Same beginning, two stories. Companion fic to Time Takes Its Troll.

A Bird in the Hand
K Hanna Korossy

It was about three in the afternoon, or at least it had been in the time zone Sam had last reset his watch in. Dean was in the gas station office paying for the fill-up. Sam idly stretched cricks out of his neck, turned away from the side window to look straight ahead, and froze.

The pumpkin-orange bird that sat on the Impala was like no natural creature he'd ever seen, and pretty much a dead giveaway something was wrong.

Sam blinked at it, and the bird blinked back.

The driver's side door opened, and Dean slid inside. "There's a motel about fifty miles down the road—we'll stop there and you can get some rest, stretch out that beanpole body of yours."

Sam had broken his gaze from the bird to stare at his brother. "What?"

Dean frowned at him, reaching for his forehead. "Is your temp going up again? You have to drink more water, Sammy."

He shook his head, everything from his sinuses up feeling like one solid mass of lead. "No, it's—" Sam pointed at the hood of the Impala. The hood that now stood empty.

"It's…" Dean prompted. "The car? The station? Can I have another vowel here, Vanna?"

Sam furrowed his brow in puzzlement but shook his head. "Never mind. Just thought I saw something."

"Uh-huh," Dean said, unconvinced. His hand felt cool on Sam's skin, and Sam closed his eyes involuntarily. "Your fever's worse. I'll get you some Tylenol."

Sam leaned his temple against the sun-warmed window and stared tiredly at the empty Impala hood. He hated being sick. He saw enough weird things without adding delirium to the mix.

But he could have sworn…

Dean folded a pair of capsules into Sam's hand, then nudged him with a sweating bottle. He must have bought it in the gas station, because Sam's bottle of water was lukewarm, and he clasped it gratefully even as he shivered from the cold. Dean's response was to flick the heater even higher, although it was already warm outside and Dean's hair and the collar of his shirt were soaked with sweat.

"I'm okay," Sam said wearily as he washed the pills down with the Gatorade. He rested the bottle against his thigh and leaned against the door once more, giving the bare hood a final glance before letting his eyes sink shut.

"Yeah, sure you are." Dean's voice was so unexpectedly gentle, Sam almost looked over at him, but it was just too much effort. "Why don't you get some sleep on the way?"

He didn't bother answering, already obeying. The quiet strains of Guns 'n Roses—only the early stuff, dude—from the radio was the last thing he was aware of before he went under, and dreamed about rainbow-hued birds.

00000

The rattle-purr of the engine dying penetrated even his woolly head, and Sam's neck twisted as he woke. His throat felt dry and unused, and he coughed to clear it. "We here?"

Dean was gazing at the ramshackle row of rooms with distaste, but he nodded. "'Fraid so. Unless you want to keep going?" A glance over at Sam offered him the choice.

He shook his head. "As long as it's got beds, I'm not picky."

Dean sighed. "I'll go get us a room. You stay here and hold up that door for me."

"Your concern's touching," Sam groused back, but he smiled when Dean patted his leg before getting out.

He was back soon enough and opening Sam's door for him. He drew the line at Dean carrying his bag, even though the duffel felt like it weighed twice as much as usual. Sam didn't complain when Dean's hand rested on the small of his back, though, shepherding him inside probably without even realizing it. Sometimes being looked after chafed, but other times it just felt like the love it was.

Dean dropped his hand to wrestle with the old lock, and Sam stood waiting for him, idly glancing around the empty lot.

On the trashbin at the nearest end, a bright-orange bird sat watching Sam. When their eyes met, the beak opened in a chilling grin to reveal a double row of sharp teeth.

Sam froze, then reached back clumsily for his brother. His fingers encountered only air, and he glanced away to see Dean had just gotten the door open and was now struggling to get the key out of the lock. Sam grabbed at him, hissing urgently, "Dean, I think I need to—"

"Just a sec, Sam." Dean finally twisted the key loose. "Okay, what now?"

Sam glanced over his shoulder, saw the bird giving him the gimlet eye. He swallowed. "I just…I need to lie down, man."

Dean's demeanor instantly changed, all impatience vanishing. "Yeah, sure." He took Sam's arm in one hand, relieved him of his duffel with the other. "C'mon."

Sam reluctantly turned away from the parking lot. "You, uh, don't see anything out there, do you?"

Dean paused, giving first him, then the outdoors a long look. "Like what?"

Sam winced. "Never mind, forget it."

Dean squeezed his arm and urged him forward into the room. "Dude, you've got a fever. Your brain's gotta be a little fried right now—don't worry about it if things look messed up, all right? It'll fix itself when you feel better."

There was relief in that logic, and in the way Dean's concerned eyes watched him. He would keep Sam grounded no matter what his twisted mind played out. Sam nodded, exhaling low and long, coughing at the end.

"Shower or bed?" Dean asked.

"Bed," Sam murmured, and closed his eyes until his knees bumped the mattress. He wrestled a moment with his jacket, succeeding only in tangling his arms in it. He couldn't seem to mind much when Dean pulled it and his sneakers off and tipped him over, bundling first his own, then Dean's blankets around him. It made the fever chills bearable and his mind syrup-slow.

Sam dully watched Dean get him a cool compress for his forehead and a glass of water for the nightstand, then move around the room. He unpacked a few things, set up wards, adjusted the blinds to make the room dimmer. During one pass by the beds, he stopped to rest the back of his hand against Sam's cheek, checking his temperature.

Sam was asleep before Dean even pulled his hand away, comforted more than he could or would have said by the simple act of caring.

00000

It took him a minute to focus his eyes and clear his head enough to realize what he was seeing.

"Dean!" Sam shot up in bed, eyes wide as he stared at the window. At the two orange birds that flashed horrible teeth and malicious gazes at him.

Across the room, Dean nearly fell out of the chair he'd been leaning back in. "Geez, Sam! What?" He was at Sam's bedside in three strides, perching on the edge of his own mattress to lean into Sam's space and grab his wrist. "You okay?"

Sam was blinking rapidly, trying to get the afterimage of those evil feathered faces out of his head. Birds. He was scared of birds. Birds that didn't even exist. He took a deep breath. "I'm good, I'm okay."

"Yeah? You don't look it. Nightmare?"

Sam glanced at the window again, and flinched. The two birds had been joined by a third. He closed his eyes and turned away.

"Hey. Sammy. It's just a fever, all right?" Dean soothed. "You sleep some more, you take the pills, everything's gonna be fine. Don't worry about it all making sense."

Sam nodded listlessly, avoiding the window. He saw Dean turn to look behind him in puzzlement, but from the lack of reaction, Sam guessed he didn't see any birds there. Terrific. What part of his psyche did carrot-colored carnivorous birds of doom come from?

Probably the same part that sicced prophetic dreams on him, and he sighed.

Dean's cool fingers circled the back of his neck. "Lie down. I'll get you some soup."

He obeyed, resting his swimming head on the pillow and listening to Dean fix food. And ignoring the beaked shadows on the wall across from the window.

00000

Orange shadows haunted his dreams.

He'd seen far worse than freaky birds with canine teeth, but the rustling shapes and soft scritch of claws sent real dread through him. The worst part was Dean telling him it was all in his head, even as a pair of birds dove at him from behind, claws and beaks and teeth poised to tear…

"Dean," he gasped into his pillow, groaning at the weight of his head.

"Easy, Sammy," his brother soothed from seemingly far away, although Sam could have sworn he felt a hand on his brow. "It'll get better soon."

"No," he whispered, opening his eyes and trying to find Dean. "No. Danger. Behind you."

Dean was fuzzy, but Sam could see him turn his head. "Nothing behind me, see? We're safe. I've got watch, all right?"

Orange flickered in his vision like flame. Sam's eyes slid to the side, winced shut at the sight of bright feathers fanned against a dark sky.

"I won't let anything get you, I promise." Cool water on his face, on his parched lips. "Go back to sleep, Sammy."

He wanted to say it wasn't him he was worried about, that Dean needed to watch the windows, that there were more coming, but the words drifted away before he could grab hold of them. Besides, they weren't real, right? Just orange fever dreams.

He didn't even like orange.

00000

The next time he woke up and knew where he was, it was a day later and Dean looked tired but relieved. He proceeded to crawl into his own bed and keep Sam company in slumber.

Sam didn't look at the windows while his brother slept.

They'd hunted sick or half-healed before; it was almost their norm. But two more days passed with Sam unable to stay on his feet for longer than five minutes without wearing out, and Dean had finally declared them on vacation. As far as Sam could tell, that meant time to wash the car, inventory the trunk, and clean the weapons. As long as it kept Dean from getting cabin fever, however, Sam was all for it.

He, in turn, mostly slept, watching TV or playing cribbage with Dean whenever he felt a little better. And took without argument every pill, syrup, and cup of soup Dean pushed on him.

But still the birds watched him from the window with sharp eyes and wicked grins. Sam finally asked his brother to pull the blinds completely and ignored the occasional soft-feathered flutter outside.

The motel really was dilapidated, however, the shower disgusting, the beds lumpy and smelling of mold. If Sam had been a little more aware and less faint, they never would have stayed there as long as they had. At the first sign he was up for it, therefore, Dean had them packed and ready to go, just until we find another place, Sammy, then you can crash again. Sam smiled and shook his head in fondness of big brothers who worried too much. A few days of rest had helped a lot, and he was just as ready to get out of there as Dean was.

Or at least so he thought, until he stepped outside and saw the birds.

There were a half-dozen now, ranging from cantaloupe to a deep red-orange. They were lined up on the trash bin like they'd just been waiting for Sam. He stared at them, appalled, and, as one, their beaks rose in sharp, nasty smiles.

"Dean," Sam murmured. "I don't think… I think I need to…"

Dean glanced at him, then did a double-take and spit out a curse. It was déjà vu to three days before as he grabbed for Sam, caught between exasperation and worry.

Then switching suddenly to astonishment.

It took Sam a moment to realize Dean wasn't looking at him, but rather past him to something in the parking lot. And Sam had an incredulous, relieved feeling he knew what it was.

"You see them, too?"

"Tweety's demonic cousins? Oh, yeah."

"Thank God," Sam murmured fervently, winning him an odd look from his brother.

"This is what you've been seeing?"

He glanced back, flinched. "Not six of them, but yeah."

"Next time," Dean growled, "say something." And he dove for the weapons bag.

Even tired and a little off his game, Sam fell back on instincts and lunged the other way, catching the handgun Dean tossed him. The birds were already attacking.

Dean's shots plucked two of them from the air; Sam's, one. He turned to find teeth inches from his face, too close to shoot, and Sam struck out at it with all his weight, sending the creature flying in a puff of feathers. He shot it before it managed to regroup, then clipped another that was sneaking up on Dean. His brother had just finished dispatching his own attacker, then finished off the one Sam had winged, literally.

And then it was over, the two of them catching their breath in the midst of avian carnage.

"You okay?" That was Dean, assessing him thoughtfully.

Sam nodded, still finding his voice.

"Gunshots are gonna attract cops soon."

"We should probably burn the bodies," Sam offered halfheartedly. They both winced at the thought.

"Let's just go," Dean counter-offered, and it took no coaxing for Sam to agree. They tossed their bags into the back of the car and sped away, leaving a battlefield of salmon feathers in their wake.

Hunts didn't usually sneak up on them like that. It took some time before Dean finally settled back in the seat and shot Sam a sideways glance.

"Hallucinations, huh?"

Sam's cheek twitched. "I had a fever. It was an orange bird with teeth. And you never saw it."

Dean was clearly trying hard not to smile. "Dude, you probably weren't even that sick."

"Right. I was just running a temperature so I could have a few days off."

Dean did grin this time. "You could have just asked."

Sam slouched deeper in his seat. "I am so remembering this when it's your turn to get sick."

"Whatever. Just tell me when you see something, even if it sounds completely lame. I need to know."

That last was said with utter seriousness, and Sam's grudge eased. Hallucinations or not, he'd had a lousy last few days and Dean had made it all a lot better. He owed his brother far more than just some honesty.

Sam slid down a little more until he could rest his head comfortably on the seat back, and let the roar of the engine lull him. Dean was humming something, and the vibration of the car provided backup. Sam dozed with his eyes half-open.

Was that a flash of pink?

He opened his eyes all the way, willing himself to rouse. Blinking to clear his vision.

Definitely pink. And…a trunk?

Sam cleared his throat, shifting his gaze to his brother.

"Uh, Dean…?"

The End