See Chapter One for disclaimer, etc.
A/N: I want to thank all those who've sent encouraging comments on the first four parts and particularly for your positive reaction to Caitlin. I'm planning a few more stories in this series, so I'm glad you don't hate her!
Dean's condition showed no improvement, but it didn't degenerate either, which gave Caitlin and Sam a ray of hope.
As the hours wore on, Sam told Caitlin stories of hunts they'd been on, alone and with their father. Caitlin felt comfortable enough with him to open up, too, giving him a quick life history. She talked about the father she'd doted on and the mother she couldn't connect with. She told him a little of her job as a photographer with a Boston magazine and that she'd decided to leave and go freelance. She didn't explain why she'd left Boston – that was too long and complicated a story -- but she did tell him how she'd found out her aunt's secret when she was eighteen and that the Roadhouse seemed the obvious place to go while she worked out what to do next.
Around 3 p.m., Dean slipped into unconsciousness, and Caitlin didn't need to look at Sam to know what he was thinking. They'd reached the final phase. Either the fever would break over the next couple of hours, or Dean would die.
It was as simple and as devastating as that.
She forced herself to look at Sam and almost flinched at the pain in his eyes. "He's not in so much pain now," she offered lamely.
"No." Sam's voice was low and subdued.
"Sam, he's got this far…"
Sam looked at her. "And if he dies? I made him suffer through all those hours of agony when I could have stopped it! I should have let him go."
"Don't you dare think like that," Caitlin said fiercely. "You made him fight; you gave him the chance to live. He told me it takes a lot to bring down a Winchester. You just remember that, and don't give up on him."
Sam glanced down at Dean. "I'll never give up on him," he said softly. He paused and cleared his throat. "Listen, Caitlin, you've been great, but… do you think you could leave me alone with him for a while?"
She hesitated. She'd promised Ellen and Dean that she'd be there for Sam when… if… "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
Sam flicked her a grim smile. "It's okay. I'm not going to do something stupid, if that's what you're worried about. I just… if… if he… I'd like to be alone with him to say goodbye."
A lump in her throat threatening to swell up and choke her, Caitlin blinked back tears and nodded. She stood up and walked around to his side of the bed, leaning in to give him a quick hug. "I'll take a walk and come back in an hour or so."
She wanted to say something more, something that would give him some comfort, but really, what was there to say? Instead, she picked up her jacket and looked at Dean one more time before walking out the door and closing it softly behind her.
She got in the car and drove to the parking area near the river she'd passed on the way into town. She walked down to the river and sat down on a large, flat rock near the water's edge, under the shade of a tree.
Caitlin's thoughts and emotions were in turmoil. Less than twenty-four hours ago, she'd known the Winchester brothers only by name and reputation. Now, she felt she'd known them all her life.
And they'd made her care, damn them.
She didn't want to care. She'd done too much of that over the past couple of years, and all it had brought her was heartbreak. But she couldn't help it. All those hours sitting alongside Sam, she felt she'd seen into his heart, and she knew it would break if Dean were to die. And Dean… She couldn't deny the physical attraction, and everything she'd heard about him intrigued her. Dean Winchester, macho man with a heart of gold; son, brother, hunter, hero. Sam had told her so much about him, and it hurt to think that she might never have a chance to get to know him for himself, rather than through someone else's eyes.
Caitlin felt tears begin and allowed them to fall for several long minutes. Then she angrily scrubbed her face with a handkerchief. This was no good. She couldn't fall apart. She had to be strong for Sam. She'd promised Ellen as much and she wasn't one to break her promises. She'd called her aunt several times during the past twenty hours and she considered calling her now. But what could she tell her? Better to wait until there was news, one way or the other. It wouldn't be long now. Either Dean would make it through the final stage, or…
Tears formed again and she brushed them away hastily. She would not allow herself to think about the alternative.
She sat for a long time, idly skimming stones across the still surface of the water. Finally, confident that she was in control again, she walked back to the car.
Caitlin arrived back at the motel a little over an hour after leaving and quietly let herself into the room. It was still in semi-darkness, with only a trickle of light leaking in through the thin curtains. She looked across at Dean's bed, and her heart stood still. Dean lay in the same position, as still and quiet as before. Sam sat on the edge, elbows braced on his knees, head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking with what she took to be silent tears.
It was over. Sam had been right. All that pain and suffering had been for nothing. She fought back a flood of emotion, took a deep breath and walked across the room, sitting down beside him. "Sam, I'm so sorry."
He looked up, revealing a tear-streaked face, and smiled.
Caitlin frowned in confusion. "Sam?"
"Fever broke about half an hour ago and his temperature's down a whole three degrees. He woke up, totally lucid, talked to me for a few minutes, then dozed off."
Thank God. She'd witnessed tears of relief, not grief. "Oh, Sam. That's wonderful."
He pulled her into a hug and whispered into her shoulder, "It was too close, Caitlin. I really thought I was going to lose him this time."
This time? How many other times had Dean Winchester been on the brink of death? She shoved the thought aside. Some things she was better off not knowing.
When Sam moved back, she studied him closely. He was pale and looked completely exhausted. "Sam, why don't you get some rest? You look like you're about to crash."
He glanced at Dean. "I'm not sure…"
"He's going to be fine. You've read the journal. The people who made it this far all recovered. You need some sleep."
"He might wake up."
Caitlin rolled her eyes. "Then I'll wake you. Dean's not the only stubborn ass in the Winchester family, is he?"
Sam cracked a smile for the first time in hours. "You should have met our dad."
"Sam, go and lie down. Now."
With a final look at his sleeping brother, Sam obediently lay down on the other bed. He was asleep in minutes.
Caitlin sat back down in the now familiar chair beside Dean's bed and studied the patient. She could see now that his condition had improved. He was still a little flushed, but he seemed to be sleeping comfortably, not restless or in pain. She reached out to touch his forehead. A little too warm, but nothing like the raging heat of before.
She yawned and rubbed her eyes, grimacing at the itchy, gritty feeling. She felt a little light-headed from lack of sleep. Although she'd taken a catnap once or twice during the long vigil, sleep had eluded her, and now that the urgency of the situation was gone, she felt bone weary.
She sat back and tried to occupy herself by reading a book someone had left on the table, but she couldn't concentrate. Her eyes kept straying to the man asleep in the bed beside her, irrationally needing to check to make sure he was still breathing.
A couple of hours passed until the moment she looked up from her book to find Dean awake and looking back at her. He looked sleepy, eyelids struggling to stay open, a slight frown furrowing his brow.
An irrational panic flooded through her. On the one hand, she felt an intimate connection to this man. After all, she'd spent practically every waking moment with him for the past twenty-four hours. She knew the exact number of freckles sprinkled across his face and could map without looking the network of scars across his body. But for a moment, the eyes gazing at her in confusion seemed to be the eyes of a stranger.
"Hey," she said softly.
She was ludicrously happy that he'd remembered her name.
Of course that would be his first question.
She nodded towards the other bed. "Sleeping."
Dean moved his head until he could see his brother. "He okay?"
"He's fine. Just needed some rest."
Dean shifted to get a better look at Sam, and the movement elicited a grunt of pain.
Caitlin winced in sympathy. "The journal says there'll be residual pain for a few days, so don't worry if it still hurts. You're going to be okay." She paused. "How bad's the pain?"
He was silent for a moment, and she wondered if he was deciding whether or not to tell her the truth. Then he sighed. "Everything aches, and my head's still pounding. But nothing like before."
He'd chosen the truth, and that one small act of trust gave her a warm feeling. "You should try and get some more sleep," she said. "I'm sure it'll be better after you've rested."
Dean grunted. "How long since…"
"… you were infected? Around twenty-four hours. How much do you remember?"
His brow creased again. "I remember the parnock, and Sam getting me back to the motel. I remember you… but it's all a blur after that."
"Well, you were out of it a lot of the time."
He looked at her for a moment, eyes roaming her face. She felt herself color under the scrutiny and cursed her propensity to blush so easily.
"You look tired," he said softly. "You've been here all the time?"
She nodded. "You asked me to stay for Sam, remember?"
She nodded. His eyes were still fixed on her face, so she turned away quickly before he could see that the blush had deepened. "Would you like some water?"
She helped him sit up a little and handed him a glass. He took a few sips before sinking back down.
It was clear the small effort had exhausted him. "You're bound to feel weak," she said quickly, anticipating his frustration. "After what you've been through, it'll take a while for you to get back on your feet. Just give it time. But Dean, you fought this thing so hard, and you won. That was just… amazing."
Clearly her words of praise made him uncomfortable, because he cleared his throat and looked away, turning to put the glass back on the table beside him. His brow knitted as he spotted the bowl of water with the abandoned washcloth hanging over the edge. She watched in amusement as his eyes dropped from the bowl to his bare chest. She could almost hear his brain cells working furiously as he put it together. Then he flushed a very attractive shade of pink.
Somehow, she hadn't expected Dean Winchester to be coy about his body, and it helped her past her own embarrassment.
"It's okay," she said casually, trying to hide a grin. "Wiping down your fevered body wasn't as much of a turn-on as you might think."
He recovered quickly, waggling his eyebrows and giving her a lecherous leer. "Well, no offense, but I usually get to know a girl before I let her tear my clothes off and molest me with a washcloth."
Caitlin raised an eyebrow. "Really? That's not what I've heard," she teased.
He gave her an indignant look. "Hey! Who've you been talking to?"
"My cousin might have told me a few things about you."
Dean groaned. "You don't want to go believing anything Jo says about me."
"Maybe not," she agreed. "Oh, and for the record, it was Sam who tore your clothes off."
Dean snorted a laugh, then grimaced. "Shi… Man, this sucks out loud."
"I know," she soothed. "But compared to a couple of hours ago…" She stopped, unsure whether to tell him any of the details.
"We weren't sure you were going to make it. Sam was… worried about you." That had to be the understatement of the century.
"He's such a girl," Dean said quietly, but his eyes were distant, and she knew he was only too aware of how his brother would have been feeling.
"And I think he wants to kick your ass for pushing him out of the way of the parnock."
Dean rolled his eyes. "What did he expect me to do? It would have killed him."
"It almost killed you," she said pointedly.
Dean's silence confirmed that Sam had been right. It really wasn't an issue for Dean. He didn't care what happened to him, so long as his brother was unharmed. She wondered fleetingly what it must be like to be the object of such devotion. And then she found herself wondering if there was room in Dean Winchester's heart for more than one person.
Sam's voice interrupted that unhelpful line of thought. "Dean!"
Sam jumped up from his own bed and dropped down on the edge of Dean's. His eyes were swimming with emotion and his jaw was working as if he was fighting to get his feelings under control. "How do you feel?"
"Tired. And sore. But that's it."
Sam swallowed, "This one was too close, Dean."
Dean looked uncomfortable. "Sam, come on. I made it, like always."
"Yeah, you did. But one day you're not going to be so lucky. What happens then?" Sam's tone hardened. "You have to stop being so damned reckless."
Dean frowned. "The parnock would have killed you, Sam. What did you expect me to do?"
"I don't know!" Sam said forcefully, his voice rising. "Shoot it? Distract it? Not tackle it bodily, Dean! That was suicidal!"
Caitlin was beginning to feel as if she was an onlooker in an ongoing drama that was none of her concern, but as Dean shot his brother a frustrated look and started to push himself up, she intervened. Dean wasn't up to this kind of agitation right now.
She put a hand firmly on Dean's shoulder to stop him moving and looked sternly at Sam. "Not now, okay? Dean needs to rest."
It was ludicrously easy for her to hold Dean down and that clearly wasn't lost on Sam. He was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry Dean, I shouldn't have…" He ran a hand through his hair. "It's just… you scared the hell out of me, you know?"
Dean sank back down with a sigh. "I know, Sam. I know."
"Why don't I go out and get us something to eat?" Caitlin suggested, after a few moments of awkward silence.
"I'll go," Sam said. "I could do with some air."
"I'll have a burger loaded with everything, and a double order of French fries," Dean ordered in a sleepy voice.
Sam grinned. "Okay. So, that's a double order of chicken soup for Dean, and some sandwiches for us. I'll be right back."
He ignored his brother's indignant snort, snagged his jacket from the back of a chair and let himself out of the room.
Caitlin turned her attention back to Dean, who was having trouble keeping his eyes open. "Go to sleep," she said quietly. "You can eat later."
"Not worth staying up for some moldy old chicken soup anyway," he murmured, eyes already shut. A moment later a muscle in his cheek twitched, and his brow furrowed in a now familiar grimace of pain.
Caitlin reached out automatically, running a hand through his hair, thumb stroking softly across his forehead. It was a motion that had seemed to soothe him before, but she remembered too late that he'd been out of it then. She had no idea how he'd react now he was conscious. But he just gave a contented little sigh and turned his head into her touch.
His eyes opened half-mast. "Are you gonna leave?" he asked softly.
Caitlin hesitated. "Do you want me to?"
His eyes closed again, but she heard his answer clearly. "No."
For a second Caitlin had the irrational feeling that this moment was a turning point for her. She could go back to her safe, ordinary existence, or enter uncharted waters.
She didn't hesitate. "Then I'll stay."