Strained Relations

A little 'thank you' present for the very lovely Phx, for all her hard beta work on HOTS book 2 Hunter Rising, and Devon99 for posting it on my LJ.

Don't forget to check out Winchester-grl44's homepage to see some fabulous artwork for both books, and the PDF file of book 1. You can find her ffnet link on my profile.

Set early season 2.

An excuse for Limp/Sick Sam, and a large dose of Angry/Guilty/Protective Dean.

The brothers hunt a wendigo, but didn't count on Geology leading them astray…

Warning: bad language.

Many thanks to Devon99 for the beta work – you're a star!

Damn site has taken out all my scene breaks, so I hope it doesn't appear too confusing for you all.

Otherwise, enjoy!

Sam shivered.

Dean sulked.

Both remained silent.

That was the way of things between them these days. Since their father's passing, the brothers had been out of sync. Off kilter. A capacitor short of a full radio set.

Of course, it hadn't helped matters that a short time into the hunt, the sun had unexpectedly packed its bags and gone for a long, dirty weekend with the CNN weather girl, and a steady downpour of monsoon proportions had gleefully stepped in to take its place.

Add to that, the compass had thrown the boys off course, due to the unforeseen and apparently uncharted iron deposits in the hills – but neither brother would come to know about that for a while yet. Not until long after the damage was done.

Consequently, the brothers Winchester had wandered unknowingly right into the wendigo's hunting grounds from completely the wrong direction.

Had they made it up river, which happened to be downwind, as Dean had so fastidiously and monotonously pointed out, then the wendigo wouldn't have been any the wiser. As it happened, bad weather, geology and poor communication had conspired against them and resulted in a journey down river, which, sadly, meant they were subsequently upwind. This was a pretty bloody dangerous place to be – also pointed out by Dean, who for some reason seemed to be blaming Sam for all this.

Things turned out alright in the end, with the wendigo deep fried like a batch of whitebait. However, even the excitement and exhilaration of a hunt well executed, despite their poor luck and the horrible weather, couldn't brighten their day. The brothers were miserable, tired, soaked to the skin, and now well and truly lost.

To top it all, one of them was injured, and the other hadn't a clue.

Yep. It was the work of the Winchesters' favourite bad guy – communication breakdown.

Dean's constant grump, and the snide remarks whilst trudging their way through the rain and mud, had driven Sam to a weary silence, one which he had no intention of breaking. Last thing the youngest brother needed right then was more shit from Dean.

If the older brother was surprised by Sam's silence, in spite of all the goading and sniping, he didn't show it.

But then, if he'd turned around once in a while, at just the right moment, he'd have seen his little brother wincing in pain every time he stumbled, silently gasping for breath. Perhaps he would even have noticed the growing pallor in Sam's skin.

Instead, Dean lapsed into a gloomy silence too, and the atmosphere became thick and tense with his unspoken anger. Things only got worse when an attempt was made to pick up a cell signal, and failed miserably. Dean stomped angrily through the wilderness, Sam trailing on behind.

The brothers were forced to take shelter after a couple hours, mainly because Dean had decided enough was enough.

"This is ridiculous!" he muttered, angrily, as his eyes scanned the area. "How can there be so much rain! Not a single goddammed cloud in the sky when we started out!"

Ignoring Sam's quietly murmured "Dean, c'mon man…" he narrowed his eyes on a possibility and strode off the trail.

It didn't appear to be much of a shelter, more of an overhang than anything, until you ducked down and got right inside, then the shadows revealed quite a decent amount of space. Further along it was even possible to stand upright, where the cave ceiling sloped gently upwards.

Dean snorted. "At least Sasquatch can move around freely in here," he tapped the cave wall and, after retrieving a flashlight from his pack, noted with some satisfaction that it was indeed just a shallow cave, and not a tunnel leading to the home of some huge territorial creature with more teeth than strictly necessary.

"Hey, Sam?" he called. "This'll do for now."

There was a scuffling noise from the outside followed by a soft, painful groan which had Dean sniggering.

"You might wanna duck a little more, ya big freak!" he retorted, assuming Sam had hit his head on the cave entrance.

Sam's tall form, silhouetted against the dim light bleeding in from outside the cave, limped slowly towards Dean, puffing lightly.

"Sure it's safe?" the younger brother asked, keeping it short. The less he said, the less Dean would notice he was out of breath. At least, that's what he figured, and breathing was becoming a real issue for Sam.

Dean raised an eyebrow. "Nothing living here 'cept us right now," but he couldn't resist yet another dig. "Leastways even you couldn't get lost in this place, though I'm sure you'll try."

Sam clenched his teeth, and not just because the pain.

"I didn't get us lost, Dean," he countered in a low, annoyed voice. "I told you, there was something wrong with the compass…"

As usual Dean wouldn't let him finish.

"Yeah, the compass is at fault. 'Course!" he snorted, the corner of his mouth curling up nastily. "Couldn't possibly be your fault, now could it Sam?"

Sam hung his head for a moment, then shook it.

"I'm gonna go find us some firewood," he fought back tears of pain and gestured to the cave entrance. "Must be something out there we can burn."

"Fine!" Dean spat out. "You do that! Seeing as it was you…"

"Just forget it, Dean!" Sam snapped back, temper fraying dangerously. He dropped his own pack to the cave floor, turned his back and shuffled out the cave.

Dean stared after him, almost ready to call him back and have it out.

A good old fashioned, knock-down, ass kicking might just be what the kid needs, he thought, then dismissed the idea. Sure, he'd punched Sammy a time or two over the years, but beating the crap out of him? Tempting, especially when he's pulled stupid shit like getting them lost on a hunt... but... just no. He couldn't do it.

Dean shrugged despondently, reached into his pack again, and pulled out a sleeping bag and bedding roll. If Sam was out foraging for firewood, then Dean was gonna get into some clean, dry clothes, and head for sleepyland...

By the time Sam made it back, clutching an armful of logs and kindling to his stomach, Dean was out for the count and snoring away like a road drill. Kneeling gingerly on the cave floor near the entrance, Sam dropped his load and tried to control his breathing. He was dripping water and freezing cold, hands shaking violently as they pulled out his Zippo.

Fortunately, the kindling caught first time. Sam marvelled briefly at his miraculous find further along the trail. Another, smaller cave had been riddled with the roots of long dead trees, still dry and brittle, easily snapped off. Additionally, there were a few fallen tree limbs that resided at the base of the mountain, sheltered from the worst of the rain. They weren't bone dry like the roots, but Sam was pretty sure he could still get a nice fire blazing away.

He crept back a few paces and stifled a groan. Reaching for his pack had him gasping in pain and Sam realized that whilst taking off his pack in the first place hadn't been easy, it was a picnic compared to what he now faced. Somehow or other, the trek out for firewood had made his condition far worse.

Sam stared longingly at his sleeping brother, illuminated by the light of the fire. He was desperate for help. There was no way he would be able to change into dry clothes, not with broken ribs. In fact, as he quickly found out, trying to pull out his sleeping bag was bad enough.

After one last unsuccessful tug on the sleeping bag, Sam gave up, crawled back to the fire, resigned to his fate, and tried to lie down. But he quickly found it too painful and almost impossible to breathe in that position, so with a soft whimper he pulled himself upright into a sitting position, and leaned back against the cave wall.

At least he was warming up. That was something, Sam acknowledged.

And that would have remained a constant, had he not fallen asleep.

Sam blinked slowly at the fire, almost hypnotized by the dancing flames, the sweet smell of warm smoke filling his nostrils as the wood blazed away.

The younger Winchester soon succumbed to his ever increasing exhaustion, welcoming escape from the pain in his chest.

Dean had heard his brother come back, listened to the sound of a fire being lit, but said nothing. He frowned at a soft noise of pain but figured clumsy kid had probably scorched his fingers on the lighter.

When Sam hit his growth spurt at the age of fourteen, those long coltish legs became too much for him to handle. He was always stumbling over his own feet, knocking into everything around him. These days he was more spatially aware and carried himself with a certain amount of animal like grace, but he still had his moments of clumsiness. Zippos, at that moment it seemed, were among Sam's bugbears.

Dean thought about getting up and lending a hand, but the sleeping bag was warm and cosy and he was still harbouring the ever persistent grudge.

Sam got them into this. Sam could get them out.

Dean steadfastly ignored the brief flash of guilt at leaving his brother to it, and snuggled down further.

When he woke up again a while later the rain had stopped, by the sounds of things. No longer could he hear the drumming of heavy water droplets, beating out a tattoo on the side of the mountain. Crawling out of his sleeping bag, Dean stretched and yawned, and considered his breakfast in the form of peanut M&Ms, with some hot coffee brewed over Sam's little fire…

He stared ahead.

There was no fire as such, just a pile of charred timber still smouldering away. But that wasn't what Dean was staring at.

Sam lay against the cave wall, worryingly still. When Dean shone his flashlight on the kid, he scrambled to his feet and shot across the cave. His little brother was pale and sweating, sharp, shallow breaths leaving his mouth.

"Sammy?" he called urgently, running his hands over the kid's damp hair. "Sammy, what's wrong? What are you doing just lyin' here, huh?"

With horror, he also noticed that Sam hadn't changed out of his wet clothes during the night. Small shivers wracked Sam's tall frame, mouth trembling with the effort of drawing each breath.

"These are the same damn clothes you were wearing when we first got here!" Dean's voice rose to a frightened yell, and he furiously began stripping Sam out of his damp jacket. "What the hell were you thinking? Damn, stupid…"

"D'n…" came a choked moan of pain when Dean jostled him too sharply.

Dean stopped and looked closely at Sam's face. The kid's eyelashes were fluttering helplessly, dark and damp against his pale face.

"Sam?" Dean barked out, voice harsh and guttural from fear and anger. "You with me?"

Red-rimmed eyes, over bright with fever, finally peered up at Dean, and Sam's mouth fell open. He was trying so hard to talk, but it appeared his body had taken full control, demanding oxygen instead of dialogue. The kid panted and shivered in Dean's arms, sad eyes filling with tears.

Dean instantly regretted his sharp tone and relaxed a little. He watched Sam's mouth open and close with each desperate gasp of air, and shook his head in frustration. Kid was too damn sick for recriminations. He needed help right away.

"Alright, Sammy," he crooned, softly. "Don't try to talk, just nod your head, ok?" Dean watched his little brother for any sign of awareness and barely stifled a sigh of relief when the nod finally came. It was just a slight tilt of the head, but that was enough.

"I'm gonna get you dried off and warm, then relight our little campfire," Dean whispered. Sam just blinked and lay there, letting Dean take over, helpless to do anything else.

Dean talked quietly whilst stripping Sam of his wet jeans and boxers. Sam was probably too out of it to be embarrassed, and as far as Dean was concerned it wouldn't matter a damn in any case. The wet clothes had to go before Sam got any worse.

So when Dean, accompanied by Sam's loud whimpers of pain, lifted the last layer, a rain sodden plain navy blue tee-shirt, he couldn't contain the small gasp of shock. The whole of Sam's right side was black and blue with bruising and Dean suddenly understood why Sam hadn't changed out of his clothes the minute he got back to the cave. In fact, he understood a lot of things, now, including how his recent shitty attitude had not only blinded him to the fact Sam was injured, but was probably why Sam hadn't come to Dean for help in the first place.

The kid had stepped in the path of the wendigo, distracting it away from its meal, which happened to be Dean at the time. Sam ended up thrown into a tree for his troubles and Dean, still too angry over the whole heavy rain and getting lost deal, hadn't even bothered to thank him for saving his life.

Aw Sammy...

Dean ran a hand gently down Sam's rib cage, wincing when his little brother whimpered again.

"Shhhh. Easy now, kiddo," said Dean, eyes welling up in sympathy. "Just gotta check you over."

Sam mewled like a wounded puppy, eyes clenched shut in pain when Dean pushed lightly at one particular spot on his chest. The older brother snatched his hand away as though he'd been burned.

"Broken, huh, Sam?" Dean's voice quavered with unshed tears and guilt. Sam nodded, eyes slowly opening again, silently pleading with Dean to stop the pain.

"This your only injury?" Dean asked, just to be sure.

Another slight tilt of the head.

Dean nodded and smiled. Palming each side of Sam's face, he brushed away a tear escaping down Sam's cheek.

"It's all gonna be ok, Sammy," he searched Sam's weary, pain-riddled gaze. "I promise. I'll make it better."

Sam just blinked again, and promptly passed out in his brother's arms. But Dean had seen the re-emergence of kid-brother faith in Sam's eyes, and that was all he needed.

After gently drying off Sam's shaggy mop of hair, Dean discovered his own sleeping bag was still warm so he carefully tucked his little brother away inside, handling him like a piece of precious china. He hadn't bothered replacing Sam's clothes. There was little point in putting the kid through more pain when the sleeping bag would suffice, and once Dean had the fire going again the cave would soon warm up. Zipping Sam up and tying the draw strings, Dean hovered over the boy for a little while, brushing loose strands of hair back behind his ears.

"Get all the sleep you need, kiddo," he smiled sadly down at Sam. "I ain't goin' nowhere. Gonna take care of you, then I'll get us out of here soon as you're well enough."

As it turned out, Dean was in for a long wait.

Sam became dangerously sick with fever, in spite of being force fed Tylenol from Dean's first aid kit. In under an hour he was no longer remotely coherent, unable to raise his own head or answer even the most basic of questions.

"Sammy? I want you to drink some of this for me…" Dean cradled the back of his neck in one hand and trickled a few drops of water into Sam's slack mouth, careful not to let him choke on it. At least Sam's natural thirst and swallowing reflexes kicked in, and allowed him to replace a little of the fluid he was losing from the fever.

One of Dean's tee-shirts soaked with rain from a puddle at the cave entrance served as a cold washcloth to cool Sam's body. Dean periodically rubbed it over Sam's face, neck and chest in long slow, gentle sweeps, whispering softly whenever the boy whimpered in distress.

The occasional dry barking cough quickly turned into the more frequent, mucous laden, deep hacking that Dean recognized as the onset of a chest infection. He'd winced in sympathy more than once when Sam cried out in pain. His broken ribs were probably grinding against each other with every movement, and the only thing Dean could do for him was to wrap Sam's upper torso tightly in bandages to keep him as immobile as possible.

It was pathetic, not enough, never enough…

Dean saved what water was left in Sam's canteen for drinking, sure in the knowledge that it was safe and free of harmful micro-organisms, but kept on using rain water from the puddle to try and break Sam's fever, filling his own canteen with the stuff, and tipping it out onto his tee-shirt.

Dean watched over his kid brother anxiously, hardly ever leaving the cave. Eventually, he knew, they would run out of drinking water, and he needed to find another source.

There was a stream nearby, the result of rain water running off the mountains. It worried Dean that it was tinged with a dirty reddy, brown colour and he puzzled over it for quite some time, unwilling to feed it to Sam whilst he was still so sick.

Not that he planned to anyhow. The water purification tablets in Dean's backpack would be put to use. Long experience told Dean these made the water taste like shit but at least it would be safe to drink.

Apart from that damn rust colour… Dean's eyes widened.



He reached for Sam's backpack and pulled out the compass, watching with growing guilt as the needle spun round and round like a damn dog chasing its tail.

Closing his eyes and hanging his head, Dean sighed deeply.

"Rust," he sniffed and raised guilt-ridden eyes to his sleeping little brother. "There must be iron in these hills. Sam, I'm so sorry." Another sniff, accompanied by a humourless chuckle. "At least we're safe from spirits, huh, kiddo?"

Sam's brow pinched a little but otherwise he made no attempt to reply.

Dean studied his face, noting the dark shadows under Sam's eyes, the beads of sweat clinging to his upper lip, the short panting breaths sometimes interspersed with that horrible hacking cough.

Kid was going to need more drinking water and soon.

There was nothing else for it but to filter and boil the stream water. Dean wasn't taking any chances that the water was drinkable as is. Who knew what could have died and decomposed further up the mountain?

Fashioning a filter out of a pair of clean socks, he left the cave to search for some clean soil or sand. There was nothing apparent at the foot of the mountain, at least nothing that Dean trusted to be clean enough, so he began climbing, hand over hand, feet seeking stable foot holds, eyes scanning the rock for something to use. He sped up when a light shower of rain started falling, not wanting to leave Sam alone for too long in that cave. They had plenty of wood for now but Sam wasn't exactly conscious enough to keep feeding their little fire.

Further up, another five or six feet by Dean's reckoning, he spied a small ledge. Hauling himself up and over, he rolled onto his back, panting with exertion and staring up into the grey skies, rain clinging to his face with a light sheen and slicking back his hair.

"Never 'gain," he panted out to the heavens, fairly sure there was no one up there to hear his complaints anyhow. "M'never huntin' 'nother wendigo. I'll turn the fucker over to Animal Control!"

Carefully clambering to his feet, Dean grumbled a little more, mainly about the possible use of C4 or an ICBM next time a wendigo stepped into his sights. Glancing around, eyes searching every nook and cranny, he finally found what he needed, tucked into a sheltered corner of the ledge.

"Here goes," he muttered. He'd only ever done this once before, under the close supervision of his father one summer, when he'd just turned fifteen… Dean swallowed hard and pushed the memory away.

Stuffing a few handfuls of soil into his sock-come-water filter, Dean smiled almost gratefully at the small conifer that struggled to live in such a precarious environment. The wonder of Mother Nature. Even in the most unlikely of places, it was still possible to find life. Patting back the disturbed soil around the base of the tiny tree, Dean tied off the sock and began the climb down. The rain had made the rocky surface slippery and it took all his strength and limited patience to keep a nice, slow pace.

"Not gonna be able to help Sam with a broken neck," Dean forced out through gritted teeth as he extended his right foot. The sole of his boot touched down only very lightly but Dean felt the give in the rock face and snatched it back up again. He watched through eyes widened comically by fear while that section of the rock crumbled away with a dull roar.

Clinging to his perch, Dean turned his face back to the mountain and scrunched his eyes shut for a second.

"Oh boy!" he muttered, and gulped in a great lungful of air. Another tentative peek down the mountain over his shoulder had him shuddering. "Well, Sammy?" he whispered, voice more than a little shaky. "I just came real close to needing your spare underwear, kiddo."

He gave a grimace of distaste, and carried on carefully lowering himself down the mountain.

His ears caught a strange sound the closer he got to the bottom, until he suddenly realized what, or rather, who it belonged to.

"Sam?" Kid sounded terrified.

Dean leapt the last five feet and ducked quickly into the cave. Dropping to his knees beside his sick brother, he ran his hands down Sam's sweat-slick face.

Sam moaned softly, turning his head into Dean's gentle touch but didn't regain consciousness.

"S'alright, little brother," Dean heaved a small, quiet sigh of relief when his voice seemed to calm the kid down a little.


Sam had been plagued with nightmares throughout most of his childhood, only easing up after he hit puberty. Dean guessed Sam's rebellious nature had been responsible for much of that, allowing him to gain some control, no matter how small, over a life he hated so desperately. But after Jess burned alive above him, nightmares once again became a firmly established part of Sam's life.

Losing Jess had brought Sam back into the fold, dragged him deep into the Winchester family business in a way that John Winchester could never have managed on his own. Sam was now on equal footing with his father and older brother. All three had witnessed someone they love die in the most hideous and terrifying way.

It hadn't been worth it, Dean reflected, bitterly. His brother's soul deep, agonizing pain had been the payment for having Sam back hunting with him, riding shotgun in the Impala… and it wasn't worth the price, not when Sam was hurting.

He gazed down at his kid brother's face, drenched with fever and teeth clenched against the shivers wracking his body. Sam was getting weaker, head rolling slowly from side to side.

"Nuuuuuuhhhh….D…D…D'n…." Sam huffed and panted, tears now leaking down his face and mixing with the sweat.

"Shhhh, Sammy, I'm here, baby bro," Dean pressed his mouth to Sam's ear and murmured softly. "I'm gonna get you some more water, get you cooled down, and maybe we can get some more Tylenol into ya, huh?"

He hadn't dared try again since the last dose. Sam was able to swallow water but to try taking down anything solid, Dean figured, was asking too much of the poor kid right now. After using the last of the pure canteen water to sooth Sam's undoubtedly sore throat, Dean began setting up his homemade water filter by packing the sock half-filled with soil inside another pair, then wrapped the whole package in the leg of Sam's wet jeans. The more layers the cleaner the water, or so he hoped.

He glanced around, searching for something to… ah! Mother Nature comes in handy yet again.

A sharp, rocky outcrop, like a natural nail, poked out half way up the cave wall, as though awaiting some art gallery owner to claim it for a Rembrandt or Monet. Not that Dean admitted out loud to knowing much about fine art, but he'd picked up a thing or two over the years.

With a small smirk, he hooked the jeans over the end of the outcrop.

Grabbing Sam's backpack and pulling out a mess tin, he placed it underneath the 'filter' and stabilized it with some rocks. Then he held up his own canteen full of stream water and carefully tipped it into the bundle of socks.

He hadn't appreciated just how long it would take, and it felt like hours before the first drips of water came through the outer sock and jeans.

Pling… pling… pling… The water so slowly filtered through into the mess tin.

Dean rolled his eyes. "Just freakin' great…"

Some time, and several trips outside the cave to refill the empty canteen later, and Dean had a mess tin full of filtered water. It still looked a little brown, and he figured boiling it up and using the purification tablets could only help.

But it meant a longer wait and Sam desperately needed water. Dean took to wiping Sam's chapped lips with a few drops of the newly filtered water, allowing a small amount to dribble down the kid's throat, but was still reluctant to let him drink in full.

Stoking up the fire and letting the mess tin of water heat up, Dean carried on filtering more stream water into Sam's empty canteen and his own mess tin.

It took a lifetime and Sam's whimpers turned into croaks and gasps. Dean winced and worked as fast as he dared, taking the mess tin of boiled water and placing it in the puddle outside their cave to cool it off; another light spray of falling rain helping to speed up the process.

Dean kind of hoped for another display of the monsoon they'd suffered the day before. He would only have needed to leave the mess tins out for a few minutes and they would have been filled to the brim with fresh rain, which meant not having to filter and boil the rusty stream water. But apart from a few light showers the clouds seemed to have rained themselves out.

Once the water was warm enough to the touch without burning, Dean grabbed the mess tin and dropped in the water treatment tablets.

"Nearly there, Sammy," he smiled sadly when Sam rolled his head restlessly. "Soon get you hydrated again."

Getting Sam to drink Dean's offering was a challenge in itself, and the older brother couldn't really blame him for rejecting it. Dean had taken a sip and nearly gagged, but Sam needed it, badly, so it was time for some dirty tactics.

"Sorry, kid," Dean whispered, genuinely remorseful. He carefully raised Sam up against his chest, tilted the boy's head back against his shoulder, and grasped Sam's chin in a tight hold, forcing it open.

Sam struggled at first but injury and sickness had severely weakened him. The bitter tasting water trickled into Sam's mouth, and Dean pressed his mouth shut again.

"So, I've filtered it, boiled the fuck out of it," said Dean, gently rubbing Sam's throat, helping the water go down. "And, finally, I spiked it with toilet cleaner. What dya say, huh, Sam? Clean enough? A good year? Maybe it needs aging in an oak cask or whatever the hell they do in those vineyards…"

He was rambling and didn't care. The sound of his own voice kept him from going crazy with despair and, he hoped, kept Sam grounded in the here and now, as opposed to, say, wandering off into some tunnel lit up with blinding white light…

"Don't you dare, Sammy, please?" Dean muttered in Sam's ear, his voice almost a whimper. "Don't you leave me here all alone."

It was the first time Dean had intimated out loud just how bad things could get for Sam if his fever didn't break soon.

Dean woke up half an hour later, just in time to catch the fire before it died down beyond redemption. Sam was still lying in his arms, quieter by now, though still hot to the touch. Using a charred twig Dean stirred up the hot ashes until they glowed a deep red, and threw on some more wood.

Sam moaned and mumbled incoherently in his restless sleep when Dean moved to refuel the fire, but settled down as soon as Dean placed a cool palm on his forehead and spoke softly in his ear.

"S'alright, just relax, Sammy," his big brother crooned, and swept a lock of damp hair out of Sam's eyes. "I gotcha."

Sam shivered harshly. Apart from the flush of fever high on his cheekbones, he was deathly pale, lips bloodless and cracked by the super-heated air rushing out of his protesting lungs.

Dean held him close, could feel the fever rampaging through his little brother's body, helpless to stop it.

"Sammy, please…" he whispered, when Sam cried out in his sleep and struggled weakly against some nameless terror stalking his fevered imagination. "You're not alone, little brother. I'm here. You're not alone, I'm right here with you," Dean whispered over and over again until Sam slumped, exhausted against him.

"D'd… w'ke up, pl's… D'd…?" Sam whimpered softly, panting with the effort. "D'd…?"

Dean froze, eyes steady on his kid brother's face. "Sammy?"

Sam frowned and rolled his flushed face into Dean's neck. "Dad… s'mon… help him!"

Those last two words came out clearly enough and Dean's heart broke. If his guess was correct, Sam was reliving the moment he found their father dead on the hospital room floor.

Oh God! Dean ran a hand down his face, swiping at the sudden moisture. He hadn't asked the kid about that, didn't want to hear it. Dean had enough of his own grief issues to work through without shouldering Sam's as well. But it had never, not once, occurred to him just how much Sam had been through that terrible day after the crash.

"I'm so sorry," he breathed into Sam's ear. "I really am so sorry, kiddo. Shoulda known… shoulda been looking out for you… just shut you out and laid all that crap on you about being too little, too late… who the hell was I tryin' to kid, huh? I'm no better than you. Hell! Dad was no better than you! He kicked you out of the family for Christ's sake!"

Dean was shocked at himself. He'd never really come clean with Sam, told him how he felt about the way Dad had handled Sam's defection to Stanford. In truth, Dean wasn't all that sure how he truly felt. Sure, he'd been proud of Sam for the achievement, a full ride was no mean feat, but watching Sam walk out that door? Leave the safety of his family? Hearing Dad take away any chance the kid had of coming back?

Nah. That hadn't been anything to be proud of. Because Dean was just as guilty of letting Sam go. He hadn't fought for Sam, not really. He'd been selfish, wanting his kid brother with him, not at some fancy school. God forbid should Sam ever find something in life that made him happy, and wasn't related to hunting ghosts.

You're the one who closed that door, Dad! Not me!

No. Sam had still wanted to be a part of the family, just in a different way. A way that was unacceptable to Dad at the time.

"It's gonna be ok, Sam, I promise," said Dean, aware of sounding like a broken record, and gently rocking his sick brother to and fro. "Just… just stay with me, ok? I'll get us out of here and I'll make it up to you."

A few more hours had drifted by when Dean felt Sam stirring. While the boy's forehead still felt worryingly warm, it was no longer radiating the pulsing heat of earlier.

"Hey, you with me, Sam?" he questioned gently, and smiled when sleepy, red rimmed eyes blinked up at him.

"Uhuh…" Sam answered, nodding slowly and gazing round their little cave in confusion. "Where… we?" He licked his lips and winced when his tongue caught on cracked, sore skin.

Dean grinned, feeling a surge of relief at hearing Sam's voice. "Thought we'd take a little time out for some camping."

Sam's lips twitched in a weak semblance of a returning smile. "Forgot… tent?"

"Nah," answered Dean, grin softening. "More room in here for your huge feet."

Sam blinked again but made no attempt to move, seemingly content to stay in his brother's warm arms.

"How you feeling, Sam?" Dean's expression turned serious.

"O…K… tired… chesthurts…" was Sam's breathless reply.

"Not surprising. You cracked a few ribs back there," Dean held up a finger. "Large trees and a flying Sasquatch don't mix. Try to remember that next time, ok?"

Sam's grin was a little stronger. "Yeah… I'll try."

"Atta boy." Dean rummaged through the first aid kit. "Here. Time for your pain juice."

He held out two Tylenol and the canteen of treated water under the kid's nose. Sam sniffed and grimaced.

"That smells… thirst quenching."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and you wouldn't believe the shit I had to go through for it either!"

Sam held his breath as best he could under the circumstances, and obediently swallowed the pills.

"When can we leave?" Sam asked, once he'd gagged, winced, then promptly coughed up what felt like a lung.

Dean smiled sympathetically. "Not until you're a little stronger. You caught a chest infection," he narrowed his eyes in mock anger. "Next time, wake me up if you need help! You sat there for Christ knows how long in those wet clothes! No need to be bashful round me, Sam – I used to change your diapers don't forget!"

In spite of the obvious humour in Dean's tone, Sam heard the underlying worry and turned his head away, ashamed.

"S-sorry. K-keep scr-screwin' up, huh?" he whispered, breath hitching painfully in his chest.

Dean sighed and gently grasped his chin, turning Sam's face his way again.

"No, Sammy," he said, quietly. "This ain't your fault, dude,"

Sam stared at him, eyes moist with unshed tears. "But… I g-got us lost."

Another weary big-brother sigh.

"Weren't your fault either," Dean held up the compass and pointed out the spinning needle. "There's iron around this place. Something the maps and websites left out. I guess with the clearly marked out hiking trails and all, they figured no one would bother with a compass, but they hadn't planned on us, huh? The iron probably sent us off course soon as we got close, but now we're virtually on top of it? Oh yeah!" he tapped the compass. "Bitch's gone crazy for the mother load!"

Sam hesitated for only a second before snatching back the blame once again. "Still… I shoulda realized…"

Dean shook his head. "Nah, dude, it would've been real subtle, gradual. And there was no sun to tip us off that we were headed in the wrong direction." He smiled tightly. "I'm sorry, kiddo. I shouldn't have yelled at you, or blamed you for any of this. But most of all, I…" he paused for a moment, staring down at Sam intently. "I'm sorry I didn't figure out you were hurt, sooner. I didn't even notice… I just woke up and found you laying there."

Sam gazed up at him, eyelashes wet with tears. He was so tired and his body felt as though it had been forced through a mangle, unravelled and put back together in knots. His chest hurt like hell and not just from the cracked ribs; the rough, hot drag of breath was heavy in his lungs, confirming Dean's diagnosis of chest infection. He'd allowed himself to get sick because his pride wouldn't let him ask his brother for help when he needed it. What kind of a team player did that make him?

"I g-guess we b-both fucked up, huh?"

The corners of Dean's mouth twitched up into a lopsided grin.

"Just get some sleep, buddy," he said, gently smoothing Sam's damp hair back. "Soon as you're feeling better, we're getting out of this god- forsaken place."

Sam blinked, nodded, and with a small smile of his own his eyes slowly closed. Within minutes a congested wheeze was echoing around their little cavern.

Dean sighed. They needed food. The small supply of M&Ms and beef jerky were running low, would barely last another day. He grabbed his back pack and dipped inside, his hand emerging moments later with a camouflage waterproof package.

"And to think, I nearly didn't bring this," Dean cast a sad smile Sam's way.

It had been Sam's idea to pack a survival kit, and after a brief yet hurtful exchange of words, Dean had snatched it out of his hand with an angry snarl.

Inside was a small fishing line and hook, a tinder box, and a couple of snares. Though both brothers carried small firearms, they'd run out of ammunition while defending themselves from the wendigo. One of the side effects of having lost their way was being jumped by the damn thing before they'd got the flare guns ready. Piss poor preparation sure sucked balls.

Dean also lamented not bringing along a good old fashioned hunting rifle, but then, he hadn't exactly planned on co-starring in an episode of 'I'm a hunter! Get me out of here!'

He didn't intend to wander too far away from the cave in case Sam woke up and needed him. Dean crept outside, moved around twenty metres off to the right, laid out the two snares, and settled behind a nearby fallen log.

In spite of his often abrupt and sarcastic countenance, Dean could show a surprising amount of patience when the situation called for it, and two hours later that patience paid off.

Grinning from ear to ear, Dean sauntered back to the cave, two large adult rabbits slung over his shoulder. He'd reset the snares before he left, figuring that with a bit of luck there'd be two more come nightfall.

Then came the gross part. Skinning and gutting. Never a pleasant task, but the brothers' had seen much worse over the years: one of the positives of hunting was evolving a stomach of solid steel.

Well, Dean reflected with a grimace, eventually. He was immediately assaulted with flashbacks of leaning over a grimy bathroom sink, upchucking violently, while Sammy expelled his stomach contents in the tub.

That had been one hell of a hunt, he recalled. A deadly poltergeist with a penchant for tearing peoples guts out by pulling them down through the rectal cavity...

Dean shuddered at the memory. That one hadn't been pretty. The sight of all those bodies still haunted him ten years later. And as for Sam, well, Dean was certain it was hunts like those that eventually pushed the kid into absconding to Stanford when he was eighteen.

Thinking back, could he really, truly blame him...?

Dean wasn't the best cook in the world, though he'd often showed willing. It had taken him several years to figure out the art of preparing scrambled eggs without burning the bottom of the pan. Not so long ago his grilled bacon would shatter into a million pieces when hit with a fork, and Sam would instinctively duck down low to avoid being hit by pig shrapnel. On the rare occasions their motel room came with a kitchen, and for one reason or other Dean was forced to cook for Sam when they were kids, he'd even attempted to bake his own cherry pie, with disastrous results. The oven temperature was too high, the pastry mixture all wrong, and it took Dean, with Sam's help, several days to chip the charred, sugary cherry filling off the insides of the oven. John Winchester hadn't been amused and vowed to teach his oldest boy how to at least cook over an open fire. Cooking in the great outdoors came with the advantage of a nice fire to take the chill off the air, very little clean-up, and most important of all the food nearly always tasted great. For some reason, Dean had found to his delight, the scent of wood smoke combined with the flavours of the food went together like peanut butter and jelly, like mint and roast lamb, turkey and cranberry sauce, roast beef and mustard...

A loud grumble from his gut served to chastise Dean out of his daydreaming.

"Stop thinking about it!" he muttered softly, swallowing hard. His mouth was watering badly, on the verge of a full on flood. Pavlov's mutt had nothing on Dean Winchester. Had a bell rang out right then, Dean's mouth would have erupted like Old Faithful.

Time to force his mind off topic.

"Mmmm. Rabbit stew. Delicious..."

He kept up the mantra with each step he took until he was right outside the cave, and immediately set about preparing the rabbits for cooking.

Sam woke slowly when he heard feet shuffling at the cave entrance. The fire had died down a little, leaving hot red coals that lit the cavern with a strange dim glow.

Blinking to clear his vision, he shifted and groaned softly. Any movement seemed to aggravate his ribs into a torturous uprising, and left Sam breathless with agony.

All sound from outside the cave ceased abruptly.

"Sammy, you ok?" Dean's concerned voice filtered through, echoes bouncing off the rocky walls.

"Y-yeah," Sam panted out. "I'm-m'ok."

Feet scuffled on rock up ahead, and Dean's worried face gradually made its way through the gloom. Sam watched helplessly as his brother crouched down beside him and pressed a hand to his forehead.

"Fever's back," Dean murmured.

Sam just blinked at him.

Gentle hands pulled aside the bandages wrapping his broken ribs, and tentatively rested over the heavy bruising.

"Hmm." Dean didn't like the heat he felt there much either. Sam's breathing was all wrong, laboured and strained, and though that shouldn't have been much of a surprise given the chest infection, his suspicions were aroused. Something was very wrong; he could feel it in his gut. "Alright, kiddo. We eat then we get moving."

It was a tough call. Sam was nowhere near ready to be moved, but Dean had the terrible urgent feeling that they didn't have a choice now. It was becoming imperative that they found civilization and medical assistance sooner rather than later.

"D'n... g-go... g-get h-help..." Sam's stammered whisper took him by surprise. "I-I'll be f-fine here..."

"No fucking way, Sam," Dean cut Sam off with little ceremony, eyes hard with determination. "We stay together and that's final."

Besides which, Dean was hoping his cell phone would pick up a signal if they kept on the move, and there was no way in hell he was leaving his injured and vulnerable little brother all alone for hours on end.

All he received for an answer was a shaky nod and a slight, pained huff.

Sam knew it was futile to even suggest it, and a part of him was grateful for Dean's response, but another, bigger, part of him was cursing Dean's stubborn, self-sacrificing nature.

One tasty meal of rabbit stew later – and it was tasty, even Sam had to admit it – and Dean was packing up their stuff, checking water bottles were full, and storing away two more unfortunate rabbits he'd found in the reset snares.

Sam had offered to help, but the simple act of getting dressed, even with Dean's assistance, had left him hurting and exhausted.

So he was turned down with a brusque "Nope. I got this."

The younger brother sighed, feeling utterly useless. There wasn't much he could really do to help get them out of here.

"You take it easy, don't scare the shit out of me by staying on your feet, and tell me when it gets too much and you need to rest," Dean suddenly broke through Sam's depression, as though reading his mind. He was crouched down again, a half smile on his face. "You ready, Sam?"

"Uhuh," Sam huffed out, and allowed Dean to slide his arms around his shoulders and lift him carefully from the cave floor. Sam hid a gasp but he wasn't fast enough, and found himself being tilted back to lean against the rocky wall.

"Ok, just hold it there for a sec," Dean frowned and watched Sam's face closely, waiting for the haze of pain to clear a little.

"Ready?" he asked again, minutes later. At Sam's slight nod, Dean eased him forward. Sam stumbled a little over the rocks, but Dean held onto him, helped him duck down to avoid hitting his head on the low cave entrance. Once they were outside, the older brother adjusted the straps of his back pack and lowered his arm to Sam's waist.

"Remember what I said, kiddo," Dean admonished, voice soft yet brooking no argument. "You set the pace, and we take regular rest breaks. You tell me when the pain gets too much. Ok, Sam?" he raised an eyebrow and glared at his little brother. "You hear me?"

Sam nodded. "I h-hear you."

"Let's go, then." Dean didn't believe him for a second, of course. Sam usually towered over Dean by a couple of inches but, right now, Sam was so hunched over with pain his head almost lolled on Dean's shoulder from time to time.

There was no point in using the compass; it would probably get them even more lost if that were possible. Their only choice was to navigate by the sun, which meant travelling by day and resting at night.

At first, they actually made better time than Dean anticipated. Sam trudged on doggedly, responding to Dean's chatter with the occasional grunt or nod, one hand wrapped round his broken ribs as though in need of additional support, the other clutching Dean's arm.

With the rain clouds gone and the sun turning the blue sky into a mass of swirling oranges, pinks and reds, the forest was actually quite beautiful. Birds twittered in the trees, the air smelled fresh and clean, and all was peaceful.

Dean estimated that they'd covered at least five miles across the forest by the time Sam's knees buckled. He clung on to his younger brother, tightening the arm around his waist, trying so hard to keep Sam from falling.

Sam cried out, sending the birds in the trees into a blind, squawking panic. They alighted from their perches and spiralled into the sky, wings stretched out, and cawing indignantly at the top of their voices, as though scolding Sam for disturbing their daily gossip.


Sam gasped and panted, still clinging to Dean's arm, keeping himself upright.

"M'ok," he croaked. "L-let's k-keep going."

"No way, dude. I need a break even if you don't," said Dean, carefully lowering Sam to the forest floor. "'Been dragging your heavy ass around for the last couple hours." He pulled out his canteen and passed it over, offering Sam water and forcing it into his hand when he refused. "Drink! And don't give me that bitchface. I don't like this stuff either!"

But there was a telltale smirk on his face when Sam breathed out "Jerk" and took a small sip.

"Seriously, how you holdin' up little bro?" asked Dean after Sam passed the canteen back.

Sam took a short, painful breath and nodded. "I'll live."

"Sure you will," but Dean's grin didn't reach his eyes. You'd better, kid. You'd damn well better. "We're doin' ok, Sam. We only have to get a decent cell signal to place a call and we're home free."

A little rest, a few more sips of water to swallow down some pain meds, and Sam was determined to get moving again. Dean tried his cell phone a few times, scanning for a signal and whooped in delight when one measly bar fluttered to life on the tiny screen. It was too weak to place an emergency call, but it offered hope that they were at least going in the right general direction, which was a miracle in itself. But he also noticed something else. The battery was only at half charge. With a sour look on his face, Dean switched it off to preserve what was left.

The brothers managed another two miles before the sun slipped down below the tree line, and there was little point in going on. The night air was chilled and sharp with the scent of pine needles, but Sam barely had time to notice. He was asleep the very moment Dean lowered him to a sitting position, his head rolling to the side as he drifted off.

Dean shook his head, and proceeded to tuck the kid into his sleeping bag.

"Aw Sammy," he whispered, sadly, and gently palmed the kid's cheek. "I'll wake you up when dinner's ready."

Dinner turned out to be more rabbit stew, made from the two rabbits Dean had tucked away in his back pack. It wasn't pleasant, that was for damn sure, the bodies already beginning to stiffen with rigor mortis. The meat would be a little tougher than before, but Dean knew he couldn't afford to be too fussy. In any case, he could always boil it for a little longer this time, in hopes it would tenderize the meat.

Sam let out a sudden weak moan about an hour later, when he tried to roll over in his sleep, and Dean winced in sympathy. That had to hurt.

"Just in time, Sammy. Food's ready."

"M'not hun-hungry," replied Sam, breathlessly.

"It wasn't a suggestion," Dean insisted and held out a spoon full of rabbit broth. "Now, eat. Can't have you taking pain meds on an empty stomach."

Sam grumbled a little but conceded the point grudgingly.

The stew didn't last long. Sam managed half a mess tin of the stuff before turning his face away. The pain in his chest was making him feel too nauseous for food, but Dean was starving. He finished off the rest in no time, Sam watching him with a tired smile.

"It was good, Dean," Sam murmured. "I just couldn't manage anymore."

Dean feigned a hurtful expression. "You're just saying that so I won't kick your ass."

His younger brother smirked and blinked, eye lids drooping as though under a heavy weight.

Dean noticed the beads of sweat forming on Sam's brow, in spite of the chilly night.

"Sam? You feelin' ok?"

Sam opened his mouth but no sound came out, and his breaths came in short pants. He shook his head in response.

Heart leaping into his mouth, Dean leaned over and pulled him upright to lean against a fallen log. Sam coughed and groaned, barely able to draw breath.

"Sammy, what's wrong?" Dean called out urgently. "Talk to me!"

Sam's eyes rolled drunkenly in their sockets, his body wracked with painful coughing.

Dean was wide-eyed with fear, his gut clenching painfully.

"Sammy, don't you fucking dare!"

Not knowing what else to do, Dean pulled him up and cradled the kid close to his chest, running his fingers through long, damp locks of hair.

"Sam... c'mon... please?" his voice was cracked with emotion, throat sore from shitty drinking water, and lips dry and chapped from not drinking enough of it. He was exhausted, dehydrated and still hungry as hell. Sam was in even worse shape, unable to breathe properly, broken ribs, and what Dean was rapidly coming to realize might well be a damaged lung... and it was all Dean's fault.

Sam suddenly stirred in Dean's arms, made a noise like a drain being cleared of unspeakable substances and lifted his head.


Dean stared at him in disbelief. "You mean you..."

Sam smiled weakly.

His big brother looked about ready to kill him.

"You w-were getting a li-little s-serious there, bro," Sam explained, and gently squeezed Dean's shoulder. "Just h-had a c-cough, dude."

"Why, you little..." Dean suddenly broke off with a scowl, and pushed his face right into Sam's. "I know what this is about. This is about pay back, right? About that time when we were kids and I pretended to drown in the motel swimming pool?"

Sam chuckled and tried to smother another cough.

"'Cos that was nearly ten years ago!" Dean continued, but this time he sounded like a whining petulant child and Sam was really having a struggle to keep from laughing. "Can't believe you're still holding that against me!"

Sam shook his head. "Ya know wh-what they s-say 'bout r-revenge being served c-cold..."

"Aw, nuts!" complained Dean, but still rubbed Sam's back to ease his breathing, and continued to while they talked in low voices, until the kid was relaxed and serenading the night sky with his deep, congested snore.

Dean was about to turn in himself, but instead fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. He honestly didn't think there'd be enough of a signal just yet, but figured it was worth a try. So he turned it on with the full intention of just checking the charge and switching right back off again, but two things happened instead.

Firstly, he noticed that the signal was stronger; it now had three bars, enough for a call. Secondly, the damn thing started pounding out Smoke Over Water loud enough to wake Sam, who Dean had considered to be almost comatose by that point. He was so shocked he nearly dropped the damn cell phone into the fire.

"Dean, who is it?" Sam mumbled, sleepily.

"Uh," Dean peered at the display screen and winced. "It's Bobby. Gotta feeling he's gonna be pissed..."

As soon as he accepted the call, Bobby's Singer's angry bellows echoed round their little campsite, and Sam swore he heard the sound of tiny paws scampering off into the brush.

There goes tomorrow's breakfast, he thought.

"Where the hell you boys' at? I been worried sick!"

"Hey, Bobby!" Dean announced, casual as you please. "Just the guy I was about to call..."

"Don't you 'hey Bobby' me you little..."

Sam thankfully didn't catch that last word because Dean cleared his throat over the top of it.

"Bobby, seriously, we need help," Dean dropped the act and slipped back into 'worried big brother mode'. "Sam's hurt and we're out in the middle of nowhere..."

In that instant, Bobby's tone changed from angry to deeply concerned, and Sam drifted off, content to let his brother handle the finer details of their situation.

The next time Sam woke up it was to a deep thrumming, almost a buzzing like an oversized bee. He whimpered, not understanding what was happening, as two blurry shapes came towards him. He pressed desperately back against... whatever he was resting against, which turned out to be a fallen log.

Instantly, Dean's face appeared from nowhere right in front of his, slightly out of focus, and frowning deeply.

"Sammy, it's ok. Helps here... Sam? Calm down..." then to the blurry shapes he yelled "Hurry the hell up, for God's sake!"

Sam shivered, fearful of his brother's apparent anger. The shapes crouched down and Sam panicked again when they began touching him, prodding and poking albeit gently, but he just couldn't get enough air.

", n-no..."

Something was pressed over his face and tightly secured at the side of his head.

Sam whimpered again and struggled weakly against his captors.

"Sam, stop it!" Dean hissed, then softened his voice and gazed deep into Sam's frightened eyes. "It's ok. These people are here to help. Bobby's here, Sammy. Right here... ya see 'im?"

Sam blinked and just made out a fuzzy face crouching nearby.

"Heya Sam. You're safe now. Just relax," it had a gruff yet kind and familiar voice.

It sure sounded like Bobby, but Sam wasn't sure. He wasn't sure about anything. His body was tired and hot and cold and he couldn't seem to catch his breath...

"Ok, we need to get him to the chopper right now," another voice, this time unfamiliar, "and you're right – Dean is it? – yeah, his lung's injured alright."

Sam felt his shirt lifted up but was powerless to stop it.

"And you say he got worse in the last ten minutes or so?" said yet another unfamiliar voice.

"Yeah," Dean still sounded angry, but now Sam could hear something else. Fear. "His fever spiked, badly, and he started thrashing around..."

Sam felt a small pinch in his arm at this point, followed by warmth quickly flooding his body. As his eyes slipped shut, he remembered what that thing over his face was.

Oxygen mask, Sam thought blearily. Wonder what that's for...

Bobby scrubbed a hand down his face and levelled a glare at Dean that would have shrivelled a lesser man on the spot. However, Dean was fast asleep and slumped in an uncomfortable plastic seat, similar to the very one Bobby resided in, so it wouldn't have mattered if Bobby had stuck out his tongue and danced an Irish jig right then.

"Damn idgit kids!" he muttered, irritably, body still wired from the adrenaline of some hours previously. The Winchester rescue had gone like clockwork, right up until Sam's vitals plummeted and the kid was quickly diagnosed with a punctured lung.

Dean, wrapped in a foil blanket and fighting the flight medic who was trying to insert an IV in his arm, had been frantic with worry. Bobby had to admit that the sight of Sam struggling to breathe, back arching, eyes wide with terror was one he could've lived without. The medics figured that with all the kid had been through, the final straw had come while lifting his stretcher aboard the chopper. In spite of how gently they'd handled him, it had been too much for his badly broken ribs, which were already pressing and scraping along his lung.

Bobby winced, and his eyes wandered down to the occupant of the bed. Sam's face was still flushed with fever under the oxygen mask, but at least he looked more relaxed. And that could no doubt be attributed to the drugs being pumped through his system. The doctors were cautiously optimistic about his full recovery, but the kid wouldn't be out hunting down wendigos and sleeping rough again anytime soon, that was for damn sure.

Not if Bobby had a say in it, anyhow.

Sam let out a soft, sleepy moan and in an instant Dean was awake, blinking rapidly and leaning over him. His face was creased into an anxious and welcoming smile, waiting almost impatiently for his kid brother to wake up.

"Hey little brother," he whispered, tenderly raising a hand to Sam's brow and feeling the lingering warmth.

Sam moaned again and his eyelids fluttered weakly.

Dean turned to Bobby, gazing at him hopefully. "Dya think he's waking up now? It's been hours since his surgery. He should be waking up, now, right?"

Bobby sighed and regarded both boys with fond frustration.

"Yep, probably. But let's not pressure him too much just yet, huh?" he pointed at Dean and scowled. "And you still need a shower, a change of clothes and some decent sleep."

Dean shook his head, stubbornly. "After he wakes up, I will. But not 'til I know for sure he's gonna be ok."

"Dean, the doctors have already said..." Bobby growled.

"I know what they said!" snapped Dean, already regretting his outburst. Bobby had saved their lives after all. He lowered his voice, apologetically "Can't let him wake up and not be there for him, Bobby. He might... might think..."

He hung his head on a strangled sob.

Bobby nodded, a silent acceptance of Dean's apology. "Alright, kid," but he wasn't letting it go. "But soon as he does, you're out of here, understood?" the glare returned with full force. "I mean it, kid. Don't test me on this!"

Dean opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was forgotten when a weak muffled voice spoke up between them.


Dean immediately grabbed the hand flailing at him and smoothed both his thumbs over Sam's knuckles.

"Hey buddy," he smiled warmly. "How ya feelin'?"

Sam's eyes were bright blue-green slits against dark shadows.

"Thin... think ya sh... should," he coughed and swallowed slowly, blinked and tried again. "Think ya should do as the man says."

Dean frowned, worriedly. "How's that?"

Sam gazed at him, a myriad of emotions running across his face. "Go..."

"No way," Dean ground out determinedly. "I'm not leaving you. Told you that once before and I meant every word."

Sam shook his head slightly. "Ya don't understand..."

"What, Sam? What don't I understand, dude?" Dean was perched on the edge of Sam's bed, leaning in close, protecting and comforting all at the same time.

"Have to go..." Sam rasped out. His face suddenly twisted into a grimace and he took a small breath, preparing to deliver his message. "You stink, dude. Go take a fucking shower."

Dean's face, frozen in shock, had Bobby snorting loudly and Sam chuckling breathlessly.

Though the IV remained, Sam's oxygen mask was gone, the chest tube removed by the time Dean made it back, refreshed, showered and fed, after a long, much needed sleep. His little brother was still tucked in bed, the head raised so he could stare out the window. Dean stood silently in the doorway, just watching the kid, taking in the tired, slumped shoulders, the sadness on his face.

"Don't just stand there," Sam rolled his head towards him and smiled, softly. "You can come in, ya know."

Dean took two steps forward and faltered in surprise when that sad expression disappeared from Sammy's face. Kid looked happy, no, ecstatic to see him, and Dean wasn't sure what to do with that. Sam's forgiveness was the last thing he deserved, and that Sam was offering it so readily, so willingly hurt like a sonofabitch.

"Sam, I..."

"Don't," Sam gazed at him imploringly. "Please don't even think it."

He held out a hand and his smile grew wide when Dean didn't hesitate. One large hand wrapped around Dean's the moment he got to the bed. The brothers stared at each other in silence.

"I miss him, Sam."

More silence as Sam nodded.

"I'm sorry I took it out on you."

Another nod. Non-judgmental, non-assessing. It was just Sam.

Sam cleared his throat, a little nervously. "Uh... thank you. For taking care of me out there. Hadn't been for you I don't think...

"Now you stop that!" Dean hissed, more sharply than he'd intended, but he wasn't going to back down now. "Being your brother... it's more than just a damn job." A soft sweep of his thumb over Sam's fingers belied his tone. "It's my life. It's all I care about... you're all I care about."

Dean stared at him, expression fierce and full of all the love he'd never once said and would never have to.

And Sam would never ask it of him.

"So," Sam murmured, eyes bright with his own love. "There's a game on TV."

"Oh yeah?" Dean grinned, chick flick over with, and reached for the remote on Sam's roll-away table. "Who's playin'?"

Bobby listened, out of sight, from behind the door and smiled gruffly. He'd be taking the boys home with him, soon as Sam was cleared by the quacks and, frankly, he was looking forward to having a house full of Winchesters again, despite the circumstances.

But hey! Beggars couldn't be choosers, right?


Dad's view: safety comes before happiness

Sam's view: what good's safe if you spend your life being miserable?

They were both right. Quality before quantity, or quantity before quality? These were the same choices faced in every day, normal apple pie lives. Yet for the Winchesters it was complicated by demons and monsters.

Sam had experienced true happiness, if only for a short while. Maybe that would be enough for what was coming...

Author's notes:

It's been getting on for around twenty years since I last studied Geology, etc, so please forgive me for any discrepancies in facts, and survival skills with water.

Medical facts, as always, can be taken with a pinch of salt.

I've been off the scene for a long while due to illness so I offer my apologies if this isn't up to my usual standard. I'm afraid writers block has been rather severe of late, and though I am working on new bunnies - in particular one I promised to MysteryMadchen - its rather slow going at the moment.

Kind regards,

ST xxx