This story first appeared in Brotherhood 8 (2009), from Pyramids Press
Stories rarely turn out the way a writer expects and hopes...but this one came close.
K Hanna Korossy
The first day, neither of them was up for much.
Dean took in the room at a glance from the doorway, then strode across to the far bed and yanked the covers off, dropping them on the nearer bed. He propped the self-shutting front door with a trashcan and left.
He returned a half-minute later balancing three duffel bags and the first aid kit, thunking all but the last on the table next to the bathroom. The kit went on the nightstand. Dean pulled a trash bag from it, peeled back one corner of the fitted sheets on the stripped bed, and flattened the bag underneath it, then replaced the sheet. They were better quality than usual, but he'd paid more this time for a nicer place; they would be here a while. One last glance around the room, and he walked out again.
Sam was laid out in the backseat of the Impala, Dean's jacket pillowed under his head and a blanket covering him from neck to folded legs. Drugged and depleted into deep unconsciousness, he hadn't stirred at the stop of the car nor the sounds of Dean unpacking. He still didn't rouse when Dean crawled awkwardly into the back with him and crouched by his head, palming his cheek to both check fever and convey silent affection.
"We're here, not that you're gonna care."
Sam slept on, oblivious, and Dean finally grimaced and worked an arm beneath the deadweight of his brother's shoulders. He lifted Sam up to lean against him, catching the lolling head in the crook of his elbow and gently jiggling it forward to rest in the hollow of his throat. Sam's skin was too warm, but warm was good right now, beating all to Hell the cool and bloody body Dean had been left with before. He tucked the blanket in on all sides, then cinched his little brother against him with arm and chin before sliding his other arm under Sam's thighs and inching backward out of the car.
"You're not just gigantic—you're heavy," he grumbled, trying to lift several hundred pounds of their combined weight. A fireman's carry was out of the question with the fresh sutures in Sam's abdomen, and the room's door was only feet away. He could do this. Thank goodness it wasn't his knees that were messed up. It was just too bad Sam wasn't awake to appreciate Dean's efforts. Then again, being carried like a baby would have embarrassed the heck out of Sam, and that thought had Dean grinning as he staggered into their room.
Despite the fact Dean's arms were shaking by then, he eased Sam down slowly, settling the long legs but leaving his upper half leaning against his older brother. It allowed Dean to untangle the blanket from around him, then work off the hospital robe. The gown underneath would stay for now. Sam's hair tickled Dean's throat and jaw, the sensation an unexpected déjà vu to a young Sammy sitting in his lap while Dean read to him. Maybe the "kid" had three inches and a few pounds on him, but he still was and always would be Dean's kid.
The hospital robe tossed aside, Dean lowered Sam all the way to the bed, resting his head on the pillow. Dark hair fanned messily against white fabric and pale skin. Dean turned away to grab the discarded blankets off the other bed and snapped them out over Sam. His brother's heels hung off the bed—see above, re: gigantic—but Dean pulled off the hospital slippers and wrapped the blankets around and under his feet.
Warm, safe, and in his care. Dean took a long, deep breath for the first time that day and settled on the edge of the bed by Sam's elbow to study his face. Replacing with this image of relative peace the memories of Sam lying on the floor gasping, his shirt soaked red, then the hours of waiting during surgery while Dean carefully cleaned every bit of dried blood out of the cracks of his hands and nails. Sam was still chalky, his eyes bruised and sunken, but he slept easily and was out of danger. Any minute now, Dean's heart would start listening to his head telling him that.
Sam's brow furrowed despite the drugs and unconsciousness, one eye slitting sightlessly open. Dean reached a hand up and, with a tender touch, rested it on Sam's forehead, thumb rubbing away the traces of disquiet. "You're okay, Sammy. It's over. You're safe," he murmured. Big brother always made it better. It was the only job he took more seriously than hunting.
Sam's eye shut, face relaxing again, mouth twitching as if he were dreaming something pleasant.
Dean was sore and there was a slice along his calf he hadn't even looked at, and he'd just spent half the day scared to death. But he smiled when his brother did.
He sat there a while longer, mind taking apart the hunt, figuring what he could have done differently, avoiding thoughts of even worse outcomes. Finally, Dean sighed, shaking his head. Learning from a hunt gone wrong was one thing; dwelling and what-ifs were another. Sam was out of the game for a while, but he was good. They both were. For tonight, that was enough.
He needed a shower and food and to look at his leg, but exhaustion was persuasive. Dean slid off the bed to the floor, not quite losing contact with Sam, just wanting to rest for a moment. With his back wedged into the corner of mattress and nightstand, it wasn't uncomfortable, not that he was awake enough to care. Just a few minutes of sitting there, Sam's warm skin under his palm, Sam breathing next to him, Sam there and alive. Then he'd get up and go to bed.
Dean didn't even notice it when sleep ambushed him and dragged him under.
The second day, they settled in.
Dean sat for a long moment, body stiff and sore, not particularly wondering what he was doing on the floor next to Sam's bed. He stared at the light seeping through the blinds and tried to remember what state they were in. Vermont. Burlington. Nice college town, with a bit of a people-dropping-dead problem. Not that he was anxious to jump into the next hunt for once, but Vermont also had the advantage of being a few hundred miles from where police had started to ask questions about Sam's injuries and the two torn bodies found at a local lake. Where Dean had wrapped his hand around his brother's to sign the AMA form and loaded Sam, just a few hours out of the recovery room, into the back of the Impala. He'd spent the next few hours looking into the rear view mirror more than at the road.
Dean turned his head the other way, bringing Sam into sight. His little brother looked the same: unwell, exhausted, but resting comfortably. Dean watched him with an old, familiar sorrow. Things weren't supposed to be this way. Some normal people went their whole lives without seeing the inside of a hospital, let alone knowing their routines so well that they could break in and out of them at ease. Many normal people didn't know what it was like to be shot, stabbed, sliced, bitten, or thrown. Most normal people stayed in the hospital until they were recovered or went home to rest, not to a beige, lemon-scented motel room three states away.
Normal wasn't always the dirty word Dean pretended it was.
He sighed and pushed himself up on complaining muscles, muttering a "Morning" to the quiet room at large.
First order of business was Sam, as always. Without those IVs, he needed fluids and antibiotics the old-fashioned way. Dean fetched a glass of water from the bathroom and the plastic bottle from the pocket of his jacket, and measured out the dose with an eyedropper. He could work that through Sam's parted lips. For the water, he curved a hand around the back of Sam's head and gently lifted, teasing his mouth with the wet glass until Sam opened up and swallowed. Dean got most of the water into him by the time Sam coughed and turned away. Though the last part was his least favorite, Dean changed the sheets quickly and efficiently, having done this a few times before, mostly for John. Thankfully, Sam would be aware enough for bedpans soon, and while that was also oh-so-much fun, it was a definite step up. And all of it beat the dreaded catheter. But Dean did what had to be done as he always had for those he loved, and with a pro forma mutter of "gross," the soiled sheets went into the sink.
While they soaked, Dean stripped and showered, cataloging his injuries as he washed. The calf wasn't too bad, already scabbed over, but he worked in mental compensations for a weaker leg and a bruised hip in case speed was needed. The heat loosened him up a little, and by the time he shaved, he looked almost presentable. Only Sam would've known how to look beyond that to the truth, but Sam wouldn't be looking at anything for a while. Dean washed and rinsed out the sheets, hanging them up on the shower curtain bar to dry, then collected a towel and a bowl of water and went back into the room.
All-in-all, they had been lucky. Sam had needed surgery, but there hadn't been complications, and he was doing all right. Dean had been given a prescription for the inevitable post-op infection, but the treatment was mostly rest and more rest. They could do that. Heck, they'd done a lot more. This was pie in comparison.
Dean completed a sponge bath in record time, cleaning off dried sweat and sticky yellow surgical disinfectant and a little clinging blood, skimming lightly over purpled skin and bristled stitches. He dried Sam, then wrapped him in blankets again. Sam sighed softly in his sleep, a positive sign that he was rising closer to consciousness. Which also meant pain, but Dean had a bottle and eyedropper for that, too.
The desk clerk knew of a local eatery that delivered, and Dean ordered enough food for the day, including broth for Sam. With his brother out of danger, appetite had returned, and Dean's stomach was reminding him he hadn't eaten the day before.
Egg and sausage sandwich in hand and coffee balanced precariously on the shag rug by his feet, he settled into a chair next to Sam's bed and started researching. It wasn't like he had anything better to do.
Dean actually preferred researching in person where he could turn on the charm to coax out answers and see people's eyes to gauge their honesty, leaving the boring book stuff to his kid brother. But that wouldn't be an option today so he would take a page from said brother's book and play geekboy. No slouch on the computer before Sam had returned and claimed cyberspace as his domain, Dean hadn't forgotten where to look.
Okay, so Burlington had lost four of its fine citizens over the past week to something no one had seen. The victims seemed unrelated, but the M.O. was the same—they all disappeared at night and turned up dead the next morning in, uh, pieces. Witnesses claimed to have seen two of the victims with a shady figure before they'd vanished, but otherwise there were no descriptions. No signs of feeding, either, and of course, no prints or any other evidence of the attacker. The case had Winchester stamped all over it.
Dean just had to figure out what the predator—their prey—was. By himself. Making faces at the hours of research ahead, he resolutely squared his shoulders and dove in.
Lunchtime couldn't come soon enough. Dean set the computer aside with little regret—the best he'd done so far was eliminate about a dozen possible suspects—and settled on the edge of Sam's bed with broth and water.
Sam hadn't stirred all morning, so the murky hazel eyes that opened as soon as Dean slid a hand under his neck were a surprise. "Hey," he said warmly. "You awake, or is this another 'light's on but no one's home' deal?"
Sam's face scrunched as if Dean had been speaking Latin and it was an effort to translate the words. When Sam finally opened his lips, the one word he spoke came out blurred, as if he still didn't quite grasp the concept of language. "D'n?"
How it was possible to abbreviate a four-letter name, Dean wasn't sure, but it was the same slurry version of his name Sam had babbled until he was three. It made him grin as widely now as it had then. First words were first words. "Yeah, man, I'm here. You're okay, just need to work on that whole ducking thing." His hand settled over the back of Sam's when it twitched as if seeking something. "I've got everything under control, all right? You need anything?"
Sam still looked puzzled, but his eyes fluttered with exhaustion when Dean picked free strands of hair from his lashes. "Y'all righ'?" he managed anyway, in the near-Texas twang he'd managed to pick up during their travels that appeared when he was really tired.
"I'm fine, Sammy. Bored out of my skull, actually—you need to get back on your feet before I lose it and start scribbling 'redrum' on the walls."
Sam was already starting to drift, rousing a little when Dean squeezed his biceps.
"Try to swallow some of this soup before you fade out on me, okay?"
Sam's eyes were glazed under the half-open lids, but he was making the effort to stay awake.
Dean spooned fast, pleased to see most of the soup go down before Sam lost the fight and slid back into deep sleep. Dean patted his chest, gave him a resigned look. "Right, bedpan next time."
Okay, so back to research. He knew a lot of what his quarry wasn't but didn't have a clue yet as to what it was. The damage could've been caused by any one of a hundred different things they'd hunted, from vengeful spirits to a territorial cryptid, or something from among another hundred they'd never even heard of. Autopsy photos might help, but he couldn't hack into medical examiner's files as easily as Sam, and a visit…well, that was possible. The office wasn't far, and Sam was okay. Maybe.
On the other hand, maybe that wasn't the important part. The four victims had come from very separate parts of town. They weren't the most obvious victims of opportunity. Maybe the answer lay with them. Dean pulled out the list of names and started looking them up.
He broke off again mid-afternoon to change Sam's bedding and administer more meds. His brother barely roused enough to drink some water, his skin warmer than it had been. Terrific, Dean grimaced, and added liquid Tylenol to their regimen. There was no recognition this time, and Dean just clasped Sam's shoulder for a minute before pushing himself up and returning to the computer. So much for visiting the ME—if Sam's fever was rising, Dean wasn't going anywhere.
He'd linked two of the victims, Eric and Todd, to being patrons of the same bank when Sam groaned and tensed, shifting in bed.
Dean slid off the chair and onto the bed, cupping a hand around a flushed cheek. The fever didn't seem higher, but the hospital drugs were probably finally out of his system, and Sam was feeling the pain. He groaned again, face twisting as his fingers tangled in the sheets.
"Shh, easy," Dean whispered, reaching for the painkiller the doctor had written up for Sam after he'd finished giving Dean the whole he shouldn't be leaving yet speech. Dean had promised he'd take Sam in if there was bleeding or a lot of fever or pain, and he fully intended to keep that promise, but so far this wasn't anything they couldn't handle. "I'm gonna give you something to make you feel better."
Sam took the medicine even though there were deep lines of bewilderment between his eyes. Dean dipped a towel in cold water and blotted his brother's skin, rubbing it across his forehead. The lines eased some. Sam always thought too much.
He kept up the cooling until Sam's agitated twitching slowed, then stopped. His mouth sagged open in sleep, which Dean knew from long experience meant he was deeply under, and the flush in his cheeks wasn't as pronounced. It probably wasn't over yet—things were never that easy—but Dean had been able to help, and that kept a lot of the despair at bay. He watched Sam sleep until the drooling started, then shook his head fondly and went back to work.
Huh. All four victims had gone to the same high school. At the same time, even. As had the other two hundred kids in town their age, but okay, that was something. Dean made himself coffee and sat down to keep looking.
The shadows in the room slowly lengthened while he worked, and eventually he had to snap a light on to see his notes. Sam snored softly until Dean reached over to tickle his nose, then snorted and fell silent. Dean found himself missing the snoring. He woke his brother again for some more water and broth, brushing a hand through those ridiculous bangs until Sam sagged back into sleep.
One of the girls at the high school, now a thirty-something CPA, had died two weeks before in a car accident. The other driver hadn't gone to the same school and was alive and well.
Sam sighed in his sleep, muttering something about crayons, and Dean grinned.
Another alumnus had fallen off his roof the month before and was lying in a coma in the local hospital. Dean took notes, munching on his last sandwich while he wrote. Though he was leaning toward a vengeful ex-CPA, an OBE—out-of-body experience—for coma guy wasn't out of the question, either. And…about twenty other things, including a cursed school or an even older vengeful spirit.
Dean rubbed his gritty eyes and cursed softly under his breath. This was his least favorite part of hunting. The job would be so much simpler if they just knew what they were up against, could come in and burn it or exorcise it or whatever. He could use a little target practice.
Sam groaned again, body twisting, and called Dean's name even while Dean was jumping to his feet.
The fever was stubbornly lingering, but it was more than discomfort that lined Sam's face. He was curled on his side now, around his injured belly, and when Dean passed his hand over the area, Sam whimpered.
Dean let out a breath. Yeah, he'd known this was coming. Surgery sucked; abdominal surgery sucked out loud. Sam would be hurting for a few days whenever he was awake. As much as Dean wanted the company, it wasn't worth the price. He gave Sam some more of the good stuff a little early, adding the Tylenol and the antibiotics after he read every word of the medications' list of drug interactions, then returned to the cold compresses until Sam settled. Dean just sat with him afterward, thumb drawing slow strokes across the inside of his wrist.
"Holding hands?" The weak and weary question nearly made him fall off the bed in surprise.
"Uh, no," Dean countered, but he didn't pull his hand away. "Dude, you're delirious—what kind of twisted stuff you dreaming about?" It was hard not to sound as delighted and stupidly relieved as he felt at actually conversing, let alone Sam teasing him.
The corner of Sam's mouth turned up even though he still hadn't opened his eyes. Even half out of it, he wasn't fooled.
Dean made a face at him. "Hey, you ready to try a bedpan?"
Dean took that as a yes and fetched the basin. Though he helped Sam as efficiently and discreetly as possible, his brother was still flushed by the time they were done.
Dean quickly changed the subject. "You need anything, Sammy? You want something to drink?"
Sam rolled his head the tiniest bit, wincing as he moved. Dean sympathized, knowing from personal experience how your whole body hurt from the inside out after a major injury.
"Go back to sleep then," he said more softly. "Everything's cool."
"Stomach hurts." It was a sleepy mumble now.
"I know." He patted Sam's chest lightly, trying to distract him. "It's gonna get better soon, I promise. You just need to get some more sleep."
Sam murmured something Dean couldn't make out, then he was gone again, head sagging into Dean's palm as he reached up to check for fever. It was holding steady. Could be worse.
A lot worse.
Four victims joined by a common place and point in time and, probably, friends. Tomorrow he'd have to do some checking in person, see if he could figure out what significance that had. But for now, Dean was tired. He got up and shoved that uncomfortable little nightstand out of the way and pushed the two beds together. He needed to know if Sam's fever went up during the night, but damned if he was going to spend another night on the floor. Dean pulled off his shirt and tossed it onto the table, joined by his jeans. Then he crawled onto his bed and wrapped his hand around Sam's wrist, rolling onto his back to drift off, too.
He wasn't sure if it was the heat or the change in breathing that woke him. But he'd had eighteen years to know when something was wrong with his brother, and that drew Dean even out of exhausted slumber.
Sam was a barely visible lump in the dark room, but Dean didn't need to see him to tell he was worse. The steady breathing Dean had fallen asleep to now hitched and labored with pain, and the skin under his hand bordered on hot.
"Sam?" He blinked sleep out of his eyes as he pushed up. Getting to the light on the relocated nightstand was an act of contortion, but the room was soon bathed in a soft glow. It reflected off Sam's dull, partly open eyes.
Dean felt his cheeks, then his forehead, reluctantly satisfied the fever had risen but not dangerously so, but concerned when Sam didn't react to the touch. Dean flattened his hand completely across his brother's forehead and watched Sam's eyes crease and slowly blink.
"Aw, Sammy," he breathed. He knew this. Knew too well the post-op feeling of your whole body aching and your head feeling like any move would split it open and the surgery site burning hot and sharp, like someone was still cutting into you. Sam wasn't due for new meds for another two-plus hours, and there was nothing actually wrong with him that Dean could help or that time and rest wouldn't fix. But at the moment, Sam was feeling miserable, and that wasn't something Dean tolerated well.
He collected a bowl of fresh water and found the washcloth he'd been using the night before. Compresses would help the headache at least, and maybe he could ease the rest a little, too. Dean rounded the beds and then slipped in between Sam and the headboard, angling to fit around his curled brother without jarring him.
Sam's breathing caught in a little gasp that had nothing to do with Dean settling behind him, an involuntary tear of pain squeezing out to roll down his cheek and drip from his nose.
"It's okay, Sammy," Dean soothed. "It'll be better soon, I promise."
He soaked the washcloth and draped it across Sam's forehead. His breath sharpened, and Dean took advantage of the distraction to lean forward and slide his forearm under Sam's cheek and jaw, supporting the head that hung halfway off the pillow. Sam would be too sore to move or to put any kind of strain on his abdomen, but he needed some sort of contact. Sam's breath hitched again, another tear leaking out to be absorbed by Dean's skin.
Dean winced, hating this. "Hang in there, kiddo. Hang in there," he whispered, his free hand pulling the shaggy hair back from cheek and ear and nape of the neck, trying to cool Sam down. "I should cut this mop while you can't do anything about it," he ruminated, but it was a stingless threat. Sam would have known as much if he'd been aware enough to understand it.
The compress had warmed, and Dean replaced it, brushing Sam's damp and curling hair out of the way again. He was bent over a little awkwardly, but it didn't matter, not if it made Sam feel a little less lousy and alone. Distracted him. Dean glanced around, spying the remote half hanging off the nightstand, and grabbed it.
"You wanna watch a little TV?" He clicked the set on, somehow not surprised when it turned out to be black-and-white, and flipped through the channels. Donna Reed, a special on penguins, something about the civil war: even the programming was black-and-white. Dean finally settled on the penguins, figuring vaguely it was something his cerebral brother might enjoy, then returned to tactile distraction, changing compresses, stroking hair that glistened with sweat from the fluctuating fever.
Sam's arm bent at the elbow, hand sliding up the covers by inches to clasp his brother's wrist just below his chin. He blinked at the TV, eyes still watering but glassy with sleep.
Dean smiled a little, sad and glad and touched deep down where he stored all his memories of Sam, like the parent he'd sorta been. "You can go to sleep if you want, Sam. You'll feel better when you wake up. I'll be here."
Sam's blinking grew longer, the tears finally ended. Dean rubbed fever knots out of his muscles and replaced the compresses and started a running commentary on the mating rituals of the Empire penguins, until Sam's eyes finally shut for good and his respirations evened out. His grip on Dean didn't relax, though, and Dean didn't move, just followed him down into sleep.
The third day, he started to get his brother back.
Dean had woken in the pre-dawn hours to an aching back and a numb arm. He'd roused Sam to take his meds, grateful beyond words when his brother slid easily back to sleep, his fever down. Dean had eased himself out from under the sleeper and spent a few minutes shrugging kinks out of his back and restoring circulation, before he'd fallen into his own bed and gone back to sleep.
Sam was still out when Dean finally woke for real, his little brother seemingly in the same position Dean had left him. That was how he'd always known Sam didn't feel well, when Octopus Sammy became Still-and-Curled Sammy in his sleep. But he looked better, and sleep was the best thing for him now, so Dean lay still and watched him.
He seemed to be watching Sam sleep a lot those days. Maybe he'd even feel embarrassed about it when it stopped seeming so friggin' miraculous.
Sam moaned, but Dean knew the difference between physical and emotional pain. He dropped a hand on the back of Sam's head, hoping to head off the nightmare before it dug in. There'd be opportunity enough for that when his sleep wasn't so drugged.
Sam's eyes flickered open, taking a few seconds to focus.
"Hey," Dean said conversationally.
He smiled. Sam's eyes were mostly clear. Better yet, his mouth quirked up at the sight of Dean despite whatever he'd been dreaming and the lines of exhaustion and pain still evident in his face.
"Where are we?" Sam murmured.
"Burlington, Vermont. Thought I'd get in a little hunting while you lounged around."
"Hmm." Sam blinked slowly. Dean couldn't help but think of a thousand whispered conversations in shared beds across the country, Sam usually falling asleep at some point, Dean snugging an arm around him to protect him even in sleep. Sometimes the kid he'd been back then seemed almost a stranger, and other times it felt like nothing had changed.
"You want some water?"
Sam's tongue darted over dry lips, not having much success moistening them.
"Hold on." Dean pushed up, then had to look around to remember where he'd put the nightstand. Oh, right. He grabbed a water bottle, but Sam took it from him before he could help his brother drink. His hands were shaking, weak, and they dropped back to the bed as soon as he'd taken a few swallows, but he did it on his own. Dean gently unwrapped the bottle from his grasp and propped it against the headboard.
Sam was already asleep again. Dean cupped a hand under his chin a moment, then tucked him back in and, with a silent groan, got up.
He did a brief workout in silence, testing the limits of his leg and burning off tension. Showered, dressed, and shaved for the first time in two—three?—days. Made a run to the nearest fast-food place for a breakfast platter for himself and some orange juice for Sam. Sorted laundry. Ignored the laptop for fear he'd chuck it against the wall if he had to sit still for too long. And was still wound up enough to physically startle when Sam's voice unexpectedly broke the silence.
"Do you know what it is?" he asked softly from the bed, as if they'd been in the middle of a conversation.
Which, okay, they sort of had been when Sam had checked out. It took Dean a few seconds to backtrack. "What, the thing wasting people?" And Sam said he was single-minded about the hunt? "No, but I've got a few ideas. Gonna check around town today, see if I can put some more pieces together." He eyed his brother. "How're you feeling?"
"Al'right. Tired." Dean wasn't sure he remembered any of the night before, but Sam just sounded beat now, not beaten, a vast improvement. The distracting buzz of worry in Dean's head cleared a little. Tired he could handle.
Dean watched him thoughtfully. "You gonna be okay alone for a couple of hours? I'll be back by noon."
Sam's eyes had settled shut again; he seemed to be more comfortable that way. "No pretending I'm Superman and trying to fly off the roof," he promised solemnly.
Dean cracked up. "You were like, what, five? I swear, Sam, you almost gave me a heart attack that day. I find you anywhere near the roof, and I'm handcuffing you to the bed."
"Not going anywhere, Dean." His words were starting to run together again.
"You better not," Dean said roughly, clearing his throat when Sam cracked an eye at him. "I'm gonna dig out your phone—you call me if you need anything, even if you just want to check in, all right?"
"I'll leave you some water, too. And don't even think about getting out of bed. I mean it, Sam."
Sam's mouth twitched. "Yes, Dean."
"Smartass," Dean growled. He reluctantly got up. "Don't go back to sleep yet. I got you some juice, and it's time for meds and bedpan duty."
"Joy." The wry mutter made Dean grin.
Sam managed to stay mostly awake for the morning routine, even swallowing half the orange juice before he faded out again. Dean stood over the bed chewing his lip for a long moment afterward before he decided Sam looked all right, comfortable, and resigned himself to leaving.
He wrapped Sam's limp fingers around his phone, then dragged the nightstand around to the other side of his bed and stocked it with open water bottles, Tylenol, even their modified bedpan, just in case. After a moment's thought, he added Sam's Taurus to the pile, too, just in case. Dean felt for fever one more time, letting his fingers linger a moment before pulling the blankets up to Sam's chin. "I'll be back soon," he promised quietly, then turned and went out the door with only the slightest hitch in his step.
The four interviews he'd planned became six, the last abbreviated by the ring of his cell phone. Dean unlocked the room door with impatient haste and hurried in.
His arrival startled Sam, who'd somehow managed to relocate to Dean's bed in his absence. Dean saw his head jerk up, eyes already narrowing in irritation. And then, even as Dean lunged forward to try to stop him, Sam forgot and tried to sit up.
Dean caught him on the way down, sliding behind Sam's suddenly writhing figure like a batter reaching home. "Easy, easy," he pressed, gently trapping Sam's flailing arm, then lifting his shirt. The skin around the stitches was puckered, the whole area bruised, but nothing was bleeding or torn. The abdominal muscles were rigid to the point of spasm, however, rebelling against the unexpected exercise. Dean skimmed the shirt back into place, then wrapped one arm very lightly around Sam's waist just above the incision, supporting without adding pressure. The other arm he tightened across Sam's chest.
Sam groaned gutturally, trying to curl into a ball, which was only making things worse.
Dean pushed his knees back down, then returned to cradling the hurting body. "Listen to me—Sam, listen to me. Try to relax, okay? It'll get better if you relax. You need to calm down." He rubbed Sam's chest, trying to be more soothing than desperate, took one clutching hand and shook it lightly to loosen it. "Take it easy. I know it's hard, but just try. Breathe slow, okay, like me."
He inhaled measuredly and deeply, relieved when he felt Sam's stuttering attempt to copy him.
"That's good, Sammy. Real easy. You're okay. You're okay."
Sam had stopped fighting him, lying nearly pliant in his grasp now. Dean eased him onto his side so his cheek was pressed against Dean's chest, instead of the back of his head, which let Dean see at least part of his face. It was pale but composed, eyes glistening. Dean sighed, slid his hand up from Sam's chest to curl around his jaw.
"You're okay. I've got you."
Sam didn't move for a long time, and neither did Dean. Not until his brother warily shifted. "Dean?" His voice sounded as rough as he probably felt.
"I think Oprah's on."
Dean sputtered. It was an I'm okay tailored to reassure him, and it did. The snot-nosed brat knew he was safe right now from being smacked for it, too. Dean settled for a growl of "Not funny, Sam," even though it was. God, it was great.
And his cue to back off, which he did, easing Sam to the bed as carefully as possible. His brother looked even more wrung out than he had that morning, cheeks still pink with the stubborn remnants of fever but his skin otherwise washed out, sallow. His eyes had cleared to green-flecked brown again, though, and watched Dean with weary, pained amusement, and that made all the difference.
Dean raised an eyebrow. "I hear you called Pastor Jim to check up on me." Actually, it was more like Sam needs you and acid in his stomach as he'd left the guy he'd been talking to gaping mid-sentence and streaked back to the motel.
The thinned face flushed. "My finger slipped—I was trying to call you."
More likely he'd had trouble focusing on the cell's buttons, but Dean let it go. "Yeah, well, you can explain to him how I didn't abandon you 'helpless in a motel prison.'"
"You were late," Sam said stubbornly and with a touch of anger. "You said you'd be back by noon, Dean. I got worried."
The vulnerable admission defied Dean's attempts at a snappy comeback. He rubbed the back of his head uncomfortably. "Yeah, sorry. The interviews took longer than I expected. But everything was cool, nothing freaky unless you count the way Todd's mom was dressed." He mock shivered. "Dude, that was scary."
Sam shook his head in playful exasperation. "You find out anything?"
"Actually, yeah. Guess who all four vics were friends with in high school?"
Sam raised an eyebrow.
"Jennifer Friedlander, the CPA who was killed in a car accident about a week before her buddies started dying off."
Sam was having a hard time focusing on him again. With an exasperated sigh, Dean pulled a hand down over his brother's eyes, lightly palming them shut, then gathered up the prescription bottles beside the bed and started administering meds one by one. Sam grimaced but didn't protest or reopen his eyes. "You thinking vengeful spirit then? Maybe Jennifer's friends weren't as nice to her as everybody thought?"
"Not bad," Dean said, grinning at him with older sibling pride. Took more than serious injury and hospital-quality drugs to sideline his Sam. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Like that kid in the lake, Peter Sweeney. Witnesses did say it looked like someone—or something—was talking to the vics before they disappeared. Or it could be a simple case of jealousy from beyond the grave—they get to have what she doesn't anymore. Either way, I'm thinking the key is Jennifer."
"Mmm." Sam yawned. "So, salt-and-burn?"
"Yup." Dean had swiped some straws from the closest fast food joint and dropped one into the bottle of juice, then nudged Sam's mouth with it. He watched the slow swallows, recognizing the exhaustion that made everything an effort. "Sooner the better, too. There were three more people in that little circle of Jennifer's 'friends.'" He waited until Sam let the straw go, then asked, "Any particular reason why you're in my bed, by the way?"
Sam smiled sheepishly. "Closer to the door."
"Yeah, and? Last I checked, that was my thing, not yours. Something came in here after us right now, you wouldn't even make a good speed bump."
But Sam was asleep, lingering lines of tension easing with unconsciousness.
Dean made a face. "Man, that is such a cop-out," he grumbled, but he brushed the bangs off Sam's forehead with a gentle touch. He knew why Sam had inched toward the door. There were a lot of different ways to be protective, even if your spirit was more willing than your busted-up body.
Shaking his head, Dean stood and shucked off his jacket. He called Jim to let him know everything was okay and, no, they didn't need him to come down, really. Dean put the phone away with a sigh. He felt a little strung-out himself after that welcome back. Some TV was just the thing, and Sam's bed happened to be right in front of the set. Dean gingerly climbed over his sleeping brother and settled against the headboard, within arm's reach if he was needed.
Besides, Sam had actually been right. Oprah was on.
His hand on Sam's forehead instantly roused his brother this time, for which Dean was both glad and sorry. He felt better about leaving Sam when his brother was more aware and less helpless, but he'd kind of hoped to avoid this scene, too.
He sat on the edge of the bed and waited until Sam's tired, pain-etched gaze settled on him and really saw him.
"You're cooler now than you were before."
"College loosened me up," Sam murmured.
Dean stared at him blankly.
Sam shut his eyes and swallowed. "Joke, dude."
"Oh." Dean nodded sagely. He was already grabbing the water bottle from the nightstand, and he was careful as he helped Sam hold up his head while he sipped. "Right. Tell me when you get to the punchline so I can laugh."
Sam dropped back wearily to the pillow. "Ha, ha."
"No, see, that's you laughing, not me. I think I see your problem, Sammy."
Sam muttered a vague threat, which was pretty hilarious in that weak voice. Dean's humor died, however, when Sam shifted more onto his side, moaning breathily. "Next time, remind me to get sliced open somewhere else."
"Right." He took a deep breath, rubbing one hand over his face, curling the other over Sam's shoulder. "It's dark—I need to go do the salt-and-burn. You gonna be okay?"
Sam suddenly looked wide awake and aware. "Dean, vengeful spirits often get mad when you mess with their graves."
Yeah, he'd kind of figured his brother wouldn't let him go that easy. "Which is why I'm taking the shotguns," Dean answered patiently.
"You shouldn't go alone."
"You up for playing back-up?" he pointedly asked, regretting it when he saw Sam's eyes darken. "Look, Sam, if I could wait for you, I would. I swear. I don't like going solo either. But you know as well as I do that this thing won't wait. If it's got the others on its hit list, it's gonna keep going until they're dead."
"I know, just…" Sam trailed away in frustration, staring a hole into the wall across from the bed.
"I'll be careful," Dean promised more softly.
"You'd better be." Sam grudgingly looked up at him. "Take the EMF meter with you. Might give you a little extra warning."
"Good idea." Dean tipped his head in acknowledgement. "Any other words of wisdom, Coach?"
"Come back." Sam's stare shouldn't have been that focused, what with the drugs and the pain, but there was a wealth of feeling, of desperate intensity in those two words.
Dean slowly nodded, unable to make light of this. "I will. I promise." His eyes made a quick pass over the room. "You need anything before I'm gone? Might take a few hours."
"Help to the toilet?" Sam asked hopefully.
Dean's lips compressed. "Dude, you just about pass out every time you roll over."
"Please, Dean. I need to move a little. I'm ready."
He made a face, did some quick thinking. Sam didn't look ready, but then, he knew himself. And a walk across the room would wear him out, probably let him sleep right through Dean's absence. Might settle him down a little, too, being reminded of his limitations. Dean finally nodded. "Yeah, all right. But we take it slow, and if it's too much, you tell me."
Sam solemnly nodded, and Dean just barely resisted rolling his eyes. He didn't know why he bothered.
Sitting up was an arduous process that left both of them worn out, but Dean figured that was the hardest part. It pulled on your abdominal muscles to sit; walking might be easier. Although, if Sam got any paler, he was going flat again, bathroom or no.
Dean waited until his brother nodded he was ready, then lifted him to his feet.
Sam leaned dizzily against him, shutting his eyes and resting his forehead against Dean's shoulder.
"You okay? We don't have to do this today."
"'M fine," came the totally expected response. Sam's hand pawed unconvincingly at his shirt. "Let's go."
They crept across the room so slowly, Dean wouldn't have sworn they weren't going in reverse. His arms were wrapped around Sam, and his brother leaned heavily on him, his head still propped on Dean's shoulder, and their progress inching and painful. Sam's breath caught on each shuffled step, and his face was bathed in sweat before they'd even made it halfway. But Dean knew what it was like to be trapped in bed and needing to not feel so helpless, even if it took everything you had. And for Sam, it seemed it was.
Dean glanced up, judged the distance ahead and behind. "We don't have to do this," he repeated. "It's not too late—I won't think you're a wuss if we go back."
"Yes…" Sam panted, "…will."
"Well, not too much of one," Dean conceded.
Sam snorted, hand bunching even more of Dean's shirt as it sought a tighter hold.
"Easy," Dean encouraged. "I won't let you go."
Still, it was with near sobbing relief Sam grabbed for the doorjamb, fingers white on the painted wood. Dean didn't comment, didn't ask, just kept going into the small room with him.
"I ever tell you about the time you peed all over Dad when he was changing your diaper?" He helped as little and as matter-of-factly as possible, mostly with clothing and easing Sam down, then turned away to give him at least a little privacy.
His little brother's voice was a weak murmur against his shirt. "'Bout a hundred times."
Dean grinned. "Well, it's a good story. Not too many times I ever saw Dad taken off guard, but that was one."
Sam was down to a whisper. Dean turned, reaching back as he did to keep Sam upright with one hand to his chest, then helped him stand and get dressed. Sam was more out of it than in now, and Dean grimaced; they'd both overestimated what he was ready for. "C'mon," he coaxed and did most of the work this time. Sam didn't even try to hold his own weight nor watch where they were going, just shuffled his feet on command.
Dean lowered him to the bed with relief, tucking him in warmly, then wet a washcloth and blotted the perspiration off his face. "Rest, Sam," he ordered softly when his brother's eyelids struggled to rise.
"B'careful," Sam breathed back, already mostly asleep.
Dean swallowed. God, he'd loved this kid from the moment he'd known he'd be a big brother, but to be loved back like that… It still surprised him sometimes, caught him unaware like breaking dawn and just as powerful. It was his one argument there was a God and that He cared about Dean Winchester.
Dean brushed a hand through the long bangs, tugged the blanket a little higher. He wasn't happy about leaving Sam like this. Not that there was any reason to think he was in any danger, but helpless was never a good state to be in, not in their line of work. Leaving Sam that way, his back unprotected, went against everything Dean believed in.
But so did risking innocents for personal concerns.
He blew out a frustrated breath. Contemplated for a brief moment rousing Sam to ask him if he wanted Dean to stay, to scrap this whole hunt or at least put it on hold until Sam was better. But he knew the answer. Despite Sam's similar worries about Dean going hunting alone, he also believed fiercely in helping others. He'd be chagrined if he had any idea Dean was considering scrapping this just so he could stay and watch Sam sleep.
Dean rose, decision made.
He made sure he topped off Sam's meds and that the nightstand was stocked again. He folded the phone in Sam's loose grip, unsurprised when his brother's fingers tightened around the metal this time. Dean had talked to Jim earlier, and the cleric knew that if he didn't hear from them by morning, he was to call Sam to check in. Dean confirmed the salt lines he'd laid down after they'd first arrived, then gave the room one more glance. This was all he could do; Sam would be safe while he was gone. He had to believe that or he wouldn't be able to do his job.
Dean's gaze skimmed over his brother one last time, then he walked out.
He leaned his forehead against the door, waiting for the dizziness that had assaulted him on the walk from the car to the room to pass. He'd never pull this off if he was swaying on his feet. So even though he wanted nothing more than to open the door and go in, check on Sam, and topple into bed, Dean paused a minute, gathering his strength and giving the world time to settle.
Then he opened the door and walked in, near silent even in his clumsiness.
It didn't matter. Sam's head was tilted up uncomfortably against the headboard as he stubbornly stayed awake, even though he looked like he was barely managing. His eyes raked over Dean as soon as his brother walked in.
Dean automatically straightened and threw him a smile. "Aw. You waited up for me."
"Of course I did. What took so long?" Sam's voice made up in determination what it lacked in strength.
Dean shrugged out of his jacket, gingerly rolling his shoulders. "Six feet of dirt, one shovel—you do the math."
"You can dig up a grave in less than two hours," Sam shot back. Darn it, why was the kid so clear-headed now of all times, when Dean could really have used his fogginess? "You all right?"
Dean sighed in utter exhaustion and sank down in a chair across from the beds. He scrubbed his hands lightly over his face, careful not to bend his head down too far or let Sam see the back. "I'm okay, but it's not a vengeful spirit."
Sam tried to push himself up a little higher, but his arms wobbled and caved under him. Dean wasn't up for helping and so smirked at him instead, getting the desired annoyed look in return. "What is it then?" Sam pressed. Dog with a bone.
Dean shrugged, winced. "Something a lot more solid, that's for sure. Showed up after I did the salt and burn. It didn't look too happy, either."
"It attacked you?"
"It tried. Shot at it a few times, and it ran."
Sam blinked. "It ran?"
Yeah, he'd kinda snagged on that part, too. "On its own two solid little legs," Dean wearily confirmed.
"But you saw the body, right, before you burned it? So it's not a zombie or a revenant. Was it even Jennifer?"
"Looked like the pictures, only more dead-looking." Man, he was tired. Sam and the beds were too far away. "There was this weird symbol on her forehead, too..."
"Dean." He looked up to see that unique mix of worry and exasperation only Sam seemed to be able to pull off. It didn't seem to suffer any from his obvious fatigue. "Where'd it get you?"
"Dude, I told you, I'm fine." He started loosening his boots in proof, lifting them onto the chair seat instead of trying to bend down and risking taking a header. Even an impaired Sam wouldn't have been able to miss that one.
Dean grimaced. "Sammy, I'm all right. It knocked me in the head, but it didn't even put me down. I'm just tired. Been a while since I had to dig a grave up by myself."
"Let me see," Sam said flatly.
Even his big brother knew better than to argue with that tone. Glowering halfheartedly, Dean rose, steadied himself, then trudged to Sam's bed and sat, carefully twisting his head around. "There. It's no big deal. Happy now?"
"You were bleeding." Sam's voice sharpened, strengthened.
"Yeah, I sorta figured that from the trickling down my neck. It's just a little cut, Sam—it's not even bleeding now, right?" He reached back to feel it, sucking in a breath when his fingers brushed torn flesh.
"Lie down here."
Dean groaned. "Forget it, Sam. You can't even go to the bathroom by yourself."
"I don't need to for this. Lie down or I'll have to sit up."
And he would, too. Didn't matter if he passed out on the way or pulled his stitches or made himself giddy with pain. Dean knew that determined voice. Muttering unhappily about bossy little brothers who didn't know their limits and would—ow!—Sam just take it easy, he grabbed their first aid kit and plopped it by Sam's pillow, then stretched out next to Sam on his brother's bed. He was sorry now he'd moved his own back to its place that morning; the sliver of space Sam didn't occupy was a narrow fit. But it felt so good to be horizontal, Dean ceased to care, not even feeling much as Sam's fingers ghosted over the back of his head.
Then the alcohol began.
He was sweaty and swearing by the time Sam's fingers rubbed the top of his head apologetically. Dean sucked in a breath as his brother started in on the butterfly Band-Aids. At least he wasn't attempting stitches, which Dean didn't think either of them were up for.
By the time Sam was done with his shaky, painstakingly slow first aid, Dean had gone beyond exhaustion into a sort of hazy twilight. He could feel Sam start to clean the blood off his neck and scalp, but it was distant, not quite real. It didn't even connect when Sam said, "It's okay to go to sleep," and cinched an arm around him to keep him from rolling off the bed. He only heard one word—sleep—an idea he wholeheartedly endorsed, and one tone—Sam's warm everything's fine one—which was all he needed. Dean fell asleep for the first time in days without worrying what he would find when he woke.
The fourth day, they started the long trek back to normal.
Dean woke on the floor under a blanket, remembering hazily Sam's gasp as Dean tried to roll away from him, and his untangling himself carefully from his brother's arm to do just that without causing Sam pain, right over the edge of the bed. He couldn't nudge Sam over, there just wasn't enough room for them both, and any sleeping surface was good as long as it was flat. Dean must've answered something acceptable to Sam's sleepy inquiry whether he was okay because Sam had dropped a blanket over him instead of coaxing him back up onto the bed. Or maybe they'd just both been too tired to care.
His head still ached vaguely, and Dean reached up to lightly explore the gash on the crest of his skull. It felt like it was at least an inch long; no wonder Sam had been upset. It would have been a bear to clean and tape up himself, though, and Dean cast his brother a stupidly fond look as he crawled to his knees, then his feet.
Sam slept on, oblivious, curled slightly toward Dean, a little more color finally in his cheeks. Dean watched him sleep a minute, then went looking for his boots.
Sam was still out by the time he returned with food, and Dean ditched the note he'd left, sitting beside his brother and curving a hand around the back of his neck.
His hands were cool from the outside air; the reaction only took a second. Sam grabbed his wrist, held it in tight restraint, then blinked up at him in confusion. "Dean?"
He grinned. "Still a little slow there, Tiger, but not bad for being laid up all week, I guess."
Sam groaned wearily. "You get to try it next time."
"Okay," Dean agreed willingly enough, then thrust a cardboard container under Sam's nose when his brother opened one eye to glare at him. "You up for trying some eggs?"
He was starting to cut back on the painkillers, and the pinched expression on Sam's face said his brother felt it. But Sam moved with determination, pushing himself up halfway before finally accepting Dean's help. He looked tired but triumphant sitting upright against the headboard, only hunched a little forward to ease the strain on his abs. Dean propped the eggs in his lap, gave him a plastic spoon, then settled at the other end of his bed to also dig in.
"So it's not a vengeful spirit, and the body's destroyed. What does that leave?" Sam asked between bites.
Dean shrugged with his eyebrows alone, too busy inhaling food. "I don't know. I was gonna do some research last night until somebody decided to torture me instead."
"Right," Sam said dryly. "Next time I'll just leave you bleeding and dirty." He nodded toward Dean's head. "How's it feel, by the way?" He'd already insisted on a look, but Dean had drawn the line at touching.
He felt like sarcasm but somehow succumbed to honesty instead. "I'll live," he said simply, and he gave Sam an uncomplicated smile when his brother canted his head. Sam seemed to find what he needed, though, and nodded, returning to his food.
"How about that symbol you saw on her forehead?"
"Oh, yeah." Dean glanced around, seized a napkin, and took his pen out. The sketch took a minute, only because he paused to shovel in another bite of food. He offered the crude drawing to Sam. "Remind you of anything?"
Sam's forehead puckered as he set his food aside. He'd only eaten a few bites of his eggs, but considering it was his first solid food in four days, Dean was satisfied. Besides, it was good to see the light of interest back in his brother's eyes. "Hebrew," Sam said.
"Uh-huh, that's what I was thinking."
Sam looked up at him. "Golem," they said at the same time.
"But…are you sure there was just the one letter? Usually they have three on their forehead—the word emet—and you have to erase the first one to make met—dead—to destroy it."
Dean stared at him.
Sam frowned. "What?"
"Dude, you scare me sometimes."
Sam's mouth flattened. "It's called 'reading,' Dean."
"It's called 'filling up your brain with a lot of useless information,' Sam."
"Not so useless now, is it?"
"Well, considering that's not what mud girl had on her forehead, I'm thinkin', yeah, actually, it is."
Sam glared, then winced, hand hovering protectively over his middle. "Okay, arguing, bad idea."
"Pansy," Dean said without heat but moved the half-eaten eggs out of Sam's way so he could draw his legs protectively closer. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Sam gave a tight nod, then yawned. "I'm tired from eating eggs," he complained.
"You're healing," Dean answered mildly. "Less than a week ago, you were having surgery to stitch your guts back inside. Takes a little while to bounce back from that, Sam."
Sam's jaw was still tight. "I'm just not liking this whole 'being a burden' thing, all right?"
Dean stared at him incredulously. "You're not a burden. You've never been a burden. Annoying, maybe…"
"You're welcome." Dean gave him a sober look. "Sammy, you're here," he said, hoping that explained enough because he sure as anything wasn't about to spell it out more. But burden? God, was he for real?
A little more color crept into Sam's cheeks, and, yeah, apparently he understood just fine because he got that emo-girl look that meant he was going to say something really embarrassing.
Dean held up a hand to stop that in its tracks. "Dude. No."
Sam was grinning, the rat, and Dean shook his head in exasperation but couldn't stifle a smile completely. The kid was a bad influence on him.
Dean cleared his throat. "So. Golem."
"Right." Sam yawned. "Maybe there's some variation to the legend."
"Probably. Question is, who's controlling it, and how do we stop it?"
Sam smiled at him again, for no reason at all that Dean could see, but he was also looking tired. Considering the only sitting up he'd done in days was hunched over on a toilet, they were probably pushing things. He didn't utter a murmur of protest as Dean finished his breakfast, then got up and kept talking as he started sliding Sam flat on the bed. "It would have to be someone who had access to Jennifer before she was buried—golems usually are created from dirt but have something from the original person inside them. Which means if we destroy this one, that should be it."
"Mr. Friedlander," Dean said suddenly. "I took off in the middle of talking to the guy. You know, what with the freaked-out phone call from Jim and all." His pointed look held no real admonishment, and Sam barely winced. "But he was wearing one of those little Jewish hats."
"Yarmulkes," Sam said tiredly.
"Right, that. And he seemed, I don't know, kind of cold about his daughter's death. Like it made him more mad than sad."
"Okay, well, being Jewish alone doesn't make him guilty, but taken together, yeah, that sounds like the guy."
"Great. So how do I kill his new baby?"
"It's already dead, Dean."
He gave his brother a disgusted look. "Fine, Professor, how do I destroy it?"
Sam blinked slowly, and suddenly Dean realized how exhausted he looked. The teasing, the first aid the night before, it made him forget too easily that Sam was still beat-up and weak. The brain was working as well as ever—burden, Dean couldn't get over that—but the body needed a lot of rest and recoup time.
"You know what I've got this sudden craving for?" He clapped his hands together. Sam raised a weary, questioning eyebrow. "Research," Dean answered his own question. "Fire up that laptop, mm-mm."
Sam's mouth was curling. "You just want an excuse to visit the porn sites," he drawled.
"Hey, there are all kinds of research, Sammy," Dean said with a grin, which only grew at Sam's snort.
"I think I'll just…take a nap while you do…whatever." Sam yawned, eyes half shutting. "Don' leave without telling me," he whispered.
"I won't," Dean promised. "Got a date with your laptop first, anyway." It was actually his, but somewhere over the last few months that distinction had blurred, along with my shirt, my car, my life, like when they were kids. He couldn't seem to mind very much. "Get some rest, Sammy."
Sam's eyes closed all the way.
Dean heaved in a breath, flinching when his head thumped in irritation, then reached over to grab the laptop off the table. He settled comfortably on the floor next to Sam's bed and propped the computer in his lap, starting to search for Hebrew letters and Emmett and animated mud creatures.
Just another day on the job.
He leaned close to his brother's face, patted him gently on the chest. "Sammy?"
Sam groaned, the sound half-pained. "Go 'way, Dean."
"I need to ask you something."
Sam squinted one eye open at him. "What?"
Dean held up the laptop so it was about two inches from Sam's face. "What does this mean?"
Sam sighed, squinting with both eyes now. "Uh…'dust to dust.'"
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Dean pulled the laptop away and set it on the floor to give his attention to Sam. "You need to take a leak before I go?"
That seemed to wake Sam all the way. He eased onto his side and gingerly pushed up on one elbow to stare at Dean. "Go where?" he asked in puzzlement.
"Back to Jennifer's grave. Gotta see a girl about a golem."
"Then, I'm gonna put dirt chick back in the ground." He canted his head. "Or make her part of the ground—whatever. I found a ritual."
"Dean, that was a burial chant."
Dean raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, and?"
Sam considered it for a moment, shrugged his lips together. "Actually, yeah, that might work."
Dean grinned. "'Course it'll work."
Sam sighed, lowering himself down again. "You don't know that—we've never tried anything like this before. What if it doesn't work?"
"Then I haul ass, come back here, and find something else to try."
Sam shut his eyes, face weary. "I don't like it. You shouldn't do this alone."
"Sammy," Dean said gently. "I already told you. I'm not alone."
Sam stared at him. The ordeal of the last few days had made him more transparent than usual, or maybe Dean was just getting better at reading him. But it was easy to forget sometimes that Sam, his know-it-all little brother who'd had the courage to strike out on his own, was still just twenty-two. An old twenty-two, granted, but he'd also recently lost his girlfriend, found out his dad was missing, and had a few close calls with losing Dean. It was enough to drive even the strongest man to a little insecurity.
But even as he silently watched, Sam's chin came up stubbornly and he nodded, emotional but solid, ready. His partner now, not just his little brother. And Dean felt his confidence rise along with his pride.
He warmly squeezed Sam's arm once, then gave him a half-grin. "So, bathroom?"
Sam's chagrin was rueful at least this time instead of embarrassed.
He was a little stronger and steadier than the day before and didn't look like he could sleep for a week by the time Dean got him back to the bed. "No, I'm gonna sit up and wait," he argued when Dean moved to lay him flat again.
Dean hesitated. Although Sam looked better by comparison, he still looked like crap, pale and tired and out of breath from a walk across the room. "This could wait 'til tonight, you know," he ventured. "Might even be better in the dark."
Sam's expression didn't change. "So all that stuff about not doing this alone, that was just to make me feel better?"
"Don't be stupid. You know it wasn't," Dean snapped.
It was his brother's turn to look sure of himself. "Then go, Dean. I'll be fine. I'll wait for you."
Which was sort of what partners and backup and brothers did, wasn't it? Dean had always led or followed; walking alongside had its own rules.
But he was learning.
"All right." Dean nodded and leaned over the bed to fish out Sam's phone. He pressed it into a hand that wasn't lax this time, fingers instantly curling around the device. "I'll be back by…" Dean studied the clock. "Three. If I'm not, call Jim. Don't get out of bed." He pointed a stern finger at Sam.
"Dude, you just had to walk me to the bathroom. I'm not going to jog across town to find you."
Except, he'd try if he thought Dean needed him, and they both knew it. Sam flushed a little at the stare Dean gave him but didn't look away because he wouldn't apologize for feeling that way, either.
Funny how you could be so exasperated and grateful for something at the same time.
Dean stood. "Three o'clock. Not before, Sam—I'm gonna need some time to lure her in. Oh, and I got you some magazines when I went out for breakfast." He nodded at a pile of glossy newsprint on the nightstand, adding a misleadingly mischievous grin. He wished he could see Sam's face when he found his boring Time magazine and a collection of crossword puzzles instead of Playboy.
Sam rolled his eyes but nodded.
They looked at each other in silence a long moment before Dean turned and walked out the door. It was all they needed to say.
When Dean trudged through the door two hours later, Sam was exactly where Dean had left him, just looking relieved now as well as worried.
"I'm okay, Sammy," was what he started with, and saw Sam's mouth tighten just a fraction before he nodded once.
Dean shed the shotgun, his bag of supplies, his jacket. Dropped himself wearily onto the end of Sam's bed and lay back across it with a groan. "Like a charm. She showed up as soon as I started digging up her grave—I figured that was the lure last time. One minute she was swinging at me, the next minute, poof!. Potting soil." He batted vaguely at the small cloud of dust that had risen from his clothes as he'd flopped down.
Sam grimaced. "Yeah, and you had to bring some back to share," he said with distaste.
Dean turned his head to give him a dirt-caked grin. "Hey, that's just the kind of brother I am."
"Uh-huh, the filthy kind."
"'Filth' is such a strong word, Sammy…"
"And yet it fits so well. Mind and body, come to think of it," Sam added wryly. "And Mr. Friedlander?"
"Yeah, I'd say making a golem to kill your dead daughter's friends constitutes a filthy mind, wouldn't you?" Actually, he knew why Jennifer's dad had done it, and only to her male 'friends,' and figured the guy had paid enough and would be harmless now anyway. But Sam didn't need to know any of that. Partner or not, he was still Dean's little brother, and that meant Dean would protect him however and as much as he could.
Sam threw the phone at him. Dean barely winced as it bounced off his ribs; there had been no strength behind the throw, and Sam was biting his lip from even that little exercise.
"See? Shouldn't throw things at your brother. You're only hurting yourself."
Sam answered with a particularly creative Latin curse.
Dean cracked up, then looked over at him with a deep, utter contentment. Saw the answering shine in Sam's eyes.
"Next time," Sam vowed softly, and it wasn't reprisal he was promising.
And suddenly, it was important to actually say it. Dean pulled himself up, one leg tucked under him, and gave his brother a dead earnest look. "Sam, you've never let me down. Not when you argued with Dad, not when you went to school, not now. You're more backup flat on your back then anyone else on two feet except Dad, and God knows you've been a lot more than he was the last three years, so…just forget this leaving-me-unprotected, 'burden' crap, okay?"
Sam nodded mutely, transfixed.
"And if you make me repeat any of this," Dean continued in equally solemn tones, "I will hurt you."
Sam blinked, and his mouth quirked. "Dean."
"What?" he asked suspiciously.
"Take a shower. Please."
Dean rolled his eyes but rose to his feet. "You ready for lunch after?"
"Sure. And there's some kind of black-and-white marathon going on TV all day."
"Dude, it's a black-and-white set," he said over one shoulder.
Dean grinned at the duffel bag, his change of clothes, the wall. He'd been doing that a lot more lately. "Sounds good. Give me a few minutes to clean up."
"You'll need a lot more than that," his sweet little brother tossed after him.
The fifth day, and the ones after, the Winchester boys were back.
And Dean really loved his job. Both of them.