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Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. – Shawshank Redemption

 

 

“I guess she wasn’t so bad… for a ghost. You think she’s really going to a better place?”

“I hope so.”

“I guess we’ll never know. Not until we take the plunge ourselves, huh?”

“Doesn’t really matter, Dean. Hope’s kinda the whole point.”

~*~

Dean Winchester thinks about that as he nudges his kid brother's arm, pushing him toward the Impala and their next destination. Hope. Sometimes it’s the cruelest four-letter word he knows.

But Dean does hope. That when his time does come, he’ll do it right. He’ll go down swinging; Sam will salt and burn his ass, give him a proper hunter’s funeral, and that’ll be that. No hanging around to become some sad, lost soul like Molly, desperately clinging to… life? Afterlife? Whatever. Or worse, becoming a murderous, vengeful asshole like the vast majority of the spirits they encounter.  

Since reuniting with his brother, Dean has found himself a few, feeble heartbeats away from putting that theory to the test a couple of times. Shit, if he can believe Sam’s stories, he was dead, literally knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door. Twice.

Vital signs absent for nearly three minutes in the ambulance after accidentally frying himself while taking out a rawhead. Three friggin’ minutes, Dean... you don't know...  

And then again a few months later, torn up from the inside out, on life-support and flat-lining while Sam watched helplessly from the doorway.

Dean doesn’t remember anything about his time of dying in the hospital before his dad saved him, but he sure as hell remembers what it was like to be on his knees in a muddy Nebraska cornfield, to feel the life force being drained out of his body. Those moments when the reaper was taking his soul in exchange for Layla Rourke’s were terrifying, and yet somehow, he still couldn’t help feeling that it was… right.

He never told Sam, and he never will, but when that reaper reached out to snatch him, Dean didn’t fight it. He could’ve run, could’ve tried. But he stood there and let it happen, because in that moment, he hoped. An innocent man had died in his place and Dean hoped, maybe, this would balance the scales and Layla would get the miracle she deserved. It only took those few, endless seconds of the reaper’s deadly caress for him to see the flawed logic in his sacrifice and by then, Sam had destroyed the amulet, the preacher’s insane wife was dead, and Layla Rourke was doomed.  

Later, he’d told Layla that he would pray for her. In his heart he knew it was a lie, even as the words left his mouth. At twenty-seven, he’d already seen too much evil go unanswered to believe in any kind of merciful God. Dean Winchester didn’t pray, but he hoped. With everything he had, he hoped that Layla’s faith was justified, that her God would heal her, give her back the years that he and Sam had stolen from her. And if she didn’t get the miracle she deserved, then he hoped that she, and Sam, and all the true believers were right: that there is a better place waiting for the good people of this world.

But his dad was a good person. His dad saved a lot of innocent lives. He’d saved him. And his dad is burning in Hell. So yeah, screw hope. Right in the face.

*~*

It’s not quite ten minutes after Molly goes into the light that the Impala pulls into the parking spot in front of their motel room door. It’s just past dawn and checkout isn’t until noon – plenty of time to wash off the ghost cooties and maybe catch a couple hours sleep before they head out again. The wet snow has turned to rain in the weak morning sun, but a light skiff of white still clings to the grass around the cement sidewalk. Friggin’ snow. Dean shakes his head and shuts off the ignition.  

“We definitely need to find a case someplace warmer, Sammy. A beach would be nice.” He looks sideways at his brother, almost wistful. “When’s the last time we went to the beach?”

Neither expecting nor getting an answer, Dean pulls his jacket tighter around himself and gets out of the car, grabs the duffle of weapons from the back seat and makes a beeline for the room. Sam follows right on his heels, using his ridiculously long legs to step around his brother as Dean unlocks the door.  

“Dibs on first shower.” Sam hip-checks Dean as he pushes past him into the room.   

“Easy there, Sasquatch.”   

Sam laughs, but sobers quickly when Dean winces at the contact.   

“Dean? You okay?”

Dean ignores him, muttering instead how Sam should hurry the hell up and not use all the hot water for once, but he sucks a low hiss in through his teeth as he bends to stow the duffel under the small table beneath the window.

It’s not the first time Sam’s asked the question this morning. He watches Dean’s mouth tighten into a thin line as he sits down on the edge of the bed. Sam doesn’t know exactly what Greely'd done to Dean while he was outside torching the man's corpse, but his brother was on the floor by the time Sam made it back into the cabin. He was on his feet again before Sam could offer a hand up. He seemed uninjured apart from a scratch on his cheek that had already stopped bleeding, but he would swear Dean was limping on their walk back to the car. Of course he’d waved off Sam’s concern with a patented, cocky grin.  

“Dean?”  

“I’m fine.” This smile is more of a grimace, but just as long-suffering as ever. Sam opens his mouth to press the issue but Dean cuts him off. “Shower, Sammy. Now.” Sam just keeps staring, and Dean takes a step toward the bathroom with an impatient sigh, shrugging off his jacket. “Fine then…” The bluff works like he knew it would and seconds later the bathroom door closes behind Sam.  

When he hears the water start up, Dean eases out of his flannel shirt and pulls his Colt out of the waistband of his jeans, double checking the safety before sliding it under his pillow. Reaching down to untie his boots sends a sharp pain singing across his lower back and it’s all he can do to loosen the laces and toe them off.  Another long breath morphs into a pained grunt as he lays down and rolls gingerly onto his stomach.  

Okay, so ‘fine’ was maybe a tad optimistic. His back is killing him. Fucking-son-of-a-bitch ghosts. He can practically see Sam rolling his judgey, college-educated eyes at his vocabulary as he sinks his head into the pillow, but yeah, screw that. He's sore, tired and hungry. They’ve been up for the better part of two days, and yet another douchebag spirit threw him at a wall. He’s earned the right to curse a little. And maybe to close his eyes for a minute or two, just until Sam’s out of the shower.   

~*~

Despite the fact that this is a halfway decent motel and there is almost no chance that he will use up all the hot water, Sam doesn’t linger in the shower. The prospect of a warm bed and a few hours sleep nearly makes him moan with anticipation, and regardless of his brother’s stupid posturing, he knows Dean is just about dead on his feet as well. After washing off the stink of Jonah Greely’s grave, he wraps a towel around his waist, grabs his toothbrush from his kit, squeezes out a line of toothpaste and shoves it in his mouth. A lifetime of living in each other’s pockets has pretty much erased their personal boundaries - he opens the bathroom door and calls out without looking.  

“Shower’s all yours.” Sam brushes quickly, rinsing and spitting before walking back out into the room. “Hey, I said…”

But Dean’s out cold, still in his jeans and t-shirt and snoring softly. His right arm’s crooked around his pillow, the left folded protectively into his side, fingers curled into a loose fist. His shirt rides up, exposing a strip of bare skin just above his hip and there is already the beginnings of an ugly, purple bruise creeping from beneath his waistband. Sam tugs the thin comforter up and covers Dean, then slips quietly into clean boxers and a t-shirt and sits down heavily on the edge of his own bed.   

The washed out sunlight filtering through the curtains casts a pale shadow across Dean’s face and Sam cringes a little as he studies the enigma that is his brother. Awake, Dean is a master of disguise, hiding his emotions with his sarcastic wit. Masking his pain with his boundless charm, and, far too often in the months since losing their dad, with anger. But asleep, he can’t hide, not from Sam anyway. Dean has always looked like a kid when he’s sleeping, rumpled and boyish. Lately though, he just looks tired, worn beyond his years. The soft crinkles around his eyes he’s carried since he was a teenager seem harsher, the faint creases lining his forehead drawn deeper with each passing day. Dean mutters something unintelligible, jaw muscles bunching as he rolls onto his back. Whether it’s stress or pain doesn’t really matter, it comes down to the same thing: Dean is a mess.  

Sam sighs.  

It’s no frigging wonder. He might not know what went down inside the cabin last night, but he knows Dean hadn’t even had time to recover from being tossed around like a ragdoll by the Trickster before word of a haunted stretch of highway brought them here to western Nevada. Not to mention that less than three weeks ago, Sam had not only pistol-whipped Dean unconscious, he’d then shot him and left him for dead in the dirty, icy water of a Minnesota boatyard. Then, when it turned out Dean survived the gunshot after all, Sam (it wasn’t you, Sammy) had beat the ever-loving shit out of him. Oh, and then, just for kicks, he’d dug his thumb around in the bullet hole he’d put in his brother’s shoulder. The sheer mind-fuckery of it alone would’ve brought most people to their knees.  

Dean certainly wasn’t talking, but between Bobby and Jo and the fragments Sam could remember of his possession, the picture he’s pieced together of what he’d put Dean through is all too clear. But according to Dean, Sam hadn’t done anything. Not to him, not to Jo or Bobby, and not to Steve Wandell. Sam’s not sure what is more terrifying – the depth of Dean’s unshakeable faith in him, or how far he'll let Sam go before it finally breaks.  

Sam swallows down the bile that rises in his throat at the thought and drops his head into his hands. He wonders, not for the first time, if there is anything that Dean won’t forgive him.  

Back in Oregon, when Dean finally confessed his secret, the lethal directive their father had given his eldest son with what was practically his dying breath, Sam had been pissed. So pissed at his brother for hiding the truth from him that he couldn’t see past it. So wrapped up in his own anger, his own fear, he couldn’t see that what their father had asked of him was killing Dean. Somehow, in his righteous indignation over being lied to, Sam managed to forget that just hours before, when they both believed that Sam was infected with the demon virus, Dean had not only been willing to die alongside him, he was ready.  

‘I'm tired, Sam. I'm tired of this job, this life… this weight on my shoulders, man. I'm tired of it.’   

At the time, Sam thought it was about the guilt Dean felt over their dad’s sacrifice, but it was so, so much more. His indomitable big brother, who had spent his entire life fighting monsters undaunted, was ready to lay down and die in the face of the crushing burdens John Winchester had laid on him with his death. 'He said I might have to kill you, Sammy.'   

And then when Dean had asked him, begged him for a little time to figure things out, Sam did what Sam always does: he left. If Dean had just accepted that, let him go, there was every chance that Sam would be dead right now, at the hands of Gordon Walker. Instead, Dean did what he always does: everything he could to protect his little brother.  

They’d come together again after that, trying to deal with the looming spectre of Sam’s destiny the way they knew best, as brothers. Dean seemed to get his mojo back, but clearly, fate never tires of messing with the Winchesters. Less than a month later, what should have been a fairly routine hunt for a shapeshifter turned into a nightmare. One that had left Dean on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Special Agent Victor Henricksen with a hard-on for the Winchesters, and their already-complicated life a whole new level of screwed. And then Sam had gone and gotten himself possessed by a demon.

Dean shifts beneath the comforter, more distressed sounds issuing from between clenched teeth. Sam’s head snaps up in time to see his brother’s mouth pull into a grimace. It’s obvious that Dean’s in some kind of pain and Sam stills, waiting to see if it’s bad enough to wake him. After a minute Dean’s face goes slack again and Sam lets out the breath he’s holding. They've got just over three hours until they have to either check-out or pay for another day, and Sam reaches for the cheap alarm clock on the bedside table between them. One more glance at his sleeping brother and Sam sets the clock down again.

Screw it.  

He gets up and draws the shades behind the faded curtains, darkening the room enough that he has to be careful making his way back to the bed. Sam settles in, pulls the covers up around his neck and says a silent prayer that ‘Leroy Sanderson’ and his VISA Gold can spring for one more day.

~*~

The scrape of the key in the lock of the motel room door wakes Dean, but it’s the enticing, rich scent of coffee that has him cracking open an eye to find Sam looming over him, a tall, brown paper cup in each hand. Dean scrubs his hands over his face once or twice, then sits up as Sam holds out the coffee.    

“Time’s it?” Dean’s voice sounds like he’s been gargling with broken glass. Sam smirks, then looks pointedly between Dean and the large, red numbers on the clock right beside him.  

“Three-thirty— what the hell, Sam?”  

Sam shrugs. “You were tired.”  Dean starts to sputter purely on principle and Sam cuts him short in the most effective way possible. “Fine, I was tired. We were up for nearly 48 hours, Dean. I needed some sleep.”  

Predictably mollified and already more interested in the coffee in Sam’s hand than chewing him out, Dean lets further protest die on his lips. He pulls the lid off and takes a long swallow of the still-steaming brew, tilting his head back in silent, blissful thanks.  

“Bobby called,” Sam says, walking to the window.

Dean takes another small sip of coffee and waits. Impatiently. “And?”

“And,” Sam pulls the curtains wide, flooding the room with light, “he has a case for us.”

Dean flinches and sets the coffee down, cursing audibly as he lays back onto the bed and slings an arm over his eyes. Apparently that broken glass found its way from his throat to his brain. His head feels like it’s going to fucking explode. “And?  Christ, Sammy."  

Sam drops down onto the bed opposite Dean and leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. “And, it’s in San Francisco.”  

“Oh.” Oh. They haven’t been back to California since Jess. “We don’t have to take it if—”  

“Yeah, we do,” Sam says quietly.

Dean lifts his arm just enough to get a look at his brother and Sam is nodding his head, conviction in his eyes.

Dean believes him.

“Bobby’s got a guy in Stockton, owns a 'specialty shop'.” Sam actually makes the air quotes with his fingers. Dean rolls his eyes and immediately regrets it, pressing the meat of his forearm back hard against them with a low moan. “He asked if we could stop on our way through and pick up a few things for him. You all right, Dean?”

DeanAndSam01   

“I’m fine, Sammy.” Dean sits up again as he speaks, hoping the action will lend at least a little credence to his words. "Just tired, like you said.”

Sam doesn’t quite scoff, but it’s a near thing. Dean’s forehead is covered with a thin sheen of sweat, faint purple smudges under eyes that are just a little too bright. He would bet the Impala that Dean has a fever. His grumbling protest when Sam tries to feel his forehead only confirms it.  

“Get off.”  

“Are you getting sick?” Sam is already on his feet again, rummaging in the bottom of his backpack.

“Sick of your face,” Dean mutters, but there is no heat in the words and he takes the two Tylenol Sam offers without further comment. He swallows them with another mouthful of coffee, pushing the comforter aside and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He pulls his bottom lip into his teeth, biting back a hiss as the movement sends a nasty jolt screaming across his lower back. His t-shirt rides up as he leans over to put the coffee down and then it’s Sam who sucks in a breath.  

“God, Dean, your back…” The bruising that was only just visible when they’d gone to sleep now covers the expanse of Dean’s skin bared below the hem of his shirt. “Let me see.”  

Sam reaches for him, but Dean knocks his hand away, twisting to try and get a better look himself. He lets out a pained grunt at the motion and then Sam bats Dean’s hand away.  

“Let. Me. See.” Dean puts up a token resistance before a lifetime of training kicks in and he acquiesces, pulling his left arm across his body to give Sam access. Sam lifts the shirt gently, a sharp breath whistling through his teeth. The bruise, a mottled purple and blue swath as wide as Sam’s hand, stretches from Dean's hip to his spine, disappearing beneath the waistband of his jeans. “Jesus!” A dark stain the size of his fist spreads out from a small tear in the denim, just below his belt. Sam pulls the comforter back to find a similar deep red splotch on the blanket where Dean had been laying. “Are you bleeding?”  

Dean undoes his belt, then the button and zipper on his jeans, wincing as he rises from the bed and lets them fall to his ankles. Kicking them the rest of the way off, he limps over to the mirror on the bathroom door. The fabric of his boxer-briefs is glued to his skin with dried blood and he sucks in a breath as he peels it away just enough to assess the damage. It’s only a small puncture wound at the lower edge of the bruising, but the skin around it is ragged and swollen.

“Jesus, Dean,” Sam repeats, but softer, “why didn’t you say something?”

“I didn’t know, Sam.” And it’s nothing less than the truth. It'd hurt like a mother when Greely flung him into the wall. Bad enough that Dean couldn’t even get to his feet before the sonofabitch was on him again, with a knife to his throat. There were exposed hooks and nails all over the rundown cabin's walls; he’d probably hit one when Greely threw him, but the pain was intense enough across his whole back that he didn’t realize he’d actually been wounded. He tells Sam as much and after a long look at Dean’s face, Sam nods.  

“Well, we need to clean it up.” Sam’s already got the first-aid kit open, laying antiseptic, gauze, tape and scissors out on the bed. Dean rolls his shoulders and turns gingerly at the hips a couple times, left then right, audibly cracking his spine. Managing a fair imitation of his trademark smirk, he sniffs his pits, pulls off his t-shirt and tosses it to the floor with his discarded jeans.  

“Shower first, then I'm all yours, Florence.”

*~*

The hot shower, Sam’s first-aid skills, and a couple more Tylenol swallowed dry while Sam’s back is turned leave Dean feeling halfway human, his headache mostly gone and the pain in his back quieted to a dull ache. Of course he has to endure Sam’s lecture about hiding injuries and the dangers of infection etcetera, etcetera, blah blah blah, but the wound has already stopped bleeding. A thorough (and painful) flushing and a thick coating of antibiotic cream later, Sam deems him at least fit enough to make the ten minute walk to the local diner.   

“So what’s in California?” Dean asks around a mouthful of bacon-cheeseburger. Truth be told, he isn’t all that hungry, but he’d eat the whole damn cow if it kept Sam’s bitch-face under control.  

Sam is taking advantage of an unprotected Wi-Fi connection and has been tapping away at his laptop since they sat down. He answers without taking his eyes off the screen. “Bobby thinks it might be a werewolf.”  

Dean nearly chokes on his burger. “No shit? A werewolf?” He coughs the word out with something close to glee in his voice. Sam looks up, glaring at him, then smiling and nodding at the waitress who’s wiping down the booth next to theirs and trying hard not to look like she’s eavesdropping. When she looks away again, Sam closes the laptop and leans in closer.

“Seriously? Are you twelve?”

Seriously?” Dean mimics, but lowers his voice anyway. “Are you friggin’ kidding me Sammy? That’s awesome! We haven’t seen a… one of those since we were kids!”

“Could you be a bigger geek about this?”

Dean sighs. “It’s like I don’t even know you.”  

Sam just shakes his head and begins to outline the case for him. Dean’s enthusiasm grows by the minute and Sam practically bites a hole in his cheek trying to hide his grin by the time he’s finished. When Bobby had called earlier about the case, Sam’s first instinct was to tell him no. They need a break – Dean needs a break. But when he told Sam what they’d be hunting, he knew Dean would be pissed at him if they missed it, and then he realized it might be a perfect opportunity.  

“So, I was thinking…” A quick narrowing of his eyes silences Dean before he can pounce on the too-easy opening. “All the killings have happened in the week of the full moon, right? So that means we’ve got a couple weeks before the next cycle begins.”  

Dean just stares at him, clearly unimpressed by Sam’s grasp of the obvious. “So?”  

Sam stares right back.

“So, you remember my friend Rachel, from Stanford? Her family owns an inn near the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. I was thinking, it’s less than an hour away from San Francisco. Jess and I used to go there...." Dean just keeps looking at Sam like he’s sprouted a second head and Sam presses on, “If we leave first thing in the morning, we could swing through Stockton to pick up Bobby’s stuff and be in Santa Cruz for dinner. Maybe spend a couple days, relax a little. I mean, I thought...”  

Sam forces himself to stop talking when Dean doesn’t even blink. After a long moment of unexpectedly awkward silence, Sam breaks. “You said you wanted to go to the beach,” he mutters, inexplicably self-conscious. "I know it's not exactly sunbathing weather, but it's warmer than here..." His eyes slide to the waitress, still hovering nearby, then to the floor. But when he looks up again, Dean’s smirking, batting his ridiculous eyelashes, and Sam knows he’s been played.  

“Aww Sammy, you askin’ me on a date?” The waitress is staring openly now. Dean winks at her, flashing his most shit-eating grin, then turns it back on Sam. “You know, if you want me to put out you’re gonna have to spring for the honeymoon suite.” Dean wiggles his eyebrows suggestively and the waitress flees into the kitchen.  

“I hate you.” Sam opens up the laptop again and pulls up MapQuest.  

“You love me.” Dean takes another bite of his burger and chews it with his mouth open.  

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.”  

*~*

The walk back to the motel seems miles longer going than it did coming. Partly because Dean’s entire left side feels like it’s on fire, and partly because of the side-eye Sam gives him pretty much every step of the way. Dean’s unlocking the door and trying not to whimper at the sight of his bed before Sam finally spills it.  

“You’re really okay with this?” Sam tries to recall the last time they’d voluntarily taken some time off – the answer was ‘never’. While Dean didn’t exactly jump up and down at the prospect of a few days at the beach, he didn’t say no, either. Fully expecting an argument, Sam had been mentally preparing his case since the moment Bobby mentioned California, and Dean’s acquiescence is freaking him out just a little. Like, maybe a splash of holy water in Dean’s morning coffee wouldn’t be totally out of line.

Dean bends to grab his duffle from under the table, regret at the movement pinching his features. The effects of the Tylenol wore off mid-way through his burger. He schools his face back into a lazy grin before he answers. “Dunno, Sammy. The beds have Magic Fingers?"

Sam wrinkles his nose in silent, yet somehow still completely judgemental response, but matches his brother's grin despite himself. "So we're doing this?"  

Dean shrugs, dropping the bag onto the table. “We have to research the job anyway. Sounds like as good a place as any.”

Sam has no intention of letting Dean work the case until he’s had at least a few days of R&R in the California sun, but if that’s what Dean needs to believe in order to get him there, that’s okay by Sam.  

For Dean’s part, he’s just… tired.  

Six months ago he had a father and a mission in life: hunting things, saving people and above all, keeping his family safe. Then, in the blink of an eye some twenty-odd years in the making, everything changed. He opened his eyes and found himself in a hospital bed with a breathing tube down his throat. A few hours later, his father was dead and Dean’s world came crashing down.  

John’s final imperative screaming inside his head twenty-four-seven was only the beginning; the hits just kept on coming. Learning the truth about his own role in their father's death. Telling Sammy about John’s last words and nearly losing him to a psycho hunter over it. Having his little brother beg him for a promise that he would kill him before he let him become the monster Gordon believed Sam already was. A few weeks after that, another encounter with a shape-shifter left them accused once again of crimes they didn’t commit, and Dean naively wondering if there were any possible way they could be more screwed.   

Then the demon-bitch-from-hell decided to take Sam for a joyride.  

Dean’s hand drifts to his shoulder, rubbing absently at the lingering ache there. It really hasn’t stopped hurting since Sam – since Meg – had put a bullet in it. He’d barely had time to wrap his mind around that before they’d gotten wind of a possibly-haunted building at Springfield University. Instead of yet another pissed off spirit, they’d found themselves facing a friggin’ demigod, a Trickster, and the two freakishly strong hookers he’d conjured out of thin air had taken turns kicking Dean’s ass all over the lecture hall. He’s pretty sure they had cracked at least a couple of his ribs before he’d ganked the bastard.  

Playing hurt is part of the job – he’s been doing it all his life – but he’s off his game and he knows it. His body's beat to hell, his last good night’s sleep is a distant memory, and now he’d let a goddamn ghost get the drop on him. Someone is going to get killed if he keeps going this way.  

So yeah. He’s not sure that relaxing is something he’s even capable of anymore, but maybe Sam’s idea isn’t so bad, taking some time to just… stop, heal. Breathe.  

No time like the present.

The walk from the diner had done him no favors; the muscles in his back protest as he strips down to his t-shirt and boxers. He tries rolling his neck, twisting at the hips and stretching his spine until it pops, but it doesn’t help much. Reaching into an inside pocket in his duffle, he pulls out a small, brown bottle of pills – the good stuff Jo had given him following her impromptu surgery on his shoulder. He’d briefly considered using them back at Bobby’s after the Hell-bitch had fled from Sam. God knows he could’ve used a little relief, but at that point he had no idea if Bobby's anti-possession charms really worked and he'd been unwilling (not to say scared out of his fucking mind) to let his guard down enough to risk the oblivion the drugs would bring. Not when he couldn’t be sure who, or what, might still be coming after them.  

But his head is pounding again, his whole body aches, and he can't recall the last time he was able to draw a deep breath without wanting to punch something. Tylenol just isn't cutting it.

Ignoring Sam’s eyes boring into the back of his skull, Dean thumbs the lid open and shakes a couple tablets into his hand. He grabs two beers from their cooler, tossing one to Sam before sitting down on the bed. They twist the caps off simultaneously, and Dean reaches his out to Sam, clinking the bottle necks together before he washes the painkillers down with a long swallow. He smacks his lips with a flourish and swings his legs onto the bed. Grinning at Sam, Dean picks up the tv remote.

“Let’s get this party started, little brother.”

After a few minutes of surfing, mostly for the satisfaction of hearing Sam suck his teeth every time he changes channels, Dean finds A Few Good Men just starting on AMC. He loves him some Jack Nicholson and for an older chick, Demi Moore was friggin’ hot in those dress whites. He drains the rest of his beer then settles back into his pillow, already feeling the pull of the Vicodin. By the time Demi walks into the JAG offices, he’s making himself a mental note to kiss Jo on the mouth the next time he sees her. He never actually sees Jack.  

*~*

Sam wakes to a sound he hasn’t heard since he was eighteen years old. The night he’d told his father about Stanford. They’d been so busy screaming ugly things at each other, neither of them noticed Dean was gone until they heard the rumble of the Impala and saw the red glow of its taillights glinting off the rain-streaked motel window. He’d stumbled back into their room just before dawn, completely wasted. Feigning sleep was the kindest thing Sam could think to do, rather than let Dean know he’d heard him standing over Sam’s bed in the darkness, choking back tears, or that a few minutes later he’d seen him broken, on his knees in front of a cracked porcelain toilet. Sam was on a Greyhound to California two days later.  

The dull thud that follows the awful, retching noises that woke him tonight have Sam out of bed in an instant and knocking on the bathroom door. He opens it carefully without waiting for an answer.   

Another moment of déjà vu rolls over Sam as he takes in the sight of his brother on the floor, but it’s fear that pulls at Sam’s gut this time, not pity. In the greenish glow of the nightlight, Dean is deathly still, his skin almost translucent beneath a fine sheen of sweat, his head resting on his forearm pressed against the edge of the bowl. Only the sound of soft, shallow breaths keep Sam from full-blown panic.   

“Dean, hey… you all right?” Dean doesn’t answer except for an almost imperceptible nod of his head. Sam crouches down at his side and wraps a big hand around his shoulder. “Dean?”  

The fact Dean doesn’t shrug him off concerns Sam far more than the lack of verbal response. The t-shirt he’d fallen asleep in is damp under Sam’s palm, a slight tremor running through him, shivering despite the heat he’s radiating. He’s about to ask again when Dean lets out a breathy groan and curls in on himself, heaving miserably. Sam doesn’t know how long he’s been at it, but it’s nothing more than watery bile that Dean spits into the toilet.  

“Damn.” Dean sits back on his haunches, dragging the back of his hand over his mouth. Sam reaches for one of the plastic-wrapped cups on the vanity and fills it from the tap, offering it to Dean. There’s a long moment while he decides if he’s finished or not, before he takes the water with a grunt that might be thanks. He rinses his mouth and spits again, not prepared to risk swallowing anything, possibly for the rest of his life.  

“You wanna get up?”

Dean huffs. What he wants is to stop hurling. He wants the drumline marching through his skull to give it a rest, and he maybe wants a little alone time with his gun. Not necessarily in that order.  

“Yeah,” is all he actually says. He lets Sam get him to his feet, but draws the line at being helped back to bed. Shrugging Sam’s hands off, he makes his way slowly, stopping to grab the bottle of pills from the table on the way.  

Sam hovers long enough to assure himself Dean isn’t going to fall over, then retreats to the bathroom again, returning with the thermometer from their first-aid kit, a wet washcloth and another cup of water. Dean shakes out two tablets and swallows them dry with a sideways glance at Sam, as though he expects a fight. Sam just shakes his head. Dean’s obviously hurting and judging by the glassy eyes and sweat-soaked hair, he’s burning up. While it wouldn’t be Sam’s first choice of medication, Vicodin is pretty effective for fever, as well as being a potent painkiller. It’s been long enough since he took the first dose that Sam doesn’t quibble. He needs to drink though.

“Here.” Sam holds out the water. Dean flinches from it like it has teeth. “You have to,” Sam insists, “getting dehydrated’s only going to make you feel worse.” Dean makes a bitter sound low in his throat.

“Not possible,” he mutters, but takes the cup and tries a mouthful. When he’s sure it isn’t going to come right back up, he takes another swallow, then drains the rest and hands the empty cup back to Sam. Dean lies down, shifting until he finds an acceptable position on his side and actually lets out a grateful sigh when Sam places the cool, damp washcloth on his forehead. Sam gives him a minute to settle, then flips on the bedside lamp and sits down on the edge of the bed beside him.   

“What’s going on, Dean?”

“Nothin’.”

“Right. Open up.” Sam nudges Dean’s jaw with the back of his hand and slips the thermometer between his lips before he can object. While he waits for it to register, he studies Dean a little closer, taking in his pallor, the pinched look around his mouth. He lifts the edge of his t-shirt and inspects the small patch of gauze he’d dressed Dean’s wound with earlier. It hasn’t done any more bleeding – at least not enough to show through the bandage – but the bruising is still livid and ugly.  

“’m okay,” Dean grumbles as soon as the thermometer beeps.   

Sam pulls it out, confirming what he already knew. He sighs, seriously over Dean’s stoic crap. There’s so much potential for bad shit in their line of work, they have to be able to count on each other to be honest when push comes to shove. Right now, okay is not even in the vicinity of the truth.  

“Your temperature’s 102 degrees, Dean. That’s not okay.” Sam slaps the thermometer down on the nightstand with more force than he intended. “You’re a friggin’ mess, dude. You can’t keep things like this from me.”  

Dean rises up on one elbow and uses the washcloth to wipe the sweat from his face and neck, then tosses it aside.  

“What do you want from me, Sam?” He scrubs a hand over his eyes before looking up at his brother. Sam may have perfected the bitch-face, but Dean owns the one-hundred-percent-done-with-this-shit-face, lock, stock and barrel. “It’s been a bitch of a month, you know? I’ve gotten my ass handed to me in four different states. I got shot. My back looks like Hell’s roadmap. And now it seems I have the fucking flu. So yeah, not okay. Is that what you want to hear? I am not okay. Feel better now?”  

Sam drops his eyes. At least half of those things are on him and they both know it. “No, I don’t.”  

Dean can feel the remorse coming off Sam in waves and immediately regrets snapping. None of this is the kid’s fault. He’s just so goddamn tired.  

“Dude… I’m sorry. I… it’s probably some twenty-four hour thing. Let’s just get some sleep and tomorrow we’ll go and get us some of that California sunshine. Find a couple beach bunnies, have a few drinks… that’ll cure what ails me, yeah?” Dean manages a tight smile which doesn’t make either of them feel any better, but it’s the best he’s got at the moment. “I’ll be fine, Sammy.”

Sam nods, his muttered ‘okay’ as much a lie as Dean’s, but like his brother, Sam wants it to be true. Maybe that’s enough for now. One thing’s for sure, they need this break and it eases the gnawing in Sam’s gut to know that Dean’s on board with it. A good day’s drive and they’ll be sitting on the beach. Maybe he’ll even get Dean something with one of those tiny umbrellas in it.  

They’re an hour outside of Stockton when that plan goes to straight to hell.

*~*

A light drizzle threatens to freeze at the edges of the windshield as the Impala navigates a narrow section of the Carson Pass Highway, winding its way out of the western edge of the Sierra Nevada. Sam hums along to The Fray, his gaze shifting occasionally to his sleeping brother, slouched in the passenger’s seat beside him.  

Dean had finally drifted off around four a.m. after one last round of dry-heaves that left him puny and trembling on the bed, yet somehow still adamant he’d be ready to roll at first light. Risking Dean’s wrath, Sam had let him sleep as long as he dared. He checked in with Bobby, let him know they’d be taking the job. After getting directions to his friend’s shop, then spent a couple hours researching werewolf lore, rousing Dean just before checkout time. Naturally, Dean was indignant, but considering how shaky he’d been just from the effort of packing up and getting to the car, Dean could shut it. He’d blanched at the mere suggestion of food when they stopped at the Gas ‘n Sip on the way out of town, although he did manage to keep the coffee he’d demanded down.  

His color had improved, though now he seems flushed where earlier he’d been so pale, and at least he’d been able to rest. In fact, he realizes, Dean hadn't stirred since before they crossed the border into California. Not even to bitch Sam out for taking advantage of the ‘driver picks the music’ rule. Three mullet-rock-free hours in the Impala is surely some kind of record. Sam smiles to himself at the thought and cranks the volume up a notch or two, fingers tapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel.  

It’s still decibels below where Dean usually has it, but loud enough that it takes Sam a minute to realize that the jarring clash of Smoke on the Water mashing up with How to Save a Life isn’t the result of a crack-smoking DJ, it’s Dean’s ringtone. Sam turns the music down again and nudges his arm, taking a closer look at his oblivious brother. Sleeping through blaring alt-rock is one thing, instincts of a lifetime are quite another. Dean Winchester does not ignore a ringing telephone.

“Dean,” Sam prods him again, “hey.” A beat or two goes by before he gives his shoulder a firm shove. “Dude, answer your— shit!” Sam gasps as Dean pitches forward in the seat. Sam’s arm shoots out to keep him from face-planting into the dash as he hits the brakes and guides the car to the side of the road.

Both his hands are fisted in Dean’s jacket before the Impala even rolls to a full stop. “What the hell, Dean?” Heart in his throat, Sam only just resists the urge to smack his brother stupid for scaring the crap out of him. But Dean is dead weight in Sam’s arms as he yanks him upright and pushes him back against the seat. His head lolls bonelessly on his neck, and Sam’s heart drops back into place with a sickening thud. Because Dean isn’t sleeping. He’s unconscious.  

“Dean!” A firm shake brings no response and Sam’s mind goes to the bottle of painkillers in Dean’s pocket, but dismisses the thought immediately. Dean had refused to take anything more than a couple Tylenol this morning, insisting he felt better. Cursing softly, he presses two fingers to Dean’s throat, simultaneously thankful to find a pulse and freaked by the way it beats like a trip-hammer beneath his fingers. His skin is hot to the touch, the collar of his flannel shirt soaked with sweat where it brushes against the back of Sam’s hand. Sam slaps his cheek lightly. “Hey, wake up for me, buddy.”  

There’s a long moment, seconds that feel like hours, where Sam honestly doesn’t know what to do. Not just about his unconscious brother – about anything. Thinking, acting, breathing, all seem just beyond his reach as he tries to wrap his mind around whatever the hell is happening here.  He takes Dean’s face in his hands and shakes him again. “Dean?

And then Dean moans, so softly Sam nearly misses it over the white noise buzzing in his ears, because seriously, what the hell? Sam’s brain comes back online as Dean tries to turn out of Sam’s grip, eyelids fluttering, his moans slurring into actual words. “Gotta… find…”  

Sam taps the side of Dean’s face, nodding his encouragement. “That’s it. Come on, look at me.” Dean blinks once, eyes glassy and unfocused, but open and seeking his.  

Relief surges through Sam like a shot of adrenalin; it lasts as long as it takes for Dean to open his mouth. “Where'zee… where...?” Dean sits up straight, pushing Sam’s hands away and fixing him with a hard stare. He grabs up Sam’s jacket, jerking him forward with surprising force for someone who was out cold thirty seconds ago. But it isn’t Dean’s suddenly fierce eyes that have Sam’s blood turning to ice in his veins. “What did you do?!”

Shit. “I’m here. It's Sam. I’m right here.”  

“What'd you…” His grip on Sam goes slack, hands falling heavily to his sides. …” The word trails off as Dean’s gaze loses focus again. 

“It’s me, Dean —” Sam’s voice breaks around the lump of fear in his throat. “It's me.” He slides a hand around the back of Dean’s neck and squeezes. “Dean, look at me!” He can feel Dean bristle at the command, his eyes flitting around the car as if searching for a place to land.  

“Sammy?” It’s more of a question than he’d like, but there’s a measure of recognition in Dean’s eyes as they find his, and Sam offers what he hopes is a reassuring smile.

“Right here, Dean,” he repeats. “You with me?”  

Dean nods, shivering as Sam eases him back against the seat. An unwelcome frisson of dread surges through him as he takes a hard assessment of his brother. Flushed and febrile, but no coughing or wheezing, no runny nose. Shallow, quick breaths that seem more like exhaustion than congestion. Obvious confusion. The thread of fear forms a hard knot in Sam’s gut as the litany of Dean’s symptoms tickles at his hind-brain. Not flu, Sam.  

“Just hang on a sec, okay?” When he’s reasonably certain Dean isn’t going to keel right over again, Sam climbs out of the car, swearing under his breath as he pops the trunk. How the hell did he miss this? But even as he curses himself, he knows that he didn’t miss it – and somehow that’s worse. Because Dean has gone from queasy and feverish to practically delirious in a matter of a few hours. He needs medication, he needs a doctor, and here, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, Sam can give him neither of those things. He rummages through the first-aid kit for antibiotics he knows he won't find, and swears despite himself when his search comes up empty. God dammit.

Sam runs his fingers over the spot where Bobby had burned Meg’s binding link from his arm. It’s healed over already, the wound essentially cauterized even as it was inflicted. There’d been little chance of infection and they both knew it, but Dean insisted he take a course of antibiotics anyway, ‘just in case.’ It was easier to mock Dean’s knowledge of the word prophylactic and go along with it rather than force Dean to give voice to the real reason for his diligence: Sam was gone for more than a week before Dean found him, with virtually no memory of what Meg might have done with his body. He’d be lucky if a dose of the clap was all she left him with.  

Another wave of that weird near-paralysis threatens to overwhelm him as he takes stock of the open trunk. A field first-aid kit that could put a small-town clinic to shame. Two army surplus duffels that contain pretty much the sum-total of their worldly belongings. A gallon-jug of holy water. An industrial size bag of rock salt. Beneath the false bottom, an array of weapons designed to fight just about any kind of evil the world has to offer. And not one fucking thing that can help his brother, because Sam had used up the last of their meds after being possessed by a fucking demon. He bites down on his lip hard enough to draw blood and squelch a nearly irresistible desire to laugh. Or possibly cry. How the fuck is this their life?   

Through the back window he sees Dean listing to the side again, and gives his head a shake, both figuratively and literally. He grabs up the warm blanket stuffed in the corner - stolen from one of the nicer places they’d stayed at - Tylenol, the thermometer, and a bottle of water from his duffel, then jogs back around to slide into the seat beside Dean. He’s managed to at least stay vertical but it seems a near thing. Sam twists the cap off the water, holding it out. “Drink some of this.”

Dean shakes his head and Sam pushes the bottle into his hand, wraps his fingers around it and squeezes until Dean takes hold. “C’mon. You need to stay hydrated. Drink.” He sounds more like Dad than either of them really want to think about.

Dean huffs, but lifts the bottle to his lips anyway. It slips from his grasp after he swallows a mouthful or two and Dean doesn’t even seem to notice. Damnit. Sam grabs it before it can spill and puts the cap back on, studiously ignoring the tremble in his own hands. Not giving him a chance to object, Sam slips the thermometer into Dean’s mouth, ignoring the predictable scowl.   

“You want to get in the back, stretch out?” he asks, doing his level best to keep the fear out of his voice. “You’ll be more comfortable.”

“Be more comfortable if you turned off this crap music,” Dean mutters around the thermometer.

“Shotgun shuts his cakehole,” Sam responds automatically.  

Despite the lack of conviction behind it, the familiar complaint eases the tight fist in Sam’s chest some. He takes it for the refusal that it is, and truth be told, he’s not sorry. The memory of the last time Dean was laid out, pale and shaking in the back seat of his baby is still too fresh. Sam unfolds the soft, wool blanket and tucks it around his brother, fully prepared for Dean to push it away, insist he’s fine, call Sam a girl, and demand to take over the driving. He tries not to despair when Dean just huddles into its warmth instead and closes his eyes again.  

The thermometer beeps and Sam swears under his breath as he reads the display. 103.8 degrees.  

He shakes out a couple of Tylenol and nudges Dean’s chin. “Here, take these.” Dean turns his head away, looking for all the world like a petulant child. Sam takes a deep, calming breath and deliberately lowers his voice this time. “Open up, Dean.” He hates himself a little for using Dean’s ingrained obedience of their father against him, but desperate times… Sam pushes the pills between Dean’s parted lips. He can't help cringing a little when Dean swallows them without further argument, but decides to press his luck.  

"I need to check your back." Sam eases Dean forward without giving him time to object and hikes his jacket, flannel and t-shirt up as one. The bruising is still just as livid as it was last night, but the bandage is clean, and a quick inspection beneath it reveals no obvious signs of infection. Somehow that is less reassuring than it should be. He tries to get a look at his shoulder, but that is apparently Dean's line in the sand.

"Enough," Dean barks, batting his hands away. He pulls the blanket back around himself, officially declaring the exam over. "M’alright."

As desperate as Sam is to believe that, his gut won't let him. He hasn't had a vision in weeks but he doesn't need to be psychic to see there's something more going on here. Fighting Dean on it isn't going to help though. As soon as he settles, Sam pulls the Impala back out onto the highway. They aren’t five miles down the road before Dean is slumped against the door again, his jaw slack and breaths coming in short huffs.

Sam mentally runs through his limited options, then pulls out his cell phone. Bobby’s line is ringing before he can second guess himself, and he’s not a bit ashamed of the relief he feels just hearing the old man’s gruff voice barking hello a few seconds later.

“Bobby, it’s me.”

Given the circumstances of pretty much every encounter they’ve had in the months since John’s death, and the undercurrent of fear in Sam’s tone, it’s no surprise that Bobby cuts right to the chase.

“What’s wrong, Sam?”

Bobby listens without comment as Sam quickly brings him up to speed, dividing his attention between his brother and the road in front of them.  

“You know I’m always willing to help out with whatever mess you two chuckleheads get yourselves into, but I’m not really sure what you need from me here, boy.”

“He was fine before we took out that ghost, Bobby. I… I don’t exactly know what he did to Dean before I torched his bones, but do you think... could he have infected him somehow? It’s just, he got sick so fast and this fever, it doesn’t seem—”

“Son, I’ve seen a lot of weird crap in my day, but I ain’t never heard of a ghost giving nobody the flu.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” He does. He knows he’s grasping at straws, but in his heart he also knows that whatever is wrong with Dean is bad, and it’s not the fucking flu. Sam glances over at Dean and finds himself almost hoping that his brother has passed out again. Because unless he is actually unconscious, Dean is going to fight him on this. “Bobby, can you get me an address for the closest ER?”

Right on cue, Dean chimes in. “Forget it, Sam.”  

“We’re on Highway 88,” Sam continues, giving the objection all the weight it deserves, considering Dean doesn’t even raise his head. He looks for some indication of where, exactly, they are, cursing the lack of anything but endless rocks and trees. “Last sign I remember passing was Barton – maybe ten miles back.”  

He swears when Bobby tells him their best bet for decent medical care is to get to Stockton, at least an hour away. “Dameron Hospital Urgent Care,” Sam repeats the name Bobby gives him, “can you text me directions?”  

“No. No hospitals.” Dean lifts his head this time, trying for imperious and failing spectacularly when he can’t even focus his eyes properly.  

“Dude, you’re burning up. Tylenol isn’t cutting it. You need a doctor.”

“Told ya, m’alright. ’s just a bug.” Dean slurs, and Sam’s tenuous grip on his patience slips.

“You were unconscious, Dean. And when you woke up, you… you didn't even know me. That’s pretty far from alright.”

“Fuck sakes, Sam, I was dreaming, not delirious.” Dean rolls fever-bright eyes in his direction. “Big drama queen.”

It’s such a typical Dean response, there’s a brief moment where Sam thinks (hopes) maybe he is overreacting. And then Dean sags into the seat again, as though the effort of both talking and sitting up at the same time is too much. Yeah.

“You need a doctor,” Sam repeats. “At least some meds,” he adds, categorically not thinking about why they don’t have any.

“Can’t go to a hospital. Got a…” Dean’s hand drifts up and rubs absently at his shoulder. “Can’t. Too many questions, Sammy. They call the cops, we’re screwed.”  

Sam’s stomach clenches. Meg only let him surface a few times while she had possession of his body. Long enough to see his own hands murder another hunter in cold blood, to watch the light go out of his eyes, then to watch himself taunting and torturing Jo, utterly helpless to stop any of it. He has no memory of shooting Dean. He never saw the split-second of fear and disbelief that filled his brother’s eyes right before the bullet tore into his body, knocking him into the icy waters of Lake Superior. It’s a miracle Dean survived – certainly Meg believed him dead – and Sam doesn’t remember any of it. He’s not sure that’s a kindness.

In his nightmares, Bobby still cold-cocks him moments after he walks through his front door with a smile on his face and mayhem in his eyes. He breaks Meg’s binding link and exorcises her back to Hell. He is still tied to the chair when Jo calls, half hysterical. He hears her sobbing, watches Bobby’s face shatter as she tells him how she found Dean’s body, washed up on one of the boat ramps. Too late. She was too late. Bobby’s crying now, too. Devastated. And then the sorrow and sympathy in his eyes turns cold as Jo’s voice lowers on the other end of the line. It was Sam. He killed him. He killed Dean. Sam always wakes up just as Bobby drops the phone and takes a step towards him.  

“Sam? Sam!”

“Shit!” Sam snaps out of the memory of his nightmare to find the Impala drifting across the yellow line and Bobby shouting his name. Fortunately there is no oncoming traffic and he swerves hastily back into their lane. He braces himself for a blast from Dean for abusing his baby, but there’s nothing. He’s out again, and Sam can’t decide whether to feel relieved or terrified. “Sorry! Shit, sorry. What’d you say, Bobby?”  

“I said your brother’s right. It probably ain’t a good idea to go attracting unnecessary attention just yet.”

He doesn’t need to remind Sam just how brutal the wound on Dean’s shoulder still looks. Sam might never remember inflicting it, but between Jo’s amateur stitch job and Sam tearing it open again with his bare hand, Dean will have a permanent reminder. Sam scrubs a hand over his mouth, torn. Ugly as it is, he’s not convinced the damage is fresh enough to automatically warrant calling the cops. And the truth is, thanks to Sam’s handiwork, they’d be hard pressed to even recognize it as a bullet wound. He says as much to Bobby.

“Maybe, maybe not, but that Fed still has the hots for Dean,” Bobby answers, his trademark lack of bullshit in full force. “His face was all over the news. The luck you Winchesters have lately, the ER doc’ll have a sister that worked in the damn bank or something.”   

Sam steals a sideways glance at Dean. It shouldn’t be possible that he looks worse in the fifteen minutes or so since they got back on the highway, and yet, he does. This is not the fucking flu and pretending it is just isn’t working for him anymore. He reigns in his fear of Henricksen catching their scent again, his guilt over hurting Dean, shoves it all in a box marked ‘For Later’ and slams the lid, steeling his resolve. “Bobby, Dean’s in trouble here. He needs medical attention.”  

The bone-weary sigh Bobby lets out washes over him – Sam knows the sound of victory.  

“You boys are gonna put me in an early grave. Hang on.” Sam hears the muttered ‘idjits’ as Bobby sets the phone down, and then one side of a muted conversation as Bobby talks to someone else on one of his myriad other land lines. He’s back in less than two minutes. “Okay, head to Gerry’s place as planned—  

“Bobby—  

“Hush up and listen, boy.” Bobby doesn’t raise his voice, but his tone is enough to chastise Sam into a humbled silence. “I have a guy who can check Dean out. A medic, ex-military – knew your dad.” Sam’s eyes cut to Dean, half expecting a reaction even though there’s no way he heard that. Bobby mistakes his silence for uncertainty and the old hunter’s voice softens. “He's good people, Sam. One of us. You can trust him. Just get to Gerry's.”  

Sam nods, swallows, takes a deep breath. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Thanks, Bobby. I just… thanks. For everything.”

Sam’s clumsy thank you is met with an equally eloquent, ‘Sure, kid’ and a gruff order to let him know when they get to Gerry’s. They hang up without a goodbye, and Sam silently thanks whatever power it was that brought Bobby Singer into their lives.  

*~*

The sun is just dipping below the horizon when the Impala pulls into the alley behind the shabby old tenement-style building that houses Lamplighter Pawn & Collectibles. It takes Sam a full five minutes to get Dean inside and another ten before they can convince him to let Bobby's guy check him over amidst hasty introductions. Ten minutes after that, Sam is praying there are no law-enforcement types hanging around as they half drag, half carry his semi-conscious brother through the emergency room doors.

*~*

A sympathetic, full-body shiver rolls through Sam as he watches a nurse press fresh ice packs to his brother's groin, although Dean doesn't even flinch. His fever is spiking again despite the impressive array of meds hanging on his IV pole, and each time it does, he feels his brother slipping a little further away.

Sam's head thuds dully against the wall as he leans back in the hard plastic chair beside Dean's bed and closes his eyes. He's tired. Of dingy hotel rooms with musty showers and beds that are never big enough for his stupidly long legs. Of gas-station coffee and stale powdered donuts for breakfast. He’s tired of credit card scams and fake identities. He’s tired of being scared of what he might become.  And most of all, he’s well and truly fucking tired of his brother dying. This doctor hasn’t come right out with the words yet (we can try and keep him comfortable) and of course they are doing everything they can (you need to have realistic expectations) but with each failed attempt to bring Dean’s fever under control, each test result that comes back without a specific cause for it, his prognosis becomes more dire.

The official diagnosis had come quickly: sepsis. A systemic, as-yet unidentified, bacterial infection, suspected by the paramedic and confirmed within an hour of their arrival. That was the last firm answer they'd been given. Blood tests, urine tests, swabs of his wounds, both fresh and old had so far failed to identify the exact cause of his infection and, by extension, the proper treatment for it. Some of the tests would take hours to get results, some, days. Days that Dean, despite being an otherwise fit and healthy young man, didn't have. In the meantime, all they could do was throw antibiotics at it and hope that they got lucky.  Sam lets out an involuntary huff at the thought – luck and the Winchesters are not exactly old friends – and  he was afraid they'd already used up more than their usual share this time. Once again, Sam sends up a little thank you for Bobby.                  

His ‘guy’ turned out to be a lead paramedic with the Stockton Fire Department. James “Digger” Diggs had taken one look at Dean and confirmed Sam’s fears. Whether it was the man’s uncanny resemblance to their father or the fact that Dean could barely stand on his own two feet by then, he’d managed to convince Dean that he needed a hospital, and fast. In a rare (by their standards) stroke of good fortune, the paramedic was well known and respected in the ER. So, not only had Dean been seen immediately, Digger’s quick and furtive explanation to the administration that his 'cousin’ Dean was an undercover cop, off on medical leave while recovering from injuries sustained on the job, had quashed any potentially awkward questions. At least for as long as the insurance card holds up.

It was a big risk to take for two complete strangers, but Sam’s attempt to thank him was waved off with an enigmatic smile and a clap on the shoulder. “Knew your dad back in the day.” He’d been about to ask how, when Digger continued with a humorless laugh. “Ornery sonofabitch, never did like him much. But he saved my ass once and I owe him. Consider us even.” He’d shaken Sam’s hand and wished them luck before heading for the exit. As the doors opened Digger had turned around. He’d taken a long look between the brothers before settling his gaze on Sam again, his smile still inscrutable, but his eyes gone deadly serious. “And Sam, do me a favor?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“When you talk to Bobby Singer, tell him to lose my number.” 

Sam’s eyebrows climbed at the unexpected response, a dozen different questions on the tip of his tongue. But he watched in silence as the medic disappeared through the sliding doors. As someone who’d shared the same sentiment about some of his fellow hunters over the years, including for a time, his own family, he was hardly in a position to judge.

The months since Dean had broken and entered his way back into his life slip away as his eyes slide to his semi-conscious brother.

DeanAndSam02

If I'd've called, would you have picked up?

He’d dismissed the question as a cheap shot, an attempt to make him feel guilty for wanting his own life. He would never be sorry for leaving. He wanted, needed out. He only wanted to go to school, be something more. The all-or-nothing, scorched earth policy was dad’s. Problem was, dad wasn’t the one who got burned. Dean had been almost as pissed as dad when he’d dropped the Stanford bombshell on them, yet Sam had boarded the bus for California with all the cash Dean had squirreled away in his wallet, and clear instructions go kick the academic world in its ass. All Dean had asked as he programmed Sam’s phone with his other other cell numbers was for Sam to be careful and to keep in touch.

But talking to Dean had only made it harder to put the life behind him; after a while he started letting his calls go to voicemail, taking a little longer to respond each time. Days turned into weeks and eventually he stopped returning Dean’s calls at all. When he lost his phone sophomore year and had to get a new number, it was easy to forget that Dean didn’t have it.  Sam had his studies, actual friends. Jess. The normal life he’d always craved – and all it cost him was his relationship with his brother. 

You know, in almost two years I've never bothered you, never asked you for a thing.

Sometimes he wonders why Dean ever spoke to him again at all.

It took Jess burning on the ceiling for him to finally understand his father's obsessive need for revenge at any price. It took Dean saving him from following that same dark path himself to realize that it was never about vengeance for his brother.

If hunting this demon means getting yourself killed, then I hope we never find the damn thing.

The three of us...that's all we have...and it's all I have.

And when it came down to a choice between their father and ending the demon that had shaped the course of their entire lives, everything in Sam wanted to pull the trigger.  But even bleeding out on a dirty cabin floor, Dean chose his family.

Sam, don’t you do it. Don’t you do it.

It wasn't until they were in the car and heading for the hospital that Sam really got it. No matter how John had begged him to do it, no matter how badly they both wanted the demon gone, he would never have been able to live with killing their father. 

Killing this demon comes first – before me, before everything.

No, sir. Not before everything.

Dean hadn't just saved dad, he'd saved him. Just like he had when he put him on that bus. Just like he's been doing since he was four years old. From scraped knees and elementary school bullies, all the way to demons and self-righteous psycho hunters, Dean always had his back. Now he’s fighting for his life and there’s nothing Sam can do about it.

The last time he’d stood beside Dean’s hospital bed and listened to a doctor tell him his brother might not make it, their father had traded his life for him. The time before that, they had unwittingly traded someone else’s life for Dean’s and it had nearly broken him. He’s not sure Dean will ever get over what John did. I never should've come back, Sam. It wasn't natural. And now look what's come of it. I was dead, and I should have stayed dead.

And now here they are again, and this time there’s no Nebraska. No dad. Even if he found a crossroads and a demon willing to deal, Dean would never forgive him. All he can do is wait.

*~*

"Where is he?" The voice is plaintive, almost weeping, but the eyes are cold, accusing. Angry. Unnaturally strong hands scrabble at his chest, fisting into his shirts as she pulls him closer, demanding, "Why?"

"I don't know what... who are you?" Her face is unfamiliar, but she knows *him*. His feet leave the ground as she begins to shake him like a rag doll.

"WHERE IS HE?!!"

The sheer force of her anger threatens to boil the very blood in his veins. I don't know, he tries to tell her, I'm sorry, I don't know. But there's not enough air, not enough. So angry. So very angry. Hey. HEY!

"Hey!"

"Sorry..."

"Hey, easy, take it easy."

"Please...'m sorry..." He struggles against the strong hands, desperate to escape, but they hold firm.

"Come on Dean, wake up. Dean!"

Sam? He blinks, squinting into the light as the world comes into focus again. Big paws gripping his arms, shaking him gently, face full of barely-concealed panic. Sam.

"Shit..." Panting, his body thrumming with an adrenalin-fueled need for fight or flight, he scans the room for a threat, though he couldn't say exactly why, the dream already fading.

"Easy. Just breathe."

Eyes wide, Dean nods slowly, lets Sam lower him back down to the mattress. He tugs at the sheet fisted in Dean's hands, smoothing it out and covering him loosely again before checking the IV lines in his arms. Satisfied he hasn't pulled them out with his thrashing, Sam straightens the cannula feeding his brother oxygen and leans in again. "You with me, dude?"

Dean's first instinct is to screw with him, but a good, hard look at his little brother tells him that just might earn him a beat down right now, no matter how sick he is. He knows the doctor told Sam to watch for signs of altered mental status as an indication that his condition was deteriorating. All tight lipped and pale, running on his last nerve, Sam looks as though the fate of the world rests on his answer.

"Yeah." He nods again, "yeah, still here, Sammy."

The lack of bitch-face at the nickname alone tells him all he needs to know about how grateful Sam is to hear it, but he knows that won't stop the inevitable follow up. Doing his best to ignore the fluttering in his chest and the heaviness in his arms as reaches up to turn his pillow to the cool side, Dean settles back again to wait for it. In three, two, one...

"How're you feeling?"   

A valid question, but he's pretty sure Sam doesn't really want to hear the answer.   

Dean shrugs, scratching a fingernail under the edge of the tape holding his IV in place. All things considered, he thinks, dying should hurt more than this. No doubt a lot of that is down to the hospital grade drugs being pushed directly into his veins, but still…

He recalls the unrelenting, bone-deep ache in his chest that no meds could touch as his system slowly shut down after his electrocution-induced heart attack, each breath a little more painful than the one before it. There were more than a few moments on the long road to Nebraska when he honestly felt like he would die right there, riding shotgun in his baby.

He’s not sure there are words to describe the agony of being torn apart from the inside out by a demon wearing his father’s face. Of feeling his organs shredding, his lifeblood bubbling in his throat, oozing out through his skin from unseen wounds. He remembers finding Sam’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, with no recollection of how he’d made it to the back seat of the Impala when he’d never even expected to get up off the floor of that cabin.

 He's hot, sweaty and feeling like he doesn't quite fit in his own skin, but this time, there's no pain.  In fact, apart from the elephant sitting on his chest making it tough to pull in a breath, he can’t feel much of anything at all. It occurs to him that might not necessarily be a good thing.

"Dean?" He opens his eyes, slightly surprised to realize he'd closed them again. "You okay?"

For all his Sasquatch size and Stanford-educated poise, Sam sounds about ten years old again, whispering to him in the dark after he and dad hobbled in from a hunt, covered in cuts and bruises. And because now, like then, the truth won’t help either of them, Dean lies.

"Yeah, I'm okay. Wouldn't mind blowing this pop-stand though." He probably couldn't make it to the can on his own, never mind check himself out of the hospital, but it's what Sam needs to hear. "Get some of that California sunshine you promised." The tightness in his chest makes his voice way too breathy to be convincing, but he pushes up onto his elbows anyway.  It only takes Sam hand on his shoulder to put him back down, quiet desperation bleeding into his voice. 

"Dean, don't—"

"Sam." Dean cuts him off, but he hears his brother loud and clear just the same. Don't fight me on this. Don't be stupid. Don't die. The truth is, he’s exhausted. Shrugging Sam’s hand off him takes just about all the energy he has, but he can’t help himself. 

“Told you before, Sammy. Don’t wanna die in a hospital where the nurses aren’t even hot.”

And he is dying. Nobody’s said it out loud yet, but he knows. The sympathetic glances from the nurses that replace the ice packs under his arms and between his legs. The carefully neutral face of the doctor as he explained the need for a central line in his neck, adding blood pressure drugs to the infusions of fluids and antibiotics pumping into his arm. Sam, looking like someone set his favorite puppy on fire each time another test result comes back without answers. 

It’s been twenty four hours since they arrived at Gerry’s shop, twenty three and a half since Sam and Digger had bullied him into the emergency room. He’s been drifting in and out since, floating in a haze of painkillers and fever dreams, but aware enough to know that he's in serious trouble. What he doesn't understand is why.

He’s survived all manner of ghosts and monsters, curses, gunshots, electrocution, and near-evisceration by a fucking demon, and Dean Winchester is going down to a lousy infection. A bug. Okay, so maybe a super-bug, if the doctor’s ill-concealed dismay at how fast he’s crashing is anything to go by, but still, a bug. Not exactly a blaze of glory. Hunting is a dangerous gig and he’s never really believed he’d live long enough to make old bones, but he’s twenty-eight years old for fucks sake, and facing his own mortality for the third time since he and Sam had hit the road again. It’s getting a little hard not to take it personally.

Sam drops back into the chair beside his bed with a grunt – a sound somewhere between a sigh and a sob that is uniquely Sam. Equal parts ‘I hate you’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘If you weren’t already dying, I’d kill you myself’, with a healthy dose of ‘I’m sorry’ thrown in for good measure. No matter how stupid it is, he knows Sam is feeling guilty. As if he could’ve known this had probably been brewing since Jo had fished him out of the water in Minnesota.   

He’s contemplating how exactly to convince Sam that the torrential shit-storm their lives have become is not his fault when the nurse comes in to check his vitals. He wasn’t kidding about them not being hot. This one especially is sweet, he thinks, smiling kindly at him as she writes the numbers into his chart, but she’s sixty if she’s a day and she kind of reminds him of Rose from the Golden Girls. He grins a little at that – he was always more of a Blanche guy himself. The faint scent of lavender tickles his nose as she leans in to straighten the pillow behind him. Jeez, this one even smells like…

Jesus. She smells like old lady.

She didn’t want to live without him.

She deserves to be put to rest, Dean.

“Sam.” He grits his name out through clenched teeth as the image of Marion Greely hanging by her neck in a dark, dusty room flickers into his mind. The pressure in his chest crescendos, and holy shit, maybe he’d spoken too soon about that whole ‘no pain’ thing. “Son of a bitch!”

“What did you do?”

It's like fire licking him from the inside out. But maybe it should hurt, because holy shit, how could he have been so stupid? His breath starts to come in short, panicky bursts. “Sammy…”

Some spirits hold on too tight. Can't let go.

The monitors beside his bed go crazy as his vision starts to grey around the edges. His last thought before everything goes dark is how ironic it is that when Sammy’s scared, he sounds exactly like their dad.

“Dean?! Help! We need some help over here!” 

~*~

“Pressure’s 60 over 40, I need ten of Levophed, stat!” 

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?!”

“Sir, you’ll have to step back.”

“You took him away."

 “You’re her.” It’s a statement, not a question, as the amorphous gray corpse resolves into a small, absurdly plain looking woman before his eyes. “You’re Greely’s wife.”

“Jonah. His name was Jonah,” she says, her face soft with the memory. A shudder races through him as her fingers graze the front of his thin hospital gown. He tries to shimmy away, but she pins him in place with a flick of her hand. “He was all I had, and you took him away.  You," her eyes narrow as she turns her gaze towards Sam, "and him."

“Look, lady, we had to. He was hurting innocent people.”

 “NO!” Her hands curl into fists that seem to squeeze the very air from his lungs as her anger builds. “He never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it! She killed him,” she screams, and he's pretty sure his heart actually stops at the fury in her voice.   

“It was an accident. Molly didn’t mean for it to happen. She died too.” Dean counters, but she is beyond reasoning, and with each word it gets a little harder to breathe. "Stop... this..."

“I can’t get a pressure. Push two of epi, and get a mask on him, now!”

 “I wanted to die, too. I tried… I tried, but I was too afraid… And then one night, like a miracle, my Jonah came to me. He made me brave. He told me we could be together again, forever.”

“You can still−"

"I did it... but then I... I couldn't get out," she goes on as though Dean hadn't spoken at all. "I couldn't get OUT! So long, I waited. Trapped in that room, and finally, finally you set me free. I could hear him, telling that awful woman I was gone. So close... we were SO CLOSE and you sent him away. We were going to be TOGETHER!"

"Marion, it's Marion, right? Listen to me. You can still−"

“Shut up! SHUT UP! He's GONE. You took him from me," she rages, slamming her fists into his chest, "now I am going to take you from him.” She thrusts her chin in Sam’s direction, squeezing tighter with each heartbeat.

“No pulse. He's in V tach. Starting CPR.”

 “Please…”

“Dean, no!”

“Charging, 100. Clear!”

She flickers, her hold on him faltering, and for a moment the pain eases enough for him to speak.

“We had to… I’m sorry.”

“Charge again, 200. Clear!”

 “No, you’re not,” she says, her blue eyes malevolent and seething with hate as she flickers again and disappears. “But you will be.”

“Sinus rhythm. Hold CPR, we've got him.”

*~*

 Sam pulls the chair up alongside Dean's bed under the watchful eye of the charge nurse. He's been waiting over an hour to get into the unit since they transferred Dean, and he's pretty sure they only let him in now because six-foot-four, two hundred pounds of distraught Winchester pacing the shine off the floor outside the door was freaking out the staff. Well, that, and the fact that his stubborn ass of a brother was refusing any further treatment until they let him in. He’d give him shit for it, but frankly he’s just too relieved he’s not claiming a body right now. 

After the controlled chaos of the busy ER, the Critical Care Unit is almost too quiet, making the steady hiss of the oxygen mask and the syncopated beeping of the vital signs monitor seem that much louder. Loud enough at least to cover the shaky sigh that slips out as he drops into the chair.  

Looking at him, it’s hard to fathom that less than 48 hours ago Dean was standing in the pale light of a Nevada sunrise, whole and healthy, questioning the hope of a better place waiting for them on the other side. Now it's dark smudges beneath closed eyes, familiar blond spikes matted to his forehead, oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth. If it weren’t for the long lashes and smattering of freckles across his cheeks, Sam would hardly recognize his brother. He drops his head into his hands, scrubbing them wearily over his face.

“Jesus.”

“Flattering.” Sam’s head snaps up again to find Dean struggling to sit up, trademark smirk visible even through the mask. “But no.”

Sam is on his feet instantly, big hand on Dean’s chest. “What are you doing? Lay back, you need to rest.”

“Rest when I’m dead, Sammy,” he says, but lets himself fall back. “Right now I need a drink and a pair of pants,” he grumbles, every other word punctuated with a wheezy breath.

“You know, you’d be a lot more convincing if you could get through a whole sentence without passing out,” Sam says, trying to ignore the way Dean’s heart is beating like a scared rabbit beneath his palm. The side-eye he gets in response is a reassuring as it is annoying. He drags the chair a little closer and sits down again. “I talked to the doctor. You have to let them help you.”

“No,” Dean says.

“No?” That’s it. No discussion, no reasons why, just no – and it’s so very Dean that Sam honestly doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or lose his friggin’ mind. Dean’s system is shutting down; he’s in full blown septic shock now and his lungs are taking the brunt of it. Putting him to sleep, getting him on a vent will give him a fighting chance, buy them a little more time to give the latest cocktail of drugs a chance to work. And the asshole says no. “They need… I need… Damnit, Dean, you can’t just… you have to fight–”

“No,” he says again, quietly, and it’s so, so much worse than if he’d screamed it. “Not yet.” He rolls his head away for a moment, then turns back to Sam. “I need to talk to Bobby.”  

 “What? Why?” But Sam knows why, and he hates it. He shakes his head, as if stopping Dean from saying goodbye to the only family they have left will change things. “You can’t, Dean.”

“Gimme your phone, and go distract the nurses for me.” Dean holds his hand out, waggling his fingers like they both know there’s only one way this ends. “Come on, Sammy. Put those puppy-dog eyes to good use.”

He wants to argue some more, rail about giving up, considers using the memory of their dad to shame him into it, but the bottom line is, Dean is the one laying in that bed. He deserves to deal with it on his own terms. With a reluctant glance at the nurses’ station, he takes out his cell. “You know,” he says, putting it in Dean’s outstretched hand, “you’re a real jerk.”

Dean just grins, the bitch implied as he watches Sam walk away.

*~*

“You did what?!”

Dean pulls the phone away from his ear with a wince. “Come on, man. There were two ghosts, two. How were we supposed to know the old lady was going to join the party?”

“Yeah, I guess. But still, burying a body without–“

“I get it, okay? I screwed up. Not the first time…” he stops himself from finishing the dark thought: it just might be the last. “Listen Bobby, I don't know how, but it's her. She's doing this to me.”

"You trying to tell me a ghost gave you blood poisoning? Just how much pain-killer you on, boy?" 

"I'm serious. I guess I've been getting sick a while, let myself get run down since... well, for a while. But this chick has it turned up to eleven. She wants someone to pay for sending Greely to the other side and I’m at the top of the list. She told me."

"She... son, maybe you oughta let me talk to Sam–"

"Damnit, Bobby! You know me, and I'm telling you, it's her. I don't know how, maybe it's some kind of psychic connection since I'm the one who carried her bones out of that room. Maybe it's ghost possession. I don't fucking know, okay? But this infection, it’s not natural. That’s why none of the meds are working. I know–" he runs out of breath, coughing weakly, and the beeps on the monitor pick up speed. He tucks the phone out of sight, sneaking a glance at the nurses' station and Sam as he wills himself to calm down. He can't get busted now, not yet. It takes long enough that Bobby is as frantic as Bobby gets when he puts the phone back to his ear.

 "Dean? Dean, answer me, boy!"

"I'm here. Sorry. Look, I know it sounds crazy, but it's real, and it's killing me Bobby. We have to burn this bitch."

There’s a long pause where he can actually hear Bobby deciding to believe him – or maybe he just figures it doesn’t matter whether Dean is crazy or not at this point, but he agrees, either way. “Yeah, okay. Tell Sam he should take some Blessed Thistle–”

“Sam doesn’t know.”

“Are you messing with me, boy? What do you mean he doesn’t know?”

“I mean he can’t see her, and I didn’t tell him. You’re not gonna tell him either.”

“Dean–”

“We’re at least six hours away,” Dean cuts him off. “I’m pretty sure I don’t have that long, Bobby. Sam already feels like this is his fault, and if he can’t get there in time…  You gotta find somebody close by.”

“Reggie Hull was after a couple of ghouls up around Reno last I heard, but damnit, Dean. You know Sam is going to hate me for this if…” Bobby hesitates. “Gonna hate you, too.”

“Yeah, well, once again, won’t be the first time.” Dean coughs out a weak laugh, but then sobers. Giving Bobby a brief rundown of the cabin’s location and where they’d buried Marion Greely’s body takes just about all the energy he has left. “I don’t think I can go another round with this bitch, man. If you can’t get someone there in time, you gotta swear you won’t tell Sam.”

“This is a mistake, son–“

 “He doesn’t need this on his head on top of all the other crap.” He white-knuckles his way through a wave of light-headedness, free hand gripping the bedrail. The pressure on his BP cuff builds and the room starts to sway. He knows he only has a moment or two before the nurse will be all over him. “Me gettin’ sick, he’ll get over it eventually, but if he knew it was because we fucked up… Bobby, please. Promise me.”

“Damn you idjit Winchesters,” Bobby mutters, and relief floods through Dean.

“Thanks, old man,” he answers breathily as the alarms on his monitors sound. “Sam’s a good kid, you know. You watch out for him, yeah?”

Both the nurse and Sam are on the run before the phone hits the floor.

*~*

“Dean, can you hear me?” Echoes of another hospital room resound. Same question. Same edge of despair in his voice. Same response. A few minutes pass, marked only by the constant, mechanical whoosh of Dean’s life support. The numbers on his monitors blink steadily, some too high and some far too low to be anything but terrifying. “Come on, man, don’t make me break out the Ouija board,” Sam says, with an unhappy little laugh. “Dean?” He trails his fingers over the thin IV line running the latest cocktail of drugs into Dean’s arm. “You gotta hang in there, man. The doc thinks they might’ve figured it out this time, but you’ve got to give it a chance to work.”  

A ‘perfect storm’, that’s what they’re calling it – a combination of bacteria, likely picked up from the dirty water in Minnesota, lingering untreated until teaming up with this latest infection and mutating into a whole new beast to overwhelm his already compromised system. Since they couldn’t risk them checking with Dean’s non-existent doctors ‘back home’, Sam had been forced to lie about what antibiotics he’d been prescribed. Worse, he let them infer he’d just stopped taking them when he felt better. Basically, he’d let them blame Dean for his own condition.

But Sam knows exactly whose fault this is. Why Dean was in that water, why they had no meds for him, why they couldn’t even stay at Bobby’s long enough for him to properly heal from the beating Sam had given him. Why he’s laying here, unconscious, hooked up to a respirator, silent and still, apart from the artificial rise and fall of his chest.

“I’m sorry.” He catches himself brushing a few strands of sweat-soaked hair off Dean’s forehead, almost smiling at the thought of Dean's reaction to the gesture. But there's nothing. No batting his hand away, no demand he stop being such a big girl, not even a blip on the monitor, and the rueful laugh caught in his throat erupts in a stifled sob. Heading into day three of too much coffee, and too little sleep, Sam breaks. “I’m sorry, bro. Hold on, okay?” he whispers thickly. “Just hold on, Dean.”

He’s already dialing as he bounds out of the room and he’s halfway across the parking lot when Bobby answers. The sky is as dark as his mood, fat rain drops already hitting the windshield as he pulls the Impala door shut behind him.

“Bobby, I need help. Anything, a spell, another faith healer, a fucking crossroads demon, I don’t care. I need–”

“You need to slow down, boy.”

“There’s no more time.” Sam scowls, jamming the key into the ignition, “He’s dying, Bobby. I gotta find something.”

“Sam, don’t you think if I knew anything that’d help, I woulda told you already?”

“I know, but dad, he found a way. I could–”

“And look what his ‘way’ did to Dean. How do you think he’d feel if you did the same?”

“He’d do it for me. You know he would. I can’t just let him die. I won’t. Dad–”

“Your dad was a jackass, boy, but you want his sacrifice to be for nothing? ‘Cause if you go making any damn fool deals, you’re gonna kill your brother just as sure as if you put a gun to his head.”

“I did put a fucking gun to his head! Don’t you get it?” He swallows hard, the dry click of his throat loud to his ears over the low hiss of the rain. “This is my fault, Bobby. I have to fix it.”

“You listen to me, Sam Winchester. Maybe you boys didn’t get a say about being in this life. Your daddy made that decision for all of you years ago. But Dean’s had his chances to get out, just like you did, and he chose to be a hunter. The life is in his blood, and crap like this, that’s the risk we all take. He knows that. You know it, too. Dean would beat your ass six ways to Sunday for even thinking about doing something dumb. Then he’d beat mine for letting you. Whatever happens is gonna happen, so you get your scrawny butt back inside and be with your brother. Keep him fighting. You hearing me, boy?”

Sam watches the rain dance over the hood of Dean’s baby while Bobby’s words sink in, then huffs out a shaky breath. “You know, that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one time.” He sniffs, runs a hand over wet eyes.

“Well, don’t get used to it. And don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Yeah. I just… it’s not fair. We’re finally brothers again...” Sam breaks off, then, “I’m not sorry, you know. Dad, what he did, I’m not sorry. If I had to choose between him and Dean… He did the right thing.”

“No argument there,” Bobby agrees, “but that’s a father’s job. It ain’t yours.”

“I can’t lose him, Bobby.”

“I ain’t got a crystal ball, but one thing I know for sure, Dean is a tough sonofabitch, just as stubborn as John ever was. If anyone can kick this in the ass, it’s your brother. Have a little faith, kid.”

“Yeah,” Sam nods his head as though convincing himself to believe, “yeah, okay.”

“Hey Sam?”

“Yeah Bobby?”

 “You tell him I said any of that, I’ll kick your ass.”

He hangs up with a breathy laugh, a little of the weight of the last few hours slipping off his shoulders as he opens the door again. He prepares to make a run for the hospital entrance, grudgingly heartened by Bobby’s conviction. Dean has spent his whole life fighting. Twice he’s eluded almost certain death, and maybe the third time will be the last, but today is not that day. It just can’t be.

    *~*

“Won’t be long now,” she gloats. The blips that indicate his heart rate tick upwards as his blood pressure slowly drops. “I used to be a nurse, you know.”

Yeah, I caught your work on Netflix, Nurse Ratched, Dean thinks, but keeps it to himself. Responding only seems to piss her off more, so he does his best not to give her an excuse to ramp things up.

She leans in close, and he’s almost grateful for the feel of her ghostly breath against his heated skin.  Running a cold finger along the base of his throat, she presses into the pulse point there. “Feel that? Racing like a little bird, fighting so hard to fill that black heart of yours.” Her hand trails downward lingering over his chest just long that it's a shock when she plunges in deep and squeezes, giggling like a schoolgirl as the numbers react to her touch. “Soon it won’t be enough.”

 His physical body is unconscious, drugged and breathing through a tube, but his spirit feels every moment of her torture and he shudders in nearly unbearable pain. He’s lost track of how many times she’s brought him to the edge now, whatever messed up connection they have allowing her to twist his insides until he would almost rather die than endure it another second. But her immediate goal appears to be prolonging his suffering as long as possible and he needs time for Reggie to get the job done. He can't quite stifle an agonized moan and she backs off with a malicious grin, satisfied for the moment. Only in his fucked up world could that be counted as a win.

“I wonder where your brother went?” Marion flickers from one side of the bed to the empty chair on the other. “I guess he doesn’t care about you as much as I hoped,” she sneers, looking around. For better or worse, she seems genuinely bound to him – unable to venture further than a couple feet away from his bed. He’s not sure what that will mean when – if – her bones go up in flame, but at least it’s keeping Sam safe from her for the moment. “No matter,” she smirks, “I can feel how much you care for him. Knowing that you know I’m going after him just as soon as you’re gone is almost as good as him watching you die.”

And that, of course, is one step too far for Dean. “Keep telling yourself that, you bitch,” he spits, “but no matter what you do to me, you’ll never get to Sam, I promise you. You’re going to burn, just like your crazy husband.”

“Shut up! Don’t you talk about him!” she screams.

“And when we’re all on the other side?” he grits out, “Then it’ll be my turn.”

“Well then, by all means, let’s find out, shall we?” she hisses, clawing at him like a wild thing. Every touch burns like fire, searing his very soul, and suddenly he understands. It’s done, she’s burning, but she’s taking him with her.

Sonofabitch. 

His strength fades as she screams and screams, the pain his own as the flames consume her. Over the monitors wailing there is the sound of hurried footsteps, and then, blessed nothingness.

*~*

The rich aroma of hot, strong coffee is the next thing he’s aware of. Not Hell then.

He cracks one eye open, then the other – a task considerably harder than it should be. Sunlight streams through the window blinds, casting striped shadows over the Sasquatch with a face full of patchy stubble tipped back in the chair beside his bed. Huh. He has a window. So, not the CCU either, further evidenced by the steaming cup of coffee on the bedside table.

“That for me?” He cringes at the dry, cracked sound of his voice until he realizes, it is his voice, which means no more respirator. Sam sits up immediately, nearly tipping himself over in the process.

“You’re awake!”

“Nothing gets past you, Sherlock.” Sam’s answering eye-roll does nothing to lessen the relief in his face as he rights himself. Dean coughs lightly, pushing the button on the railing to raise the mattress behind him. “Gimme,” he rasps, tilting his chin at the coffee once he’s fully upright.

“Yeah, no.” Sam pours a glass of water, “Here,” he puts it in his outstretched hand but doesn’t immediately let go. Dean’s glare stops him short of actually holding it to his mouth for him, but it’s a near thing. “Just take it slow.”

He drinks gratefully just the same, taking closer stock of his little brother as he drains the small cup. Pale and a little hollowed-out looking, Dean’s not sure he’s ever seen Sam with this much hair on his face. He rubs a hand over his own chin, a little surprised to find it clean shaven and smooth. He takes another look around. Semi-private room, monitor clamped to his finger, single line of IV fluids stuck in the back of his left hand, NG tube up his nose, and yep, he squirms a little at the realization, catheter up his… Fuck.

“How long?”

“What?”

“How long have I been out, Sam.”

“Five days.” Sam says the words as though each one weighed a ton. “Four since they took you off the respirator,” he elaborates. “Doc said your vitals were stable, you just needed the rest and you’d wake up when you were ready.”

“Guess he never heard there’s no rest for the wicked,” Dean jokes, but Sam’s not laughing. Sam, in fact looks pissed as hell.

“Not funny, man. Your fever spiked to 106, you started convulsing, nearly pulled out the vent. I thought you were dead, Dean,” Sam mouth trembles almost imperceptibly at the memory before he shakes it off. “But then the fever finally broke.”

“Huh...”

“The doctors have never seen anything like it. There’s no indication your organs sustained any lasting damage. The infection cleared, almost like it was never there.”

“That right?”

“Yep. They’re calling it a bona fide miracle.”

“Nah,” Dean shakes his head. “No such thing. Must’ve hit the right combination with the drugs, that’s all.”

“That’s all, huh?” The look Sam levels at him takes Dean back to a hundred different moments throughout their childhood, each time John had promised he’d be back in time for Sam’s school play, or that this Christmas would be different. The one that says they both know it’s a lie, but one they’d really like to believe. Dean meets his gaze evenly, answering with a question of his own.

“Does it really matter?”

Sam shrugs, all the insecurity and fear of the past few months in the simple gesture. “It does if you don’t trust me.”

“Sam…” Dean watches his brother get up, and for a second he’s sure he’s going to walk out, but he just goes to stand at the window. He’s not sure if Bobby told him, or if Sam’s instincts are just that good. Or hell, maybe he had one of his freaky visions. What he’s one hundred percent sure of is, Sam knows.

“Sammy, look at me.” He doesn’t, and Dean sighs. Shoving the covers aside, he swings his legs off the bed. Supernatural illness or not, standing up unassisted after nearly a week on his back isn’t the smartest move and he nearly goes down in a heap of tubes and wires. “Shit!”

“Dean!” Sam is at his side before he can hit the floor, strong hands lifting him up and sitting him down on the edge of the bed. “What the hell, man?”

“Hey, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammed…” Looking up at the virtual wall of little brother looming over him, the phrase seems all too appropriate, and despite everything, they laugh. Despair, relief, genuine amusement – the reasons don't matter. Dean stretches back out on the bed, and Sam collapses into the chair beside him again, snickering like the two overgrown kids they never were.  It’s Dean who recovers first, rolling carefully on his side to face Sam.

 “You’re my brother, Sammy. I trust you with my life. Nothing’s ever gonna change that.”

Sam considers him a moment. “Just tell me it’s over.”

“Swear to God.”

They’re quiet a few minutes longer and then Sam sits up straighter in the chair. “So, California?”

Dean grins. “The beach.”

“Werewolves,” Sam says.

“Werewolves," Dean's grin widens.  "Awesome.

 

~* The End *~