The fear transformed into cold anger in an instant. Everything else fell away as he scanned the ground for the signs that were bound to be there and almost at once he fixed his eyes on the grooves in the pine needle layer. He pocketed Sam's phone, pulled his gun and followed the signs. Whoever had jumped his brother hadn't been able to carry him out of here.

With his eyes on the ground and his senses alert, Dean made his way through the forest due west, swearing under his breath that he would kill whoever had hurt Sam. The anger flourished and he knew how to feed it to keep it alive. It was better than the alternative, the helplessness that overcame him whenever he wasn't in control. And losing Sam like this was putting a cramp in his style. He was supposed to look out for his brother. That was his job.

He sneered at the thought. Job? Hell no. Sam was family, his only family, and his responsibility out of his own free will. The squirming baby in his arms, the snot-nosed little brat who drove him crazy with questions, the gangly teenager who was afraid of girls, but could take on a ghost like nobody's business, the man he had become. Nobody was going to undo what he had done. Nobody was going to change the gentle giant that was his brother. And every time someone took a swing at Sam, every time someone took a shot at him or hurt him, Dean feared that his gentleness would be wiped out, that he would turn into the monster dad had warned him he had the potential of becoming.

Grinding his teeth together, he pushed on, single-minded determination making him dangerous to anyone around. The pine needle cover became snow again when the pines were replaced by leaf-bearing trees, which stretched their presently naked branches toward a dangerously overcast sky. The steel grey cloud-cover promised more snow and Dean cursed silently under his breath.

The tracks in the snow revealed not one assailant but two, which made it easier for Dean to understand that they'd gotten the drop on Sam, whoever they were. He pushed on, moving as fast as he could without making too much noise. It wouldn't do to alert the attackers if he could avoid it. And there was the hope that Sam might be able to give as good as he got. The case in Hibbing had been a good indicator of what his brother was capable of after all. The thought brought a wry smile to his lips, but only for a second. This situation called for his complete attention and he couldn't let his guard down by hoping that Sam could fend for himself.

After a seemingly endless trek through the undergrowth, his eyes glued to the tracks in the snow, he suddenly stopped and looked up. About a mile in, he could see a house. Or a cabin, rather. He eyed it for a moment, searching for any movement, but there was none immediately visible. Slowly, he approached the cabin, straining to hear any sounds. There was something going on on the other side of the cabin, but he wasn't entirely sure about what he was hearing. Slowly, he edged along the cabin's side and stopped again near the far corner, listening intently to the sounds that reached him. Grunting sounds, like someone working hard on something. He grimaced, then chanced a quick glance around the corner. What he saw made him see red. White-hot anger rose in him like a tidal wave. He flipped the safety off the gun, then rounded the corner, intent on blowing these hillbillies away, but before he could even aim the gun, he was hit in the face by something decidedly painful. The impact was hard enough to make him black out at once.

***

Sam came around with a decidedly bad headache and the first thing he really registered was how damned cold his feet were. He shifted and then everything slammed home with a vicious blow that nearly took his breath away. Despite the thudding headache and the biting cold, which seemed to start at his toes and enveloped his entire being, his head snapped up and for a moment he couldn't comprehend what he was seeing.

Two men stood in front of him. They were dirty and looked like they had been hit with a hammer a few times too many. And they both held old, worn baseball bats.

It took Sam a split second to take in his own condition, from the fact that he had been stripped down to his jeans, to that he was handcuffed to something made of metal behind him, his arms over his head, to that he was gagged, to the very real fact that his brother was in the same situation. The pole behind Dean looked damned sturdy and the handcuffs were police issue cuffs. Dean had a nasty bruise on his brow coupled with a gash that was oozing blood into his left eye. But that didn't stop his brother from raging against his confinement, his green eyes glittering with hatred while he glared at the two men standing between them.

They laughed stupidly, those two, and nudged each other for a moment, then one of them, the taller one, took a step toward Sam. Unable to shy back or talk to them, he settled for glaring angrily at them, which made little difference. Sam figured the kid with the busted skull had run afoul of these two bastards. Dumb and Dumber leered at him in a way that made him decidedly uneasy, though, and he briefly flicked his gaze to Dean, who was fighting his ties angrily. But Dumb made sure his attention stayed on him when he raised the baseball bat and swung it at Sam's chest. Sam saw it coming and managed to brace himself against the impact, but it hurt like hell on his already frostbitten skin. Dean went ballistic, his muffled words almost understandable. Dumb ignored him and swung the bat at Sam again, hitting the exact same spot as before. The guy might be retarded on some level, but he sure could hit his mark.

Sam huffed and shifted a little, trying to bring the fortitude up to kick the shit out of this bastard, but the cold had numbed him and made it almost impossible for him to direct anything even marginally effective at this guy. He did kick out and he did catch Dumb off guard, but Dumber was there in a flash and hammered his bat against Sam's thigh, bruising it badly. Sam yelped into the gag while his anger flared.

Dumb had apparently taken offence at being kicked, even though it had been a weak-assed kick, and the guy went nuts on Sam with his bat, hitting him left and right, bruising him until one blow hit his sternum at just the right angle. It drove the air out of Sam in a rush and since Dumb hadn't let off on the batting practice, Sam wasn't prepared for the next barrage of blows raining down over him. With the explosion of pain from his sternum radiating outward and stealing his breath, he didn't brace himself against the next few blows and he could literally hear a rib crack under the barrage. That further impede him and the next blow that hit his upper left arm landed in a very unfortunate way. With the impact site this close to his ear, he actually could hear the bone breaking and it was probably as much that as the pain it caused that made him yelp again.

At this point Dean proved to be resourceful yet again. Despite the biting cold and the fact that he had a head injury, he managed to scoop up a smallish rock with his toes, tossed it up and kicked it full force. Sam winced, because he could just imagine how that had to hurt, but the rock found its target, hitting Dumber in the back of the head at full speed. The guy stumbled forward, grabbed the back of his head and started howling like a wounded animal when his hand came away bloody. Unfortunately, this assault redirected the attacks on Dean and both Dumb and Dumber bore down on him with enough ferocity to have killed a lesser man in minutes.

Sam fought his own ties, desperate to stop this. They were going to kill Dean, were going to beat him to death, if Sam couldn't find a way out of this. And Dean dying before the year was up would mean he would go to Hell that much sooner. The realization of this burned through Sam's mind with such clarity that it incinerated all else. He tore and ripped at the cuffs holding his hands aloft, ignorant to his own pain, anger white-hot inside him. He heard bone breaking, heard the hollow thuds when the bats connected with Dean's head, and it raised his anger, fueled the rage, until his ties suddenly gave in, spilling him forward. He nearly fell, but somehow managed to remain on his feet while he peeled the gag out of his mouth, then lunged forward and grabbed the bat when Dumb swung it back to bring it crashing down on Dean yet again. With a vicious yank, he relieved Dumb of his bat, turned it around and swung it with enough force to put a hole in a brick wall. The impact was meant to kill and it did. The guy was hit on the side of the head and Sam could hear his skull caving in. He had no sense for anything other than making these bastards back off and leave his brother the hell alone, so he swung the bat again and even though Dumber had managed to turn around and was more than ready to defend himself, Sam's attack on him was too vicious and he dropped like a log, dead before he hit the ground.

Breathing hard and still seething with anger, Sam lowered the bat, his right bicep burning with the strength he'd put into the act. He focused on his brother, who was fighting to stay conscious, and took a step toward him when he got the distinct impression that they weren't alone. Instead of taking the risk of being surprised, he ripped the bat up and swung it around while turning back and hit a third man, who had been creeping up behind him with a rifle. The blow sent him sideways into the pole Sam had been tied to and knocked him out.

Not thinking too clearly, Sam dropped the bat and turned back to Dean. He needed to get Dean down from that damned pole, which had obviously been created for this very purpose. A quick glance around had him picking up an axe that was lying on the pile of wood stacked along the wall and he used it to break the chain of the cuffs. It took two solid swings, but he managed to break it and grabbed a hold of his brother before he could lose his balance. Sam flinched when he instinctively tried to use his left arm, which was definitely broken if the explosion of pain was anything to go by. But he kept it under wraps and shifted his grip on Dean a little. "Dean," he tried. "Come on, man. You gotta help me out here."

Dean shifted a little, then somehow managed to get his feet under him. With an agonized groan he raised his head a little and blinked blearily ahead of himself. "Son of a bitch," he slurred.

"That's one way of putting it," Sam agreed. His broken rib was really starting to cause him trouble and his head was pounding again, now that the anger had burned out. "Where the hell are our clothes?" he muttered and squinted a little. He had been hit in the head too, when those bastards had grabbed him, and from the way he felt, he was fairly certain he had a concussion. A light one, probably, but still enough to hamper him. And that was no good, because Dean was in worse shape than him. "Can you walk?" he asked.

Dean nodded sluggishly and took a step forward with Sam, but the second he put weight on his right leg, he let out a muffled yelp and nearly managed to pull Sam down with him. "Ho-wow," Sam exclaimed and ground his teeth together against the stabbing pain from his broken rib when he stopped his brother's fall.

"Shit, shit, shit," Dean pressed out through clenched teeth and even that was slightly slurred.

With an effort that cause him almost as much pain as it did Dean, Sam eased his brother to the ground. "I'll see if I can find our stuff," he said and pushed to his feet again, leaving Dean sitting there with his back against the pile of firewood.

With his right arm wrapped around his aching chest, he waded through the snow to the door to the cabin and shouldered it open. The smell from inside made him recoil. "Jeez," he gasped and covered his mouth and nose with his hand instead before gingerly stepping inside. It smelled like something had died in there. Actually, it smelled like several somethings had died in there. The gloom inside took a moment for him to adjust to, but slowly the inside of the cabin came into focus. Sam had seen a lot of bad things in his life, some of them bad enough for him to lose his lunch over, but this cabin took the cake. "Oh god," he rasped into his palm. It suddenly was very clear to him what these bastards had intended and beating the crap out of Dean and himself wasn't the only thing. There were two beds in the cabin, one huge kind-sized bed which indicated that all three men had shared it and one queen-sized on the other side of the cabin in what passed for the kitchen area. A desiccated corpse was lying on the bed, hands and feet tied to each post. Despite the horrible state the corpse was in, it was still obvious that this had been one of the kids who had disappeared and the way the kid had been positioned ...

Swallowing convulsively to keep his suddenly roiling stomach at bay, Sam looked away, focusing on finding their clothes. A part of him did insist that he should at least check if it really was a corpse, but he just couldn't convince himself to cover the distance.

In his effort to find something else to focus on, he found Dean's leather jacket, but that was about it. The rest of their clothes had been shredded. "Shit," he muttered and carefully hunkered down to pick up the leather jacket. His own jacket was torn open down the back and wouldn't help him against the elements. Even their shoes had been cut to shreds. "Bastards," he growled. Why they had left the leather jacket unscathed was beyond him, but it didn't really matter anyway. He pushed back to his feet and had to fight a bad bout of vertigo for a second before he managed to turn around and leave this hell house behind again.

When he stepped out of the house again, dragging his right leg a little because of the overtly bruised muscles, he realized two things at once. The first was that Dean had passed out, which was bad news if he had a concussion, and the second was that the third guy wasn't dead. With an angry roar, the guy charged Sam with a raised axe and Sam only barely managed to sidestep the lunatic and avoid the axe before the guy barreled into him and knocked him off his feet. The impact with the dirty floor of the cabin sent a jarring explosion of pain out through his body and his left arm was wedged in between the door frame and his hip, jarring the broken bone enough for Sam to let out a howl of pain. The pain again upped his anger and before the guy could do more than reach for his throat, Sam ripped his right leg up between them and shoved the guy violently off him. Although every movement was white-hot pain right now, Sam used it in his favor and propelled himself back to his feet while grabbing the axe the guy had dropped.

He sneered angrily, then swung the axe around. When the guy backpedaled to get away from Sam's attack, Sam simply released the handle of the axe, which embedded itself in the man's skull, killing him instantly. The tackle had jostled his broken rib dangerously and as the anger once again ebbed away, the pain reasserted itself tenfold. "Shit," he breathed. On top of having been beaten to hell, he was also freezing so bad he was afraid he would lose some toes at least if not more, but that did not stop him from getting a move on. He had to get Dean out of here. There was no telling how many more of these deranged assholes hung out in this forest. "Son of a bitch," he added vehemently and couldn't help a pained smirk at stealing his brother's favorite phrase.

With an effort and using the wall of the cabin for support, he eased down into a crouch, then grabbed Dean's shoulder. "Dean," he said and shook him lightly. There was too much damned blood on his brother's face and it all seemed to come from over his hairline. "Dean!" he insisted.

Unsteadily, Dean raised his head and blinked at him. "Let'me sleep. 'M tired," he ground out, barely able to get the words out.

"Like hell. You have a concussion, dude. You need to stay awake. We need to get the hell out of here," Sam insisted. He wasn't too steady himself and if he allowed himself to think about it, he wasn't sure he would be able to get them out. As long as he upheld the belief that they could make it, he would be able to pull it off.

Somehow, he managed to get the leather jacket around Dean's back and his arms into the sleeves before he zipped it up with some effort. Then he rose, grabbed Dean's arm and bodily hoisted his brother to his feet while grinding his teeth against his own pain.

Dean groaned in pain when he managed to shift him around so he could lean on Sam and not use his busted leg. Sam assumed it was broken, but he had neither the time nor the ability to check for it right now. He could barely feel his fingers any more from the cold.

It was only when they were ready to move that Sam realized he had no damned clue in which direction they were supposed to go. His own vision wavered a bit and he briefly closed his eyes, then squinted at their surroundings. The sun was setting if the fading light was anything to go by, but the sky above them was slate grey, heavy clouds full of snow just waiting to open up and bury them.

A gust of wind nudged him sideways and he blinked in confusion at the feeling, but he had no time to think about it. He needed to get Dean the hell out of here. With an effort, he started dragging his brother along, around the cabin and spotted the footprints in the snow, which gave him something to go after. He followed the trail, eyes on the ground, his mind focused on only one thing. To keep moving and to keep his brother upright and awake.

His feet had gone completely numb at this point and his teeth would have been chattering if he hadn't put so much effort into their forward motion. Dean helped out as much as he could, but considering the fact that his brother could barely string two words together right now, Sam was actually surprised Dean wasn't unconscious.

When they reached a patch of forest floor the snow hadn't reached, Dean suddenly lurched to a halt, stopping Sam's forward momentum. "Enough," he rasped. He generally sounded like he was dead drunk.

"No, man. We have to keep moving," Sam insisted. He was getting really tired now, the added weight of his brother slowing them down to a crawl. He tried to start moving again, but Dean pulled backward and groaned when that upset whatever injuries he had.

"Can't," he whispered. "Enough."

"We can't stay here, Dean," Sam persisted. "We'll freeze to death. You're badly injured. I need to get you back to civilization."

"You go," Dean pressed out and started fighting Sam's hold on him. "I'll stay."

"Bullshit," Sam spat. "You're not staying here. You'll be dead by the time I ..." He stopped, feeling tears of frustration rise in his eyes. The fact was that Dean was right. He didn't have enough strength left to make it all the way with Dean in tow.

"Gettin' there anyway," Dean muttered.

"No, you're not. I'll find a way to get you out of this damned deal. You're not giving up. Not now. Do you hear me?" Sam barked at him, angry and scared. The fear was prominent right now, though.

Dean managed a pale smirk. "You're not dad," he rasped, then yanked backward.

Sam lost his grip on Dean, who dropped down on the ground and doubled over with a restrained gasp of agony. "Shit, Dean, don't do this to me. Not now," Sam begged and eased down into a crouch while grabbing out for the pine next to him to steady himself. "Dean, come on, man."

"Go, Sam. Get help," Dean slurred. He was having trouble keeping his head up. He squinted at the tree trunk, then fell sideways against it.

"I'm not leaving you here," Sam tried.

"Go," Dean insisted, his voice briefly growing stronger.

"No, Dean," Sam tried again, but Dean gave him a push, albeit a very weak one.

"''ll be fine. Got m'jacket," he slurred and tried a smile, which failed miserably. "Go, Sam."

Unwilling to obey, yet aware he had to this time around, Sam used the tree to get back to his feet. "I'll be back soon," he promised. "You better not give up, Dean. I swear I'm gonna follow you if you give up now."

Dean glanced up at him for a second, then closed his eyes and let his head drop against the trunk. "Ow," he rasped when he hit one of the gashes in his scalp.

On unsteady feet, Sam turned around and started moving. It was easier, faster to move without having to half carry Dean along, but the lightness of his movements now was an agony in itself. He couldn't fail, not now. He had to get help, had to find someone who could help him. Another gust of wind nudged him off course a little, but he kept moving, one numb foot in front of the other, and now that his burden was dropped, his teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. He cradled his broken left arm against his chest in the vain hope of gaining a little warmth and staggered out of the forest. He had to work a little harder at getting through the snow and soon it was a lot harder when the snow deepened. But somehow it felt warmer down there, in the snow. Not that he could really feel that much anymore. He only knew he had feet because he could still walk. And the numbness was clawing its way up his legs, had almost reached his knees, when the whiteness gave way to blacktop, then turned back into whiteness.

Darkness had settled over the land, making it almost impossible for him to see where he was going. He clawed his way over a small hill of snow and skittered down the other side, his mind focused on moving, his body screaming for rest. He gasped whenever he made a wrong move, cursed his pounding head to hell, and just kept on moving. His fingers had died somewhere along the way while images of that cabin clawed their way into his conscious mind. He was getting delirious from the pain and the cold and the concussion. He needed to find help. He needed to find someone who would help Dean.

One foot in front of the other was all he could do, all he could focus on. Occasionally, a gust of wind would push him off course, but he continued moving, forward, forward, until he broke out of another tree line; 'was I just in a forest?' he thought briefly. Then his right leg gave in and he dropped down on it in the snow, reached out with his right hand to brace himself. Getting back to his feet seemed an impossible feat, but he did it anyway, somehow, took two more steps and fell again.

"Jesus!"

Confused, he raised his head and squinted at the light up ahead, then realized someone was rushing toward him. "Help," he pressed out. "I need help."

Amazingly hot hands grabbed his arms, steadied him and got him back to his feet. "You need a doctor, sweetie," a voice replied.

He couldn't identify that voice, had no idea who the woman was. He couldn't focus on her. "Dean. Dean needs help. Please," he rasped.

"Where is Dean?" the voice asked.

A burning hot arm wrapped around his back, drew his right arm over her shoulders. He leaned on her, a little more heavily than he should have, but she bore the weight and guided him forward, directing his steps. "My brother." He gasped when her fingers touched the broken rib. "Back there," he pressed out through clenched teeth. "Please. He'll die."

"I'll get your brother some help. But I need to get you inside first," she said and dragged him inside.

She eased him down on something soft and warm, draped something over him and started rubbing his right shoulder. His teeth still chattered uncontrollably. He wanted to sleep, but he had to get back to Dean. "Dean needs help," he rasped, barely able to speak through the chattering of his teeth.

"Hang on," she insisted as he world faded away around him.