Title: The Weight of Us
Fandom: Supernatural
Author: gaelicspirit
Characters: Dean, Sam
Disclaimer/Warning: They're not mine. More's the pity. Title of the story comes from a song of the same name by Sanders Bohlke. Give it a listen. Rated PG-13 for language.

Summary: Missing scene/tag to 8.14, Trial and Error. Some errors have been too great, some trials too costly. Losing his brother is not an option, not this time, not when he can do something about it.

Author's Note: You got me – I wanted there to be more to Dean's Hellhound wound than we saw. But I also needed to further explore the events that led up to Sam being the brother to complete the trials that close the Hell Gates.

Though we've now seen 8.15, I wrote this pretending I hadn't, so hopefully that works for you. Also, apologies; this was written quickly and for catharsis. I hope you'll indulge a little blatant h/c with some angstishness. (What? It's kind of a word….) Terry, thank you as always for being my sanity check...as ironic as that is. *wink*


There's a cold heart, buried beneath,
and warm blood, running deep.
Secrets - are mine to keep
protected by silent sleep.
I'm not ready; I'm not ready
for the weight of us….

The Weight of Us by Sanders Bohlke

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The glasses work perfectly.

Part of him wishes he'd known about this handy Jesus-juice trick years ago; he thinks he'd like to have seen Hell's bitches coming for him back in Indiana when his deal went down. Maybe then he wouldn't have been as terrified. Maybe then he'd have been able to brace himself for the horrific pain of his body being ripped apart. Maybe then he wouldn't have screamed as loud.

As he stands in the doorway of the barn, the corners further shadowed by a trick of moonlight, Dean sees the Hellhound's wet muzzle, beady eyes, and strange, fur-less body in the slipstream image offered by the treated glasses. He feels his belly tighten as the muscles along the creature's shoulders ripple and he knows that his screams would have been louder had he seen this thing coming for him.

"So you're Crowley's bitch." He ignores the slight tremor in his voice. "I guess pets really do look like their owners."

The hound lowers its front end to the ground, looking as if it actually heard, understood, and took offense to Dean's effort at bolstering his own bravery. Dean pulls the demon-killing knife from beneath his coat and braces himself; he has to force himself to breathe, to swallow, to blink. He's afraid.

He has to remember that this fight is for both of them – for him and for Sam.

He has to remember that this isn't like before: they aren't here for him. They might rip him up and but they aren't going to drag him to Hell. They aren't going to corner him in a barren piece of Purgatory and try to eat him for dinner.

He has to remember that this is the start of it all: if he passes this test he can end it all. Everything he's spent his life fighting for, everything he's tried so hard to protect Sam from, everything he's simply had to survive, no matter the pain, no matter the heartache. He can end this just as his father had tried to do years ago with Old Yellow Eyes.

And even if he dies, Sam will be safe. Sam will go on. And Dean will have finally, finally done something right. He will have done his one job and will deserve the rest that's granted him.

The problem, though, is that the glasses work too well and his memories are still too fresh and he's so focused on the terror in front of him that he doesn't hear the creature's partner approach from behind until it's nearly on top of him.

Dean half-turns, body moving on muscle memory to compensate for the fear that slows his quicksilver brain, but he's not fast enough. The Hellhound behind him lunges out a massive paw, claws extended and razor-sharp, slamming into him with the strength of a freight train, though it looks as though it's swatting a fly.

Dean feels time slow, watches the claws rake him, digging into his flesh and ripping him open just as before. The pain is white-hot, intense, and scarily familiar. It floods his senses, blinds him and turns his blood at once ice-cold, then raging hot.

The force of the blow sends him flying across the open barn aisle, crashing against a stall and some stacks of hay. His breath vacates his body in a mad exodus and his strength leaves him; he feels the knife tumble from his grasp, but can do nothing about it as he lays stunned, trying desperately to pull in air. It takes a moment for him to feel the burn of the wounds on his side; he tries to push himself upright and the pain of it shoots through him like an electric current causing him to cry out.

Instinctively, he reaches for the searing pain and pulls a trembling hand away, covered in blood. His eyes dart from the knife several feet from his body, to the glasses laying in the other direction, but he doesn't need glasses with special Hell-vision to see the hounds, he realizes. He can see their breath puffing out from their muzzles in short, angry bursts as they slowly close in.

And it doesn't matter if they're not here for him.

And it doesn't matter if this isn't like the last time.

He wasn't going to beat them; he was never meant to beat them.

Dean tries to breathe, tries to swallow, tries to blink, but finds all he is able to do is stare at the void that will be his end once more.

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Sam stared out into the night, watching, waiting.

Dean had told him to stay inside, stay safe, stay out of sight. He'd said it with such visceral authority that Sam had instinctively obeyed. He'd heard the truth in Dean's words fall against the air between them like a judge's gavel. He'd seen the acceptance in Dean's eyes and had been stunned into submission.

Quietly, he'd stayed inside, watching through the window for any sign of trouble, subconsciously listening for the sound of his brother's screams.

As long as I'm around, nothing bad's gonna happen to you.

There had been so much he'd screwed up over the last few years – not all of it within his control, but that didn't mean he didn't carry around the weight of it. There were things he'd meant to do, things he should have done, things he considered, and yet here he was, letting his brother face down Hellhounds – the same creatures he'd witnessed literally rip Dean to pieces – just to keep Sam safe.

I couldn't live with you dead, man.

He listened to the Cassity family snipe at each other, their words meant to wound, their tone lacking any of the grief he knew it should hold after losing two people in the span of two nights. It was like acid on his heart, burning holes through him as the time ticked down, stretching out until it felt like Dean had been gone for years, not minutes.

Take care of my wheels…remember what Dad taught you, remember what I taught you.

Alice broke free, running out of the room, through the house, into the night. Sam followed close on her heels, not willing to let one of his ungrateful charges die just because he didn't check to see if her handcuff was tight enough. He caught up to her at her car, turning her back toward the house.

And that's when he saw it.

The Hellhound was skulking around the side of the barn, bigger than he'd imagined, deadly as he'd believed. Dean was in that barn; Sam knew it in his bones. He was in there, ready to take on this trial, facing it down as he'd faced everything in his life.

As he'd faced Hell.

I'm here, Sammy, I'm here. I'm not gonna leave you. I'm not gonna leave you.

He couldn't do this.

He couldn't just sit safe and let Dean face these things alone – Dean, who had always been there for him, always come for him even when Sam had pushed him away, even when he'd beat him bloody.

Dean, who had sacrificed his soul to bring Sam back to life; who had found him against all odds just before Lucifer rose; who had allowed himself to be beaten and broken just so that Sam wouldn't be alone with Lucifer at the end; who had made a deal with Death to retrieve Sam's soul from the Cage; who had been the one to stake Roman and survive a year in Purgatory.

Not this, Sam thought, staring at the giant, shadowy hound. Not this, not now.

Dean knew how this would end, accepted that dying for the sake of saving Sam was a good ending for him.

Sam gripped Alice's arm too hard and shoved her toward the house, yelling at her to get inside and stay there. He was not going to let this thing take his brother – now or ultimately at the end of the trials. Dean deserved better than that.

And Sam needed to be the one to show him.

Gripping his shotgun, he started toward the barn at a slow run, breathing shallow, sweat gathering along his hairline. Time seemed to slow down as his brain worked to formulate a plan that wouldn't get them both killed.

Sam, I am your flesh and blood brother. I am the only one who can legitimately kick your ass in real time. You got away. We got you out, Sammy. Believe in that. You gotta believe in that. Make it Stone Number One and build on it.

There were moments in life when disagreements, hurt feelings, and differing viewpoints just didn't matter anymore. There were times when all that counted was that they were brothers. When the reasons behind choices were buried in the past and the reality was that they were still there, still standing, still breathing.

And Sam planned to keep it that way.

Dean had pulled him back from the edge. He'd not only saved his life, his soul, but he'd saved his sanity. He'd found a way to ground him, balance him, and he'd forced Sam to hold on to that reality until he was able to heal his own fractured mind. There were things Dean had survived that Sam still didn't know the extent of, and there was no way Sam was going to let his brother go out thinking that all he was good for was supernatural cannon fodder.

He paused at the open barn door, closing his eyes and steadying his breath. His hands shook around the weapon; he was allowing his mind too much power over his actions. He had to shove these thoughts away; he had to get a grip.

This was right; this was the only choice he had.

Because if he let Dean fight this fight alone while he stayed behind, protected once more, the guilt would kill him. He'd let himself believe that Dean had died along with Dick Roman and Castiel. He'd let himself believe that when Crowley said he was alone, he meant they were truly gone.

He hadn't looked for Dean.

He'd never considered Purgatory as an option and he'd written his brother off. The weight of that choice was nearly unbearable to this day. For awhile he'd thought that if he could just escape back into the make-believe life he'd had with Amelia he could forget again. He could pretend again.

But Dean was back, a flesh-and-blood reminder that it was all make-believe. Everything Sam had tried to escape into was false. He couldn't even talk with Dean about it; he didn't have the words. There was nothing inside of him that could explain what it had been like to break the way he had, to believe himself to being completely alone and to give up on everything he'd known, all his life, and run. He hadn't been able to run far enough, fast enough. He had turned his back on his past, on his brother, on his job, on any left-over destiny the fates could conjure.

It had all been a lie. Dean had been alive all that time. Alive and waiting for Sam to find him. He had failed Dean then. He couldn't let that happen again, even if Dean believed this to be the right choice. He couldn't let him fight this alone, not now.

His brother's scream of pain broke through his trance and Sam turned the corner, his Holy Fire-treated glasses revealing to him the horrifying scene. He could see Dean crumpled on the ground, curled on his side, his glasses and weapon out of his reach. He could see two Hellhounds closing in; neither had seen Sam yet.

He had to act fast.

Moving automatically, he emptied both barrels into the far hound, watching as it jerked and fell back in a spray of blood. As the second one looked up at him, Sam dropped the shotgun and dove for Dean's demon-killing knife. He rolled, grappling with the large beast as it lunged for him. Desperation and adrenalin fueled his strength and he gripped the hound by the throat, struggling to keep its deadly teeth from his face as its fetid breath washed over him.

With a hefty, frantic thrust, he shoved the blade of the knife deep into the creature's jugular, grimacing as the hot, black blood sprayed out over him. Pulling the blade down, he opened up the Hellhound's belly, exposing its heart and feeling it shake as it died over him. After a moment he realized it no longer fought him. Sam heaved it aside, lying back, soaked in the creature's blood, gasping for breath.

He dropped his arms to his sides, too weary suddenly to hold them up, and looked toward where Dean lay. He saw his brother holding his bleeding side, his eyes laced with pain and a knowing that grabbed Sam's heart. In that moment he had a sense that he'd both saved Dean and damned him. Dean's face folded in pain and he dropped his head back, his legs sliding in the dirt of the barn floor.

"Dean," Sam gasped, his voice carrying a rough, screamed hoarse edge.

Dean didn't reply. Didn't move.

Sam rolled to his side, his T-shirt wet and sticky with Hellhound blood, clinging to the contours of his torso, his wet hair slapping limply against his cheek. Pulling his legs under him he crawled the short distance to his brother, putting a tentative hand on Dean's knee.

"Hey, man," Sam tried again, making his way up toward Dean's face.

His brother's eyes were closed, dark lashes lying like bruises against his pale skin. Sam pulled his glasses off and dropped them in the dirt next to Dean, reaching out with a hand black with Hellhound blood and tapped Dean's cool cheek.

"Dean?"

Dean's lashes fluttered and Sam watched him work to come back, a gasp of pain accompanying his opening eyes.

"Easy," Sam said softly. "Lemme look."

Dean wasn't quite coherent; he allowed Sam to move his heavy hand away from his side and pull up his shredded T-shirt. Sam grimaced as he took in Dean's torn flesh and the blood that spilled from the four deep cuts, turning the dirt beneath him to a muddy paste.

Sam's vision swam, remembering for a brief moment that night when he'd pulled Dean's bloody, shattered body toward him, Hellhound wounds having opened him up and taken everything.

"Damn," Sam muttered. "Gonna need to stitch this up quick."

"What the hell…."

Dean's semi-incoherent mutter washed over Sam like warm water. He looked back up at his brother's face.

"Hey," he said, gripping Dean's chin and turning his brother's face toward him, "you with me?"

"Goddammit, Sammy," Dean growled through gritted teeth. "Fuckin' Hellhounds."

"You got that right," Sam nodded, the smell of the hound's blood starting to turn his stomach. "Can you sit up? Need to get you inside."

"'S it dead?"

"Yeah, it's dead, man."

At that, Dean looked at him, the pain simply a shadowy figure lurking in the corner of his eyes. In that one glance there was denial, acceptance, fear, anger, and gratitude. Sam caught his breath, not for the first time wondering how his brother could so obviously feel so many things at the same time and never say one word.

"Sammy…," Dean tried, but the pain rushed back quickly and Sam watched him roll his eyes closed, pressing his lips tight against his teeth.

"C'mon," Sam grunted, gripping Dean's shoulders and helping his brother curl forward. "Let's get you patched up before you yell at me."

Dean gripped Sam's arm tight enough to bruise as Sam leveraged him to his knees, allowing him to catch his breath.

"Told you to stay inside," Dean growled.

Sam wiped the Hellhound blood from his hand and positioned himself on Dean's right side.

"Alice got out," he tried to explain. "And I saw one of the Hellhounds go into the barn."

"I had it," Dean gasped, pushing himself to his feet, his words wheezing out through clenched teeth, "under control."

"I can see that," Sam returned.

"Sonofabitch," Dean muttered, grabbing his side as they stepped forward. "Forgot how much these fuckers hurt."

Sam felt bile burn the back of his throat, thinking once more of that horrible Indiana night. "Not like you got much of a chance to deal with the wounds last time," Sam said, hefting Dean up against him.

He could feel Dean starting to shake; he knew they had to get him inside and get him attention before his body went into shock.

"What? What are you talkin' about?" Dean breathed, slinging one arm over Sam's shoulders, the other pressed tight to his side.

"Th-that night," Sam forced out, holding the arm across his shoulders tight and moving Dean forward at a quicker pace. "The night you went to Hell."

He heard Dean swallow and looked at his brother's pale face in the moonlight. Dean wasn't the type to get sick from the pain; that was usually Sam. He saw Dean dart a quick tongue across his dry lips.

"Wasn't the last time…I ran into these bitches…," Dean ground out.

"What do you…?" Sam glanced over his shoulder at the seemingly empty barn aisle. Without his glasses, he could see nothing but two pools of blood.

"Where do you…think…these bitches go when we kill them, huh, Sammy?"

Purgatory, Sam realized. Monster Hell. He suddenly felt light-headed.

Dean nodded toward Ellie's room and Sam moved them in that direction pounding on the door when they reached it.

"Ellie, open the door," Dean rasped, sounding like a war-weary drill sergeant.

Sam heard the lock slowly turn and Ellie opened the door enough to peek out, her large, brown eyes blinking up at them owlishly, slowly taking in their bloody appearance.

"Is it…are they…gone?" She asked, her voice shaking.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, they're gone."

"Can you…let us in?" Dean asked, and Sam felt his weight increase slightly.

Ellie stepped back, opening the door wide enough Sam could haul Dean inside. They made their way to her bed and Sam eased his brother down on the edge. He started to step away, but realized that Dean was still gripping his arm. Dean didn't look up, but Sam could see enough of his brother's face to read the tightness there.

"Ellie, I need you to get me some stuff," Sam said, not looking away from Dean.

"Sure, what?" Ellie asked, her voice small.

"Need, uh…some rags, soap, water. Needle and thread. Antiseptic. Bandages."

He heard Ellie shift her feet, but kept his eyes on Dean.

"Shouldn't…I mean, there's a hospital just—"

"It's okay, Ellie," Dean said quietly, his voice rolling between them like honey and seeming to soothe Ellie like a calming hand on a skittish colt.

Sam heard her leave and only then did Dean allow himself to be eased back on the bed.

"You're a friggin' mess, man," Dean mumbled, eyes on the black gunk that coated Sam's shirt, arms, hands.

"Yeah," Sam nodded. "I stink, too," he added.

Dean arched his neck a little as a wave a pain struck him. "And how's that different from any other day?"

"Ha friggin' ha," Sam muttered, turning to open the door when he heard Ellie kick at the base, her arms full.

He used one of the wet rags to clean his hands, then set the supplies next to Dean's side, rolling his brother's bloody shirt up to expose the claw marks.

"Oh, Jesus," Ellie breathed. "I think…I need some air."

"'S okay," Dean forced out, keeping his eyes closed. "Give us a minute. Won't take long."

Sam offered Ellie a tight smile, then focused on cleaning the blood and dirt from Dean's side with the soap and water Ellie had delivered. One cut along his ribs wasn't that deep, one had a decent flap of skin loose, and the other two dug into the meat below his ribs. He took a breath and positioned a towel beneath Dean's side, opening the bottle of antiseptic.

"You ready for this?" He asked his brother.

"No," Dean growled, fisting his hands in the quilt beneath him. "But do it anyway."

Sam had lost count of how many times they'd stitched each other up. It seemed he'd always managed to get the broken bones while Dean suffered the blood loss. If Dean still bore all the scars he'd accumulated pre-Hell, Sam knew, his brother's skin would be a road map of his past with enough crooked lines to put Rand McNally to shame.

"On three, okay?" Sam told him. "One, two…," he poured the antiseptic over the wounds, feeling his own muscles tighten in sympathy as Dean arched his back and tried to hold his scream of pain behind clenched teeth.

Sam paused a moment, dabbing at the flap of skin with a wet towel and used his forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow as Dean's breath hammered in and out through his tight lips. He could hear Dean's slight keen in the back-beat of each breath and knew he had to get this over with quickly. He poured the rest of the antiseptic and Dean wasn't able to keep the scream quiet.

"Argh, fuck…son of a bitch! God damn that hurts…!" Dean punched at the mattress, digging his heels into the bed, mud, hay and a little bit of blood smearing on the quilt.

"Okay, okay," Sam said, setting the bottle aside and dabbing at the wound with the wet towel. "Worst part is over."

Dean was muttering, eyes closed, face turned away, but Sam knew he wasn't saying anything that needed to be heard. He wish he had been able to give his brother something to dull the pain, but that was a luxury they could rarely afford and not when they needed to get their asses out of here as quickly as possible. Sam lifted the towel and saw that the skin, while torn, looked as clean as he could get it with these supplies.

"I gotta stitch a few of these up, okay?"

"I got a choice?"

"Not really," Sam shrugged.

He burned the tip of the needle with Dean's lighter to sterilize it, then began to sew. Dean's fist twisted and he tightened his grip on the material beneath him until he pulled the quilt out of where Ellie had tucked it beneath the mattress. Sam could see the sweat gather on his brother's upper lip.

"You fought Hellhounds in Purgatory?" Sam suddenly blurted out. He'd been trying to think of something to talk about to distract Dean; that hadn't been what he was planning on saying.

"Yeah," Dean grunted, not giving Sam anything more.

"How did you…?" Survive, he wanted to say, but that question was too broad when it came to the topic of Purgatory and Sam realized he didn't know if he wanted to hear the answer.

Dean blinked at him through eyelashes beaded with sweat. "Wasn't alone, Sam."

Sam swallowed, not taking it further. He had two more cuts to stitch up and they both needed his hands steady.

"Guys?" Ellie's voice came at them tentatively from the doorway.

"Not quite finished, here, Ellie," Sam told her.

"It's okay," she replied, and he heard her shut the door behind her. "I forgot tape. I think I'm okay now."

Sam just nodded once, finishing up the stitches quickly and setting the bloody towels aside. Dean reached out his hand, wanting to sit up. Sam steadied him at the edge of the bed, and then blinked in surprised when Dean pushed to his feet. There was something in the lines of his face that troubled Sam, but with Ellie in the room, he knew he wouldn't get it out of his brother.

"Think you can help me bandage this while he cleans up?" Dean asked Ellie, slowly rotating to give her his stitched-up side.

Sam looked at the girl and was surprised to see her nod quickly, her hands visibly steadying as she gently placed the gauze patch over Dean's ribs, holding it in place as she tore the medical tape with her teeth, securing the bandage in place. As she worked, Sam could see her posture relaxing, becoming steadier, more balanced.

He stepped back, picking up one of the spare wet rags, and began to wipe the black blood from his upper arms and neck, watching his brother. Dean still looked pale and Sam could see the sweat running down his neck from his hairline, but his stance was squared off and he held still as Ellie worked. Dean had clearly picked up on the fact that actually doing something – something to help – was giving Ellie the time she needed to regroup.

Dean had always had the ability to read people inside of a second and decide if he cared enough to give them what they needed to feel secure. With this girl, he apparently did. She finished off the tape and straightened up, looking troubled.

"I still think you need a hospital," she said grimly.

Sam agreed, but knew there was no way in hell Dean would agree; not to mention, how would they explain the cuts? Renegade lion? Dean pressed his hand gently against his side and let his T-shirt fall.

"I've had worse," he said, his voice losing some of the strangled sound of before.

Ellie glanced Sam's way.

"It's true," Sam agreed, reluctantly. "He's had worse."

Leaning against Ellie's dresser, Sam listened as Dean told her they would make a hex bag for her. She would have to run, he said. And Sam knew she'd never be able to stop; the only way to keep the Hellhounds from her tail was to make sure Crowley never found her.

"So, no going to Hell?" Ellie asked, sounding young, scared, and hopeful at once.

Sam watched Dean's smile bubble up from a reserve deep inside. Somehow, Dean managed to keep his voice steady and sure as he replied, "Not on my watch."

He glanced over at Sam, met his brother's eyes and asked Ellie to give them a moment. Something about his tone told her not to argue and Sam held still as she stepped from the room. He watched Dean closely, saw how stiffly his brother held himself, knew that his outward I got this appearance hid an abyss of pain and exhaustion.

Sam pushed away from the dresser and crossed the room to Dean.

"You know," he pointed out, "even if Ellie avoids Crowley, her soul is ear-marked for Hell."

Dean shook his head once, keeping his right arm close to his side. "Not if we shut it down first."

Just as Sam was about to question what it really meant, closing the gates of Hell, he saw Dean pull out the note card Kevin had given them and his heart fell.

"It's not going to work for you, Dean," he said quietly.

Dean ignored him, reading the Enochian words awkwardly, without the familiar ebb and flow of the Latin spells they've recited over the years. The world around them was silent, still, even though both looked briefly up and around, wondering.

Sam sighed and Dean shook his head again.

"Doesn't matter. We'll track down another one of those sonsabitches and I'll kill it."

"No!" Sam felt the word burst from him, unbidden. The idea of Dean fighting another Hellhound was just…no.

"I didn't pass the test, Sam!"

"But I did!" Sam faced his brother, ignoring the way Dean listed to one side and focused only on the heat in his brother's eyes. "And I'm doing the rest of them. I'm closing the gates." Dean's eyes narrowed and his lips parted in protest. "It's a suicide mission for you!" Sam exclaimed.

"Sam—"

But Sam was warming to the topic. His tangled thoughts finally coalesced and solidified, heavy and vibrant, the answer dancing before his eyes.

"I want to shut Hell down, too. But I want to survive it. I want to live. And so should you." He wanted to reach out, to grab Dean's arm, to connect to him somehow, but Dean held himself so still Sam was afraid if he breathed on him sideways he'd shatter. "You have friends up here. Family. Hell, you even got your own room now." Dean glanced away and Sam plowed forward. "You are right; I see light at the end of this tunnel and I'm sorry you don't. But it's there. And if you come with me, I can take you to it."

Sam watched his brother listen to him, watched him resist. He knew Dean didn't want to hear him, didn't want this to happen. He knew Dean didn't want him to be right. Logic didn't matter to his brother in this moment; Dean was action. He needed to be the one to do something.

But this time, so did Sam. And Dean couldn't save him from it. He could only save him from everything else.

"Sam, be smart."

Sam felt his blood heat up, finally, finally knowing what to say, how to combat Dean's poison-truthed words to him about dying bloody, his only happy ending the knowledge that Sam would grow old and have grandkids.

"I am smart. And so are you. You're not a grunt, Dean. You're a genius! When it comes to lore...," he spread his hands wide, searching for something Dean would believe, something he'd trust coming from Sam's mouth as honesty and not simply candy-coated words that would take his mission from him. "You're the best damn hunter I've ever seen. Better than me, better than Dad. I believe in you, Dean. So, please, please, believe in me, too."

Dean looked away, swallowing hard. Sam watched his profile, watched him breathe.

He wanted to say more, wanted to pour words over Dean so that his brother would hear him say more than I can do this. So that he would hear the loneliness of the year apart, the heartsick pain and fear that climbed into Sam's bones as he stood alone in that lab. He wanted to find a way to tell his brother that he couldn't lose Dean anymore than Dean could lose Sam.

You almost died tonight, Sam thought, watching his brother. Let me do this to try to keep you safe…for once at least try to keep you safe.

Sam could see that Dean's breath was rapid, his arm tight against his side, the hand that held the spell trembling slightly. He wanted to reach out and take the note card, just take the decision out of Dean's hands, be he knew if he did that he would be fighting Dean on this until the end. He had to gain his brother's trust or they would never get through this.

Dean slowly held out the note card with the reluctance of a man facing a firing squad. Sam took it quickly before Dean could change his mind and read the spell, the Enochian words sounding no more at home in his mouth than they had in Dean's.

The pain hit him so suddenly that at first he couldn't think. It exploded outward from his center, like he'd been hit in the gut by the hand of God. He stumbled, turning away from Dean, desperate for his brother not to see. His right hand hit the floor, instinctively keeping him from falling face first, and that's when his blood caught on fire.

Or, at least, that's what it felt like. Dimly he heard Dean calling his name and he sent up a desperate plea that Dean not come close, not touch him, not see.

Because his arm was glowing.

He could see his veins, his bones, the tiny cells that comprised his seven layers of skin. He could see it all with a brilliant, painful light that spread from his forearm to his hand and then disappeared and with it the gut-wrenching pain that had taken him to his knees in the first place. He didn't move for a moment, his body weak and shaking as if he'd survived a near-miss.

Which, he thought, he basically had. He'd passed a test designed by God. And according to Kevin, he had to not fear danger or death. The danger part he had covered, but death…Dean didn't fear death. In fact, he welcomed it. Sam, though…he had literally just said he wanted to live. He knew enough to fear death, and he wondered for a terrifying moment if he'd just made a really awful mistake.

Pushing to his feet, he turned to face his brother, trying to regulate his breath. Dean's face was a tapestry of fear, uncertainty, pain, and regret. Sam shoved any doubt he had about taking this on deep into his gut, a trick he'd picked up from Dean, and gave his brother a tremulous smile.

"I'm good. I got this."

Dean continued to frown at him, raking his eyes, large with worry, over Sam's face. If Sam hadn't been watching his brother so closely for signs of doubt, he didn't think he'd have seen how Dean swayed on his feet, reaching out subtly to grip the edge of the dresser and balance himself.

"You okay?" Sam asked, finally getting his breath back.

"Uh, I think that's my line."

"I told you. I got this."

"You looked like you just took a line drive to the solar plexus, man." Dean's brows met across the bridge of his nose. "What happened?"

In the space of a heartbeat, Sam made his decision. If he told Dean the truth, he'd have to face his brother looking to take back over the trials. Not out of doubt that Sam could complete them; out of the need to protect him from having to. And Sam had to do this. But he had learned from experience that he had to lace his lies with enough truth Dean wouldn't quickly see the through it.

"It was," Sam swallowed, thinking quickly, "like a surge. A power surge."

Dean pulled his chin up. "Power surge, huh? You Ironman now or something?"

Sam rolled his eyes, half turning from him. He caught Dean's slight grin.

"Seriously, try to zap something with the palm of your hand."

"Shut up," Sam grumbled good naturedly while wondering if Dean had seen any of that glowing-hand thing. "We need to get out of here."

"Gotta make Ellie a hex bag fir—whoa," Dean stepped away from the dresser and nearly face-planted as his knees vanished on him. He managed to grab the bed frame quickly but not before his face lost most of its color.

Sam was next to him instantly. "Sit down."

"'M okay," Dean protested, pushing Sam's hands away.

"Yeah, and I'm Betty White's pool boy," Sam muttered, shoving Dean into a sitting position on the bed. "I'll make the damn hex bag. You just sit there."

Dean glanced up at him. "Dude. Betty White?"

"Hey, she's pretty spry for a ninety-year-old."

Dean looked back down. "Your head is one scary place."

Sam stepped to the door and called out to Ellie. He was going to need her help to get the hex bag ingredients. She looked over at Dean who sat obediently on the edge of her bed, his head lowered, breathing slowly. Sam suspected that knew what she'd rather be doing, but as that wasn't possible in the moment, Sam put her to work.

He left Dean sitting on the edge of the bed and grabbed their bags from the bunkhouse. He got a clean set of clothes out of their duffels and was able to find everything he needed for the hex bag except cayenne pepper. He sent Ellie into the house to get it and told her to unlock the other Cassitys. She wasn't going to be staying at the farm long in any case. He peeled off his Hellhound-blood soaked T-shirt and tugged on a clean one, layering it with a hoodie that still smelled like the dryer sheets they'd snagged from a lady in the Laundromat.

"Here," he said to his brother, holding out a Dean's favorite grey Henley.

Sighing, Dean straightened up, pulling his shredded T-shirt over his head by reaching back between his shoulder blades. His jeans were crusty with his blood as well, so Sam tossed a clean pair next to him on the bed. Before Dean could pull the Henley over his head, Ellie returned. Sam looked away the moment he saw her eyes hit Dean's bare chest.

"I…um, I got the cayenne pepper," she said, moving quickly away from Dean.

Dean sighed, pulling on his clean shirt and grabbing his jeans. He handed them back to Sam without a glance, the message clear: wearing bloody jeans was preferable to teasing this girl any longer. He stood slowly and crossed the room to Ellie, putting his hand on her shoulder and turning her to face him.

"You're gonna be okay, you hear me?"

She nodded silently, her eyes large and scared.

"I'm serious," Dean said, and Sam saw his fingers flex into Ellie's shoulder, grabbing her attention. "You sold your soul to save your mother. That takes guts. Anyone who can do that? Can survive anything."

Dean's words were meant for Ellie, but Sam felt them hit his heart. He knew Dean didn't think about the fact that he'd done that very thing for him; that the same should be true of him. He could survive anything. Hadn't he proved it already? Hell, Purgatory….

The fact that Dean felt these trials would be the end of him made Sam even more certain of his choice.

"You think so?" Ellie asked tentatively.

Dean held his hand out expectantly and Sam placed the hex bag in it. Dean handed the bag to Ellie, wrapping his large hands around hers.

"I know so."

"Thanks," she whispered, then impulsively, as if afraid if she didn't do it quickly she wouldn't do it at all, she reached up and hugged Dean, nearly knocking him backwards with the force of her hug. Sam watched as Dean hesitantly closed his arms around her slim form, then gently pushed her away.

"Take care of yourself, Ellie," Dean smiled, then glanced at Sam.

They headed out of the small room, past the open barn door and the expansive back porch, light from the large house illuminating and framing the Cassity's who stood like warning gargoyles, and made their way toward the Impala. It was on the tip of Sam's tongue to ask for the car keys, but with that group watching them, he knew it would be easier to just leave.

They slid into the Chevy, closing their doors in unison, and Sam heard his brother exhale when once more wrapped in the welcoming arms of the Impala. Dean started her up and they drove past the manicured lawns and PVC fencing, through the gates yawning open for their exit. It was nearly 300 miles to the hideout – or Batcave as Dean had dubbed it.

Sam wasn't sure either of them would make it that far before the events of this hunt caught up with them.

www

His side has its own heartbeat.

The thrum of it beats in time with the rumble of the Impala's engine, one beating a soft, familiar cadence against his back and legs, the other a sharp, intense pressure against his ribs and into his lungs. And damn but he's tired. He hasn't closed his eyes since they pulled through those fancy-assed Cassity Farm gates.

The problem isn't exhaustion. It's not even the wound. Not really. He's handled pain before; more than Sam knows about, more than he'll ever reveal.

The problem is that he failed. He failed and now Sam was in the line of fire. Sam was at risk. He's literally put himself through Hell to prevent that and now….

"You alright, man?"

"Fine," Dean replies, not wanting to delve further into his thoughts, still trying to figure out why he handed Sam that damn spell.

"You want to pull over?"

Dean darts a look at his brother. Sam killed a Hellhound. Dean knows from personal experience how much energy that takes. Add to that the weird two-minute gasping spell that followed the Enochian recitation and Dean is worried.

"Why, do you?"

Sam gives him that look – the one that says stop turning this around on me – and sighs.

"If it gets you to rest a bit, then yes."

"I'm good to get back—" He almost says home. It is still poised on the edge of his tongue.

"The, uh…bunker," Sam supplies, "is still over two hours away. If you don't want to stop, how about I drive?"

"I'm okay, Sam," Dean replies, biting the inside of his lip as his side throbs.

He can make two hours. He can do almost anything for two hours. He held out against a Hellhound attack – sans magic specs – for longer than that in Purgatory.

What he can't do is find a way to make himself okay with the fact that he just handed his little brother a free pass to death's main event because of some pretty words about being worth something. If John were still alive he'd have Dean's head on a platter for this one. Protecting Sam has always been his job and he's been screwing that up three ways from Sunday for so many years – since the damn angels came down and started to pull their puppet strings.

He didn't realize those words had been so close to the surface until he piled them on Sam, but they were true. He felt them long before Purgatory. Long before they lost Bobby. He knew he was going to end bloody the moment he stood face to face with Death. But he also knew that if anything good came out of that fate, it would be Sam living on. It was the one thing he'd held onto as he survived in Purgatory: Sam was out there, in the world, alive.

Dean shifts uncomfortably in the seat, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. The white lines on the road to his left begin to blur until they are no longer separate stripes but one long, continuous seam. Dust motes fly at the windshield and glance away, the night seeming to part and allow them passage.

He will simply not let Sam out of his sight, he decides. It's that simple. If Sam is going to do these trials, pass God's tests, then Dean will be in front of him clearing a path, behind him watching his back. He will flank both sides and keep his gun at the ready. There was no way God was going to go easy on the Winchester boys. This was going to be something out of a fucking Greek tragedy.

"Whoa, hey, easy, Dean," Sam is saying. "You want to take us back in time or something?"

"What?" Dean looks over, confused.

"You're going like ninety, man," Sam points out, his fingers pressing into the door frame and seat between them. "Slow it down a little."

Dean eases off the gas pedal. He's sweating, the pain in his side climbing until he can feel it in his shoulder, in his jaw, chipping away at his temple with a diamond-studded pick axe. He feels Sam watching him, so he shifts in his seat once more, trying to find a more comfortable position. He knows he can do a mental countdown for when Sam will either ask him if he's okay, or try to bring up something else to distract him.

Something like Hellhounds in Purgatory. Something like lights at the ends of tunnels. Something like Sam doing the job Dean should be doing. Sam doesn't even want to be hunting. He doesn't even want to be here.

And yet Sam's the one who killed the Hellhound and bathed in its blood. Dean can't help it; he presses his hand against his side, feeling the heat there.

"You want to drive?" he asks quietly.

"Yes," Sam replies without hesitation.

It's a dark road on a dark night. When Dean pulls over and steps out, the chill wraps around him, not even starlight present to cut the black. He pauses at the trunk of the car – Sam having simply slid across the seat – and breathes in the night. He feels the cold climb into him, cooling his tangled thoughts, soothing his troubled heart.

His brother is a hunter. A fighter. It doesn't matter what he once said he wanted, it matters what he's doing. Sam is here. He's here and he's in this. He's in this and he wants Dean to live. Wants him to survive to come out on the other side of this.

"Dean?"

"Comin'," Dean replies, moving from the quiet cold of the night into the waiting warmth of the Impala. God, he's so tired. There is just nowhere he can rest.

"You good?" Sam asks, meaning so many things with two words.

"Hit it." Dean tells him, slouching low in the passenger seat and rolling his head to rest against the window.

He doesn't give Sam a hard time about his choice in music; he lets the sound of the slow guitar and the unfamiliar, smoke-ragged voice lull him into a comfortable doze.

"If I said I was sorry would you forget the things I've done? I don't know why I even worry; I don't believe in anyone. 'Cause in my sleep I'm still running from the demons and the ghosts, that in the night I hear coming…they're coming back for what I stole. 'Cause I am a killing man…."

He's back in the forest, his clothes so dirty they've become part of him. He's running, running so fast, so hard his side is folding up, lungs catching on his bones, air a betrayal of promise.

The first one came at them from out of nowhere, the only warning the sound of breaking branches and forest debris. He swung his axe, embedding it into the invisible heart of the Hellhound, but the second rushed them, slamming Benny to the ground before Dean is able to pull his axe free.

"Run!" Benny yells, and Dean obeys, knowing first-hand how this will turn out if he doesn't.

He can hear it behind him, its breath wetly huffing with each stride, its massive paws – he knows without seeing that they are massive; he remembers how they tore into his flesh, ripping him from life – crunching against the fallen leaves as it pursues him. He needs only to get to the tree; if he can get to it and climb, he can wait until help arrives.

But the Hellhound is to close and he only gets one leg up before it swipes at him and he feels it tear through the skin and muscle of his calf. He screams, his leg hanging wet with blood, useless in aiding his escape. He curses the beast, finding the strength to heave his body higher into the branches, words flowing from his lips like they might have power beyond releasing his energy. He wants to cry from the pain and frustration - it's so wrong, all of this, all of this, is so wrong – but he's forgotten how.

Pain is now simply another way to gauge time.

He perches in the tree, his leg bleeding, no way to stop it, watching as the leaves below him shift, the ground sinking beneath the weight of the Hellhound as it circles beneath him, waiting him out. He remembers shooting the ones that attacked Jo and wondering if this is one he killed. He grabs a smaller branch from above him and aims, throwing it with force enough to draw a bleat of pain from the invisible mouth of the hound.

He waits, tearing the edge of his filthy T-shirt free and wrapping it around his calf, trying to stem the flow of blood. The cuts burn – turning his blood to liquid fire and making him work to slow his breathing. He knows Benny isn't far away; he just has to wait…just wait long enough that the vampire can bring the weapons….

"Dean!"

He jerks, startled, looking around. It doesn't register yet that they've stopped moving, that the car is quiet, and that his door is open. He is confused, bleary, trying to figure out why he's looking at Sam and not Benny wielding the big-assed axe that saved his hide so many times over that long year.

"We're here, man."

Here. Dean blinks, looking beyond Sam. Right. The Batcave. Time to regroup.

"You want some help?" Sam asks him, his words wrapping around a tone that is both concerned and irritated.

Dean gets it; Sam's tired, too. After all, Hellhound, right? Trials and all that. Damn, his side hurts.

"I got it," he replies, gripping the door and pulling himself to his feet.

Sam shuts the door behind him. Dean doesn't bother to go for his duffel; no one will find the Impala where they've parked it – he can wait until morning to gather his stuff. Right now he wants nothing more than the cool of his room and the softness of the memory foam mattress. He waits silently while Sam unlocks the door, then enters, tripping over the threshold and catching himself on the door frame.

His legs aren't working so good. He needs to do something about that. Later.

"You sure you're okay?" Sam asks him again and for one irrational moment Dean wants to tape his mouth shut.

Or punch him.

Maybe punch him, knock him out, tape him up, stuff him in a closet so that he's safe and Dean can corner another one of those Hell bitches and start this damn process over again the right way.

The way that doesn't equal Dean living with the knot of what if curled tight in his gut.

"Dean?"

"I said I'm fine, man," Dean snaps, pushing Sam out of the way and stumbling down the stairs. "Leave it alone."

He makes his way past the long library table, bouncing against two of the chairs in the process, the sound of their heavy wooden legs against the cement floor echoes loudly in the empty, tomb-like room.

Dammit, gotta get those legs figured out. Not gonna help things much if he can't stay ahead of whatever comes at them. Need to be ready, always ready. Sleep will help. That's all he needs. Some sleep and then he'll talk some sense into Sam tomorrow.

He forgets for a moment which way to turn down the long hallway to get to his room, but memory clicks and in moments he's through the doorway, sinking down onto the mattress. He wants to pull the blankets back, take off his boots, but his body is throbbing, his heart having moved down to his side.

On a slow exhale he closes his eyes and works to blank everything out—

The thing is trying to climb the damn tree, invisible jaws snapping. He can see its claws marking the base of the tree as the perpetual gray of the sky begins to grow darker, night drawing close. Dean curses. Night always brings out more of the crazies and dealing with this one, weaponless, was bad enough.

He hears it snuff against the tree, throwing its body at the base hard enough to shake the limb Dean is perched on.

"Dammit, Benny," he growls into the growing night. "Where the hell are you?"

He's starting to weaken; he can feel it in the tremble of his arms, the pins-and-needles sensation in his fingertips. The run, the wound, the blood loss, the weight of his own body is drawing him down. He can't pass out; if he loses his grip, the hound will tear him apart. And the only place to go if he dies in Purgatory is Hell.

He's been there already.

"Benny!" he yells. Nothing. No sound save the growing vehemence from the creature below him.

Sinking against the trunk, breath rasping out roughly against his dry throat, he whispers, "Cas. Please. I know you're out there somewhere. Please."

And then he sees them: eyes, glowing unnaturally against the darkness. Impossibly blue, impossibly bright, coming his way….

www

A little voice inside Sam's head told him to follow his brother as he watched Dean make his way through the library, stumbling against the table. He knew Dean was tired – hell, they were both tired – but the voice nagged him to check that wound one more time, make sure he was okay.

He'd ignored that voice in the past and Dean had been fine. Maybe this was one of those times. Besides, Sam still hadn't quite figured out what that whole glowy-arm thing meant. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't more than a little freaked out by that. Was something happening to him again? Something changing inside of him like it had with Azazel's blood? Part of him wanted to talk to Dean about it, but he was almost more afraid of Dean's reaction than he was of whatever was happening. Really, all he wanted was to change his clothes, get some coffee, and haul a couple of books back to the room he'd staked out off of the telegraph station.

Surely there was something in this massive Men of Letters library about trials designed by God.

He'd gotten as far as the change of clothes and the coffee and was eyeing several variations of Biblical translations and lore when he first heard Dean cry out. It sounded like a curse, a rather angry one at that. He wondered if his brother had really gone to sleep, or if he were working on his own solution to this next series of tests they'd be facing.

Because, Sam knew, even if he were the one physically passing these tests, there was no doubt in his mind that they'd be facing the trials together despite his best efforts. He wanted to keep Dean from kamikaze-ing his way through to a bloody end; he didn't want to keep Dean away from them entirely.

Sam knew damn well that he wouldn't survive much without his brother running interference. It had been that way all his life; no reason it would change now.

Setting down the tome he'd pulled off the topmost shelf, Sam paused, listening for more protestations. If Dean really were working on something more than likely he'd wander out to find Sam and grumble about whatever it was had made him curse. When he heard nothing else for a few moments, Sam started to wander slowly toward Dean's room. As he grew closer, he realized that he could hear sounds coming from Dean's room, but they weren't those of Dean looking through research, cleaning his guns, or even surfing porn sites.

These were sounds of distress – of a nightmare.

He rounded the corner and pulled up short, surprised to see Dean stretched out on his back, fully clothed, his face flushed and sweaty, brows knitted in fear or anger, Sam couldn't tell. His fists were once again twisted in the covers beneath him and his lips were pulled back in a grimace of pain.

"God dammit," Sam muttered, moving toward his brother quickly, cursing himself for ignoring the voice.

A hand to Dean's forehead told him what he needed to know: fever had taken hold quickly this time. Quick enough Sam figured Dean's defenses were already low to begin with. He pulled up his brother's shirt and saw that the wound wasn't bleeding through the bandage. Carefully pulling the tape free, though, he saw that the cuts were puffy, red, swollen, pulling at the stitches in some places, burying them in others.

"Dammit, Benny…where the hell are you…." Dean muttered, turning his head restlessly on the bed, one hand reaching for something Sam couldn't see.

Sam flinched at the name. He could only imagine where Dean's fevered brain retreated to; he knew his brother had fought alongside the vampire for a year in Purgatory. It shouldn't surprise him that Dean's nightmares would include Benny, but hearing Dean calling out that name in a tone that could only be described as a plea for help was unnerving.

He turned from the Dean's bed and headed to the side room where they'd stashed their supplies, ignoring the kick of jealousy deep in his gut. It didn't take him long to return with a basin of cool water, rags, a flask of Holy Water, antibiotic ointment, Tylenol, and pain meds. He set them down next to Dean's bed, frowning as his brother's restlessness increased.

"Please…." Dean whispered.

"Hey," Sam finally spoke, his voice rough from emotion and weariness. "Hey, open your eyes, Dean."

When Dean obeyed him, Sam blinked in surprise. It took him a moment to realize that Dean's pupils were blown so wide, he wasn't close to being conscious.

"Friggin' took you long enough," Dean all-but growled, his breath hammering out with every other word.

Sam took a breath, trying to think of the first thing he needed to do. If Dean were awake enough, he could get meds into him. That would be a start.

"Think you can sit up a little, man?" Sam carefully reached for Dean's right hand, not wanting to put too much pressure on the wound.

Dean was distracted, eyes open, searching for something – or someone – but he grabbed Sam's hand and allowed himself to be moved up higher in the bed.

"Here, Dean. Take these, okay?"

Sam worked Tylenol and pain meds between Dean's lips, tipping a bottle of water up and encouraging him to swallow. Dean coughed a bit, choking on the water, but he seemed to swallow everything okay. Next, Sam reached down for his brother's boots, pulling one off easily enough, but as he lifted Dean's other leg, his brother flinched, pulling back with a cry of protest.

Sam lifted his hands. Had he missed a wound?

He looked up at Dean's face and saw his brother's eyes were closed again, his head tilted back against the wall, his body slouching lower on the bed, unable to hold himself up.

"Dean?"

"I know you can see it…see those freaky eyes of your glowing…," the words rolled over each other, breathless and rapid and demanding, "…kill the damn thing…fuckin' take its head off…."

Sam returned to his task of removing Dean's boot, and after a thought, pulled Dean's jean cuff up a bit to expose his brother's calf. He could see four pink scars running down the length of Dean's leg, similar in dimension to the cuts Sam knew were on Dean's side.

"Son of a bitch," Sam whispered. Now he knew what was going on in Dean's head; he'd practically planted the dream with his questions of Purgatory. "Hey, Dean, it's okay, man. It's gonna be okay."

He hadn't thought of the Holy Water back at Ellie's. He hadn't needed it before and he was pretty sure Dean hadn't had any in Purgatory. But maybe wounds in Purgatory healed by different rules, how was he supposed to know. He pulled the sheets beneath Dean back and worked his brother's shirt off over his sweat-soaked hair.

Rolling a towel beneath Dean's side, Sam pulled the bandage completely free, then took a breath.

"This might sting a little," he warned his unconscious brother.

He began to pour the Holy Water over the wounds, but to his surprise with the exception of flinching from the cooler temperature of the water, Dean didn't react to the Holy Water. Unfortunately, neither did the wounds, Sam realized.

"So, not a supernatural infection," he grumbled. "Just a regular, gonna kick our ass, body breaking down on you infection. Friggin' swell."

Frowning, Sam patted the cuts dry. Dean flinched, hands twitching, body shivering. Sam carefully smoothed the antibiotic cream over the puffy areas, covering them back up with a clean bandage. Dean groaned in protest at the pressure on his wounds, trying to move away from Sam's touch.

"Easy…easy, Dean."

Dean arched his neck slightly, his back pushing up from the bed, trying to get away from the pain. Sam pressed cool clothes on his face, then laid another on his chest. Dean shivered, but Sam left them there.

"Hang in there man, it's okay…let those meds kick in."

Dean gritted his teeth, turning his face away from Sam, shifting and twisting in the sheets as if they were trapping him. His breath picked up speed as whatever he was fighting in his dreams took over.

"Gonna need your help…," Dean muttered, his brows pulled so close his forehead was a jumble of worry lines.

Sam swallowed hard; Dean wasn't talking to him, he knew, but it didn't matter. "I'm here, man. I'm not going anywhere."

"…can't do this alone…,"

Sam pulled the desk chair Dean had pilfered from the library toward the edge of the bed and placed another of the wet clothes on Dean's forehead.

"I know," he said sincerely. "Neither can I."

He looked at his brother's battered form, blood still caked on his jeans, sweat matting even his short hair to his flushed face. It had never been easy before, why would they think it would be any different this time? Sam sighed, leaning his elbows on his knees, carding his hair with his fingers as he curled his body forward.

"Sam…," Dean whispered.

Sam jerked his head up, starting at Dean's sweaty face. "Dean? You with me?"

"Sam." His eyebrows drew together and he looked...distressed.

Sam wrapped his fingers around his brother's forearm, frowning at the heat he felt there. "Hey."

But Dean didn't reply, simply grimaced and coiled his free hand into a fist. With his hand on Dean's arm, Sam could feel his brother start to shiver as a result of the fever. He was going to need to rummage through their supplies - maybe search the bunker one more time - and see what kinds of antibiotics they had on hand. Tylenol wasn't going to kick this one, not without back-up.

Sighing, Sam eased Dean out of his jeans, pulling the sheet up over his heated skin, then changed out the rags cooling Dean's forehead. For a fraction of a second, he thought of calling Bobby, asking him if he knew any tricks to combat infected Hellhound wounds, until he remembered and the pain in his heart kicked a sharp retort.

"I got you, though, don't I?" Sam said softly, watching as Dean stirred restlessly, legs twitching against the pain.

With a tired sigh, Sam left Dean's room to seek out supplies. He found what he was looking for in one of their spare duffels and darted quickly into his room to grab a pillow and blanket. He didn't want to be too far away when his brother's fever broke. Returning to his brother's side, Sam eased Dean's head up, coaxing him into swallowing the antibiotics, and helped him drink, all the while listening as Dean cursed his way through a battle that he'd survived without Sam by his side.

Sinking down along the wall next to Dean, Sam pulled his legs up, resting his elbows on the inverted V of his knees, and rested his forehead on the palm of his hand, his eyes on Dean's struggling form. It was going to be a long night.

www

He feels gritty. And sore. And weak.

As if he ran a marathon through the sand.

He opens his eyes slowly, skimming the room, getting his bearings. It takes him a minute to realize that he's not in Purgatory with its dirt and pain, he's not in the Impala with her rumble and smell of gunpowder and leather, he's not in some random motel room with water stains on the ceiling and mildew on the comforters.

He's in his own bedroom. In his own bed.

Rolling his head to the side, Dean sees Sam on the ground, wrapped in a blanket, long legs clad in sweatpants, mouth hanging open in sleep. He thinks he can't be comfortable down there, and wonders why Sam's not in his own bed.

Then he moves. And he remembers.

Lifting his sheet he sees that he's wearing nothing but his boxers and there's a large bandage on his left side. It comes back to him then: the Hellhound. The trials.

The fight in Purgatory that he and Benny had almost lost had just been a dream. The rest of it was real and Sam was now pitted against God's imagination and Dean was once more helpless to stop it.

He rubs at his eyes; they feel swollen, as if he's been crying. He wonders for a moment if he had. He remembers wanting to when he was trapped in that tree, but he hadn't been able to remember how. But, wait...that was a dream.

"Hey," Sam says on a stretch from the floor beneath him. "You're awake."

"Looks like," Dean replies, surprised at the rasp of his voice, rough from disuse. "How long was I out?"

"Almost two days." Sam pushes upright with a groan, his long hair spun around his head in a sleep cyclone.

"Days?" Dean repeats. No wonder he has to pee like a racehorse.

"Infection," Sam replies. "Couldn't get it to back off. Even dug into the library."

Dean cautiously pushes himself up higher in the bed, looking at the floor of his bedroom, now strewn with books, rags, empty water bottles, and some bandages.

"Wow," he says, clearing his throat. "The library. I'm touched."

"Your fever broke yesterday," Sam tells him, rolling his neck. Nothing like sleeping on a cement floor, Dean knows. "Guess we just had to ride this one out. Like regular people."

"You stay here the whole time?" Dean asks, dragging a hand down his face and feeling the prickly stubble on his cheeks.

"Well, yeah." Sam shrugs. "Wanted to make sure you didn't tear something, thrashing around like you were."

"Aw, Sammy. You ol' softie."

Sam rolls his eyes and pushes to his feet, multiple joints cracking. He finger-combs his tangled hair away from his face and tugs down the slightly-snug Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt he's clearly stolen from Dean's stash. Dean decides to let that one go.

"You think you could eat something?"

Dean nods, resting a hand on his tender side, remembering how the wound had burned, how it had felt like it was eating through his bones, how nothing seemed able to stop it from consuming him. He remembers another wound, from the same creature, and pulls his sheet back, sliding his leg up slightly to look at his calf.

It had been a dream…but it had also been real.

"You…uh…," Sam stops in the doorway and clears his throat. "You dreamed about that. A lot." His eyes are on Dean's scars. "You fought a Hellhound in Purgatory?" He asks and Dean realizes he's asked before, never receiving an answer.

"Yeah," Dean replies, hearing another echo in his memory. "Yeah, two of them."

Sam looks away, his face unreadable as he says, "And Benny was there."

Dean remembers seeing his friend's blue eyes glow unnaturally in the night. Remembers him approaching like the cavalry. Remembers Benny swinging the axe and missing. Remembers jumping from the tree to help and having his leg not hold him. Remembers Benny throwing him the axe, and yelling directions, seeing the creature with a monster's eyes. Remembers the feel of the hot, black blood spilling over his hands as he plunged the blade deep. Remembers Benny wrapping his wounded leg, throwing him over his shoulder, carrying him away from the battle zone. Carrying him to safety.

"Yeah, he was there. Saved my life."

Sam nods. Dean wonders how much he gave away while the fever held sway. Wonders what his brother is thinking in this moment.

"Sam?"

"It was going to kill you."

Dean is quiet, thinking of what Sam had seen in that barn, of what drove his brother to make the choice he had, ignoring Dean's words – Dean's orders, really – and following his gut. He knows that had the roles been reversed, he would have done the same thing.

"I thought...I didn't know, y'know…that you'd taken them out before."

Dean huffs out a laugh. He waves a hand at his leg. "Not like I walked away from that one." He tips his head slightly, trying to catch Sam's eyes. "And I wasn't alone, Sam."

"I know," Sam says quietly, clearly chewing on a thought.

"You're gonna choke. Spit it out already."

Sam looks at him and Dean forces himself to hold his brother's eyes, steady, strong, though he finds he's shivering from the inside out.

"I meant every word, Dean," Sam says as if he's claiming territory in a battle they'd not yet started to fight. "I can do these trials, man. But…," he looks away, pulls at his bottom lip. Dean recognizes this habit, knows it's Sam searching for the right words, waits him out. "I can't do it alone," he says finally. "And I want you to know that I know that."

Dean looks down. He does know. He doesn't want to know, but he does. It's just not enough for Sam to fight these battles with him. Sam's still in danger, still at risk. Dean needs to know that Sam is safe, that he's kept Sam safe. It's the only way he knows how to think about this.

"We've survived so much, man," Sam continues, the door opened now, the feelings spilling out. "It's like…like all this weight. We have to carry it, no matter what, y'know?"

Dean nods, still listening, wanting to separate himself from Sam's words, but unable to.

"We thought it would end with Yellow Eyes, but then there was Lilith and Lucifer and the angels and," Sam pauses pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closing for a moment, "the Cage. Now the gates of Hell…we just keep bearing the burden."

"It's what we do, Sammy," Dean says quietly, moving his legs to the side of the bed, thinking about standing. Every muscle in his body protests at once and he pauses, catching his breath. "It's why we're here."

"Yeah," Sam nods, looking up at him, and this time Dean sees conviction where moments ago he saw desperation. "Yeah, I know. And that's why I know we can do this. These trials. I can do them…if you're with me."

Dean sighs, looking down at the floor. He doesn't want to accept this, but he also doesn't want to live in a world where they had a chance to shut down the gates of Hell for good and didn't take it. It isn't the weight of the trails they are asked to carry that bows them, he knows. It's the weight of each other's sacrifices.

It's a weight that both ties them down and holds them up, a strange buoy of loyalty, need, and obligation.

It is a bond that keeps them alive and makes them willing to die.

He looks up, slowly, feeling the tired pull of each muscle, and gives his brother a small smile. He knows Sam has seen this smile before. Knows even before he sees it happen that Sam's shoulders will drop slightly, his chin will lift a bit and the lines around his eyes will smooth as he subconsciously relaxes into the knowledge that as long as there is air in Dean's lungs, he will do everything in his power to keep the darkness away.

"I'm here, Sammy," Dean says, keeping the smile in place. "I'm not gonna leave you."

Sam's eyes flinch slightly and Dean sees tears pool there. It's too much emotion for the moment and he finds he has to break it. "Weren't you gonna fix me something to eat?" He asks, furrowing his brows.

Sam pulled his head back with a grin. "Yeah, I think I could find something."

"Well, get on it, then." Dean needs to stand up. Get his balance. Remember where the bathroom is in this place. And he wants Sam gone when he tries these things. It was going to take some coordination after two days in bed. "I gotta build up my strength."

"Jeeze, you're bossy." Sam waves a hand at him and rolls his shoulder along the doorframe as he turns away.

"See if we still have some of that pie!"

"Yeah, yeah…," Sam's voice fades as he moves away from the room.

In the quiet of his room, Dean rests his elbows on his knees, eyes landing on the make-shift pallet Sam had been occupying when he woke, and runs his fingers through his gritty hair.

"I'm not gonna leave you," he whispers once more.


Playlist:

Killing Man by Jack Savoretti

a/n: I wanted to write this immediately after the episode aired, but Real Life had other plans for me. I realized I couldn't really approach anything else until I got it out of my system, so I thank you for indulging me if you chose to read.

Those of you who've asked, yes, I'm starting on my next SPN multichapter story, From Yesterday, featuring Brenna Kavanagh. Forewarned – it's an AU of the end of Season 5 and branches off into a different path for our boys from there. I hope you'll enjoy if you choose to read. Hopefully will begin posting in a few months.