“The Strength Of Ten Men,” By Ridley C. James

The cool night air helped clear the last bit of shock clinging like spider webs to his senses. He shook his head slightly, the sweetness of the fall mountains, seeming almost blasphemous in light of what had just taken place. The shear force of the attack, both mental and physical had left Sam numb, and he was afraid if he ever started to feel again, he might not be able to hold himself together. And now-with so much depending on him, that luxury was unaffordable. He had to be strong.

The thought made him want to scream. Strong. What the hell was strength anyway?

Sam had thought he'd known.

After all, he'd grown up with John Winchester for a father. He cut his eyes to the larger than life man, now draped at his side, staggering towards the Impala with the much needed aid of his youngest son. And all of sudden, Sam felt lost.

It wasn't the physical desertion of his father’s strength that caused Sam to falter, to doubt the heroic characteristic, as he helped the ever weakening man to the car. No, it was something else.

Something in the words his father had shouted at him. “You shoot me in the heart, son. You end this.” Or was it something he didn’t say, but should have. “Is your brother okay? Help Dean, son.”

Sam struggled slightly with the door as his mind grappled to find the quote he'd oddly enough just remembered. It was something by Tennyson, and it had always stuck with him from his freshman literature class on. But as his father sagged more heavily against him, he lost the flicker of it as it flashed quickly through his thoughts, like that of a beacon in the distance.

“Dad?” Sam sighed as the man attempted to ease his own self into the front seat. “Just let me help you.”

“Like you helped me back there,” John growled, pulling away from his son and wincing as his ass hit the seat with a jarring impact. “I can’t fucking believe you, Sammy.”

“Me?” Sam asked, hurt and more than a little angry. “I’m trying to save your life, and Dean’s.” Did the man not realize that his son was still in the cabin, bleeding to death on the fucking floor. The same son who had insisted that Sam take care of their father before he’d let Sam help him. Of course not. John had barely given him the briefest of guilt-ridden glances as Sam had worked to stench his brother's hemorrhaging so he could get them all the hell out of there.

“We could have ended it, Sammy. Ended him. The demon who took everything from us.” The man had been mumbling the same thing over and over as Sam had secured his own belt over the wound in his leg. "This could all be over. I had him!"

“No!" Sam's nerves were beyond frayed. He’d heard just about enough. "He had you, damn it!” Sam used no gentleness as he lifted his father’s injured leg into the car, and John hissed as the torn flesh of the exit wound came in to contact with the seat.

“Either way," John snarled, "You should have taken him out when you had the fucking opportunity.”

“I didn’t see it that way.”

"I was giving you a chance..." John gasped as Sam once again tightened the make-shift tourniquets around his thigh.

"A chance at what?" Sam looked up at the man. A chance to be more fucked up than he already was.

He wished his father would say that he was giving them a chance to escape, to live a life free of fear. God, how he wished his father had begged him to kill him because he wanted to protect he and Dean. That the only thought that had consumed him was that of his sons.

Sam only wished that John's sacrifice had been so pure.

But that wasn't the truth and they both knew it.

As much as he loved his boys, John had asked for death for no other reason than to bring that same fate to his sworn enemy. To end his own suffering and guilt. His sons be damned.

“A chance for revenge."

The words hurt, even though they were expected and Sam shook his head at the single-minded answer. The man just didn't get it. "It wasn't worth it."

"God damn it!" John shouted. "Your brother has been feeling your head with this bullshit. You listened to him in there, let him cloud your good sense and sometimes your brother is…” John stopped himself. As lost in his own grief and anger that he was, a part of him still recognized the dangerous look of fury in the dark gaze boring into him.

“My brother is what?” Sam asked between clenched teeth, daring the other man to say it.

“Sometimes…” John sighed, lowering his voice as if it were a shameful secret. “Your brother is weak.”

"Weak?" Sam took a step back as if the man had slapped him, sucker punched him even.

“How…how can you say that?” Dean was the strongest, most brave, albeit self-sacrificing bastard, that Sam had ever known. “He worships you. You should be proud of him." Not belittling everything he is.

God! His father should have felt all those things that the demon had said about Dean before he’d revealed himself to them. But, damn him, he didn’t.

Sam should have realized the man was possessed right then and there. Because in all their time growing up, John had never said those words to Dean. Never. "You did good. I'm proud of you."

He should have.

Thousands of times.

Because it was all true. Dean did look out for their family. He was the glue that held them together. He was like their own personal fucking guard dog-willing to die to protect them-loyal to a fault, to his own detriment. And his father had the nerve to call him weak.

“Proud?" John spat the word. "He used the gun...brought it with him even. He went against every rule of the game."

"And saved my life!" Sam exploded. "He would do anything for me-for you. Anything." Even destroy his own soul.

"Except the one thing I needed for him to do.”

“Don’t you blame him.” Sam wrapped his hands in his father's jacket. “Don’t you dare blame him!”

“I don’t,” John stared icily at his son, unable to let go of the pain that was ravaging every fiber of his being, unwilling to release the agony that had nothing to do with the gunshot wound to his leg. “I needed you to be a man, Sam.”

Sam shoved his clenched fists against his father‘s chest and shook his head. "But Dean needed me to be a brother more.” It was as simple as that. Dean’s soft, pain-laced pleas had drown out every guilt-inducing word and order that his father had shouted at him.

John’s face hardened, and the two stared at each other for a long, tense moment, before the older hunter spoke, “We need to get out of here.”

Sam swallowed the lump that had suddenly sprung to his throat, and blinked away the tears, mentally forcing his hands away from his father.

For the first time that night, their father was exactly right about something. He didn't have time for this. His brother didn’t have the time. It was a waste of breath, and there were more important things at hand.

Sam stepped back from his father and shut the door of the Impala. With a pained breath, he turned to go back into the cabin where everything that really mattered was waiting for him.

The coppery smell of blood and the sickening scent of sulphur permeated the small hunting cabin that had once belonged to Pastor Jim, and as soon as Sam stepped back inside an overwhelming feeling of pain and grief nearly drove him to his knees. Tonight had almost been the end. Of many things.

“Dean?” He steeled himself and pushed on, moving quickly to his brother’s side.

Dean was still slumped against the wall, where he’d left him, loosely holding Sam’s wadded up jacket against the wound in his chest, and the younger hunter knelt at his side. God, he looked paler than he had just moments before, his dark lashes standing out ghastly against his washed-out pallor. His brother’s eyes were closed and he jumped slightly when Sam cupped his hand against his face. “Hey? You still with me, tough guy?”

“Yeah,” Dean’s eyes fluttered open and he cleared his throat. “I’m… good, Sammy.”

“Don’t get carried away,” Sam said with a forced grin which his big brother returned weakly. “You are so far from good, it’s not even funny.”

“Yeah, you go a couple of rounds with …Evil Dad…and see how you feel.”

Sam lifted the make-shift bandage and winced. The wound was deep, clear through to the other side, as if the demon had used an invisible blade, intent on cutting his brother’s heart out with it. “We’ve got to get you to a hospital, man” Sam lifted his worried gaze to meet Dean’s glassy green eyes. “The bleeding has slowed, but you’ve lost so much…” Sam couldn’t stop the surge of emotion that cracked his voice.

Dean’s hand came up and blood-covered fingers wrapped gently around the other hunter’s wrist and squeezed. “It’s okay. I‘ve had worse.”

It was a fucking lie, but the act brought a rush of love for his brother rather than any hint of condemnation. “No. It’s not okay,” Sam said softly. “That thing nearly killed you, Dean.”

Sam couldn’t help but to feel the gut-wrenching sense of helplessness all over again, as he remembered the strangled gasps of his brother as the demon tortured him. Nor could he block out the way Dean’s voice had set every nerve he had on edge as he pleaded with their father to help him. To save him.

It was the hardest thing Sam had ever been forced to watch, and that was saying a lot considering the horrors that he had witnessed. But none had ever been so personal or so painful -not even Jessica. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” he whispered as he readjusted the bandage, making it tighter, despite the hurting he knew it would cause.

Dean winced, but didn’t pull away. “Dude…. you were doing the pinned…insect impression…like me.”

Sam ducked his head, focusing on the wound again, but not before his brother recognized the flash of guilt, he’d seen far too often. “You…mean the Jedi mind tricks?” He groaned, more from exasperation than pain. “Please.”

Sam lifted his gaze, which was once again blurred by tears. “It worked before. When I thought you were going to die…” Sam had tried his hardest, to the point where it felt like his brain might explode, but nothing had happened. Not one damn thing.

“Stop,” Dean said, with as much force as he could muster. “This wasn’t your fault.” How many times did he have to say it before it penetrated his kid brother’s thick skull. “None…,” he lifted his hand weakly to gesture, “ ….of this is your fault.”

“But the demon…”

“Messing… with our heads.” Dean swallowed hard, remembering how the bastard had taunted his brother with the ‘psychic boy‘ comment, and the whole eluding to Sam‘s power as being the reason behind the attacks on their family. “He wanted to scare us…hurt us.”

“He did both.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Dean tried to grin, but the blood on his lips and face diminished the effect. Still, Sam appreciated the effort. “But… I’m not a pussy.”

“God, but you’re a jerk.”

“I’m your jerk.”

Sam’s smile faded, and he nodded. “Damn straight.”

Again Dean’s weak grasp tightened around his wrist. Speaking of jerks. “Is Dad…okay?”

Sam laughed, but the sound that tore from his body had no humor to it. Here his idiotic brother was, bleeding out, barely conscious, and more concerned about John than himself. If the genuine fear and worry hadn’t been so heartfelt and so Dean, it would have been funny. But nothing about their current situation was amusing. “He’s fine, Dean.”

Nothing about their father finally saying all the words that Dean so desperately wanted to hear, but doing so only because a demon was making them all up, was funny. The bastard had known what Dean wanted to hear at that moment, needed to hear, and had used it. But even if John didn’t feel grateful for Dean’s diligence in protecting them, for his ability to put the two of them above all else, including the hunt, Sam did. It was the only good thing that had come from this most recent battle.

“He…still pissed?”

Sam refocused on his brother, pushing away the morose thinking, saving it to torture himself with later, when he would undoubtedly be confined to pace alone in a waiting room. The thought of being separated from his brother for any amount of time sent an irrational chill of fear and need through him. “What do you think?”

“I…think he’s an ass.”

This time the laugh was real. “Then all the blood loss hasn’t affected your head.”

Dean’s grin faded into a twisted grimace and he closed his eyes against the pain. “But…he’s our ass, Sammy.”

“Hey?” Sam knew it was low of him, but he took advantage of his brother’s weakened defenses, and ran a shaky hand over Dean’s hair. “Forget about Dad for now. He’ll probably out live you and me.” Because he’ll end up getting us both killed.

Dean looked up at him, his lips twitching ever slow slightly at the corner. “As long as I go first?”

“You’re really working on that, aren’t you?” Sam gave him a stern look. “Mouthing off to a demon is not the smartest thing you’ve done.”

It kept him away from you. “It’s a sickness.”

“Right,” Sam sighed, taking hold of his brother’s arm, knowing they were running out of time, kicking himself for wasting more of it. “Ready to get out of here?”

“We haven’t… had pancakes yet,” he replied lightly, but Sam could see him ready himself for what would come next.

“Yeah, I'd forgotten about that. Jim use to make them for us anytime we stayed up here,” the youngest Winchester said, pushing himself up, and pulling his injured brother with him. “Always Chocolate chip-your favorite. Never blueberry. Not even once.”

To his credit, Dean didn’t cry out as the blaze of agony ripped through his chest again. Honestly, he had thought shock had set in, dulling the worst of it. But he was wrong. Despite his best effort, his body betrayed him and he shivered violently as Sam reached out to steady him. “Easy,” Sam’s voice found him in the encroaching darkness from somewhere close by. “Stay with me, Bro.”

Dean blinked, trying to push away the dizziness, and forced his eyes to open to alleviate the vertigo. His brother was holding both his shoulders, his head leaned close to Dean’s, which was resting against the taller hunter’s chest. How had that happened?

It took amazing strength to lift, but Dean managed to raise his head and smirk at his brother. “You…can’t be everyone’s favorite, little brother.”

The words hit Sam with the second sucker punch of the night. Damn the demon for mixing half-truth’s with his lies.

Sam had always known Dean thought his father favored him, his baby. It was probably one of the reasons that he tried so damn hard to please the man. When he was younger, Sam didn’t notice it, but as he grew older, it was easier to pick up on in subtle ways, and even more noticeable when it was reflected in the disapproval of outsiders. Like Caleb. Like Bobby. But especially Jim. The man doted on Dean.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said again, not knowing what to do to make it all right. “About what he said…about Jim’s death.”

To his brother’s surprise, Dean didn’t brush the words away, or make light of them. He merely nodded. “I know.”

Sam again took advantage of the lapse in defenses to slip his brother’s right arm over his shoulder and take most of his weight. “Come on. Let’s get you to the hospital.”

“What? Not enough butterfly bandages in the kit to hold me together?”

Sam snorted as he led them out into the night air, pulling his brother closer as the tremors wracking his battered body grew worse. “Dad suggested that.”

“Man…will do anything…to avoid a doctor’s bill.”

Sam smiled. “I did suggest an alternative use for them, though.”

Dean rolled his eyes, wincing against the pain that each step was inflicting. “And he still likes you better?”

Sam glanced to the man in question as they made it to the car. He was leaned back against the passenger’s seat, his eyes closed, thinking about all the things that had gone wrong, no doubt. Not nearly the prize his brother thought he was. “Nah, he gave you the Impala, didn’t he?”

Dean looked up at him as he was gently eased against the back panel of the black Chevy, so that Sam could open the door. “Only because you didn’t appreciate her.” And because he felt guilty.

Sam felt his eyes fill again, and his brother frowned at him. “Guess I’m lucky the brother thing doesn’t work that way.”

Dean was still looking at him, his expression unreadable, as he eased him down onto the leather seat. Sam tried to be as careful as possible, but his brother still gasped as he placed his legs inside, and pulled his jacket tighter around him.

The youngest Winchester willed his own hands not to shake as he lifted his brother’s and replaced it against the bloodied jacket they were using to staunch the bleeding. “Hold this, okay.” Sam forced a calm look onto his face, and lowered his voice. “The hospital isn’t far. Just hang in there.”

He started to move away, pull himself out of the car, but Dean’s free hand lifted and caught his shirt, effectively stopping him. Sam’s brows drew together as Dean pulled him closer, but he didn’t say anything.

Dean glanced to where their father was seated, jutting his chin slightly towards the man, and then met Sam’s gaze once more. “It’s worth it,” he said softly, his breath brushing against Sam’s cheek. “All of it. Because of the brother thing.”

Sam swallowed hard. It only took one look into those green eyes to know what his brother meant. The lack of a childhood, the criticisms from their father, the unfair treatment, the hunting, the injuries…the injustice of it all…everything Dean had endured, struggled through, sacrificed- it meant nothing to him compared to the fact that they had each other. That they were a family. That he was Sam's big brother.

Not sure of how to reply. Not wanting to say anything that would ruin it, or belittle it. Sam, instead, simply nodded, and when Dean released him with a hint of his usual half-assed grin, backed out of the Impala and closed the door. His eyes went from the man in the front seat, to the man in the back as he moved to the front of the car, and suddenly the meaning of strength returned and he was no longer lost.

Tennyson’s words now came easily to him, more poignant than ever before, as he slid into the driver‘s seat and met his brother‘s gaze in the rearview mirror. “My strength is as the strength of ten men, Because my heart is pure.”

John Winchester had been wrong about a lot of damn things. But never more so than he was when he called his son weak.

No. Dean Winchester had the strength of ten men.

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