First appeared in Brotherhood 1 (2006), from Pyramids Press

They Just Stop Looking
K Hanna Korossy

Dean Winchester pushed open the diner door like he did every morning, ignoring the little bell that rang to announce his arrival, and sat in his usual booth. It was the one in the front window, leaving him with his back to the wall and facing the door, as if he were watching for someone to walk in. But he'd stopped expecting that a while ago, and looked up only out of habit now whenever the bell rang.

A plump, smiling woman glided over with a carafe of coffee and poured him a cup. "Long night, honey?"

He nodded, rubbing grit from his eyes. "Yeah."

"The usual?"

Dean didn't know if she meant his order or his night's activities, but the same answer applied to both. He nodded again. "Thanks, Tildy."

"Is that Dean?" another voice called, and Anne looked out from the kitchen. "There y'are—I thought you'd skipped us this morning."

"I told Pete I'd be late," he said, yawning.

Anne came out, clucking disapprovingly. With her red hair, it made her vaguely chicken-like, but Dean didn't notice anymore. "Baby, you're gonna wear yourself out this way. Why don't you tell Pete you can't come in today and go get some more sleep?"

He smiled, using the only muscles he hadn't given much of a workout lately. "Well, then, I couldn't pay you fine ladies, could I?"

She shook her head, exasperated. "That charm would work a lot better if you didn't look like the living dead."

Dean sobered quickly and sipped his coffee, wrinkling his nose when he realized he hadn't put sugar in. Three packets made it tolerable and gave him a badly needed sugar boost.

He glanced idly around the half-full diner, one of the few amusements he had. He'd never really stayed in one place long enough to discover its quirks, but Derry's Mill was full of them. From surly Lily the lawyer, who always glowered at him when they crossed paths, to Peckinpah Pete and his antique motorcycle, to the only lace shop in the whole state, Dean had learned it all intimately. He'd also brushed off his small-talk skills that were vital in a tiny town like that one. He hadn't needed them for a while; Sam usually…

Dean's mood turned bleaker, and he gulped the rest of his coffee and stood, tossing a few coins onto the table. He was already late.

Pete's grocery store was only a few storefronts down, a brief walk. Dean rarely used the Impala those days, only for weekend trips to the city to do research. Sam would've—

He crushed the thought, treading heavily into the grocery store. "Pete."

The older man behind the counter nodded. "Dean. Got a shipment of canned vegetables you can start with."

He nodded back and went to work.

Dean had resisted the job at first, reluctant to admit he might be there for a while, not wanting to take time away from the hunt. But as days turned into a week and no end was in sight, money had grown tight, and there were only so many people you could hustle in a small town. Dean had taken the job, working mornings in exchange for a room and food money. That left him the rest of the day for his real job.

The one he was making no progress on whatsoever.

Dean's jaw tightened, and he lifted boxes and stacked cans with cold, tired efficiency.

It had been thirty-one days since Sam had disappeared. Thirty nights since he'd gone out for food and never come back. Thirty-two days since they'd rolled into Derry's Mill together to investigate what they suspected was an erlking and had turned out to be merely a rabid wolf. Dean hadn't left since, he'd just changed the hunt. Now he searched for his brother.

There had been no evidence of Sam past the front door of their room, no sightings that night, no distant cries. No bones or blood. Nothing to give Dean any hope of finding his brother, alive or dead, but…Sam had been right, people didn't just disappear. Others stopped looking for them. And Dean wasn't going to stop looking. He didn't think he could if he wanted to.

So for once, the whole town knew why he was there and tried to help, but it was still the most unsuccessful hunt Dean had been on. There wasn't one resident he hadn't talked to at least twice, and several had taken him out into the hills around the town, showing him various washes and caves and all the places kids ever wandered into. Nothing. Sam had vanished.

But people didn't vanish, not without a trace. Dean refused to believe that, despite the evidence to the contrary he'd seen over the years, because to admit he might never find Sam…

He set a can down so hard, it dented the metal shelving. Pete looked up, and Dean gave him a contrite wave.

He was going to find Sam, period.

His shift ended at noon, and Dean headed right back to the diner, smiling automatically at people he met on the way. Tildy already had his sandwich and drink paper-bagged for him, and he gave her a sincerely appreciative look as he took the lunch and headed out. The bag was stuffed into one pocket, his .45 in the other.

Dean had gone over the town first, and he was as sure as he could be Sam wasn't anywhere in Derry's Mill. That had left the hills surrounding the town, and he'd divided them into grids to explore. Search & Rescue and dogs from a neighboring town had already been through them with little success, but they hadn't been as motivated as he was, nor, Dean thought without false pride, as good a tracker. The grids would take him at least another two months to search, but there weren't any other options he could see. Map tucked into his back pocket, he headed north.

He ate the sandwich as he walked, sometimes leaning over to examine the ground or scrub. The food had all the taste and texture of paper. But he'd started losing weight after Sam disappeared, and besides earning the distress of the ladies in the diner, it had cost him muscle mass Dean couldn't afford to lose. He went back to eating regularly again, if not enjoying it. Then again, what was there to enjoy those days?

Deer tracks crossed the path in front of him, and Dean traced them as far as he could see. They were walking tracks, not running; nothing had disturbed the deer, people or an unnatural creature. Still, he kept doggedly walking, heading up the incline.

He'd called his dad, of course, two days after Sam disappeared. He'd left a message every day that week, asking for John's help, giving him updates on the lack of progress. There was no answer, and by the third week, Dean had stopped calling.

Tracking grew a lot harder as he reached the rocky terrain, and as Dean scanned the rise of land, he frowned. "Sam!" Every afternoon, the hills rang with his calls, but he'd never gotten so much as a sigh of a breeze for an answer. But he kept trying. What else was he going to do? "Sam!"

No answer. Dean kept going.

He checked the caves and grottos as he came across them, peering into holes and overhangs. Sometimes he marked the rock with the red spray paint he carried with him, the signature he left stating he'd been there. But besides disturbing a rabbit burrow and setting a covey of quail flying, Dean didn't find a thing. Again. No unusual tracks, no carcasses, no sign Sam had ever been that way. Dean searched until the light gave out, checked the last few caves by flashlight, then turned back to town with feet and a heart that seemed heavier every night.

One last time, at the edge of the rock line, he looked back and called, "Sam!"

But his brother didn't answer.

Dean chewed his lip, and left. He still had a lot of research to do that night, two new files of material arriving from the state capitol just that morning, and little enough time to do it in.

He left the dark quiet—and Sam—behind him and kept walking.

00000

Tildy looked crestfallen when she saw him the next morning. "Oh, honey, you look awful."

Dean huffed a laugh. "Thanks, Tildy. I think I'll have a second cup today."

He didn't miss the glance she exchanged with Anne but ignored it. They were worried about him and he appreciated it, but there was nothing he could do about that. Precious little he could do about anything, for that matter, and Dean's hand curled convulsively around his mug.

He left all the change he had in his pocket as tip, and was met at the door by Anne, holding a small bag. "It's just a Danish, but you look like you could use it."

Sam had loved the diner ladies' attention when he'd been there.

Dean took the bag, ignoring the sting in his eyes. Probably just fatigue. "Thanks."

"You'll be back for lunch, right?"

He nodded and went out the door.

His job that morning was unloading cereal boxes, and Dean stared at them for a minute before going to work. They were the kind Sam liked that they splurged on sometimes when they had the money. His little brother never had gotten used to the beef jerky and Hostess Cupcakes Dean considered breakfast, when he'd still eaten breakfast. Dean teased him about his college tastes, but he also indulged Sam whenever he could. Sometimes it still felt like Sam was doing him a favor, going on the road with him again, and deep down Dean had been afraid he would get tired of it and disappear on him.

And then he had.

That had been one of the things Dean had considered, those first few days after Sam hadn't come back. Maybe he'd just left, gotten his fill and gone. He'd always hated the jobs that turned out to have natural causes, complaining that they were drifting that much farther from Dad.

But…Sam hated life on the road and the hunt, not his brother. He wouldn't have left without telling Dean, not with the kind of life they lived and the assumptions he knew Dean would make. No, it had taken less than two days for him to convince himself that Sam had not left intentionally.

He still didn't know if he was glad or grieved by that.

Cereal was followed by mopping up the store floor, then tossing out the expired refrigerated and frozen foods. Dean mentally ran over the previous day's research while he worked, thinking about the terrain he would cover that afternoon, tuning out the work his hands carried on. Sam had suggested he get a real job once, and Dean had laughed him off. Sam would be the one laughing now to see him up to his shoulders in gallons of milk. Dean's face twitched, and his heart tore a little further like it did with every reminder of why he was there, and Sam wasn't.

Done for the morning and chilled to the bone, he nodded at Pete and left.

Was it him, or was he getting some harder glances on the street today? Dean ran a hand over his face, realizing he'd forgotten to shave, again. Sometimes the little things eluded him; Anne had had to kindly point out to him one morning that he really needed to do laundry. He probably looked as rough as he felt, and Dean promised himself he'd sleep in a little that weekend. If the books he'd ordered from the state university library didn't arrive, anyway.

The bell above the diner door heralded his arrival, and Dean raised an eyebrow to see Anne and Tildy waiting for him at the front counter, the diner empty even of its thin midday crowd. Nearly dormant instincts, put to sleep by small-town life, tickled a warning.

"Ladies," he greeted. "Lunch get cancelled today?" He tried a smile, and found it didn't fit.

"Dean." That was Tildy. "Sit down. We need to talk to you."

Warily, he lowered himself into the booth, back to the wall. Tildy slipped in opposite him, Anne standing to one side as if she were ready to take his order. He had to split his attention between them and, tactically, he didn't like that. Then he wondered why he was thinking tactically.

"Dean…it's about Lily."

He focused on Tildy, since she seemed designated speaker, and his eyes narrowed. "Lily?" A sudden thought seized him, sending a shot of adrenalin into his system. "Did she disappear, too?"

"No, no, nothing like that. She's at home, doing poorly. We think…she might be dying."

Well, this was getting weird. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said diplomatically, trying not to shift in his seat. He was losing daylight.

Tildy sighed. "I'm not explaining this very well. Anne?"

Anne pursed her lips, again invoking poultry, and shook her head. "You don't understand, baby. Lily—that's not her real name. Her name's Lilith."

Dean nodded slowly. "O-kay, and you're telling me this because…"

"You've never heard of Lilith?" Anne said doubtfully.

He frowned at them both, uncomprehending…and then suddenly comprehending too much. "Wait, you mean…Lilith? The Lilith?"

Tildy almost smiled. "I know it sounds ridiculous, honey, and yesterday I would have laughed you out the door if you'd said it, but since this morning, we…well, yes, we're starting to think there might be something to her name. I can't believe she's the Lilith from the stories, but a Lilith, maybe?"

Dean straightened slowly, four weeks of useless searching and short nights and mindless labor sloughing off like so much dead weight. He stared at them hard. "Does this have something to do with Sam?"

They fidgeted, and his heart stepped up its staccato beat. Anne sank down next to Tildy. "We don't know exactly, but…we're starting to think so. You see, Lily—Lilith—she doesn't like men, never has as long as we've known her. But there's always been something else just plain wrong about her, something more than an old broken heart. Everybody around here knows it, they just…well, I mean, who believes old wives' tales like that? And it's not like she ever hurt anybody. There were a few rumors, but we never saw anything like that."

Thirty-two days he'd talked to these people and they'd been lying to his face. "Where?" Dean asked flatly, one palm flat on the table, the other curled around the gun in his pocket.

"Dean, honey, we don't know, and we don't even know if she did anything at all to your brother—we never had any reason to think so, and Lily said no when we asked her. But…something happened to her two days ago. It looks like someone tore into her, and she's hurt bad. And, well, we thought maybe it was Sam, if she tried to do something to him. But if Lily's the only one who knows where he is and she can't get back to him…"

"We're running out of time," Dean finished. There'd be dehydration, starvation, and God only knew what kind of injuries if she and Sam had tangled. But also a chance Sam was alive, and that was a lot more hope than Dean had entertained for a long time. He wasn't about to lose it. Dean felt dizzy as he stood. "One of you ladies want to show me where Lilith lives?" His smile was full and cold this time, getting nervous looks in return.

Lilith lived on the outskirts of town. Anne had to scramble to keep up with Dean's long stride, but the grip he had on her arm gave her no choice. His mind wasn't on her, though, busy reviewing what little he knew of the Lilith myth—apparently not so mythical—and not coming up with a lot. Or rather, too much. First vampire, succubus, devourer of babies: the myths were as plentiful as their writers. One thing they had in common, however, was that Lilith hated men, whichever form that took, and imprisoning them for her own purposes fit her legend. If she'd been jumped, however, Sam might still be alive. The rest…Dean could deal with the rest, whatever it was.

The door was open, and he didn't knock. Anne went in first, casting him another uncertain glance as she led him into the bedroom. Probably wanting to make sure he wasn't going to strangle her friend or something. Dean was making no promises.

The bedroom was dim, the wasted figure under the blankets almost unrecognizable as the woman he'd seen those last few weeks. Her hair had greyed, her skin grown waxy and translucent. The hand clutching the cover was shriveled and curled nearly into a claw. She was dying, her powers fading, revealing her true age. She had looked him in the eye every day while she kept Sam locked up somewhere. Dean didn't realize his fingers were flexing until Anne yelped.

He let her go, and she threw him a look, then moved next to the bed and bent down. "Lily? Lily, it's me, it's Anne. I have to talk to you."

Dean moved her aside bodily. "Lilith."

Dark-rimmed eyes fluttered open and fixed on him with unusual focus.

"Where's Sam?"

It took a moment, but her mouth moved. Her lips drew back and she gave him a yellowed smile.

Dean's jaw shifted. "Anne, go back to the diner."

"But—"

"Now."

She fled.

Dean sat down on the edge of the bed, keeping the advantage of height but adding proximity. "I'm not feeling a lot of patience here, Lilith—where's Sam?"

"Go away, boy. Let me die in peace."

The corners of his mouth turned up. "Oh, I don't think so."

"Your brother is gone. He didn't amuse me anymore."

"Yeah, especially after he kicked the crap out of you. Where were you keeping him?"

"I am the seducer and executioner of men. Your brother is dead."

Dean knew that was a possibility. An ancient creature was not easy to hurt, tending to be tougher than the mortal kind, even against someone as stubborn and well-trained as Sam. But down deep, Dean didn't think Sam was dead, not anymore, and there was only one obstacle now between Dean and his brother.

He pulled the .45 almost casually, and pressed the barrel against her chest.

"Well, I'm the executioner of monsters like you. So, one more time. Where's Sam?"

There was no fear in her eyes, only a defiant hatred. Followed by a glimmer of craftiness.

Dean pushed a little harder, his body taut with readiness and tension.

"Southwest of town, in the pyramid of rocks, you'll find his body."

She seemed so sure. His mouth was dry as he stood, the revolver still aimed at her heart, if she even had one. Then Dean pulled it up, flicking on the safety before he slipped it back in his pocket. "Why waste a bullet, right?" he said mildly. "Unless you don't finish your Yoda act by the time I get back—then it won't be a waste."

She glared at him impotently, centuries of loathing in her eyes.

Dean spun away and began to run.

He cleared the house, ignored the startled looks he got as he pounded up the street. Past the diner, Tildy and Anne's white faces in the window. Past the grocery store and the boarding house where he and Sam had shared a room that had become Dean's alone. Out to the southwest corner, then into the trees and bushes beyond.

His lungs burned, his legs tired. He probably should have brought supplies, at least the first aid kit. Maybe even called for help; there was a small ambulance service in Derry's Mill, for the good people there. Dean's mouth twisted and he kept running.

The scrub broke on the rocks, a few dozen grid squares from where he'd been searching. Dean skidded to a stop, dragging air into his lungs while he surveyed the terrain. Pyramid—what hill or pile of rocks didn't look like a pyramid? He scrambled up the nearest boulder for a better view and yelled at the top of his abused lungs, "SAM!"

As always, no answer. He wasn't sure if he'd been expecting one, but he had hoped. He'd always hoped, even when he wasn't sure he had any hope left.

Dean's gaze swept the area, passing over clusters and jumbles of rocks…and stopped on a pile that wasn't exactly pyramid-shaped, but something…He jumped down from the boulder, walked around to look from a different angle.

Jackpot, down to the crag crowning the top with a perfect point if you looked at it the right way. Dean scrambled up rocks and boulders toward the formation.

"Sam, hang on, I'm coming," he called, just in case. The silence battered his senses as he climbed, and in his haste he scraped skin on rough edges and never noticed. He skirted the last clump and scanned Lilith's pyramid, trying to find the entrance.

Maybe she hadn't told the truth. She'd wanted to die in peace, and she knew the area; she could have directed him to any number of useless landmarks. By the time he got back to shake the truth out of her, she'd probably be gone.

"Come on, Sam," Dean muttered, walking around the rocks, pushing and feeling for a hidden entrance.

But she'd seemed so sure he'd find Sam dead. While that didn't do much to calm the acid in Dean's stomach, it probably meant she hadn't steered him wrong, either. She'd wanted him to find Sam, Dean was counting on that. And that his brother was tougher than Lilith expected.

Behind the rocks, in the shadows, he almost fell into the hole.

It would be a tight fit for him, which meant Sam and Lilith could have cleared it easily. Dean canted his head, trying to peer inside, but even the beam of his flashlight didn't penetrate far. He leaned down close to the edge and called inside, "Sam?"

And, as he held his breath, heard maybe, possibly, a faint scratch of sound inside.

"Hold on, Sam." He swung his legs down into the hole without hesitation, then breathed out and wriggled through into the darkness.

Not complete darkness. Even as Dean turned to get his bearings, he could see a faint glimmer at the end of a tunnel in the dirt, shored by limbs and roots. Dean took a step in that direction, glancing around uneasily as dirt trickled down around him.

"Sam?" he called again, and kept walking. "Can you hear me?"

More sound of movement but still no answer. For all he knew, he was walking into some wild animal burrow, and belatedly Dean pulled the .45 out. But there was the light…

"Sam?" he said more quietly. "Come on, answer me, Sam."

And then, like the sweetest strains of heavy metal to his ears, came his brother's faint and disbelieving voice. "Dean?"

He ran the last few steps, all the way thanking a God he'd just made up his mind he believed in.

The tunnel widened into a small cavern, no more than ten feet in length. A lantern sputtered weakly on the wall at one end, on its last gasps of oil. And at the other end, just pushing himself up on one elbow from the dirt floor, was Sam: dirty, thin, bloodied, and chained by one ankle. Alive.

"Sam." Dean fumbled the gun back into his pocket and went down on his knees beside his little brother, sliding under his head when Sam's strength gave out. Even that small jolt made him wince, and Dean swallowed, overwhelmed and frozen until Sam looked up at him and gave him a wan smile.

"You're back."

"Back?" Dean blinked, and automatically began carding through the stringy hair looking for bumps and gashes. Sam's skin was hot and dry under his fingers. "I was here before?"

"Weren't you?" Sam's brow drew together. "I thought you were. Must've been Lily."

Dean careened between euphoria Sam was alive and fear at his detached tone and limpness. Finding nothing but dried blood on his scalp, Dean continued downward, avoiding a swollen right arm. But he kept one hand on Sam's cheek, supporting his head. A month without shaving and his clean-cut brother had the makings of a nice beard. "Well, I'm here now, Sam."

"If you're real," Sam said philosophically. "You might not be real." His eyes sank shut. "I think the air's getting thin." He coughed, but it sounded wet, from his lungs.

Dean didn't know how he was keeping his hands from shaking. "It'll be better outside," he promised. Sam had never been remotely fat, but Dean could trace all his ribs now. Some of them were also inflamed, and Sam groaned as Dean brushed them. His legs seemed intact except for the chain, but he moved weakly in Dean's arms.

"Outside…" Sam's whisper held longing. "She won't let me go outside."

Dean worked hard to keep his voice steady as he pulled his jacket off and worked it around Sam. "You don't have to worry about her anymore, Sam—you took care of her, remember?" And if she wasn't already gone, he would make sure she was. He eased the broken arm inside the jacket for support, noting Sam barely flinched. "You wanna tell me what happened, Sammy?"

No reaction to the nickname. "I got free. The chain on my wrist…had to break my thumb. But I got the chain off. She didn't expect that." His head rolled against Dean's leg. "I couldn't wait anymore. She kept…" Sam smiled at him, near tears. "I tried to hold on, Dean."

"You did fine, kiddo," Dean said warmly, bending to get a better look at his hand. The thumb was twisted and dark with bruising, and the thought of Sam breaking it just to get free sickened him. And then Lilith had managed to re-chain him, leaving Sam to die just as she'd crawled off to do. He patted his brother's cheek, sliding his hand lower to cradle his jaw. "You stayed alive until I got here, that's enough. I'm gonna get you out now." The dirt continued to stream down the edges of the cavern and tunnel, making Dean wonder if Lilith's power had maintained them.

"You said that before." Sam's voice was fading and he coughed again. It had to be murder on busted ribs, but he didn't seem to feel it. "Lily said you were gone."

"Dude, you believed her?" Dean asked sharply.

Another roll of the head. "I didn't know if you'd find me…took a long time." He suddenly shivered. Dean wrapped the jacket tighter around him, and Sam buried his face in it. Then started, opening his eyes to stare at Dean with something like wonder. Sam felt the solid thigh beneath his head before managing to catch on a fold in the denim. "You're real."

Dean found a smile for his little brother. "You wanna pinch me? Limited time offer."

He got a faint laugh for that, and both of them pretended they didn't notice Sam's filling eyes or the death grip he had on his brother's leg. "Dean…" he murmured.

"Yeah, Sammy, I know. You ready to get out of here?" Dean hoisted him higher, Sam's forehead against the curve of Dean's neck and shoulder, and pulled the .45 out. He shielded Sam's face with one arm and aimed with the other, at the joint of the shackle and the chain tethering it to the wall. The shot was loud in the small space and left his ears ringing, but Sam was free and that was all he cared about. Dean tucked the gun away and slid his free arm under Sam's legs, lifting with a grunt.

"I can walk," Sam said thickly against the hollow of his neck.

"Sure you can." It was an effort to climb to his feet, but once there, he got Sam balanced so he wasn't so difficult to carry. In truth, even with the shackle still on his ankle, he was lighter than the few other times Dean had had to lift him. Lilith had probably fed him just enough to keep him alive.

The trickles of dirt had turned into a flow, and Dean tried to both hurry and not jostle Sam as he made his way back to the hole, hunching over to keep the dirt out of his brother's face. Lilith's power probably had kept it in place. While Dean was glad for what its collapse meant, he kinda hoped the old girl would hang in there a few minutes longer. If this was her last gasp at revenge, he would just as soon not be there to witness it.

They finally reached the entrance, and he bowed his head to talk into Sam's ear. "Okay, I'm gonna push you up out of here—just relax and let me do the work, okay?"

"I didn't give up, Dean."

The soft words stabbed at him. "I know, little brother. Neither did I." He nudged the matted hair with his cheek, then heaved Sam upward.

Thankfully, the hole wasn't too high. His initial boost got Sam out up to the waist, and as he folded over the edge of the hole, Dean shoved the long legs up after. The tunnel was collapsing around him, the air thick with dirt. Coughing heavily, Dean lunged for the edge of the now-wide hole, scrambling for purchase as it crumbled away, and felt the dirt suck at his legs. Dean sank a little under its weight and, with a panicked croak, tried to find a better handhold.

Sam grabbed his arm.

His brother was in no shape to be pulling him up, but he made for good leverage. Dean held on and climbed. By the time he got his hips free, he could reach a nearby rock, anchoring himself as he dragged his buried legs out.

They both fell to the ground, gasping, the hole shooting up a plume of dirt beside them as it fell in completely. Sam started coughing again, curling inward to ease his breathing.

Dean rolled wearily toward him. "Sam?" He climbed to his knees and pulled Sam up with him, tilting the filthy head gently back against his chest to try to make his breathing easier. It worked to some extent: the coughing eased, his breath a faint wheeze in between. But Sam no longer held on to him nor reacted to Dean's worried calls, and Dean was keenly aware that even though Lilith was dead, Sam hadn't escaped her grip yet.

He settled Sam in his arms again, staggered back to his feet, and set off with determined if wobbly steps back to town.

"C'mon, Sam, the hard part's over now," Dean puffed. "You know how long I've been looking for you? Thirty-two friggin' days. I got a job at a grocery store. I had a room, even put up a picture of you. And Kirsten Dunst," he conceded with a duck of the head. It wasn't true, but it would've made Sam grin to hear it. "I had a 'usual' at the diner. I'm telling you, it was like living in some Mayberry version of the Twilight Zone. And I did not go through all that for you to give up on me now."

Sam's breath was damp and hot against his neck, and it both frightened and reassured him. Dean held him closer, trying to protect him from an enemy he couldn't see, like when they'd been kids.

He only slipped once, going down on one knee before he could catch himself. Sam groaned but otherwise didn't react. Dean doggedly pushed himself back up, hoisting Sam a little higher, up against his shoulder. His back was killing him, but he could see the edge of the scrub now, the town just visible beyond.

"Hang on, Sammy," was all Dean could think to say now. "Hang on."

Traffic had thinned on the streets as dusk rolled in. A few people screeched to a halt at the sight of him and Sam; others seemed oblivious. Dean kept walking, focused only on his goal of the firehouse down the street. He didn't even notice the car pulling up beside him, the back door open.

"Dean. Get in, son."

He stopped, stared blindly at Pete for a minute, before sliding into the back seat with Sam. Dean pulled the door shut behind him with one foot.

"We'll have him to Doc Bennet's in no time."

Dean shook his head. "Chandler. He needs a hospital."

The lined face studied his in the mirror, and nodded. Neither of them mentioned Chandler was fifteen minutes farther, outside of Derry's Mill. The town had already done enough to Sam, and he would hold on a little longer for his big brother. Dean was sure of it.

He slid his arm out from under Sam's legs and wrapped both around Sam's chest and back. His brother was a limp burden, asleep or unconscious, but his heart beat steadily against Dean's. For the moment, it was enough.

Sam was alive. After a month of fearing the worst, it was hard to take in.

Dean buried his face in Sam's dirty hair and washed it in a few tears of relief and gratitude.

00000

Chandler was a small hospital with relaxed rules. No one made him leave while they checked Sam over and cleaned him up, the doctor rattling off the staggering list as he checked each injury: broken radius and two bones in the thumb, three cracked and one broken rib, a bruised pelvis, dehydration, malnourishment, exposure, and incipient pneumonia. No signs of sexual assault, which Dean had feared in some back part of his brain where he refused to even put the thought into words. No torture beyond that of chaining up someone in a cave and keeping him prisoner. No real surprises, either, based on his own observations, but the official tally still made Dean sink into a chair, overcome. Sam should recover without complications, the young doctor had added gently. Dean nodded but still sat and watched in a daze the knot of people around the gurney. Sam would have been embarrassed at the fuss, but he hadn't woken up yet.

They had to bring in a locksmith to remove the shackle, then they wheeled Sam off for x-rays. Dean haunted the hallway outside, pacing off its length, rubbing his head, contemplating calling their dad. He gave up both when the radiologist called him in and pointed out the breaks, explaining the force that would have been applied to Sam's arm, the heavy object he must have used on his thumb. Dean swallowed and wished Lilith wasn't dead so he could put that bullet in her, after all. It wouldn't have been wasted.

They finally delivered him to the room they'd just settled Sam in. His brother was fever-flushed and looked more gaunt now that his face was clean, but he was comfortably asleep, only a couple of IVs and an oxygen canula to mar the image. The door closed behind Dean, and again it was just the two of them.

He looked Sam over again, cataloguing the damage, and the signs of life. Sam's brow furrowed faintly in his sleep—always thinking, his little brother was—and Dean's mouth formed a smile before he realized it. Sam would have blushed at the assessment. And even as Dean braced himself for the pain that always followed such a thought, like an old injury he'd learned to compensate for, it didn't come, the nightmare already receding.

He slipped a finger under the three that stuck out of the wrapping on Sam's broken hand, and felt an unexpected warmth as they curled faintly around his. He had vague memories of Sam doing that as a baby, too.

He was alive. Sometimes Dean still believed in miracles.

Satisfied Sam was improving and not going anywhere without him, Dean dragged up the lone chair next to the bed, wrapped himself in the blanket they'd provided, and settled in for his first full, good night's sleep in over a month.

00000

The hospital sat on another small town street, this one a little busier but just as old-fashioned as Derry's Mill. Dean stood in the window and watched the mid-morning traffic below, wondering if this town also hid a Lilith. Sometimes it seemed he could trust no one but Sam, and even Sam he couldn't trust to stay out of trouble.

Dean glanced back at him, relieved to see the quiet sleep. He hadn't counted on nightmares the night before, Sam's moans and pleas waking him almost as often as his own dreams of arriving too late to a collapsed cavern or his brother's lifeless body. Dean had a feeling Sam wasn't dreaming about Jess, either, as he lurched away whenever Dean touched him. He tried not to think too closely about that one. But Sam responded to his voice, and Dean had talked himself hoarse about his search for Sam, where they were now, the pretty nurse who came in to check his vitals, and the finer points of Miller versus Budweiser. It hadn't made for a very relaxing night, but it had gotten them through, and Sam was resting now. Dean still felt less weary than he had for a long time.

He turned back to the window, sipping the coffee the nurse had brought him. Dean couldn't seem to remember her name, but her eyes were amazing. Maybe he could make an exception to his no-trusting policy.

The door opened, and he turned automatically, expecting her again. His welcoming smile froze at the sight of the visitor.

"Anne," he said stiffly, moving up next to Sam's bed, suddenly protective.

"Dean." He saw her recognize his move and flush, but he wasn't about to be embarrassed. "I'm sorry to bother you but, well, we'd like to know how Sam's doing."

His lips thinned. They'd lied to him. All along they'd suspected and still protected her. It didn't make them as bad as Lilith, but he sure didn't want them anywhere near Sam. "Anne—"

"Please, Dean."

But she had been kind, and broken the silence that had let him find and save his brother. And Dean was used to the denial he usually found, less so than the sorrow and concern in her gaze as she looked past him at his sleeping brother. Dean thawed, just a little. "He's doing okay. She broke his arm, chained him up, and left him starving and sick." Dean still took some pleasure in bluntness, and seeing her flinch. "But Sam's strong, he'll survive."

Anne nodded. "If we would have thought she really… Everyone's so glad Sam's okay. I don't know if you'll believe me, but we would have told you if we'd known."

Despite himself, Dean did, remembering Pete's face the night before.

She cleared her throat. "Tildy and I went back to Lily's house last night and she was gone. You expected that, didn't you?" It almost wasn't a question but Dean nodded. "She won't be back, will she?" He shook his head. "Did you…? Well, never mind."

Dean studied her face. "No, I didn't. Would you blame me if I had?"

She stared at him, then at Sam, and her face saddened. "No, baby." Anne shook her head. "I wouldn't."

He accepted that with a neutral look.

Anne took a step closer to him and held out an envelope. "We found this in one of Lily's drawers. I guess she didn't believe in banks or something. I don't know how much is in there, but we figured no one would miss it now and you two deserved it. It won't pay for what you two went through the last month, but maybe it'll at least cover the hospital."

Dean hesitated, took the envelope, and looked inside. The first bill in the stack was a hundred. He flinched, not wanting her money, not liking the feeling of being bought off, and keenly aware it would never be enough.

"Take it, please," she said quietly. "Use it for something good. Take it for Sam."

He glanced at his brother, sleeping obliviously through the weighing of his pain. Dean finally nodded. He hadn't known how he would pay for the hospital, and it seemed only fair Lilith help with at least some of the damage she'd wrought. But whatever was left over of her blood money would end up with the first homeless guy Dean came across. He closed the envelope and slipped it inside his jacket.

Anne smiled at him. "Thank you. Take care of yourselves." She turned back to the door.

"Anne." He spoke without thinking, and cast around for something to say to her as she looked back at him. Dean finally tipped his head. "Thanks." He wouldn't be sending her a Christmas card, but they didn't have to part in hostility. Not with Sam sleeping safely beside him.

Her smile deepened before she walked out.

Dean stared after her, and abruptly shook his head. "Man, why do you get all the hot college girls and I get the middle-aged waitresses, huh?" he asked Sam. And those were just the ones who didn't give Sam maternal smiles and look at Dean as if he were about to seduce their daughter. "It's not fair."

Sam slept on.

Dean heaved an aggrieved sigh and went back to the window. But his hand crept back into his jacket and fingered the envelope thoughtfully.

00000

A groan warned him Sam was waking up again, and Dean looked up from the hunting magazine one of the interns had brought him—deer hunting, but some of the same techniques applied—and dropped his feet from the edge of Sam's bed. He leaned forward, watching with some amusement as his baby brother's face contorted with the effort to shake off sleep. And drugs. Dean's smile faded.

It picked up again as Sam opened his eyes and, after a moment of confusion, squinted at him.

"Morning," Dean said pleasantly.

"Yeah, I can see."

But he couldn't seem to, still squinting, and realization struck belatedly. Dean jumped up and turned the light off with a sheepish shrug. "Everything's probably gonna be a little bright for a while after being underground so long."

"Probably," Sam conceded with a sigh, trying to shift on the bed, but a cast dragged one arm, an IV board the other. He looked up at Dean with a frown. "Lily?"

"Lilith, actually. Well, not the Lilith. Probably."

Sam's eyebrows rose. "Lilith? I thought she was a myth." His voice sounded tired and raw.

"Yeah, well, wouldn't be the first time we turned out to be wrong about something like that." Dean rubbed his palms idly together, watching his brother as memory crept back.

Sam coughed, dropping his head back against the pillow with a grimace. "Please tell me I didn't dream you saying she was dead."

"She's dead," Dean promised. "You took care of her, actually."

"Me?" Sam looked surprised. "I remember…getting free, and she was coming, but…" He shook his head. "I don't remember much after that."

"That's probably not a bad thing, Sam," Dean said, quiet. He could see the haunted look lingering in his brother's eyes, and he'd coax out more of what had happened in the cavern as time went on. But that could wait until Sam was stronger.

Sam yawned, coughed, blinked at him again. "What day is it?"

"June…second." Dean had to think a minute. His count had ended once they'd reached the hospital.

Sam smiled painfully. "I didn't miss my birthday."
Dean raised an eyebrow at him. "That's in July, bro."

"It felt long enough." It wasn't an admission really meant for Dean and so he pretended he hadn't heard it.

Sam tried to take a deep breath, hit a wall of hurting ribs and congested lungs, and tapered off into a weak cough and a groan. Dean leaned forward with an empathetic wince. "Can I get you something?"

"How about a new body?"

"Any kind in particular?"

"Funny." But it had coaxed a small smile out of Sam. "I missed Memorial Day."

"Yeah, it was a real nice parade, shame you weren't there," Dean said dryly. "Why don't you get some more sleep, then I'll see about breaking you out of here."

Sam's mouth curled. "Right, before they figure out we can't pay for any of this."

"Actually, it's taken care of."

He frowned at Dean. "How?"

"I'll explain later." Dean took a breath. "Think you can sleep, or you want me to find that pretty nurse for you?"

"Are we going back to the town, uh, Derry's…something?"

"Derry's Mill. Just long enough to pick up our stuff," Dean said brusquely. "You gonna answer my question or not?"

"You're not telling me something."

Dean snorted. "I'm not telling you a lot of things." He gave Sam a level look. "Trust me, Sam, it'll keep."

Sam clearly didn't like it but he accepted it, looking too tired to argue, anyway. His eyes were heavy but he kept watching Dean. Dean finally made a face and relocated to the edge of Sam's bed, his hand on Sam's wrist. He didn't flinch away this time.

"Go back to sleep, Sam. I've got watch."

"June," Sam murmured. "You kept looking."

Dean's thumb traced a healing scar on the inside of his brother's wrist. "Hey, you were the one who said people don't just disappear, other people just stop looking for them."

"I never said that."

He pulled his head back. "Dude, you so did."

Sam opened his eyes to glare at him. "No, I didn't. That doesn't even make sense, Dean—what about Sophie Carlton, or any of the Woman in White's victims, or even the people the wendigo ate. They're never finding them again."

Dean stared back at him, nonplussed. "So you're saying I shouldn't've kept looking for you?"

"No, I'm saying…I'm glad you did."

Mollified and feeling more than a little sappy, Dean settled down again. "Yeah, well, no other jobs were coming along so I didn't have anything better to do."

Sam laughed softly. "Right."

"You gonna go to sleep now?"

"Do I have a choice?" He was yawning again.

Dean smiled. "Doesn't look like it."

"Smartass." But he was already drifting off, curling fractionally toward his brother. They had always pulled toward each other, like magnets. It had worn Dean out, those two years of fighting the pull. He'd thought at first Sam hadn't felt the same absence, but now he wasn't so sure. In a way, they'd always kept looking for each other, and, even after Sam got that white-picket fence and 2.4 kids, they probably still would.

Dean stretched to reach the magazine and spread it across his lap, paging idly with one hand, leaving the other on Sam's wrist. Letting Sam know he was there, and reminding himself of the reverse. Counting heartbeats instead of days.

Always looking.

The End

A/n: This story was written before we knew Sam's birthday was May 2.