A/N 1: I'd like to thank Faye Dartmouth for a down-to-the-wire plotting session. I had another big assist from CZ who did some last minute trouble shooting and dialogue coaching. My vision for the story was a bit more convoluted so I thank these lovely ladies for putting me back on track.

-----

Chapter 3: And the Ugly…

Dean shook his head in exasperation while dragging a hand through his short, blond hair. The luxurious surroundings of the bed and breakfast, including a comfortable bed with froufrou lace, might be more upscale than the usual places they stayed while on the road but Sam wasn't taking advantage of it.

His little brother needed to stop and smell the coffee. Or was it stop and smell the roses? It didn't matter what he smelled because the facts remained unchanged – Sam was at it again, pouring all of his energy into finding a solution to Dean's problem, when he should have been relaxing.

Dean watched covertly from across the room at his brother's head bent awkwardly over the laptop and his fingers flew over the keyboard.

He couldn't put his finger on it, but something was different about Sam. The insomnia followed by nightmares was nothing new. The lack of appetite and gloominess wasn't a change either. Ever since Sam had been stranded in the mausoleum, his behavior was off. It was subtle, but Dean could see something was wrong.

Lurking just below the surface was an added layer of desperation. Dean felt certain he recognized it because it was something he had first hand experience with.

He was definitely stressed out over his future. It wasn't that he wanted to go to hell but he had sort of made his peace with it. After all, Sam was living and breathing again and that's what mattered the most. He'd done his job; he'd saved his brother.

His feelings of hopelessness centered on what would happen to Sam when (if?) the Crossroads Demon came to collect. Number one, he wouldn't have his brother's back -- a back which attracted trouble without even trying. And second, he feared for his brother's sanity. If Sam was slowly driving himself bat-shit crazy now...he didn't want to think what Sam would be like if Dean had to pay the piper.

Actually, Dean knew exactly how it felt since he'd gone through it while Sam's muscles had first stiffened with and then relaxed through the stages of rigor mortis. He hadn't handled things well. Not at all. He didn't wish that on Sam for anything.

Dean's attention was drawn back to his brother as he absently scratched at his hand. The kid was always dressed in long sleeves these days, despite the warm weather, his hands disappearing beneath the cuffs. Between that and his unruly, ragged hair, Sam was an unkempt mess. He was a far cry from the clean cut brother he'd spirited away from Stanford to help in his search for their father.

Sam could feel Dean's eyes on him. Again. It made him uncomfortable to be the focus of Dean's attention like that. It really shouldn't surprise him, though, because Dean was always looking out for him, even when he pretended not to be.

Sam was frustrated. Another lead had fallen through and Sam was trying to hold on to his faith. He knew there was a way to save Dean; he just needed to be patient and find it.

He didn't want to admit it but he needed a break from the Crossroads Demon. Maybe he would search the Oakwood Cemetery, former home of the ghoul. The Sam of old would have already searched for information on the boyish apparition waving goodbye to him. Was he connected with the ghoul? Why did he intervene and try to save their lives?

He discarded that idea, unable to work up any enthusiasm for it. He didn't have time for anything except his brother. Although he was beginning to wonder if he would be around to help Dean through this latest crisis.

He found himself searching out information on the ghoul instead. It had been four days since Dean had found him in the mausoleum and he had some concerns about whether he'd been "touched" by the ghoul before he'd been shoved into the small enclosure with the remains of The Smythes.

Touched. An inaccurate euphemism but he couldn't even bring himself to even think the words circling around his brain – scratched or bitten. Both, when delivered by a ghoul, were a surefire death sentence.

Although according to the website he was looking at now, if the ghoul had "touched" him, he'd soon be suffering from respiratory distress followed by complete organ failure. Wasn't that a cheery thought? Not exactly the way he thought he'd go out but there was no cure for it so there wasn't a damn thing he could do.

Except find a way to save Dean. Not in nine months or next week. Right now.

He didn't consider himself a hypochondriac but with every ache and twinge he became worried that he was sickening from the ghoul's touch. Hot and feverish one moment, chilled the next – it was like having a case of the flu that never fully developed.

His hand was really bothering him and despite distracting himself with the multitude of search engines at his disposal, he couldn't quit picking at it. He pulled the sleeve farther down to cover it and tried unsuccessfully to ignore its presence.

He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and flinched. His mind must be playing tricks on him. He thought he'd seen a shadow lumbering into the corner of the spacious room. His heart thundered loudly in his ears. For a moment he thought the ghoul was right here, in the room with them. But he'd watched as his brother salted and burned the decapitated remains of the ghoul two states over.

He ground the heel of his right hand into an eye and sighed. When Dean shot him a look, deeply frowning, he forced his lips upward in a parody of a smile.

He didn't want to bother Dean with his nonsense. If the ghoul had gotten him then there was nothing to be done about it and if that wasn't the case then he was just being paranoid – he wasn't going to upset Dean for no good reason. His brother didn't deserve that. Not from him.

After all, keeping things quiet seemed to be a Winchester family tradition.

-----

Dean didn't know how to shake Sam out of his malaise so he'd opted for packing his brother up the next day and heading back out on the hard road. He always found peace behind the wheel of the Impala. This car and his brother were all he had left. They were his home.

He glanced at his brother and took in the slumped posture and pinched features. Sammy, Sammy, Sammy…what am I going to do with you?

Dean was humming softly, trying to distract himself from staring at Sam again. He knew he made Sam uncomfortable but his brother wasn't okay. Or fine. Or whatever lie he was trying to pass off to explain away his moroseness.

Dean focused on the car ahead of him. The traffic was a bitch, barely climbing up the slope of the bridge, but it was rush hour. Everyone was scurrying home and the Impala was trapped in the mad dash.

He'd planned on leaving earlier in the day but Sam had looked pale and drawn and although he denied feeling sick, Dean had insisted that he rest longer. For once Sam hadn't argued.

This set off all sorts of alarms in Dean's brain. Although lately, it was hard to tell the difference between Sam trying to downplay injuries or illness and his constant need to please and appease Dean.

Dean heard his brother sigh, probably trapped in unhappy thoughts again, and sought a way to distract Sam. He settled on the rain which was a new all time low…Winchesters reduced to making small talk about the weather. Although the weather sure was putting on a show at the moment. "Now that's what I call a good old fashioned gully washer, don't you think?" he asked, borrowing a phrase he'd heard their dad use before while watching the heavens open up and dump water over the road in sheets.

Sam scratched absently at his hand as the car inched up the incline toward the top of the bridge, the rain coming down in torrents. The water gushed over the pavement toward and then past the car at a dizzying rate. Sam couldn't contain the sigh that escaped his lips as the forward motion of the car against the deluge of water disoriented him.

Dean was talking to him but he missed some of what he said, mesmerized by the frantic swipe of the windshield wipers which were futile in the face of the downpour. "…what I call a …gully washer…" he heard his brother comment. Even his brother's voice sounded as if it was being filtered through the water.

He blinked his eyes and shook his head in an effort to clear the light headedness overtaking him. Unsuccessful in his bid, he instead succumbed to the whirling sensation and fatigue, passing out. His body slumped awkwardly against the passenger door with his head coming to rest on his chest.

Creeping slowly behind the car in front of him, Dean called his brother's name and chanced a glance at Sam. His heart almost stopped as he realized why there had been no response -- Sam was slumped bonelessly in the passenger seat, his head tipped forward so that his chin rested on his chest.

Was he even breathing?

Dean slammed on the brakes, fishtailing a little despite the slow speed, and threw the Impala into park heedless of the consequences. He quickly engaged the hazard lights before reaching over and tilting Sam's head back so that his airway wasn't restricted.

He could see Sam's chest moving up and down, albeit a little quickly. He skimmed his hand over Sam's face, urgently calling his sibling's name. Sam didn't rouse but he was relieved to find that his forehead wasn't hot and feverish. If anything, it was cool and clammy.

He unfastened his own seatbelt so he could lean over his brother's prone body and trigger the lever on the side of the seat so that Sam was tipped back as far as the car allowed. It was the closest he could get to elevating Sam's feet without taking the time to drag his brother into the backseat. He was tempted to do just that but it wouldn't do his brother any good if they were hit by a car while stopped in the passing lane.

Dean grabbed Sam's left hand and placed two fingers on the wrist, commanding his own heart rate to quiet so that he could concentrate on his brother's pulse. Also a little quick but nothing to become too anxious over. Yet.

He was placing Sam's hand back on his lap when he noticed something that he hadn't seen earlier. There was a quarter sized area on the back of Sam's left hand that was darkly red and swollen. Streaks of red disappeared up the arm. When Dean touched it, he felt heat pouring off of it. What the hell?

Sam had complained of a sore hand after the mausoleum incident and it had been scraped up but not like this. It had been a simple abrasion, not this infected looking mess in front of him now.

An insistent honking broke through his worry zone and with one last look at his brother, passed out and draped across the seat, he put the Impala in gear and started following the flow of traffic once again. Gliding over into the right lane, he planned to take the first exit so he could assess Sam's condition better. If he was right then Sam would need medical treatment, whether he wanted it or not.

-----

Dean followed the signs to the nearest hospital, cursing the weather and the slow drivers. He was relieved when the sign announcing Waterbury Hospital appeared through the heavy curtain of rain. He thought, distractedly, how ironic the hospital's name was in light of the current deluge outside as he splashed through the parking lot, halting the Impala right in front of the ER entrance.

Scrambling out into the downpour, Dean was quickly drenched as he sprinted toward the entrance to get help. He bolted through the doors and ran up to the desk.

The words were flowing out of him so quickly that the woman, who barely had time to acknowledge his approach, was having a hard time following the conversation. He was on the verge of grabbing her scrawny neck and dragging her outside when she finally understood the seriousness of the situation and sent a team of staff outside to help Sam.

Before Dean could pull himself together and follow, the team was crashing through the waiting room at breakneck pace. Dean's stomach dropped to his toes as a gurney with a very pale and still Sam whizzed by him. The staff called out information to each other, oblivious to anyone else in the vicinity, their expressions serious.

He could tell that Sam's condition was serious. How the hell had that gotten by him?

-----

Sam was assessed, poked and transferred to an ICU cubicle in record time. In Dean's experience, hospitals did not move with such alacrity. That alone spoke volumes about the seriousness of Sam's condition.

Somehow a simple scrape had turned into a full blown infection. Dean remembered cleaning the area out with soap while Sam cooled in the bath tub but his brother's immune system, weakened from exhaustion and poor nutrition, had provided the perfect breeding ground for some common place infection which had run amuck.

Dean still didn't understand why Sam had kept his yap shut about his hand but he intended to find out as soon as Sam was coherent.

He shifted his position in the hard, plastic chair, never taking his eyes off of his brother. The head of Sam's bed was raised and an oxygen mask was firmly placed over his nose and mouth. His left hand was smothered in gauze. When Dean leaned forward and looked closely, he could see small, pinpoint purplish red spots dotting the skin that was visible over Sam's body. The sweat clung to Sam's hair and dampened his face, a sign of the high fever that had overtaken his body.

Dean had heard the staff throw around terms such as debridement, petechiae and septic shock. A strong antibiotic was now coursing through Sam's system courtesy of an IV attached to the back of his right hand and the doctor was hopeful it would control the infection. Hopeful.

A low pitched moan from the head of the bed signaled Sam's return to consciousness. Dean jumped to his feet and hovered next to his brother's side, eager for him to open his eyes.

It was a struggle but Dean looked on while Sam blinked his bloodshot eyes open. They wandered around the room, pausing every once in a while, a deep frown of concentration crinkling his forehead.

Sam raised his right hand and brought it up to the oxygen mask, pulling ineffectually at it. Dean captured the wayward hand and patted it awkwardly before putting it back on the bed. "Leave it be, you need it."

Sam sought Dean out with glazed eyes before speaking. Feebly shrugging his right shoulder and nodding half heartedly, Sam motioned to the corner of the room. "Who's there? I can't see them?" His voice cracked with the strain of speaking.

Dean looked over his shoulder where Sam had indicated. No one was there. "It's just you and me, Sammy."

Sam looked back into the corner and then his eyes panned across the room. "But…they're…don't you see them?" The words were disjointed and the delivery painful to hear.

Dean wasn't sure what was going on with Sam but he knew hallucinations weren't a good sign. And seeing people in the room who weren't there was most likely brought on by the infection raging through Sam's body. Dean knew the cause but he didn't have to like it.

Sam looked one more time and then relaxed back into the pillow before shyly looking at Dean. "It's okay. I know them."

Dean didn't know if he should play along or not but he was curious. "You know who?"

Sam closed his eyes, exhaustion apparent in the way he lolled back against the bed. Dean thought he'd fallen asleep until he heard his brother's soft reply. "It's Caleb, Father Jim and Meg…how'd they know where to find me?" The last was breathed out on a long sigh, sleep quickly overtaking his sick brother.

Dean felt a cold fist in the pit of his stomach. Sam was seeing people who had died in the last year. An innocent and two family friends who had been caught in the cross fire of the Yellow Eyed Demon's quest for who knew exactly what. It was as clear as mud right now.

Dean settled back into the uncomfortable chair and prepared for a long vigil. He wasn't going to let anything, dead or alive, get to his brother. Not now.

-----

Over twenty-four hours later, Dean was unable to stay awake and had nodded off, his head lying on top of the sheet next to Sam's right hand, when he felt movement. Picking his head up, he expected to see a nurse bustling around the room but instead was elated when he saw Sam was awake. His brother was blinking owlishly at him but Dean swore he saw his lips twitch into a smile before Sam clutched at Dean's hand with his own.

Dean had activated the call button and within minutes everyone on the floor seemed to pour into the cubicle to assess his brother's condition. He found himself gently pushed aside. He resented it but he knew Sam needed their help so he backed down, slinking against the wall, out of their way.

After much activity, the doctor and his entourage finally left the cubicle after pronouncing that the antibiotic was taking effect. Sam's vital signs were climbing back into an acceptable range and the prognosis was good. His body was beating the infection.

It was good news all around. The staff were going to transfer Sam to a regular room for observation and it he continued to improve they would consider releasing him in the next couple of days. He would have to remain afebrile for twenty-four hours straight but waking up had been the first, crucial step in his recovery.

While the staff readied his brother for the move, Dean trudged out to the car to grab his bag. He needed to freshen up and maybe grab some coffee. As a last minute thought, he grabbed the laptop.

Dean couldn't believe how oblivious he'd been to his brother's deteriorating health. He remembered Sam scratching at his hand over the last couple of days but hadn't thought anything of it at the time. Now he wanted to smack Sam for not speaking up, for not taking care of his wounded hand. And maybe himself while he was at it, for not taking better care of his brother.

Hitting a cafe across from the hospital, Dean settled down to relax. He wanted to lay his head down and catch some z's but he didn't want to be away from Sam's side for very long. The doctors might think Sam was out of the woods but he wanted, no needed, to be with his brother.

Knowing he had a little time to kill, he took advantage of the free internet connection in the trendy cafe. He booted up the laptop and saw several emails in the inbox. None were urgent so he decided to search septicemia on the internet – that was Sam's diagnosis. Reading through the list of symptoms and outcomes, he realized his brother had dodged a bullet on this one.

Shaking with relief, he accidentally hit the history button and paused to see what had last held Sam's attention. Ghouls + bites + scratches + cure.

What the hell?! Dean had taken care of the ghoul in front of Sam, so what was the fascination? He pulled it up and began reading.

Realization dawned slowly in his fatigued mind. He was up and out of his seat and halfway across the street before he realized he'd left his coffee behind. He briefly mourned the caffeine fix but it was nothing compared to the anger he felt right now.

He breezed up to Sam's floor and the nurse pointed out his brother's room, calling out that Sam was awake and asking for him. Dean smiled tightly at her as he pushed abruptly through the door.

Sam was propped up against several pillows, his eyes open and alert.

Dean slammed the laptop down on the tray table next to Sam's bed with more force than was required. "Good to see you awake, Sammy. How are you feeling?"

He could see with his own two eyes that Sam was awake but certainly in no condition to leave the hospital. The oxygen was gone but the IV remained. Dark circles ringed Sam's eyes and the stubble on his face contrasted starkly with his pasty, white skin.

He'd come very close to losing his brother and it was killing him.

Sam's smile was lop-sided and brief. "They tell me I'm on the mend and that you were with me the whole time. Thanks, Dean."

The words were heartfelt and sincere and Dean wasn't having any of it.

Dean sat down in the chair, fidgeted for a moment, and then jumped back to his feet. He couldn't stay still, his anger spurring him on. "Skip it," he snapped.

Sam's face fell but Dean didn't allow it to distract him from his goal. "Explain to me why you didn't mention that your hand was bothering you, would you?"

Sam squirmed uncomfortably against the pillows and couldn't meet Dean's eyes. "I, ah, don't know. I should have, I know. I'm sorry?"

Dean threw his hands up in the air. He was being a bit over dramatic but Sam had given him another scare that could have been totally avoided. "You're sorry. That's just great."

He paced the length of the room, Sam eyeing him warily.

Dean couldn't contain himself any longer. "Sam, for all of your college smarts, you sure are a bonehead. What were you thinking?!" The volume of Dean's voice rose with each syllable he delivered. "Why didn't you tell me about the SCRATCH OR BITE FROM THE GHOUL?!"

Dean's head snapped around to make sure no one had heard his rant. If he didn't watch it, they'd lock him up for observation.

Sam cringed down and tried to shrink farther into himself. He looked at the laptop and realized the gig was up.

After taking a deep breath, he glanced up at his irate brother and shakily pulled his right hand across his face. "When a ghoul bites or scratches you…well, you know there's no cure. You've got enough stuff going on right now. I didn't want to burden you with that."

Dean sighed with gusto. He couldn't stay angry with his brother, not when he was laying there all pale and miserable. "Dude, you are a burden. You always have been and always will be, but that's what being an older brother means. It's my job."

Sam raised his head up and tilted it to the side, staring his brother down. He was angry that Dean wasn't taking him seriously. "Dude, here's another newsflash – I was just trying to protect you. You, of all people, should understand that brothers, younger or older, do that for each other. I'm not going to stop just because you say so and you're every bit the burden I am."

Dean's anger kicked back up at full throttle. He was in total disbelief and couldn't contain his reaction. "Jesus, Sam. You almost died! All because you didn't want to worry me? I thought we were more than brothers. We're partners and partners don't lie to each other. Especially not over something like an infected hand!" It was all he could do to keep himself from leaning over and smacking his brother.

There was no denying he was hurt that Sam hadn't confided in him. He'd thought they were done with keeping secrets from each other

Sam snorted, the snort briefly turning to a cough, before he reacted. "Partners? Apparently they do lie to each other. Let me refresh your memory. When Dad died you kept his final words from me for months. Oh, and let's not forget, you were going to keep your little deal to bring me back to life a secret. Maybe I learned from the master!" Sam's voice was ragged and his eyes gleamed with unshed tears.

The brothers were at an impasse.

Dean couldn't believe the underlying rage and hurt in Sam's accusations. Perhaps he'd known it all along but it took Sam's outburst to remind him. He'd been so busy trying to protect Sam, to keep him alive, he'd failed to trust him. It was a mistake he'd repeated often in the past but one he couldn't afford to make in the future. Without trust, the brothers had nothing.

He looked as his brother, watching his chest rapidly rise and fall in agitation. The brother who refused to look him in the eye. For once he couldn't read his brother and he was at a loss.

Sam was disgusted with himself. He hadn't meant to spew vitriol at his brother, the only living person who really loved him. He was just so frustrated with everything. He'd tried to talk to Dean in the past about his "destiny" but every time Sam had brought it up, his brother had brushed him aside. Dean was going to do whatever it took to save him from the Yellow Eye Demon and damn the consequences. He'd kept his word and saved Sam, but in the process he'd damned himself. Dean was going to hell if they couldn't figure a way out of his deal. The whole situation sucked.

And now Sam was harboring his own secret. Mary Winchester had known the Yellow Eyed Demon. He wasn't sure why he'd hidden that little nugget from Dean but his brother deserved to know the truth. Sam knew firsthand what it was like to be kept in the dark and didn't want to be responsible for doing the same thing to Dean.

It was time for the truth. But first he needed to make amends. He shouldn't have withheld information from Dean. It was stupid and wrong and he could have put Dean's life at risk. He'd somehow lost sight of his priority. Dean.

He heard his brother clear his throat but didn't want to lose his nerve and forged ahead.

"Bro, I'm sorry."

His eyes snapped up to look at Dean as both brothers spoke the exact same words at the exact same time.

There wasn't time to absorb or even acknowledge the gravity of the words before another word was dropped into the conversation.

"Jinx!"

Again, both brothers chimed in simultaneously.

It was immature and inappropriate and so needed at the moment. Deans' toothy smile was echoed in a show of Sam's dimples. A little humor went a long way toward breaking the ice.

There were so many things Sam wanted to say but his energy was flagging. He stifled a yawn under the watchful eye of his brother.

Dean felt a little remorse. Sam was recovering from some nasty infection and here they were, going at it like cats and dogs. He reached forward and nudged Sam's shoulder gently. "Why don't you close your eyes for a while and we can talk later. After I spring you from this place."

Sam threw his hand out and clasped Dean's hand briefly.

Later. There was so much to say and do but they would get to it later.

Finis

A/N 2: Okay, thursdaywench wanted a story that featured a scab on Sam's hand only they don't know where it came from and it starts to spread and cause more issues. I put my own twist on it, as usual, but do you think I pulled it off? Thank you for reading this fic!