A/N: This is a follow-up to my previous fic "Weird Scary External Fixators," but I think it can be read alone, and that's why I'm posting it separately. Hope you enjoy! Just to warn you – the angst is kind of off-the-chart.

:::

It's a testament to how fucked-up their lives are that Sam is pretty damn used to seeing his brother hurt: he's seen him in hospital beds all across the country, signed casts with every color Crayola's made, unhooked I.V.s to sneak him out in the middle of the night, everything… but he can't remember ever seeing Dean like this.

It's not the breathing tube, or the cast encasing half his upper body, or even the way his eyes are sunken into his head like open graves – it's his fucking legs, wrapped in metal cages and hanging from the ceiling like meat in a slaughterhouse, and even though his father assures him it's helping Dean's legs heal right, it looks like they're doing more hurt than good.

John convinces Sam to go back to school the day after Dean's out of surgery – he's already missed too many days this semester, and if he misses any more the school's going to make him repeat his credits, and there's no fucking way he's going through any part of eighth grade again. It's sucking bad enough the first time.

He calls John at lunch, on the payphone outside of the nurse's office, leaning on the wall and trying not to pick at the new stitches on his arm.

"I told you, Sam," John says patiently. "The doctors are keeping him out to keep him comfortable. He'll wake up when it's okay for him to wake up."

Sam tightens his jaw, because for all his father's told him not to worry, it's noon and John actually answered Sam's call, which means he's sitting in their apartment waiting by the phone. Which means Sam's not alone in his anxiety.

"And if he wakes up you'll call the office? They can tell me if I'm in class?"

"Yeah, Sam," John says, and Sam can hear his patience running out. "Listen, I know it looks bad, but he's okay. He's really okay. So focus on… math, or gym, or whatever you need to focus on, and you let the doctors focus on your brother, okay?"

"Okay, but – Dad, it's…"

"Sam. He's fine. Trust me, okay, kiddo? Get back to class."

Sam does trust him. But that doesn't eradicate the image of Dean strapped to that bed, legs eaten by sharp metal jaws, crusted blood welling up around the holes where the spikes go in.

He heads back to the cafeteria, tries to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, too dry, too little jelly and too much peanut butter. It sticks in his throat and even chocolate milk doesn't wash it down.

:::

Dean wakes up the next day, but it's not much better. If anything, it's worse, scarier. Sam goes to see him after school and his brother looks hejust really does not look good. The legs are still hanging there, and he notices how Dean keeps his gaze away from them, though it seems pretty pointless to Sam since his eyes aren't really focusing, anyway. He's clearly on a shit-ton of drugs, slurring his words behind cracked lips.

"I got your homework from your teachers," Sam tells him. "But… they say if you're out for more than a month, you're probably gonna have to do summer coursework."

"'M not gonna be out for more than a month," Dean says, waves expansively with his good arm, even though it's gotta hurt with his busted ribs. He's moving that arm a lot, maybe because it's the only thing on his body he can move besides his head, and he knocked over three water glasses before the nurses got wise and moved them out of his reach.

"Yeah, you are, Dean," Sam says. "Doctors say—"

"I know wha' they say," Dean says impatiently. "'S fine, Sam."

Sam doesn't argue, because he doesn't really see the point. Dean's gonna be in a wheelchair for at least another month, and yeah, maybe he can get around school like that, but Sam doesn't want him to. He kind of wants Dean to stay locked inside and never leave the house again. Ever.

:::

John comes home from the hospital a few days later looking stressed and haggard, blows past Sam sitting at the dining room table doing his homework and heads straight to the fridge to get a beer.

He comes and sits across from Sam, pops the cap with his lighter and takes a long swig.

"They say Dean can come home on Thursday," John says, starts picking at the label – something Dean does, too. Sam wonders if he'll do it when he's old enough to start drinking beer regularly.

"Awesome!" Sam says, though John doesn't look too excited.

"Yeah," John says, winces a little and pushes his hand through his hair.

"What?" Sam asks warily. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," John hastens to assure him. "We just need to talk about the logistics of this."

"Okay...?" Sam's not sure what exactly his father means by "logistics."

"We're gonna be sticking around too long to rely on false insurance," John says. "So I took a job at a garage on Smith Ave. The one with the big tire balloon we drive past on the way to the hospital."

"Oh," Sam says, blinks. Imagining his father working a job that doesn't involve shooting monsters is a little off-putting, though Dean's told him that Dad used to co-own a garage before… before. "Weird."

"You get home from school around three every day, is that right?"

"Yeah," Sam says, seeing where this is going. "Three fifteen."

"You think you can come straight home for the next few weeks?"

"Sure," Sam says instantly. "Definitely."

"Your brother can't really be left alone, at least not for the next couple of weeks. And we can't afford an in-house nurse, medical bills are bad enough, and anyway, Dean—"

"Dean would rather stay in the hospital than have some lady come take care of him here," Sam finishes.

"Right."

"I can stay with him," Sam says. "While you're at work. I don't mind."

"Yeah?" John asks, looking relieved and a little sorry. "It's gonna – it's not going to be easy work, Sammy. He can't do much for himself right now, and he's going to need you to step in and help him out with – pretty much everything."

"Seriously, Dad," Sam says. "I don't mind." And he doesn't, not at all. After all, Dean's spent most of his life taking care of Sam, making his school lunches, tying his shoelaces, forging permissions slips, and honestly? Sam is sick of – sick of being in his debt. Sick of feeling that confusing mix of gratitude, guilt, and just a little bit of anger whenever he comes downstairs in the morning and his brother's got his lunch waiting on the counter, even if Dean's been thrown into a wall the night before and he can barely stand without swaying on his feet.

"All right," John says, hesitates, grinning a little. "You know he's not exactly – nice – when he's laid up like this, right?"

"I know," Sam says, rolling his eyes. "He's gonna bitch at me nonstop."

"Yeah," John says, smiles.

"Whatever," Sam says. "He'd do that anyway."

John laughs, smacks a palm on the table. "So it's a done deal?"

"Done deal."

:::

Dean is a little more skeptical.

"You know I can't take a dump on my own, right?" he asks bluntly, and Sam winces.

"Yeah."

"You're gonna have to, like, pick me up and drop me on the can."

"I know, Dean."

"I'm heavy, dude."

Yeah, Sam knows. He's a little worried about that, honestly. But, "I'm strong. And I'm taller than you."

"Not yet, you're not," Dean says, which is true, but Sam's getting up there, surprising all three of them with five inches in one summer.

"It'll be fine," Sam says, a little uncertainly.

"Don't worry," Dean says, laughing at the look on Sam's face. "You won't have to do that kind of shit – no pun intended. I can hold it."

"Gross, dude," Sam says, wrinkles his nose.

Dean grins, but thumps his head back on the pillow, looking like the conversation wore him out. Sam can see that underneath the bravado, Dean's freaked-out, hates being so reliant on everyone for everything. Sam doesn't like it either. It's weird seeing his brother so still – Dean's always moving, pacing, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He's been in bed for a week now, and Sam's still not used to it.

It'll be better when they get home, Sam reasons, where Dean can be around his family instead of this endless succession of dispassionate nurses and doctors. Dean's not a good patient at the best of times: even when it's just the flu, he's bitchy and easy to piss-off, clearly frustrated that his body would dare betray him, and trying to hide all evidence of that betrayal. So Sam's expecting Dean to be even more of a jerk than he already is when they get home, expects to get remote controls thrown at his head and demands for water shouted at him every time he enters a room – expects it, and is even looking forward to it, because the sight of his brother in that bed, face drawn and legs looking like Frankenstein's experiment gone terribly wrong, just won't quit Sam's head, and he'd rather be annoyed than afraid.

It'll be better when they get home. It has to be.

:::

Dean is still pretty fucked-up on painkillers the day he's released, is lifeless and silent as John gets him out of the wheelchair and deposits him on his the small bed in the room he shares with Sam, one arm behind Dean's back and one under his stiff legs: an awkward, cradled armful of six-foot-one seventeen year old with an extra twenty pounds of plaster weighing him down.

It makes Sam's stomach feel curdled and sick, to watch his brother submit like that, saying nothing, just grunting a little when his legs land on the mattress. Dean is raw-egg pale, discomfort etched in every line of his face, and he goes to sleep almost immediately. Sam lies on the next bed and tries to read, glancing every so often at his brother, watches him breathe.

Dean wakes up around nine in the evening, long enough to get down a bowl of soup, Sam watching as he fumbles the spoon, dribbles tomato broth onto the pristine white of the cast on his upper body and arm.

"You want—" Sam tries once, leaning forward, but Dean just shoots him a death glare, and Sam backs off. Relieved, kind of, to see a hint of Dean's attitude coming through the drugged-out glaze.

John brings him his meds and a glass of water, and then hoists him back into the wheelchair to take him to the bathroom. Sam doesn't even want to think about the logistics of that – he's getting more and more freaked out by the moment, watching John ease Dean into the chair, handling him with a certain deft detachedness that infuriates Sam at first, until he realizes that Dean probably prefers it.

Dean seems a little more alert when he gets back from the bathroom, offers Sam a weak grin as John's lifting him out of the chair.

"This is harder on the old man than it is on me," Dean says, clumsily pats John's shoulder with his good hand. "Probably gonna throw out his back."

John snorts, and Sam laughs, too high-pitched and loud. But Dean grins tiredly, leans forward to let his father prop him up on some pillows.

Sam has trouble sleeping that night, keeps waking up in a mild panic, blankets twisted around his body, pulse racing. The first few times he looks over, Dean's fast asleep in the next bed, breath coming soft and regular. But the fifth time his eyes fly open, heart hammering, he hears Dean moan and shift.

"Sammy?" Dean mumbles. "You okay?"

"Can't sleep," Sam says, hates how petulant he sounds. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean to wake you up."

"You need something?" Dean asks, starts pushing himself upright, then stops like he's just remembered he can't really move. He lets out a weak chuckle. "'Cause, if you do – you're gonna have to get it yourself."

"I'm fine," Sam says. "Just – I'm fine. You need anything? Water? Meds?"

"Sleep," Dean says, easing himself back down into the cushions, the white of his casts glinting bright in the moonlight. "Need sleep. You too, Sam. Do the… sheep… thing…" And he's out, leaves Sam still wide-awake, his stomach seizing with a tense, painful emotion that he can't name.

:::

When Sam comes home from school the next day, Dean is set up on the couch in a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, a glass of water in close reach, open book face-down on his stomach, television on, and a metal pot sitting on the floor. Dean is fast asleep.

"Hey," John says as Sam comes through the door. He's sitting at the kitchen table, a bottle of beer and a pile of papers in front of him that he hastily shoves under a newspaper when Sam comes in, but not before Sam catches a few words. Three-year cycle. Georgia. Mountain. Teeth. Clawmarks. Words that have Sam filling with a quick, overwhelming fury that almost chokes him. If his father tries to leave for a hunt right now, with Dean like this – Sam doesn't know what he'll do.

"Hey," Sam says, drops his books on a kitchen chair.

"I've got to take off," John says, pushing into a stand and heading over to the fridge, where there's a piece of paper hanging under a magnet from the local pizza place. John pulls down the paper, brings it over to where Sam's sitting, slaps it down in front of him.

"That's the schedule for Dean's meds," he says, pointing. "And this is the number of the garage, and the doctor, in case anything happens. He's been sleeping on-and-off all day, and I haven't really gotten him to eat much besides a bowl of cereal, so make sure he gets dinner. Pizza's fine. I left twenty bucks on the counter over there."

"Okay," Sam says, feeling a little overwhelmed, and remembers what Dean had said in the hospital. He clears his throat, can feel his ears turning red. "Uh – what if – what if he has to go to the bathroom?"

John gives him a smile that's more of a grimace. "He's got – if he has to pee, he's got a, a pot. So he can – he can do that from the couch. And—" John coughs awkwardly. "I wouldn't worry about – the other thing."

"Okay," Sam says, doesn't need any expansion on that, thank you very much.

"Okay," John repeats, glancing at his watch. "I've got to go. You good, here?"

"Yeah," Sam says. "If I—if—"

"I told my boss I had a kid laid-up from a couple broken legs," John says. "So if you need to call me, call me. It's not a problem. Got it?"

"Okay," Sam says, and John pauses, reaches down and ruffles Sam's hair.

"Don't worry about it, kiddo, okay? Just, give him the meds, get some food into him, and call if you need anything."

"Okay," Sam says, feels like that's all he's been saying, so he switches it up with an "I will. Thanks."

And John's gone.

Sam goes into the living room, shuts off the T.V. and sets himself up in the busted corner armchair with Lord of Flies, tries to focus on the essay he's got due next week.

Dean still hasn't woken up by six, which is when he's supposed to be taking his meds, so Sam gets a glass of water and shakes the pills into his hand and hesitantly taps a hand on his brother's good shoulder.

"Dean," Sam says. "Dean. Wake up."

Dean grunts, twitches.

"Dean," Sam says louder, and his brother's eyes slit open, face scrunching up a little.

"What?" he slurs. "Ow."

"Meds," Sam says. "C'mon, man, can you sit up?"

"'Course I can sit up," Dean mutters, but it turns out he can't, really, and Sam has to get an arm behind his back and help leverage him upwards, that tight feeling back in his chest.

Dean swallows the pills, leans back and closes his eyes again.

Sam hesitates by his side, not sure if he should try to talk to him or what, and after a moment he turns to go back to his chair.

"What the fuck, seriously," Dean says as Sam picks up his book. "I've been sleeping all fucking day, and I can't keep my goddamn eyes open."

"It's okay," Sam says. "Sleep is healthy. Your body's trying to heal itself."

"And it's doing such an awesome job," Dean groans.

"You hungry?" Sam asks. "Dad said we should order pizza."

"I'm good," Dean says, eyes still closed.

"You need food as much as you need sleep," Sam points out, and climbs to his feet. "And anyway, I'm hungry, so I'm gonna get something. You want pepperoni?"

"Whatever," Dean says, sighs.

When the pizza comes Sam is relieved to see that Dean can manage the slices on his own, resting the plate on his lap and carefully maneuvering the pizza to his mouth as best he can with one hand. He eats a couple slices and drinks a glass of milk, which Sam figures will be good for his healing bones.

"Dude," Dean says after he's finished his dinner. "Uh. You wanna – give me a second, here?"

"Huh?" Sam asks, wrinkling his brow, and color rises in Dean's cheeks as he gestures to the metal pot on the floor.

"Oh," Sam says, "oh, yeah, sure, okay, yeah. You need—"

"No!" Dean practically shouts.

"Okay," Sam says, and backs out of the room into the kitchen. But he can't block out the grunts he hears, the rustling sounds, and a few minutes later, the sound of water pinging on metal.

"All right," Dean calls after a while. "All clear."

Sam edges back into the living room, neither of them looking at one another.

"Should I – empty it?" Sam asks.

"Up to you," Dean says, squinches his eyes shut. "Jesus. Jesus, this is—"

"It's okay," Sam says hastily, coming forward to get the pot, steadfastly avoids looking inside. "I don't mind, it's okay." He really doesn't want to hear his brother apologize, doesn't think he can handle it. "You used to change my diapers. I bet that was way worse."

Dean doesn't answer, just grimaces as he tries to shift position.

When Sam comes back with the freshly rinsed pot (and well-scrubbed hands), Dean is flipping through the channels on their fuzzy television, the sound low. He glances up as Sam replaces the pot next to the couch, and Sam has to look away from the frustration and embarrassment he sees in Dean's eyes. It's worse than seeing his physical pain, almost.

"Wanna watch?" Dean asks. "The Simpsons."

"Sure," Sam says, starts to pull the armchair over. It snags on the rug, and Dean makes an impatient noise.

"You can sit on the couch," Dean says, "if you don't mind my legs on you."

Sam hesitates, then comes forward to settle himself on the couch, puts a pillow on his lap and eases Dean's legs up. The plaster of the casts is heavy and very solid, but Sam still feels like he's handling something incredibly delicate, and he's not sure why he's been trusted with it.

Dean is asleep when John comes home at nine, Sam watching How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days in bad quality on some random channel.

"How'd it go?" John asks, coming in with a beer and dropping down onto the armchair.

"Fine," Sam says, flipping off the T.V. as Kate Hudson starts screaming about love-ferns.

"He eat?"

"Yeah."

"You give him his meds?"

"Yeah."

"Good," John says, takes a sip of his beer. "Good. I guess I'll just let him sleep here for tonight, huh?"

"No!" Sam says, and John raises an eyebrow. Sam flushes a little. "I just – don't you think it's better if he's in our room, so I can keep an eye on him?"

"That's true," John says. "Good call." He sets the beer down on the ground and comes over to the couch, reaches down to move Dean's legs so Sam can scoot out from under them.

"Hey Deano," John says as Dean flutters his eyes open. "Rise and shine."

"Who's shining?" Dean asks, rubs his good fist into his eye sockets.

"Let's get you into bed," John says, pulls the wheelchair up next to the couch and puts the break on, leans down. Dean slings his good arm around his father's neck without protest, lets himself be transferred from cushions to chair. Only the clench of his jaw and the way he avoids Sam's gaze gives any indication about how he feels being carried around like a child.

Suddenly, the phone rings, and John jerks his head up.

"I've gotta grab that," he says. "Hang on."

"Can I—?" Sam asks, coming up behind Dean's wheelchair and gripping the handles.

"Yeah, yeah," Dean says, his good hand flexing uselessly on the armrest. "Jesus. If I could use my fucking arm, this would be a hell of a lot easier."

"Least you didn't break both arms," Sam says, navigating the grooves in the warped wood of the floor.

"Right," Dean says. "I'm blessed."

"Uh, do you need to go to the bathroom, or…?"

"I just need to brush my teeth," Dean says, and Sam gets him into the tiny, mildewed bathroom, pushes him up to the sink, gets his toothbrush from the top shelf, spreads a line of toothpaste on it and hands it to Dean, gets his own.

Dean sticks the toothbrush awkwardly in his mouth, goes at it for a second.

"Thish ish hard," he announces around a mouthful of toothpaste. "Brushink your teef wif the wrong hand."

"Really?" Sam switches hands for a moment. "You're right. Weird."

Dean nods sagely, sends a stream of minty spit into the sink.

Once in their room, Sam pauses as he pulls Dean's wheelchair up to the bed.

"Wait for Dad," Dean directs, reading Sam's thoughts in that uncanny way he has.

"I got it," Sam says, puts the break on the chair like he's seen his father do. "Come on."

"No," Dean says, irritation crossing his face.

"What, you'll let Dad do it but not me?"

"Uh, yeah?"

"Why?"

"Because you're a weakling and you'd drop me? For one."

Sam flops onto his own bed, feeling unreasonably insulted. Dean shifts in the chair, grips the wheel with his good hand and attempts to maneuver himself a little, rolls backwards half a foot and to the left a couple inches.

"What's up? What do you need?" Sam asks, half-rising.

"Christ, Sam, nothin'. Just testing the waters."

"Kinda choppy today," Sam notes.

"Fuck you."

John comes in, then, looks between the two of them. "Dean," he asks. "You about ready for bed?"

"Yeah," Dean says, and John comes forward without preamble, pulls back the blankets and hoists Dean carefully into the bed, gets him situated on the pillows. Dean's jaw is clenched by the time John is done, good hand in a fist, and he thumps his head back against the headboard once, but doesn't say anything about the pain he's clearly feeling.

Sam goes into the kitchen to get Dean's meds without being asked, runs the tap till the water is cold and then for a little longer, stalling for time so he doesn't have to go back in and watch John get Dean into his pajamas.

Sam knows John is a good father – he really does know, no matter how often he accuses his dad of being a monomaniacal, militaristic asshole. But still it's weird, off-putting, to see his dad like this around Dean, doing everything for him without remarking on it. Not like he expects John to shrug and say, "Suck it up," but the Winchester approach to injuries doesn't really leave any room for coddling.

Then again, none of them have ever really been hurt this bad before.

Sam goes slowly back to the bedroom, finds John perched on the side of Dean's bed, telling Dean some lame joke about blowjobs and ducks. Dean is grinning, but his hand is fisted tight in the blankets, and his face is pale.

"Thanks, Sammy," John says, takes the glass of water from him and hands it to Dean along with the meds. Dean swallows them down without protest, and John pats him gently on the shoulder.

"You all set for tonight?" John asks, and Dean nods.

Sam lays the salt lines, puts down extra just for good measure, makes sure Dean's got his gun under his pillow in easy reach. Dean is asleep by the time Sam comes in with The Lord of the Flies, and Sam flips on the lamp by his bed, settles in to read.

The book is pretty fuckin' creepy, and Sam has to put it down after a while, head filled with images of fly-encrusted boar's heads and blood. The lamp is old and yellow and dim and the room is dark, the curtains waving in the moonlight, Dean quiet and still. He's usually a restless sleeper, tossing and turning, up at the slightest provocation, alert and on-guard, but he's motionless now, from the drugs and from the casts weighing his body down. Sam thought it bugged him, Dean's constant vigilance, but now… now he realizes how safe it made him feel, knowing that his brother was there in the room with him, at-the-ready just in case.

Sam shivers, looks over at Dean, thinks what would happen if something broke in right now. Thinks what he would do to protect his brother. He doesn't usually think about that – usually, he's the one being protected.

Dean sighs a little in his sleep, a soft, childlike sound, and Sam suddenly feels the hot rush of tears behind his eyelids, surprising in their intensity. He blinks them back but it doesn't do any good, and he feels them spill and hover on the edges of his eyelashes before dropping down onto his cheeks. He feels a drop fall on his hand, and for some reason, that's what sets him off for real. He cries silently, wiping futilely at his cheeks, and it's the kind of aching, held-back crying that's painful and doesn't do anything to make him feel better, is worse than not crying at all.

He's just so fucking sick of seeing his brother hurt, sick of needing Dean for everything, and he's sick of feeling guilty, sick of feeling grateful, sick of being taken care of, sick of being angry – sick of this life, filled with hospitals and dark forests and the acrid scent of gunpowder, the copper tang of blood. The sight of his brother, white bone poking through skin and blood soaking through his jeans, and then later hooked to a respirator, a machine breathing for him with a steady, unnatural whirr. He's just sick of it.

Dean shifts, groans a little, and Sam stiffens in panic, turns his head away from his brother's bed, praying Dean won't wake up.

But, "Sammy?"

Fuck.

"Yeah? Dean? You okay?"

There's a pause. "Dude. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, fine," Sam says, praying that Dean didn't hear him crying.

There's a rustling sound, the thump of plaster on wood, a pained grunt. Sam turns before he remembers why he'd turned away in the first place, about to tell Dean to stay still, but he freezes when he sees the look of horror on Dean's face.

"Sam," Dean says, renews his struggle to sit up, more or less succeeds. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Sam says, feeling stupid and wretched, swipes his sleeve across his eyes. "Nothing, it's nothing, I'm an idiot, I just—"

"It's not nothing," Dean says, casting about helplessly with his good hand, clearly attempting to get some sort of grip on something.

"Dean, stop moving, you're gonna—"

"I'm not gonna just sit here while you're – while you're – come on, dude, please, what is it? I'm—"

"It's you," Sam blurts. "I mean, it's just – Dean, you're… you're so fucked up right now."

Dean stops, looks down at himself. "No shit, man. Seriously, is that what's wrong? C'mon, you've seen me hurt before, you've—"

"Not like this," Sam says wildly. "You can't even – Jesus, Dean, you didn't see yourself in the hospital. You didn't see what you looked like when that fucking tractor mowed you down. I sat in the back with you, I could feel your fucking bones moving around, man, you—" and he kind of loses it again, like a fucking baby, buries his head in his hand and just dissolves into a pile of snot and hot tears, soaking the sleeve of his shirt.

"Hey," Dean says, "hey, hey, come here. Sam, come here."

Sam shakes his head, can't look at his brother, feels like the lamest kid on the planet, but he can't stop. He was just so scared, and Dean's so messed up, and everything feels out-of-control and terrifying.

"Sam," Dean says, in a tone that brooks no arguments. "Get the fuck over here right now."

Sam doesn't know why he obeys, but he does, starts to sit on the edge of Dean's bed, but Dean stops him.

"Other side, dude."

"Why?" Sam snuffles, confused.

"So I can give you a fucking hug, you moron," Dean says impatiently, and Sam is startled into a wet laugh.

He perches gingerly next to his brother, and Dean snakes out his good arm, pulls Sam tight up against his side even though Sam's almost as tall as he is and even though it's gotta be murder on his ribs.

"I'm fine," Dean mumbles into Sam's hair, and Sam feels another wave of tears coming. "Okay? Sammy. I'm fine."

And all of a sudden Sam realizes that he is fine, feels solid and alive, heart thumping strong under Sam's ear, and Sam breathes out a slow, hitched breath, hiccups a little. He tries to pull back, but Dean just tightens his hold.

"I'm fine, Sammy" he repeats, and Sam sags a little on his chest. Dean is sparing with his hugs, hands them out only when they're really needed, and right now? Right now, Sam really needs a freakin' hug. Needs to know that his brother is okay. Fresh tears spring to his eyes, but they're not as painful, have a measure of relief in them. He doesn't feel like he's breaking apart, anymore.

After a long moment, Dean gives him a little shove.

"Okay," he says. "Another minute of this and I think my ribs might break again."

Sam pulls back quickly. "Sorry," he says, paws at his face with his sleeve-covered hand. "Sorry."

"It's okay," Dean says, punches him lightly on the leg. "I know. I – this sucks for me, too, you know."

"No shit," Sam says dryly, and Dean laughs.

"Go to bed, Sam," he says, starts to easy himself back down. Sam reaches forward to help and Dean bats him away, which shouldn't make Sam grin, but it does, even though he can feel snot drying on his face and technically he shouldn't be smiling at anything until he gets a tissue.

Sam climbs back into his own bed, turns off the light, and the room is pitch-dark save for the thin sliver of light from the hall that sneaks through the bottom of the door.

"You okay?" Dean asks, and Sam can tell from his voice that his brother is already drifting back off into his medicated slumber.

"Yeah," Sam says, and he thinks maybe he is. For now. But he's realized something that makes his heart pound and his guts clench, even though he knows bone-deep that it's the truth.

He can't do this forever.

He won't.

And with that, he falls asleep.

:::end:::