*Wallflowergirl babbles with incoherent joy that this is FINALLY finished*
Sorry that this took a little longer than I said it would. But then again, it wasn't three months this time. And let me say right here, all the wonderful encouragement I got for the last chapter was such motivation to work on this one! You guys made me so happy :-)
I want to send a special thanks (and a huge hug) to my wonderful mom, who gave me a brilliant idea when I was stuck at one point in this chapter. I love you, Muth!
Disclaimer: I'm hoping they'll jump out of a parcel for me on my birthday... but until then, they're not mine. I don't own Planet Earth either, or Richard Scarry.
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His head hurt.
He thought he could remember that from before: the heavy, fierce throb, pounding through his temples and sparking behind his eyes.
It was detached now, the intensity dulled.
Nearby a machine was sounding a soft regular tone, and in the distance he heard voices, although he couldn't make out individual words.
It was all familiar. He'd been here before, or somewhere like it.
He couldn't remember why, though. Or when.
He could remember the heat, the blinding sun and heavy, stifling air washing over tender skin. Discomfort that was close to hurt. Gritty sand and sharp rocks under too-sensitive feet – no discomfort there, just pure pain. Dust sticky in his mouth, and the overwhelming, unbearable need for something to drink.
Everything else was vague, impressions more than actual memories. But the alarm, the panic... the desperate necessity to find Dean before something got to him first... that was clear. And the horror that he'd felt each time he discovered his brother's mutilated corpse still sent a shiver through him.
Other memories intruded then, overrode the horror and the panic and the pain. Arms like iron bands wrapped around him, holding him up... cold, irregular metal digging into his cheek where his face pressed against hard muscle... firm, calloused fingers gripping his... a deep voice.
"I gotcha, Sammy... you're safe now... not gonna leave you."
Dean was there.
Dean was safe. Dean was okay, not trapped, not injured or dying or dead. Somehow he'd found Dean, or Dean had found him.
They were both safe.
"Dean..." It didn't sound like his voice; it was thin and hoarse, as if he'd been gargling with gravel. One hand moved a little, finding the crisp roughness of clean sheets. "Dean?"
The voices had stopped; the bleep of the machine nearby was the only sound, the tone a little faster now. Dean didn't answer.
He knew an echo of the familiar fear. It hadn't all been a dream... surely? Maybe he'd just imagined it. Maybe he was going to wake up, and he'd still be there in the hot, and the dry, and Dean would be gone again... dead again.
His hand fumbled on the sheet, reaching for... something... someone. Scratchy eyes cracked open, but at the immediate spike of pain from the intruding light he scrunched them shut again with a dull moan.
The lack of response to the sound told him more definitely than anything else that Dean was not there.
He was just dreaming. Any second now the sheets and the soft regular bleep and the cool air would be gone. He was going to open his eyes to grit and burning sun and pain –
Then his groping fingers encountered something that wasn't starchy sheets. Soft, supple... familiar. Seared fingertips investigated, light and tentative, and for the first time he registered the weight across his thighs.
He knew this. He recognised this. This was the fabric of his childhood, of those long-ago days when his father was just his dad and ghosts were just stories. This was the texture of a protective arm thrust between him and danger, of a solid shoulder to lean against when he was hurt, of a broad back that had always borne his burdens. This was security... home... Dean.
Fingers stilled. Gripped. Tugged. He felt the strain in uncharacteristically weak muscles, was vaguely frustrated that so much effort was required to perform such a simple task; the garment seemed to resist him as he pulled. In the stillness he could hear the heavy slide of leather on linen.
He was breathing fast by the time it was gathered up. His arm curved around it, hugging it close, and panic faded, lulled by the smell of gun oil, of smoke and cheap soap and fresh earth. Of Dean.
He didn't know where he was, or why. He didn't really understand anything.
But he was safe. He knew that much.
He curled onto his side and buried his face in the well-worn leather.
"Brought you breakfast."
The cardboard bag looked pleasingly full. Dean's stomach rumbled, but it was the large coffee in Bobby's other hand that brought a gleam to tired bloodshot eyes. He rolled his shoulders, tilting his head at an unnatural angle until a stiff joint popped satisfyingly, and reached for the caffeine.
"Hospital chairs..." he groused. "I swear they design them on purpose to injure people. Want to increase their patient numbers, or something." He swallowed a large mouthful.
Bobby eyed him.
The momentary coffee-induced bliss slid from Dean's face, but the expression that replaced it was one of genuine relief.
"He's definitely doing better. His temperature's down, almost to normal, and everything else is looking okay, pulse and what-have-you. He's still asleep from the sedative, but the doctor says he should be fine."
Bobby cleared his throat.
"Good. That's good to hear." He adjusted his baseball cap, frowning. "I tell you, I was pretty worried, a coupla times back there in the truck. Heat stroke's nothing to screw around with, and when he started in on the convulsions..."
Worried? Try terrified...
Dean's eyes flickered as he remembered the horror of that drive. He took another gulp of coffee to hide his reaction.
"Yeah. Well. Doctor's keeping him in for a couple more days, to monitor his temperature, and also to make sure his feet are okay. They're a mess but apparently they should be fine too, as long as he gives them time to heal." He was silent for a moment, images of Sam's damaged feet starkly clear in his mind.
"Walking around barefoot in the desert'll do that to you. He's lucky to have got off so lightly, all things considered –"
"He was looking for me, Bobby."
"No, he was looking for me, to save me. He thought I was hurt. He kept going because he thought he needed to help me."
It was Bobby's turn for silence.
Dean could imagine it only too well: Sam, confused, afraid, staggering across the burning sand on torn and blistered feet, driven by the need to save Dean. He'd been physically overcome, eventually, by his own weakness, but the fear hadn't faded with his strength.
From the look on Bobby's face, the same scene was playing out in his mind.
His voice was gruff when he spoke.
"Wouldn't have expected anything else from him."
"Boy's a Winchester, ain't he? All of you, you, your daddy – you're only too ready to sacrifice yourselves for each other. If Sam thought you were in trouble, he wouldn't let a little thing like hurt feet get in the way. Or dehydration, or concussion."
Or the things I said to him before.
Bobby was right, of course. Dean's mind went to another hospital room, to the shrill continuous whine of a cardiac monitor and a suspiciously missing Colt, and then shied away at the still unbearable pain of that memory. His father had done it. And Dean would do the same thing for Sam. But that didn't make it okay. He didn't have to like the idea of Sam fighting through pain and weakness to save Dean. That was Dean's job. That was the big brother's job, to protect the little brother.
Well, bang-up job you did with that, hotshot.
"Don't give me that crap."
Bobby eyed him shrewdly.
"I don't want some story about how it's fine for you but not for him. Okay, back in the day he was the little one, it was your job to keep him safe, keep him out of danger, and there wasn't much he could do by way of returning the favour. But he's not a kid anymore, Dean."
"Sam's a grown man, and a damn good hunter, and he's not going to sit back and watch you in trouble – or think you're in trouble – without doing just as much to help you as you would do for him if it was the other way round."
For a moment a spark of resentment flared in Dean, but it faded almost as quickly. He ran his hand through his hair, breath coming out in a sigh.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know. It's just..." He gestured vaguely.
Just that I said all that crap, and he still went out and looked for me. Just that he was more worried about me than about himself even though he was in serious trouble.
But he wasn't going to unload on Bobby.
"Oh... nothing. Forget it."
Bobby looked sceptical.
"Yeah, that's real convincing." He was silent, but when Dean didn't comment he glanced at his watch. "I gotta go, Dean. I'll go pick up the Impala – don't want it to be standing out there too much longer." He hesitated, and cleared his throat. "Listen, I'm no Oprah, but whatever went on out there... well, you know Sam. Probably wouldn't hurt to talk about it."
Dean's eyes flickered, but his smile was only a little forced.
"Yeah. Probably." He paused for a beat. "Dr. Phil."
His face relaxed for the first time into a wholly natural grin as Bobby snorted.
"Just get back to your brother, ya idjit."
Dean watched for a moment as the older man trod heavily away down the hospital corridor, and then turned, tossing the now empty coffee cup into a nearby trash can.
Sam had not woken since he'd succumbed to the sedative the night before. He'd slept through the continuing efforts of the medical team to bring his temperature down, through the cleaning and dressing of his feet and the move to ICU. He'd slept while Dean sat beside him, fighting to stay awake and eventually falling asleep with his head on the bed next to Sam's hand. He'd still been asleep when Dean had woken four hours later in response to the demands of his bladder.
But Dean had been away longer than he'd intended, and now he hurried back in the direction of Sam's room. The last thing he wanted was for Sam to wake up alone in unfamiliar surroundings. He'd recognised Dean the night before, but there was no guarantee he'd be completely coherent and aware when he woke again. Dean could remember the panic in his brother's eyes only too clearly; he was determined not to be responsible for putting it there again.
But Sam was quiet, breathing heavily in sync with the regular tone of the cardiac monitor. The room was unchanged, everything as it had been when Dean had left, and relief loosened the tension that had unconsciously hunched his shoulders. Sam was okay. Sam was doing better. Sam was –
Not as Dean had left him.
He was huddled on his side now, rather than flat on his back. Arms which had rested by his sides on the hospital sheets were now drawn up, fingers curling in a lax grip on something that was certainly not a standard hospital-issue pillow.
Something quivered inside Dean that was both pain and pleasure.
Sam had woken up, obviously. And Dean hadn't been there, just as he'd feared. Sam had perhaps been confused or worried, had maybe thought that Dean was hurt, as he had before, or – even worse – that Dean had left him.
But he'd found Dean's jacket, where Dean had left it on the bed. He was clutching it like a toddler with his favourite blanket, and his face, burrowed into the soft leather, looked peaceful and very young.
Dean stood looking down at him, glad at that moment that Sam wasn't awake and that Bobby had gone, because he was certain that his face was a display of emotions that he would never have dreamed of letting anyone see and that he tried to pretend he never felt.
Bobby was right, of course. Sam was a grown man, no longer an innocent little boy to be protected. He was a superb hunter who could take care of himself, who didn't need cosseting and who looked out for Dean as much as Dean did for him.
But right now all Dean could see was his little brother, who'd been hurt and afraid, and who'd taken refuge in the closest thing to his big brother that he could find.
And damn it, how did Sam manage to induce these touchy-feely moments even when he was asleep?
"You drool on my jacket, dude, you're getting it cleaned." The air-conditioning was drying his mouth; it was certainly not emotion making his voice husky.
Sam stirred with a soft sleepy murmur.
"Sam? You awake?"
Sam's fingers shuffled on the leather, tugging it closer, but his eyes didn't open.
"Guess not, then." Dean's crooked grin was at once wry and tender. One hand reached out and adjusted the blanket, pulling it up where it had slipped off Sam's shoulder, and for just a moment he was nine years old again and his most important job, his only job, was to watch out for Sammy.
"Spores, from a parasitic fungus called Cordiceps, have infiltrated their bodies and their minds."
The plummy voice filtered slowly through the blanketing twilight of semi-awareness. He drifted, not quite asleep anymore, but not fully conscious either.
"Utterly disorientated, it grips a stem with its mandibles."
A thought hovered on the edge of his mind, something he should remember. He was comfortable though. It was warm, and soft, and there were no lumps in the mattress, and right then he just wanted to lie there, to float in a beautiful half-sleep and not open his eyes and face reality, or even think.
"The fruiting body of the Cordiceps erupts from the ant's head..."
"Dude, that's just nasty." Dean's voice, delighted and disgusted in equal measure.
Whatever it was, that all-important and tantalisingly out-of-reach thought, Sam knew it involved Dean. A flash of remembered fear died as quickly as it had flared up: Dean was safe, although why that was ever in doubt was beyond Sam's faltering memory at that point. His voice was quiet, but reassuringly close.
"The fungus is so virulent that it can wipe out whole colonies –"
He hadn't meant it to come out like that. He hadn't meant it to come out at all, really. He was still trying vaguely to make sense of his surroundings. But maybe knowing the time would help...
"Sam? You awake, bro?" The smooth British voice was cut off mid-word, and Dean's was suddenly closer, amusement replaced by some other emotion that Sam didn't have the energy to identify.
"Wha's..." His mouth felt disgustingly gluey. There was a rustle of movement, and a moment later a plastic straw nudged against his lips.
He'd thought that the bed was wonderful. It faded into insignificance beside the sheer bliss that was cool water, trickling gloriously down his aching throat.
The straw was withdrawn far too soon, and he moaned in inarticulate protest.
"Sorry, Sammy, not too much at once. You can have some more in a few minutes."
Sam swallowed and tried again.
"Wha's th' time?"
Dean snorted, but not unkindly.
"What's with this sudden time obsession? You've been sleeping long enough..." Then he relented. "It's three-thirty. In the afternoon."
Sam pondered that.
"D' I sleep all day?"
"Dude." Any traces of amusement were gone from Dean's voice now. "You slept for almost two days. You've been really out of it."
Sam had been putting off the moment when he'd have to face the world again, but at that his eyes opened involuntarily.
Dean was closer than he'd expected, leaning forward from where he was apparently sitting next to the bed. Even in the muted lighting Sam could see the dark beginnings of a beard, the heavy shadows like bruises under his eyes. Dean looked a mess.
"Dean... wha'... where... what happened?"
Dean cleared his throat, frowning a little.
"Well... uh... what do you remember?"
"I don't –"
Maddening, unbearable thirst...
Fear. Dean would... Dean was...
"Sam? Sammy! Hey, look at me –"
Dean was fine. Dean was right there, talking to him. So what was it, that heavy dull ache that had nothing to do with his head or his feet, that was somewhere between fear and horror and grief, that was somehow worse than the pain and the heat and the thirst...
"Sammy? Hey, hey, it's okay –"
No, it wasn't. It wasn't okay at all.
Because he remembered now. He remembered that dusty air and the sticky vinyl of the car seat. He remembered what Dean had said.
"Man, you're a great hunter... but as a companion you really suck."
Dean was saying something, brows drawn together and eyes narrowed, concern bleeding into alarm, but all Sam could see was frustration, a tired face not bothering to hide resentment and green eyes dark with annoyance. All he could hear was Dean's words.
"... as a companion you really suck..."
"... as a companion you really suck..."
"... you really suck..."
He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry again, but not from thirst this time. His fingers clenched involuntarily on the bedclothes. And then for the first time since he'd woken he noticed what he was lying on. His hand wasn't curled around a generic well-washed hospital pillow. The warmth under his cheek wasn't starched cotton.
Hurt and humiliation caught in his throat. His eyes flicked to Dean's face and down again.
Then he pushed the jacket away, towards Dean, and rolled over so that his face was hidden.
Dean knew the exact moment when Sam remembered.
For a moment, when he'd seen those dazed blue-green eyes, heard Sam ask what time it was in that unfamiliarly husky voice, he'd dared to hope that his brother had forgotten. The concussion and high fever and seizures had scared the hell out of him, but if they'd driven the memory of that fight out of Sam's mind, they wouldn't have been all bad.
And Sam asked what had happened, and Dean asked what he remembered.
"I don't –"
And then Sam remembered.
Dean watched realisation flood across his face. His eyes widened, fear flickering with a caught breath.
"Sam? Sammy! Hey, look at me –" Dean could hear the cardiac monitor speeding up. Sam's gaze drifted to his face, but he didn't seem to be seeing him.
"Sammy? Hey, hey, it's okay –"
It wasn't really. It wasn't okay. Because the fear was fading from Sam's face, but the stricken expression that replaced it was worse. Sam was staring at him, pale where he had been flushed with sleep.
He hadn't forgotten anything.
"Sam, come on... don't..."
Sam's throat worked, face fighting emotion he was too weak to hide. His fingers tightened convulsively on Dean's jacket.
From the way confusion flickered momentarily across his face, Dean guessed he hadn't been fully aware of what he was holding. Sam's gaze darted to the leather, and then up to Dean's face, and at the pain and mortification in his eyes Dean caught his breath.
Sam didn't seem to hear him. He pushed the jacket towards Dean with hands that shook a little.
"Sorry... sorry..." It wasn't just his hands that were shaking. He shrank back in the bed and then rolled over, away from Dean.
"Sam." If he'd had attention to spare, Dean would have hated how helpless he sounded. He did hate the spark of pain that prickled inside, that stupid, selfish part of him that minded that Sam had rejected the comfort he'd sought earlier.
He hated even more that Sam had apologised. That Sam thought Dean would mind about his jacket being used like that.
He hated himself for giving Sam reason to think that way.
He'd hoped that Sam had forgotten, or that perhaps he hadn't taken it seriously. It had replayed in his mind over and over, that fight, those words. He'd hoped that they hadn't had as much of an effect on Sam.
Sam's behaviour now told him how naïve he'd been to hope.
And he had no idea how to make it right. How did he unsay it, take back what he'd said, convince Sam that he hadn't meant it?
"Sammy... look, man..." His voice petered out with his inspiration. Sam didn't acknowledge him, or give any indication that he'd even heard. His shoulders were hunched in a protective curve.
Protective of himself, from Dean.
Damn it, Sammy...
Dean sank back in his chair with a heavy breath, scrubbing one hand over his face.
Sharing his feelings was not something he regarded as one of his strengths. It wasn't that he didn't experience those emotions, but expressing them was something he left to Sam. Sam should know what Dean was thinking, anyway; they'd been brothers long enough that Dean shouldn't have to voice things out loud. A bumped shoulder was Dean's usual way of saying "I love you". A fond insult expressed "I need you around".
That wasn't going to be enough this time.
Sam wasn't going to make it easy for him, either. Even on the rare occasions when Dean was trapped into saying something, it was always Sam who initiated it. Looking at him now, Dean knew that wasn't going to happen. Dean had called their relationship into question. Sam thought he didn't want his friendship.
Sam wasn't going to go all dewy-eyed brotherly love on him anytime soon.
And now that it was up to Dean, he didn't know what to say.
The television in the corner flickered, David Attenborough expounding silently on some marvel of nature. In the corridor outside the room Dean could hear the steadily increasing bustle of early evening. Sam lay motionless, apparently asleep.
From the tension in his shoulders Dean could tell that wasn't the case.
He pushed up from his chair, sending it skittering back on the linoleum, and stalked to the window.
"Why are you still here?"
"What?" Of all the things he'd thought Sam might say, that wasn't one. He turned his head, frowning.
"You don't have to hang around. I'm fine now." Sam didn't sound angry. He didn't even sound bitter.
"Sammy, I..." Dean exhaled heavily. "You know I didn't mean it, right? I was... I was just..." His words faded uncertainly.
Sam just looked at him. His normally expressive blue-green eyes were dully opaque, and Dean had no idea what he was thinking.
But he could see Sam didn't believe him.
He hooked his hands behind his neck and looked back out of the window. On the gravel path below a small child skipped past, swinging a teddy-bear by one arm and clutching the hand of a young man. In the light spilling from the hospital windows his face was happy and animated, and for an instant Dean saw another little boy, all dark curls and big eyes and endless questions.
And suddenly he knew exactly what to say.
"You can have Floyd."
That had caught Sam's attention; when Dean glanced at him, he saw blank confusion. He cleared his throat.
"You can have Floyd."
Sam's frown deepened.
Dean found his hands were clenched into fists. If Sam didn't remember – if he didn't recognise the allusion – this wouldn't work.
Then something flickered across Sam's face, and the frown gave way to comprehension.
"It's time for your bath." Dean looked over the top of his comic at his small brother, engrossed in his current favourite picture book.
Sammy lowered his head, dark curls covering his eyes, and didn't answer.
"Sammy, go have your bath."
There was less patience than usual in Dean's voice. He dearly loved his brother, but there were times when he secretly wondered whether a dog might not have been a better option.
Today had been one long continuous succession of those times.
Sam had refused to change out of his pyjamas.
Once he'd finally been wrestled out of them, he'd insisted on wearing Dean's favourite sweater.
On which he'd then spilled an entire bottle of raspberry soda.
For the first time ever, he'd rejected the bowl of Lucky Charms Dean had given him for breakfast, and demanded Pop Tarts instead. Dean himself had been eying the lone Tart left in the box, but he'd gritted his teeth, taken the now soggy Lucky Charms and toasted the Pop Tart for Sammy.
Who'd proceeded to cry for fifteen minutes because Dean had eaten his Lucky Charms.
Once he'd calmed down, he'd gone off to collect his school bag. He'd then had a twenty-minute tantrum when Dean reminded him that it was Saturday.
Dean had refused to let him play outside in the snow, arguing reasonably that he was recovering from a very bad cold. He'd had another tantrum when Dean shouted at him for climbing out of the bathroom window to play in said snow.
Two more tantrums had followed, after two more foiled attempts to escape via the bathroom window.
Dean had welcomed the quiet that followed, until he'd discovered Sammy with a felt-tip pen and Dean's prized comic collection, 'practising his writing'.
The tears that ensued had lasted until lunch.
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich Dean provided for lunch had been rejected. Sam refused to eat it unless Dean poured Worcestershire sauce (extra hot) all over it. Sam had never tasted Worcestershire sauce (extra hot) before, and upon his first mouthful loudly and tearfully announced that he didn't like it. Since those had been the last slices of bread, Dean had then had to pass his own over to his brother, and force down the PB&J á la Worcestershire himself.
Exhausted by his emotional morning, Sam had fallen asleep on the couch in front of the television, and Dean had enjoyed a peaceful hour and a half.
Until Sam woke up and discovered that he'd slept through his favourite program.
At that point Dean, convinced that his usually sweet-tempered brother had somehow been possessed by a particularly maddening demon, had thrown holy water at him.
Sammy had not steamed.
His response had otherwise been about as indignant as if he had, in fact, been possessed.
He'd retreated, eventually, to the corner of the room, and buried himself in the Richard Scarry's Best Storybook Ever that had been his Christmas present from Pastor Jim.
Now, from the mutinous way in which Sam refused to look up, Dean guessed that the next battle was about to begin.
"I don't want to." Dean didn't have to see his brother's face to know what expression it was wearing.
Dean got off the couch, tiptoed across to where Sam was determinedly ignoring him, and yanked the book away.
Sam's screech would have done a banshee proud.
"Give it back! GIVE IT BACK!"
"Not until you've had your bath!"
"GIVE IT TO ME!" At four, Sam was considerably smaller than Dean, and it was an easy task to hold the book out of his reach. Sam threw himself against his brother, chubby hands grasping futilely. "DEEEAN!"
"Go have your bath!"
"NO!" Sam's face was crimson. "Give me my book!" One small fist thumped against Dean's chest.
Small or not, that fist had hurt, and Dean's arm dropped a little.
Dean jerked back instinctively.
'Best' the storybook might well have been.
'Strongest' it was not.
To the accompaniment of an ominous ripping sound, Sam sprawled backwards onto the floor, his face ludicrous with horror and half a page clutched in one hand.
"Sammy –" Dean's voice was hushed with almost equal horror, as he stared at the damaged book. Sam had so little that was really his... and he'd been so proud of his shiny new book...
"My... my book... you broke my BOOK!"
"I didn't mean –"
"P-pastor JIM gave it to me... a-a-an' you BROKE it!"
"I know –"
"You're so s-stupid! You broke my bestest book!"
"Sammy, I'm sorry –"
"I hate you! I wish you weren't my brother! I HATE YOU!"
Dean didn't know what expression came over his face at that. Judging by the way Sam went suddenly quiet, something of what he was feeling was visible on his face.
They'd had their fair share of arguments before. He'd been irritated with Sammy, and Sammy had been angry with him.
Sam had never, even in his worst moments, said he didn't want Dean as a brother.
The book slipped unheeded from lax fingers, falling open and face-down to the floor. Without looking at his brother, Dean turned and went back to the couch.
"Dean?" Sammy's voice was uneasy. Dean ignored it. He caught up the comic he'd been reading and held it in front of his face, fiercely pretending that the pictures weren't blurring.
"Dean, I... I didn't mean..." Sam sounded worried now, by the enormity of what he'd said or by Dean's reaction.
"Go have your bath." Dean was pleased with how his voice didn't quiver.
"I'm sorry, Dean..." There was a definite shake in Sam's.
"O-okay." Sam tiptoed away. Dean waited until the bathroom door shut – very quietly – before swiping angrily at the betraying tear that had managed to escape.
He hadn't even heard Sam emerge; he caught a whiff of baby soap and knew his little brother must have finished his bath, but he had no idea what he'd done during that time. He was still staring blindly at the same page.
"Um... what's for dinner?" Sam sounded very small and uncertain.
"I don't care."
"Have what you want, Sam."
"I... I'm sorry..."
"Yeah. Whatever." He kept his eyes firmly on the comic book. Sam hovered uneasily for a moment before padding away to the tiny kitchen.
The sounds of obvious struggle that ensued would ordinarily have had Dean rushing to the rescue, protective instincts on red alert. But now he just sat. Sam hated him. Sam didn't want him as a big brother. It had been his defining role for the last four years; it was almost disturbing how lost he felt without it.
"I... um... I made you some dinner."
"I'm not hungry."
There was silence. Dean could picture the mournful dark eyes that were probably being directed at him, but he steadfastly refused to look up. If he saw his little brother's face he wouldn't be able to stop himself from re-hearing Sammy's words. And then he'd cry, and then he'd be humiliated as well as hurt.
"I'm really s-sorry, Dean." There was more than a hint of tears in Sam's voice now.
Dean wanted to believe him. He wanted to rewind the day, go back to before Sam had been a brat and Dean had damaged his book and Sam had said... what he'd said.
He wanted the little brother who looked at him with hero-worship in his eyes.
But that little brother had said he wished Dean wasn't his brother.
He grunted, still staring fiercely at his comic, and listened to the dejected footsteps as Sammy trudged into the single bedroom. At some point Dean was going to have to bury his hurt and pretend that things were okay again; Sam might not like it, but big-brotherness was ingrained deeply in Dean, too deeply for him to be cold with Sam forever.
Even if Sam didn't like it. Even if Sam hated him.
"Dean?" He felt the cushions dip under the slight weight as Sam climbed onto the couch.
"I... um... you can have Floyd."
"What?" That caught his attention. For the first time since their fight Dean looked at his little brother.
Sam was a tiny huddle on the seat beside him. Wide, tragic eyes regarded Dean sadly, but his face was determined.
"Y-you can have Floyd." Clutched in his outstretched hand was a battered once-pink toy dog. Other than Sam, it was the only thing that had survived the nursery fire that had taken their mother.
It was Sam's most precious possession.
"Sammy, no –"
"I want you to have him."
"But Sammy, that's your dog from Mom. You love it –"
Fat tears welled up, and Dean saw Sammy's lip quiver.
"B-but... b-but I love you m-more."
Sam obviously took Dean's silence as rejection. He pushed Floyd onto Dean's lap and scrambled off the couch.
"Sammy!" Dean's hand shot out and caught a handful of flannel pyjama jacket. "C'mon –" His words ended with a grunt as Sam's arms went round his neck.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Sam wailed. "I di'n't mean it, Dean... I want you to be my brother!"
Dean wrapped his own arms around his little brother. He told himself it was entirely to comfort Sammy. That was also, of course, the only reason that he buried his face in the soft baby curls pressed against his shoulder.
"'S okay, Sammy." It was now. He had his Sammy, where he belonged. His Sammy who wanted him again.
"Dean?" Sam's voice was a teary hiccup. "You're the bestest big brother in the whole world..."
Sam was staring at him in silence. Dean could see he remembered the events of nineteen-odd years ago, but what he was thinking was impossible to tell.
"Sam?" His voice was ridiculously tentative.
Sam exhaled, hard, and swallowed. Then he sucked in a quivering breath as his face crumpled. One hand came up to hide his eyes, but not before Dean saw the gleam of wetness trickling from under tightly closed lids.
"Sammy." Dean blinked hard against the sudden burn in his own eyes, and sat down heavily on the bed next to Sam. One hand reached out instinctively. Hovered for a moment, uncertain.
Oh, what the hell...
He let his hand drop to Sam's shoulder.
Something suspiciously like a sob escaped from the younger Winchester.
"Dean..." The word came out choked. Then Sam's other hand came up and gripped Dean's wrist.
"I thought... I thought you were gonna die." Okay, maybe that was an unorthodox way to begin a grand apology.
But then Dean had never been very fond of 'normal'.
"Out there in the desert... you were missing, I couldn't find you. You were gone for almost a day. I... I dunno... I thought..." Damn it, he was going to be bawling like a girl in a minute.
Sam shifted a little under his hand, but the fingers curled around Dean's wrist didn't loosen their grip.
"I was walking around, and I couldn't see you anywhere... and all I could think was that if you... if you didn't make it... that you'd go thinking that I... that I..." He cleared his throat hard.
"What I said in the car... I didn't mean it, Sammy. I thought... I thought I was going to lose you. I swear, I didn't mean it. I could never... I don't know what I would have done if..." He tilted his head back and scowled at the ceiling until his vision cleared.
"Dean..." Sam's voice quivered. Dimples made a momentary appearance as he smiled through the tears, and he shifted closer, pressing a little against Dean's leg.
"You're the bestest big brother in the world..."
Sometimes – most of the time, lately – Dean felt that he was anything but that.
But he was pretty sure he'd won first prize when it came to little brothers.
His grip tightened on Sam's shoulder, and for a while no more words were necessary.
"You're a monster pain in the ass, you know that?" he said at last. There was nothing but love in the muttered words.
"Yeah, I know." The monster pain in the ass smiled at him, dewy eyes and all. "And you're a jerk."
Hospital beds weren't really designed to be sat on, especially when they were already occupied by floppy-haired giants. Dean's back was going to be cursing him later. But for now, he wouldn't choose to be anywhere else.
"Dean?" Sam's eyes were widening with a dawning realisation. "I was just thinking..."
"When I woke up..." There was pure delight in Sam's grin. "Were you watching a documentary?"
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A/N 1: Dean was, actually. Everything Sam overheard was taken from 'Jungles' from the BBC series "Planet Earth". (Hence the disclaimer at the beginning).
A/N 2: And now I've got to hibernate for the next six weeks and write my thesis. Blah. If you feel like cheering up a poor stressed-out student, a review would be the best way to do it... ;-)