This story first appeared in Things That Go Bump in the Night 1 (2006), from Neon Rainbow Press

Marker
K Hanna Korossy

"Left, Sam!" Dean barked the warning, knowing that would suffice.

Sure enough, Sam ducked to the right, bringing up his knife against the form rising on his left, only to be knocked aside bodily by a spiked tail.

Gritting his teeth, Dean flung himself back into the fight with a primal yell. Hodags weren't supposed to be real, weren't even supposed to be evil, but this thing that had killed four people was both, and Dean wasn't about to give it the chance to add any more notches to its… horns? Spikes? Whatever.

He sank his own dagger to the hilt in the creature's side. As it howled in rage and turned on him, Dean used the leverage of the buried blade to reach the hodag's torso. Guns would have been easier, but they didn't seem to work against the hodag, perhaps part of its mystical nature. So he and Sam used what they had.

Dean pulled the dagger out and prepared to plunge it home into the thing's heart. Provided it had a heart. And that it kept it in its chest.

Okay, so the plan had some weak spots.

The hodag wasn't stupid, intelligent enough for garbled speech and its own version of incantions, because they really needed a threat besides those wicked spikes. It knew where Dean was headed, and twisted away from him at the last moment, only to rise to its full imposing height. Dean's mouth went dry.

A cry from behind the thing made him grin, both because it announced his brother was back in the game and because they could take this thing with a bi-frontal attack. And yeah, he knew words like that even without having gone to college.

The hodag shuddered from whatever blow Sam laid on it from the rear, and Dean took advantage of its preoccupation by lunging forward with his dagger and stabbing the creature in the chest, twice for good measure.

The hodag gave a gurgling hiccup, a lot less menacing than its earlier shrieks, and stiffened.

"Look out!" Dean yelled just in case Sam couldn't see the coming collapse, and then the hodag was tumbling to the ground between them.

Dean peered happily through the clouds of disturbed Wisconsin dirt at his brother, who grinned back. "And another one bites the dust!" he crowed.

Sam groaned.

Dean's grin widened as he pulled his dagger free from the dead thing, then stumbled back a step as something started to happen. His eyes flicked up to his brother, who looked as surprised as he did, then back to the hodag as it blackened, rotting before their eyes, flesh falling away from bone, which then also turned to dust. Ten seconds later, all that was left was a pile of greasy ash already swirling away in the breeze.

"Okay… that was strange," Sam said.

Dean shrugged because, hey, he was still the expert here. "Maybe not. The hodag used spells, right? Maybe this was just part of its mojo."

Sam gave him a frankly skeptical look.

Dean shrugged defensively, then made a face and pulled himself up. "C'mon, let's go. I'm hungry."

"How can you be hungry after seeing… that?" Sam waved back at the few mortal remains of the creature.

"Are you kidding? If half the stuff we see made me lose my appetite, I'd be as skinny as you are." A good-natured poke in the ribs brought him up short when Sam winced and bowed away from him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, it just scratched me with that tail. It's not too bad."

He had Sam by the arm now, firmly but gently towing him to where there was enough light to see by. "Yeah, well, you thought that Hell Hound bite wasn't too bad, either."

"It wasn't!"

"Hey, rabies shots, remember?" Dean shuddered, remembering viscerally the shots he'd only had to witness. Needles were bad enough, but into the stomach? It still made his own gut twitch.

They reached the Impala, and Dean opened the nearest door and pushed Sam down onto the edge of the seat, able to see now by the car's interior light the long, bloody scratch that scored the right side of Sam's ribs. Dean carefully pulled the ruined shirt away from it, gauging depth, cleanliness, and width, and decided it was indeed just a scratch, not even worth the stitching. Still, he glowered at Sam just for the lesson of it.

"You'll live, but next time you tell me if you get hurt. I don't wanna find out by you going all furry on me during full moon."

"It wasn't a werewolf, Dean, it was–"

"Principle of the thing, Sam," he said sternly. That was the adrenaline talking, both from the fight and from the moment's worry about his brother, but also a valid point and one he was intent on making.

Sam looked at him with a soft half-smile, like he knew exactly why Dean was being so gruff, which just exasperated him more. He gave his brother a shove to the other side of the seat. "So, you don't want me to drive?" Sam teased. A little adrenaline in him and he developed a death wish.

"No," Dean said tightly. "I don't. Ever."

Sam snorted and scooted over.

They had gotten a room at a nearby motel, not sure how long the hunt would last, and it was too late to check out or hit the road that night for their next job. Dean was sure he felt every single one of his muscles as he climbed out of his car at the motel. Some creatures they had to outthink, or figure out their weakness. Others, like the hodag, mostly took strength and agility, and sometimes he thought he was slipping a little without his dad there to spur him to work out and train. He probably shouldn't have been so tired after a little fight like that, but Dean wasn't thinking about it that night. Get Sam to stop bleeding, shower, and sleep were the only things on his list for the night, feeling guilty about Dad and being out shape not even making the runner-ups. Besides, Sam usually did the guilt trip thing for them both.

He let Sam take the first shower, then eyed the lean body critically afterward. The scratch was still seeping but not flowing, and they agreed some antibiotic ointment would take care of it. Sam sat down with the tube and Dean hit the showers.

It was only after, as they sat eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before bed, that Dean looked at his brother and grinned. "That was cool, huh? One more for the list of creatures we thought weren't real," he said cheerfully.

"We should write a book," Sam agreed. "Real Creatures We Have Known. We could combine the hunting with a book tour."

"Sounds fun," Dean said dryly.

Sam shrugged. "Lot of girls think writing is exciting."

Dean's eyebrows rose. "Oh, yeah?"

"Yup. They even have book tour groupies."

"No kidding. Huh." Maybe they could do that. One day. After they found their dad.

His spirits sank a little.

He watched Sam's smile disappear, too, and knew his brother had had the same thought. So much of their life still revolved around the mystery of their dad. It's not like they would stop the hunt for what had killed Jessica and their mom even if Winchester senior called in to say he was okay, and Dean wondered sometimes if their father knew that. Not for the first time, he resented John for that sorrowful look in Sam's eyes. It was all he ever had resented his dad for.

Dean swallowed the last bite of his sandwich, reached over to smack his brother on the leg. "Let's get some sleep. Early start tomorrow for Montana."

"Right." Sam moved stiffly but barely winced as he rose from the bed to toss his trash, and Dean finally gave up worry for the night, wriggling under the covers gratefully. With Sam, there would always be more to worry about the next morning, but for now, they had done a good day's work and all was well.

At least until Sam's nightmares woke them both twice during the night. Again.

00000

The room was cold. Sam pulled the covers up to his neck, drifting in the twilight of early morning sleep, and blinked fuzzily at Dean in the other bed. His brother was sprawled bare-backed and in dead sleep across the bed, the blankets tangled around his feet as if he were the one having nightmares instead of Sam. Oddly, he didn't seem to be cold, but then, Dean was a lot of things Sam was not. He gave up the thought and drifted a little longer.

Next thing he knew, Dean was moving around the room, getting dressed, pausing by Sam's bed to smack him on the rear in an unusually gentle wake-up call. Sam groaned a response and sat up, still resenting how cold the room seemed. And unsteady; a moment's dizziness caught him off-guard and he shut his eyes to ride it out. Maybe he should have finished the sandwich the night before, but peanut butter and jelly had worn out his tastebuds long before he'd discovered home-cooked food in college. Returning to the road hadn't returned him to his childhood tastes. Dean had already noticed, and made an effort to find him food he liked, but sometimes they still had to rely on the staples.

Shrugging off the moment's weakness, Sam rose and got ready, scratching the healing cut along his ribs.

It was a cold and drizzly Wisconsin morning, adding to the chill in his bones, and Sam burrowed deep into his coat in the passenger seat. Dean hadn't seemed to notice, but then his brother reached over and silently nudged the heater higher, and Sam was reminded again Dean noticed more than he seemed to. He probably would have made a good lawyer, too, but the thought depressed Sam and he turned away from it dispiritedly.

"So, where are we going exactly?" he asked instead, because one thing Dean was always ready to talk about was business, and the car was too quiet even with heavy metal in the background.

Dean shifted easily in the seat. "Little spot called Flathead Lake, Montana. Sounds like some kind of relative of the Ogopogo's been spotted there."

Sam frowned at him. "I thought the Ogopogo doesn't hurt anyone, like Nessie."

"Yeah, well, this is the mean, flesh-eating cousin, then, because we've got two suspected deaths and one confirmed from 'animal attacks.'"

"By the water," Sam ventured a guess. Geez, it was cold. Why didn't creatures ever show up in Florida?

"Yup."

"And you don't think it was just an animal attack because…?"

"Tracks leading into the water. Big ones. And the sightings."

"So it could be anything," Sam finished sourly. He sighed. He hated the wild goose chases, chafing at the wasted time. Most of the hunts with Dad had been for the real thing, but either their information wasn't as good or their instincts as keen, because he and Dean were only hitting about seventy-percent, which meant thirty-percent lost time they could be spending looking for their dad.

"We'll find him, Sam," Dean said quietly from next to him.

That normally would have softened him, but Sam was cold and his stomach was upset and they were heading into even colder country to check out what was probably only an alcohol-induced attack of stupidity. Even a Dean who was trying for once to be thoughtful just wasn't enough to make that all better. Sam made a disgruntled sound and pulled his head into his jacket, turtle-like, as far as it would go.

The muted roar of the car's motor and the stretch of empty road lulled him into drowsiness despite his chill. He heard Dean stirring, felt the shift of the seat, but didn't bother to look, tired and miserable.

Something soft and warm settled around him a minute later – Dean's sympathy, manifest in the form of a blanket – and Sam did finally relent, uncurling from his defensive posture. It was all the thanks he felt like giving, but Dean, master of not-talking, would understand.

He fell asleep then, warm and somewhat comforted, until the nightmares came again.

00000

It was going to be one of those mornings.

He got that Sam wasn't always as happy to be there as he was, Dean really did. And he tried to be sympathetic, Jess and all. But a cranky passenger wore thin after a few hours on the road, let alone one who kept starting awake from nightmares but refused, as always, to talk about them.

The usual racing breath was followed by a jolt upright and Sam blinking, owl-like, around the moving car. Dean gave him a bland look before going back to watching the road, worried inside and not liking the feeling. Until Sam talked, though, that was all the compassion he was getting.

"Where are we?" His voice scratched, and Dean could see him shiver out of the corner of one eye despite the blanket cocooned around him. He'd put the heat higher while Sam slept, catching the occasional tremors of cold, and the car was roasting despite the late fall northern weather, but Dean inched it up to high now, and cracked his window to cut condensation and keep from cooking. That was an urban legend he wasn't anxious to try out.

"Just crossed into North Dakota. Thought we'd stop soon for lunch."

Sam yawned, scratched at his chest, and Dean reminded himself to check yesterday's injury when they had a minute. "I'm not hungry yet."

"Yeah, those P-B-and-Js are really filling," Dean said flatly. They had already skipped breakfast due to Sam's lack of appetite, but Dean was still a growing boy and his stomach was complaining.

Sam stared out the side window for a long minute, then turned to stare out the front. Not much to see either way, but whatever made him happy was fine with Dean. At least they didn't have to play those alphabet games like they did when they were kids. Not like there were many signs or license plates out there.

Sam fidgeted again in his seat, made a face, then abruptly reached over and turned the radio off.

"Hey! Driver picks music," Dean protested.

"Yeah, well, since you're always driving, that doesn't give me much choice, does it?"

"Cut it out, Sam," he said irritably, reaching to turn the music back on.

"It gives me a headache."

Something in his brother's tone stayed his hand. Not the admission, which could have been Sam playing on his sympathies, or the tone, which bordered on belligerent, but… something.

His hand swung without warning from the radio to Sam's flushed face, resting only a moment on his cheek before his brother batted it away, but it was long enough.

"You've got a fever," Dean said, frowning. "Why didn't you tell me you had a fever?"

"Because I didn't know," Sam snapped back. "The car leaks heat like a screen door, Dean. I thought it was just cold."

Dean pressed on. "You feel sick?"

"I'm fine, leave me alone."

"Yeah, 'cause you always sound like a cranky three-year-old." Dean sighed. Just what they needed, one of them getting sick and laying them up for a while. Fever sounded like the flu, and with their luck, Dean would come down with it just when Sam was getting better, and they'd use up the little money they had being miserable in a motel room in the middle of nowhere. "There's some Vitamin C in the first-aid kit – take some at the rest stop, get some more sleep, then we'll see how things are at the lake."

"I don't need–"

"Well, you're getting it anyway so shut up and do it, Sam. Acting like a kid just gets you treated like one." He almost called him Sammy, but contrary to his brother's beliefs, the childhood nickname was an affectionate one, and Dean didn't like using it when he was really annoyed. And he was getting there fast. Not just with Sam; Dean had gotten sick a few weeks before, badly enough that they'd had to wait it out while Sam nursed him through it, and Dean hated the forced downtime almost as much as the helplessness. But even more so, he didn't like Sam's lack of interest in looking after himself. One of them being out of commission affected them both.

Sam sullenly turned away from him and huddled against the door of the car, closing his eyes. His breathing soon evened into sleep, but the occasional shivers remained despite the heat of the car.

Right, Dean scowled. Being out of commission: that was the only thing he was worried about.

He drove on in silence, and for once, Sam didn't dream.

00000

Sam dreamed.

They were old dreams, the nightmares that haunted his childhood before life itself had become a nightmare to be replayed in sleep. Dark, creeping things, large and fetid ones, things with many eyes and a slimy touch. He wandered amidst them with detachment, saving his fear for what he couldn't fight.

Like the presence that sidled familiarly up to him, pressing too close. "Sam."

He squirmed, trying to move away.

It followed, raising the hair on his arm. "Sam, wake up."

That was weird, but panic was starting to rise and choke reason.

"Sam!"

He lurched away… and woke. And nearly fell out of the car as he jerked back from the face inches from his.

Dean.

His brother caught him easily by the arm, and just as easily let him go as Sam pulled himself together. "We're stopping for lunch," Dean said simply, then leaned past him to rummage for something in the back seat.

Lunch. The very thought made his stomach roil, but no food all day made Sam shaky and Dean worried. He'd swallow a few bites of toast and hope that was enough to satisfy everyone.

Sam climbed out of the car heavily, feeling gravity more than usual, the scenery doing a slow twirl while he clung to the door. Fever made you dizzy, he reminded himself, as well as cold, because right now he felt like he'd been dunked in ice water. Not waiting for whatever Dean was searching for, Sam stumbled on into the building.

He found a seat in the main cafeteria section and watched blearily as Dean found whatever and slipped it into his pocket, then dashed in after him. He was cold, too, Sam comforted himself, watching his brother shake off the chill and look around. Dean tried to hide it, now more than usual, but there was always relief in his eyes whenever he spotted Sam, even after a brief absence like this one, like he was afraid Sam would disappear if not watched. It was that same relief that had convinced him to leave with Dean in the first place, even before Jess…

Sam sighed, unbelievably tired.

"What do you want to eat?" Dean asked, pulling out his wallet. Sam shrugged. He hadn't even looked at the menus. "Okay, then no complaining about what I order."

Dean walked away, and Sam didn't bother watching him go. Unlike Dean, he had no worries at all about his brother disappearing on him.

Dean returned a few minutes later with a loaded tray, of which a bowl of soup and two packages of crackers were set down in front of Sam, along with a cup of something steaming. Actually, those were among the few things Sam figured he might be able to keep down, not really surprised at Dean's perception. Even mad at him, his brother still cared. Sam reached for the spoon.

"Take these, too." Dean pulled a bottle out of his pocket and fished out a pair of pills, dropping them on Sam's napkin. "Vitamin C. Maybe we can still kick this thing."

We, Sam almost smiled. Did Dean even realize he was using that word? Probably. He didn't slip up very often. Suddenly contrite for his petulance in the car, Sam picked up the pills and swallowed them, washing them down with a sip from the cup, which turned out to be tea. Dean didn't actually look approving, but he did seem a little mollified, relaxing as he tore into his own lunch, a fat sandwich.

Appetite waning even more, Sam listlessly opened a package of crackers and forced one down. It was so dry, it clogged his throat, and he followed it with more tea. The soup had an oily film on top, and it made him queasy just to look at it.

Then it was more than queasiness as he could feel the tea climb back up his throat, and Sam saw his brother's startled face for only a second as he stumbled to his feet and to the bathroom.

He barely made it to the first stall, knees stinging as he fell hard onto them, and then all that mattered was the bowl he was bent over, bringing up everything he had ever eaten in his life.

A hand settled tentatively on his back, and when he curled forward again, heaving, another wrapped more certainly around his forehead and held his head up. Which was good because it felt like it had rocks in it, too heavy to hold, and Sam sagged into his brother's grip and gave himself over to the nausea.

Dean cleaned him up afterward, as always. Propped against the wall of the bathroom stall on a floor too dirty to even think about, Sam followed the motions with glazed eyes. Dean looked mad as he knelt again before him to wipe his face, but there was nothing stern in his movements, and the one word he spoke sounded almost gentle. "Rinse."

Then Dean got an arm under his to help him rise, and as he pulled up, everything fell apart.

Sam's cry startled them both enough that Dean nearly dropped him, and at first Sam couldn't even place the burning pain that seared through him. He did soon enough as Dean patted him down, frantically worried, looking for hidden injuries. A skim of Sam's ribs made him groan again, and Dean yanked his shirt up.

Or not so hidden injuries. Even through blurring vision, Sam could see the scrape along his side had swollen to an angry red, almost black near the bottom. Black? Infections didn't do that, did they? He dropped his head back against the metal wall, too tired and sick to figure it out.

And Dean… Dean looked like he was the one who was hurt. He lowered Sam's shirt carefully, then hung his head, which was disconcerting. Nothing defeated his brother.

"Dean?" Sam ventured, hearing how weak and watery he sounded but needing suddenly to see his face.

It was schooled and back in control when it rose to meet Sam's gaze, even gave him a sympathetic smile. "Looks like you've got a little infection going, bro."

He huffed a laugh. "Yeah, kinda figured that. At the lake…"

"The lake can wait. We've gotta get you some help first." And then Dean was easing him up again, very gently this time, careful not to pull on Sam's side. He wobbled where he stood, and was half-afraid Dean would have to carry him out, but a firm hand under his elbow and another fisted in his jacket seemed enough to keep him steady. They walked out together, past their uneaten food, to the car, where Dean propped him against the side as he swept the back seat clean. Sam wasn't quite sure how he fit in there, but next thing he knew he was stretched out as much as possible on the seat, a folded sweatshirt under his head and Dean's jacket over him, his stomach settling a little from being horizontal.

He wanted to ask where they were going if not the lake, why Dean wasn't pushing antibiotics on him, and what his brother knew that he didn't. But he was exhausted, body throbbing and throat raw, and as the heat soaked back into him, it felt good to just lie there listening to the hum of the motor and watching the back of Dean's head. He knew what he was doing. Sometimes that wasn't enough for Sam, but right now it was just fine.

He fell asleep before he knew it.

00000

Dean pulled out of the rest stop and turned back the way they had come. A few miles later he'd be able to veer south, and with any luck they would be in Nebraska by nightfall.

He checked his rearview mirror yet again, torn between relief Sam was sleeping and fear he was slipping away. Infection was one thing, and although they didn't have the money for it, Dean would have taken his brother to a hospital in a heartbeat. But that thread of black in the wound… that was something else, and if Marie couldn't help them…

He would hunt alone if he had to. It was something Dean had thought about long and hard one night he'd spent next to Sam's hospital bed. He didn't want to do it, the miles too empty when he was alone, the job too dangerous. But if all his family were gone, the dangers of the job wouldn't be such a bad thing. He'd grow careless, on his own, eventually turn into one of the casualties he worked hard to prevent, but it would be going out the way he wanted and rejoining the people he loved. No downside that he could see.

Except the part about being alone until then. And the losing his family as he went. No matter what he ended up doing after, that part he couldn't reconcile himself to.

Dean's hand wandered down to his pocket almost of its own will and dug out his cell phone. He pulled his attention from the road as he flipped it open and hit the speed dial. His dad had always been the first number in his phone; now he was second.

The message hadn't changed, not since after they had exorcised the phantom traveler and John had started directing people to him, and Dean barely listened to it as he waited for the beep.

"Dad, it's me. We're heading down to Nebraska. Sam's really sick, some kind of arcane infection. I'm taking him to Marie's to see if she can do something. If you could meet us there…" He swallowed, willing himself not to sound ten. "That would be great." Dean flipped the phone shut.

"Is it that bad?" the drowsy voice from the back surprised him.

Dean gave nonchalance his best try. "Naw, just figured it was a good place to meet and maybe he'll show up if he's worried."

"You think he will?" It was a good thing the radio was off or he would never have heard the near-whisper.

Dean hesitated. He lied as easily as he breathed, but not to Sam. He finally sighed. "Probably not. I don't even know if he'll get the message." And at moments like this, he almost hated his dad for that.

"Yeah." Barely audible now.

Okay, no "almost" about it. "Go back to sleep, Sam."

He didn't have to repeat himself.

Another five miles went by, enough that he figured Sam was deeply enough under, and Dean reached awkwardly back to touch his brother's cheek. The fever was definitely rising, as he'd feared from the flushed face in his mirror. Dean patted it gently, then drew his hand back. And, jaw set, he pushed the car to go a little faster, counting the miles they had left.

Too many. It was always too many.

00000

He was being lifted, and it hurt and made his head swim.

He pushed drunkenly at the arms holding him. "Dean," he slurred, calling for help because something wasn't right here.

"It's okay, Sam." Tight and gentle and scared, and it woke him up faster than the cold that smacked his face.

"What? Where're we?"

"Nebraska. Go back to sleep."

Yeah, because Dean was always marching him half-asleep through the Nebraska night. It hurt, too, sometimes bad enough to steal his breath, and that was also wrong but Sam couldn't seem to wrap his fuzzy mind around it.

"Bring him in here."

Another voice, female and unfamiliar, and Sam tried to see who the speaker was but opened his eyes only to featureless brown. His nose told him more than his eyes: leather. Dean.

Warm replaced cold, which was good because he was starting to realize how badly he was shaking. It was even better when he sank down on something soft and yielding, and he would have gladly curled up on his side right then and there except for Dean holding him up with a quiet, "Not yet, Sam."

Déjà vu, to Dean cleaning him up after a dozen hunts that hadn't gone quite according to plan, although he was slower to let Sam return the favor. A big brother thing, he'd shrugged it off when Sam had griped once, but little brothers had prerogatives, too. Like not scaring their big brothers, because the hand Dean patted his cheek with now was also cold and trembled slightly.

If only he could open his eyes and his mouth and figure out what was going on.

His jacket was pulled off, followed by his T-shirt, and again he shivered in the cold. At least he could lie down now, and his feet were tucked somewhere warmer. Sam tried to snuggle into the blanket under him, and felt that hot ache down his side again. It was the only part of him that wasn't freezing.

Voices talked over him, the woman and Dean. Infection, magic, fever. Discussing him, probably, but he couldn't seem to care, not until the woman asked Dean if he wanted to stay and Dean faltered.

"He hasn't exactly been crazy about me lately."

Sam would have rolled his eyes if they'd been open. "Dean, don't be an ass." The words felt like sludge on his tongue, and getting them out exhausted him. He didn't hear what was said after, but a minute later the bed dipped behind him and a lot of hands were moving him up on the bed, his back against something more firm and warm than the mattress. Something like his brother.

Who knew you could be profoundly embarrassed and relieved at the same time? Sam thought he laughed, but even he couldn't hear it, and Dean's arm came across his chest like he was trying to soothe him.

Or hold him down.

Because then the stabbing began, the fire in his side growing and spreading through his body because he hadn't gotten out of the room fast enough this time. He refused to look at the ceiling, though, just squeezed his eyes shut and, as the fire ate at him, began to scream.

00000

Dean shut his eyes after his brother did. Not because Marie poking around in the increasingly black-edged wound in Sam's side was disgusting, but because he couldn't bear to see the agony in Sam's face any more. There was no avoiding the cries or the feel of Sam's body bucking against his hands, but he didn't have to look.

Sam twisted in his grasp again, and Dean held the thrashing head against his chest. But Sam just fought him harder, and he didn't have the strength for this. Dean cursed hard under his breath. "How much longer?"

"Almost got it…" Marie answered, distracted but calm. For a moment he begrudged her being that detached from her patient's suffering, but stifled it just as fast. At least one of them had to be dispassionate about helping Sam, and it sure wasn't him.

Sam's cries were getting hoarse, and Dean gritted his teeth against it, murmuring words he knew Sam couldn't hear but unable to do anything else. "Marie…"

"Here." And she straightened, a tiny bloody sliver held fast in her tweezers. Sam slumped, gasping for air, and all Dean could do was gape at the cause of all their problems.

"That's it?"

"That's it, baby. Probably a piece of the horn of that thing you fought. Like a speck of dust in the eye, only ramped up a few dozen times with some magic. Good thing you brought him in now, or it would've killed him by tomorrow."

"Maybe I could've–"

"Baby, you tried to take that out and you would've killed him just looking for it. And we're not done yet. There was a reason you came to me, right?"

Dean sagged against the headboard with a nod, feeling as weak as Sam. Whose racing pulse was starting to settle under Dean's grip of his wrist, breathing no longer so frantic. His limpness, head rolling against Dean's chest, was still a little frightening, but having someone dig in your side for some cursed debris obviously took a lot out of you. No, Dean couldn't have done it, even if he could have forced himself to torture Sam like that, but he'd done what he could and Sam would get better now for it. Dean gave his cheek a fond pat and absently lifted strands of sweat-damp hair from his face. "Not bad, Sammy." Not like Sam would be aware enough to hear, but right now this was more for him than Sam.

"Wipe him down while I make a poultice for his side, draw the last of the poison out, then we'll put him to bed."

Dean obeyed, taking the cloth she offered and cleaning off sweat and a trickle of blood from a bitten lip. Sam's side wasn't bleeding at all, incredibly, and already the black area looked smaller. Mystical infections, he shook his head; just one of the perks their job had to offer.

The fever would take longer to break, and even without damp skin, Sam was shivering. Dean watched impatiently as Marie returned and spread the scratch with something thick and green, then wrapped it. It was a relief to settle Sam into bed after that under several blankets, and see him finally comfortable.

"He'll sleep now," Marie said.

Dean looked up at her from where he was crouched next to the bed doing his own assessment, and nodded. He pushed himself up on legs aching with tension and stretched his back. "I don't know how to thank you, Marie," he said solemnly.

"Seems like I owed you one, Dean Winchester," she said with a smile.

It felt like years since his face creased that way, but he returned it. "Yeah, well, I still appreciate it. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go."

"Your father…?"

He felt old. When had he become the head of the family? "He's… busy. We're not exactly sure where."

She didn't press, or ask why she'd never met the other Winchester brother, and he was grateful for that. Even more so when she changed the subject. "You hungry?"

He wavered. "Actually…" Dean scratched his head. "…I think I'm just gonna–"

"Sleep." She nodded. "Good idea. We can catch up tomorrow over a big breakfast. If you don't mind sharing a bed with your brother, I'll take the couch."

"No, that's good, thanks." He'd wanted to keep an eye on the fever, anyway.

She nodded and gave him directions to the leftover roast in the refrigerator if he changed his mind, then gathered some things and left.

Dean rubbed his face with one hand, then stared down at Sam. He had forgotten how much extra work and worry a little brother was, especially in their business, and wondered not for the first time if he'd been right in dragging Sam back to it. But he hadn't, Jess's death had, and a desire for revenge. Dean was just keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn't get himself killed in the meantime. He was doing Sam the favor.

Yeah, he snorted softly to himself, and hodags were just misunderstood, overgrown puppies… with spikes.

He stripped and climbed gingerly into the bed opposite Sam, but his brother never stirred. Dean frowned and checked his pulse again, relieved to find it decently slow under cooling skin. Crisis over, on to another job the next day.

Dean stared at the dark ceiling and wondered what Sam would think about taking a few days off to do some fishing in a non-monster-inhabited lake before they headed for Montana again. Just to make sure he was fully recovered.

Sam would probably think pod people had replaced his brother.

Grinning, Dean rolled over and went to sleep.

00000

They were going fishing. Sam kept marveling over that as he watched Dean and Marie exchange a few last words on the porch. Every job held the potential of crossing their paths with their dad's, and they probably shouldn't be taking time off to do something as pointless as fishing, but… pointless felt pretty good just then.

He was getting better, especially after two days of almost nightmare-free sleep, interspersed with home-cooked meals and the sound of Dean laughing in the other room, or sleeping beside him. Nothing to do but rest and recover, and he'd slept through most of it. Fishing he would actually be awake to enjoy, and who knew what he'd pry out of Dean with his brother's guard down.

Not that he didn't know the most important parts already. Sam sobered, watching his brother's carefree body language, seeing the seriousness behind his eyes even from across the yard. He'd already explained to Sam – probably a couple times, knowing how out of it he'd been at first – that Marie had been one of their jobs a few years back, a supernatural who had turned out to be good, healer instead of killer, hunted rather than hunter. They had helped her then, and Dean had called in the marker now for Sam. Sometimes it was easy to forget, but their job had its pluses, too.

He liked her, despite the fact that she called him "Baby" even though she couldn't be past her forties. Her laugh was contagious, her care comforting, and Dean had trusted her enough to bring Sam to her when he hadn't known what else to do, which said it all right there. Neither Dean nor Marie had said how close Sam had come to dying and he hadn't asked, but he knew. Dean was still watching him sideways when he thought Sam wouldn't notice, darkness melting into a cocky grin as soon as Sam caught his eye. He probably wasn't fooling Dean, either, but they did what they needed to keep going, and fishing… Well, maybe Dean was learning how to cope, after all. Maybe then he could teach Sam, too. Just another lesson from his big brother.

Dean said something that made Marie laugh, then Sam was surprised to see him lean forward and kiss her on the cheek. Sheer fondness, nothing suggestive about it, yet another side he didn't often see of his brother, and then Dean jogged down the porch steps and across the small yard to the car. He slid in the driver's side, giving Sam a critical look as he did. "Ready?"

Sam smiled. "You sure you want to leave?" He nodded back at Marie, watching them from the porch.

Dean shot him a look. "I'm not the one she kept gushing about up there."

"What?" Sam asked startled. "But… I barely even know her!"

"Dude, she practically saw you naked."

He felt himself redden and hated the tell. "That doesn't count. I was sick."

Dean shrugged. "Far as I'm concerned, you still are. Maybe it's that whole maternal nurturing thing." He turned the engine over.

"And she's old enough to be my… aunt." Sam almost slipped and saw Dean catch it, too, but shrug it off. It was too good a moment to ruin with bad memories.

"You know what they say, it's not the years, it's the mileage." His brother waggled his eyebrows at him as he turned the radio on.

"I really hate you sometimes."

"Yeah, feeling's mutual. So, fishing?" He peered at Sam over his sunglasses, the happiness actually reaching his eyes instead of just that often-deceptive face.

"Fishing," Sam agreed. And at least for that moment, he was also completely content.

The End