It's been thirty minutes since John disappeared into the woods.
It's been another fifteen since Dean went after him.
Sam's face is pressed against the window, peering into the darkness beyond, desperately trying to see something, to hear something--a sign of life, a struggle, anything at all. There's nothing but the faint sound of a weak breeze blowing through the trees.
You boys come after me if I'm not back in fifteen, John had said.
Stay in the car, Sammy, Dean had said.
Sam glances at his watch again, hands itching and pulse racing. Stay in the car, Sammy. Except it's been fifteen minutes, which is way longer than it should take to dispose of a single Wendigo, even one as angry as this one.
Another minute ticks by, and Sam can't just sit here anymore. He takes a deep breath, grabs the six-shooter and the flare gun out of the glove compartment, before getting out of the car. The key is to stay calm, and Sam's breathing is loud in his own ears as he heads into the woods. His eyes are adjusted to the dark already, and he stays alert, tracking Dean as best he can.
He's not sure how much time has passed--minutes, maybe, though it feels longer--when he hears it. Faint grunting coming from somewhere to his right. He fights the impulse to break into a sprint, and instead focuses on keeping quiet. It was raining the night before, so the ground is wet beneath his sneakers. No dry leaves or branches to snap and crackle and announce his presence, thankfully.
The Wendigo has Dean by his neck, pinned up against a large pine tree. Dean's struggling to breathe and one of his arms is flailing vaguely in the direction of the Wendigo's torso, unable to reach. John is immobile on the ground, but even in the darkness Sam can see that he's alive. Unconscious, but otherwise seemingly unharmed.
If Sam's hands are shaking when he raises his guns, who can blame him?
"Hey!" he shouts. "Hey!"
Dean makes a wheezing sound that might have been Sam's name as the Wendigo's head turns, and for a second all Sam hears is the deafening screech the creature lets out. Fear is bubbling in Sam's chest and before he can think too much about it, before the Wendigo has a chance to move, Sam squeezes both eyes tightly shut and fires both guns at once.
When he opens his eyes again, the Wendigo's burning body is twitching on the ground, and Dean's on all fours, gasping harshly for air.
Sam's at his side in an instant and Dean puts an arm around his shoulders.
"Sammy," he rasps.
"Don't tell Dad," Sam pleads, glancing nervously at his father's still figure on the ground.
Dean frowns in confusion, and gulps in large breaths of air. "What?"
"Don't tell Dad I closed my eyes," Sam says quietly. "Can't aim if your eyes are closed. I didn't mean to!"
Dean just looks at Sam for a long while, his breathing slowly quieting down. "You did good, Sammy," he eventually says, voice still hoarse and raw. "I won't tell him."
It takes both of them to carry John's limp form back to the car.
Dean's severely dehydrated and weak as a kitten when Sam finds him, and although Bobby had said the curse should wear off in another few days, it's pretty alarming to see. As harmless as the curse may seem, Dean definitely wouldn't have had another couple of days, wandering lost in the mountains alone.
"Man, Sammy," Dean says as Sam kneels next to him and hands him a bottle of water. "Took you long enough."
The smirk on his face is all Dean, but it's missing most of its usual energy. "Shut up," Sam mutters. "Drink. We need to get out of here."
"It's the damndest thing," Dean says after swallowing half the water bottle in one gulp. "It's like, no matter what direction I pick, there's nothing but fog. Fog, fog, fog..."
Sam squints up into the sunlight and decides against saying something.
"Come on," he says instead, taking Dean's arm and leading him carefully down the mountain trail.
The full impact of how serious the curse really is--how bad things could have been--doesn't hit Sam until they get out of the car and Dean gets lost in the motel parking lot, trying to find his way to their room.
Sam knows fear. He knows blind panic and frustration and sorrow and anger--he really knows anger. But for the first time in his life he feels completely helpless.
There's no monster to shoot, no corpse to salt and burn. Running is his only option.
The flames are making their way up the hallway behind him at a horrifying speed, and Dean is so heavy! Sam heaves and lifts and pulls and he's no weakling, but he just can't seem to carry Dean the necessary distance to safety. Panic is threatening to tear him apart at the seams, and they're hunters! He knows there's no happy ending for them, but he always figured they'd die screaming at the hands of some supernatural monster--not crumble from smoke inhalation and burn injuries in an abandoned house.
"Wake up, Dean!" he pleads, and his voice sounds desperate and sobbing even to his own ears. "Wake up!"
But Dean remains limp, half in Sam's arms, half on the floor. Sam isn't even sure if his brother is breathing anymore. A part of his brain is laughing hysterically, thinking maybe Dean's already dead--maybe he got lucky, and this was all over in the blink of an eye for Dean--
--but maybe it's not, and oh God, they need to get out of here, right this instant!
Sam isn't sure where he gets the strength, but he manages to get Dean's torso higher off the ground. High enough that he can heft his brother into a fireman's carry, and then he's free to walk--free to run. His thighs are burning and his lungs are burning and the house is burning around him, but all Sam can think about is getting Dean to safety.
When he finally stumbles out into the cool night air, he doesn't feel relief at all. Just bone-deep exhaustion, and he collapses in a heap on the ground as soon as he feels he's put a safe distance between himself and the burning building. Dean's head almost crashes to the ground again, but Sam manages to cushion the fall with his own body, and then he can do nothing but stare at the night sky and cough and gasp for air.
With Dean lying on top of him, chest to chest, Sam can feel his brother breathe--shallow breaths, yes, but at least he's still alive.
The realization that he almost lost Dean because he was too weak to carry him out hits Sam like a ton of bricks, but at least Dean's not awake to see him cry.
In the distance, there's sirens.
A few days later, Dean peers at Sam over the top of the covers of his motel bed and smiles weakly at him.
"I can't believe you carried me out of a burning building, Sammy. You're my hero." He bats his eyelashes ridiculously and snickers.
Sam doesn't really think it's funny. Instead he just averts his eyes and starts doing another set of repetitions with his free weights.
"Just returning the favor," he mumbles, but Dean keeps smiling.
It's like Sam's developed a sixth sense for Dean.
He can tell the exact moment when his brother tenses up, even across a crowded bar, and Sam stretches in his seat, cranes his neck to see above the other bar patrons. Dean's by the bar counter, leaning forward on his elbows, and looking up at a burly guy who's approached him from his right. Sam is halfway out of his seat and ready for a fight, when the burly guy puts his hand on Dean's ass.
Concern immediately gives way for amusement as Dean casts a nervous glance over his shoulder at Sam.
Sam chuckles to himself, lips twisting in a wry smile, and very intentionally studies the ceiling.
When he looks towards Dean again, Dean's taken a step back, and he's got both hands raised. He's smiling, and Sam can see his lips move, can practically hear Dean's voice in his head, clear as day, "Sorry man, don't swing that way," or something along those lines. Except Burly Guy doesn't seem to want to take no for an answer.
He doesn't seem the least threatening, but he keeps advancing on Dean with a look that says Dean's a gourmet dessert and Burly Guy hasn't eaten in months.
Dean laughs nervously when Burly Guy runs a hand up his thigh, coming dangerously close to his crotch, and Sam almost spits out his beer.
When Dean takes another step backwards and immediately have to apologize for bumping into the woman sitting behind him, Sam decides to take pity on his brother and strides towards them on long legs. He reaches them in seconds and throws a hand around Dean's shoulders, presses a wet kiss to Dean's cheek, and then grins at Burly Guy.
"Sorry, sweetheart, this reservation's only for two."
Burly Guy's face falls a little, but he's still smiling and reaches out to caress Dean's arm. "Well, all right," he says in a surprisingly light voice. "But if you change your mind..."
He trails off and walks away. Once he's disappeared in the crowd, Dean reaches up and wipes his cheek with the sleeve of his coat, and gives Sam a rough shove. "Urgh, get off me, dude!"
"So you can hunt goblins and wraiths and ghosts, but one, little Papa Bear and you're running scared?" Sam asks, laughing.
"Little? That guy?" Dean squeaks. "That is not the word I'd use!" Dean turns back to the bar with a visible shudder. "I need a fucking drink," he announces.
Sam just laughs and doesn't tease Dean further. There's no need, really--this whole thing has given him ammunition for months' worth of endless teasing, and it wouldn't be nearly as fun to use it all in one night.
It's not until several years later Dean finally talks about it again, and even then it's not by his choice. Sam hadn't even planned it--not then, at least.
He's just putting the last of the dishes in the sink, and turns and watches as Dean stretches and burps and looks so unexpectedly happy. Happier than he's seemed in years.
It's both a relief and a cause for concern, to think that this is as happy as Dean might ever get.
"You know," Sam says, unable to stop the words from spilling from his lips, "Cas says you still haven't forgiven yourself."
Dean freezes, and Sam holds his breath. They stay like that, frozen, for a long time, before Dean stands up, chair scraping loudly against the floor as he pushes it back.
"We're not talking about this," Dean says firmly.
"You do know it's over, right?" Sam presses on, because the subject's been breached, everything's moving, and all he can do now is keep his foot on the accelerator until they either run out of steam on their own or spin out of control again and crash and burn. There's no stopping now.
"We're still here," Sam continues. "It's over. And none of this was your fault."
Dean stares hard at the floor and blinks rapidly several times. Sam can tell he wants to storm out, but those days are long gone. Winchesters don't run out on each other, no matter how badly they want to. Maybe years ago, but not anymore.
"What I did," Dean says carefully, "was unforgiveable. And none of your business."
Sam's heart breaks a little. His voice does too, when he asks, "What about what I did? You think you're the only person responsible for busting Lucifer out of his cage?"
Dean shakes his head. "No," he says, "No, it doesn't compare. We're not talking about this."
If he closes his eyes, Sam can see their entire history together, brothers, living and breathing together throughout the years. Their lives stretch out in his mind like an open highway, and some of it hurts so much he can barely breathe, but this is Dean.
"None of it was your fault," Sam repeats.
Dean's fist flies at the wall, and the crack of plaster crumbling is loud enough to make Sam jump a little. "Shut up, Sammy," he growls. "I mean it." He turns away and puts his forehead against the wall.
Sam does what he does best, and chooses to ignore Dean. Swallows hard instead, and takes a deep breath.
"Would it help if I told you I forgave you years ago?" he asks.
Dean's shoulders start shaking, and Sam walks over; puts a hand on his brother's back as he cries, and strokes it gently.
When Dean finally turns around, Sam is right there, just like always.
Sam's not quite sure what Dean's playing at, but he's pretty sure he doesn't like it. His mind goes over all the facts, and they don't add up. John's been gone for longer periods of time their whole lives. This isn't new, this isn't out of the ordinary, and it certainly isn't an emergency.
"I can't do this alone," Dean says, and Sam has to stop himself from scoffing.
"Yes you can," he shoots back.
Dean looks away, then, sighs a little, and says, "Yeah--well, I don't want to."
It's the most honest Dean's been with him in years, and it's tugs at something in Sam's chest.
He takes a deep breath, lets it out quickly, and some part of him knows he's going to regret this, but he still finds himself asking, "What was he hunting?"