And here it is! The final chapter! HUGE apologies to Sammy for leaving him suffocating for over a week! Blame the PhD.... and the Table Mountain-sized chunk of writer's block that wouldn't let me get anything out even when the PhD gave me a break.
And now: I'd just like to thank my goldfish, Oscar, for always believing in me... Seriously, though, thanks to my Dad and brother for being medical sounding boards, and my Mom for being unofficial beta. And thanks to all you fantastic people who reviewed, and also those who didn't review but put me on story alerts... love you all! If I haven't replied to a review send me a nasty message and I will! I appreciate them all so much, including the anonymous/ non-logged in reviews which I can't reply to but love just as much!
This story is dedicated to SunnyZim who hooked me on FanFiction in the first place - just one of the many addictions that we share! :-)
And now that you're all asleep from my ramblings, let's get down to the story...
Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did... well, let's not go there ;-)
"He's hypoxaemic. Chest X-ray indicates bilateral lower lobe consolidation. I want this kid on IV cefuroxime and metronidazole."
Dr. Everett was considerably less cheerful now. He barked orders, his face frowning. Dean, thrust unceremoniously to the side by the influx of medical personnel, watched in helpless frustration and fear as uniforms blocked his view.
He couldn't see Sam. But he could hear him.
"Tachypnoea... dyspnoea..." The nurse who had come hurrying in response to the frantic pressure on the call button had phoned through to Dr. Everett, her words technical and professional and unable to conceal the alarm that had spiked in her eyes when she saw Sam.
More of the fancy medical jargon. Dean didn't need a PhD in hospital lingo to know that it was bad. No-one should be breathing like that, fast and strained and wheezing.
They'd said he was fine. Dr. Landon had said he was stabilised. Dr. Everett had said he'd be walking out of there in a day or two. He was sitting up and talking and fine.
Dean bit his lip, hard enough to squirm at the pain.
I didn't get a chance to say I'm sorry.
What if I never do?
Shut up, Dean. He'll be okay. He's a tough kid.
But what if... what if this is tougher?
Some day we're going to fight a battle we can't win. We can't live forever.
But it shouldn't be now.
It shouldn't be before I have a chance to say sorry...
Dr. Everett was standing in front of him, frowning a little.
"What – how's Sam? What's wrong with him?"
"Sam has developed what is called aspiration pneumonia. When he vomited he must have inhaled some of the gastric contents, which are acidic, and consequently damaged his lungs."
"Is that bad?"
Dr. Everett's lips tightened.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Mr. Winchester, it's a serious condition. We are treating it with an aggressive course of antibiotics. Right now the most important thing is respiratory support. He's on oxygen, but we will be monitoring his condition. He may need to go onto a ventilator."
"But he'll be okay."
Something flickered in the doctor's eyes.
"Many patients respond to therapy very positively. There is no reason to suppose that Sam will be any different."
Dean saw what the man wasn't saying. His voice was harsh through the sudden constriction in his throat.
"He will be okay. Sam will be fine."
Dr. Everett smiled. It didn't reach his eyes.
"We'll be doing everything we can."
Dean knew the doctor was trying to be kind, but he found himself resenting it. Dr. Everett didn't need to pretend. He didn't need to say reassuring things with his mouth and forecast doom with his eyes. Sam was going to be fine. He was going to fight off this ass-thing – pneumonia – and get up and go back to the motel with Dean and be all emotional and girly and normal. He was going to do it because Dean wouldn't let him do anything else. Dean couldn't let him do anything else.
There was a shift in the personnel around the bed. Dean broke away from the doctor and made for his brother. He wasn't going to spend time in useless discussion when he could be with Sam.
Sam was no longer such an alarming dusky blue, but his colour was nowhere near normal. The head of the bed had been elevated to assist his breathing. A nasal cannula delivering oxygen was secured beneath his nose.
"Sammy?" Dean's hand went, without thought, to his brother's forehead. Sam was still too hot.
Sam blinked slowly, eyes struggling to focus.
"D'n..." He coughed. "Don' feel... so good..."
"I know, Sammy."
"Apparently when you were busy losing your lunch you breathed it in. It screwed around with your lungs."
Sam blinked vaguely.
"Would have thought you'd know better than to vomit and breathe at the same time, college boy."
A dimple made a valiant attempt at an appearance, but Sam was obviously too exhausted to respond fully. His eyes slid shut, opened sluggishly, and shut again.
"D'n..." It was a mutter, almost inaudible. But Dean's hearing was exceptionally acute where Sam was concerned. His hand shifted, and closed comfortingly around the long, limp fingers which lay on the sheet.
To hell with the chick flick aversion...
There was something on his chest.
Not in an "I think I broke a rib" kind of way.
It was more of a heavy, dull, ache.
Whatever it was, it wasn't making breathing any easier.
Sam wished it would just get off.
He was so tired. He couldn't remember ever being this tired. Everything seemed such an effort. Surely it had never been this hard just to breathe? How had he kept it up for over twenty years? In out in out... everyone did it, even babies. But it seemed now to be one of the most difficult things he'd ever had to do.
It was as if someone had tied a thick, wet blanket over his head.
He was cold, too. He could feel the weight of what must be bedclothes. They weren't doing a very good job.
We picked a pathetic motel this time.
He heard voices, soft, feminine.
Not a motel, then.
School... the apartment...
"Sam?" That was most definitely not Jess. The voice was deeper, masculine. Familiar.
What's Dean doing in the apartment? Where's Jess? Why...
It was strange and unfamiliar. Something was... off. This didn't feel right.
"Sam. Sammy. Hey, calm down."
Whatever was on his chest was pushing down. It was squashing him.
Where was Jess?
It was getting harder to breathe. Something was on his face, covering his mouth and nose. It wanted to smother him. He had to get it off.
He struggled, fighting to get away. He had to escape. It was trying to kill him...
He felt hands on either side of his face, blocking his attempts.
"Sammy. Sammy! Relax, kiddo. You've gotta calm down."
Dean! Help me! Tryin' to get me... kill me...
He had to get away. Find Jess. Escape. They were all around him...
"Shhh. Just lie still, Sammy... breathe for me.... you're gonna be fine..."
No. Hurts. Can't breathe...
"Do something... he can't breathe... help him..."
A voice... Dean.... sounded worried...
He could hear other voices. The feminine ones again.
A man's voice. Not Dean's. Someone was holding his wrist.
Need to... sleep...
Someone was calling his name. He couldn't answer.
"Sammy..." Urgent. Fading.
It's out there, chasing them. Dad was there, but now he can't find him.
Sam can hear the rustles in the heavy undergrowth all around.
He has to get it. Trap it. Kill it.
It's so cold...
Dean doesn't answer. Sam turns, stares, spins around in sudden fear.
Dean was here. Where has he gone?
A crashing. Something lunges, snarling, trying to attack him.
Sam flings up his rifle. Fires. Silver bullet finds its mark.
Fur and blood and hideous shrieks. Writhing as it returns in death to its human form.
Spiky fair hair... five o'clock shadow... scars...
Familiar green eyes stare accusingly. Sightlessly.
Sam's scream fades as he falls into darkness again.
"Grow up, Sam. I'm getting tired of bailing you out."
Dean sits on the bed, staring at the television.
"I'm always doing damage control. Always having to rescue you."
"Dad always knew you would be a liability. You're useless as a hunter. You should have stayed in Stanford."
"'m sorry... 'm sorry..."
"I'm sick of your complaining. Always moaning, always whining."
"'m sorry, Dean... I'll try... don't..."
"I wish you'd just go back, to Stanford and your precious friends and your perfect normal world. Dad and I were better off without you."
Don't.... please.... Dean... don't send me away...
Need a chance... can be better... won't be a burden...
Sam shifted restlessly, his head on the pillow moving from side to side. Sweat-darkened hair clung in limp strands to his forehead. Under the oxygen mask his face was heavily flushed. His eyes were half-open, but they were blurred with fever and unrecognising of anyone around him.
"Dean..." His voice was hoarse, cracked. The mask muffled the sound but couldn't hide the distress. One hand lifted weakly, groping for something – someone – before falling limply back onto the sheets.
Another hand, stronger, closed over the slack fingers.
"It's okay, Sammy. I'm here."
"I'm right here, Sammy." Exhaustion and grief and endless patience.
Green-blue eyes cracked open a little more, peered at him.
"'m sorry... De... sorry..."
"What for, Sammy? You got nothing to be sorry for."
"Sorry... Dean... don' wanna... go..."
Dean stared in helpless misery at his brother. Sam was delirious, wandering, lost in dreams and nightmares that tortured him and tortured Dean almost as much. He cried out, moaned, whimpered in distress, and always came back to this.
Don't wanna go...
Don't leave me...
Dean had thought he could not feel worse than he had in that stark moment of realisation back in the motel, cradling his unconscious brother and knowing that this was his fault. But he'd been wrong.
Listening to that husky voice, pleading, begging for him to stay, not to leave him, he knew a depth of guilt and self-hatred that he couldn't have imagined. He'd caused this illness, with the medication that he should have known might be dangerous. Left his brother, selfishly angry with him for a mistake any seasoned hunter might make, let alone one who was already ill. Ignored him when Sam tried to tell him something was wrong. Sat drinking in a bar somewhere while Sam threw up and passed out and breathed in stuff which cruelly damaged his lungs.
And now he refused his brother the refuge of sleep. He had no doubt that Sam relived the experiences of the last few days, of Dean's abandonment and his own fear at the severity of his situation, of trying to call his older brother, unsuccessfully. That abandonment and fear stalked Sam's nightmares, Dean knew. The guilt of being the cause of those emotions haunted his own.
He had no idea why Sam was saying sorry.
He was fighting a frantic but losing battle with the realisation that he might not have the chance to say it himself.
"Shh, shh Sammy. 'S okay. I'm not gonna leave you." His thumb moved in idle circles over the back of his brother's hand.
Dean hangs from his wrists, head down, blood trickling from his face.
"Sam... help me..."
Sam lifts the gun. Stupidly slow. Aims.
"Sam..." Dean's scream. Agonised. Terrified.
Sam sobs, blotting out his brother's dying yells.
Should have killed it... Wendigo...
Dean... so sorry... so sorry...
Hands tight, fingers tense on the trigger.
Dean lies on the floor. Still. Poised.
Staring at him.
"Shoot me, Sam...."
His finger jerks, pulling the trigger.
Dean's face... shocked... blood spilling...
Green eyes are horrified. Devastation and sorrow fade to blankness. Betrayal.
I killed him... I shot him... Dean... big brother...
"You killed him..."
"Dean is dead..."
"Didn't tell her... should have warned her..."
"Never be a hunter... not a good little soldier..."
Heads turn away, condemning, hating.
Don't leave me...
Green eyes, fair hair, familiar leather jacket.
Can't do it without you...
Sorry, Dean.... so sorry...
"I'm sorry, Mr. Winchester."
Dean's eyes were dull with fatigue, green surrounded by spiders' webs of red. He blinked.
"He's not responding to the antibiotics and his lungs are weakening. He's slipping into a coma. I'm afraid... I'm afraid there's nothing more we can do."
Slipping into a coma.
Nothing more we can do.
Nothing more we can do...
Sam was finally still. His body was lax and unmoving, his face turned slightly away on the pillow. The only sounds in the room were the beep of the heart monitor – too fast – and the shallow, gasping breaths as Sam's failing lungs fought for oxygen through the congestion.
His hand was burning hot. Motionless. Long limp fingers lay unresponsive in Dean's grip.
Dean didn't notice when the doctor quietly left the room.
"Sammy..." He didn't know what to say. He stared down at the hand in his. Sam's hand. His baby brother.
Tiny starfish fingers, closed round his thumb... little chubby hand, clinging as they crossed the road... thin fingers under his as he taught his brother how to fire a rifle...
He'd held that hand so many times.
Now he was holding it again, for the first time in years. And it was going to be the last time. Sam was slipping away from him. Leaving him. His little brother, the most important person in the world to him, the one he'd give his life for, was dying.
Never going to hold his hand again...
Never going to hunt with him again...
Never going to fight about girls, or music, or food...
Never going to deal with one of his moods...
Never going to comfort him after one of his nightmares...
Years of being Sam's big brother were ending, here, now, and there wasn't a single solitary thing he could do about it.
"Sammy." His throat was dry and aching.
I never got to say sorry.
Our last conversation... I went to get coffee. I didn't say sorry. He still blamed me.
I'll never get to say sorry...
Dean had never been one to show his affection for his family physically. A manly hand on the shoulder was generally the furthest he'd go.
Now his inhibitions seemed ridiculous. How many times as a child had he put his arms round his baby brother, cuddling a frightened Sammy after a bad dream, patting him on the back after a particularly good performance in a training session?
What had happened to that Dean?
When was the last time he'd hugged Sam?
He'd avoided emotional moments for so long. He didn't want to talk about his feelings. Sam should know that... that...
I can't even say I love him in my head.
That's just all kinds of wrong.
His teeth clenched, and for a moment his eyes clenched shut with them.
Sam's hand was slack and unmoving in his and he clutched it desperately, as if somehow by holding on he would keep Sam's life tethered here, prevent it from slipping away. Stop Sam leaving him.
There were people around. Nurses, doctors... They could see him if they looked in, but it suddenly didn't matter who saw, who was witness to the emotional collapse of Dean Winchester. His world had shrunk to this room, this bed, this boy who was his brother and who was leaving – dying.
Without even thinking Dean slid off his chair and climbed onto the bed, wrapping his arms around his brother and holding him tightly. There was no response from Sam, no evidence at all that he was aware of Dean's presence. Dean cradled his brother's head against his shoulder, his fingers moving slowly, almost unconsciously, through the damp strands of chestnut hair.
"Sammy..." His voice was a low mutter, almost inaudible. It didn't matter. The only person who needed to hear was here, in his arms – not hearing him. But at that moment Dean just needed to tell him anyway. Maybe, somehow, wherever he was, Sam would sense it, feel what his brother was saying.
That was all that Dean had, now.
"Sammy... I'm so sorry... I should have listened to you. I should have seen you were sick. I should have stayed with you... I'm so sorry I left you. I was mad about that bear and that was so stupid, you know?... I just got mad and took off... I'm so sorry..."
The hand that wasn't stroking the dark head held Sam's hand. He looked down at the long clever fingers, the calloused palm.
"I shouldn't have given you that aspirin... ya know that made it worse? Doc says you shouldn't take Advil and aspirin together. I shoulda known... or... or found out. I just thought... I guess I thought the Advil would be bad all by itself. I was tryin' to help... I wasn't... I didn't mean... I dunno, Sammy, seems like I'm doing a hell of a bad job of looking after you... I'll try better –"
His voice hitched, and broke.
Can't try better.
Not getting another chance...
"I know I always push away the emo sessions but... but... you know I... ah, hell, I'm so bad at saying this stuff. It's just... I can't let you go without telling you. I couldn't have done it without you, kiddo... Mom... and Dad... all the fugly stuff we go for... I think... I think I wouldn't have made it if you weren't there. I guess what I'm trying to say is... is... " His voice faltered.
"I'm giving you a chick flick moment on a plate here, man, and you're ignoring me!" His wobbly chuckle broke in a sob.
"I can't... I can't do it, Sammy... You're the only one I've got. I can't say goodbye to you, too..."
He was so light. Weightless.
Everything had been a battle for so long. Fighting through the nightmares. The pain, the struggle to cough, to breathe.
Don't want to fight any more.
I didn't want to give up...
It's just too hard.
I'm just too tired.
Letting go. It was almost a physical sensation. He was drifting away, to quiet and lightness, to where his chest didn't hurt and he didn't have to labour for every breath.
It was the faintest whisper of sound.
It didn't make sense. He didn't want to listen. He wanted that quiet and peace and relief, so alluring, so welcome to his exhausted body. But something was stopping him. Something wouldn't let him go.
"So bad at this..."
"Couldn't have done it without you, kiddo... Mom... and Dad..."
The voice was familiar, pulling at him through the fog which separated them.
"Couldn't have made it if you weren't there..."
It was Dean. He sounded odd. Husky. Choked.
"I can't do it, Sammy..."
What... don't understand...
Thudding against his ear, rapid and audible. Heaving, shaky breaths.
"You're the only one I've got..."
Dean is crying?
He wanted to move, to help. Say something. Something was wrong. Drastically wrong, to make Dean lose it like this. Dean hadn't cried since...
"I can't say goodbye to you, too..."
No! No... don't... don't wanna... don't leave me...
It was so hard, turning his back on that lovely peace. But he didn't want it now, like that. He didn't want peace and rest and quietness – without his brother.
Sam's voice was so weak that Dean almost didn't hear it.
It was only when the hot fingers stirred in his grip that his head jerked up, staring first at their entwined hands and then at the face resting against his shoulder.
Thick eyelashes fluttered. Eyelids scrunched.
"Sammy, can you hear me?"
"Dean..." It was the faintest breath. It was hoarse and rasping.
It was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard.
Then he was staring at a sight he'd thought he'd never see again – the familiar blue-green of his brother's eyes.
"Sammy..." Nothing else could get out. "Sammy..."
"Dean... don'... don' wanna say g'bye... wanna stay..."
"Sam..." It was a choke.
"Not gonna leave... don' make me..."
Dean hadn't thought it was possible to be holding Sam any tighter than he already was. Now he found he'd been mistaken.
"I'm sorry, bro... I'm sorry... it's all my fault... I'm not gonna leave you again, you hear me?"
Sam's head stirred against his shoulder.
"You... you're not... mad at me?" His voice was small and surprised.
"What? Mad at you? Why?"
"I... I screwed up... the hunt..."
The hunt. The hunt! If it hadn't been for that stupid hunt...
"Sammy, I...." He swallowed, hard. "No. I'm not mad at you. I'm not mad at you at all. I'm mad at myself."
"Why?" Sam sounded honestly confused.
"I was the one who screwed up! I told you to take the aspirin and it made you sick. And then you tried to tell me and I didn't listen... I left you, when I should have seen something was wrong..." His voice broke, sound wholly suspended by the tears that threatened to choke him.
Sam's hand stirred, pulled free of his. Then it smacked weakly against Dean's chest.
"You're such... an idiot... sometimes..."
"I took aspirin... myself... before you told me... and too much Advil... you tried to stop me... if 's anyone's fault... 's mine..."
"You needed... a break. 's nothing wrong... with that..."
"You gonna... stay at home... every time I get... a tummy bug, man?"
"It wasn't a tummy bug!"
"I didn't... know that. You... wouldn't have... either."
"You're a little too... obsessed with... butts, Dean."
Dean closed his eyes briefly. His laugh was more than half sob.
"Sammy... I thought... I... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Dean..." Sam's voice was fading. "Stop it. 'S okay."
Dean was silent.
Sam's eyes were almost shut as he drifted. Almost under... almost gone again.
But it was different now. The incessant rhythm from the heart monitor was slower, steadier. The face against his neck was cooler.
Sam was coming back.
Sam moved his head, shifted so that he was resting against Dean's chest. It was the old familiar position, the post-nightmare position, the "big brother will make it better" position.
They hadn't sat like this for years. Somehow it was as if they were back to those days.
They'd both been through the nightmare, separately. And now it was over.
He could feel the steady thump of Dean's heart against his ear. Lulling him to sleep. Real sleep, without dreams. Without those awful fears...
Dean was here, and they were going to be alright.
He was almost asleep.
"Jerk...." Love you, bro...
Dean's muttered answer was lost as he slipped into sleep, but he understood anyway.
Love you too, Sammy...