Wanted

K Hanna Korossy

"Come out, come out, wherever you are."

The softly lethal lilt of Dean's voice had Sam smiling into the darkness. Hunts with their dad had been all business, military and survival exercises in death. Hunting with Dean was a game, serious and professional when necessary, otherwise sarcastic and funny and sometimes even gleeful. Much like Dean himself, actually. Sam had thought when they were teens that Dean lightened up the jobs for his sake, to ease his hatred and resentment for the hunt, and it, in turn, had made him resent Dean. But maturity and perspective had shown him it was just the way Dean was. For all the bad times and darkness and dead-ends of their life, Dean loved what he did.

Or at least he had, until a rawhead hunt-gone-wrong had led them to Nebraska and questions of life and death neither of them had been prepared to face.

It had taken a long time, and Sam nearly dying twice, before Dean had finally been able to find answers enough for them both to move on. But the light had finally come back into his eyes, the certainty—and joyful sarcasm—into his voice, and even if Sam would never understand his brother's pleasure in the hunt, he was so grateful to see it.

"Are you sure these things hunt at night?" he asked, sotto voce.

It was probably pointless, as Dean wasn't keeping his voice down. He wanted to be heard. "Yep, that's when all the sightings have been."

"And these sightings were sure this wasn't just some kind of wild animal?"

Dean gave him an exasperated glance in the thin moonlight. "Dude, we've been over this. There aren't supposed to be any wild animals around here, and definitely not with red eyes."

Okay, so that detail had caught Sam's attention, too. He remained a little tired and slow after recent events, too—still mortal instead of being back to superhero levels like his brother, Dean had teased with a grin—but the job had sounded important and doable. They didn't even have to track this one far: they were in a town park, albeit a wild and untended one. Probably home to a small deer population, maybe a few raccoons and opossums, but there shouldn't have been anything there with the sharp teeth and speed that had been described. Or red eyes.

Like the ones peering from the foliage in front of them.

"Dean…" Sam murmured.

"What the—?"

And then they were under attack.

If pressed, Sam would have said they were something like wolverines, compact but vicious. But their eyes glowed hellfire red and there was an evil that clung to them like a dark aura. Sam had felt it enough to recognize it, and knew Dean would, too. Definitely not some stray wild animals; these were their kind of prey.

Shotguns were out of the question in the middle of town, so they'd opted for silent weapons: Sam held his curved axe and a homemade flamethrower, while Dean gripped his knife and a silenced gun. The dozen or so creatures still outnumbered them, but they were on the small side and disorganized, and Sam set his stance with confidence even as he and Dean were swarmed.

Their blood was dark and smoked on Sam's blade. It was all he had time to note as he swung and sliced, separating heads from two bodies before the creatures even realized it. Next to him came the soft pop of the gun, and a grunt as Dean stabbed and slashed. Two more down. He moved slightly ahead of Sam, taking the brunt of the attack as he'd warned Sam he would, the one condition of their returning to the hunt.

But there was plenty to go around, and they kept working, puffs of exertion and the soft growling of the creatures the only sounds in the clearing.

"Sam?"

He couldn't spare a look over his shoulder; his current prey was circling him warily. Sam dispatched another that tried to sneak past it, then stared hard again into the waiting red eyes. "What?"

"You think if we tossed one off a cliff, the rest would follow?"

Sam's mouth curved up even as his eyes never budged. "Those are lemmings, Dean." He knew when a question's real purpose was so Dean could hear his voice and make sure he was okay.

"Yeah, so?" That didn't mean they couldn't play.

"So, I don't think it would be that easy."

A sigh. "Yeah, probably not."

Sam's stalker suddenly lunged at him, and he sidestepped it neatly and brought the blade down, severing spinal cord along with muscle and flesh. The creature dropped. Sam looked up, already seeking the next one, but it was over. Dean was barely out of breath a few feet away as he also surveyed the carnage. "Well, that was easy," Sam said.

Dean eyed him. "Blessed blade, right?" He pointed at Sam's axe. Sam nodded. "That's why. Mine only slowed them down—took the consecrated rounds to kill them." He hefted the knife with a grimace, and tucked the gun away.

"So, not a job for the friendly neighborhood—"

A final animal suddenly leapt out of the bushes. Dean reached for his gun while Sam stepped back, startled. It was just enough time for the fetid thing to latch on to Dean's leg just above the ankle. Even as Dean snarled with pain, Sam recovered and swung the axe. The head fell away from both the body and Dean's leg. Dean swore, kicking the carcass away.

Sam flinched, starting to bend down to get a look at the damage. "How bad did it get you?"

But Dean pulled him back up with one arm, shaking his head. "It's fine—I'll clean it up back at the room."

"You sure?" Sam looked at him hard. "We should tie it off at least."

"It's barely bleeding—seriously, Sam, quit fussing. You sound like an old woman."

"Or a guy who almost lost his brother a few weeks ago," Sam shot back, oddly irritated.

He expected an equally annoyed response, not the sudden interest in the bushes behind him. "I'm fine, Sam," Dean finally said with muted tones.

Sam exhaled. "I know you are. I just…"

"Yeah, well, can you 'just' back at the room? Forget burning the things—I'm hungry, and Simpsons starts in ten minutes."

Sam couldn't help smiling as he reached for Dean's arm, playing crutch as they started limping back to the car. With no one around to see them and the recent scare, Dean let him help, even leaned on him a little. "Simpsons, huh? At least your priorities are in order."

"Play your cards right, Sammy, and I'll even let you look at my leg."

"I'm sorry, did you just say you wanted to go to the hospital?"

Thank God for long arms, otherwise he could never have dodged the swat without letting Dean go.

00000

But Dean's appetite had fled by the time they got back to the room and Sam had cleaned his shin.

The wound wasn't too bad, Dean had been right, just a set of puncture wounds that were only thinly oozing blood. Sam washed and disinfected the bite, spread it with antibiotic ointment, and wrapped it in gauze, helping Dean limp from the bathroom to the bed. But then his brother had begged fatigue and curled up on top of the covers and gone to sleep. Sam stayed up a few more hours reading and doing research. The wolverine things weren't turning up anywhere, but that wasn't unusual; half the stuff they hunted they'd never heard of before. Sam finally checked Dean for fever, covered him with the top blanket off his own bed, and turned in.

The sound of restless movement woke him some time later. Sam glanced at the clock—2:33—then the other bed, frowning at the sight. Dean had apparently decided to turn himself into a mummy during the night, wound in blankets so tightly, it was a wonder he could breathe.

Sam rolled out of bed and stepped across the space between them to sink onto the edge of his brother's mattress. "Dean?" It wasn't a good idea to reach for the exposed neck of a sleeping hunter, so Sam let his fingers settle on one wrist. He frowned at the fast pulse, but even more so the cool skin. No fever. If anything, Dean was colder than he should have been. But there was a sheen of sweat on his face, and he still hadn't woken to Sam's quiet call.

"Dean," he said more insistently, and grabbed handfuls of bedding to start freeing his bound brother.

Dean's eyes snapped open, wild in the dim light.

"Hey, easy," Sam soothed. "It's me. Just let me get you loose…" He tugged and twisted, freeing first the blanket, then the sheet.

Dean pushed them away. "What's wrong?"

"I think you're sick," Sam answered, although he wasn't sure. Clammy skin was usually a sign of shock, but there was no reason for that here. He slid down to Dean's leg, and peeled up the taped gauze. The wound didn't look any redder or more swollen than it had before. So, probably not infection. But the dark eyes that watched him weren't quite right, either. Sam moved back up to Dean's hip and met his gaze. "How do you feel?"

"It's the middle of the night, Sam. How do you think I feel? I'm tired."

The sarcasm reassured him. Now that sounded like the Dean he knew, and there was no pain or stress in his voice, just sleepiness and exasperation. He'd probably just gotten tangled in the covers and overheated. Sam pulled the straightened bedding up to his chest, letting his fingers linger over Dean's heart.

"Still beating," Dean said quietly.

Sam was grateful for the dark to hide the self-conscious blush that rose to his face. He pulled his hand back. "Yeah, I kinda guessed that from the talking and moving."

"So, moment over? Can I go back to sleep now, or was there something else you wanted to see?"

The accompanying too-bright grin had Sam muttering a curse as he pushed away from the bed. "Goodnight, Dean."

"Morning now, actually, but whatever," his brother answered drowsily.

Sam shook his head as he climbed back into bed. He listened to Dean's breathing lengthen and deepen, knowing the exact moment sleep took hold. Then he lay there and watched the slow rise and fall of his brother's chest.

It took him a while to go back to sleep.

00000

He woke early, drifting in half-sleep and the thin light of dawn. Sam cracked one eye open to check on Dean, and found his brother turned away and apparently still asleep, so he lay back and let himself doze a little longer.

That was when he heard the pause-gasp breathing coming from the other bed.

"Sam." Dean's voice was low and raspy, but Sam was already scrambling out of bed. He skirted the mattress, and found Dean looking much like he had the night before, or at two-thirty in the morning: slightly pale, perspiring, a little bruised looking. But his hand was fisted in the sheet, his body tight, and Sam saw why when a tremor ran through him. Dean's jaw tightened until it passed, then heated eyes locked on Sam's. "I think I need a hospital," he whispered.

Those were some of the most frightening words Dean could utter. "Oh, God," Sam murmured, and jolted forward, hand skimming Dean's damp hair, down his jaw line to where his heartbeat hammered too fast. His skin was warm this time, just skating the edge of feverishness. Nothing too ominous, except for the obvious pain Dean was riding, and if he was asking for professional medical help…

But this was why Sam trusted his brother's self-assessment other times. Dean, for all his stubborn pride and stoicism, was a realist and knew when something was serious. Apparently, it had just gotten serious.

Sam started bundling the blanket around him, wincing as even the jostling seemed to hurt Dean. If his teeth clenched any tighter, enamel would start to crack, and his fingers were white skin and bone. "What's wrong?" Sam asked as his hands moved.

Dean was trying to help but he didn't seem to have the strength for it, and rebellious frustration glittered in the hazel eyes. "Dunno. Feels wrong. Hurts inside." His breath caught as Sam lifted him up so he could snug the blanket around Dean's shoulders.

"You should've woken me up," Sam chided gently. Dean was even having trouble holding his head up, and it scared Sam more than he could say that things had gotten bad so quickly. He leaned Dean matter-of-factly against him even as Sam ducked down to stuff his feet into his boots.

"Why, hold my hand?" Funny how snideness could be a comfort. But all too soon it was replaced again by the foreign, breathless version of his brother. "Didn't get bad 'til not long 'go."

"Everything's gonna be all right," Sam promised, trying not to remember the last time he'd promised that and how he hadn't exactly delivered. "We'll get you to the hospital and they'll figure it out. Can you walk?"

"Not carrying me," Dean said stubbornly.

Sam smiled a little and eased him to his feet, not reacting to the tiny sounds of pain that managed to squeeze past Dean's tight controls. He figured carrying was in the semantics: Dean was on his feet and shuffling, but Sam was doing most of the lifting and moving. He stopped by the door to grab his wallet and keys, then led Dean outside, stumbling and clumsy under his weight and shifting balance. Thank God the Impala was parked close. Even with their slow progress, Sam was soon easing his brother into the passenger seat, making sure he was well-wrapped against the morning chill before shutting the door after him.

Sam closed his eyes, just for a second, as he rounded the back bumper of the car. It was too soon, too similar: a broken Dean cracking jokes and avoiding Sam's eyes as he lay dying. Sam didn't think he could bear that again. Not just losing Dean, but watching him fade, struggling to protect Sam from how bad it was. How could he be strong enough for two again when he still felt too weak for one?

But there was no choice, no options here, and waiting was just prolonging Dean's suffering. Sam picked up speed as he swung around to the other side of the car, then into the driver's seat. "Hold on," he murmured. "We'll be there soon."

"Drive carefully." The words were careful, too, like it took effort to keep them steady, but Sam smiled.

"Afraid I'll hurt the car or us?"

"Car, stupid."

Sam laughed at that, then ignored his brother and put pedal to the metal.

Because for all his denial and can'ts, something traitorous inside him whispered they were running out of time.

00000

The lack of bleeding or unconsciousness relegated them to near the bottom of the ER triage. Sam sat in helpless frustration in the plastic waiting room seat, Dean slumped beside him. Not against him, because they were in public now and Dean had his pride, but near enough that Sam could feel his rising temperature and weakness.

"Okay, so, assuming you didn't just happen to get sick, this is probably connected with those things we hunted last night, right?" Sam knew he sounded a little manic and he had to work to keep his voice down, but distraction was distraction.

"Mmm." That was a yes.

"I was looking for any information about them online for a while last night when I was trying to figure out how to write them up, but I couldn't find anything. I'll have to do some research on the area, figure out if they're something local." If it was the creature's bite affecting Dean somehow, the answer might lie in the library, not the hospital, in which case Sam could help his brother, after all.

Dean didn't answer, but he was still watching with those dull-bright eyes and listening.

"All right." Sam worked his hands together, pulled them stiffly apart. "I'm going to call whoever's in the area, too, see if anyone else has heard anything. Anson lives somewhere around here, doesn't he?"

Dean blinked heavily. "Few hours north." The words were slurred but coherent.

Sam nodded. "Okay. He'll know who else I can try."

Dean blinked again, and started to tip forward.

Sam grabbed him, one arm across his chest, the other cupping his chin. "Dean," he muttered helplessly, and tilted his brother's body back against him.

Screw Dean's pride; he needed Sam there. He was heavy against Sam's ribs and shoulder, pulse and breath an erratic beat against his little brother's skin. This was so wrong, and Sam's fear jumped into panic. He clasped a hand around the trembling shoulders and looked up.

"I need help here!"

"Sammy." It was a murmur of sound. Trying to reassure him or stop him, but it did neither.

"Hold on, Dean," he whispered back, then reached out to grab the arm of a passing woman in blue scrubs. "Please. Something's really wrong with him."

She frowned at him, frowned more deeply at the sight of Dean, and bent over him.

Five minutes later, they were in a cubicle, Sam flattened to one side as they checked Dean's vitals, took blood, and started an IV. Dean seemed oblivious to the commotion, shaking occasionally under some internal onslaught, otherwise lying still or opening his eyes to give Sam a glazed look. Sam didn't even know if his brother saw him.

The flurry eventually died down. "We're moving your brother to a room," a male nurse told him, but before Sam could ask anything else, they were already on the way. Dean's shuddering had faded to occasional tremors, the flush in his cheeks not as bright, and he looked asleep. Sam slid a hand into the lax one and got no response to his squeeze.

The hospital room madehim start shaking.

It was stupid; he'd been in one twice since Dean had almost died, once nearly dying himself. And they'd had the same sterile look, the same disinfectant smell, the same bed with the railings that seemed made to isolate the person lying within. But the memories they evoked now that he was paying attention suddenly swamped him with déjà vu: Dean joking about daytime TV, threatening to haunt Sam if he didn't take care of the car and then if he didn't take care of himself, telling his only brother to leave him there to die. The place made Sam feel helpless and grieving and scared, and it was juststupid because Dean was already looking better and was notgoing to die. But try telling his mind that when it saw Dean in the bed surrounded by machines and immediately jumped back six weeks.

It was a long time before Dean stirred. Sam leaned forward, watching the groggy awakening closely.

Dean did seem more lucid and a little stronger as he stared, puzzled, at the ceiling, before his eyes slid down to Sam. And down deep, where only his brother knew where to look, Sam saw a flash of relief. It made him feel a little less stupid, anyway.

"Hey," he said quietly.

"Bad news, huh?" There wasn't much strength in his voice.

Sam flinched. "What?"

"You look like someone kicked your puppy. What did the doctor say?"

Sam shook his head. "He hasn't been in yet—I think they're still running tests on your blood. You're gonna be fine, Dean."

"Right." Dean sounded a little skeptical, but Sam didn't push it. He moved a little on the bed. "'S not as bad."

The burning in Sam's stomach cooled a little. "That's good. See? No wolverine's taking Dean Winchester down."

One eyebrow went up. "Wolverine?"

Sam grinned. "Had to call it something."

"How 'bout 'big nasty hairy things with a friggin' mouthful of teeth.'"

"Mine's shorter."

Dean snorted, winced in pain.

Sam's levity evaporated. "Really. How is it?"

"Really?" Dean gave him a sideways glance. "I'm sick of being in hospitals. We're goin' through insurance cards faster than credit cards—we're slipping, Sammy."

Sam sighed, hunched forward. "Maybe we have lost our edge. First you almost dying, then me—I don't know, man, it's like we've maxed out on our luck. Maybe we need to take it easy for a while, get back up to speed again." Let the fear wear off, because Sam was starting to forget what it was like not being haunted by worry on hunts and in his dreams and when Dean was out of his sight for too long.

"Yeah, maybe you're right." Sam's head snapped up. "What?" Dean grumbled. "I like vacations as much as the next guy."

"The next guy who hunts monsters and ghosts?" Sam asked with faint amusement.

"They'll still be there. Question is," he hesitated, "will you?"

"I'm wherever you are," Sam said firmly, and saw with a pang that relief again. He wondered if he could ever say that enough that Dean would really believe it.

"On the beach with a hot girl in a bikini?" Dean finally said with a tired grin.

"Yeah, okay, so maybe I'll be back in the room wherever you are."

Dean laughed silently, and winced again. When Sam lay a hand on his shoulder, it wasn't shrugged off.

There was a knock at the door, and a man Sam vaguely remembered from the ER walked in.

"Mr. Vai? We've got your test results back." He glanced at Sam, a question in his face.

"He's staying," Dean said, then clearly braced himself. "So, how long have I got?"

The doctor didn't smile. "Your brother said you were bitten by something. Do either of you remember anything about what the animal looked like? How it acted?"

Sam glanced over at his brother, saw the same wariness. "No," he answered for them both. "But Dean managed to, uh, stab it with his pocketknife. I might be able to find it." Or one of its dozen siblings.

"That could be helpful. Apparently, the creature had some sort of natural poison in its saliva, like nothing our lab has ever seen. We're treating the symptoms, but they're continuing to progress and…well, frankly, the news isn't good."

Dean's face was expressionless. Sam knew his wasn't so hard to read. "How long?" Dean whispered.

"Even with treatment, I'd say about three days before total organ failure. And we'll have to medicate you during at least during part of that time as the pain becomes worse."

For the second time in six weeks, Sam's world screeched to a halt.

The doctor kept talking. Something about doing more tests and keeping Dean comfortable and not losing hope. The words crashed over him like breakers, and, drowning, Sam looked over at his brother.

Dean was watching him, compassion the only thing in his eyes.

That was what finally broke him.

"Excuse me," Sam murmured, and stumbled to his feet and out the door, knocking the doctor half over in the process.

Sam stumbled, blind, down corridors, past a food cart, an old man in a bed, two nurses stations. He careened around a corner, almost tripping over a wheelchair, until he finally fell into a padded chair in an empty waiting room. Sam bent over in dry, nauseated misery and wept inside.

It wasn't fair. God, it wasn't right. Not Dean, not after Sam, or God, or Roy LeGrange had saved him. Not Dean.

Please, not Dean.

Sam rocked in place, gasping over tears that wouldn't come, and lost himself to grief.

00000

Dean looked asleep when Sam pushed the door open, feeling husked out and fifty years older. Then the hazel eyes cracked open, looking him over.

Sam didn't even try to pretend, just sank down in the chair he'd vacated and swallowed.

"You okay?" Dean murmured.

"No."

A beat. Dean sighed. "Yeah, I guess we saw this movie already."

The sound that squeezed out of Sam's chest sounded strangled. "Right. This is the part where you leave me the Impala and I tell you we're going to beat this thing."

"It's not exactly how the hero's supposed to go out."

"Dean," Sam pleaded softly. "Don't."

Dean sighed. "Sammy." The name was almost tender. "We played chicken with a reaper. It was only a matter of time before it came around to bite us."

"I don't believe that," Sam said woodenly. "We found a way last time. We can do it again."

A tired roll of the blond head against the pillow. "No. No dark arts this time, no healers, no trading lives. Promise me, Sam."

His eyes chose now to fill with tears. "I'm not promising to let you go."

"Dude, I'm not asking for a Kevorkian here. Just promise you won't do anything drastic. No reapers and black altars, Sammy." Dean's gaze bored into him with fervor. The intensity of the dying, Sam thought distantly.

"I promise."

Dean sagged, seeming to thin before his eyes. Like he'd hung on until he'd gained Sam's assurance. "Good. I wanna talk to you some more, just…'m gonna get some sleep first. Go find your wolverine."

"Dean—"

"I'll be here when you get back. Go, Sam."

He fumbled for Dean's hand and squeezed it, feeling the faint pressure back. Sam stood, disconcertingly disembodied as he headed for the door.

"Sam?"

He turned back. Dean was staying awake with effort.

"Watch your back."

Sam nodded and left.

Even with Queen playing, the car was as silent as an undisturbed grave.

00000

The carcass he lugged back to the hospital provided no answers, the doctor said apologetically, although animal services and two local university biology departments were salivating over it. Anson didn't have any information, nor did those he'd recommended. Research turned up a few vague references to similar creatures in the area, but besides lethal bites, nothing about a poison or antidote.

Strike three and you're out.

They were only finishing out day one but Dean was already mostly sleeping, face contorted with pain when he was awake. The talk he'd promised Sam had yet to materialize, and Sam wasn't sure he was relieved or afraid of that. He wasn't ready for final words yet.

But the options were getting few.

Twilight filtered in through the motel room blinds, lighting a few stray dust motes in the air. The black cover of the book Sam held seemed to absorb the light as he turned it over and over in his hands. Old paper crackled faintly under his fingers, tiny bits of broken edges littering the floor. It held the answer, the power to save Dean. One ritual and Sam would have his brother back, safe and whole and protected for the future.

The only cost possibly another's life, and his own soul.

The promise he'd made to Dean was meaningless. Nothing could keep Sam from doing all in his power to save his brother, not even Dean himself. But that didn't mean he didn't care what Dean thought. It had taken him a while to really forgive Sam for Nebraska, and they hadn't even known what they were trading for Dean's life there. To make that trade again with full knowledge would perhaps be more than Dean could ever forgive. Sam had no doubt it would appall him and be a crippling burden and probably tear them apart for good.

But he'd be alive.

Sam turned the book over, feeling the textured cover slide under his fingers.

Giving up his soul. That meant eternal separation from Dean. It meant Dean's horror and disgust. It meant becoming what they hunted.

It meant Dean would live.

But he couldn't pay that price, for either of their sake's.

Slowly, slowly Sam dug the lighter out of Dean's leather jacket and flicked it on. He stared at the flame a moment, then brought it over to caress one corner of the hardback binding. Dean hadn't even known he'd kept the book, buried in the bottom of his duffel where his brother wouldn't accidentally come across it. Kept just in case of something like this.

With a flaring smolder, the edge of the black book began to burn. The fire immediately turned a deep blue, the smoke thick and dark. Evil didn't go easily.

Last chance.

Sam stood and walked over to the metal trashcan in the kitchenette, and dropped the burning book inside. The flames, fed by the breeze as he walked, ate at the whole cover now.

Sam sank into a kitchen chair and numbly watched their only remaining option burn.

00000

Dean moaned in his sleep, and Sam had finally stopped looking down each time from where he sat perched at the head of the bed. He just tightened his grip a little on his brother's wrist. "Easy, Dean," Sam murmured, staring out the window at the grey dawn.

Day three. He'd been there the whole previous day, no other place he could be, on his laptop or phone whenever Dean wasn't awake, until all lines of research and inquiry were exhausted. Dean was only awake a few minutes at a time, between the poison that lapped at his body and the drugs that lapped at his mind, but Sam had wanted to be there for every second. Not that they said anything; their last conversation, some time around three that morning, had been about which of them made the best coffee. But that was only the spoken part. Underneath, Dean was trying to say good-bye, and Sam was trying to let him go.

"Sammy?" The voice surprised him, and Sam looked down, then slid around so Dean didn't have to crane to see him.

"I'm here."

Dean's voice was ravaged in a way his body wouldn't have time to be. "Get me outta here."

Sam grimaced. "Dean…"

There was surprising strength in his brother's gaze still, in the grasp of his cold fingers. "Don't wanna die in a hospital, Sam. Get me outta here."

Another flashback, to a hunched Dean in the motel room door. As far as last requests went, it was a doable one, and Sam couldn't find reason or will to argue it. "I'll be right back," he promised, and went to get a nurse.

In all, it was easier to convince them than he'd expected. People went home to die all the time, apparently, and it wasn't like there was much they could do for Dean at the hospital. Sam was given medication for "when it gets too bad," and he declined help to get Dean up and dressed. In the end, all he really did was wrap the leather jacket around Dean's shoulders and wheel him out to the Impala.

He was alternating between fever and clamminess, so Sam tucked the blankets around him for easy removal. Dean was only hazily aware during the move, but Sam occasionally caught glimmers of lucidity in the half-open eyes, and offered smiles as freely as he did support. He tipped Dean's head back against the seat, then said a polite good-bye to the nurse and slid inside the car.

And for a moment, things almost seemed right again.

Dean relaxed in the familiar atmosphere of his beloved car, and had nestled down into the seat. He looked almost comfortable, and Sam's inchoate question about where to go died unasked. The where wasn't important, just the how. Dean was already where he wanted to be. Sam turned the motor over and pulled out of the hospital parking lot, heading for the nearest interstate.

They were in Colorado, so they had their pick of beautiful scenery. It only took fifteen minutes of driving before Sam saw a promising looking scenic outlook and pulled off the road. He parked the Impala so it faced west and turned the motor off. At this rate, Dean might not be there to see the sunset, but if he was, it would be beautiful, nestled among the distant Rockies.

"We're here," he said quietly.

His voice roused Dean when the silent car hadn't, and his brother blinked, too drained to move much, just taking in the scenery around them. One corner of his mouth turned up. "No strip clubs?"

Sam snorted. "Ass."

"Yeah, but…good-looking one."

"Whatever."

They sat in silence. Dean didn't seem to be in much pain, but his breathing was shallower and less even than Sam liked. The little details kept marring the picture of normalcy he was straining for: Dean's glistening face, the sunken eyes, his fragile body language. Sam felt like he was dying, too, one broken piece at a time.

"I called Dad."

Dean made a noncommittal sound.

"He probably didn't get the message," Sam added, softer.

"Probably," Dean agreed gamely. Shifted slightly in his seat. "You don't have to…keep the car, Sammy."

He didn't even know if he could, if it would hurt too much. Driving it around those last few days had been like sacrilege. "I'm not gonna find trunk space like that in a compact," Sam quipped miserably.

"You won't need it. Go back to school. Be happy."

You always know what you want, and you go after it. Sam's eyes burned. "I don't think I remember how."

"You will." It was the voice of big-brotherly confidence, of spoken law. When Dean talked like that, it always made him believe.

Sam blinked back ever-present tears, and half-looked at Dean. His brother never let him say it, not normally, but now? "I love you," he whispered.

Dean's head shook minutely. "Girl," he murmured with fondness, and stretched to grip the back of Sam's neck with weak fingers. It was all the invitation Sam needed, sliding slowly down the seat until his head rested against Dean's thigh, Dean's hand on his forehead.

They probably should have been reversed, but Dean breathed easier upright and seemed comfortable where he was, and Sam didn't think he'd ever find the strength to move. They'd always followed their own rules, anyway.

Sam lay still, tuned to any change in his brother. It was probably the only way he heard the barely breathed, "Me, too."

He curled his hand around Dean's knee and silently cried himself out.

00000

The car was steamed and warm when Sam jerked awake. Memory returned faster than usual, lurking just behind sleep, and his eyes flew up to Dean's face.

His head was tilted against the window, blank and still, no discomfort visible. His hand was heavy and cool on Sam's head.

No. Sam keened softly, pushing himself up. He'd slept through—no! The tears were hot and loud and unrelenting this time as he knelt beside the still body. "No, Dean," he murmured brokenly.

Dean stirred at the sound.

Sam swallowed air and choked.

Dean didn't react a second time, but when Sam reached shakily for his wrist, he realized Dean's skin wasn't cold, just not fevered. And a tired pulse beat underneath.

"Oh, my God." Not a thank-you yet, because Sam couldn't quite believe it. But…maybe. "Dean," he said firmly. "Dean, wake up."

A hand moved, pawing weakly at the blanket as if to push it away. Dean's brow creased, then smoothed out again in sleep.

Sleep. Deep-breathing, painless, healing sleep.

There suddenly wasn't enough air in the car, or at least in Sam's lungs, and he turned away to shove the door open. He swung his legs out, dropped his elbows on his knees, his face into his hands, and concentrated on breathing. On Dean's breathing. On Dean's not-dead breathing.

He was alive and seemed to be better. Was that even possible?

Sam hauled himself back into the car, turned the engine over, and, ignoring the purple and gold rays of the setting sun, turned back toward the hospital and burned rubber.

00000

He should've been used to the word "miracle" by now.

The doctors were astonished when Sam brought Dean back still alive. His brother slept through all the tests and poking and prodding and eventual move back to a room much like the one they'd been in that morning. He was still asleep, exhausted from nearly dying, when the explanations started rolling in.

But only nearly. The poison was gone. Well, not gone so much as broken down, and yes, it happened sometimes if the patient could hang on long enough. No, there had been no reason to think it would happen this time; Dean's organs had been shutting down. The doctors had never seen anything quite like it. A miracle. Sam sat numbly through it all, trying to understand words he hadn't expected to hear.

And the source of that miracle slept on amidst the furor, oblivious.

Sam paced the room, never more than a few feet from the bed, struggling to make sense of it. He was disoriented and worn out, being yanked back and forth between two extremes. A harmless little bite. Dean dying. Dean recovering. It had all stopped making sense at Dean dying. Six weeks before.

Feeling a little crazed, Sam glanced at his watch. Still running. No reapers here. Just him and his miraculous brother.

Oh, God, he ran a hand through his hair, he was losing it.

"Gonna be okay…"

The thin whisper cut through the chaos of his thoughts like a sharp knife, and Sam whirled to look at the bed. Dean still looked wiped, eyes barely cracked, but they were open and saw him and Sam thought his chest would burst from the sudden tightness around his heart and lungs. He was back to the bed in one long stride, gathering up Dean's hand in a way his brother would never allow once he was a little more awake. "Yes," Sam said firmly. "It's going to be okay. You're gonna be okay, Dean. The poison's gone."

It took a few seconds for that to work through Dean's brain, but the reaction wasn't what Sam expected. The hazel eyes grew wide with something near fear. "What'd you do, Sammy?"

"What?" That one took him a second, but then Sam was shaking his head with vehemence. "No, man, it wasn't me, I swear. The doctors said the poison just broke down. You stubborn jerk, you outlasted it."

Dean was trying to level that hard big-brother stare at him that could cut right through any story Sam was telling him, but it was clearly hard for him to focus. "Promise?" he asked breathlessly.

"I promise," Sam nodded, "it wasn't me, Dean—this was all you."He'd been ready to let Dean die, and even now that hurt.

"Good. 'S good." Dean was falling back asleep. "Sammy…"

"I'm here."

"Don' forget."

"What?"

"Pancakes." Dean's half-lidded stare was as intent as if he were offering the secret to life. "Blueb'rry."

Sam laughed, feeling the darkness lift just a little. "All right. Soon as you get out of here, I'll get you as many pancakes as you want."

"Good boy." His fingers curled a little around Sam's, like an attempt at an approving pat, then he was unconscious again.

From death to pancakes. The highs and lows just kept getting further apart.

Sam sank into the chair by the edge of the bed, feeling disconnected from any reality besides the one sleeping and breathing and craving pancakes in front of him. He traced the outline of Dean's body under the sheet with his eyes, the illness not even long enough to melt much of the muscle mass. Dean looked like he could get out of bed and move on to the next hunt, and the following day he might do just that. It didn't make sense. How did you go from dying to living in hours and not even look any different? While Sam felt so…changed. Like a part of him had died instead of Dean.

He laid his head tentatively against Dean's chest, careful not to rest his full weight on his brother and wake him. Just close enough to hear his heart beat. Sam had spent the last six weeks getting Dean to believe Roy…God…had chosen him to live for a reason. That his life had been a gift, not some sort of uneven trade for Marshall's, or Layla's. With mixed success: Dean had accepted if not quite completely believed, and eventually lost that haunted, troubled look. He—they—had just been getting back to normal when a stupid fake-wolverine attack had nearly taken Dean again. Would have taken him except for some last-minute miracle Sam was still leery of. And he wondered if he'd really believed it all along, that Dean's life had been given back to him purely as a gift. What kind of a gift was this fragile, this temporary?

Sam's outstretched arm tightened around the curve of his brother's ribs, as if if he hung on hard enough, he could keep Dean safe. But it never worked that way, certainly not in their life. They risked death all the time, and life…life didn't come with a warranty.

A worn and familiar hand slid through his hair up to his forehead, where it pushed his bangs aside so the palm could rest against skin. It was such a jolt of déjà vu back to the car that Sam's throat tightened all over again.

Dean's fingers sifted through the strands. "Just for today," came the gravelly, tired voice above him, tinged with warning and understanding. Sam nodded against Dean's chest, feeling five again.

It still didn't make sense but…maybe he could just enjoy it for the moment, appreciate what he had no matter the whys or hows or how longs. Dean was already asleep again, his chest a gentle rise and fall under Sam's cheek, and Sam soon felt himself start to drift, too.

It was an awkward position, and his pillow was bony and wouldn't stay still. But it was the best sleep Sam had gotten in a long time.

00000

Sam glanced up as the door opened, flashing his brother a quick smile before returning his attention to the laptop. Not that it held anything useful, but he kept looking. Had been ever since he'd brought Dean home from the hospital four days before.

"Yeah, you smile, but you let me do all the work," Dean complained, kicking the door shut as he dropped bags and a cardboard drink holder onto the table opposite Sam.

"I asked you if you wanted me to go," Sam said innocently. "I don't know, I got the impression somehow you wanted to get out. Maybe it was the rant about the 'puke-colored walls.' Or the one about how the car was missing you. Or—"

"Yeah, yeah. You keep talking but you don't say anything. They teach you that at school?"

"I think I got it from your lessons on how to pick up women, actually."

Dean mock glared at him. "Tell me when you're gonna be funny so I can start listening again."

Sam grinned and poked through the bags Dean had brought. He sighed. "Remember when we used to eat food?"

"Remember when you didn't whine about everything?" Dean shot back, unperturbed, as he wrapped his mouth around a Whopper.

Sam's good humor ebbed. He did, actually. When Dean still had those deep circles under his eyes and Sam was counting every breath, making sure it wasn't the last. Facing the loss of his family, he hadn't whined, just fallen apart. Sometimes he still wasn't sure he'd been put back together.

Dean was watching him, not even trying to be subtle about it, which usually wasn't a good sign. Nor was the long-suffering sigh as he put his burger down. "Okay, spill it."

"Spill what?" Sam immediately asked.

"Whatever you've got bouncing around in that freaky head of yours. If you need to cry or hug or something, tell me so we can get it over with and move on."

Sam couldn't help the flutter of a smile at that. Trust Dean to offer comfort like it was medicine to be forced down. Still, the offer wasn't lightly made and Sam knew it. "I don't think you can help with this one, Dean," he said wistfully.

"Try me." All seriousness.

Sam stood up, suddenly needing the space, and turned away, rubbing at his neck. "I don't even know myself. I mean, man, I know I should be happy—grateful—but I just keep feeling…scared. Like it's just temporary."

"Okay, are there subtitles or something with this conversation? 'Cause you're not making a lot of sense here."

Sam chuffed a laugh. "Yeah, I know." Hung his head. "Dean," he said softly, his back still to his brother, "we just got two miracles in a row. How does that even happen? I mean, we went through all that and then you nearly die from a stupid animal bite? How does that make sense?"

"Three miracles," Dean corrected mildly. "And haven't you been the one telling me all this happened for a reason, that Roy chose me for a purpose?"

Sam looked back at him, honestly curious. "You believe that?"

"Geez, I don't know, Sam." Dean squirmed in his seat. "You keep saying it."

It was the first time it occurred to him his word could sometimes be law to his big brother, too.

"So let me get this straight," Dean continued, "you can accept a preacher with a reaper on a leash healing me in somebody else's place, but you're having trouble with me beating a poison that ran its course."

Sam shook his head. "No, I have trouble with you almost dying twice in two months."

"Welcome to the club," Dean muttered.

Sam stared at him a long moment, then flopped back into his vacated chair. "So that's it? It's a dangerous gig, sometimes we draw the short straw, deal with it and move on?"

Dean wasn't looking happy to have his own words thrown back at him. "What do you want me to say, Sam, I'm never gonna get hurt again?"

"Yes," he whispered.

Dean opened his mouth, closed it again. Rubbed at something stuck to the table with his thumbnail. "Okay," he finally bent his neck in acquiescence, "I won't get hurt again." He offered Sam one of his hustler grins.

Sam shook his head hopelessly.

Dean sighed and pushed away enough from the table so he could lean toward Sam with nothing between them. "Listen to me, Sam. I didn't die, okay? Call it whatever you want, a miracle, fate, God not being done with me, whatever. If you're looking for a guarantee, I don't have one, but… Roy picked me for a reason, the poison started breaking down for a reason. Something tells me we're not meant to pack it in yet, you know?"

Sam stared at him, feeling hot and cold and confused and like he'd glimpsed the way out all at once. "So…you believe that?" he asked hoarsely.

A small shrug and grin. "I will if you will." Dean sobered. "Seriously, man, what choice have we got? Either we accept that we got lucky—or Someone was looking out for us—or we let it get to us, shake us up, and then we're really gonna get ourselves killed." At Sam's flinch, he softened, one hand resting lightly on Sam's knee. It made him feel like he could breathe again. Dean's eyebrows rose, his head canting to make his point. "Your turn to have some faith, bro."

Sam stared at him, feeling the truth, the weight of his words in a way he hadn't even as he'd told Dean the same thing. Sometimes they had to believe for each other, like he had for Dean on the plane, like Dean had for him after Jess's death. He could at least do that much now, let Dean's convictions carry him a little while until he found his feet again. Sam dropped his head, then nodded.

Dean's hand gripped the back of his neck. "Okay?"

"Yeah." Maybe. Probably. If Dean, the original cynic, believed, Sam had no excuse, especially with his brother sitting there whole and healthy. Sam nodded again, feeling it a little more this time. "Okay."

His neck was patted approvingly. "Now eat your sandwich. All this touchy-feely crap makes me lose my appetite." Dean tore a big bite off his burger.

"Yeah," Sam said dryly, "I can see that." He peered into bags again, until he found and pulled out his own lunch. And was surprised to find a tuna sandwich instead of a grease-soaked burger. He opened his mouth to thank Dean and got a warning glare in return. Right. Talking about death and fear and loss was—grudgingly—allowed if he needed it, but a thank-you for a thoughtful purchase was going too far. Only Dean.

Thank you, God.

They ate in silence, Sam shuffling through emails while Dean flicked on the TV and shuffled through channels. It was an ease of company Sam had only found with one other person in his life, and never to the same extent, not with the secrets that had lain between him and Jess. "Miracle" wasn't a word he used lightly, but it applied. And in the moments he wasn't scared of losing it, he really was grateful.

"I've been thinking," Dean spoke up.

"With what?" Sam answered automatically. He opened an email, scanned its contents, and went on to the next one.

Dean flipped him off just as automatically. "Maybe we should take a break. Take it easy for a little while."

That drew Sam's attention. "Seriously?"

A deceptively careless shrug. "Yeah, why not? We don't have to be anywhere."

"Sure, sounds good." It wasn't like they were really looking for their dad anymore, was it? "Where do you want to go?" Sam opened another email and skimmed it.

"Thought we could start with Nebraska. Swing by and see how Layla and Roy are doing." Dean's eyes were glued to the TV, as if—Sam glanced over—Sanford & Son was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen.

Sam stared at the back of the dark blond head and felt everything inside him soften. Dean didn't have any more answers, any more certainty than he did, but he was trying, willing, wanting to believe. And that was more convincing than any argument. How could Sam do any less? "All right," he said quietly, and ducked back to the computer. He could feel Dean's gaze swing toward him, lingering a moment before, satisfied, it returned to the TV.

Sam smiled, kept reading.

And felt the smile freeze on his face.

"Everything okay?" came the deceptively casual question from across the table. The events of the last few weeks had fine-tuned them to each other more than ever.

Sam stared at the laptop, then up at Dean. He nodded, slowly at first, then more certainly. "Yeah. Yeah, it's fine. Just got a little behind on email."

Dean shook his head. "Don't know what you keep finding to talk about," he muttered, and went back to watching TV.

Sam read the few lines again, then deleted the note from one of his contacts and shut the laptop. He didn't need to keep it to remember what it said. "You wanna play some cards?" he asked Dean, and got an interested grunt in reply. As Sam rose to get the deck, the response remained a quiet echo in his mind.

"I know the critters you're talking about: small, mean, red eyes, razor teeth? Local lore lumps them with bunyips—never heard them called anything else. But you two better be careful if you go up against the little buggers—legend has it if one bites you, you've only got a day or two to live and nothing in the world can save you."

The End