It's the kind of thing that happens all the damn time. They can only be so careful, and after all, they work with weapons and dangerous things constantly. Shit happens, right?
And a couple of nicks while sharpening the third of about six blue-steel blades is par for the course. Dean whines about it, even though it's about as deep and dangerous as a paper cut, and Sam rolls his eyes and digs for a bottle of peroxide and says, "In August you had three broken ribs and you didn't say a word. Now you're crying over a ding? Lame, Dean, you are so lame."
Dean considers, then shrugs and grins, sucking on his nicked finger.
It's a matter of a Band-Aid and a rinse in the sink, and it's forgotten.
Dad gets back two nights later, injured in ways that remind Sam of many things and nowhere among them paper cuts, and Dean doesn't mess around, brisk and efficient and white-lipped while he cleans Dad up. Sam looks away while Dean applies bandages and gives a rote spiel about maybe going to the ER for this. Dean, Sam thinks, would make a good ER nurse. Christ knows he's got the experience, and the stomach for it. Actually he'd probably be a good doctor – nurses don't put in stitches, after all – but the idea of Dean having the patience to sit through four years of med school and more years of internship and residency, not to mention the financial burden, is a little too much. No, Dean would make an awesome nurse. Not that Sam will say that to him, because Dean thinks nursing is a woman's profession, not a man's, and he'd be stupidly mortified.
Dad sleeps until late afternoon the next day, and when he wakes up he's sore and grouchy, but Sam can see he's going to be okay. Dean bustles around in the kitchen, takes a carton of sour cream from the fridge.
"Stroganoff?" Sam asks hopefully.
Dean's the only one of them who can cook, too, and that's another area where Sam sometimes thinks he could make a good living, if he ever had to do such a thing as make an honest living. Not that Dean follows many recipes anymore. Used to, back in the days when they were new to this crap and Dean was doing his level best to keep it together. Sam had been, what? nine?
He watches now while Dean's deft hands assemble ingredients, chop onions and take out a package of cheap stew meat and rinse it under the tap. Dean pats the meat dry and shakes out his hand, hissing a little.
Delegated to noodle-boiling duty, Sam glances at him. "What?"
Sam is blank for a second. "Oh. Right, you cut yourself."
"Fucker's swollen." Dean has peeled off his Band-Aid, and Sam pauses, because Dean's finger looks like a sausage, red and tight with swelling.
"Duh." Dean rolls his eyes. "Start the onions, would you? Don't burn 'em."
The onions are sweaty and good-smelling by the time Dean comes back. He pops a capsule with a glass of water. They have a good stock of Keflex after the job last year in Detroit, plenty for a few courses at least, and Sam kind of forgets about it.
Dad gets better, they get wind of a ghûl gobbling preschoolers in Washington state, and a couple of weeks later they're in a kitchenette in Spokane. Their first night Dean burns supper, something he hardly ever does.
"Losing your touch there," Dad says, although he's smiling a little; he knows if he had to cook it'd be worse than crispy.
Dean shrugs. In the unforgiving light of the bare bulbs in the kitchen he looks flushed and tired. "Happens."
Sam puts down his fork and asks, "Are you sick, Dean?"
"Hot in here."
"No, it's not. Dad."
Dad's already nodding. He's taught them to be careful; they have never had regular doctors, and clinics are expensive, want to be paid up front for services rendered. An ER doesn't have the same requirement, but they usually save those for the really big things. It happens more often than Sam has ever liked.
Dad goes for the thermometer, over Dean's rote objections. "Huh," Dad says, shaking the thermometer out after looking hard at it. "Okay, you're hot, kiddo."
Dean smirks, but it doesn't have much zip to it. "Tell me something I don't already know."
"Yeah, you're a laugh a minute. You got a cold?"
"Dunno." But Dean has been hiding his left hand, and it comes back to Sam like a quick jolt with a cattle prod, the cut, the swelling, the antibiotics. Dean wouldn't have told Dad. He never does.
"He has an infection," Sam says, and meets Dean's betrayed stare with equanimity. "He cut his hand a couple of weeks ago."
Dad's eyes narrow, and Dean sighs dramatically. "I took pills for it. Big deal."
"Antibiotics?" Dad asks sharply.
"I don't think they're working," Sam tells him.
"Just need to take another round, that's all."
Dad isn't smiling at all now. "Let me see."
Dean's graduated from a Band-Aid to a real bandage, Sam sees with a little surge of worry. Underneath, his hand is much worse. All his fingers swollen now, and a sturdy line of red runs up his wrist, fading halfway up his forearm. He hisses when Dad takes his hand, flattens his fingers and studies the wound.
"Fuck," Dad whispers. "Dean, how'd this happen?"
"It's no big deal," Dean tells him, but he looks away while he does. "Just need more antibiotics, I guess."
Dad wraps Dean's hand in loose gauze and stands again. "Come on."
"We'll go see Frank."
Dean looks surprised, and Sam nods curtly.
The ghûl hunt is put on hold, by unspoken agreement, and for once Sam is glad their father is so bullheaded. Dean's objections are like spindly arrows shot against a stone wall: Dad just grunts and points the Impala east. It's a long drive to Kalispell, but the next day they're at Frank Enright's souped-up log cabin. Frank's not a doctor, but Dad knows him from the Corps, gets some of his supplies from him, and Frank is a very good medic.
Frank takes one look at Dean's left arm and shrugs. "Come in here."
Sam's never been treated by Frank, although his father and brother have been, more than once apiece. Still, he's familiar with the place, knows the back bedroom is Frank's treatment area, stocked with pretty basic ER stuff, most of it gotten illegally. Sam has no idea what Frank does for a living. Frank's dead blue eyes forbid questions.
"What's he taking?" Frank asks Dad, while he rustles around.
"He says he took a course of Keflex. Don't think it worked."
"I did take it," Dean says, sounded offended. "Ten days. Come on, Dad."
Sam watches Frank swab Dean's right hand with alcohol, and sees Dean swallow when Frank takes out a butterfly needle. "Aw, man."
Dean looks away and bites his lip while Frank inserts the IV line. Funny how Dean can deal with stitches just fine, never been afraid of needles, but hates IVs with a pure passion. What's the difference, Sam had asked two years ago, when Dean had been in the hospital after the werewolf in Biloxi. "Believe me," Dean had said, "first time you get one, you'll know."
"Need a workup to be sure," Frank says now, hanging a little bag of pale yellow fluid. "I'll run a couple of different antibiotics, then I'll give you something better than Keflex to take with you."
It takes a couple of hours for the IVs to do their thing. Dad grabs Frank to go talk shop – Sam may not know what Frank does for cash, but he does know Frank loves guns to distraction and that's got to be part of it – and Sam wanders around, checking back with Dean at the end of each circuit of the cabin. Dean looks bored and sick, both, rolling his eyes and finally snapping at Sammy to leave him the fuck alone already. Sam shrugs and goes outside, using one of Frank's knives to whittle a hefty ash twig to dust and remembering Dean slicing his finger on a blade.
It's too late to go back to Washington that night, so they spend the night. Dean looks better in the morning, fever's down to not much and the red line has receded, so Frank gives them his blessing, stocks Dad with two big bottles of new antibiotics and tells him to keep an eye on things, and if it comes back, haul Dean's ass to the hospital. Dad looks sober and thoughtful, but as they drive back west, his lips get tighter. He's already thinking about the ghûl again, and about other things, probably. Sam doesn't want to know what those are. Probably knows already, anyway.
By Spokane he's arguing with his dad again, something stupid about supper that disintegrates into whether or not they'll stick anywhere long enough for Sam to graduate next May. Outside the car Dean gives them each a disgusted look. "You guys ever listen to yourselves? Fucking broken records."
"You watch your tone," Dad snaps.
"Loser," Sam whispers in Dean's ear while Dad stomps inside, and Dean shoves him away and follows.
It takes a month to track the ghûl to its lair. In that time, despite their efforts, two more children die, and Dad and Dean are both short-tempered, snappish. Sam flings himself into schoolwork, even takes drama and finds it amazingly diverting. He's learning lines to plays he's heard of but never read, and he cradles the idea of college to him like a talisman, his ticket out of this miserable excuse for a fucked-up life.
There's more going on in Spokane than just a ravenous ghûl, and once it's dispatched Dad disappears into his room for nearly a week, only emerging to eat sometimes or talk on the phone with one or another of his long-distance cronies. There's a scenes program the first week of November, and Sam isn't surprised when Dad doesn't show. Dean does, again unsurprisingly, and afterward backstage Sam draws him aside and says, "You sick again?"
Dean looks pale in the bluish light, and his hand shakes when he pats Sam's shoulder. "Naw, just overcome by your performance, doncha know." He ogles Patricia Johnson, who is admittedly really easy on the eyes in her short sixties outfit. "Dude, I should have done theater back in the day. Everyone's a babe."
"Come on, Dean, that's embarrassing. Put your eyes back in the sockets."
The next morning, a Sunday, Sam makes his own breakfast, and when ten o'clock rolls around and Dean hasn't shown, goes back to hammer on his door. Inside, it smells funky, and Dean is still asleep, buried under too many covers.
"Dean, come on. Dad left us chores, and I'm not doing yours."
When he touches Dean's shoulder, the heat startles him. Dean is freaking burning up, and won't awaken for love or money. Beneath the covers his face is pasty, and his left hand is so red it seems to glow.
"Jesus," Sam breathes. He shakes Dean until finally he wakes up, and says, "Dude, I knew you were sick."
Dean's eyes are cloudy with fever. He blinks up at Sam and then shivers, convulsively. "Cold," he says.
He isn't cold, though, anyone can see that and the thermometer confirms it: 104.9, hotter than Sam has ever seen in his life. Dean takes the aspirins and leftover antibiotics Sam pushes on him, drinks a little water, and then gives another teeth-chattering shudder and pulls the covers back over himself.
Dad doesn't pick up on the satellite phone. Sam paces around, stewing because Dean's really sick this time, sicker than even when they went to see Frank, and what the fuck is Sam supposed to do? At four in the afternoon Dean's temp is 105.3, and he doesn't respond to Sam's questions. Just shivers spastically, mumbles something about it's too much garlic and that can of tomatoes is bad, bad, bad.
Sam's shaking himself while he dials Frank's number, lets it ring once, hangs up and dials again. Prays that Frank remembers the stupid signal they devised, and breathes a sigh when the other line picks up.
"Take him to the nearest hospital," Frank says after Sam's blurted out what he knows. "Where's your dad?"
"Dunno," Sam mumbles. "He's working."
"Up to you, then, Sammio."
"It was just a cut," Sam whispers. "Just a stupid nick."
"All it takes. You got wheels?"
"Call a cab. Or an ambulance."
"Fuck him," Frank says curtly. "He ain't there, and Dean's going septic on you."
"Bad news. Hang up and call a goddamn cab, kid."
Sam has to get a nurse to help him pull Dean out of the cab. Dad is gonna flip, but what else can he do, Dean's like an overgrown Beanie Baby, all floppy limbs and so baking hot, and Sam rattles off Dean's name and date of birth jogging beside the wheelchair, zipping into an exam room off a long busy hallway. There are three nurses then, brisk and efficient, stripping Dean out of his tee shirt and shorts. Sam wants him to make some kind of comment, do a little leering or something else recognizable, but Dean's eyes are blank and far, far away. He's breathing like a steam engine, and when they hook him to a monitor the beep of his heartbeat is way too fast.
"105.8," says one of the nurses. None of them stop what they're doing, putting in an IV line and drawing blood, but Sam can feel the tension in the air. It's too hot, Dean is burning up, and if someone doesn't fix it –
Well, he doesn't know, but it will be bad, so damn bad. That much he's sure of.
He stands against the wall, forgotten while a doctor bustles in, examines Dean. And then remembered, when a woman – girl, really, she looks so young in spite of the uniform – pulls him out into the hallway and starts asking him questions. Medical history, allergies, current medications. Was Dean in poor health before he got sick, and Sam shakes his head to all of it, no, Dean's one of the healthiest people Sam knows, usually, and all of this from a stupid goddamn cut.
The nurse gazes at him, pen poised over her clipboard. "He's had an ongoing infection?"
"Well, we thought it was over. He took antibiotics. Lots of them."
She nods slowly. Her face is thoughtful.
He uses a hospital line to call his dad's satellite phone. This time he leaves a message, stating which hospital they're at, explaining that Dean's fever was so high Sam was afraid to do anything else. Funny, but he's been tense and put together until he knows he's saying something his father will hear; now his voices shakes, and he's ridiculously close to crying.
Finally they've got Dean situated. Sam is scared to come too close. Dean's got two IV lines, one in each hand, and there's an oxygen mask over his face. He looks thin and fragile and so, so sick. His wandering eyes refuse to focus on Sam's face, gazing at nothing over Sam's shoulder.
"Dean," Sam whispers, his own heart going almost as fast as the monitor. "Hey. You okay?"
Dean whispers something, but it's inaudible behind the mask. Sam blinks back scared tears and sags down into the chair by the bed.
It's hours before anything else really happens. And then the door opens and his dad comes into the room. There's anger on his face, irritation, but there's only a second to see them: his look goes from pissed to horrified in just a couple of seconds.
"Dean?" Dad's voice sounds weak, stunned.
"He's asleep," Sam whispers, uncurling from his huddle on the hard chair. "They said his temperature came down a little. But not very much."
Dad walks to the other side of the bed, saying nothing. He smells like cigarette smoke, but he hasn't been drinking, Sam can tell when he has and Dad's sober and together, at least. It's not much but Sam is relieved to have it.
"He was fine a couple of days ago," Dad says. Just a murmur, Sam isn't entirely sure he's meant to overhear it. Dad's hand touches Dean's forehead and then flicks away, his brow furrowing. "Jesus. He's burning up."
"I didn't know what else to do," Sam whispers.
Dad doesn't look at him. Still studying Dean's pale face. "You did good," he says, nodding. "Dean's got a hell of an infection."
"Will he be okay?"
"Course he will." Now Dad does look at him, and Sam forgets about being mad at him, about having had to do all this by himself, because Dad just looks confident, relieved. "Might have to stick around this place for a few days, but they'll fix him up."
Sam smiles for the first time in what feels like years.
He isn't smiling, though, when the doctor comes in about an hour later.
"Bacteremia," he says without preamble. "Probably originally from that wound on his hand. Now it's systemic. His white blood-cell count is over forty; that's seriously high."
"He needs better drugs," Dad says curtly. "That's all."
The doctor just looks at him. "He'll need more than that. We'll admit him, keep him on IV fluids and antibiotics for a few days."
Dad looks uncertain. It's not a familiar look on him, and Sam feels a renewed lurch of anxiety. Even Dad's taking this seriously, and if that's the case, then how much trouble is Dean in? How bad is this?
"Yeah," Dad says after a moment, sounding stiff. "Maybe you're right."
"We're seeing infections these days, here and there, that are virtually antibiotic-resistant," the doctor continues. "And in any case, sepsis is nothing to be taken lightly. My concern here is to see that your son is kept adequately hydrated, monitor his kidney and lung function, and see if we can't stop this before it becomes critical. Do you understand me, sir? Oral antibiotic therapy won't cut it."
Dad looks at Dean while Sam looks at Dad, pleading without words to just let the doctor do what has to be done. Finally Dad nods. "Yeah. Okay."
Sam sleepwalks through school the next day. Nothing seems very real. He's doing all these ordinary things, going to class and talking about casting for the spring play – it's a musical, actually, Bye Bye Birdie, people are saying, and he likes theater but isn't really sure he has the nerve to try for the singing parts – but beneath it he sees only Dean, lying in a hospital bed, sicker than Sam has ever seen anyone. Dean doesn't GET sick. Maybe a cold now and then, but it's Sam who's had bronchitis about fourteen billion times, and even Dad's been sicker than Dean ever has. It doesn't fit, isn't right. And all he can think, when he can think at all, is that this would not have happened if they weren't living such a freaky messed-up life. If they were normal, Dean would have a regular doctor and they'd have nipped this infection in the bud. Dean would never have gotten so sick he had to stay in a hospital – wouldn't have thought he had to hide it for so long, either.
He cuts his last class – political science, who gives a crap anyway – and takes the bus to the hospital. Dean's on the tenth floor, and when Sam reaches his doorway he sees a sign, black letters on bright yellow: MRSA. He blinks stupidly at it, and goes inside.
Dad looks exhausted, and even before he says anything Sam can see something new is going on with Dean. The oxygen mask is gone; in its place he has a tube running into his mouth, and Sam turns to Dad and whispers, "What the –"
"He was having trouble," Dad says in a rusty voice. "Breathing. So they put him on a ventilator couple hours ago."
Sam swallows. "Dad?"
"He'll be okay." But Dad isn't smiling, isn't bullshitting. He looks more tired than Sam can remember seeing in ages. Tired, and tense. "Just, this infection, I guess -- Guess it's really got his number. Something."
"The sign on the door."
"Yeah. It's the kind of infection he has. Staph. They told me, you know, things about it. Can't say much of it stuck with me."
"It's bad, then."
Dad looks at Dean and nods. "Pretty bad, yeah. Antibiotics -- They're not working like we'd hoped. Just –"
The door opens behind them, and a white-coated doctor comes in. He smiles at Dad and then at Sam, but doesn't offer to shake hands. He wears white latex gloves. "How are you gentlemen?"
"How's my boy?" Dad asks, standing straight and tall. "He gonna be okay? Get out of here soon?"
"Give me a moment, please." The doctor's voice is faintly accented, a pleasing lilt. He goes over to the bed, performs a brief examination, and then scribbles something on the chart he carries. "Perhaps we could step out of the room?"
The doctor – his badge says Ananthakrishnan – takes them to an alcove down the hallway, and when they're all sitting in soft chairs he says, "The nurse explained to you about the nature of your son's infection?"
"Some. I don't -- This is all new to me, I don't…" Sam stares at him; he's never seen Dad at a loss for words like this.
"Of course. Your son is infected with methicillin-resistant staph aureus bacteria. These bacteria are around all of us all the time, but in some people, it can cause a very serious systemic infection."
"Will he be okay?" Sam asks shakily.
"We will certainly do everything in our power to make him well again," Ananthakrishnan says. "Currently we are treating him with a very powerful antibiotic, vancomycin, as well as several other drugs working in combination."
"He have pneumonia?" Dad asks. His voice is rough, deeper than normal.
"Not yet. But we're being very watchful, as you know. Your son has many factors in his favor: youth, previous health, and so on. It will take time and much care, however, to make him well once more."
The doctor's so calm, Sam almost doesn't feel like it's bad news.
The next afternoon Dean isn't in his room. Sam spends a frantic half-hour figuring out where they moved him, and another ten minutes listening to Dad once he does, telling him Dean will get better care in the ICU, there's only two patients for each nurse and that means they have lots more time to spend watching over him, and it's gonna be okay, Sammy, just calm down, take a deep breath. Your brother will be fine. Just wait and see.
But there's nothing in Dad's hollow frightened eyes that gives any comfort. Sam can see the lie there.
Visiting hours are restricted, and it's seven in the evening before he can go in to see Dean. When he does, he almost wishes he hadn't. Dean doesn't look like himself at all. He's smaller than Sam remembers, fragile-looking, and all he has is a cubicle, open on three sides, his bed surrounded by incomprehensible machines.
Eyes prickling with tears, Sam whispers, "Hey, Dean. You doing okay?"
Dean's awake, and there's awareness in his eyes, but he can't speak around the ventilator tube. His hand is so hot beneath Sam's, and there's no strength in his fingers. His eyes have fluttered shut again before the nurse says, "Are you his brother?"
Sam doesn't look away from Dean's drawn face. "Yes."
"I'm Angie. He was really looking forward to seeing you."
"How do you know?" Sam asks bitterly. "It's not like he can talk."
When he looks at her he sees a pretty, forty-ish woman, whose dark eyes aren't at all insulted by what he's said. "I go by vital signs," she says, glancing at the monitor beside Dean's bed. "His improved when I told him you could come see him this evening. See? Even better now."
Sam can't see what she's talking about. Dean's heart rate is so fast, and Sam can feel the ongoing fever by the touch of his hand. Dean isn't better. He's just – holding on. That's all. Anyone can see that.
"He's young and strong," the nurse says softly. "He'll make it."
Sam watches Dean sleep, and nods.
By Thursday he stops going to school. He's useless there anyway, and seeing his face in the stark hospital light, his father nods silently and goes to use the phone at the nurse's station to call the school. If they give him any hassle, he never tells Sam about it.
On Friday afternoon, almost time for shift change, the blue light goes on over the doorway to the ICU and even before Sam hears the call over the PA system he knows it's Dean. There's no change outside. All the action is behind those closed double doors. Unit 16, Dean's cubicle.
His father is in the cafeteria, getting coffee and sandwiches. The volunteer at the ICU waiting-room desk doesn't know anything. "I'm sorry, honey, they'll let you know just as soon as they possibly can," she tells him. Her smile is bright and false.
Dad comes back without the coffee, panting like he ran the whole way. He meets Sam's eyes and says, "Where's the fucking doctor."
"Dad," Sam says in a hoarse whisper. "Dean's –"
"No," his father snaps, loud as a whipcrack. "No, he's not."
"Attention, attention, attention. Code blue is clear," states the PA overhead. "Code blue is clear."
Sam can't breathe until a doctor comes to see them. Everyone in the waiting room is staring, glad it's not their loved one he's talking about. The doctor's young, brusque, no friendly smiles like Ananthakrishnan. His name is Coley, and he is what the charge nurse called an intensivist.
"Gave us a thrill there," he says, nodding to himself. "He's all right now."
"What happened?" Dad asks, in a thin voice that doesn't sound at all right. "My boy."
"He's getting a great number of medications. Some of them didn't like each other. We're switching him out now, see what we can do."
"Did he die?" Sam asks very calmly.
Coley glances at him, frowning like Sam's not supposed to actually interact, just partake of his wisdom. "In a manner of speaking."
"In what manner?" Sam snaps. "In the manner of, oh, shit, his heart isn't beating and he's not –"
"Sam." Dad's hand closes over his wrist, strong enough to grind the bones together. "Can it."
The doctor glances at his watch and says something official and meaningless about wait and see, looks good right now, and Sam glares daggers at his back when he leaves.
They get to see Dean a couple of hours later. There's really no difference, nothing to suggest that Dean DIED earlier in the evening. Everything looks the same.
"Dean," Sam whispers, leaning over and speaking an inch from Dean's ear. "Come on. Don't -- Don't you do this. Okay? It's Sam. Dean, look at me."
Dean sleeps, white and thin and motionless, and Sam slumps into the chair by the bed, ignores his father pacing behind him. Takes Dean's limp hand and presses it to his forehead, and closes his eyes.
On Monday, Dean starts to get better.
"He's responding," says Coley, who no longer looks at Sam at all, just ignores him. Speaks directly to Dad. "If he keeps on this way, we can move him to a regular med-surg room in a day or two."
Sam can't even hate the guy right then. Good news is good news.
Dean smiles and the hand in Sam's grips with more vigor. He's cooler, and for the first time in god knows how long his heart is going under 100. It's all good, and Sam can't keep the grin off his face.
"Next time you cut your finger," Sam tells him, "we're going to the damn ER."
Dean flips him off, and Sam laughs joyously.
He goes to school on Tuesday, and when he gets to the hospital that afternoon it's a hunt for Dean all over again. This time, though, it's good news, a regular room again, different from the first but on the same floor.
They leave around ten, and in the hospital parking lot Sam looks at his father and says, "Never again."
Dad glances at him, fishing for keys in his pocket. "Never again what?"
It's hard to breathe suddenly; his own heart is racing in his chest. "This could have been prevented," Sam says. "You know it and I know it. Dean didn't have to get this sick."
Dad stands very still. The keys dangle from his fingers. "What's that supposed to mean? You saying this is my fault, Sammy? Huh?"
Sam swallows. "If we hadn't gone to Frank instead of a damn hospital –"
"What? It's his fault, too?" Dad snorts, shakes his head and looks away. "You gonna blame anybody, Sammy, blame your brother. For hiding it from us as long as he did."
"He wouldn't HAVE to hide things if you didn't always make us suck things up! Never get to see a real doctor, just these – freaks you know all over the place. He nearly DIED, Dad! Over a stupid CUT on his –"
Dad's hand snakes out so fast Sam never quite sees it. Just feels Dad's hand gripping the front of his shirt, yanking him forward, against the passenger-side door of the Chevy.
"You know something? I'm getting pretty damn tired of that tone." Dad's face is nearly as pale as Dean's, and his eyes are steely-dark. "You mouth off all the time, and by god I let you get away with it more often than I want to. But you say one more time that I LET this happen – that this is my FAULT – and so help me god I will –"
"What?" Sam says jeeringly. His head is spinning. "You'll beat the crap out of me for it? Make me take it back? Go ahead! Doesn't change anything!"
"You little –"
"I'm not gonna watch him die! Even if you will!"
Dad lets go so fast Sam reels, catches himself on the car. With jerky motions Dad unlocks the door and circles around, lets himself behind the wheel.
The drive is silent and too fast, and the minute they get home Sam flings himself out of the car. His breathing doesn't straighten out until he's in the bedroom, door slammed closed.
"Bastard," he whispers, sagging down on the bed. "Fucker."
He sleeps on Dean's rumpled bed, face pressed against Dean's pillow, smelling Dean.
He won't apologize. Something has shifted under his feet, under the ground upon which their weird-ass family stands, and he won't budge and neither will Dad. Dean sees it, Dean who surprises them on Wednesday by having no ventilator tube in his throat, clearing his throat and saying, "'Bout time you came to see me, thought you forgot about me." He sounds bad, all junky and gravel-voiced, but he's talking and smiling and giving Sam the same shit, and Sam doesn't mind at all.
After an hour Dad, who's been silent and unsmiling after the initial good news, goes to get some coffee, and Dean's smile slips, too.
"You guys get into it again?"
Sam shrugs and looks away. "What difference does it make?"
"Damn it, Sammy. You act like this is his fault or something."
Sam doesn't say anything, and after a moment Dean says, "It's not. Okay? It's just -- Shit happens. That's all."
"Not like this," Sam says woodenly. "Shouldn't happen."
"Could happen to anybody, all right? Just had my number. Lighten up, dude."
Sam forces a little smile, and Dean adds, "And don't chap Dad's ass over it. He does the best he can for us. All right?"
This time Sam can't fake a smile, or a nod, and they sit in uncomfortable silence until the nurse comes in with Dean's supper. It smells pretty good, and Sam sneaks a bite of his lasagna and Dean gives him the salad.
It's another week before Dean's infection is considered sufficiently conked out. His hand is still kind of gross, and he'll have to come for daily outpatient visits for a while to have the wound cleaned out and dressed, but he's gonna be sprung, and that's what counts.
He's nowhere near normal. It takes Sam by surprise, even when he's seen how slow and shaky Dean is, walking up and down the hospital corridor. Trailing his IV pole alongside, which he's named Chester. "Took Chester for a walk. Held hands. It was nice." Batting his eyelashes at Sam and giving a theatrical sigh.
Sam had laughed off and on again for half an hour, and even Dad cracked a smile.
The day before Dean gets out, Sam walks into his room and sees Dad with his head bent, shoulders shaking, face pressed against Dean's hospital-white blanket. Over his head, Dean meets Sam's eyes, keeps on stroking Dad's rumpled hair and murmuring It's okay, Dad, relax, it's fine, and Dean shakes his head very slightly, and Sam stops, backs up and waits in one of the uncomfortable chairs in the hallway alcove until he sees Dad leaving. Wiping his face, clearing his throat. He walks like a man twice his age, shoulders hunched as if anticipating a blow, and Sam watches until the elevator swallows him up before going to see his brother.
That night, sitting on Dean's bed and waiting for Dad to come back from wherever he's gone – the bar, probably, he had that look before he left – Sam thinks, One more year. One more, and I'm gone. Clings to it like a talisman. One more year. Maybe here, maybe someplace else, but then I can go, and I'll get Dean to come with me.
It's hard to sleep, and he's still staring at the ceiling when Dad stumbles in the front door, slams it and shuffles down the hall to his own bed.
Dean is weak as a week-old pup. Just walking to the john leaves him shaking and blowing like a racehorse. At first he sleeps eighteen hours out of the day, minimum, and he's cranky and acidic when he's awake, complaining about the canned soup Sam heats for him to eat, the eggs and toast and oatmeal Dad now makes every morning.
"Fucking baby food," Dean mutters, poking the oatmeal with his spoon.
"Shut up and eat," Dad tells him, but he's smiling when he says it.
They get a scare about two weeks after Dean came home, when he gets a fever, but he goes back on antibiotics – this one's incredibly expensive, and Sam wonders what Dad sold to get the $2,000 to pay for a ten-day prescription – and it works this time. Dean's gaining strength every day. Walking more, sleeping less, and Sam pretends not to see that it'll be a while before Dean's really himself again.
At the end of the block one afternoon, Sam stops so that Dean can catch his breath, even though they really haven't gone that far. Dean wipes sweat off his face and says, "You still pissed at him?"
Sam shoves his hands in his pockets and wishes he'd made Dean walk farther. "No," he says, although the kernel of dark rage is still there, fermenting in his belly. There have been no more fights, no more yelling or grabbing by shirt-fronts, but some deep dark part of him knows it's not over. Just postponed.
"Good," Dean puffs. "Jesus, it's hot out here."
It's a fine spring day, no more than warm, and Sam isn't sweating at all. But he nods, and then looks ahead. "Come on. Let's go."
"Fucking slave driver." But Dean is already walking, face shiny with sweat and breath already labored again, and Sam tells him about the stupid musical they're going to be doing and listens to Dean give him breathless shit about his musical skills or lack thereof, and for a little while everything's all right. He has his brother back, and everything else can simply wait.
He gets a small part in Bye Bye Birdie, just part of the chorus, really. Dean gives him the expected shit about taking part in a musical, then proves to be a lot faster than Sam at memorizing the tunes and lyrics, so they spend the end of March and the beginning of April driving their father insane with "A Healthy Normal American Boy" and "Put on a Happy Face."
"You know, you don't sound so bad." Sam narrows his eyes at Dean. "Better than me."
"Course I sound better than you," Dean says airily. "Was there ever any question?"
"Did you know Dick Van Dyke played Albert in the original cast?"
"I do know you are the biggest dork that ever walked the planet. Does that count?"
Sam throws a Cheeto at Dean's head, and Dean grins sunnily.
Things are okay with Dad. At least there aren't any more blowups like the one while Dean was in the hospital. When he gets pissed or frustrated, he tries to remember how Dad broke down and cried that afternoon, the way Dean was so calm and said, Don't chap his ass, and even if Sam has to grit his teeth a lot and take a few deep breaths, it's worth it to keep things calm, healthy. The last thing Dean needs is to have some kind of relapse because he's stressed out, right?
Gaining back the weight he'd lost becomes a pretty high priority after a checkup. Dean's twenty pounds low, and just because Sam's getting used to the gaunt look doesn't make it right. After supper one night he corners Dad in the kitchen and says, "He didn't eat anything."
Dad keeps right on scraping plates into the garbage. "He ate some."
"He's so skinny."
"You don't think I see that?" Dad flares, and then sighs and puts the plates in the sink. "It's the damn pills. Said they make him sick to his stomach."
Sam blinks. "He told you that?"
"Gimme a little credit, Sammy," Dad says, but he smiles a little around the words. "I asked. But all he said was nothing tastes right. That burger the other night? You know he puked that up?"
"No," Sam says in a small voice. He was studying, maybe, or at a rehearsal. Whatever, he missed it, and Dad didn't, and that feels kinda funny.
"Just gotta keep trying different things, that's all. See what'll work. You got any ideas?"
But the next afternoon Sam stays late after school, using one of the computer lab machines to look up ways to get somebody to gain weight. He stops by the Dixie Dog on the way home and buys a chocolate-banana milkshake, and even though Dean's never been big on banana he downs the whole thing. Doesn't throw it up, either.
"Gonna mess up my girlish figure," Dean mumbles afterward, and burps, then pats his very flat belly.
Sam whistles "How Lovely to be a Woman," and Dean snickers and then burps again.
The next morning at breakfast he says, "Hey, pick me up one of those today, would you? The banana things."
Sam exchanges a relieved look with his father, and says, "Sure, man."
Dad goes on a hunting trip the first of May. "Back in a week, maybe two," he says, and Dean gets a professionally worried look on his face and says, "Take me with you."
Dad doesn't have to say it. There's no way Dean could be anything but a hindrance. He's gained a few pounds thanks to the shakes and the other things Sam's figured out will tempt his appetite, but he's still too skinny, and he gets winded fast. The hand is pretty much healed, but he's still recovering, that much is clear.
"Next time," Dad tells him, and slaps him on the shoulder. "Guarantee."
Dean looks unhappy, but once Dad is gone he relaxes a little. Starts working out, arms shaking when he tries situps and pushups.
Sam's busy, production week for the show, and it gives him an absurd degree of pleasure to see Dean in the audience, not just for opening night but the second performance, and a couple of the earlier dress rehearsals. Sam sneaks a look every once in a while, spotting Dean in the fourth row every time, mouthing the words to all the songs, and it's kind of hard to stay in character when all he wants to do is laugh, thinking about Dean singing freaking show tunes. Sign of the end times, for sure.
There are no flowers or girly shit like that, but Dean is stumblingly complimentary of Sam's performances, and it isn't even annoying when he makes a complete loser out of himself flirting with Mrs. Sims, the drama teacher. The very married drama teacher.
Then it's finals week, and Sam barricades himself in the bedroom and forbids Dean to use it except for real, actual sleep. While he studies, Dean does his exercises, goes for runs every evening, so slow at first that he appears embarrassed, but getting faster and going further every day.
Fed up with European history one night, Sam emerges and trudges to the kitchen for a soda. He finds Dean at the table, oilcloth spread out, his entire array of weapons on display. The air smells familiar, like sweet gun oil and metal, and Dean's face is calm, expressionless while he methodically swipes a blue-steel knife against the whetstone.
Sam swallows and watches, and after a moment Dean's motion slows. He glances up, lips curving in a tiny smile. In the bright light the color is right in his cheeks, rosy and healthy, and he doesn't favor his left hand at all.
"Dude, tell me you're done," he says. "I think your ass studied more the past four days than I did all twelve years of school."
Sam snorts and gets the bottle of off-brand cola out of the fridge. "I believe that."
Sam pours a glass and sits at the table. "You sure you ought to be doing that?"
"Won't do itself. The way a man treats his weapons is a sign of character, Sammy. Treat them well, and they will treat you well."
It's one of Dad's favorite aphorisms, but for whatever reason it doesn't bother Sam coming from Dean. He doesn't have to hear it; he can see it in the gentle fingers, the appreciation in Dean's level green eyes.
"Need any help?"
"Nah." Dean holds up the blade and turns it slowly, admiring the sheen. "Nearly done anyway." He sets the knife aside and lifts an eyebrow at Sam. "You pulling an all-nighter, or can I have my bedroom back sometime?"
Sam grins and gulps down his soda. "I'm done."
"Thank God. You know, you get tired, you slip and cut yourself."
Sam's smile falls with a thud, and Dean says gently, "Just kidding, dude. It won't happen again."
His mouth tastes sour. "Promise me," he whispers.
"I promise. Cross my heart, hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye."
"Gross. You better promise."
Dean goes back to his weapons, smiles and shakes his head. "Better not be forty-eight books on my bed, that's all I'm sayin'."
Sam reaches out and takes one of the knives. "Come on. I'll help you put all this crap away."
"Crap? Is that any way to talk?"
"Stuff," Sam mumbles. "Whatever."
Dean's cool fingers clasp briefly over his, and then Dean says, "Next year, man, no fucking musicals. I still got those stupid songs in my head."