Equinox – Part 3

Dean was scrunched down low in the plastic chair, his bloodshot eyes widening in anticipation each time the ER doors swung open only to have his hopes dashed. They'd been waiting for news about Sam for over an hour. Dean had repeatedly shaken off the staff's attempts to treat him as he awaited news about his brother. John had given up trying to get him to see a doctor.

John sat next to Dean and clumsily patted his knee every few minutes. Words had been very sparse between the two of them since they entered the hospital – Dean because he was suffering the effects of smoke inhalation and John because he couldn't believe his pig headedness had almost killed his youngest. Not that he was out of the woods. Actually, they didn't know what kind of shape Sam was in because no one had told them anything.

"Dean Winchester?" a female clad in white scrubs asked from the doorway.

Dean bounded to his feet and wavered as dizziness hammered him. He felt John's steadying hand at his back and drew comfort from it. He thought his name had been called because there was news about his brother but the staff just wanted to take him back and examine him.

A coughing fit shook his slim frame and before he could protest John was hustling him after the nurse against his wishes.

Dean lost track of what was going on as he was lead back and sat on an exam table. He didn't want to be treated. All he wanted to know was how Sammy was doing and people kept poking and prodding him and wouldn't leave him alone. As an oxygen mask was strapped over his nose, he found it constrictive and kept trying to remove it. He finally felt a needle prick in his bicep and then everything went muzzy as he relaxed back.

John watched as if from the sidelines as the medical staff tried to treat Dean. He wanted to intervene but Dean batted him away as well as the staff. It seemed he was just confusing things further so he forced himself to step back.

Dean was suffering from smoke inhalation, but the pure oxygen they were pumping into him should make for a full recovery. The combativeness was a by product of Dean's anxiety over Sam and the doctor had ordered a sedative to calm him. Dean really needed the rest so John knew the sedative was a good idea anyway. There was no news of Sam yet so Dean might as well rest.

John found himself wishing he could turn back the clock. Sam shouldn't be lying sick and hurt, without his family, in who knew what condition. Dean shouldn't be strung out on worry, hocking up a lung, victim to some crazy fire. And John felt responsible for the condition of both of his sons. If only he'd listened to Dean. If only he'd paid more attention to what was going on with Sam. If only, if only, if only.

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Dean's face was still streaked with soot and his eyes were a terrible red. At least the horrible coughing had finally subsided a bit. The doctors had wanted to admit Dean over night for observation but Dean refused. He insisted that being allowed in to see Sam was the best medicine. The staff finally relented. He'd be in the ICU so should he suffer a setback at least he would get the help he needed.

Now if only Sam would wake up.

Sam had a whopper of a deep bruise across his forehead and his eyes were deeply colored as well. He had fifteen stitches in the back of his head and a severe concussion but, shockingly, no other damage to his back or limbs except for more bruising.

The main problem was that Sam was suffering from a severe case of smoke inhalation, his throat and lungs actually blistered from the heat and toxins, and his breathing was labored. The doctors felt as long as he was breathing under his own steam and his oxygen saturation levels were acceptable there was no need to put him on a ventilator.

John and Dean only cared about two things. They wanted Sam to wake up and they didn't want him to be in pain.

No one was more thrilled than father and brother when Sam started to rouse.

One moment Sam was lazily blinking his eyes open, and the next he was trying to sit up. He grasped at the mask across his nose and muttered in short, staccato phrases.

"JT," Sam gasped in a broken voice that would have made Marge Simpson's chain smoking sisters proud. Gravelly and rough, Sam tried to wheeze out more but his body was shaken by deep, rattling coughs.

"It's okay, Sammy. You're going to be fine," Dean said as he moved up close to Sam in an effort to catch his eye. He didn't like the way Sam's eyes were rolling around in a panic.

"SSS-Saw JT…haunting m-me," Sam stuttered out between more coughing fits that caused water to leak from the outer corner of his eyes.

"No, Sammy. JT's dead. He can't hurt you," Dean tried to set Sam's mind at ease but if anything he became more agitated.

John felt the proverbial light bulb go on in his head. JT had died in front of John but John hadn't bothered to salt and burn him. What the hell was I thinking? He died a violent death with unfinished business. The perfect recipe for a haunting. I put my family at risk.

Sam's skittishness, his seeming decline – it all made sense now. He hadn't taken the time to read the signs before, preferring to think that his sensitive son had given in to the trauma of his ordeal instead of digging deeper. He had let Sam down before, but he could fix things for his son now.

"It's okay. I understand. One salt and burn coming up," John said as he gently squeezed Sam's shoulder as yet another coughing fit shook his frail frame.

Sam finally seemed to relax. His father understood. His father wouldn't let him down. He closed his eyes and gave in to the pull of unconsciousness.

John aimed one more concerned look at Sam before stepping out into the hallway.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Dean rasped out as he followed John out of the room. He didn't want to leave Sam for a moment,but he wanted to know what was so important that John would abandon his youngest son.

"It was JT all along. Haunting Sam. I'm going down to Illinois, dig up his body, and perform a little old fashioned salt and burn on his wicked, bony ass," John explained with a gleam in his eye. He might not excel at comforting his boys,but this was something he could do for them. For Sam.

The smoke must have really done a number on me was all Dean could think. He should have figured it out a long time ago. JT. Haunting. Sam.

"Take care of your brother. And yourself. I'll be back as soon as I can," John said as he pulled Dean into a brief hug before striding down the hall and around the corner.

Dean was stunned. John rarely touched his sons unless he was showing them a defensive move. And hugging? Unheard of since the boys had reached adolescence. Dean finally understood how scared John had been of losing his youngest.

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A couple of hours had passed since John set off to deal with JT and Dean was scared. Sammy was struggling to pull in each breath, his body taut with exertion, sweat coating his skin. Dean's concern was mitigated by the fact that his younger brother was conscious and occasionally clasped Dean's hand in his own, but then he would quickly twist away as he fought to suck oxygen into his battered lungs.

Dean could see Sam was tiring of the fight. Hell, Dean was exhausted just from watching him. And it was damn frustrating because aside from holding on to Sam's hand when he allowed and wiping his face with a cool cloth which Sam tended to bat away, there wasn't a thing Dean could do to help Sam.

Dean's nerves were already stretched taut when one of the machines attached to Sam started bleating out a warning, practically sending Dean through the ceiling. Someone hustled into the room to make a moue of concern and then quickly disappeared. Dean was going to lose it soon. Did the never ending alarm mean Sam was losing the fight? Or simply that the machine needed a new battery? The sound certainly wasn't going to relax Sam any as he continued to struggle for oxygen.

"Hey, honey. I need you step back. I'm going to give your brother a breathing treatment," a capable looking older woman said as she bustled into the room.

The nurse leaned forward and removed the oxygen mask from Sam's face which startled Dean out of his inactivity. "What the hell are you doing? He needs that!"

"Relax. This is a bronchodilator. It's going to open up Sam's air passages so that he can breathe easier," she explained as she positioned the head of Sam's bed higher before inserting a tube into his mouth. She whispered instructions in Sam's ear and then depressed a button that released the medication.

The nurse stroked Sam's arm and murmured words of encouragement as her attention switched between Sam's face and the monitors next to him.

Dean anxiously watched as Sam's chest continued to heave at a fast pace. His eyes were wide and staring, his face etched in lines of exhaustion. .

"There you go, Sam. Things should start easing up for you. Don't fight it, try to go with the flow," she counseled before slipping out of the room.

Dean moved forward and took up the position the nurse had abandoned. Stroking Sam's wrist, his eyes glued to his face, Dean found himself wishing he could switch places with his brother. Watching him suffer like this, flopping around like a fish out of water, was killing him.

Dean noticed a change in Sam's condition in small increments. The frantic wheezing was giving way to longer gasps and Sam was no long arching on the bed in an effort to maximize the air flow. Instead he was splayed across the bed, arms akimbo, while his eyes relaxed at half mast.

Dean wanted to tell Sam he was so proud of him and apologize for leaving him alone, but he didn't want to upset the fragile balance of Sam's condition. He resolved to be patient and wait this thing out. He vowed he would have a chance to speak his mind. He refused to let Sam go.

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Sam's condition continued to teeter between stable and serious as his body fought the effects of the smoke. He'd had another puff of the bronchodilator and a nebulizer treatment. They worked for a while but then Sam would crash again, straining with every muscle in his body to drag air into his damaged lungs.

Dean watched on helplessly as Sam began to thrash restlessly again, muttering under his breath. The nurses said Sam was holding his own, but Dean knew he couldn't take much more.

As if a light had been switched on, Sam immediately began to calm. His breathing, still ragged, was no longer so tortured. Dean was amazed. He collapsed in a chair next to Sammy.

Dean never got the chance to relax as his cell phone started trilling. Reaching into his pocket he saw that his Dad was calling.

"It's over. I'm on my way. How's Sammy?" John asked, out of breath. He was getting too old for this shit, digging up graves and then torching the remains, but he would never admit it aloud.

"It's been touch and go, but I think he's finally resting," Dean said before a heartfelt sigh escaped his lips.

John looked up to the heavens in silent thanks. That's twice in three months that he'd almost lost his baby. He needed to slow down and pay more attention to his boys otherwise he might not be so lucky next time.

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"How's he doing?" John asked as Dean came down the hallway. The smoke damage had been too much for the rented house, so the Winchesters had decided to move on as soon as Sam was released from the hospital. Mindful of Sam's condition John decided to move them about an hour's time from their last house. They could regroup and come up with a plan once Sam was better.

Sam had conked out as soon as they got him settled in the Impala's passenger seat. He was bundled under several blankets and the seat was tilted back so that he could rest more comfortably. They needn't have worried on that score as Sam tumbled into a deep sleep as soon as the car left park.

In fact, Sam had been so exhausted that Dean couldn't rouse him long enough to get him into their new place. Instead, John had swept him up into his arms and carried him indoors.

John was trying hard not to show how worried he was about his youngest. The doctors had assured him that Sam could be discharged and had even armed them with inhalers to help Sam's breathing. Sam continually slept, which the staff had told him was normal, but it just didn't suit his youngest. Since John couldn't order Sam to feel better, he resigned himself to being patient. They had endured five long days while Sam recuperated in the hospital. He could wait a little longer.

Dean ran a hand through his spiky blond hair before answering, "He's out. We'll have to wake him up in an hour to give him a breathing treatment." Dean didn't like how compliant Sam was at the moment. He missed his feisty little brother. The way Sam was before the fire and before the kidnapping. But he was alive and breathing. No thanks to their Dad.

Resentment still simmered deep within Dean. Their Dad had decided on the best course of action in regards to Sam, irregardless of Dean's input, and it had almost cost him his little brother. It was the first time that Dean could remember thinking John Winchester had made a mistake. The disillusionment was fierce, but he consoled himself that nobody was perfect.

John knew his blunder had almost resulted in Sam forfeiting his life and he was deeply sorry. Sam had waved off his attempted apology in the hospital since John had managed the salt and burn thus getting JT out of their lives for good, but Dean wouldn't even stay in the same room long enough with John to hear him out.

Taking a deep breath, John took the plunge despite the chilly environment, "I should have listened to you. You know your brother inside and out, you've always taken care of him, so I should have trusted in your judgment. I'm sorry."

Dean was stunned. His father had never, ever apologized to him before. It was hard to maintain his icy demeanor in the face of John's regret.

Dean silently nodded and was on the verge of speaking when a crash was heard from Sam's room. John and Dean both sprinted in, afraid of what they would find.

"Sam! You okay?" John barked as he crossed the threshold of the room, Dean close on his heels. Both men were relieved to see Sam wasn't sprawled on the floor.

Instead, Sam was sitting on the edge of the bed with a sheepish grin on his face. "Sorry," he croaked out through his still raw throat. It no longer hurt to talk, but it sounded like hell. "I kind of lost my balance and knocked over the glass of water."

"What are you doing up? You're supposed to be resting," Dean scolded as he looked Sam over. He was pale and shaky, but for the first time in a long time there was a gleam of hope in his eye.

"The doctor said I could go back to school as soon as I built up my strength. I wanted to get up and start moving around. Do you think we could see about registering me for school on Monday?" he asked with a mild wheeze in his voice. The effects of the smoke were dissipating slowly,but he was eager for things to get back to normal.

John took in Sam's flash of spirit. Despite his residual problems, Sam seemed to be on the road to recovery. John chastised himself over not noticing that there was more to Sam's withdrawal and skittishness then what had happened to him in December. If he hadn't taken things at face value, something he knew better than to do, then Sam might not have faced this most recent trauma alone. And he should have trusted in Dean when his oldest son told him they shouldn't leave Sam alone. Dean had always known what was best for Sam. John couldn't believe how close he'd been to losing his baby. To losing both of his sons.

Dean could see that Sam was chomping at the bit to get better. It had been so long since he'd shown a spark of energy or enthusiasm about anything that he felt giddy with relief. It had been torture watching Sam pull into himself these last couple of months. He didn't care about anything. And the way he jumped at any little noise broke his heart. Sam might be a geek but he was a fighter, sure and strong, and to watch him dragging around had been hell.

It had been too long, but his Sammy was finally on the mend.

Finis

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A/N: I cannot thank Annonie enough for the beta on this fic. Not only did she consent to help me out on the spur of the moment, and did a fantastic job, but she did so while in the midst of a life altering event (congratulations kiddo!).

Thank you for reading this story!