Author's notes: My thanks for the kind reviews of "On the Snap," and here is the first chapter of a new story, much, much longer. This is a WIP, just so you know, although quite a bit is already done. There will be three main sections, of which the first is from Dean's POV, the second from Sam's, and the third -- projected -- all three Winchesters. It's also a big, gigantic, ginormous owwie-wallow, so approach accordingly. NO WINCEST. This is a gen story, through and through. My thanks to my marvelous betas for their kind words and invaluable input.

Hope you enjoy! EB

Brothers and Strangers



The wind is tossing the lilacs,
The new leaves laugh in the sun,
And the petals fall on the orchard wall,
But for me the spring is done.

Beneath the apple blossoms
I go a wintry way,
For love that smiled in April
Is false to me in May.

(Sara Teasdale, "May")

Part One


In all the adrenaline and fear and busyness of getting Sam to the hospital, there isn't time to think. Just do. Dean hears it clanging inside his head: make Sammy all right, please God, make him okay and that's all I ask.

And behind it, like a voice muffled by thick heavy black curtains: did you HEAR? Did you SEE? Was it real?

Doesn't matter. He frets and paces and drinks too much muddy hospital coffee, doesn't think about anything but seeing that door open, seeing the relieved look on the doctor's face, seeing his goddamn brother open his eyes and smile at him. No biggie, Dean. Get me outta here.

Except that's not quite what happens. There's the doc, yeah, but he doesn't look as kind and relieved as Dean wants, needs to see. Instead there's a couple of uncomfortable chairs and a lightbox covered with x-rays, and a completely unnecessary anatomical explanation of where the bullet is lodged, and what it will take to get it out.

Dean nods and then shakes his head. "Will it work?" he asks.

"Most likely," the doctor says, and there is doubt like heavy fog in his eyes.

They let him see Sammy before whisking him off to surgery. Not too much point to it; Sam's out like a light, and if he knows Dean's here he's keeping it to himself. Somehow that's kinda better. Dean wipes his eyes and clears his throat until it hurts, and says, "Don't have time to dick around, Sammy. Time's wasting and we got work to do, all right? Important shit, so you get it together real quick, got that?"

His throat aches when they roll Sam away, too, but it isn't anything but dumb misery. He's pretty sure he's not gonna breathe again until he gets the good word from the surgeon, so he goes outside, bums a smoke off a guy near the exit, and lights it before hitting the speed-dial on his phone. The wind is blowing, and he can hear the scuff of it over the receiver, wonders how clear his message will be.

"Dad, listen. Just wanted to keep you updated, you know. Sam got into it pretty bad a little while ago, and he's in –" Dean has to clear his throat again, and it feels like he's chewed glass and swallowed it. "—surgery right now, fixing him up. I mean, he's gonna be okay, you know. But we're." Another dagger in his throat, this one sending a lightning bolt down into his chest. "Out of commission for a little while. I mean, me, I'm fine, you know, so if you need anything. Just. Call. We're in K.C. Okay."

He finishes the cigarette without tasting any of it, eyes stinging in the wind, and finds someone else to give him another before he slowly goes upstairs.

There's a nice, enormous waiting room, and it's filled with people who are just as scared as he is. It's not the kind of fear he can do anything about, can't throw holy water on it and make it disappear, pour salt around his own chair so it can't reach him. He's got no protections. He watches a girl crying, a man who must be her father touching her shoulder with a face filled with helpless misery, and Dean looks away before he can start imagining what's happened to them, who they are. Doesn't matter. What matters is down the hall, sleeping while someone Dean has never seen before cuts into his body and tries to fix what's broken.

He doesn't read, stands at one of the enormous windows and stares down at the people, the cars. Thinks about going to get something to eat, only his throat is too painful to allow it even if his stomach would, and maybe walking over to the convenience store he can see way down on the corner, buying his own smokes and a six-pack, sit in the car and smoke and drink for a while. He's been alone so much, he's been lonely before, and right now he's the only person on the planet minus two who even knows he's alive, literally, and one of those two is a figurative ghost and the other is in a medically induced coma on an operating table.

He wants to cry, and can't allow it. And he would give anything – anything in his power, at all – to not be alone right now.

Most of the other families have gone by the time the surgeon shows up. It's late, sun starting to dive into the west, and the girl he saw earlier left long ago. Dean flinches when he hears his name called, the one he's going by, at least, and walks fast to the desk.

The surgeon's young, stylishly bald, and he's taken the time to put his suit back on instead of coming out in scrubs. It pisses Dean off; he wants to see hurry, not take-it-easy casual.

The surgeon grins at him. "He's going to be fine, just fine," he says, nodding, and Dean instantly forgives him for the suit thing. "They're just taking him over to SICU for the night, okay? Just to monitor him. But the surgery went fine, everything looked great, and we ought to be able to move him to a regular room tomorrow."

Dean nods feverishly. "So he's -- His legs. They're okay."

"I'm pretty sure you've been told about swelling, right? It's impossible to say with complete certainty what the eventual outcome will be. But the bullet only nicked the vertebra, Mr. Martinez, didn't sever the spinal cord. We've got him on heavy steroids, fight the swelling, and we'll be watching him close." The surgeon smiles again, blinding white grin, and pats Dean's tense arm. "Your brother, right?"

"He's – all I got," Dean manages, and is ashamed of how shaky it sounds.

"We'll take care of him. I'll be by late this evening when I do my rounds, and if there are any changes we'll talk again then, all right? Take care, Mr. Martinez."

Dean watches him go, and flinches again when the reception lady says, "Martinez, right?"

Dean stares at her, nods.

"Your loved one is going to SICU bed 42. You should be able to go see him tonight, regular visiting hours. Seven o'clock."

"I want to see him now," Dean says hoarsely.

The woman's face wears a practiced comforting smile. "I understand, sir, but they're pretty strict about keeping hours in the ICU. So the patients can rest."

He makes himself nod, and wanders out to the elevator.

There's a flyer about motels with medical rates in the hospital lobby. He notes one of them, decides since he's got time to kill he'll go grab a room, at least take a shower. It's something to do.

The motel's little and shabby, which is familiar in its own way, even if he's never seen it before. The room is just like so many others, almost like coming home. He slings his bag on one of the beds, drops his keys on the dresser, and strips efficiently, shivering a little because the heater is just coming on.

At least there's plenty of hot water. And while he rubs shampoo into his hair he coughs a hoarse sob, and it's been a suck-ass night and day so he's generous, allows the sob a couple of siblings before swallowing it all back, squeezing his eyes shut and pushing it down again. No going to visit Sammy looking like he's been bawling like a girl. Not good for his recovery.

He leans against the tile wall, lets the water sluice over him, and hears that tinny, artificial voice again. "He never told you the truth. Would you like to know?"

It's absurd. He should simply shove it away like he did his tears, toss it like the garbage it is and go on. But he's exhausted, more tired than he can remember being in months, and he hears the voice going on, that whispered tittered litany of secrets, standing again in a dark foul-smelling hallway with Sam's bleeding body at his feet, and he feels that same bewildered shock, like a slow buzz of alcohol in his veins, clouding his mind.

It can't be. It just can't. Because God is a card sharp, a narrow-eyed trickster with sleeves full of aces and jokers both, but this card isn't one He's allowed to play. It goes beyond the worst Dean's ever been able to think up, his superstitious Dad-trained habit of envisioning the worst-case scenarios and preparing for them as eventualities. "Whatever you think of, whatever you CAN think of – there will be something worse down the line, Dean." Dad's face, beardless then and grim, eyes so flinty-hard Dean felt like his gaze hurt. "Guarantee it. So when you look around you, see what can go wrong, and how you'd fix it if you have to. All we got is each other. Nobody else looking out for us."

Dad never told him this one, though. Never even hinted at it. And all the time Dean's been vigilant, he's kept his eyes open when he would pay any amount of money on the damn planet just to relax a little, just to sleep soundly and wake up when he was rested, lie around and think happy thoughts for a change. He's come up with a thousand escape plans and Plan Bs and Plan Cs and Ds, he's read and studied and worked out compulsively, always scared there'll be one time he's not strong enough, fast enough, one injury he can't recover completely from, one that will mean he's out, he's done, he's finished.

But he's never envisioned this. It's insane, that's why. Completely and totally, unquestionably insane.

He towels himself dry, shaves in the foggy mirror, brushes his teeth and stares at himself. But while he dresses, while he forces down a fast-food burger sitting in the car and then pulls out to head back over to the SICU, he can't push that demon's metallic voice down deep enough that its fork-on-chalkboard voice doesn't still resonate in his bones.

Almost. But not quite.