A/N: This story was submitted for a writing contest at SFTCOLARS a couple (or more) years ago and I never posted it anywhere else. I always thought I'd go back and expand the ending--there was a maximum word count I kept bumping up against when I wrote it--but I'm always worried that my pc will crash (again) so I decided to go ahead and post now while I still have something to post.

I'd also like to take a moment to encourage you to go to my profile page and read about the new project I'm involved with--it's a Virtual Season (22 episodes) that takes off after the end of All Hell Breaks Loose I. That's right, after Sam dies in Dean's arms. There are a lot of talented writers, artists, and betas involved in the project so I hope you'll check it out. Thanks!

Grounded

It had been a long day at the garage and as Dean dragged himself into the double wide trailer, he wished he could just kick back and call it a day. Unfortunately, he had a hot date with Mitzi. Or was it Mandy? At least he was off tomorrow and he planned on sleeping in and doing nothing more strenuous than washing the Impala.

Dean glanced around the living room, looking for signs of his brother. Their dad had gone to South Dakota to meet with Bobby Singer and wasn't expected back until tomorrow afternoon. That meant Dean was in charge.

He called Sam's name but didn't receive a response. He knew he was home because his ten-speed bike was leaning against a tree out front. But then again, it seemed as though Sam was always home these days. He wondered why he didn't have a summer job. Dean certainly had at that age.

He moved down the short hallway. Sam must be in his room. His own room.

It seemed weird, the brothers not sharing a bedroom. And who would have thought a trailer would provide them with their own space? At first Dean had been skeptical about the new living arrangement but the trailer afforded more privacy than he was accustomed to and it wasn't dilapidated and falling down around their ears like some of the places they'd rented over the years.

He peeked into the last bedroom and found his brother stretched out on his back, book in hand, earphones surgically attached. John Winchester would have thrown a fit; Sam was oblivious to his surroundings and Dean's approach.

Dean didn't worry, though. He was secure in the knowledge that Sam could properly defend himself if the need arose. After all, he'd been the one to teach Sam the defensive moves.

Yeah, those were the days. Sam had worshipped him and hung on his every word. But those days were long gone, a casualty of his getting between his stubborn, by-the-book, ex-Marine dad and his too-smart-for his-own good, recalcitrant brother.

He took a moment to study his sibling. He couldn't call Sam a midget anymore. He was still about five inches shorter than Dean but at age 15, Sam wasn't done growing yet. He'd lost his puppy fat -- those plump, chunky cheeks that maternal woman all over had enjoyed squeezing were gone. He hadn't put any additional pounds on yet so he was a flyweight. Dean could still easily manhandle him but there was no denying that before him lay a leaner, taller version of his geeky little brother.

Dean was startled from his thoughts when Sam spoke. "Are you going to keep staring at me or did you want something?" The voice was lower, smoother. And he sounded curious, not obnoxious. More signs that Sam was no longer a snot-nosed kid.

He suddenly had the urge to stay home and catch up with Sam. Maybe it was strange that a 19-year-old would want to spend time with his baby brother instead of a hot redhead but there it was. Clearing his throat he asked, "What do you say we grab a pizza and watch a movie or something?"

Sam didn't even look up from his book and actually turned a page. "Sorry, bro. You've got someone named Mindy expecting you to pick her up in about thirty minutes. And I quote, 'don't be late.'"

Mindy. Not Mitzi or Mandy. Huh. How bad could he want to see someone whose name he couldn't remember?

More importantly, he realized his brother's lack of enthusiasm about his proposal bothered him.

Not only was Sam's physical appearance changing but apparently he no longer wanted to spend time with his older brother. He could remember a time, not so long ago, when Sam was crushed because Dean didn't have time for him.

He tried to keep his tone light so that Sam wouldn't know how much his indifference rankled. "Screw Mindy."

Sam closed his book, pulled off the earphones and sat up on his bed, a smile complete with dimples popping out. He waggled his eyebrows up and down. "I kind of think that was what Mindy had in mind if her voice was anything to go by."

Dean couldn't help but laugh. God, somewhere along the way he'd forgotten how much he enjoyed being around his little brother.

Before Sam could register his intention, Dean swooped in and plucked his brother off the bed and threw him over his shoulder. Yep, he'd been right. Sam was still light. He spun around in circles until Sam stopped squirming and then dumped him back on the bed.

Sam's face was flushed from being upside down and it looked like he was dizzy as he propped himself up on his elbows. But he also looked happy. Yeah, he'd missed this.

Dean looked at his watch and realized he had to kick it into gear if he was going to make his date on time. But the desire to spend time with his little brother was still very much on his mind. "I'm off tomorrow. What do you say we head out to Twilight Peak?"

His dream of sleeping in and washing the Impala would have to wait for another time. Sam had badgered him relentlessly to go hiking with him when they'd first moved to Colorado six months ago and here he was, presenting him with the golden opportunity.

The humor slid off of Sam's face and a look of incredulity replaced it. His eyes were wide and hopeful but his lips were pressed together; like he was waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him. "Why?"

Sam's tone wasn't belligerent but it held a note of distrust. They must have really grown apart if Sam was trying to second guess his motives.

Dean shook his head, flashing white teeth. He had gotten the looks and charm in the family; since the former wasn't going to work on his brother he would need to rely on the latter. "Do I need a reason? How about this -- it's been a while since I did anything with my favorite brother."

Sam snorted but a subdued smile graced his face. "I'm your only brother, dumbass. But okay. Count me in."

It wasn't a ringing endorsement but Dean knew he had some lost time to make up for with his brother. He'd been so busy chasing after the fairer sex and working a full time job, not to mention avoiding the war zone that his dad and Sam had created, that he'd neglected his younger brother.

A brief conversation later they had a plan in place. They would leave at the crack of dawn so that they'd make Twilight Peak at a decent hour. They wanted plenty of time to explore a little used trail leading from Molas Pass to Crater Lake.

He reluctantly left Sam to get ready for his date, his mind more on the impending hike with his brother than with the evening with Mandy. Or was it Mitzi?

-0-

Dean parked the Impala under a tree. The drive had passed by quickly as he'd regaled his brother with stories from the garage as well as his date with what's-her-name. He never did manage to get her name straight and it had been a source of amusement to him throughout the evening. Sam had been a captive audience, eager to hear whatever Dean had to say.

He had tried to pump Sam for information about what was going on with him but for some reason his brother was reluctant. He kept turning the conversation back on Dean.

That had been a bit of a surprise. To hear his dad talk, Sam was nothing but a selfish brat. Oh, and don't forget ungrateful.

They clambered out of the car and Dean shouldered a light backpack filled with sandwiches, water and, courtesy of Sam, trail mix. A first aid kit and flashlight rounded out the essentials.

Dean stepped back and motioned for Sam to lead the way. He let all thoughts of his quarrelsome family fall away as he took in the scenery around him. It was breathtaking.

And up here, walking a trail in the mountains, he had an opportunity to observe his brother. The newfound maturity give way to boyish enthusiasm as he pointed out birds, trees and rock formations that appealed to him. Yep, Sam was still a geek.

They hiked and talked of inconsequential things for about two hours when Dean decided it was time to take a break. He was really enjoying himself but it was time to kick things up a notch.

As they broke into a clearing Dean set his backpack down. "Hey, Sammy, show me what you've got!"

He rushed Sam and was chagrined when his brother neatly side stepped his attack. Dean went flying by him, only coming to a stop when he ricocheted off a tree.

Sam readied himself for the next pass by letting his arms hang loosely at his side while bending at the knees. Dean could see a smile twitching around his brother's lips. He was trying hard not to gloat.

Dean knew how to gain the upper hand. A life time of playing with his brother had taught Dean what to expect next.

When Sam feinted to the left Dean reached out and snagged him around the waist. He knew ordinarily his brother would have jabbed an elbow into an attacker's throat to gain his freedom but Sam trusted him enough to know he wouldn't hurt him.

Dean easily scooped Sam up and proceeded to tickle him in the ribs. Sam laughed so hard he produced a high pitched chattering noise reminiscent of a squirrel. He was so busy enjoying his brother's antics that he didn't guard against the elbow that collided with his breadbox. It was enough to make Dean gasp and he let his brother go abruptly.

He staggered back as Sam dropped to the ground awkwardly, landing on his hands and knees.

He waited for Sam to bound to his feet but when he didn't, Dean approached with caution. His brother might be playing statue so he could spring a counter attack. He had, after all, taught Sam everything he knew about strategy.

But Sam's attention didn't waver from whatever the tall, wild grass concealed from his own view. He leaned over and stared into the thatch of tall grass in front of his brother until he finally noticed a jumble of intertwined, still bodies.

Snakes.

Maybe four or five greenish gray snakes, dark splotches on their backs and rings around their tails, lay in a clutch in front of Sam. The nearest one, about three feet of coiled, harmless, dead snake, lay inches from Sam's left hand.

At least he was pretty sure they were dead. Dean watched the rattlers carefully, looking for any kind of movement.

He reached over and grabbed a rock about the size of his fist. He pitched it toward the far side of the snake cluster. Nothing happened.

That was good enough for him. He reached forward and made to grab Sam's left hand so he could pull him to his feet. "Up-sy, daisy Sammy boy," he said at the same time a garbled scream left his brother's throat.

"NO!!!" Sam screeched as he deflected the downward motion of Dean's hand with his own.

Dean jumped back, startled, as the dead rattler sunk its fangs into the skin around Sam's wrist.

Sam reared up and slammed his body backward so quickly Dean barely had time to reach out and grab him by the shoulders. He lowered him back against his own chest for support while a snake dangled from his arm.

A dead snake, fangs buried deep in his brother's flesh.

Before he could decide what to do, Sam reached out with his right hand and grabbed the snake behind its head. Its fangs retracted, taking a large chunk of Sam's skin with them before his brother flung the limp creature into the tall grass.

Sam sunk farther back into Dean's arms, his breath coming in loud gasps. The adrenaline had to be slamming through Sam's body because it was moving like a freight train through Dean's.

He shifted his suddenly compliant brother around in his arms to get a look at the wound. Sam cradled his left arm against his body protectively but Dean could still see the deep puncture wounds, mottled with purple and red, above his brother's wrist. "Sammy, you still with me?"

Sam answered in a soft, dazed voice. "I gave a speech on rattle snakes last semester. Crotalus viridus. The Western rattlesnake. They're pretty impressive. They have heat sensory pits in their heads which are active until rigor mortis is complete. Just place a warm object, like a hand, near the snake's mouth and mother nature takes over, triggering the biting response."

Leave it to his brother to know such a detail. He sure as hell never would have dreamed a dead snake posed this kind of danger. It was almost too fantastical to believe. Then again, the Winchesters were accustomed to dealing with the supernatural on a daily basis so a dead snake with the ability to bite shouldn't have been such a surprise.

Sam's face was pale and his greenish hazel eyes were too large in his face. Dean couldn't stand by and do nothing. Sam was hurting and he'd taken a strike meant for Dean. "I've got a knife. Do I cut the skin open and suck out the venom?"

His brother closed his eyes and shivered a little before answering. "No, that won't work. It's too late to draw the poison out."

Dean gathered him closer, trying to transfer some of his own body heat into his chilled sibling. Sam had to be going into shock. Who wouldn't after being bitten by a dead snake? Maybe the venom had a short shelf life and Sam would just have a mild fever and nothing more to show for this little adventure.

He shifted Sam more fully onto his lap, careful not to jar his left arm. "How come? That's what they always do in the movies."

Sam was nothing if not thorough and Dean was confident that his brother knew everything there was to know about the rattler that had bitten him. He'd just tell Dean what to do and then they'd go for help.

Sam snuggled back into his arms, something he hadn't done since he was a toddler, and tilted his head back so he could see Dean's face. "Doesn't work." A soft sigh escaped his lips. "Dean?"

Dean was hoping that the next words out of Sam's mouth would be how to treat the snakebite. "Yeah, Sammy. What?"

What little color Sam had left in his face drained away. "I don't feel so good."

The voice was tired and strained and Dean had no doubt that Sam didn't feel well. He just didn't know how poorly his brother felt until his head lolled back against the crook of his arm and his eyes closed.

-0-

Was Sam breathing? He waited impatiently until he saw the erratic rise and fall of Sam's chest. "Sam?! I need you to stay awake for me."

He jostled Sam a little and was rewarded when his eyes cracked open, eyelids drooping. "Sorry. I'm awake."

His soft voice was now slurring a little. If Dean didn't know any better he would have thought Sam had just woken up from a deep sleep.

He hiked Sam up a little so he was in a sitting position, still leaning heavily against Dean's chest. "What do I need to do here?"

He knew the basic first aid - he needed to clean out the ugly looking wounds on Sam's wrist and bandage them to keep them clean. He rotated his head around until he spotted his backpack.

Sam swallowed with some difficulty before answering. "I think I need a doctor. We'd better start back to the car." He leaned forward and wobbled a little but was able to hold his position as Dean scrambled for the backpack.

Sam's eyes were closing again so Dean tried to distract him and keep him awake. "So tell me. What exactly does this venom do to smart assed little brothers?" The last thing he wanted to do was tease Sam, but he had to pretend nothing was wrong otherwise he'd panic.

He was rewarded with a quirking of the lips and a peek at Sam's gold flecked eyes. "Oh, you know, the usual. Generalized weakness plus a little something I call the four d's: difficulty breathing, diplopia, dysphagia, and dysphonia. Throw in a little bit of ptosis and decreased motor strength."

Dean pulled out the first aid kit and went about cleaning Sam's wrist. "So remind me again, what's diplopia, dysphagia and dysphonia? Sounds like a metal band or something."

He was trying hard to keep things light. His brother didn't need to know how freaked out he was right now.

Sam made a puffing noise that could have passed for a laugh. "Yeah, they do sound like band names. Let's see, diplopia is double vision. Dysphagia is trouble swallowing. Dysphonia is just a fancy word for a hoarse voice." His eyes crinkled with humor as this last sentence was delivered in a gravelly voice, as if he had congestion in his throat. "Right on time I see."

Dean had thoroughly irrigated the puncture wounds with disinfectant and was now wrapping gauze around his brother's slim wrist. "And what was that last word, the one that started with a T?"

He wanted to keep Sam talking. No, he needed to keep Sam talking. A talking Sam was a breathing Sam.

Sam's voice croaked with mirth. "That's a P, not a T. P-t-o-s-i-s and it's pronounced Toe-sis. Drooping eyelids. It means Mindy better not see me or she'll know she's with the wrong Winchester-the bedroom eyes along with smoky voice? She'd never stand a chance."

Dean could see Sam was winded but he was taking everything in stride. Amusing and sarcastic even in the face of injury. A Winchester through and through.

Dean bundled the first aid kit into the backpack and grabbed a bottled water. Uncapping the lid he held it up to Sam's lips. He obediently took a swallow but was soon consumed by a coughing fit. He rubbed his brother on the back, trying to ease the sputtering.

Sam rested his forehead on his bent knees while he struggled to breathe past the water. When the coughing finally subsided, he looked at Dean, exhaustion etched across his features. "Sorry, went down the wrong pipe."

And maybe it had but Dean was afraid the swallowing trouble had already started and swung into action. He stood up, hefting the backpack onto his right shoulder. "Do you think you want to try walking or do you want me to carry you?"

Sam held out his right and wordlessly waited for Dean to bring him to a standing position. He was awkwardly holding his left arm against his body so Dean grabbed a red bandana out of the backpack and fashioned a crude sling for his brother. He could see relief on Sam's face as the weight of the arm was taken up by the material. "Thanks."

Sam's voice was well past husky or smoky. More like he'd gargled with broken glass. But he gamely threw his right arm around Dean's neck and leaned into him for some support as they started back.

Dean's left arm snaked around Sam's waist to keep him balanced as they began their slow trudge.

-0-

They'd been bumping along for almost an hour when Sam's strength finally gave out. One moment he was staggering alongside Dean and the next his feet were planted and he was doubled over, gasping for air.

Dean shucked off the backpack and was ready to lower Sam to the ground, both of his hands around Sam's waist now, when his brother held up a finger, asking for a moment.

He was more than willing to give Sam a moment but he wasn't sure his brother had that long. His hair was lank with sweat and his skin was incredibly pale. Except across his cheeks were he looked as though he'd been slapped. Fever.

Sam straightened painfully and sucked in some air. He nodded his head indicating that he was ready to try again. Threading his good arm around Dean's neck again he took a shuffling step forward.

Dean stood next to him, unsure if they should continue on or if he should insist on a break. The decision was taken out of his hands when Sam suddenly wilted against him.

Sam's right arm remained clutched around Dean's neck but his aborted step had him swinging around until he was facing Dean's chest. He fell forward until his face was buried in the hollow of Dean's neck and his legs went out from under him.

Dean was left cradling his brother against his chest, absorbing all of his weight. Mindful of the swollen, left arm, he swept his brother into his arms and carried him over next to a tree. Before setting him down, he made sure the area was clear of all creepy-crawlies.

Sam really didn't look good. His eyes were resting at half mast and his face was slack. He was breathing in a slow, irregular hitching motion that almost caused Dean to pick him up and sprint for the car. But they both needed a quick breather before they continued on.

Dean pulled out the water and took some long pulls. He put the bottle to Sam's lips but his brother pushed it away. "Come on Sam. Can't have you getting dehydrated on me."

At Dean's insistence, Sam took a cautious sip. He was soon sputtering and convulsively swallowing, his throat working far harder than a sip of water should have warranted.

Dean settled for pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket and dampening it with water. He wiped it across Sam's flushed face and the back of his neck with gentle, even strokes. His brother leaned into the damp fabric with relief.

Dean was thankful when his brother's breathing evened out. He no longer sounded like an asthmatic and seemed to be resting easily, his head leaning against Dean's shoulder. An occasional shiver rippled through his slender frame. Dean tugged him a little closer despite the fact that he, himself, was burning up from the exertion of pulling Sam's weight across the uneven terrain for the last hour. A little discomfort was nothing compared to what his brother was going through.

Propping Sam against the tree, he checked his arm. It was grossly swollen and tender to the touch. Heat pulsed off it in waves. He couldn't do anything to alleviate the problem except get Sam to safety.

He yanked his arms through the straps of the backpack. He needed both arms completely unhindered for the next leg of the journey.

Sam's head was bobbing up and down as he fought off exhaustion. Dean reached down and palmed Sam's chin in his hand while pushing his bangs back. Dilated pupils were partially obscured by drooping lids. "What do you say? Ready to climb aboard the Dean Express?"

Sam grimaced before shaking his head yes. As Dean leaned over, Sam threw his good arm around his neck once again. In a smooth, scooping motion he soon held his brother high against his chest, careful not to jostle the injured wrist. Before taking off he looked down to see how his passenger was faring.

Sam's head was tilted back across Dean's left arm, eyes closed, with his lips parted as he lightly panted. "Sammy, you okay?"

Sam didn't look okay. Not even close. But Dean took what he could get and when Sam's eyes opened to mere slits and he murmured he was a little dizzy in that cracked, broken voice of his, he did what any older brother would do - he teased him. "You've always been a little dizzy, Sammy-boy. Now hang on."

He wanted to get Sam some medical help as soon as possible so he stretched his legs and made them pump as quickly as they could go without breaking into a jog. He started whistling "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," by the Hollies, and was rewarded with a weak smile from Sam for his efforts.

-0-

Dean's arms felt the strain as lactic acid built up in the muscles from carrying his brother. He needed to set Sam down and rest before he inadvertently dropped him.

Peering down, he found Sam's eyes open, staring at him lackadaisically. "Hey."

Sam response barely qualified as a whisper. "Hey."

There was no mistaking his brother was in dire straits. His color had worsened, if that was possible, and his one syllable response was almost beyond him.

Dean lowered him to the ground as carefully as his abused muscles would allow. Sam was no longer able to hold himself up so he arranged him comfortably on the ground.

Dean snapped his arms back and forth before collapsing next to his brother. He gulped more water but didn't bother to offer any to Sam this time. After the last failed attempt, he didn't want to accidentally drown him.

He threw a tired hand on Sam's thigh and his brother didn't twitch or acknowledge the contact in any way.

Dammit. Sam needed help. Now.

After a brief rest, he tiredly climbed to his feet and shrugged into the backpack. Bending over he looped his left arm under Sam's back and right arm under his bent legs before pulling him up in a smooth, clean jerk. A previously forgotten coach from one of his many schools would have been proud of that move, always preaching technique when it came to lifting weights.

A gust of breath escaped Sam in a rush as he was pulled against Dean's chest. His eyes were tightly closed as he rode out the distress. As Dean started walking again his brother's eyes opened fractionally and it was easy to read the confusion and unease.

He tried to reassure both his brother and himself. "I think we're almost there. Not too much longer."

Sam's head lolled forward and came to a rest against Dean's left shoulder. He could no longer see those expressive eyes and he needed some link with his brother. Needed to know he was still fighting.

Despite the effort of lugging his brother around, Dean decided he needed to talk. He probably shouldn't expend the energy but maybe if he talked, Sam would, too. If he couldn't see his eyes, he'd settle for his voice. "So, Sammy, I've been meaning to ask you, how come you don't have a summer job?"

Dean hitched his brother a little higher and was rewarded with a groan. He felt his brother shift slightly in his arms. That was a start. "…still grounded-can't leave-unless I'm-with you-or Dad…"

He would remember those whispered words later but right now Sam's slurring had been joined by a breathiness that Dean didn't care for. Prompting Sam to talk had been a mistake.

Sam's head was soon rolling awkwardly in time to his gait, eyes firmly closed. In slow increments, the arm around Dean's neck slid away. It perched lightly around his shoulder, moved to his low back and ended up banging against his thigh with each step.

Dean needed to step it up somehow. Sam had saved him from the snake's bite; it was Dean's turn to return the favor.

-0-

Dean was slumped down in a plastic chair in the ER's waiting room.

It had been a mad dash down the mountainside as Sam's condition worsened. Being upright seemed to help him breathe more freely so he'd propped him up in the passenger seat where he could keep an eye on him. For all the good it had done him.

Sam's great sense of timing was still intact - he managed to hold on until Dean parked the Impala in front of the ER entrance.

Dean didn't remember pulling Sam out of the car. Or rushing him inside. He did, however, remember his brother's blue lips and the way he'd flopped in Dean's arms, unresponsive to everything around him. Even to Dean.

It had been a close call. Too close. The medical team had been able to administer the antivenom treatment in time and Sam was expected to make a full recovery.

He had called their dad and filled him in on the wayward trip. He now waited for someone to come get him so he could sit with Sam.

He hated waiting. It left him with too much time to think. In his mind he could picture Sam pointing out things along the trail, inquisitive as ever...hear him cracking jokes even as the poison from the snake pumped through his body-feel him nestled in his arms while he struggled for breath.

Sam's words from their last conversation reverberated in his head-he didn't have a summer job because he was grounded. He hadn't known Sam was grounded and he sure as hell hadn't known that he was practically under house arrest. Why hadn't anyone bothered to tell him about it?

It was his own fault he didn't know what was going on with Sam. After all, he'd made himself scarce this summer. Not that Sam was completely blameless. The burgeoning tension between the oldest and youngest Winchester made staying away from the trailer a more pleasant option than coming home sometimes.

But he'd been bouncing around, at loose ends, in search of something all summer. A purpose. And he'd rediscovered it on this outing.

He was the older brother. He had a responsibility. Taking care of Sam was his mission. Had been since Sam was six months old.

Sam kept him grounded.

The End