A/N: And here is the conclusion. Angst and guilt and limpness abound. Don't say I didn't warn you. Thanks to everyone for reading and sticking with me :) I hope this doesn't disappoint. All other notes and disclaimers in chapter one.
When they finally let him see Sam again, it was late (or early, Dean wasn't sure which anymore), and Dean needed a nap and a hot shower. He'd settled for coffee and pure adrenaline.
Screw all that, he'd settle for Sam to be awake and out of here.
"Are you sure you're feeling alright?" the nurse asked, clearly more than a little skeptical of Dean's wellbeing.
"I just need to see my brother," Dean replied, simple and honest and desperate.
It must have been more than desperate enough, because the nurse just smiled sadly and nodded faintly. "We've got him hooked up to the monitors, so just be careful of the cords. He's still mostly out, but he could come to. But it's best if he just sleeps."
Dean nodded absently, barely hearing her.
She left him at the door, instructing him to call if there was any problem.
When she was finally gone, Dean felt himself breathe a little, before he entered the room and completely forgot how again.
He'd seen Sam hurt before, he'd seen Sam out of it, but it never made it easy. It never made it right. The stillness of his brother shook him and shook him hard, touching him coldly deep inside.
"Geez, Sam," he said. "Can't do anything half-way, can you?"
Sam didn't answer (of course he didn't answer) and Dean smiled lopsidedly at his own joke.
"You know there are other ways for getting back at me," he said lightly.
Then his brother shifted, his head turning toward Dean's voice, his mouth working soundlessly.
Dean sat up, leaning closer to his brother. "Sammy? You awake in there?"
Sam mumbled, tossing his head again, his brow creasing.
Tentatively, Dean allowed a reassuring hand on Sam's arm. "Come on, kiddo," he coaxed. "I know you're in there."
Sam could be contrary under the best of circumstances, but he was surprisingly childlike when he was sick. It brought out the true little brother in him.
Which was probably why Sam sounded like he was five as he mumbled again, louder this time.
"Sam? Sam, if you don't wake up, I can't be held responsible for what I do while you're asleep," he warned.
Sam seemed to sigh, and his eyelids fluttered, blinking awake slowly.
Dean grinned. "Rise and shine, Sammy," he said.
Sam grimaced, swallowing thickly and Dean could see the wheels working in his brother's muddled head.
It took another couple of seconds before Sam's eyes really focused and he had his wits about him enough to reply. "Dean?" he asked. His voice was weak, a bit scratchy, but Sammy through and through.
Dean's grin widened. "In the flesh."
Sam blinked, his eyes roaming, wide and afraid. "Where...how...," Sam's breathless questions were plain in his eyes.
"You're a little sick," Dean admitted.
Sam turned his fevered eyes back to Dean. "Hospital?"
Tears stung the back of his eyes, but Dean refused to give into them. "Yeah, seemed like a good idea at the time."
Sam shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't want--there's too much--I just wanted you to forget." Sam's words were rushed and jumbled.
"Whoa, there," Dean said. "Just take it easy. Doc says you've got some kind of nasty infection. Not to mention the fact that you ignored your hand." Dean kept the reprimand purposefully light.
Sam seemed to pale nonetheless. "You had too much already, Dean," Sam said, shaking his head again. "You don't need this. I'm fine." As if to prove his point, Sam tried to push himself up, trying to lift his hand to remove the IV before Dean had a chance to talk some sense into him.
Dean moved to restrain Sam, but he didn't need to. The movement undoubtedly jarred Sam's injured hand, and he collapsed back to the bed, eyes squeezed shut and clenched with pain.
"Easy," Dean soothed, gently gripping Sam's bicep. "Just breathe through it."
Sam seemed to listen, breathing tight, ragged breaths.
Finally, Sam seemed to relax, falling limp against the bed. "See? You have to listen to me sometimes."
Sam looked hurt by the statement, and confused--no doubt his brother wasn't as lucid as he had first appeared.
"Just go to sleep, Sammy," he said finally. "Things will be better when you wake up."
Sam looked ready to protest, shaking his head in futility. "I'm sorry, Dean," he said, his eyes blinking slower.
"I know," Dean said, moving his hand to Sam's head. "I know you are." He stroked Sam's wayward hair lightly, a repetitive motion that had always calmed Sam as a child.
Guilt-laden eyes watched Dean until they blinked closed and didn't reopen.
Dean kept his gently stroking up a minute longer, just to be sure, before he finally sank back in his seat.
Sam's words--his sense of guilt--Dean had had no idea. Yet, despite it all, Sam still trusted him completely. And Dean had taken it for granted--the one thing that he'd always counted on, he'd screwed up.
Dean had spent his entire life taking care of Sam, of being there for Sam. It defined him, it gave him purpose.
"Take your brother outside, as fast as you can! Now, Dean, go!"
And he'd been going ever since.
This had always been his responsibility, and with that had come the prerogative of superiority. Sam needed him because Sam was younger. He'd never resented it, not really, but it had hurt when Sam left.
It had hurt when the demon said that John loved Sam more.
Because Dean believed it.
And in all of this, all of the anxiety, all of the soul-selling, he had forgotten one very simple thing: Sam wasn't the same little brother anymore.
Sam had been the one to choose his side every time in the cabin. Sam hadn't hesitated. Sam had sacrificed his revenge, his will--everything for Dean when it counted.
All Dean could see to see was his own sacrifice, year after year, coming to nothing in the end.
He'd never stopped to look at Sam's sacrifice, the sacrifice Sam was still carrying. He'd never stopped to look at the consequences of his choices, the consequences of his secrets.
He'd never stopped to look beyond it all and just see Sam, just see that Sam needed him--just him, as his equal, his partner, his brother--just as much as he needed Sam.
He sighed, leaning back in his chair, away from his brother's bed.
He wondered if this was how Sam had felt after the accident. Sitting uselessly by Dean's bedside, thinking about everything he'd done wrong, everything he should have done, everything he might never get to do.
Sam's hovering in the weeks since certainly made since. Sam must have been terrified. Sam must still be terrified. Even after their dad had been "okay," he'd up and died, leaving Sam to find the body. Was Sam sticking close because he was worried the same thing would happen to Dean?
And all Dean could do was push him away, rub Sam's failures in his face. These are your issues, stop putting them on me! It's too little, too late!
As far as I know, Dad died thinking that I hated him...
"I'm sorry, Sammy," he murmured. "Dad knew. Dad always knew."
He let the words hang in the silence, wishing that Sam could hear them.
"Dad knew, and so do I," he said. "So do I."
The morning came with another cup of coffee, no change in Sam, and Dr. Wallace.
The doctor strode meaningfully into Sam's room, checked his chart, then proceeded to probe his patient gently. Sam, despite his brief period of wakefulness last night, showed no response.
The doctor frowned. "Dean, let's go for a walk."
Dean's heart skipped a beat. Standing, he tottered tensely, almost reluctantly to the door.
The hallway was quiet with morning traffic, mostly nurses and doctors and the occasional lost family member.
They had strolled down the hallway and were approaching a sunlight corridor when the doctor finally spoke. "I'm worried about Sam," he said, his voice even and measured.
Dean tried to laugh, nervously. "Worried how?"
"The infection is deep, very rooted in. And I'm worried that it's spreading."
"Spreading how?" Dean had to swallow hard against the fear that was building in his chest.
"His kidneys are already showing signs," Dr. Wallace said. "We're working against that with drugs, but if it starts attacking his lungs or heart, we could be looking at a whole host of other problems."
Dean couldn't speak, couldn't think.
"We're working on this, of course," Dr. Wallace said. "But this development with his kidneys has me worried that we're not getting ahead of it fast enough."
Dean slowed, stopping, shaking his head up at the doctor desperately. "What are you trying to say?"
The doctor sighed. "I'm just trying to prepare you, to be realistic. We may have some difficult choices to make if this infection does progress. Right now we're just trying to keep Sam ahead of it. Your brother seems like he's made of tough stuff. I know he's fighting. And I know you're here giving him anything you can."
"But it could be too little, too late, huh?"
Dr. Wallace didn't say anything, just smiled, a bit sadly. "I'll be back to check on Sam in a few hours. If you need anything, you know how to find me."
With that, the doctor left him, but Dean barely saw him go. Too little, too late...
He closed his eyes, feeling the morning sunlight against his back and felt suddenly weak. He needed to get back to Sam--now.
He found Sam's room on autopilot, and was relieved to see his brother still on the bed. Approaching it, his relief was tinged with disappointment.
Sam's body was failing. He could read between the doctor's gentle warnings. Sam was in trouble.
Sighing raggedly, Dean sunk back to his seat.
There were some things that were just more important, things that transcended emotion and situation. Things like family and brotherhood. Sam had been right about that much--family was family, no matter where, no matter what.
Dean had blamed Sam for a lot of things, even if he never would have admitted it. He blamed Sam for leaving. As much as he'd understood his brother's reasons, it never changed how much it hurt. How much it had felt like Sam had left him. He'd blamed Sam for closing in on himself, for shooting him in Rockford, for being selfish. He'd never blamed Sam for being chosen, for being singled-out by the demon, but he couldn't deny the resentment that grew in the months since their dad's death. Resentment that Sam had been chosen and Dean had to deal with the consequences.
Dean was always dealing with the consequences--his entire life he'd been dealing with the consequences of his family's choices and mistakes. He had every right to be tired, every right to be angry, and no one could begrudge him that.
But Sam had his resentments too. Sam had his anger, his fear, his grief, yet, in the end, Sam always made the choice to stand by Dean when it mattered. He may have gone off to Stanford, but when Dean showed up on his door, Sam had come with him. He may have succumbed to Ellicott in Rockford, but he'd come back for him in Indiana. He may have fought with his dad, but he'd come through when it counted. Sam may have been willing to give anything for revenge--anything except his brother's happiness.
Sam had been there for him, even when Dean had felt betrayed and hadn't seen it. Sam's concept of brotherhood was one he could learn a lot from, no matter how reluctant he was to do so. It transcended everything--vengeance, resentment, pride. It forgave even when it hurt. It accepted even as it rebelled. And Dean had been selfish enough to think that he cornered the market on being a good brother.
Their entire lives, Sam had tried to do what he could, to be himself and make his family proud, but that was a balance their father had never allowed him. Even with as mad as Sam got, he just wanted his father's approval, and Dean had dismissed it entirely. He'd told Sam he was a bad son, he was too little, too late.
He'd ripped Sam to shreds, tore apart all of Sam's efforts, all of his walls, and hit him where it hurt.
Yet Sam had come back to him. Sam had given him another chance.
And Sam was still here. Even if the kid didn't always say the right thing, even if he was annoying or frustrating, Sam was still here.
Dean had to do everything in his power to keep it that way. Sighing, he leaned forward, taking in Sam's bedraggled appearance. Sam may have been fighting, but it seemed like the infection was winning.
Gently, Dean placed his hand on Sam's arm, patting it lightly. "Don't ditch me now, little brother," he whispered. "Because when you wake up, we'll both be on the same page, I promise."
Dean sat there, his hand on Sam's arm, absorbing his heat, his life, his essence, and rested in the fact that Sam had never rejected a plea from Dean before. Demands, sure, orders, usually, but not a heartfelt request.
Dean had tried to fight most of Sam's battles for him. Whenever there was a bully, a problem at school, most problems at home--Dean wanted to be the one to bear the brunt of it, to shield Sam from the worst of it all. His own innocence was shattered; he didn't want Sam's to be too.
That had been a naive pursuit, one that he was sure Sam would never appreciate because Sam was always determined to know why, but Dean had always felt better trying.
But this was a battle he couldn't fight, one he was barely able to help Sam through at all. The infection burned through Sam, and all Dean could do was watch Sam's weak counterattacks--the rhythm of his heartbeat, the flush of his skin, the restless tossing of his head. Evidence that Sam was fighting, fighting hard, but not that he was winning.
I'm not okay, but neither are you.
Then maybe I'll just have to stick around to be a pain in your ass.
What's wrong with you, man?
No, sir. Not everything.
Somehow, in the hours that stretched into days, Dean knew that Sam wasn't fighting for himself. Sam was fighting for Dean.
Dean just hoped (prayed, begged, demanded) that it would be enough.
It Dean could have made up for the last few weeks in a few days, he would. If he could have made up for the last couple of years, he would.
The doctor came and went with weak, reassuring smiles, and Sam's vitals held and dropped, then raised and dropped again, and his kidneys got worse and his lungs looked bad. But Sam maintained, they all maintained, and Dean felt like he was floating in limbo.
There was worried talk, and Sam stopped moving sometimes, and Dean was afraid. He could have called Bobby, who had always been there for them. He probably could have called Missouri, who would have found some way to make things seem better. But the only person Dean wanted was Sam, and as long as Sam didn't leave him, he'd manage the best he could.
Dean wasn't sure what he was waiting for, if he was hoping for some dramatic, supernatural turnaround (though that'd be nice), so it was kind of hard to see the change.
It was nothing more than a smile from a nurse as she said Sam looked better today.
They were always reassuring, so Dean was hesitant to believe. After all, Sam hadn't moved, his complexion was still waxy and pallid, and he was looking a little gaunt from the lack of solid food.
But Dean smiled, looking beyond that, and punched Sam lightly on his shoulder. "See that, Sammy? You'll be better in no time."
Sam didn't twitch, but Dean's resolve was too weak to shake.
Time returned to him in a haze that he knew he drifted in but was too weak to truly break free of. He remembered some things--screwing up a hunt, his wrist (and the pain), a hospital, and Dean.
Dean was there, with him, by him, there for him. It was a comfort he'd missed, and one that he wished he didn't have to accept. It meant his brother was back with him, but it also meant that Dean was alone, holding a bedside vigil, thinking about everything that had gone wrong.
Part of Sam wished that he'd never awaken so he'd never have to face that.
The other part knew he needed to.
Later that day, Dean was shifting in his seat, looking for a position that didn't make his butt feel numb, when the doctor came in.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," Dr. Wallace said cordially. "And how are we doing today?"
Dean snarked a grin. "I think I may have snagged a date for Sam with Brenda, the night nurse."
Dr. Wallace raised his eyebrows. "Well, then, we're going to need to wake Sam up soon, aren't we? Brenda is a pretty hard catch from what I hear."
Dean snickered, leaning over to pat his brother's leg. "Hear that, Sammy? Even the doc thinks you need some action."
Smiling, the doctor leaned over Sam, running his usual daily tests. "Well, it appears that young Samuel may take us up on our offer," he said.
Dean sat up straight, suddenly surprised and serious. "How's that?"
"His vitals are much stronger," the doctor said with a shrug, picking up Sam's chart. "Really should be just a matter of time. There's no indication of any residual effects from the infection or the fever. He may have dodged a bullet yet. Either that, or the prospect of Brenda is making him perk up."
A little disbelieving, a little shocked, Dean snorted. "Somehow I doubt that's it."
The doctor just shrugged his shoulders and scribbled something down on Sam's chart. "Either way, be sure you get yourself taken care of, Dean," he advised, a small twinkle in his eye. "I have a hunch Sam will be giving you a run for your money in no time."
And Dean could only smile, relief spreading through him. His failure got Sam into this mess. His steadiness would get them out of it.
When awake finally happened, not just a few moments of wakefulness, but actual, long-term awareness, Sam saw just how much this had hurt his brother.
Dean had spent his time joking and reassuring Sam, but it was Dean who looked worn thin, frayed, depleted.
This was Sam's fault, and he was ready to admit it.
Timing, however, was an issue. Dean had never been keen on talking, and with all the nurses and doctors in and out, Sam felt like he barely had time to catch his breath. Not to mention the fact that every conversation people seemed to have with him, seemed to be about him.
Sam had finally guilted Dean into leaving for some coffee when Dr. Wallace made his morning rounds. He liked the doctor well enough--he was good natured and cordial, and Sam could tell he'd been good to his brother.
"So when am I getting out of here?" he asked, a bit hopeful if naive.
Dr. Wallace snorted. "Son, you're just starting to get over a serious infection that nearly shut down your kidneys and compromised your breathing. You're lucky we didn't have to do a bone marrow transplant to get you over it. Not to mention the fact, that I've got you slotted for surgery tomorrow."
Sam paled a little. "Surgery?"
"For the wrist," he said. "Which I've been meaning to talk to you about."
Sam raised his eyebrows.
"What gave you the bright idea to walk around with a fractured wrist for weeks on end without seeking treatment?"
Sam blanched. "I thought I could take care of it."
"You didn't stop to think that maybe broken bones should be set?"
"I didn't think it was broken," Sam protested weakly.
Dr. Wallace's stare did not bolster Sam's confidence. "So you figured the shooting pain was just psychosomatic."
Sam sighed a little. "I didn't want Dean to worry."
The doctor nodded at this. "Well, that admirable, I guess," he said. "Didn't really work out so well, huh?"
Sam blushed, looking down. "I guess not."
"Next time, do us all a favor and get treatment right away. And avoid falling down stairs or whatever it is that you managed to do to re-injure it. Your brother was a little vague on that point."
Sam imagined that he was.
"Be sure to thank your brother," the doctor advised. "He was here all the time. Never left your side. By choice, anyway. There aren't many big brothers who'd do that."
Sam's heart caught in his throat, and he swallowed painfully around. He smiled, embarrassed. "Yeah," he said. "I know."
When Dean finally got back from his morning coffee run, he looked about as refreshed as Dean seemed capable of these days. He sprawled out on the chair, talking randomly about some waitress across the street.
When they had lulled into silence, Sam swallowed hard. "I'm sorry," he said. "Sorry for not being there for you."
Dean just looked at him, frozen, and Sam found himself looking away. He needed to say this.
"I screwed this up--so badly," he tried to explain. "All of it, ever since Dad--" His voice cut off, choked by a sob that he strove to contain.
"Sam--" There was a sigh, resigned and tired.
Sam just shook his head. It was spilling out of him faster than he knew how to stop it. "I should have told you that right away," Sam said. "But I didn't know how. I didn't know how to do anything. You were falling apart, man, and all I could do was sit and think that I wish I could take that from you, that I wish I could figure out how to make it better just like you always seem to for me."
He set his jaw hard and refused to look up, embarrassed by the tears that burned his eyes. "You've always been right about me," he said. "It's all too little, too late. With Dad, with you, with everything. I just--I just want to make it better."
"Just stop," Dean growled, his voice tight and strained.
Sam flinched, looking up, surprised.
Dean was staring at him, eyes of ice. "Listen to me, okay?"
Sam nodded slightly.
"I've been a jerk the last few weeks. There's no other way around it. This whole thing with the demon, with Dad--" He stopped, his voice cracking, and Sam winced at the sound. "It hasn't been easy--on either of us. And I don't know--maybe I just needed time, space, something, but I took it out on you. I hurt you...I ignored you when I should have paid attention."
Dean's confession made Sam feel weak, made his guilt skyrocket. "No, Dean, you don't always have to--" His voice broke off and he swallowed hard. "I just--I wanted to be there for you, just like you've always been there for me."
Dean quirked a smile. "Next time, try not breaking your wrist and getting a bone infection, and it might go a little better."
Sam flushed, "Dean, I'm serious."
"I know, I know," he said quickly. "And so am I." He sighed, collecting himself. "Sam, you're there for me more than you'll ever know."
"Dean," Sam said, his voice quiet, true. "We're there for each other. We have to be. We're all that's left."
Dean laughed a little. "Yeah," he said. "We are."
There was sadness and solidarity in that truth.
Everything else--the apologies, the gratitude, the pain--seemed to disappear into that, and Sam simply prayed that it was enough.
He'd stayed with Sam throughout the morning, until the nurses had chased him out. Sam had drifted back to sleep, as he was prone to these days, but Dean figured without much else to do in a hospital bed, that was pretty normal. The kid was due for surgery soon anyway, and Dean wanted to be sure he was as rested as possible to make the recovery smooth.
He grunted, noting the weariness in his own bones. He should probably take his own advice and get some sleep. Sam would need him, and Dean needed to keep himself in shape in order to be sure he was there for Sam.
It was hard to let go though, to let himself relax when Sam was still out of it. Especially now, after his brother's attempted apology at him.
Dean should have seen it earlier, should have recognized it years ago. Sam, in his early years of hero worship and imitation, had picked up on Dean's greatest quality: his compassion when things were tough. Sam may not have expressed it as blatantly or as smoothly, but his kid brother was just as much protective of Dean as Dean was of Sam. Dean's happiness so often came from seeing Sam happy that he had never considered the converse. Not when it was Sam who had left for more, Sam who had wanted normal and safety.
But maybe, just maybe, Sam hadn't been as selfish as Dean had thought. It hadn't been about hurting Dean, but about Sam saving something inside himself, and maybe by extension, saving something good about his family if only they would allow it.
All of that was gone now, mostly a distant memory, because Dean knew somehow that Sam had given it up. Sam had sacrificed his dreams by necessity, by the sheer fact that the only person left in his life was Dean and Sam would do anything for Dean.
Maybe it was time for Dean to do anything for Sam. Anything, including walking away from the hunt once and for all.
Hunting had taken too much. Sam had been right in Jericho. This wasn't what Mom would have wanted. This wasn't what Dean wanted. It certainly wasn't what Sam wanted.
And now...now things were complicated, sure, but it didn't change the basic fact that Dean wanted more. Dean wanted more for himself, more for Sam, more for them. They'd both given everything they had for this quest, this fight, and it got them nowhere. Dean had played the good son all his life and what he wasn't telling Sam was that it was all too little, too late for him too. It didn't mean anything.
But Sam and him...that meant something. Brotherhood meant something.
They could build the rest from there.