze. "You doing ok?" Nathan quietly asked, the words intended for Sam's ears only.

And Sam almost answered flippantly, until he saw compassion and worry in Nathan's gaze, understood that the deputy had been there in the cave the whole time, listening. That Nathan had heard the exchange between Paytah and Wanikiya and he and Dean, feared that the words, the comparisons had left an indelible mark on him. 'Instead if feels like they healed me. And that's because of Dean.' "It might seem strange but…I'm really good."

Though Sam expected a look of disbelief, Nathan instead smiled and coiled an arm around his waist and hauled him slowly to his feet, said quietly, "It's official, I'm never playing poker with your brother." Because Dean's bluff to Paytah about not forgiving Sam, he had bought into it…had only harbored a sliver of doubt when he had looked to Sam, worriedly wondering how the man was taking his brother's resentment. But what he had seen reassured him. The younger man hadn't been on the precipice of shattering, was instead calm, determined and fiercely watching every move Paytah made around his brother.

A surge of pride at Dean's ever impressive skills of deception went through Sam. "Then you're smarter than a lot of people who've lost a boatload of money to Dean."

"Yeah and I'm not ever threatening you…at least not in front of him," Nathan added to his 'never-gonna- do-'cause-I-want-to-live' list. Because he was really pretty sure that no one else could have taken the abuse Dean had and still be breathing. Heck, it seemed Dean welcomed the pommeling, if it meant Paytah was leaving his brother alone.

"Dude, I can take care of myself," Sam shot back a little indignant.

"Sure you can. But if it comes down to you protecting yourself or Dean, I know where my money's at," Nathan said, not with reprimand but approval. "And Dean's defaults are exactly the same. So I believe it now."

When Nathan didn't clarify, Sam prodded, "Believe what?"

Steadily holding Sam's gaze, Nathan earnestly answered, "That story you told Strongeagle, about Dean being gone…dead. You're both devoted enough to die to save one another and stubborn enough to tell Death to 'go stick it' to get back to each other."

A bittersweet smile emerged on Sam's features. "You were right…you're not such a bad Zen master. Before long you'll be sporting a monk robe."

Nathan chuckled at their running inside joke. "I admit, it's good to have a career to fall back on…but for now, I'm sticking with law enforcement."

"With an occasional dash of ghost hunting?" Sam roguishly goaded.

"Crap, I hope not," Nathan candidly declared. Then, putting action to words, he followed Strongeagle, Wade and Dean's lead and steered Sam toward the tunnel that would lead them to the cave opening. And from there, it was topside and out of the realm of the undead. 'And from here on out, I'm swearing off horror movies,' Nathan vowed and he didn't think even the blonde bombshell from the sexual harassment seminar had a shot at changing his mind.


Even with Wade's pulley system that allowed Dean to lazily sit in the slack of the rope and got hauled out of the cave, Dean was on the verge of cashing in his bravado and simply collapsing onto the pine needles underfoot by the time Nathan helped him make the child's sized leap from the pulley up to the forest floor. He might have followed through on that wish if not for the certainty that Sam wouldn't budge either, that his weakness would delay his brother's wound getting treated. So he let Nathan guide him to the big rock and, ironically, took up nearly the same exact repose Sam had days ago, after his near drowning. 'If I don't see another forest or cave again, it will be too soon. And if Sam's crazy enough to want to go hiking ever again, he's on his own, regardless if he gets shanghaied into another whammied wedding.'

Felt a smidgeon of jealousy when Sam latched onto Nathan's hand and hopped out of the cave opening with something akin to alacrity. "Show off," he muttered under his breath but poured on a close mouthed, insincere smile at Sam's approach.

"What?" Sam asked, sensed the mockery in his brother's greeting.

"Nothing." But Dean couldn't help tease as he jerked his chin back toward the hole. "That seemed like a publicity shot back there. Timmy pulled from a well and he's all honky dory."

Instead of taking offense at his brother's jab, Sam exhaled and looked down to his reclining brother with sympathy. "I see right through you, man. Like I always do. You pretending to be pissed at me for being less hurt than you are is just code for 'you're in pain, so not happy to be a forest and dreading moving, ever again.'" But Sam left out the thing he was most certain of: that his brother wasn't pissed at him for being ok, but relieved. 'Big softie.'

Surprisingly, Dean didn't offer a denial but a petulant demand. "Stay out of my head, Sammy."

Though his eyes tightened in worry that Dean didn't try to deny he was right, Sam shot back, "Trust me Dean, the last place I want to be is in your head." Taking a chummy position at Dean's side, Sam rested against the rock and tilted his head back, could just see some stars and moonlight ghosting through the foliage overhead. He drew in a deep breath of clear, green air.

Dean knew that, it was no coincidence, Sam slipping to his uninjured side, his brother letting his shoulder lightly rest against his own. Sam was practically spelling it out: that he needed the connection between them right now, wanted it. He didn't mirror Sam's star gazing, instead he studied his brother's profile. "You do know that you jumped right in front of a wall of fire…to save Wanikiya, who it turned out, wasn't worth your efforts."

Eyebrows arching in surprise, Sam looked to Dean, hadn't thought about his fear of fire, had only thought of what needed to be done, the way to defeat Paytah, that his and Dean's chances to survive were tied in with Wanikiya's. Shrugging, Sam said, "I didn't think about it, just knew that if Paytah defeated Wanikiya, we were screwed."

Dean sagely nodded. "Well, I think we can officially strike pyrophobia off your list." Shared a look with Sam that hinted at how proud he was of his brother. But he didn't let Sam reveal in his victory for long. "Next to work off your fear factor are clowns, midgets, and greasy foods."

"Ha ha," Sam muttered but he was barely managing to hold back a smirk, watched as Dean's features became sober and his brother looked into the woods, fell into a thousand yard stare of sightlessness. Before Sam could ask him about it, Dean offered up a hurt, nearly inaudible declaration. "He didn't come."

At first, Sam almost asked who didn't come. Ten seconds later, the truth slammed into him like a runaway freight train: Bobby. Bobby hadn't come to them in the cave. They had tittered on the very edge of dying and no friendly specter had come to save them. "Dean…" Sam hoarsely started, wanted to ease the pain of harsh truth for Dean, was even willing to make up excuses, to do almost anything to wipe the surge of grief bleeding off of Dean.

But Dean didn't give him the change. Drawing in a deep breath, he expertly stowed his emotions away like he did his weapons and gave Sam a lighthearted guise of chagrin. "This field trip officially sucked. Next time, don't forge Dad's signature on our permission slips, Sammy."

For a moment, Sam almost shot down Dean's deflection, stuck to his guns and talked about what needed to be talked about, until he saw the small plea in Dean's eyes, understood his brother's burning need to let it go, to not talk about Bobby, not here, not now, not when they weren't alone, when they both had injuries siphoning their strength and a not-so-leisurely walk ahead of them to get back to the car. "No, no, don't lay this one me," he affably denied. "I'm the one that didn't even want you out of the hospital. It was your stubbornness that forced this little midnight excursion."

"Ok, you're right….but you're the idiot who followed me out here," Dean smugly volleyed back, only too glad to turn the blame back on Sam.

"I wasn't alone," Sam pointed out, nodding his head toward Wade, Nathan and Strongeagle, who wasn't too proud to be hoisted up by Wade's pulley. But when Sam's eyes alighted on Dean, they were serious, had a message Sam was desperate for Dean to get, to accept. Then he used his words, took that leap, risked falling flat on his face. "Besides, what I regret, it isn't the times I followed you. It's the times I didn't."

"Sam, don't," Dean hoarsely refuted, knew that, Sam following his lead had sent them traveling down a dark road, had led them places that had cost them everything and everyone. "The horrible choices I've made….."

"For yourself, yes," Sam cut in, couldn't forgive Dean for sentencing himself to hell, for the thousand and one risks his brother took that could mean his death or his condemnation. "But your choices whenever it came to me…I know you only wanted the best for me."

"Good intentions…road to hell…any of that coming to mind?" Dean scathingly retorted.

"But you tried Dean, you always tried to give me the best, to save everyone, every time," Sam earnestly declared, needing Dean to see himself the way he saw him.

But there was just bitterness in Dean's voice. "Trying, that's just great, doesn't bring Bobby back, doesn't undo your hell stint…or mine, doesn't undo the cage opening or Leviathans running lose."

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, Edmund Burke said that," Sam quietly quoted, eyes fixed on his brother's profile. "You've never sat back and did nothing, Dean. Not when I've been in danger…or anyone else. And I know they haven't been all wins, especially lately, but we're still fighting, making the other side pay dearly for their victories. And we're still together. I can't think of anything more worthwhile to fight for than that."

Dean's face soften as he accepted Sam's words, his brother's pardon for his shortcoming and his praise for the few things he'd done right. Turning to Sam, he knew he should offer gratitude for that loyalty but he was afraid the words would get tangled up in his throat, that the admission, it would crumble the fortifications he had erected around his heart since Bobby's death. So instead he teased, "That quote, that's your mantra every time I wake you up on in the middle of the night for a hunt and you don't want to get up, isn't it?"

An embarrassed flush broke across Sam's features before a guilty confession made him look younger than his years. "It's between that and "I've got to make the donuts"," his lips quirking up.

Clapping his brother on the back, Dean laughed. "Quoting the "Boondock Saints" movie and a Dunken Donuts commercial for inspiration, I love it."

"Boondock Saints, Dean? The 'for good men to do nothing' quote is a literary quote from…" Sam began to correct.

"The "Boondock Saints"," Dean insisted. "The priest says it. I know my saint movie Sammy."

With a put upon look of frustration, Sam muttered affably, "I don't know why I try to bring culture into your life."

"Hey, you're the one that doesn't appreciate a good "Godzilla" movie," Dean quipped.

Walking up to the brothers at that point in their conversation, Wade drawled, "I hate to break up this heavy conversation about movies, but we're ready to move the troops out." Pretending that he hadn't looked over a few minutes ago and seen their strained expressions, had chosen to not interrupt their soul searching unless Paytah made a reappearance.

Dean pointed a warning finger to Wade. "Do not get all commando on me."

Nathan came to stand at Wade's shoulder. "Yeah, ease up, Wade," Nathan instructed as if he were defending Dean but his roguish smile hinted at things to come. "He likes to be cajoled into complying to other's wishes…by song dedications and flowers and …" he laughed as Dean kicked some underbrush his way. "But I think we need to start off with something a little jazzier than the lullaby his Sammy sent him."

"Soon you will be begging for your mommy to sing you a lullaby," Dean growled, but knew by Nathan's grin that his threat wasn't being taken seriously.

Instead of offering words of repentance, Nathan broke into song. "That's the sound of the men working on the chain gang." Wade's eyeroll didn't deter Nathan as the deputy tugged Sam to his feet, steadied the man before putting them in motion, the light from his flashlight cutting through the forest untouched by the moonlight. He left moody Dean to Wade's special ministrations.

Pushing off the rock and enduring Wade's octopus handed grip on him as they started following in Nathan and Sam's wake, Dean grumbled, "Tell me he isn't going to sing the whole way…."

"All day long they work so hard 'til the sun is going down," Nathan sang over Dean's protest.

Dean called ahead to his brother. "Sam, what do you know …the freaks really do come out at night."

Taking the hint, Nathan fell silent, but Strongeagle, bringing up the rear of the entourage, had felt a certain amount of safety in the noise, especially when he turned around and found only darkness lurking at his back. "99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer…" Strongeagle began, his voice cutting through the creepy night sounds.

But Dean wasn't a happy camper, wasn't about to join in the round. "Tell me I didn't survive tonight just to die of ruptured eardrums."

In defiance, Wade started up the next round of singing, "Take me out to the ball game…"

"Come on, at least sing something with a good beat," Dean whined, grimaced as his foot didn't quite clear a tree root and he tripped, had to lean more fully against Wade to keep himself upright.

Sam, not wanting to be left out of torturing Dean, not to mention looking for any way to distract his older brother from the pain Sam knew he was in, began to sing a song Dean begrudgingly liked. "On a warm summer's eve, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with the Gambler…"

When Sam's voice joined the ranks of karaoke, Dean knew his resolve was in jeopardy of crumbling, when he recognized the song, he knew he was a goner. Consoling himself with the knowledge that he had done far more pathetic things for his brother than a sing along, that sometimes 'if you can't beat them, join them' was the only way to go, Dean lent his voice to the foursome in a semblance of harmony.

"We were both too tried to sleep. So we took a turn staring off, out the window, at the darkness until boredom over took us and he began to speak…"

Their voices rose as they broke out into the well-known chorus of the song.

"You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run, you never count your money when you're sitting at the table. There will be time enough for counting, when the dealing's done."

With an echo of Kenny Rogers' lyrics in their wake, they cut a path through the forest and out of the darkness. And if there was a man flickering into existence in the cave, his eyes eagerly searching for the sight of two men he loved like sons, there was no one there to see him…or to hear his curse of "balls".

Fading away, Bobby found himself back in the storage unit, returned to his tether once again, that friggin' flask he wasn't sure he loved right then or really hated. He had no such trouble defining his emotions when it came to the Winchesters.

"Be safe, you idgits," he sent out the command to the two hunters, but knew that, even if Dean and Sam weren't playing things safe, they were together and that certainty was more than enough to settle his nerves. Resigned, he claimed a seat on a dusty box of hoodoo charms and waited, knew that sooner or later, his adopted sons would return to the flask…and to him.

"The things I do for you two," he grumbled but there wasn't a speck of honest regret in his tone, because, a little time out in a musty storage unit, or even an eternity of ghost walking, his boys were worth all of it. Always had been, always would be.




Thanks for reading and for those of you so kind to encourage me with your lovely reviews!

Oh and in case there's any doubts, I do not own any rights to The Gambler, Working on a Chain Gang, Take me out to the Ballgame, or 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, nor am I making any profit from those songs. (But wouldn't it be great if I was?!)

One chapter to go and, you'll be relieved to know, it's all written, just needs some tweaking. So the end is in sight?!

Have a Wonderful Day!

Cheryl W.