A/N: And this is the end. It's rather anticlimactic in some ways, but I do think resolution in real life often is a bit anticlimactic. And it has to fit with canon...so I hope it's not TOO disappointing. Thanks to all who have read and reviewed and to sendintheclowns and Rachelly :) All notes are STILL in chapter one. Amazing how that doesn't change.


PART FOUR

Sam's condition worsened. The boy never regained anything resembling consciousness, and the nurses came and went with sympathetic smiles on their faces. Sam's lungs were suctioned, the antibiotics were increased, and Sam remained as still and as passive as though his entire body had been wired into place, not just his jaw.

By the next afternoon, John was stiff with sitting still and tired from his nonstop vigil. He was used to going without sleep--it was more common than not in his line of work. He'd lost many nights researching, poring over his notes and books, and countless more on the hunt, gun in hand, ready for anything and everything.

Sitting by Sam's bedside, however, was a whole new level of tension. Because there was nothing he could do. What he was waiting for couldn't be offed with a bullet or a burst of flame--what he was waiting for was the only thing in life he needed, the only thing he was clinging to--his baby boy's life. His sons were everything. He couldn't lose them.

Sam tested him in just about everything. It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise that he'd push the envelope in this as well.

Dean slept, on and off, as much as the chair he was sprawled in would permit. His oldest had retreated, not physically, but emotionally, and had said little more than two words since his outburst yesterday.

John sighed, feeling the weight of regret upon him. He'd chewed Dean out, torn Dean down. And he'd been right, he had no room to doubt otherwise, but that didn't mean it was easy to say. It didn't mean that it was easy to see his strong, obedient son reprimanded so severely. It didn't mean it was easy to see his brilliant, thoughtful youngest son laid out so lifelessly. Sometimes he can't help but remember simpler days, happier times, when life had been Mary and the boys and everything had been bright and perfect and peaceful.

Letting his head drop, John pushed away the memories. Those days were gone. Taken from him because of his own ignorance. His own failure, his sentimentality had caused him to lose Mary. He couldn't have it both ways--he couldn't provide happiness and joy and still keep the people he loved safe. Losing Mary hurt more than anything else. He would do anything to prevent that from happening again. Anything.

Lifting his head again, his eyes went back to Sam. Dean never questioned him; Sam always did. It wasn't easy with either of them, and he couldn't risk losing the older or the younger. But now Dean was perilously close to rebelling, and Sam was--well, Sam wasn't doing so well.

Fighting with Sam wore him out, frustrated him. It was so often the bane of his existence, the thing that scared him most. The idea that his youngest might not be prepared, thought he knew better than everyone--it made him so vulnerable, and Sam was so young and the world was so dangerous but Sam could never see that. There were days when he'd contemplated smacking some sense into the boy.

Seeing Sam sprawled out on the ground, his jaw a mess had gone a long way to curbing that desire. Seeing him limp on top of Dean in the backseat had thoroughly thwarted it. Seeing Sam like this--with a tube up his nose in a hospital bed--made him regret ever thinking it in the first place.

There wasn't anything he could do, though. He was as impotent and futile as he had been the night Mary died. He was ineffectual and helpless and every other feeling he'd spent a lifetime hoping to never be again. Because he could train his boys, he could research and plan, but in the end he couldn't stop himself from loving them, which was his greatest weakness.

Under the medication and the sedatives, Sam twitched a little in his sleep, his young face creasing with a tension John could only guess at. With a steady hand, he reached to his son's hair and rested his fingers on top of it, feeling the silken strands beneath his fingers. His boy. His responsibility. His life.

"Just relax, Sam," he whispered. "We'll get through this."

Promise or lie, John wasn't sure, but he'd hang on until he found out.

-o-

"Sam's lungs have been compromised by the infection," the doctor was saying. "If the antibiotics don't start getting the upper hand soon, more of Sam's body systems are going to be affected, and then we'll have a real mess on our hands."

Dean watched the doctor's mouth move, opening and closing, and he could hear her words, quiet and gentle, and they still didn't make sense. They couldn't compute. Nothing could.

Because Sam was still on the bed, still unconscious and pale, and he needed to hear that it'd be okay, that Sam would pull through.

He didn't need this. Not a cautionary prognosis and the sinking feeling that everyone in the world was giving up on Sam, that the odds were stacked against them, that this was a game that had been rigged since the beginning, and Dean just didn't know how to deal with that.

There were no words for him to say, no questions left for him to ask, and he felt as weak as they kept telling him Sam was.

This time, however, he didn't have to.

His father, shoulders straight, back tall, looked Sam's doctor in the eye and prompted, "He's still fighting it, though."

She considered this, giving a half shrug. "Yes, his body is still responding to the medication," she agreed, almost reluctantly. "But you need to be prepared--"

His father smiled at that, and Dean knew why. Winchesters were many things, and prepared was always one of them. "I don't think you know my son."

She didn't know what to say to that, but smiled a little, uncertainly, and Dean figured she thought they were all nuts--a transient family with no insurance and no ties and a sick son and a blindly optimistic outlook on a downright bleak situation.

It almost made Dean angry. It almost made Dean rebel. But his rebellion was gone, his flicker of blame had faded and now simmered, only condemning himself. Because his father wasn't perfect. His father didn't always make the right decisions. But he made the only decisions he could, the only foolish and ridiculous choices that were possible, and it had been all that Dean had been able to count on his entire life.

Well, almost. Since the day his mother died, he'd had his father's orders and Sam's love.

He couldn't afford to lose either.

-o-

It was two in the morning and John's back ached with an intensity he could no longer shake. He wasn't the young man he used to be, and after days in the hospital room, his body was protesting from the stagnancy.

He didn't care. Most of the time, he could barely feel it. There was nothing he could do about it, anyway. Nothing that didn't involve leaving Sam, and, at this point, that wasn't an option.

It was true, he'd left his boys more often than he knew parents should. He'd left them in lonely motel rooms with nothing more than a stocked refrigerator, a gun, and a promise to be back in three days. Sometimes he made it back in time; sometimes he didn't.

It was also true that he'd missed so much--much more than the work-obsessed office man. He'd missed first days and school plays and soccer games. He'd kept them from so much--all his fantasies of playing ball in the backyard, of coaching his boys on the sidelines, of holding the back of their bikes while they teetered down the sidewalk--they were lost chances, so far gone that sometimes he barely remembered to miss them. Because now it was just one town to the next, with only the minor inconvenience of Sam's griping and desperate appeals to join one activity after another. John was pretty sure Sam wasn't interested in half of what he wanted to join, but that his boy just wanted to belong to something.

Sam didn't seem to get it. That he already belonged to something, the most important thing--a family. And the reason John moved them so much, the reason John left them, was to make it all end, to find the thing that did this to them and get rid of it. When it wasn't safe for the boys, he barricaded them in and did the only thing he could think to do: make the world safe for them.

With a sigh, he hung his head. Too bad it was never enough. There was always another monster. So there was always another motel room, always another broken dream.

In his heart, though, in the places that John knew mattered, it'd always been for them. Just like staying with Sam was now. He was hunkered down, dug in, ready for the long haul, because if this was a test, he was sure as hell going to pass it, Dean and Sam by his side, just like it was supposed to be.

But Sam was so still. He was practically colorless, wasting away. His son had lost weight, which made his parchment colored skin all the more frightening. His hair seemed longer, too, unruly in the hospital bed, despite the nurses' best attempts to cow it into compliance.

Sometimes, when Dean was asleep, John would trace Sam's young features with his fingers, feeling gently along his son's jaw, taking in the curve of his nose, the softness of his eyelashes in sleep. He'd hold Sam's hand, pick up the gangly arm and intertwine his fingers with his youngest's, trying not to notice the lack of resistance, the fever that seemed to be burning brighter and harder than before.

In the craziness of life, it was so easy to forget, to not look, to overlook. When had Sam gotten so big? When had Sam started to look so vulnerable? What the hell would John do without him in his life?

But Dean was awake now, watching from his familiar post in the corner. His oldest had nearly been struck mute in the days since Sam's admittance, and John almost regretted his harsh words.

Almost, but not quite.

Because at least Dean understood. And he could tell. Dean's hope, his entire being, was hinging on this, on how they all came through this.

John hoped that his oldest couldn't see that John didn't know what he was doing, that he had no more control over this than the weather outside. His boys were too old to believe in fantasies and superheroes, but he wished like hell that Dean could hold onto that, just for a little longer, for all their sakes.

As for Sam--well, his youngest had always been a harder sell. Dean had always believed him--completely--from the time he was two years old and John told him that milk was nothing more than white soda to make him down it with glee. He'd tried the same trick on Sam, when he'd actually remembered to buy milk, and the two year old had scowled at him and told him flatly that he was wrong.

If Sam could just hold on, stay alive, then John would deal with the rest from there.

-o-

It seemed like days since he'd had time alone with Sam. If his father wasn't lingering, there was a nurse or a doctor hovering, always something, someone, to keep Dean from really talking to his little brother.

Not that Sam could hear him, he knew logically. The doctors were saying that Sam was deeply unconscious now, his body virtually shutting down while it tried to fend off the infection that had taken root. Which was maybe why it seemed so important, why he finally felt like he needed to, because he had to admit it, talking to Sam, really sitting down and spending time with him, hadn't been at the top of his priority list as of late.

In fact, when Dean thought about it, the extent of their time together in the last few months had been meals and training sessions and hunts--none of which were ripe times for conversations. Even at meals, when they sat side by side in front of the TV with a box of take out in front of them, there was little to talk about that didn't spark controversy. Dean's world was hunting--weapons and wicked-looking creatures and women on the side. Sam's world was--well, Dean wasn't sure what the hell Sam's world was, but it sure wasn't hunting. It was school and clubs and hopes and dreams and all the stuff Sam knew better than to talk about. The kid wasn't twelve anymore, and Dean was tired of humoring his childish wishes.

But alone with Sam, him in the hospital bed, Dean perched in the chair by his bed, Dean suddenly wished he'd taken the time, that maybe he'd humored Sam a little better.

It was all a mess--everything in their lives. Not just the hospital, but everything before it. He wasn't sure how long it'd taken for motel rooms and abandoned houses to be run of the mill for him. He wasn't sure when the hunt had become everything he'd ever strived for. He wasn't sure when his father had closed himself off completely or when Sam had stopped following orders blindly, but that was where they were now, and for the first time, Dean realized it wasn't going to get better.

His father wasn't going to lighten up. The job wasn't going to get any safer. The life wasn't going to get any more stable. And Sam wasn't going to learn how to man up and take it.

It was going to fall apart, someday, Dean could almost feel that, and it almost made him mad. If only his father could just learn to explain things to Sam instead of ordering. If only Sam could learn to just do what he needed to do instead of always asking why. If only...

If only Sam would live.

He couldn't have everything, so he'd settle for that.

-o-

John had no idea what day it was, whether it was morning or night, when he'd last slept or eaten--none of it. He felt woozy, but was too stubborn to admit it. His emotions were frayed, and he couldn't handle waiting any longer. So he didn't really believe the doctor when she smiled at him and told him that Sam was getting better.

He was so dumbfounded, that all he could ask was, "What?"

Her grin widened. "Sam's vitals are rebounding. We're seeing more urine output, which shows that his kidneys are returning to normal function. His fever is down significantly and should be falling to normal levels within a few days. He's lungs sound clearer, and we're even seeing him taking a few breaths on his own. All indications are pointing toward a total recovery. We'll monitor him closely, of course, but I'm very optimistic."

She was practically beaming, like some kind of proud parent, and it wasn't until she had walked away that John realized that was his job.

-o-

It was like swimming in mud, thick and dark and clingy, and Sam could barely make heads or tails of which way was up and which way was down. He couldn't breathe--not really--and his lungs ached with effort and desire. His limbs were heavy and useless, and Sam realized he was as helpless as an infant.

Futility overtook him, and with it a wave of miserable panic. Tears, unbidden and uncontrollable, came to his eyes, and all he wanted was out.

"Sam? Sam, can you hear me?"

And Sam could, but it was far, distant, and Sam couldn't speak anyway.

"Just relax," his father said. "Dean and I are here. You're going to be all right now."

All right now. All right. Sam tried to remember. He remembered sparring and his jaw hurting. He remembered the backseat of the car and the pills and the overwhelming need to just breathe.

"You're going to be all right."

It was a promise, maybe a lie, one of many, maybe one of few, and Sam couldn't remember all of them, couldn't sort the disappointments from the joys, and he wasn't sure what to believe.

"We'll be right here when you get up."

That was Dean, his brother, the one who didn't lie to him, but the one who he kept thinking should get it but never quite did.

It left him alone, left him confused, left him wanting so much more, but Sam couldn't deny that it was safe.

Safe and secure and simple and sleep was coming and he wasn't about to fight it.

-o-

They had no money and they had no insurance, but they hadn't lied about it this time. That fact didn't negate all John's legal worries--he didn't doubt there was still someone searching for them since blowing the hospital on his latest insurance scandal. Hopefully, this time, when they left, the staff would think of them as nothing more than another poor family unable to pay, abusing the bounty of the state. Not exactly anyone's favorite type, but hardly as undesirable as those who perpetrated insurance fraud.

There had been questions already, of course, about a billing address and payment plans. John gave them a PO Box and told the truth when he said they didn't have anything more permanent than that.

There was no way around it. They were going to have to bail early--again.

It was a fact John had been stewing over for several days now, ever since Dr. Werning had announced that Sam had turned a corner. There was simply no way around it. Hospitals wanted payment one way or another, and sooner or later someone would turn up something rather unsavory about the Winchester family history and its many aliases.

For that reason, it was really an obvious choice. Blowing town before they got caught. That was just what they did.

He had a feeling convincing Dean of that point would not be so easy this time around.

Sam, on the other hand, would probably be a pretty easy sell. Since waking up, the kid had been restless and irritable, no doubt bothered by all the medical intervention and the continued inability to talk. It didn't keep Sam from communicating, of course--his boys were too resourceful for that. Sam had become quite adept at gestures and his youngest had always mastered the art of speaking with his eyes, and Dean had been spending a lifetime picking up on his cues.

For John's sake, Sam had accepted a dry erase board from one of the nurses, and was constantly scrawling notes of frustration and petulance.

Normally John wouldn't even discuss his plans. He'd just tell the boys what they needed to know and expect prompt obedience.

Then again, normally it was Sam who was doing all the questioning. Getting it from Dean was not something he relished--and it unnerved him enough to broach the subject with his older son before pushing ahead with another stealthy Winchester escape.

He found his boys where he usually did--in Sam's room. Fortunately the hospital was small and patients seemed few and far between, so they still had their own room, even after Sam had been upgraded from the ICU.

Dean, for his part, had made himself totally at home, and even knew the names and schedules of the nurses of note--including the attractive brunette who tended Sam during the days and the maternal one who would bring Dean candy bars on a daily basis, much to Sam's scowling as he was forced to down atrocious looking and foul smelling protein drinks.

Walking in, he found Dean leaned back in his chair, holding a hand of cards. Sam, sitting up in bed, held the same, but his face was scrunched up in clear, brotherly anger.

"Oh, you meant threes," Dean was saying. "See, I thought you held up four fingers. I didn't have any fours. Threes, on the other hand--" Dean broke off with a grin.

Sam glared.

"It's your turn, Sammy," Dean said coolly. "What number you want?"

Sam held up one finger--a choice one at that.

Dean snickered. "You asked for ones two rounds ago, and I still don't have any."

John cleared his throat, and both boys looked at him. Sam's look was indifferent and he turned scowling back at his cards. Dean raised his eyebrows and put his chair on all four legs.

"Sorry to interrupt," he said, casting a dubious glance at the stack of cards on Sam's bed tray. "But, Dean, I think we need a word."

There were times when Sam would be contrary enough to resent being left out, but for once Dean's tormenting of his kid brother was going to work in John's favor. Sam seemed more relieved to be freed from the rigged game Dean clearly was subjecting him to.

Dean looked skeptical, but he held his tongue, instead laying his hand face down on the bedside table. "No peaking," he told his brother. "We'll continue your thrashing when I get back."

Sam rolled his eyes as Dean walked away, and John offered his youngest a weak smile before following Dean into the hallway.

"He's looking better," Dean said, not waiting for John to begin. "It'll be hard to keep his weight up with these damn protein shakes. He was too skinny as it was, but at least he's able to keep them down."

With an absent nod, John searched for the words.

"The doc says a few more days," Dean continued, almost tentative, testing. "Just to be sure. Aspiration pneumonia apparently isn't something they piss around with."

"Which is why we need to leave--now," John said finally, his eyes steady on his son.

Dean didn't even flinch, didn't look surprised. "Same stuff?"

"We have no insurance and we've been here long enough for them to figure out that any address I give them isn't going to pan out," he said. "If they look too hard, they'll find out about the other frauds and will start thinking that Sam's more than just an accident prone teenager."

Dean nodded curtly. "You'll listen to the doc, though," he said. "About all the stuff we need to do for Sam. All of his food requirements, when he can start being active again, when to get his jaw checked, how to use the wire cutters."

"Of course," John assured him.

Dean's gaze never wavered, his eyes studying, penetrating. "And you'll let him take it easy, just like he needs to. His jaw needs to heal or we may never hear his pain in the ass voice again."

At that, John quirked a half smile, but his nod was solemn. "I would never put your brother at risk, Dean," he said. "Not on purpose. You know that."

A moment passed, Dean's eyes still on him. Finally, his son sighed. "Yeah," he said, resignation and acceptance in his voice, and maybe something more--forgiveness, understanding. "I know that."

-o-

Normally, Sam didn't like illicit activities and questionably moral practices, but he had to admit, getting out of the hospital was appealing, with or without doctor approval. There was no doubt his father had his own reasons for wanting to skip out--namely the lack of insurance and a fear of higher authorities getting involved--but for once, Sam wasn't inclined to argue the point.

Not that it would have done much good. His father didn't listen to him on the best of days, and with his only method of communication being written these days, his father had a much easier time totally ignoring him when he wanted to.

His chest ached, from the pneumonia he was told, and his throat still felt a little raw and his nose was irritated. He was a bit unsteady on his feet, but he figured that was partly to do with the crappy protein shakes he was practically being force-fed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He craved protein in its more natural form--a juicy burger, maybe a pork chop--something substantial. He hardly ever felt full these days, and it took an inevitable toll on his energy levels.

Luckily, his part of this plan was easy. Wait for the sign, then take a quick left out of the room and move quickly to the exit and keep going until he was outside and in the clear. Simple and easy.

His father and his brother, however, seemed more concerned over the details.

Sam was buttoning his shirt, watching with wide-eyed curiosity at the exchange between his brother and father. Usually those two seemed completely in synch, working in tandem. His father issuing orders, Dean following them practically before even hearing them. So what was going on with them now--Sam really couldn't say, but part of him wondered what on earth had happened while he was out of it.

"No, I think I should be the one to take Sam out," Dean was saying, contrarily and sternly, things Sam never heard from his even-keeled older brother.

Flicking his eyes to his father, Sam watched intently. John's jaw clenched, another move usually reserved only for Sam. "I'm his father, I should be the one--"

"Exactly," Dean interrupted, and Sam's eyes flew back to him. "You're his father. It makes far more sense that you'd be the one interrogating the nurses about Sam's continued care. They'll believe you more and I think I can handle Sam."

Without hesitating, Sam glanced back at his father, who was close to glaring at this point. "What if Sam needs to be carried?"

At this, Sam's bystander mode switched off, his resentment flaring. Unable to speak, his brow furrowed and he waved his hands wildly--all to no avail.

"Like I haven't done that before," Dean shot back.

And that really was about all Sam's masculinity could take. As fun as it was to watch his brother argue with his father, he was being talked about as if he was five years old and not even in the room. With frustrated strokes, Sam scrawled out on his whiteboard. "I can walk myself." He waved it at them before adding to it. "I don't need either of you to carry me. And we're wasting time--can we just go?"

Both Dean and John paled a little at that, almost chagrined. Then his father cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. "Fine," he said gruffly. "Dean, you take Sam outside. I'll meet you at the car in fifteen minutes and then we're making a break for it. You got the supplies?"

"Enough food and drink to last us two days," Dean clarified promptly.

"Good," his father said. "You sure you're up to this Sam?"

It took all the self-control Sam had not to roll his eyes. Since when did his father ask his opinion about anything? Sure, his father was showing it awkwardly, almost unwillingly, but the concern was there, it was real and Sam wasn't sure what to do with it. Things had been bad--he knew that much--but bad enough for his father to coddle him? The man spent his entire life telling Sam to man-up, and now he was practically walking on eggshells.

He almost expected it from Dean, to some degree. His brother had been there through the full gamut of childhood illnesses and injuries, and it was Dean who brought him soup and crackers when Sam was bed-ridden.

Then there was a pause, a pregnant one, where his father and brother exchanged a look, careful and long and purposeful, the passing of some knowledge, some secret that Sam was no privy to.

It was a look he'd seen a lot, lingering in the eyes of his family, darkening when the gaze turned upon him, as if he were the reason, the cause.

"Sam?" Dean said, shaking Sam from his thoughts. "You ready?"

Looking up, Sam tried to garner his resolve. His brother's face was soft, his eyes gentle.

Dean grinned at that, a little too forced. "Then let's blow this joint," he said.

Sam attempted to smile in return, shouldering his small bag and heading out the door, trying to put his doubts behind him. He took a left, quickly and without thinking, his brother right behind him. He kept going, eyes ahead, focused, and he didn't stop until he and Dean were outside and well on their way to escape.

-o-

It was a little weird, being outside again. The Impala's warm leather interior had always been home, but Dean couldn't help but feel like it was somewhat alien to him after his days in the hospital. And it had been days—long days, unending days, hour upon hour at Sam's side. He'd left only when forced, and those periods were brief and fuzzy in his memory.

He'd always thought of the Impala as home, but it wasn't until he was sitting with Sam in the backseat, waiting for their father, that he realized he'd been wrong.

The Impala wasn't home, though it was close in many ways. Sam was home. Everything felt better, everything felt right when his kid brother was with him.

And to think, he'd nearly lost that because of a stupid punch and a stubborn hospital flight.

But Sam was here now, by his side, by all accounts healthy and in a few short weeks would be ready for action.

So why the hell did things still feel so off? He'd squared things with his dad, he'd gotten Sam out of the hospital, and he had no doubt Sam would rebound spectacularly.

Yet, despite all these positives, he couldn't avoid the look on Sam's face. It was a far-too-typical stony look, but underneath Dean could see hints of sadness and pain.

"You feeling okay?" Dean asked, checking his watch briefly and looking toward the hospital.

Sam shrugged.

His brother had a tendency to be moody, but the kid had been more than ready to go. The last days in the hospital had seen Sam sulky, but in a comfortable way. "You sure you feel okay?" Dean asked. Moods were one thing; Sam getting sick again was another. Despite how well Sam had been doing, Dean couldn't forget the way Sam had looked the last time they'd been in this car together. It was a memory that would haunt him forever.

Sam didn't even look up and made no effort to shrug his shoulders this time.

Dean narrowed his eyes. "Seriously, Sam," he said. "If you're not feeling well, we can go right back inside, have the doc take a look—"

This time Sam turned a glare at Dean, clearly communicating that it wasn't illness that plagued him.

Taken aback, Dean reconsidered the situation. Usually he was good at figuring his brother out, but Sam's behavior now was downright perplexing. "Come on, Sammy," he cajoled. "I thought you were happy to get out of that joint."

Flicking his eyes at his brother, Sam just looked perturbed.

"You can talk to me, you know that right?" Dean said.

Sam's gaze showed a distinct lack of humor.

Dean grinned in spite of himself. "Well, you know what I mean."

The kid didn't need words to convey his feelings.

Feeling mildly reassured, Dean slapped Sam lightly on the thigh. "You'll be as good as new in no time," he said. "Back to training and sparring."

The minute the words came out of his mouth, Dean knew they were the wrong thing. Sam just looked at him, his eyes big.

"And whatever the hell you like to do to geekify yourself," Dean added quickly. "We'll just have to learn to make time for both, won't we?"

Sam's eyes studied him, and his brow furrowed, and Dean tried to make sense of what his brother was thinking. Finally, his younger brother nodded, attempting some kind of smile.

Dean took what he could get, leaning back into the seat, and trying to feel confident in himself. He could see his father approaching, and they'd be on the road in no time, and things would settle back to the way they were. Sam would study, he would brood, and they would train together. They'd be together, they'd be safe, and it would work.

Glancing discreetly at his brother, Dean tried to believe it. It was, after all, the only thing he'd ever wanted.

-o-

The hours were longer in the car, longer than they had been in the hospital, and Sam found there wasn't much to do except watch the landscape fly by his window. He could have asked for a book and he was sure Dean would have complied, quite readily, in fact. His father and brother were still oddly attentive to him, offering him rest stops and chocolate protein drinks whenever he even blinked in their direction.

There was something comfortable in that, something reassuring, but still Sam couldn't figure out what felt so wrong about it all. Something was off, and he wasn't quite sure what it was, and his family sure wasn't dropping any hints.

No, Dean was effusive, teasing him and hovering, and he was all too aware of his father's backward glances at him. It was the attention he'd craved, that he'd thought he wanted--so he wasn't sure what the problem was.

Dean was making a half-hearted attempt with a crossword puzzle to pass the time, and Sam couldn't help but think that it was another concession his brother was making for some reason.

"Hey, Sammy, what's a four letter word for academic?"

Sam just looked at him, half thinking about four letters and academics, and he wondered why the hell Dean was even bothering?

"Try geek," John said from the front, a ghost of a smile humoring his face.

Dean chortled at that, penciling it in. "You should have had that one, Sammy, being our only geekboy in residence."

It was just funny enough to make Sam laugh, but he rolled his eyes for the effect as he tried to think of a four letter word for jerk.

Then Sam saw it again--that look, almost gratitude, of penance--passed from his father to his brother.

Sam's mind worked again, trying to piece it together.

"How about a four letter word for slacker?" his father prompted from the front.

Dean frowned a little in jest. "I know a five letter one--Sammy," he said. "You know, if you wanted to get out of training for a bit, you could have just asked."

It was a joke, and Sam knew it, but it hit something inside of Sam, something deep and still not healed. The same wound that flared up every time his family downplayed his interests, ignored his desire to do well in school, failed to recognize what was important to him.

"Aw, kiddo," his father said, eyeing him sympathetically in the mirror. "Dean didn't mean it. You take the time you need, okay? Then we'll get you back into it slowly."

Then Sam saw it again--that look. It was a look of knowing, a look of trust--a look of compromise--and Sam knew in an instant that the coddling wasn't about him.

He should have seen it sooner, guessed it long before now. The hovering. The closeness. It was guilt.

Both his father and his brother were harboring their share of guilt--for Sam getting hurt, for taking Sam out of the hospital too soon. It was why there were no reprimands about Sam improving his fighting technique, why there was no consternation over Sam landing them all back in the hospital at the risk of being discovered. Because they blamed themselves. Dean, undoubtedly, for punching him. His father, presumably, for dragging him out of the hospital.

Nothing had changed. He was still the youngest son that needed to be protected, that needed to fall in line. He just had to be alive so they could both do their jobs.

Swallowing hard, he looked down. That wasn't fair, and he knew it. His brother loved him, and his father did, too. But they still didn't get him, and nothing--not injury or peril--would ever change that.

"Okay," Dean was saying. "A five letter word for alienation."

Sam just closed his eyes, turning his head away, and he knew the word immediately: alone.

-o-

The drive fell to silence.

Sam couldn't talk much, and when Dean's attempts at conversation had dwindled into Sam's tiredness, the older brother seemed too tense to make any more small talk, at least not with John. All conversation had been for Sam's sake, and when his brother withdrew, Dean followed him, intent and close.

As for John, there wasn't much to say. Nothing sounded right. His own jokes had been a peace treaty, but nothing near what either boy deserved. Apologies and reassurances flitted through his head, but they seemed all wrong—too little, too late.

They drove through the day and into the night, and as night fell across the landscape, so did Sam's eyes, and he watched his youngest drift off to sleep in the rearview mirror. Dean remained awake, eyes peeled against the encroaching blackness, his watch still focused on his brother.

John didn't know where they were going, they were just going, and it'd be another day before he felt like it would be safe to stop.

He kept driving, the hum of the road reverberating in his soul, driving long enough until even Dean's eyelids drooped and then stayed close in the early hours of the morning.

Sam wasn't quite happy and Dean didn't quite trust him and John wasn't quite right in all of this, but all he could think was that somehow, maybe, he was close enough.

Still, John didn't stop. There was no place of refuge for them, no safe harbor to rest in. The boys asleep in the backseat, the road ahead of him, and John just kept on driving.

end