Sam could honestly say that he had never, not once in his life ever, felt this much pain without passing out. That his brother had come to his rescue had been a given – Dean never let him down – and that he had turned up in the nick of time had been as close to natural as anything in their lives could be. But that Dean was able to carry him without breaking his stride and without seeming to sense the weight he had to represent right now took Sam by surprise to such an extent that he almost managed to forget the pain from his lacerated abdomen.

The steely determination in Dean's eyes, the way he kept his gaze on the path ahead and never slowed down even for a second proved that the tales Sam had heard about people gaining almost supernatural strength when a loved one was in danger were true. That Dean had emptied two clips into hospital fatigue guy hadn't really surprised Sam. That he had been shaken and nearly unable to function after had. He had never seen Dean falter and it shook him that it could happen. That it hadn't lasted long Sam attributed to Dean's unwillingness to let go of anything.

Swallowing hard, Sam closed his eyes and tightened his grip on Dean's shoulder as the agony swept over him once more. They had left the old waterworks behind at this point. He could barely retain the anguish, the tearing pain that seemed to spread throughout his entire body. His legs tingled, his breathing was labored, and his torso was on fire from his hips to his neck. Every step Dean took sent a shudder of pain through him, but he clenched his teeth, tightened his jaw muscles and bore it because he knew that crying out wouldn't help him. Dean couldn't stop. Sam knew he would lose whatever momentum was driving him if he even slowed down.

The forest closed in around them, the chilly night air only adding to his misery at this point. He was so cold, but the pain kept him awake and aware and the still rational part of his brain knew that was a good thing. He had seen what the shock to his system could do if he allowed it and he knew – although he might feel anything but lucky right now – that his upbringing and rigorous training over the years had allowed him to survive this so far.

The trail ahead of them opened up to a road where the Impala was waiting for them. Somehow Dean managed to open the back door and eased Sam onto the seat as carefully as he could. "Just sit tight. I'll pull you in from the other side," Dean said.

Sam grabbed a hold of the door and the frame and held on, suppressing the almost overwhelming urge to curl up on himself. Any shift in the wound made him sweat buckets and every muscle in his overly strained body was shivering. In part it was a reaction to him being so damned cold, but most of it was because of how rigidly he held himself to avoid aggravating the wound any further. But, sweet lord it hurt like hell and despite his attempts not to, he kept wishing he'd died. At least then he wouldn't feel this pain any more.

Dean grabbed him from behind and carefully pulled him onto the backseat, holding onto him until he was lying down on his side, his knees pulled up as much as he could. He then grabbed a blanket from the trunk and spread it out over Sam, tugging it in around him to make sure he was well covered. Then, for the briefest of moments, he rested one hand on the side of Sam's face, his thumb stroking Sam's skin for a second before he pulled back and closed the door.

After rearranging Sam's feet and tugging the blanket tightly around them, he closed the other door as well and slid in behind the wheel. Sam was a bit concerned about his silence, but didn't have the strength right now to speak himself. There were other times when Sam had been hurt that Dean hadn't stopped talking. Sam remembered one such incident from when they had been teenagers and Sam had gotten his foot stuck in a beartrap. That the damned thing hadn't taken his foot right off had only been because of the army-style boots Dad had always insisted they wear. But it had hurt like a bitch and he'd been bleeding all over the place while Dad had carried him back to the self-same car and taken them to the nearest hospital. Dean had jabbered on the entire way, even after Dad had told him to shut up repeatedly.

The silence from his big brother now unnerved him more than anything. Dean had put down other bad guys before without blinking, without hesitating, and Sam knew that wasn't what this was about. They had both heard the stories Dad had told them about Nam, though, about soldiers hit in the gut by enemy fire. 'Abdominal wounds like that are the worst,' Dad had said. 'There's nothing that hurts more. That's really the last place you wanna get shot.'

Sam could sign off on that now. It was unlike any other pain he'd ever experienced. It defied words. Actually, no words would ever come close to relaying what he was going through right now. It felt as if his very essence was nothing but pain at this point.

The engine roared to life and the tremble that ran through the Impala aggravated his pain. Unable to keep it to himself, he groaned and dug his fingers into the edge of the seat.

"Hang in there, Sammy," Dean said and briefly glanced back at him. "I'll make this right."

The tone of his voice was not lost on Sam and he regretted bitterly that he didn't have the strength to reassure Dean right now that this wasn't his fault. Because Dean sure as hell sounded guilty, which explained why he was so quite as well.

***

Dean's instincts told him to floor the gas pedal, but his reason told him that getting there slower might be easier on Sam, and Sam sure as hell needed easy right now like never before.

Regularly he glanced back at him, at how he braced himself against the front seat, at how pale he was and sweaty and shivering. His eyes were glassy with pain and every bump in the road forced a whimper from him. Dean knew his brother well enough to know that it took a lot for Sam to show pain openly and the fact that he voiced it right now was not a good sign.

Thinking back on the stories Dad had told them – what little he had told them about Nam – Dean knew that Dad had only told them about that soldier with the shredded belly to make it clear to them how important it was that they stayed away from injuries like that, an injury like the one Sam had now. Granted, from what Dean had seen it didn't seem like the pale white intestines had been damaged, but he was no doctor and he had no idea how much or how little it took.

When they reached the Interstate again, Dean stopped the Impala and glanced either way, trying to determine which direction would get him to a hospital the fastest.

Dean knew that there was a critical access hospital in Fort Belknap about two hours to the North. It was one of those weird facts he was able to drag out of his subconscious mind whenever he needed it. What he didn't know was whether or not there was a hospital in Lewistown.

Sam groaned, attracting his attention. The kid was a mess, in need of medical attention one way or the other, but Dean wouldn't risk getting to Lewistown only to find out that there was no hospital there, so he turned North toward Fort Belknap instead.

Once the Impala hit the more trafficked road, the ride became a lot smoother and would hopefully cause Sam less pain. A quick glance back at him told Dean that it really didn't matter any more how bumpy the ride was, because Sam had passed out.

He turned his attention forward again, but felt an icy sensation slither over the back of his neck like the breath of a ghost. Instead of ignoring it, he pulled over to the side of the road and turned back to face Sam properly. There wasn't nearly enough light for him to be sure, but the icy fear he felt originated from the fact that he couldn't see Sam's chest moving. "Sam?" he tried, his voice breaking with the tension. "Sammy?" he tried again, a little louder.

He got out of the car and climbed into the back to lean down over his brother and it hit him hard that Sam wasn't breathing. Knowing full well that any pressure in the wrong spot could rip Sam's wound wide open, Dean still hoisted him over on his back, pulled the sheet and the blanket away from his chest and pressed an ear against it. There was nothing and it scared the hell out of him. Sam hadn't passed out, he had died on him.

"Oh no, you don't," he rasped and started CPR, then shifted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then back to CPR again. Then he stopped to listen, to feel for a pulse, and still there was nothing. "Don't you frigging die on me, Sammy. Not after all this," he snapped, close to tears as he continued his attempts to revive his brother.

He continued the procedure for a while, then stopped again to listen and as he leaned down to press his ear against Sam's chest, Sam suddenly inhaled sharply and his eyes blinked open. In instant response to the renewed beating of his heart, Sam started to shiver again. He stared up at Dean, the look in his eyes so deeply wounded that Dean had to struggled hard to keep his own emotions at bay.

"Dammit, Sammy. Don't you ever do that to me again," Dean whispered.

"Wh...at?" Sam managed, his voice barely audible any more.

Dean pulled the covers up over him again, tugging him in, and knew that he had to drive faster to get Sam the help he so desperately needed. "Nothing, Sammy. You just hang in there, okay? Don't let go."

For a second, Sam managed to look puzzled, but the sweat on his brow and the continued shivering of his body told Dean that this would probably not be an isolated incident if he didn't get to that damned hospital as fast as he could.

He got back behind the wheel and floored the gas pedal. Sam had survived everything that frigging demon had thrown his way. There was no way he was going to die at the hands of a madman. Not while Dean had anything to say about it.

***

Fort Belknap Critical Access Hospital
Harlem, Montana
4:45 am

Doctor Angela Wilder picked up the chart for one of her patients and studied it thoughtfully. She couldn't really remember why she had volunteered for the ER duty in this sorry excuse for a hospital, but the critical cases she was here to deal with were few and far between and working the graveyard shift in the ER gave her something to do. Not that Fort Belknap had much in the ways of emergencies. It was mainly the locals filing in to have their boo-boos checked out.

With a bit of a smirk on her lips, she glanced around the reception area of the Critical Access Hospital and almost snorted. Hospital was too grand a word for this place. It was a glorified clinic with more space than the average clinic, but far from anything even remotely resembling a hospital, and she once again wondered what ever had possessed her to apply for this job in the first place.

She did consider herself to be a bit of a workaholic, the main reason for that she had neither gotten married nor had kids, a fact she on occasion mourned, but mostly felt blessed by.

"I don't understand why you bother?" Miriam Shelby, one of the nurses, said and nodded at the chart Angela was holding. "He comes in here every damned week with an imaginary injury and you always patch him up and send him home again."

"He's lonely, Miriam. Nothing else. Besides, his healthcare insurance pays for it. It's not like it's for free," Angela replied, signed the chart and put it back in its place.

Some sort of commotion by the front door caught her attention before she could reach for the next chart to sign off on. The only two orderlies working in this place at night rushed out the door with a gurney between them. "What's going on over there?" she asked.

Miriam frowned. "Don't know. Could be serious, what with them rushing out that way and all," she countered and arched a suggestive eyebrow.

Angela sighed. "It's a sad day when we look forward to a serious injury," she stated and headed toward the front doors to check up on what was going on.

Just then, the two orderlies came rushing back in with a young man on the gurney. One of them caught sight of her and waved her over. "I think this one's for you, Dr. Wilder," he said.

She strode over to them and eyed the pale, sweating young man who was in and out of consciousness, his eyes glazed with pain. "What's his status?"

"Don't know all the details. The guy who brought him here will be back in a second. He just had to park his car," Bill Smith, the orderly, said. "Seems like he's badly injured, though."

Angela slipped a hand onto a sweat-slick, hot brow and tried to gain eye contact with the kid. Physically he was barely out of his teens, but his eyes were old. "Hi, I'm Dr. Angela Wilder. Can you tell me what's happened to you?"

His eyes were wild with pain, a fever already raging in his body. The sheet he was draped in was dirty and blood-stained, and flimsy enough for her to realize that he was naked underneath. It stood to reason that he had been the subject of a crime, but she had yet to determine which and what his injuries were.

He made no move to answer her query and his entire body was tense with agony. Dark spreading patches under his eyes and his generally ghost-like complexion worried her deeply and, a cursory examination, based on what she could see and feel alone, told her that he had an infection and whatever it was, it was painful beyond compare.

"Can you tell me your name?" she tried instead.

"S ... Sam," he ground out, his teeth clenched so hard they were nearing the breaking point.

"Okay, Sam, we're going to move you to an examination room and I'm just going to take a look at you, okay?" she said, keeping her voice calm and friendly. She nodded to Bill Smith and his partner, Dennis Franklin, and they started pushing the gurney across the smooth floor toward the empty examination room. The movement of the gurney was enough to hurt Sam, though, and he only barely prevented a scream from emerging.

Angela was starting to feel very concerned about his condition and hurried her steps to keep up with the gurney, her hand still on his brow. "How old are you, Sam?" she asked, hoping to keep his attention on her and away from whatever his injury was. But he didn't answer. His left hand was curled into a tight fist which he pressed against his right shoulder, holding on to one snippet of the sheet surrounding him with an intensity that could break bone.

"Wh...ere's Dean?" he rasped. A light shiver rippled through him, followed by another stronger shiver. He was adding anxiousness to the pain and that was never a good idea.

"Dean will be here in a second. He just had to park the car," Angela reassured him, assuming that this Dean was the one who had brought him here.

Bill and Dennis used the transportation mat on the gurney to transfer Sam onto the examination table, an act that made him arch his back and fight to suppress any sounds of agony. He didn't quite manage, though, and Angela was of the impression that he was teetering on the edge between life and death.

Nurses Miriam Shelby and Bettina Fairchild joined Angela as Bill and Dennis withdrew. Angela only had eyes for her patient right now and allowed him a moment to settle down. "Now, listen to me, Sam, okay?" Angela insisted. "I need to take a look at you, to find out what's wrong with you, okay?" Many years of experience had taught her that physical contact usually had a soothing effect on patients in severe pain and to obtain this effect, she placed a hand lightly on his stomach. Her touch, however, had the opposite effect in this case. Hectic red spots formed over his cheekbones while what remained of his color drained away and he tried to rear up from the examination table.

Bettina and Miriam were quick to react but he still nearly managed to fall off the table before they could grab him and steady him. Angela eyed the area she had touched and assumed he might have a ruptured appendix if even such a light touch could cause such intense agony. "Sam, can you tell me where exactly it hurts?" she tried, but assumed he was delirious already and would not be able to respond properly to her quarries. His breath came in ragged little gusts and he was on the verge of hyper-ventilating. Angela smoothed a hand over his brow, pushing his sweat-soaked hair away from his burning forehead, then touched his cheek which was frighteningly cold.

Assessing the situation based on the feel of his skin, the sunken eyes, the labored, rapid breathing, and the tenseness of his body overall, Angela guessed this was a mixture of a very lethal cocktail; appendicitis and exposure.

Well aware that kids his age were usually extremely self-conscious about their bodies, she carefully dislodged the snippet of the sheet he was wrapped in from his left hand and pulled the sheet apart without disrobing him completely. There was dried blood on his chest, but no sign of injuries there. She progressed, his labored breathing heavy in her ears. His midriff showed more dried blood, but still no external injury, although every inch of muscle there was strained to the breaking point.

"Get the hell out of my way. That's my brother in there!" The angry outburst came from right outside the door and Angela glanced through the glass at who she assumed had to be Dean. He looked furious because Dennis and Bill were stopping him from entering the examination room.

"Bettina, get them to back off," she instructed. "I need all the information I can get."

Sam, in the meantime, was getting anxious again. He had raised his head, his whole body jittering with the effort he put into such a simple act, and he was staring at the door. "D...ean," he croaked.

"Relax, Sam. He'll be right with you," Angela assured him as Bettina opened the door.

"It's alright, boys. The doc wants to talk to him," Bettina said, her tone a bit mocking.

The orderlies stepped aside and Dean pushed past her into the room, anger transforming into deep-rooted concern, which bordered on fear.

Dean ignored all others for the moment and grabbed his brother's extended, shivering hand before he glanced at Angela. "You the doc?" he asked.

Angela nodded. "Dr. Wilder," she introduced herself. "What happened to him?"

He eyed her, glanced at what she had already exposed, then sneered. "You want the long version or the short one?" he asked.

Angela arched an eyebrow. "The short one will do for now," she said. "Your brother is in a lot of pain. I'd very much like to determine the cause of it as fast as possible so I can give him something against it."

Dean nodded tensely. "A lunatic cut him open. We were two hours away from here, so I had to stitch it back up," he said tensely and nodded toward his brother's abdomen.

Angela had seen a lot of injuries, many of them deliberately inflicted, but this sounded outrageous. With a frown furrowing her brow, she turned her attention to Sam's abdomen, then carefully parted the sheet and did her best to contain a startled gasp at the sight of the injury. The gash in the young man's skin ran from hip-bone to hip-bone, a neat incision that would have caused his guts to spill out of him if it was deep enough. The wound had been stitched crudely back together, dried blood caking the thread, the rims red and swollen. "Oh my god," was all she could think of saying before her professionalism took over and she slipped into clinical doctor-mode. "How deep is it?" she asked and glanced up at Dean, who looked almost as pale as his brother now. Angela noted that he had to have a gash somewhere on his head because there was dried blood on his left temple. "Dean? Answer the question, please," she insisted.

He blinked and focused on her while still holding Sam's hand tightly in his. "I had to stuff his intestines back inside before I stitched him back together," he said, his voice hoarse, his tone tense. "And he stopped breathing on the way here," he added darkly.

Angela nodded, having expected as much. "Generally, I would like to transfer him to another hospital, but I don't think there is enough time for that," she said. "We're not exactly equipped for big surgeries here. But we can clean out the wound and stitch it back together in a ... neater way," she said, choosing her words carefully. "Is he allergic to anything?"

"No," Dean replied and wrapped his right hand around Sam's hand as well.

Angela nodded. "We'll deal with this, give him a heavy-duty antibiotic treatment and then we'll see how it goes," she said. "I need you to wait outside, though."

Dean glanced at Sam, who looked frantic at this point. "I'm not going far, Sammy. I'll be right out there," he said, nodding toward the door.

Bettina brought over a syringe and injected it into Sam's left arm. It took a moment or two for the sedative to work, but then he slowly started to relax. The tenseness seeped out of his body, his blinking became heavier by the second and finally his eyes closed and his hand in Dean's went limp. Only then did Dean release his hand and step back.

Angela turned her attention to Dean and eyed him closely. Whatever had happened here, it had been traumatic for both of them and she could not even begin to imagine what kind of courage it had taken for Dean to do what he had done.

***