A/N: This was the chapter that didn't want to get done. For a while, I thought someone up there or maybe down there was conspiring against me. I'll spare you the details. Let's just say it was a very long week. Plus, I find finishing stories is SO MUCH HARDER than starting them.

Thank you all for reading - I've really appreciated the support, both the vocal and silent. And thanks one last time for LdyAnne for the alpha and encouragement throughout, and Meg for the beta. Any errors that remain are mine and mine alone.


Before:
Sam collapsed to his knees next to Dean, feeling like he'd done this all before. He had. The end result had to be the same. Dean had to be alive. His right arm wouldn't function, uselessly hanging at his side. It was so heavy Sam tilted to the side as he reached for Dean's neck with his left hand. If he could will it, there would be a pulse. He felt proof that his brother's heart still beat.

"Oh god," Graham said. "Just hold on. It's okay, it's okay. Damnit. I'm calling it in."

Vaguely, Sam thought he should object. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. He didn't know how it happened, but he was on the ground facing Dean. Wet and cold everywhere. The hum in his ears turned into static, white noise making it impossible to hear anything. As if it were sentient, the static crept from his ears to the edges of his vision. It swallowed him whole.

Sweet Caroline
Chapter 19

It went without saying that Dean Winchester hated hospitals. He hated everything about them – the smells, the sounds, and the looks of sympathy and generic concern that came from random strangers. All of these things set his teeth on edge. Hospitals were giant institutions that were, it seemed to him, created as reminders that something bad could happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time. He also had a basic, profound fear instilled in him from a young age that emergency rooms and doctors meant questions, and questions meant trouble.

But what he truly hated most about hospitals was waking up in one with no real memory of getting there, and with no idea if his brother was dead or alive. It was a feeling of panic Dean was unable to shake for days, even with Sam nearby and presumably fine.

He couldn't remember much more than bits from that night in the cemetery, though both Sam and Deputy Graham had filled him in. When he tried to recall anything beyond taking a bullet, he got nothing but thin slices of time. Falling. Snow and cold. Warm blood on his side. A flash of nothing. Flying through the air, hitting, breaking, bleeding. Sam staring at him, bruised and horrified and pallid against the dark night sky. Deep red bells, loud sirens and strobe lights. Another flash of nothing. Whiteness. Fast motion. More unending white. Nothing. Staticky voices. Pain, hot and tearing. A grizzled, familiar face with brown eyes both worried and hard and out of place. A hand cupping the side of his face, palm too callused and touch too tender to be medical staff. White lights. Faces floating above him. Doctors and nurses.

Two hospital visits on one hunt. Dad would be pissed. His father had always taught him that if professional medical help was necessary to get it, but also to always get out as fast as possible. He'd also taught them how to deal with multiple kinds of injuries; post-hunt care was better done in private, because people didn't understand. They couldn't. They didn't want to, Dad had always said, and Dean had learned for himself how true that was. When he and Sam were little, he learned there were human monsters that worked for Child Protective Services. Though grown now and no longer in danger from that, the fear was latent.

By Dad's rule alone, Dean knew they'd already overstayed their welcome. Until last night, though, he hadn't even been able to take a piss all by himself. His ribs were still a mess and the hole in his side throbbed if he moved wrong, which included but was not limited to the simple act of breathing. Not that he had any intention of showing it, because he was through sticking around in this bed to humor Sam. Determined, he tossed the sheets aside and sat up. His feet had barely touched the cold floor when his great escape was foiled.

"Dean, what are you doing?"

"Getting out of here, Sam," Dean said, slumping his shoulders, putting pressure on his busted ribs and making him woozy. "It's past time. We can get out of this goddamned state and head somewhere warm for a change. We'll need a month of R&R, and I want to do it somewhere where the sun's shinin'."

He expected an argument. Sam didn't say a word, though, and Dean took a shaky step away from the bed. He felt much better than he had yesterday. He'd be all right. They'd both be all right. It wasn't like Sam was in much better shape than he was, after all. When Dean had woken up for good, after days of apparent touch-and-go fever and the threat of peritonitis, Sam hadn't been anywhere.

That was what had kept him awake at last, actually – fear that Sam was dead, because he knew, he knew that despite their differences, Sam would be there for him if he could be. Dean's memories hadn't been so fragmented he didn't remember Sam getting thrown around even more than he had. Until he got a straight answer about Sam's condition, panic had fueled him. Even after that, he kept worrying. It was what he did, worrying about Sam, not that he'd ever admit it out loud.

"Where the hell do you think Graham stashed my pants, closet or drawer?" Dean grumbled. "He seems like he'd be all about closets."

He wasn't ungrateful for how surprisingly reliable an ally Graham had turned out to be. Graham was clearly freaked to hell about the whole thing, though that didn't stop him from helping when it counted. But Dean didn't like anyone going through his underwear no matter how Good Samaritan the act was. It was bad enough Graham had seen the Impala's trunk when he'd thought fast enough to stash the weapons. The underwear was too much.

"You should go get dressed, too. We have got to go before my nurse thinks she's gotta give me another sponge bath. I can't believe you got the only hot nurse in this place. Don't deny it. I've seen her head for your room. Those legs, man." Dean took a moment to envision said long, long legs. "Meanwhile, I've got freaking Brunhilda. There is no justice in the world."

Sam still didn't talk, standing in the doorway in a hospital robe and slippers, but Dean heard him let out a strange sound. Dean turned in time to see his brother's face, already grayish, go white. Under other circumstances, Dean would have been at his side in a flash; he was barely staying upright himself. And Sam was going to take a header. Dean didn't need a medical degree to know that would be a bad thing.

"Sam," he said. "Sit down, now."

The shoulder wound had reopened during the fight with the spirit, and Dean wasn't convinced the thing hadn't mucked Sam up inside while she had ridden around in his body. At the very least, the salt embedded in the existing injury had made Sam at risk for infection as well. According to scuttlebutt Dean had obtained from his fugly nurse, they'd initially been worried Sam had broken his scapula because of his difficulty breathing. That turned out to be a false alarm, but by the looks of him at this very second, Sam wasn't any more healed than Dean was. He was relieved when Sam entered the room and sank into the bedside chair, hunching over. Dean put his own pain aside, hobbling around the bed. It didn't matter. After a moment, some of the color returned to his brother's cheeks.

"You okay?"

Sam nodded, but he didn't look any better than Dean felt. Maybe they both needed a little more recuperation time. People weren't hassling them yet, thinking they were federal agents and all. That was a limited time offer they couldn't risk expiring, though. The longer they stayed, the more likely Graham would get in trouble for covering their asses as well, and Dean didn't want that on his conscience. They might have been better off if the late spring snowstorm hadn't kept them from being transported to a bigger facility.

"For Halloween," Sam said hoarsely, swallowing a couple of times, "Jess dressed like a sexy nurse."

Oh, shit, no wonder the kid looked awful. How was that for an unintentional kick to the 'nads?

"Sam, I'm sorry, man. I didn't know."

Sam straightened, automatically wincing and reaching for his tightly wrapped and slinged shoulder. Swathed in bandages, Sam looked lopsided. He shook his head. "Of course you didn't. It's okay. Sometimes it feels like just yesterday, you know?"

Dean couldn't think of a thing he could say to make anything better, to get that bereft look off Sam's face. He wouldn't have been able to on a good day, but with his strength gone for the moment, he was even less helpful. He needed a second or two, and then he'd stop being a total pansy. He leaned on the hospital bed, sitting as straight as he could tolerate.

"I'll bet she looked really good, Sammy," he said after awhile.

"Yeah, she did." Sam gave him a bittersweet smile, which quickly turned into a frown. He stood, half reaching for Dean's shoulder before he thought better of it. "You really think you're ready to hit the road? We'll only get an hour before you pass out."

"Dude, please." Dean glared his best glare, defying Sam to argue. "I could do cartwheels right here, right now."

"Dean, you got shot at point blank range five days ago," Sam said, voice trembling. "I shot you. Look at you, you can barely stand. You could have died, and I was the one who pulled the trigger."

Dean had been waiting for this conversation to happen, a dim hope that maybe it would be avoided a constant flicker inside. Apparently, he didn't even deserve this small mercy. His whole life was built around protecting Sam, so much so that a gigantic hole in his body was still somehow about Sam. He didn't resent that. Much.

"Yeah, by the way, is that going to be a trend? Because I gotta say you getting whammied by some evil thing and shooting me is already getting old," Dean said, meaning for it to be flip. Unfortunately, it sounded like accusation.

"Dean," Sam said, sounding like he was swallowing his tongue.

"That came out wrong." Dean scrubbed a hand down his face, disliking the lost expression on Sam's face as much as he'd hated the bereft one. Emo Sam strikes again, he thought. "Seriously, Sam, this time it wasn't even a little bit you. It wasn't like with Ellicott. I know that. I don't remember much, but I do seem to recall you fighting to throw the damned spirit's aim off. If anything, that saved me. There's nothing to feel guilty about. It wasn't you."

Sam glanced away, apparently unconvinced.

"Besides, I shot you back, remember? We're even." Like this was a frigging competition or something, the self-flagellation Olympics. "There's enough guilt to go around if we look for it hard enough. We don't have to talk about this now. Or ever."

Looking back at him, Sam didn't appear any less tortured. Dean decided to chalk it up to residual pain from the gaping hole in Sam's shoulder, though he knew that was wishful thinking. He just didn't have the energy to deal with it. For the moment, though, Sam nodded and Dean was granted a temporary reprieve. He'd have to see what he could do to extend that to forever. Some things were better left unspoken. He knew Sam hadn't meant to hurt him, and he sure as hell wouldn't voluntarily shoot Sam. It was all black and white.

"Okay, then. Let's go. Brunhilda's circling around outside with a sponge."

Dean stood, leg muscles threatening to betray how weak he was in spite of his bluff and bluster. No one could really take a bullet at close range and be ready for action in less than a week, just like a knock to the head meant feeling crappy for days. With the added complication of busted ribs, he was lucky he'd been raised too stubborn to give in to any of it while anyone was looking. He listed to the right, but he compensated. He was well versed in the art of pretending, and so much depended on looking the part here.

"Are you sure you're…" Sam started to say.

Dean turned to face him with a glare, making sure Sam knew this wasn't open for negotiation.

Sam held out his good hand in capitulation, not bothering to finish the sentiment. He just stood there like a kicked dog. The black eye had faded to gold and green hues, the swelling mostly gone. That left Sam with two eyes, which he was trying to make all dewy and little brotherish. Dean wasn't in the mood for that Jedi mind trick.

"That's not going to work either," Dean said dryly.

"Fine," Sam said, losing most of the pretense. He still looked worried. "But I'm driving."

He could give that to Sam. Dean might not like the idea of his brother behind the wheel, ever, but he was feeling weaker by the second. If they were going to crash in the snow, he'd rather it be Sam's fault than his. He was all right with the fact that made him a jerk. He didn't ever want to be responsible for damaging the car. Dad would kill him, for one thing. For another, that car was about the only thing Dean had to a home. He couldn't have a hand in even scratching it.

"Sure, Sammy," Dean agreed, hoping that would get Sam out of the room. He was suddenly feeling woozy and needed to sit or he'd be lying on the floor in three seconds.

"It's Sam," his brother said, shuffling past him. "Put some pants on, man. You have ugly knees, bowed legs and your gown's open in the back."

That would explain the cool draft. If he hadn't spent the last five days, three of them painfully aware, getting poked, prodded and touched in all the wrong ways, Dean might be embarrassed to be standing there with his ass exposed for anyone to see. Then again, maybe not. He was in excellent shape. Well, except the busted ribs and bullet hole.

"Jealousy is for girls," Dean called at his brother's retreating back. "I make this look good."

The second Sam was out of sight, Dean's legs threatened mutiny in the worst possible way. He moved to the bed as fast as he could, barely making it there without falling. Taking several shallow, controlled breaths helped, but working up to dressing and looking like he felt fine again was in his immediate future. It was damned hard work. He had no choice. Now that he'd sold Sam on leaving, he couldn't succumb to exhaustion for long. He closed his eyes, bracing himself up on his left arm and cradling his ribs with his right.

"Oh," someone said. "Sorry."

Dean opened one eye, squinting at the door to his room. Deputy Graham stood on the threshold, looking uncomfortable. As unaccountably good as the guy had been to him and Sam, Dean got the impression Graham would just as soon see them gone. His demeanor had changed, recognizable even in their casual acquaintance. Before, he'd thought of Graham as a rookie, small-town cop. Now, the way the deputy carried himself spoke of someone who'd seen things. He was haunted by them. Dean had known that feeling most of his life.

"Graham," he said. "You can come in."

"No, it's okay. I can tell you don't feel well."

"I feel fine. I actually need one last favor. Can you get my clothes for me?"

What the hell, the guy had already seen his boxers once.

"Why do you need your clothes?"

"We're leaving. We've outlasted our welcome."

"Oh." Graham twitched a little, but didn't look surprised. If anything, he looked relieved. "I suppose you guys can't stay in one place for too long, if you can help it. It's good, though. Willis is bound to start pressing me about what happ…about that night."

Just mentioning it made Graham look green around the gills.

"The supernatural isn't as exciting when you've seen it yourself, is it?" Dean asked gruffly.

"No," Graham said, nostrils flaring. He walked over to the closet and pulled out Dean's jeans, boots and shirts. He set them on the bed. "I thought it would be different. It was…actually it was terrifying. Don't take this the wrong way, but I'll be glad when you're gone. I just want to forget it all happened."

"No offense taken, man." Dean cautiously picked up his jeans, contemplating how in the hell he was going to get them on and how to get Graham gone so he could do it in private. "I hope you can forget. Sometimes I wish I could, too. And, hey, at least now if anything like this happens again, you know someone to call."

"Yeah. There's that." Graham awkwardly watched Dean struggle for a moment, then pulled the Impala's keys from his pocket before skittering back a few steps. "The car's in the north lot. I'm, uh, going to wait out in the hall. You want me to send in help?"

"God, no, don't do that," Dean said. Brunhilda would probably wrestle him back into bed just to get her hands on him again. He shuddered. "We're, uh, not checking out by the books."

"Right."

As Graham was leaving, it finally occurred to Dean to wonder why he'd stopped by in the first place.

"Graham, what were you coming to see me about, anyway?"

"I wasn't," Graham said, now looking everywhere but at Dean's bare legs, as if just becoming aware of them. "I brought someone else. She wanted to see your brother. Said he hadn't answered her calls and she had no idea what was going on, figuring I might be a good place to start."

Ah, the girl. Sam probably hadn't even seen his cell phone since that first disastrous attempt to put the spirit to rest. Dean nodded, but Graham had already ducked out of the room. Spurred by concern for Sam having to deal with this latest emotional baggage, Dean got himself dressed with relative ease. He didn't pass out or anything.

It took him nearly ten minutes.

By the time he limped out of the room, Dean saw his fully-dressed brother and Iris Green standing just outside of Sam's room. She smiled, said something and touched Sam's arm before heading his direction. Sam didn't look too bad, so maybe the angst-fest hadn't been so angsty after all. Small favors.

"Oh," Iris said when she saw Dean. She looked as ill at ease around him as Graham did. "I was just…I wanted to thank Sam, both of you, for finding out what happened to my friend, and for saving Gwen. I'm glad you'll both be okay."

"Thanks," he said. Dean didn't know her, didn't know what to say. "Uh."

"I should go."

"Okay." Dean pivoted as Iris walked around him, catching Graham's eye. He exchanged a nod, of thanks and good-bye, with the deputy. "Take care of yourselves."

Graham lifted a hand, giving a brief wave to Sam.

Dean turned back toward his brother, moving to Sam's side. He did see a hint of regret on Sam's face. If it wouldn't be the absolute worst idea in the world, he'd suggest sticking around if Sam needed to.

"You tell her everything?" he asked.

"No," Sam said. "Just that she didn't have to worry about what happened to her friend ever happening to anyone ever again. I don't think she wanted to know details."

"She'll be all right, Sammy."

"Yeah."

"You ready to hit the road?"

"Let's go," Sam said. "I'm getting tired."

Checking to make sure no one noticed their gimpy selves leaving, he and Sam headed for the elevator. All they had to do was look better than they felt. No big deal. Dean leaned unobtrusively on the handrail in the cab, still trying not to show his weakness.

"Keys, Dean," Sam said.

Sighing, Dean handed them over. He already knew it would be pointless to argue.

"So, where we going?" Dean asked.

"I was thinking about that. I think there's a fake chupacabra in sunny, snow-free Clovis, New Mexico we could fake hunt," Sam said as the elevator doors closed.