Title: Lifeline

Author: Harrigan

Fandom: Supernatural

Rating: All Audiences Characters: Dean, Sam (gen)

Warnings/spoilers: episode tag for 2:04 Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things Word count: somewhere over 4600 Disclaimer: Supernatural is not mine. No profit is being made ... etc.

Summary: Dean is adrift ... and sinking

- - - -

Author's notes: This isn't the first fic tag to SPN 2x04 Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things. And it's by no means the best - I think 'Salt Lines' by Killabeez is the achingly poignant unaired-but-nevertheless-canon fic at the top of that list.

But - I noticed that the boys in their 'Brokeback Mountain' moment at the end of the episode were wearing different clothes than they were in the cemetery. So - they stopped somewhere, changed clothes, and didn't get Sam's hand looked at? And I started to imagine how that might have played out ...

(P.S. The 'age old story' line was actually stolen from a interview with JP.)

- - - -

They're on a lonely stretch of highway, dark and fathomless as the ocean, nothing to illuminate the night except for the pale yellow glow of the Impala's headlights, obstinately pushing back against the void.

Dean hasn't looked at the odometer; hasn't glanced at his watch. He's in sort of a mindless cocoon, on auto-pilot, barely noticing as all the color in the sky gradually leeched away and the car is now shrouded by thick, almost suffocating black.

He doesn't want to think. He drives until his eyes feel like sandpaper and a headache starts to build behind his eyes, swelling in intensity beyond the point of safe driving. And if there is one thing he's learned from this life on the road, it's when to pull off it.

He is too tired to count how many hours he's gone without sleep.

Twenty-four hours ago he and Sam had been out all night, staking out a cemetery in a small college town. They were laying a trap for a vengeful spirit that was animating a still-ripe corpse. By the time dawn broke, Zombie Angela was impaled in her coffin (rest in peace), and the Winchester brothers were both sweat-soaked and aching from hours spent shoveling dirt to fill in the open grave. When it was done, they'd tossed their gear and jackets in the trunk, and Dean just pointed the Impala west. Sam, for once, had been blessedly quiet, not asking where they were headed. Dean didn't know. Just - away. As far away as they could get. It wasn't the first time Dean put the pedal to the metal without any idea where he was going.

The problem is, what Dean is really running away from isn't in that cemetery. And no matter how far or fast he goes he can't escape it.

He flicks a quick look at Sam, slumped against the passenger side door. Sammy's dead to the world and hearing that idiom in his head makes Dean shudder and his headache spike. He brakes slowly, guiding the car onto the shoulder of the road and then kills the engine. Sam doesn't stir. Dean lets his head fall back and he closes his eyes, just for a while. Sleep claims him but it doesn't bring peace.

- - - -

It's morning and Dean wakes first. Normally Sam wakes first, but it's impossible for Dean to stay asleep with a steering wheel digging into his ribs when he starts to toss restlessly. He should have crawled into the back seat when he'd pulled off the road, but he'd been too exhausted to move. Without consciously deciding to, he checks on his brother. Knees jammed against the glove compartment, Sam doesn't really have much room to move either. His arms are tucked close to his chest as if he'd felt cold, and his features are pinched with pain, even in sleep.

Dean fumbles stiffly with his door and staggers out. He can see mountains on the horizon blanketed by dark green forests. The elevation is higher now and the wind feels like ghostly fingers, cold and damp, brushing the back of his neck, running down his arms and shoulder blades and spine.

He shivers and goes around to the back of the Impala, unlocking the trunk. He grabs his jacket and a bottle of water, and after a moment's thought, rummages in his duffel too. This is day three wearing the same shirt and it feels stiff with dried sweat. He peels off the outer shirt and the tee, and pours the bottle of water over head, gasping at the chill and blinking fast. He feels no less tired, but more alert now. He uses the crumpled tee shirt to dry off and is pulling out a clean dark shirt when he hears Sam's door creak open.

His brother lumbers up beside him and they exchange brooding looks. Sam appears on the verge of saying something but studies Dean intently and then remains silent. He starts to grope around the trunk with his left hand, and Dean asks, "How is it?" with a quirked eyebrow and a nod toward his brother's swollen wrist.

Age-old story, running through a graveyard, tackled by a zombie. Sam had gotten up wincing, Dean had called him fragile, and they went on with the job. Like Sam had said, their lives are weird. Dean had planned to stop at a town with some sort of clinic later that day but the urge to flee, to keep going, had driven all other thoughts from his head until they had passed the edge of nowhere.

"It's not too bad," Sam says, stretching his freakishly long arms overhead and rolling his shoulders. "I think it's probably just sprained after all. When we find a motel tonight I'll ice it and it should be fine."

Dean doesn't argue. He's thinking 'motel' and then, as his stomach growls, 'food', and then he's thinking about how light his wallet feels. He'll have to do something about that before another day goes by.

- - - -

He doesn't ask Sam to drive. Sam doesn't offer. There's no music; no radio playing. Nobody gets out a map. No discussion. They just keep driving.

Dean feels Sam's eyes dart in his direction every once in a while and then look away. He knows what Sam is thinking.

There is a weight on Dean's chest that feels heavier and heavier with each passing mile. It feels like it's crushing him. He can't stop thinking about things he desperately doesn't want to think about. He needs a case; he needs a hunt. He needs to get outside his head, but the problem is, the hunt always ends and then he's trapped in his own thoughts again. Drowning.

He's afraid that if he tells Sam what is on his mind, Sam will reach over and touch his shoulder or arm and he will just shatter into a thousand little pieces.

Finally, though, he cracks anyway. He stops the car and gets out and just prays Sam won't say anything. He sits on the hood of the Impala and stares into the abyss and the words start to spill out. And Sam listens, just sitting by his side, not going anywhere, not pushing him. Waiting to offer whatever Dean needs.

It doesn't fix anything. What's wrong can't be fixed.

- - - -

It's late afternoon when Dean finds another reason to stop. Highway signs announce food and lodging up ahead, and even a hospital, which reminds Dean that he should ask Sam if x-rays are maybe a good idea after all. He's been too lost in his own pain to think about Sam's hand lately, and Sam hasn't said anything. They pass a roadside bar that Dean plans to return to - it's bound to have a pool table - and they pull into the parking lot of a cheap motel a quarter mile past it. The town itself is just ahead another exit or two.

Dean checks them in with a credit card that is close to maxed out and then he pulls the Impala around to the parking space in front of their unit. Inside are two twin beds with maroon-and-lime-colored brocade covers, flanking a nightstand with a lamp whose light-bulb dies with a sharp 'pop!' when Dean tries to turn it on. There's also a scratched oak veneer dresser that they probably won't use and a television with a bent antenna. But the radiator works and the shower has hot water, even if the water pressure leaves something to be desired.

Dean grabs the first shower and shaves too. He emerges from the bathroom in a soft cloud of steam and starts rooting through his clothes, selecting a black tee shirt and sniffing it suspiciously to decide if it can be worn again before washing. He looks up to find Sam sitting on one of the beds fumbling with an aspirin bottle. Dean knows he should come up with something insulting about how Sammy couldn't conquer a childproof cap, but his heart isn't in it. "Did you get ice?" he asks instead, reaching over to take the bottle, then palming the lid and spilling a handful of pills into his open hand.

"Ice machine's broken," Sam answers with a shrug. He scoops up three aspirin and an armful of clean clothes and heads into the bathroom. They aren't shy around each other but they each tend to seek more privacy when wincing is going to be involved. Dean hears him fill a glass of water and then the shower turns on.

When Sam comes back out, his hair is dripping and he's wearing fresh jeans and a couple layers of shirts that pull over and don't require buttoning. Dean is stretched out on the bed nearest the door, thumbing the TV remote but not really noticing what's on the screen. He catches Sam watching him, eyes wide with concern, and he thinks Sam has been doing too much of that lately. It makes him uncomfortable so he shuts off the TV and rolls to his feet. "Let's get that hand checked out," he says.

"We could wait till tomorrow," Sam suggests. "See if it's better by then."

Dean ignores him though; he picks up Sam's wallet off the nightstand and thumbs through the contents until he finds a card for medical insurance. "Nope. C'mon, Sam - McGillicuddy," he says, reading the name on the plastic. Time skids to a stop then; he's not breathing and there's a long torturous stretch of time between one heartbeat and the next, and he's suffocating in the memory of the last time they used that name.

Sam looks stricken too for a moment, and then his shoulders twitch like he's trying to wake up from a bad dream. He reaches over to take the card and wallet from Dean and wordlessly nods and heads toward the door. They get directions from the desk clerk, and the hospital isn't far at all. They can see it from the highway exit and as they get closer Dean's hands tighten into clenched fists around the steering wheel and he pales beneath his freckles.

"Just drop me off," Sam says suddenly. His own voice is tight. "You know ER's - the wait can be hours. I can just call you when I'm done."

Dean is trying not to hyperventilate and he can barely bring himself to look at the hospital. He nods, tight-lipped, and steers the car into a no parking area in front of the entrance. "Okay then." He rubs his jaw, takes a stab at normal. "I'm gonna go hustle some pool. You got cab fare, in case, you know, there's a cute barmaid that might make me a better offer for tonight?"

Dean's smile doesn't lighten the misery reflected in his eyes, but Sam flashes a grin back at him anyway, no doubt happy that Dean is making an effort. He reaches across his chest to open the car door with his left hand, swings his legs out, stands and slaps the door after he shuts it. "Don't worry about me," he says. "Just don't do anything stupid."

Dean dismisses him with a wave and pulls back into traffic.

- - - -

Flirting and pool are both such deeply ingrained skills in Dean that it doesn't matter if his concentration is a little off. He grabs a burger at the bar, scoping out the competition. Then he wrangles an invitation to play 9 ball and loses the first game. He almost wins the next by deliberately missing the easy shots and making the occasional tough ones, to make it look like he was just lucky, but also naïve and overconfident. Now they're putting money on the table. And before long he's sinking every ball he wants and he's got the phone number of the buxom blond barmaid on a cocktail napkin and $200 in crumpled bills in his back pocket.

What he doesn't have is a 6'5" towering block of muscle to back him up when one of the marks decides he's being hustled and wants his money back - and the jerk has a posse of friends.

It doesn't matter how good you are at hand-to-hand combat, Dean's reach isn't as long as a pool cue and he takes a powerful crack to the back of the skull and goes down hard.

The locals aren't thieves. They leave him his cell phone and wallet and car keys. They just take the $200 they lost and then dump Dean in the alley out back to sleep it off.

- - - -

He wakes with a grimace and a painful throbbing behind one ear. Rolling up on one elbow, he touches the sore spot gingerly, and feels a knot the size of a shotgun shell casing and his fingers come back flecked with dried blood.

It's been far too long since he's slept in a real bed, he thinks.

He drags himself to his feet and pauses, hands on knees a moment, to make sure he isn't going to face plant back into the nearest pile of rubbish. No. He's good.

The car is parked where he left it and Dean pats the hood as if it were a big loyal dog, sleek and black and powerful, that sat outside all night waiting for him. Then he unlocks the door and lets himself in, sitting with the door open and his feet still on the pavement as he pulls out his cell.

There's a voice mail from Sam, last night. "Guess you got lucky. Look, I'm going back to the hospital in the morning. If you aren't in the motel when I leave I'll make my own way there and call you when I'm done." Must have been a long wait in the ER and Sam didn't feel like sitting around, Dean thinks. Probably got hungry.

Dean isn't hungry. In fact, he's a little dizzy and more than a little queasy, so he staggers away from the car and empties the contents of his stomach behind a trash bin. Then he feels better, except for the cold and clammy chills, and he decides he could definitely use coffee. He stops at a gas station, fills up the tank, and buys two cups of coffee - the biggest size they offer. Black. None of that half-caf double-vanilla latte crap. Sam can just deal with it. And if he's already gone, Dean figures he can polish off the second cup.

When he arrives at the motel, Sam has come and gone and apparently so has housekeeping. The beds are made and there are fresh towels. Another hot shower helps mute the drum solo in his head and afterward, seeing the aspirin bottle still on the nightstand, Dean pops a couple pills and then folds a cold wet washcloth to drape over the lump on the back of his skull. He hasn't been sleeping well ever since he awoke from his coma and now he feels storm-tossed and battered. No matter how much his thoughts are churning and he feels like he's drowning in guilt and pain and rage - when he stretches out on the bed this time and shuts his eyes with a sigh, he's unconscious again within seconds.

- - - -

He wakes up feeling hollow inside and looks at his watch. It's past time when normal people eat lunch - not that the Winchesters ever indulged much in normal. He sits up, the washcloth falling to the floor, and he pulls out his cell and calls Sam.

He gets voice mail.

Well, he doesn't have anything better to do. They haven't replaced the laptop yet - restoring the Impala was the obvious priority - so he can't surf for a new case unless he finds a public library, and that's really more Sam's gig. But he needs to do something. So he gets back in the car, figuring he would either find Sam ready to leave at the hospital, or find out when he would be ready and then decide what to do about food based on that information.

This time pulling up to the hospital doesn't make him feel like he is strung so taut he might snap like a overwound guitar string - at least not as much as he did the day before.

He finds the nurses' station and remembers to ask for Sam McGillicuddy, while looking around the ER's curtained areas to see if he can spot his brother. Sam takes up a lot of space - he's not easy to hide.

The nurse at the desk is perky, with red hair and freckles, a nametag that says 'Kate' and a wedding ring on her left hand. It's force of habit to check. The name McGillicuddy doesn't ring a bell with her, so she hunts-and-pecks it on her keyboard and sees the name come up on her screen. "You'll want to take that elevator to the 3rd floor," she says, pointing. "Just follow the signs to the Surgical Waiting Area - you can't miss it."

"Surgical ---?!" Dean sputters and leans across the counter. "That's gotta be a mistake. Sam sprained his wrist. He just came in for x-rays."

Kate glances at the account information again. "He did come in yesterday for x-rays, and then they scheduled the surgery for first thing this morning. I'm sure he's fine," she says soothingly. She steps around the desk, takes Dean's elbow and leads him to the elevators. "They'll be able to give you more information upstairs. Don't worry." She nudges him inside and presses 3 while Dean stands there dumbly staring at her, and then she steps back as the elevator doors close.

Upstairs, Dean is just in the process of stepping into the waiting area when a tall man in surgical scrubs strides through swinging doors and asks the handful of people loitering about, "Is the family of Sam McGillicuddy here?"

Dean practically pounces. "I'm his brother Dean - what's going on? What surgery?" His voice cracks a little.

"Didn't Sam tell you?"

"Would I be asking, if he did?" Dean is thrumming with impatience and he resists the urge to grab the doctor and shake him. "No. We thought he just sprained his wrist. I dropped him off him for x-rays last night and I ... went out ... and didn't get back till this morning. Sam left a message for me to pick him up here."

"It's nothing to worry about," the doctor says, and sounds sincere. Like he's had a lot of practice defusing family members fraught with worry. He swipes off his surgical cap, revealing a military hair cut that minimizes attention to his bald spot and he gestures to Dean to sit. "I'm Dr. Spalding. I performed the operation on Sam's wrist. This is a very common outpatient procedure and it went very well. Sam's on his way to Recovery right now."

"But - what exactly did you do?" Dean persists.

"Oh, sorry. Let me back up a little." The doctor smiles, looking tired. "Your brother has an acute scaphoid fracture - that's one of the bones in the wrist, on the side below the thumb." He points on his own hand. "This type of injury occurs most commonly in active males in their 20's, as a result of a fall. It was a fall, I think he said?"

Dean nods, wondering if Sam had made up any details surrounding his tumble. He somehow doubts this injury occurs most commonly in males in their 20's who were attacked by zombies.

"A scaphoid fracture is often misdiagnosed as a sprain, at least at first," Spalding adds.

"But it's broken?" Dean interrupts. "Sam's wrist. Not sprained. Broken."

The doctor inclines his head. "Well, both, actually. Ligament damage often accompanies -"

Dean doesn't care about 'often' or 'commonly'. He just wants to know what happened to Sam. "You don't just put a cast on it?"

"Well, we do - if the bone is broken but not out of alignment. In Sam's case, the x-rays showed the bone fragments were displaced and unstable. When that happens, it's usually best to pin the fragments back in place with a screw."

"You put a screw in his wrist?"

The surgeon nods. "Believe me, it's a pretty simple procedure. A very small screw - it won't even make airport metal detectors go off." He chuckles, but Dean doesn't seem to see the humor in it, so Spalding's smile falters and he continues in his reassuring tone. "Sam will only need to stay in Recovery for a couple hours and then you can take him home. But he'll need someone to stay with him for at least the next 24 hours. You're prepared to do that?"

"Of course I can," Dean says. "I'd have been here the whole time this morning, except, well ---"

Dr. Spalding waves his hand. "Not a problem. You're here now. Sam will still need to come back to have a cast applied, when the incision shows no signs of infection and the swelling goes down. But I assure you, his prognosis is much better with the surgery than without."

"When can I see him?" Dean blurts out. There would be time later to get the post-op instructions and the full story; right now he is consumed with an overwhelming urge to see his brother.

"You can see him as soon as he's settled in Recovery," Spalding says. He stands; he's a busy man with places to go and people to see. "A nurse will come find you when you can go in," he adds, extending his hand. Dean shakes it and doesn't remember later if he thanked him or not.

Dean paces the lounge and avoids meeting the eyes of the other people there who are sneaking glances at the clock and waiting helplessly for news. He thinks about how much he hates hospitals. He thinks about Sam wandering hospital corridors, alone and scared, waiting for word on Dean and their father. He has to remind himself that he doesn't have to be scared - that Sam is fine.

Finally a nurse comes to get him. He finds Sam flat on his back on a gurney, right arm elevated, wrist buried under a thick surgical dressing, splotches of dark rust-red blood stark against all the white. He has an IV in his other arm and a nasal cannula and there are other wires and tubes and some monitors are beeping but the sounds are steady and rhythmic, not frantic. Sam's eyes are open, a little vague but they track him as Dean approaches the bed.

Sam turns his head toward his brother and his eyes struggle to focus as he studies Dean's face and his voice is raspy when he says, "Are you okay? You look kinda rough..."

Dean shakes his head; hands twitching at his sides; and he doesn't find the words to answer.

- - - -

Dean wakes to darkness. At first he is not sure what has woken him - but he knows it's not the heart-racing cotton-mouth lurching-from-a-nightmare that has been plaguing him lately. It's something else. He listens to the lack of identifiable noise in the room while his eyes adjust to the darkness. And then he comes to realize that Sam's breathing is different. It's gotten faster, more shallow and restless.

He makes out Sam's long shadow on the opposite bed, sees that in his sleep Sam has rolled onto his right side facing Dean, and his splinted arm is hanging down in the space between the two beds.

Dean slides out from under his blankets and reaches across to Sam, brushing the backs of his fingers across his brother's forehead. Fever is something the nurses told him to watch for. Sam's skin is cool. He sighs with relief and mentally reviews the rest of the post-op checklist.

"Sammy," he whispers.

Sam's eyes blink open - he was already so close to consciousness that in another minute he'd have woken up whether Dean had said anything not.

Dean pushes Sam gently onto his back. "You need to elevate your arm," he reminds him.

Sam nods, swallows, doesn't speak. He draws his arm up across his chest slowly as if it were heavy, like an anvil. His eyes close, but his breathing remains uneven.

"Do you want to ice it some more?" Dean asks. "Or do you want more drugs?"

"Yes." Sam tries to smile, as if he were offered his choice of plain or peanut M&Ms and picked both.

Dean pats his shoulder and goes to the bathroom, where he's left a 7-lb. bag of ice sitting in the tub for exactly this purpose. He scoops some of the ice into a hand towel, and then fills a glass with tap water, and comes back. Sam struggles up on one elbow, then scoots back to lean against the headboard. Dean hands him the prescription painkillers and the glass and Sam tosses back the pills with a water chaser. Then he just sits there, watching Dean, thinking whatever it is that Sam thinks about when he has that inscrutable look. After a moment he wriggles onto his back again, and lets Dean position his arm on a pillow across his chest, the ice pack balanced where it would do the most good.

Sam's eyes flutter shut again and even though it's too soon for the pain relief to have kicked in, his whispered thanks sound heartfelt.

Dean doesn't answer; he just pads back to the bathroom to turn off the light and then returns to his bed. He lies on his back, wide awake, hands tucked behind his head but careful of the knot behind his ear, knowing he won't fall back asleep until after Sam has.

"Dean? Are you okay?"

He didn't answer that question last time. This time he does. "Of course I am, Sam. Quit worryin' about me."

The next words are whispered. "Ego sum sollicitus; ego eram sollicitus; ego ero sollicitus super vos..."

"Dude, what the fu - "

"Conjugating Latin." Sam snorts softly. "I do worry; I did worry; I will worry about you."

"That's it. You're high. No more Vicodin for you." Dean's tone suggests an end to the conversation, but the mattress springs creak as he turns onto his side to face Sam. In the dark, they can't see each other's faces, only shadows.

Maybe that makes this easier.

Sam sighs. "Hunting ... or college ... with the demon and the visions, Dean, I don't know how much control I really have over my future." Dean's heart clenches for a moment but before he can think straight again, Sam is rushing on. "The only thing I know that I do get to choose - is you. I get to choose you." Sam's voice fades to a sleepy murmur. "To stick around and worry about you and be a pain in your ass. You can't ask me not to worry. It doesn't work that way."

Dean rolls back to stare at the ceiling and gives an exasperated sigh. "Go to sleep Sammy. The drugs are messin' with your brain."

The room grows quiet, and Dean listens to Sam's breathing get slow and deep and even. And as sleep pulls at him too, Dean thinks about how his father is gone and it's his fault and nothing can ever make that right. But meanwhile, he has Sam. And Sam needs him. And he needs Sam.

And maybe that would be enough.

- end -