Summary: The brothers didn't succumb to the demonic plague in Croatoan but did they really make it out of that situation unscathed? This is a SFTCOL(AR)S round three exchange fic episode tag for Croatoan/Hunted.

A/N: This fic is for Faye Dartmouth, mentor and friend. Faye provided a marvelous prompt so I hope this effort doesn't disappoint.

Disclaimer: Nothing about the world of Supernatural belongs to me. That honor belongs to Eric Kripke.

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Restraint

Sam dragged himself up the cracked sidewalk, side stepping the man eating weeds thriving amidst the cement on his way toward the motel room.

He paused a moment to collect himself. His head was achy and his stomach burned. All's he really wanted to do was flop down on the bed and take a nap. But if he did that, he'd have to answer to his older, protective brother.

Lately it seemed he couldn't go anywhere or do anything without Dean signing off on it. Going to the library without him had practically taken an act of congress. He loved his brother, would do anything for him, but being cooped up in a library with him was definitely not the way he wanted to spend his day.

And now he just wanted some sleep but if he were to lie down in the middle of the day there would be hell to pay. He'd probably have to take a blood oath swearing that he wasn't sick.

But he felt like crap. He passed a hand across his forehead and swiped moisture away. Maybe he was coming down with something. He didn't want to give in to it though; the constant watching and monitoring was starting to get on his nerves. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate everything his brother did for him but he was beginning to feel claustrophobic from the near smothering. The hassle of popping some pain reliever and getting some shuteye just wasn't worth it.

Or maybe he was making himself sick, dwelling on what his dad had instructed Dean to do before he died. He didn't think he was perfect, not by a long shot, but why would his dad think he could be turned? John Winchester had been a brilliant man when it came to demons, if not raising his sons, so if his dad had been worried he couldn't afford to ignore it. Especially because Dean's well being depended upon it. He didn't want to but maybe he'd be better off splitting up from Dean.

He was sick of things happening to him. The Yellow Eyed Demon, losing his mom and Jess...he didn't want to be a victim anymore. And he didn't want to drag Dean down with him. He wanted to go on the offensive and be proactive for once but he didn't have enough facts to make a decision. For now he was stuck doing nothing. It was a shitty situation all around.

His heart hammered in his chest when Dean practically bowled him off his feet as he swiped the keycard and entered the room. He hadn't been expecting an attack the instant he walked in the door and wondered what was on Dean's mind. His brother had that happy, can't wait to kill something look about him.

If his brother's expression was anything to go by, rest just wasn't in the cards for him today.

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Dean had been perched on the edge of the lumpy motel bed, flipping through the stultifying options that constituted daytime TV, waiting for Sam to return from yet another research session at the Peoria Public Library. As soon as he heard the keycard scrape in the lock he was on his feet. "Dude, time to hit the road. Bobby has a job for us up north."

Sam blinked at Dean in confusion after seeing their bags neatly stacked up next to the far bed, waiting to be taken out to the Impala. He wasn't sure if the confusion was due to the fact that he had packed up all of their stuff or that the bags were neatly stacked. "I thought I'd get a jump on things. I already checked us out so let's roll."

Dean waited impatiently for Sam's response. He wasn't sure what his brother's reaction would be since he was pretty tied up in knots over Ava's disappearance. But they'd stayed here in Peoria, diligently chasing down every lead and it had gotten them nowhere.

Dean had some arguments lined up in case Sammy balked because he wasn't going to take no for an answer. He was sick of watching Sam wear himself down, spinning his wheels, all for this Ava chick. Yeah, she'd saved his brother from Gordon's trap with her vision but with a demon involved in her disappearance he didn't think Sam should be hanging around Peoria. He didn't want a big demonic bulls-eye painted on his little brother's back and he wanted to put some miles between Sam and anything with yellow eyes that smelled of sulfur.

Sam's shoulders drooped for a moment before he nodded slightly. "Yeah, okay. Where are we headed?"

Dean fought to keep a smile from spreading across his face as he scooped up two bags and headed out the door. He felt like doing a victory dance but he had an image to maintain. He settled for trying to herd his brother out the door. "Come on, I'll tell you about it in the car. We need to make tracks."

He couldn't explain it, not even to himself, but he was itching to get away from this place. He'd feel much better once he had Sam safely tucked away. Although tucking a 6'4" brother away wasn't going to be easy. Despite his apparent exhaustion, Sam kept fighting him about falling off the grid for a while. He wanted to keep pursuing any and all information on both Ava and John Winchester's cryptic last words.

He looked at Sam, standing in the motel doorway, and noticed how fatigued his brother looked these days. And make no mistake about it, Sam looked rough. There were dark smudges beneath Sam's eyes and his face was both pale and noticeably thinner. The results of insomnia, nightmares and lack of appetite.

Dean let out the pent up breath he hadn't even realized he was holding when his brother plunked down the remaining bags in the back seat. He didn't say anything but settled himself in the passenger seat and looked at Dean expectantly.

Dean ignored the look as he merged into the busy city traffic. He almost wished he had a lead on Ava since that would relieve some of Sam's stress. There was, however, a distraction in the form of a job five or so hours to the north in Wisconsin and it didn't appear to have any demonic connections. It did involve co-eds and he sure as hell thought the brothers deserved a break after the last month.

He watched out of the corner of his eye as Sam reached out and snapped the radio off. He rubbed a tired looking eye before clearing his throat. "What, are you waiting for Christmas? Come on, already."

Dean took his eyes off the road for a moment to get a good look at his brother. Dean didn't want to dwell on all of the reasons Sam was stressed out right now but he knew he'd been right to get Sam away from Peoria. He looked like he was on the verge of collapse or something. "You did everything you could to find Ava but there was nothing new to follow up on. There's a gig in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. It shouldn't take long and we'd be doing Bobby a favor."

To his amazement, Sam nodded his head before sinking lower in the passenger seat. He turned his head away from Dean, and closed his eyes.

Dean had effectively been dismissed. He couldn't ever remember his brother not plying him with questions about a job. In fact, once a new hunt was on the horizon he usually couldn't get Sam to shut up. His brother wanted to search this and check that and the details and minutia were never ending. And boring. But that's what Sam did.

Except this time.

Dean throttled back the urge to shake Sam and make him spill what was going on with him. Maybe his brother was just tired. But he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.

Taking the cue to be quiet, but definitely not happy about it, Dean left the music off and left his brother alone. If he could be patient a little longer, he knew Sam would eventually tell him what was on his mind. He always did.

-----

Seeing as Sam had either slept or stared out the passenger window for the whole trip, Dean had found himself with lots of time on his hands. Time spent thinking.

When they'd first arrived in Peoria, they'd been united in an effort to find Ava, going about their business as usual. Sam hadn't mentioned Dean not disclosing their father's last orders and Dean hadn't brought up Sam's disappearing act. But with each passing day without a lead, Sam had withdrawn from Dean.

It was subtle, really. But from the way his attention drifted when Dean was talking to him to the way he worked on his research to the exclusion of everything else, Sam was pulling away.

It was reminiscent of the way Sam had acted before he'd had the big blow up with their dad and left for Stanford. Sure, Dean had known for months what Sam's intentions were but up until he left him behind, he'd thought his brother would change his mind and stay.

And now there was something else stressing out the brothers. The great John Winchester's final words.

It was bad enough they implied Sam might choose the dark side and Dean might have to put him down. Now he was beginning to wonder if it was more than that. Maybe Sam really had a bone to pick with Dean over his not telling him in the first place. Hell, Sam had asked him point blank if their dad had said anything to him and he'd lied and said no.

Back in Oregon, he'd told Sam their dad had made him promise not to tell him and since he had a long history of following his dad's orders he thought Sam would accept it. But that's not the only reason he'd kept quiet.

Deep down he'd somehow been afraid Sam would leave him and that, more than anything, had prevented him from saying anything to his brother.

After all, if Sam thought he was protecting Dean he'd take off in a heartbeat. And that was something Dean couldn't let happen. Sam was the only family he had left and family was everything to him.

He'd be lost without his little brother.

So here he was, with a sulking brother who may or may not trust him. And in their line of work, trust was everything.

Dean rubbed a hand wearily across the side of his face. It was coming up on hour five of mind numbing silence when Dean spotted the sign for LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Their next case was waiting for them. That is assuming he could get his brother to talk to him. He didn't deny that there were some issues to work out, but it was hard to travel with someone when they were ignoring you.

Reaching his arm out, he jostled Sam in the side with his elbow. "So, what do you think? You want to get a bite to eat or find a motel first?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam shift in his seat and rub the side of his head. "I'm not really hungry but suit yourself." The voice was subdued and quiet.

Something snapped inside of Dean. He didn't need this aggravation. Sam had told him on more than one occasion that he wanted to be fully involved in making decisions and here he was acting all disinterested.

His frustration and worry bubbled over and Dean couldn't stop himself from banging his hand on the steering wheel. "Damn it, Sam, if you're pissed off at me, would you just say something instead of giving me the silent treatment?"

Sam's eyes widened and his lips parted in surprise. "Dude, what the hell are you talking about?"

Dean, spotting a sign for motels and restaurants, exited the highway. Stopped at a light, he looked Sam full in the face. He didn't like what he saw.

Sam's face was even more pale than before. The bruises beneath his eyes even more pronounced. Lines bracketed the side of his mouth and his lips were turned down in a perpetual scowl. The kid looked absolutely exhausted. Like he was sick or something. He decided finding a room was priority.

Money, or lack of, was always a concern so Dean found the cheapest motel on that strip of road. He went in and registered while Sam appeared to doze in the car. Although maybe he was just ignoring Dean and thought if he closed his eyes he would take the hint. Well, he was willing to let things slide for a while but if Sam didn't get some color in his cheeks soon he was going to drag his ass to a doctor.

Dean backed the Impala into a parking space two doors down from their room. He wanted to keep the Impala within easy view but if someone was looking for them, he didn't want to tip their hand and show exactly where to find them. He was a bit wary after the whole Gordon debacle.

Grabbing a duffel bag, Dean moved toward the door and unlocked it. He didn't hear Sam behind him and turned to find his brother still seated in the car, pinching the bridge of his nose. If he showed any concern he knew Sam would get his panties in a twist so he pretended not to notice. "Yo, Sammy, I know you love the wheels and all, but we're here."

He watched as Sam's frown became more pronounced before he sluggishly hefted himself out of the car. Snagging a bag he slowly made his way into the room without comment.

Was Sam suffering from PMS or was he sick? Dean didn't know but it was starting to wear on him. When he'd thought Sam had contracted the virus in Oregon, he'd resigned himself to…well, it wasn't going to be a good time. He didn't want to dredge up those feelings again so he hoped Sam was just in a mood. That was something he could handle without falling apart.

-----

Sam threw his bag on the floor before gracelessly plopping on one of the twin beds. He stared at the mud brown ceiling. It matched the spotted brown shag carpet and the threadbare brown and gold striped bedspreads. Disgusting.

It matched his mood. He was disgusted with Dean for not having told him the truth, disgusted with his dad for putting Dean in a position of having to watch out for Sam, again, as well as being so damned cryptic about Sam's future, and mostly disgusted with himself because he was a fuck up and a burden and to make matters worse, he was pretty certain he was sick. .

He had absolutely no energy. His head ached so much he couldn't concentrate on anything. He'd gone through what seemed like a whole bottle of pain reliever in the last couple of days and now his stomach was burning. Again.

He absently munched the last of the vanilla flavored Rolaids soft chews. It took five of them to quell the acid in the pit of his stomach. Freakin' fantastic. He felt like a walking advertisement for over-the-counter drugs.

He tried to stretch out the kinks in his protesting body while Dean pretended to ignore him.

He hated this. He wanted to erase the last few years, call a do over. Jess should still be alive and happy. Dean should be with John Winchester instead of with him, a pale copy of the original. Hell, Ava should be putting the finishing touches on her wedding instead of missing. Life should be normal.

But life was anything but and the sooner he quit feeling sorry for himself, the sooner he could move on.

Sam forced himself to relax and was on the verge of drifting off to sleep when he felt something nudge the leg that was draped over the edge of the bed. His eyes snapped open and he saw Dean hovering.

Dean was all twitchy and fidgety, shifting his weight from one foot to another. "Dude, you know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

Dean was clearly uncomfortable and Sam should have just ignored him but he was slowly suffocating under the unwanted attention. Levering himself up on his elbows, he glared at his brother. "Are you channeling Oprah now?"

Dean leaned over and punched him on the thigh. Hard. That would leave a mark. "You're Mr. Emote! You're always bleeding your feelings out all over the place. I just want you to get it off your chest already."

Sam was baffled and angry.

First off, Dean never wanted to talk about feelings. He'd throw himself out of a moving car to escape that kind of conversation.

Secondly, he had nothing except a bit of tightness that he wanted to get off his chest and he resented Dean for making him sound like such a whiny bitch. After all, he hadn't said a word in complaint.

The room shifted around as he sat up. He must have moved too abruptly otherwise he couldn't explain the dark spots invading his vision. He swayed forward and Dean was there to steady him. He really felt like crap.

He normally would have been grateful that Dean had saved him from spilling onto the dirty, stained floor but instead he found himself perilously close to tears. He blinked them back, hoping Dean wouldn't notice. He couldn't do anything right, including sitting up, without causing a problem. He was a fucking mess.

Winchesters rarely, if ever, cried. They'd been raised from the cradle to never shed a tear. Tears were a serious flaw. A sign of weakness and failure.

Flaws, weakness and failure. The trifecta of traits Sam had worked hard to overcome his whole life. Now they seemed to be charging, headlong, right at him and he couldn't get out of the way.

Dean still had a hand wrapped around Sam's upper arm when he cleared his throat. "Dude, are those tears?" Embarrassment deeply colored the question.

Sam couldn't take any more and pushed Dean away before struggling to his feet. He needed to get out. Get his head together.

Brushing past his brother on the way to the door, he mumbled, "I'll be back in a while. Just need some fresh air."

He put his hand on the door knob and paused while glancing back at his brother. He didn't want to fight with Dean. He didn't even want to go outside anymore. He wanted to apologize for making a scene and lay back down on the bed. Maybe then the room would stop spinning.

Dean glared at him. "Yeah, that's right. Take off. That's what you always do when the going gets tough."

Sam's heart developed another crack with those words. A hurt so deep and intense that he couldn't push it down any longer erupted. Before he could stop himself, his right fist, cast and all, flew out, connecting with the drywall next to the door frame. A dent, plaster pushed inward in the shape of a fist, appeared in the wall and he stared at it dazedly.

He wasn't one to lose control. That was Dean's territory.

He turned away from the concerned face of his brother and found the strength to open the door. He was soon moving out into the twilight.

He had to leave, just for a little while, or else they'd both say, or do, things they couldn't take back.

He wanted to turn around and tell Dean he'd be back but he needed to keep moving. If he stopped, even for a moment, he'd give in to the inertia and sink down to the ground. Surely Dean realized he was coming back since he was leaving all of his stuff in the room.

Sam's face felt frozen in place as he shuffled out onto the sidewalk.

That had to go down as one of the worst arguments ever. Worse than the fight he and Dean had before splitting up in Indiana. Worse even than the night his father had kicked him out of the house and told him to stay gone. Worse because he and Dean hadn't even been fighting about anything concrete.

He'd give them both a chance to chill out and then he'd come back. He'd just find something to occupy his time for an hour or two, come back and apologize, and then things would be okay. At least he hoped they'd be okay.

-----

Dean exhaled a loud breath as he quietly closed the motel room door. "Well, that went well, didn't it?" he said, wanting to hear something other than the silence of the room.

He moved over to the indented area on the wall and touched it lightly, tracing it. He wondered if Sam's cast had cracked as easily as the cheap plaster.

He knew what it felt like to be picked at and put under a microscope. Hell, it's the way he'd felt after his dad died. The cloying concern and never ending questions…he should have known it wouldn't work on Sam because it hadn't gone over well with him. Only in his case Sam's face had taken the brunt of his anger instead of a wall.

Yeah, things were going well – not.

He'd witnessed his dad and brother going at it ever since Sam had turned sixteen but that was the first time his brother had lost his cool with him to that degree in a long, long time. He teased Sam about being all touchy-feely but the truth was that Sam locked down his emotions tighter than anyone when it came to certain things.

And the sudden burst of anger wouldn't be bothering him so much if it wasn't coming on the heels of some seriously freaky shit they'd encountered in Oregon. He'd thought Sam had escaped the demonic plague but what if it had just been delayed somehow? He'd watched Sam steadily decline for a couple of weeks and now this.

No, that couldn't be it. He'd just pushed his brother too far, nagged too much. He'd known Sam was wound tightly since the Ava thing.

After pacing around the room he determined to wait it out. If he went looking for Sammy he might screw things up worse so he'd just give his brother a chance to simmer down and they'd take it from there.

Grabbing the remote, Dean snapped on the TV and started flipping through the channels, looking for something, anything, to distract him for a while. He'd feel a lot better about things if Sam wasn't so pale and angry when he'd left. But he resigned himself to waiting as he rotated through the channels again.

-----

Sam didn't want to go to a bar but it was either that or a restaurant since that's all he could see in the general vicinity. His stomach, right up under his ribcage, hurt so badly he was having a hard time not hunching forward. Maybe some brandy would help. It was known to calm upset stomachs. Or if it didn't calm it, maybe it would dull the pain.

He made his way into the nearest place, Bodega Beerpub, and pushed through what seemed to be a group of college aged kids before sitting at a barstool. At least he should blend in here.

A tall, buff, blond guy stood behind the bar, engrossed in a conversation with a pack of guys who all looked like they'd rolled off the same assembly line – blond, bland and bulging with muscles. They glared in unison at Sam until the bartender broke away to take his order.

Sam ordered his brandy and as soon as it was in hand, he left the bar for a table. He wasn't here to cause trouble and he sensed that the bruisers at the end of the bar wanted some action.

He found a table in the back corner and was content to relax while feeling the burn of the brandy and coke. Brandy. He idly remembered Wisconsin being touted as number one in brandy consumption per capita. He made a note to go easy on the hard stuff; he didn't want to end up like the blond barbarians at the bar.

His solitude was interrupted when someone bumped his table. "Excuse me. Do you mind if I sit here for a moment?"

Sam really didn't want to talk to anyone but he found himself captivated by the smoky female voice. He gestured to the other chair at his table and soon made the acquaintance of Brandy (of course) who was blond and built but that was where the similarity to the guys at the bar ended; she didn't glare at him and she smelled good.

She glanced toward the bar and then back at Sam. "You're not from around here, are you?"

A self effacing laugh was startled from his lips. He might be tall and reasonably built but he most definitely didn't fit the same mold as the majority of the guys in the bar. "No, just passing through."

She flipped her long, straight hair over a shoulder and leaned in closer to Sam. Batting her long eyelashes, she flirted in a husky voice. "You've got the most gorgeous eyes I've ever seen on a guy."

Great. Just what he needed. An amorous local. Too bad Dean wasn't here. He thrived on this kind of shit.

Dean. He'd forgotten for half a minute the reason he was hanging out in a bar.

He tried to focus on what Brandy was saying but she'd lost him. Before he could follow her conversation, she'd jumped to her feet and knocked both of their drinks over. For such a beautiful girl, she was definitely lacking in grace. Or maybe she was already drunk.

He wiped the ice cubes off his thighs and crinkled his nose. Now he smelled like alcohol. Brandy mumbled something about getting more drinks and shimmied her way to the bar before Sam knew what hit him.

Oh well. He wanted to kill a little more time before he slunk back to the motel, tail tucked between his legs. He didn't have a problem with apologizing because he'd been the one to over react but he wasn't eager to go another round and once Dean got something into his head, he was like a pit bull, unwilling to let it go.

He propped his chin on his hand and waited to see if Brandy would reappear with his drink or if she'd latch on to someone else. She pushed away from the bar and headed his way, a drink in each hand. The blond behemoths surrounding the bartender followed her shapely rear as she moved away from them. She scooted through the thickening crowd with the ease of someone who had lots of practice at it and rejoined Sam.

Setting another drink in front of Sam she settled into the chair again. "Here you go, handsome. Drink up."

He cautiously took a sip, mindful of the pain reigniting in the pit of his stomach. He didn't feel like fending off Brandy's advances so he tried a different tact. "So are you a student here?"

Brandy took a sip of her own drink and nodded her head yes. This was like pulling teeth but he tried again. "What's your major?"

She tilted her head coquettishly and replied, "You'll never believe me."

He wasn't in the mood to play 20 Questions but restrained himself from rolling his eyes. "Okay, fine. Pre law?"

He'd said the first thing that popped into his mind and was unprepared when Brandy reached out and slugged him in the arm with enough force to rock him in his chair. "Get out! How did you know?"

The girl sure packed a punch. It's a good thing he hadn't been taking a sip of his drink or he'd be wearing it. Again. "It was just a lucky guess. My major was pre law."

She was hanging on his every word now. He'd be lying if he didn't admit it gave his ego a little boost. He wasn't accustomed to non demonic girls coming on to him lately.

She seemed less drunk and more animated as she warmed to the topic. "Where do you go to school?"

Sam took a huge swallow of his drink to clear his throat. He wasn't sure if he should answer this truthfully but he was sick of the cons and the games and the lies. For just a little while he wanted to play it straight. "I went to Stanford."

Her beautiful, blue eyes widened in surprise. "Holy shit. Brains and beauty. A potent combination. Let's drink to that."

They both drained their drinks while Brandy rhapsodized about graduating and going to law school. Her voice began cutting in and out and he shook his head to clear it. Something wasn't right.

He pulled at the collar of his shirt before wiping an unsteady hand across his brow. The room was swirling around him but he'd only had two drinks. Well actually one since Brandy had knocked his first one over.

He held his arms out in front of his body and studied them; his finger tips were tingly and numb.

Ears ringing, he looked up at Brandy in time to see a mass of dark bodies swarming toward him. His adrenaline immediately kick-started.

Their table was roughly bumped and Sam jumped to his feet, ready to defend against the enemy. He blinked his eyes and narrowed them in an effort to bring the world into focus. Brandy screamed as a fist flew toward his face. The table was upended as Sam threw himself into the fray.

He was under attack and the only option at his disposal was to fight his way free.

He tugged an errant arm and sent someone spinning through the air. His fist met solid flesh as he dispatched another body.

He lost count of the opponents he faced. His head ached and he was dizzy but he had to fight on. Dean would kill him if something happened to him.

The pushing, shoving, jabbing and screaming rose to a crescendo around him. Something caught him behind his left ear and he went down. Sharp pain flared as his vision faded. He'd lost.

TBC

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A/N 2: I didn't have an official beta on this story but I would be remiss if I didn't thank two very special people, CZ and Pointofview, who helped me figure out some of the more intricate plot points of this fic.

And Faye, day one is over and done with so the rest of the week should be a snap!