Disclaimer: I don't own them, I don't make money from them, but I do enjoy torturing them.
A/N: I hope you enjoy my latest foray into the world of Winchester. I also hope you don't mind that I brought Aidan along with me. He's introduced in the story First Solo Flight, but you don't need to read that one to enjoy this one. Please let me know your thoughts as we move along; I love reading what you have to say.
Physical ills are the taxes laid upon this wretched life; some are taxed higher, and some lower, but all pay something - Lord Chesterfield
Hospitals were too clean, too white, and too stark. They definitely weren't places for children; especially his children. John Winchester had been sitting next to his son's bed since he was admitted as a patient almost three hours ago. It was just something simple; a job where all the leg work and research had been done. But something happened before they even started the gig.
A friend called the day before asking John to purify a large Victorian house that was less than a two hour drive away. Even though the friend's sister knew the house was haunted, she bought it sight unseen and planned to turn it into a bed and breakfast. She owned several others throughout the country and the rumor, or truth, of a ghost only added to their charm. When the renovation started and she realized the spirit was less than benevolent, she asked her brother for help.
John planned to take his older with him to handle the job; getting back into town in time to pick the younger son up from school. But they weren't even an hour from their driveway when Dean suddenly became very nauseous. John pulled over to the side of the road and the contents of his son's stomach were violently and painfully expelled, leaving him weak and shaking.
With no intention of continuing to the haunted house, John sat with Dean for several minutes before either one of them felt comfortable enough to get back into the car. As he drove toward the small house they were living in, John had to stop twice more and each time Dean was in greater pain. By the time they were back within city limits, Dean was nearly unconscious and John drove directly to the hospital. He was well skilled in first aid as well as simple medical procedures and hospitals were generally a last resort, but John didn't want to take chances with his son's sudden illness.
Tests were run in the emergency room, and after a couple of hours Dean was admitted. He'd been sound asleep for the last two hours, his condition still not diagnosed.
Aidan Prichard stood just inside Dean's room, watching John. He might be a tough demon-hunter to most people, but Aidan knew another side to him. Having moved into the orphanage run by the church where John's friend and mentor officiated at the age of twelve, Aidan was privy to things others weren't. In addition to his experience with the supernatural, Aidan had seen John in the private moments with his sons. While hunting with the eldest Winchester, Aidan had seen him brutally destroy all manner of entity, but he'd also seen him be a loving and comforting father. There weren't many people who were allowed to see that side of the man. The moments of tenderness didn't come as often or overtly as the boys grew up, but they still happened.
"Any change?" Aidan whispered.
John's only response was a slight shake of his head.
"It's about time for Sam to get out of school."
He sighed and rubbed his face. "Jesus, is it that late already?"
"I'll pick him up."
"I have to tell him about his brother."
"Why don't I pick him up and get him something to eat? I'll tell him and then bring him here."
"I can't ask you to do that."
"You're not asking. I'll take care of it."
John nodded. "Thank you."
Before leaving the room, Aidan moved to the bed and laid a gentle hand on Dean's arm. He stirred, but didn't wake.
Sam Winchester wasn't a normal fifteen year old, but he tried hard to fit in at school. It wasn't just his home life and his demon-hunting family that made him different; he was an extremely bright young man. He was smarter than most of his classmates and could even give a couple of the teachers a run for their money.
He was sitting alone on the school steps when he saw Aidan's truck pull up to the curb. Taking his backpack, and with a sick feeling in his stomach, Sam walked toward the truck.
"I didn't know you were in town," he said cautiously through the open window.
"I finished a job not too far away and thought I'd hang out here for a few days. Get in."
"Where's Dean?" Sam asked, used to his brother picking him up from school. "Are he and Dad still working that job?"
"How about I treat you to a burger?"
Sam noticed Aidan didn't answer the question, but he opened the passenger side door and climbed into the truck. "Did my dad call you?"
"Let's just go eat."
Sam knew there was something going on but he also knew that Aidan wouldn't tell him anything before he was ready; he had no choice but to agree to the early dinner.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on now?" Sam asked, after he'd eaten half of his hamburger.
Aidan looked at him. He knew Sam was going to be mad. He knew the boy was going to complain that he should have been told about his brother's condition immediately and Aidan didn't really disagree. But he knew once Sam was at the hospital, it would take an army to get him to leave his brother's side and at least this way, he had some food in him. A recent growth spurt sent Sam over six feet tall and he always seemed to be hungry.
Steeling himself against Sam's attack, Aidan was about to answer his question when the cell phone in his jacket pocket began to ring. Aidan recognized John's number and hoped there wasn't bad news.
"Hey," he answered, not looking at Sam.
"Can you get away from Sammy for a second?"
"What? Hold on, you're breaking up." He moved the phone away and glanced at Sam. "I'm going to see if there's a better connection outside."
Aidan felt Sam's eyes on him as he walked out of the restaurant. "John? Did something happen?"
"The doctor thinks it's Dean's appendix and that he needs surgery."
"All of the symptoms don't fit, but enough of them…."
"When will they do the surgery?"
"He woke up a little while ago; he's not doing any better. The doctor wants to do the surgery tonight. Dean's asking for Sammy."
"I was about to tell him what happened. We can be there in a few minutes."
"Bring him. And Aidan?"
Aidan slipped the phone back into his pocket and turned around to find Sam behind him.
"Was that my dad?"
"Yeah." Aidan was just tall enough that he could put his arm around Sam's shoulders and, as he did, he led the boy to the truck. "Your dad and brother didn't make it to the job today. Dean got sick. He, he's in the hospital, Sam."
"What?" Sam demanded, pulling away from Aidan. "I knew something was wrong! What – I can't believe you didn't tell me that my brother was in the hospital! He was fine this morning; what happened?"
"Your dad said the doctor thinks it's his appendix. "
"He needs surgery?" Sam choked out.
Aidan nodded. "Tonight."
"I want to see him."
"Your dad said that he's asking for you."
"Let's go." Sam glared at him. "And I'm really pissed at you, by the way."
Aidan got into the truck thinking that breaking the news had really not gone that badly. He expected much worse.
Sam and Aidan found John standing outside of Dean's room. He turned, hearing his younger son's voice.
"How's Dean?" Sam demanded. "Why aren't you with him?"
John put a hand on his shoulder. "The nurse is in there getting him ready for surgery. You'll be able to see him in a couple of minutes. You ate?"
"Did you eat?"
"Yes, sir," he relented.
John looked at Aidan and he nodded.
"Was it your idea for Aidan to keep me away from here?" Sam demanded.
"No one was keeping you away," John explained with forced patience. "I knew you wouldn't eat if you found out about Dean first. The doctor has been with him and they've been doing tests so you wouldn't have been able to talk to him, anyway. And you're here now, right?"
Sam said nothing and John pulled him close, squeezing his shoulders. "He's going to be fine, Sammy."
A moment later a nurse came out of the room and smiled at John. "You can stay with him until the orderly comes to take him to the operating room. He's going to be groggy."
John nodded. "Thanks."
Sam had never seen his brother in a hospital bed. At nineteen, Dean had only been hunting with his father extensively for three years and even now, John kept him out of the bigger hunts. He'd been hurt before, but not bad enough that John's skills weren't adequate to handle the treatment. He hesitated just inside Dean's room after following his father inside.
"Hey there, kiddo." John laid his hand on Dean's head. "You doin' okay?"
Dean's grin was lopsided; clearly already feeling the effects of the sedative. "I'm okay."
John smiled at his slurred speech, then glanced over toward the door. "Sammy?"
The youngest Winchester slowly made his way to his brother's bedside, but stood very close to their father. John put a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, Sammy. You all right?"
"Me? I'm not the one in a hospital bed." His voice was quiet.
"How was school?" Dean asked, seemingly to relax his brother.
"Dean –" Sam felt tears in his eyes.
He saw Dean look at their father. "Is Aidan here?"
"In the hallway. I'll go get him."
John knew that Dean wanted a few minutes of privacy with his brother but he still hesitated for a moment. He caressed Dean's hair briefly then smiled at Sam. A moment later the brothers were alone.
"I'm gonna be fine, Sammy. I promise," Dean said, obviously trying to regain some control of himself. Sam knew that his brother hated to see him scared and he could only imagine how he looked to Dean right now.
Sam only nodded.
Dean reached out with a slightly unsteady hand and held his brother's wrist. "I don't break my promises, right?"
Sam nodded again.
"Come here, sit down." Dean moved over so that Sam could sit almost comfortably next to him. The younger boy hesitated, but for only a moment. Their shoulders touched when Sam had maneuvered into the spot next to Dean and he felt some comfort from that. "You and Dad will have to referee your own fights for a couple of days."
"We'll be fine." Sam tried to sound confident.
"I know you will. I don't want you to worry about me."
"It's surgery, Dean."
"Yeah, but it's a simple one. I'll be up and ready to kick your ass again in no time." He managed to get his arm around Sam's shoulders. "I promise."
Sam found he could only nod. He'd felt calm and confident in the hallway, but something about seeing his brother – his older and self-assured brother – in a hospital bed scared him. There was another feeling he couldn't quite identify or shake.
John stood in the hallway with Aidan. He'd seen the fear in his younger son's eyes as soon as Sam saw Dean in that bed. Sam never ceased to amaze and confuse his father. He was tall and somewhat lanky, but because of the training John insisted upon, Sam had enough muscle mass to make him appear older than his fifteen years; even to John. Sometimes he forgot this man-child was barely a teenager and other times, he forgot that his baby was a high school sophomore. Dean was far better at consoling Sam than John could ever hope to be and he was concerned that he wouldn't be able to allay his son's fears.
After a few minutes, John and Aidan went into Dean's room. John breath caught when he saw his sons sitting together on the bed, Dean's arm around Sam's shoulders. Even when he was drugged and about to be operated on, the older boy's concern was for his brother. That warmed John's heart, but worried him at the same time. He'd wanted the boys to be close and he put Dean in charge of Sam's care at a young age. He was proud of how well Dean handled the responsibility, but something nagged at him once in a while, saying it was too much for his son. Trying not to react, John took up a spot near the foot of the bed as Aidan pulled a chair closer.
An orderly and nurse came for Dean a few minutes later and the family moved to the surgical waiting room.
She stood at the window, watching the light snow fall to the ground. It was spring, a little late in the year for snow, but there it was nonetheless. She sighed. The weather wasn't good for her mood, but she didn't need to be happy for what she had to do right now. In fact, being less than happy would probably work out better.
Things had been set in motion a few days ago, but there were still tasks to be accomplished, so she turned from the window and headed to one of the back bedrooms. The house wasn't large, but it suited her purposes perfectly and she felt lucky to have found it so easily. She went about mixing the various herbs necessary for her purpose and started humming without realizing it.
John watched his younger son as he pretended to flip through an old magazine he'd found in the waiting room. He knew Sam was worried and out of his element. He and Dean had worked very hard over the years to make Sam feel safe and protected and without his brother's influence, John knew Sam must feel somewhat lost. And no matter what the circumstances, seeing Dean vulnerable for the first time would be unsettling for him. He knew that Sam often saw his brother as larger than life and capable of anything. Sometimes John saw him the exact same way.
With just a look, John sent Aidan out of the room then sat down next to Sam on the small couch. The boy didn't look up, but shifted so that he was closer to his father. John slipped his arm over Sam's shoulders and leaned toward him. He knew there were hard times coming for him and his younger boy; Sam had started to exert his independence a few months ago and it was already testing John's patience. Sam wasn't like Dean; where the older boy followed orders without questions, Sam wanted to know why. He was becoming more vocal about being expected to put school second to hunting and, while John had his own reasons for wanting his sons close to him, he couldn't – or more accurately, wouldn't - explain it to them.
He didn't enjoy putting them in danger, and so far, that danger had actually been relatively minimal. Sam had yet been allowed to fully participate in a hunt and Dean only went on the less dangerous ones. John still preferred to leave them behind when there were big jobs to be handled and that's where Sam being in school was very convenient. He couldn't leave Sam home alone and Dean was always more than willing to stay behind to make sure his brother was all right.
John felt a random shiver pass through Sam's shoulders and pulled him closer. Sam didn't fight the gesture and quietly put the magazine aside.
"I didn't know he was sick."
The words had been spoken so quietly, John wasn't sure Sam actually said anything.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. Appendicitis sometimes comes on with no symptoms until it's critical. Besides, you know how your brother is. He has a high tolerance for pain and if he felt anything, he probably thought it was something insignificant."
"I should have known."
John remembered having this same conversation with Dean several years ago when Sam had an ear infection. The boy had been too young to put more than two or three words together, but Dean still blamed himself for not recognizing something was wrong with the baby. It was hard for John to convince a five year old Dean that his brother's illness wasn't his fault and he didn't expect it to be any easier to convince Sam of the same thing.
"He always knows –"
John looked into Sam's eyes. "Even if we had noticed something, he'd still need surgery. He's going to be okay, Sammy. It's a simple operation and he'll be out of here in a couple of days."
"That's what he said. Well, that, and he'd be ready to kick my ass."
John smiled. "That sounds like Dean."
"Yeah," Sam agreed as Aidan walked into the room. "Where have you been?"
"Nowhere. Just wandering. You two okay? Do you need anything?"
"We're good, thanks," John replied after exchanging a look with Sam.
She pulled the book from the shelf even though she'd all but memorized the applicable pages, and laid it open on the work bench in front of her. She examined the illustrations and made sure her own matched exactly, then went through the supplies she'd gathered and mentally checked them off as she read through the list in the book. Everything was ready, but she had hours yet. Hearing the living room clock chime the hour, she smiled and covered the bench with a sheet before making her way to the kitchen.
Her purse was on the table, along with her car keys and a name tag. She slipped into a simple white sweater before pinning the name tag to it, then opened her purse and took a quick inventory of the contents. Satisfied that she had everything she needed, she left the house. When she got to the hospital twenty minutes later, she looked like every other senior citizen volunteer.
"Hey, Gretchen," the volunteer coordinator smiled as the older woman walked into the office. "We've got you in the children's ward this evening."
Gretchen slipped her purse into the small locker with her name on it and returned the coordinator's smile. "I don't think that's right."
"Oh, my mistake," the coordinator said, not looking away from Gretchen's piercing blue eyes. "You're in the surgical ward."
"That's what I thought."
Gretchen patted the younger woman's hand as she walked past her and back into the hallway. She took the elevator to the surgical ward and greeted the nurses she would be working with for the next couple of hours. There was some minor chatter as she familiarized herself with the names of the patients on the floor.
"There's a family in the waiting room." Judy, one of the nurses, smiled at her. "They have a boy with appendicitis. We got the call a bit ago that he's out of surgery and will be back in his room in about half an hour. You might want to take a look in on them."
Gretchen smiled. "I'd be glad to. Which patient is it?"
"I'll take very good care of them."
Judy nodded. "I know you will. We're not very full today; there probably won't be much for you to do."
"Oh, I'm sure I can find some way to amuse myself."
Judy and the other nurses laughed and Gretchen headed to the surgical waiting room down the hall. She found Aidan and the Winchesters, or Walcotts, as their fake ID said, just where she expected to. She introduced herself, explaining that she was one of the hospital volunteers and would be on duty for the next four hours if they needed anything. John smiled politely and they had no choice but to listen to her prattle on as she straightened up the room. She stacked magazines, threw away trash and checked the coffee-making supplies, all the while talking about nothing in particular.
John noticed Aidan seemed to have a negative reaction to her, but he didn't have a chance to ask him about it. While Gretchen was still busy tidying, a nurse came in with word that Dean was back in his room. The doctor had already stopped by to tell them the surgery went well and he expected a full recovery within the next couple of days.
"Give us a while to settle him in and monitor him – why don't you grab some dinner; give us at least an hour?" the nurse suggested.
"Is he awake?" Sam asked.
"He is, but still kind of out of it."
Gretchen put a hand on the nurse's elbow. "Maybe Mr. Walcott could go in, just for a minute, and let the boy know he can see his brother soon."
"Sure," the nurse smiled. "Gretchen, why don't you take Mr. Walcott to his son?"
John and Aidan exchanged a look before he followed Gretchen from the waiting room. Aidan put an almost protective hand on Sam's shoulder.
John waited just inside Dean's room and after a moment, Gretchen walked away. He approached the bed quietly and laid a gentle hand on his son's head. Dean's eyes fluttered open, but they were less than focused.
"Hey," John whispered as he leaned close.
"Yeah, son. The doctor said the surgery went fine and you'll be out of here in a couple of days."
"He's with Aidan in the waiting room. They didn't want us all to come in until you were more settled. We'll be back soon, okay?"
Dean nodded as his eyes closed again. John watched him for a moment, then leaned down to kiss his forehead. He stroked Dean's hair gently and pulled the protective amulet his son normally wore from his jeans pocket. He placed it under Dean's pillow and hesitated again before reluctantly leaving the room. Something didn't feel right and John was used to living by his instincts.
"I think I should stay," Aidan whispered to John.
"What do you think is going on?"
"I don't know. I didn't see anything, but I've got this weird feeling."
John glanced at Sam who was pacing impatiently across the room.
"Maybe I should stay –"
"No," Aidan shook his head. "I think you should go. Take Sammy out of here for a little bit and I'll hang out, keep an eye on things."
John looked at him uncertainly.
John was about to protest again, but instead, he sighed and nodded. He rounded up Sam and headed to the elevator. Aidan wasn't psychic, though he occasionally had a sense about things that tended to be pretty accurate. His real talent was being able to see a supernatural entity before it materialized and that was usually very helpful when on a hunt. John had learned to trust Aidan and his instincts in the fifteen years since he met him. There were very few people he trusted to get close to his sons and Aidan was on that very short list.
"What's going on, Dad?" Sam asked once they were in the parking lot. He had seen the way Aidan reacted to the volunteer and felt his father's tension afterward. He knew something had happened, but he knew it wouldn't be in his best interest to question his father until they were in private.
"I don't know, Sammy."
The teenager thought his father would lie and was prepared for a fight. He wasn't sure how to react to the unexpected honesty. He walked in silence.
John led Sam toward the car he'd handed down to Dean on his eighteenth birthday. Thinking back on the earlier events of the day, John realized he should have known something was wrong. Dean loved the car and drove it whenever he could; except for that morning. He tossed the keys toward John with some flippant comment and it was John who drove toward their job. He made a mental note to talk to Dean about that.
"Aidan is staying behind to keep an eye on things, but he has a feeling that something is wrong." John said once they were in the car.
"So why are we leaving?"
"Because I trust Aidan's instincts."
"Dean might be in danger?"
"He'll be fine; Aidan is there."
"The appendicitis –"
"Maybe we're all just over-reacting."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
John turned the key in the ignition and glanced at his son. "I don't know, Sammy."
"Where are we going?"
"To the house. We'll pick some things up for your brother and grab some food."
"And maybe pick up some stuff for protection?"
John glanced at him again. "Yeah."