Previously appeared in Hunting Trips 5 (2010), from Neon Rainbow Press
For wolfpup, for her birthday
K Hanna Korossy
"Son of a bitch!"
Dean was swearing in the other room. Which wasn't so unusual.
What was unusual was Sam hearing it through the closed bathroom door, the shower curtain, and the spray of hot water.
He ducked his head around the curtain. "Dean?" he hollered back. "Y'all right?"
"Yeah," Dean called back in a tone that really meant no, but he'd survive until Sam returned.
Sam rinsed his hair as quickly as possible—and maybe there was something to Dean insisting lately that he needed a haircut, because it took a while to wash out—and shut the water off. He grabbed a towel, snugging it around his waist before he hurried out into the room. "What's going on?"
Dean looked up from where he sat on the end of his bed, phone in his hand. Or…disassembled phone in his hand. His face was flushed red as he fumbled the battery back into the case and snapped it shut.
"Did you just…pitch your phone at the wall again?" Sam hazarded.
"Um." Dean scrubbed his hand through the hair on the nape of his neck. "Maybe?"
"Who called?" Sam asked with some dread as he sank down on his bed opposite his brother. Because as volatile as Dean could be, he also had a pretty decent sense of self-control. Anything that made him go off like that wasn't going to be good.
In answer, Dean chucked him the phone, then got up and pulled his duffel out from under the bed, starting to pack.
No, not pack. Repack. Nervous busywork. Frowning, Sam looked down at the phone and thumbed it on.
It was a text message, terse and to the point: a set of coordinates, a date and hour in zulu time, and two words. Come alone.
Sam glanced up at his brother, who was arranging the contents of his bag with clenched jaw and sharp movements. "Okay, so, Dad's got another case for us," Sam said slowly. He wasn't surprised Dean was upset about that, for all his brother's hero worship of their dad: the last time John Winchester had contacted them about a case, Sam and Dean had locked horns so badly that they'd split up for a while and Dean had nearly ended up a sacrifice to a harvest god. The most recent set of coordinates they'd gotten hadn't turned out so well, either, with Sam influenced by a malicious spirit to shoot Dean full of rock salt. And of course, their dad hadn't checked up on them afterward either time. But Dean had never complained for a second. "So?" Sam prodded.
"So?" Dean gave him an incredulous look. "Did you not see the rest?"
Sam glanced down at the phone again. Come alone. "Okay, well, it's not like we usually bring anyone else in on a case…" He tread carefully, trying to figure out what had set Dean off.
"It's not—" Dean threw a t-shirt down. "He's not telling us to come alone, Sam. He's telling me."
"Oh." And Sam felt himself instantly slide back into the depression that had dogged him for months before their dad's recent phone call, feeling disowned, fearful of his father's welcome, not sure he was still loved. As quick as he'd been to butt heads with his dad when he'd finally talked to John, there had also been true feeling in the elder Winchester's voice when he said he was sorry about Jess. Sam had let himself think…or at least, he'd hoped…
Another t-shirt smacked him in the face. "He's not shutting you out, doofus." As Sam frowned up at him, Dean visibly softened. "It's not about that, okay? He'd do this when he didn't want you to have to see something, or it was a one-man job and he wanted me focused. Crap, I don't know, maybe he has a job for you, too."
Huh. Sam stretched his arm across the bed to snag his own phone from the nightstand. No new messages. He huffed, shaking his head. Yeah, it would be just like their old man to still think he was protecting Sam from the nightmares out there. But where had he been when Dean had nearly died of a bad heart a few weeks back? Or the several close brushes with mortality they'd had since then? If Dad thought Sam was just going to let Dean go off by himself after—
Oh. Dean's muttering, his slap-dash packing, his introduction of phone to wall suddenly clicked. Dean wasn't mad at Dad bossing them around. He didn't want to go alone. He'd never wanted to go alone, but, Sam guessed, even less so after almost losing Sam several times of late. Just as Sam himself felt.
Irritation with Dad melted into empathy for his brother. "Hey."
"What?" Dean snapped, stuffing his shaving kit deep into the bag.
"Hey," Sam insisted.
"What, Sam!" Dean's head shot up, glare simmering.
Giving reluctant way before Sam's fond smile. "It's okay, man. Maybe this means he's ready for a face-to-face." It was optimistic but possible, and Sam shrugged away the pang at the thought that his dad didn't want him there. "We can go together, check it out, then you head in while I hang out in the room and do some research."
Dean's eyes scanned his face for a moment before he snorted. "So, business as usual."
"Bite me," Sam said mildly and got to his feet, tossing his phone back on the bed. "You look up where the coordinates are?"
"Not yet. Probably in the middle of nowhere," Dean added petulantly.
"Falling down on the job, dude," Sam said, shaking his head. Then, with a quick grin, he whipped his head around hard, sending water flying, most of it onto Dean.
Dean yelped, then lunged at him, but Sam had already scurried back into the bathroom, managing to slam the door shut just in time. "Bitch!" he heard from the other side.
He was grinning as he finished dressing.
Dean wasn't wrong. The coordinates were for Sweetwater, Texas, which, while not exactly a small town, was definitely in the middle of nowhere. They could always hit Abilene after, see if it had any good libraries or museums—for Sam—or car shows, concerts, or cool bars to intrigue Dean. If the last few months had taught Sam anything, it was that you didn't take loved ones for granted. He wanted the thing that killed Jess, he wanted to find Dad, but he also wanted to spend some time with his brother just being together without something big and ugly on their tails or vice versa.
More specifically, the coordinates directed them to a block of industrial property outside town: factories, warehouses, and a couple of specialty machine shops. Sam looked up owners and, when nothing rang a bell, they checked into each, deciding an abandoned meat-packing plant was their best bet. Unless John wanted them to break into a business, or to meet in a 24/7 shoe factory, both of which seemed unlikely at best. Recon finished, they broke for a lunch of barbequed ribs—it was Texas, after all—found a room that was surprisingly devoid of cattle horns or wagon wheels, and settled in to wait for night.
"Got the holy water?" Sam asked. Dean raised an eyebrow at him in the midst of patting down his pockets, doing a final inventory. "Dad's tracking a demon, remember?" Sam prompted.
"Right. Good idea." Dean pulled out his flask, considered it a moment before shrugging and draining it dry, then reached for their bottle of holy water. He filled it up carefully. "Okay, so, no matter what, I call in one hour. If I don't call, you come after me, but be careful." The last was said with a stern finger pointed at Sam. "I mean it, Sammy—something looks hinky, you back off and call Jeff or Pastor Jim or, I don't know, try Dad."
"Hinky?" Sam echoed, mouth twitching.
Dean ignored him. "One hour. No sooner. Not like that time when I said I was coming back at ten and I found you pacing the driveway in your jammies at nine-thirty."
It was Sam's turn to look exasperated. "Dean, I was, like, eleven."
"I'm just saying."
What he was doing was stalling. And Sam was letting him. Neither of them were happy with the separation, not for this, not now. It was training—instinct—to watch your brother's back, and Sam couldn't swallow a little bitterness that it was their dad asking them to go against that.
Sam smiled at Dean, all teasing gone. "I'll see you in an hour, dude."
He saw the echo in his brother's face, all the things they never said but that he knew. Then Dean walked out the door.
But Sam's phone never rang.
He'd hunted a few times solo at school but always little things: imps, a boggle living in the bushes on the main quad, a lonely spirit kidnapping people one town over. Always things Sam knew he could tackle by himself, because John Winchester's solo act notwithstanding, it wasn't smart to hunt alone.
He didn't have a choice this time, though. Because Dean had gone in without backup.
Sam took turns silently cursing their dad, his brother's loyalty, and his own stupidity for letting Dean go in alone, even as he moved with stealth from shadow to shadow. Just because this wasn't the way he would have chosen to hunt didn't mean he didn't know how to do it, taking all the precautions Dean probably had less than two hours before. At least Sam had the car, because they'd picked a motel that was walking distance from the meet, but that was about all he had on his side. Some part of him still hung on to the hope he'd find Dean trapped or tied up or even knocked out, but alive and basically safe. Another part of him was terrified he'd find a body.
Sam licked his lips and pressed against the wall of the meat-packing plant, inching up to see over the sill. The window was grimy, the light from the nearby streetlamp was dim, and there was a new moon. He couldn't see a thing.
Going back to silent cursing, Sam slipped under the window, heading for the main door.
The lock had been picked, Dean's skill obvious in the barely visible marks. The door was ajar, and every one of Sam's senses on high alert, he poked it open with his foot, entire body squashed into the coverage of the thin column of brick between the doorjamb and the nearest window. Again, he dared a cautious peak inside.
There was no sign of movement, no sense of life inside. Still, a lot of what they hunted wasn't alive, and Sam didn't rush no matter how badly he wanted to, staying in the shadows and testing each step as he slunk in.
Near total darkness. He wasn't going to find a thing this way, and Sam had to take the chance of turning on the Maglite he'd brought with him. Clasped firmly in one hand while the shotgun was clenched in the other, the heavy flashlight would double as a weapon if needed. Sam swung it around the barren building, trying to see into pitch-black corners and around rusty hulks of machinery.
A breeze stroked his cheek. He frowned. It wasn't from the door, which was already a faint blot of lighter darkness behind him. No, it came from ahead. Still no impressions of life, of movement, but the stirring air was strange enough to draw Sam forward.
A row of massive windows lined the far side of the building. Sam guessed they were used for ventilation when the stench of raw meat got too bad in the summer. Several were cracked or broken, all smeared with dirt and disuse. Except for the one near the middle that was completely shattered, only jagged edges of glass lining the frame.
Sam's face hardened as he moved toward it.
The glass was all on the outside, freshly scattered across the sidewalk. Something had crashed through that window from the inside, and recently. Sam hopped through the opening, glass shards crunching under his sneakers, and tilted the flashlight down for a closer look.
Dull red tipped some of the pieces, still a little damp as Sam swiped a finger over them. Blood.
He muttered a curse and looked up at the window, eyeing it critically. Imagining Dean crashing through the glass, either tossed or in an attempt at escape. Sam swung the light around, looking for a blood trail, any sign that Dean had kept going and gotten away. Then he climbed back inside and searched the dusty floor for the same.
Nothing. Just broken glass and blood, and no brother.
Jaw aching from how tight he had it clenched and heart hammering bluntly at his rib cage, Sam pulled his phone out. The first call went, as the previous ones had, straight to Dean's voicemail, and there was no tinny ring tone nearby from a dropped phone. The second call was to their dad.
"Did you call Dean yesterday, Dad? Because he went to meet you and now he's gone."
The rest of his calls he began on the way back to the room. Sam had work to do.
There were a lot of leads to follow. Sam tracked down every detail about the meat-packing plant that he could find, everything about the owners and the history, but it was a dead end. Next was the text message Dean had gotten, but the sender was unknown, and every trick Sam tried failed to trace the source beyond the fact it was a disposable phone somewhere in North America. Great. There were no witnesses that he could find in that area at night, and trying to trace Dean's phone revealed only that it was turned off. Sam put the word out among the few other hunters he knew and everyone else he could find in their dad's journal, but no one was in the area or had heard anything about either John or Dean.
And his dad, of course, didn't return Sam's phone calls.
The dawn of the third day, Sam muffled a scream of frustration in the worn motel pillow. The panic was chewing a hole in his stomach, he couldn't sleep without seeing Dean dying in the hospital, and his hands shook from all the coffee he was living on. He'd run out of avenues of inquiry, and Sam didn't know what else to do.
Which was when his phone rang.
He always kept it in hand's reach now, and he plucked it up before he even registered it wasn't a phone call but a text message. Frowning, he checked the screen.
Sender unknown. Coordinates. And one more word: Frodo.
Sam blinked at the message, momentarily thrown. Frodo? Like the hobbit? Was this some kind of joke? Or another trap?
And then it registered. He and Dean going to see Fellowship of the Ring in some tiny Midwest cult-movie theatre just a few months before Sam left for school. Dean, who'd never cared for the books as much as Sam had when they were kids, loved the movie. Sam suspected it was in part because of Frodo's devotion to his Sam, but whatever the reason, they'd jokingly cycled through the names of the main characters for Winchester passwords after that. The only people who would have known that were Sam, Dean…and Dad.
Sam straightened up, yanking his laptop closer as he looked up the coordinates. There'd be time later to get mad that this was how John Winchester chose to help, an impersonal note he had to stick an old password on so his son would even believe it was him. Right now, though, it was the only clue Sam had, and he was following it.
Ackerly, Texas, about ninety miles away. Sam scribbled down an address and details, then was out the door.
He made it in less than an hour, blasting Bad Company all the way like some sort of battle cry. It fit the adrenaline rush pounding through his body. If Dean wasn't there, Sam didn't know what he'd do, but he had to be. He had to, Sam gulped. He just did.
The early morning Texas sun was bright and hot as Sam rolled into Ackerly, then made his way to the north side of town where the coordinates pointed. It was an old ranch, or maybe a farm, the buildings ramshackle and uninhabited. Three of them were in the range of the coordinates, and Sam ignored the one that looked like a long-abandoned settler house and the sagging stable next to it, and headed for the barn.
Dried straw crackled with each step as Sam made his way into the dimly lit structure. The air was stale despite the door he'd left open behind him and rippled with heat. The whole place smelled of decay and disuse, and Sam had a sinking feeling he'd struck out again.
And then he heard it, just a shuffle of sound in the otherwise still air.
"Dean?" He didn't like giving his position away, but there was no sense of danger or of impending attack, and the need to find his brother overwhelmed caution. "Dean, you there, man?"
Sam was almost to the center of the barn now, and he checked behind each partition and pile as he went. Light slanted down from the open hayloft above, filled with floating hay dust, and Sam scrunched his nose as it tickled.
Something stirred past the last stall, and Sam picked up his pace.
It was a cage, the dark iron top coming into sight first, stark against the soft browns and tans of the barn. Thick, round bars were welded at each joint, forming an enclosure about the height of Sam's chest and maybe twice as long. Instead of a lock, a heavy chain was wound around the door and secured to one of the support pillars of the barn, too far to reach from the inside of the cage—
—where Dean lay on his side, his face toward Sam but his eyes half-open and blank, limbs stirring listlessly.
"Dean!" The involuntary exclamation echoed in the barn, and Sam took a second to glance around to make sure it hadn't brought a response. But all was still and quiet around them. Deserted: he could feel it in his bones. Not that anything would have stopped Sam from laying down his gun and the shotgun and scooting up to the end of the cage nearest Dean's head. "Dean, hey, talk to me."
Dean's face twitched, a frown momentarily creasing his forehead before smoothing out again. His fingers curled open and shut.
Up close, Sam could smell blood and sickness, but there was nothing visible in the front except for a few small scabbed-over scratches on Dean's face and hands, a dark bruise along his jaw. His fingers were blood-tipped but seemed intact. The back of the cage was flush against the rear wall of the barn, so Sam couldn't see his brother's back, but Dean looked too pale, sweat pooling in the hollow of his throat and cheeks and the dip below his nose, and there was a flush of fevered color in his cheeks. A single empty bottle of water lay on its side near his hand, and an unused slop bucket sat in the corner. Not enough to tell Sam what was wrong.
"Hey, Dean, I'm gonna get you out, all right? Just hang on a little longer, dude."
Like Dean hadn't been hanging on for days, in this soiled cage in the middle of nowhere. Sam blinked back tears of anger and fear and grief, and hurried around to the lock, already pulling out his kit.
The big metal padlock was rusty, but it finally gave under pressure. Sam clicked it open and unwound the chain, then swung the cage door open. It creaked loudly, and Dean twitched at the sound.
Sam duckwalked inside, trying for a smile even though his brother didn't seem to be aware of him, let alone seeing him. "Dean. I'm here—I found you. You're gonna be okay." He skimmed the dirty head, felt the too fast and heavy pulse and the hot, dry skin. Then with a hand on Dean's shoulder, Sam gently tipped him forward.
And swore vehemently.
The back of Dean's shirt was stiff and dark with dried blood. The tears that littered it testified to why: he must've gone through the plant's window back first, landing on the shards. Bits of glass still glittered dully amidst the tatters of his shirt, probably embedded too deeply in Dean's back for him to have been able to work them free, although his bloody fingers testified to his attempts. What Sam could see of the swollen and angry flesh around them, it had to be excruciating, not to mention a breeding ground for germs.
Well, that explained Dean's incapacitation: even the mighty Dean Winchester was no match for infection on top of shock, dehydration, and blood loss. But who did something like this to another human being, let alone someone like Sam's brother?
Dean made a soft sound against Sam's knee, hand dragging on the floor of the cage as he instinctively sought to help himself but lacked the energy or coherence to know how.
Sam closed his eyes and leaned forward, his hair brushing his brother's temple before he settled his cheek against the burning skin. "Yeah, I hate this, too. But we're getting out of here now and I'm gonna fix this, all right? You're gonna be fine—we'll be fine. You hear me?"
Dean's pupils slid sluggishly to the side, then back.
"Okay. Just hang on—this is gonna hurt, bro. I'm sorry."
He slipped briefly back out of the cage. There was no place to stick the shotgun so Sam abandoned it without a moment's thought, wedging the Taurus into the back of his jeans. Then he swung the cage door as open as it would go. Turning back to Dean, Sam debated a moment, chewing on his lip, before deciding there was really only one way to do this. He reached inside, took firm grip of Dean's shirt in both fists, and dragged him out of the cage.
Dean arched a little, choking out a gasp that probably should've been a scream.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Sam chanted as they cleared the door and he swung Dean carefully upright. "God, there's just no way to… But it'll be better soon, I promise. Hang in there, Dean. Hang in there."
He got his feet under him, then leaned forward, letting Dean tip over one shoulder. Sam tried to jostle him as little as possible, but his brother was a big guy and it took some maneuvering before he was balanced over Sam's back, Sam's arm hooked firmly around the denim-clad legs, and Sam was more-or-less steady on his feet. Every movement drew weak groans from his brother.
Sam's eyes burned; Dean rarely showed any sign of suffering, even when Sam knew he was in agony. He had to be lost deep in the pain to writhe and moan like this. Probably all he knew of Sam's presence was that something was hurting him more.
"I know," Sam said in a voice that was strained only in part from the exertion of carrying his brother's weight. "I know, man. I'm sorry. I'll fix ya up as soon as I can." And he hurried for the door and the waiting car outside, trying to move fast without jarring Dean too much.
There was no way he could fold Dean into the front seat in any way that didn't put pressure on his lacerated back. Sam finally managed to stretch him out prone on the back seat, one of Sam's shirts serving as a hasty pillow, legs jammed up against the door and seat back. It wasn't ideal, but no position would be, and he wasn't about to let Dean's back press against the seat. Then Sam dug a bottle of water out from under the front seat and dribbled it over Dean's lips until his tongue darted out and he lapped at it. Once he'd taken all he could safely have, Sam sat back on his heels and reassessed.
Okay, so, infection, minor clean-up and surgery, dehydration. Any one of those he could and had taken care of in motel rooms before, but the three together were overwhelming. So was Dean's total lack of recognition thus far, and the painful sounds trickling out of him. This was…this was too much. He needed help. They needed help.
Sam wracked his brain, but there were no doctors they trusted that he could think of remotely in the area. He could always go to a regular hospital or clinic, but Dean's injuries were clearly days old and there'd be questions. He'd do it if he had to, but it wasn't his first choice. Which left… Sam plucked out his cell, dialed a number, and waited, eyes lingering on his brother's shivering frame.
"Pastor Jim?" His chin unexpectedly trembled, and Sam bit down on his tongue, willing himself to keep it together. He was all Dean had. "I need a doctor."
The nearest person Jim could recommend was two hours away—Sam figured he should be grateful it was only that far, considering how far apart everything was in Texas—and that almost changed his mind about finding a motel room. But Sam wrote the directions down, then leaned into the car again to coax some more water into Dean. He followed it up with a shot of some of their big-gun painkillers, chanting a mantra of reassurances as he worked. By the time he was finished, Dean's eyes were closed and his face had smoothed out a little, pain evident only in his labored breathing.
Dean could make it two hours this way, Sam decided. Hey, he'd made it more than sixty just waiting for Sam to find him. He palmed his brother's flushed cheek and promised quietly one more time that it would be okay. Then Sam climbed back into the driver's seat and took off, in no less hurry now that he'd found what he'd been looking for.
The doc was somewhere in his fifties and distinguished, the kind of man who would fit perfectly into the upper-class circles Jess's parents moved in. That hadn't stopped him from immediately moving to help Sam get his dirty, bloody brother into the doc's home office, nor dulled the compassion in his eyes as he'd listened to Sam's halting and disjointed story.
"You want to give me a hand taking care of him?" was all he said when Sam finished.
Sam almost started crying right then and there.
They stripped Dean, still insensate and limp, of his shirts and jeans. His back looked even worse than Sam had expected: there were easily at least a dozen pieces of glass still embedded in the muscle of his back, some of them almost hidden by the puffy red skin around them. Infectious discharge oozed from several of the wounds, and Sam remembered sickly how filthy the glass had been.
"Can you keep it together, son?" the doctor asked him, looking concerned at Sam's expression.
Sam swallowed and nodded. "Yeah." He carefully started cleaning Dean's back around the ugly wounds, watching with half an eye as the doc started to dig the debris out.
Even under sedation, Dean's body reacted to the pain, his muscles bunching and spasming, his body jerking under Sam's hands. Sam finally flattened his palms over his brother's shoulder and flank, holding him still so the doc could work, whispering unheard apologies as he did.
There were tear tracks on his face matching Dean's before they were even half done.
It took time, cleaning out each wound, then closing it. A small pile of red-tinged glass collected on the tray by the bed, from small slivers to chunks the size of a matchcase. Sam couldn't even imagine having those sharp, tearing edges buried in his skin and muscle, unable to reach them to take them out, trapped in a cage away from any help. Dean hadn't wanted to go alone because solitude was the one thing he truly feared, and whoever had done this couldn't have visited his nightmare more cruelly on him.
Sam leaned down and whispered secrets to his writhing brother that he couldn't tell Dean outright: that he loved him, that he'd missed him at school, that he looked up to him as he hadn't anyone else, even Dad. That Dean had saved him in more ways than Sam could count, and that he wanted to return the favor.
Finally, Dean's back was swathed in white, an IV feeding liquids and antibiotics into his arm. Sam helped the doc roll him into the cozy room next door and cover him in a pair of blankets.
"There's a cot there if you want to lie down for a while. You're almost as pale as he is." The man—Sam couldn't even remember his name—nodded to a low bed by the wall, piled with its own linens.
Sam shook his head. "Thanks, but, uh…" He ran a hand through his hair, checking the motion halfway through when he realized there was still some dried blood in the creases of his skin. "I just…I need to be here, with him, you know?" He peered up through his bangs at the doctor, suddenly self-conscious.
The man just smiled kindly at him and brought him a sandwich and a can of soda. That look had always had the same effect on Dean, come to think of it. Then the doctor left them be, promising to check in regularly and come running if there was any change.
And it was just the two of them again.
Sam sighed, pulling the blanket over Dean's bare shoulder, then curling his fingers around it. "So, got ourselves in another mess, huh? Yeah… Guess you've figured out it wasn't Dad who sent that first message." He rubbed his eyes, feeling the fatigue clear down to his toes. "I got another one—that's how I found you—and Dad stuck a password on it this time to make sure I knew. Remember Lord of the Rings, dude, Frodo and Sam? Anyway, I guess somehow he figured it out, but…I don't know. I don't know what happened to you or what this was for, or anything. I couldn't even find you."
Come alone. They should have paid attention to their training and not budged.
His throat had clogged up, and Sam coughed it clear, his hand moving up to shift Dean's hair out of his face. Dirt and sweat had plastered it down, reminding Sam of when Dean had been a kid. Except, Dean had never been really been a kid, not that Sam remembered. He'd always worn his hair military short, responded at attention like a good soldier when his father called, watched after Sam like he was following orders. Everything Dean did came from their dad…except for the love that shone from his eyes when he looked at Sam. That'd been there when he'd given his blessing for Sam to go to school because he knew it would make Sam happy, when Sam had botched hunts because he was too distracted by his grief for Jess, even when Sam had confided in him his most shameful secret, the dreams that made him different. Dad had never ordered Dean to love Sam, modeled that or expected it. That was all Dean.
"Just rest now, all right? Whatever you need, I'll be right here. This time I won't let anything happen to you, Dean, I promise."
Dean's eyes crinkled a moment, then smoothed out again. He was still on his stomach, hand up by his cheek, his breathing soft and slow with only the occasional hitch.
Sam laid his own head down so that Dean's fingertips just brushed his skin. "I'm here," he whispered, and hoped that would be enough.
Dean's fever was as tenacious as everything else about him.
He fluctuated for long hours between being bathed in sweat as his temperature fell, to his skin growing so hot that Sam flinched to touch it. Doc said that was normal, although two of the wounds had to be cleaned out again. It didn't seem normal to Sam, except for the part about Dean doing everything the hard way. But at least it gave him something to do besides just watch, as Sam changed sheets and t-shirts, wiped Dean down, and kept an eye on his temperature.
Dean slept through most of it, if fitfully and with low grunts of pain. But sometimes his eyes opened to that half-awake, vacant look he'd had inside the cage, blinking lazily and passing over Sam as if he weren't there. His face creased like he was trying to place this constant presence beside his bed, or maybe like he was trying to decide if Sam was real.
And sometimes he talked.
It was hard to make out, slurred and weak and often just a jumble of words. But when Sam leaned in and concentrated, he could make out some phrases. Sammy, no, and he's not here, and can't find him, Dad made regular appearances. So did doesn't hurt—Dean's stoicism still at work—and I can't.
That last especially piqued Sam. "I don't know what you need, Dean," he said quietly over and over. "Whatever it is, I'm here—you know that, right?"
Not that it seemed to do a lot of good. Dean kept mumbling, eyes rolling wild, and recoiled from Sam's touch of his face, no matter how gentle.
Sam soon realized, however, that Dean would curl into little brother's palm when Sam rested it on the back of his head or his neck. That was where Dad would drop his hand sometimes in rare shows of affection. That was love and family to Dean, not the hugs Sam had grown up with or the brushes of the cheek Jess would give him. This was his brother in his most fundamental need, and Sam loved him and ached for him in equal parts.
"Tough guy," he said hoarsely, smiling a little. "I can see right through you, man."
The half-aware rambles ceased when Sam talked, and so he did, offering his own revisionist history: the joys of their childhood, the things he remembered fondly about their dad, the holidays he wished they'd shared. Dean would blink slowly at him, eyes fixed on nothing or on Sam's chin, but Sam could swear that somewhere deep inside, a soberly alert Dean was watching and listening to him. So he kept talking.
Dean's fever peaked the second night, making him shift restlessly and cringe at every pull on his back. The mutters grew, about demons and Dad and danger and Sam, always Sam. No words were getting through to him, and he fought every gentle restraint Sam used on him.
"C'mon, bro, it's just me," Sam whispered tiredly, pressing the flats of his fingers into the center of Dean's palm in silent plea. "Just me. I'm here."
His brother's fingers closed around his. Dean sighed anxiously, mumbled something. Then he rolled forward onto Sam's hand, trapping him close, and went still.
Sam stared at him, eyes blurring.
Dean would be all right, high temp or not. Sam was sure of it now.
A few minutes later, the doc walked in on him wiping his brimming eyes and assumed the worst for a few seconds until Sam stumbled out an explanation. But he agreed that Dean was doing better, and Sam's stiff back finally bowed.
They both slept after that, Winchesters at peace.
A sucked-in breath and a hissed curse pulled Sam out of his dreams. He blinked sleep from his eyes, then broke into a smile at the sight of Dean's open eyes. "Hey, finally decided to wake up, huh?" Then he registered their tightness. "Don't try to sit up, Dean."
"T'late." Dean's voice was thin, strengthless, but clear. "Wha'—?"
Sam straightened. Dean had released his hand at some point, and he curled both his fists around the edge of the mattress. "Your back's kind of a mess, dude. But we're safe here," he was quick to add as Dean's frown deepened. "Pastor Jim sent us to a doctor."
Dean still looked confused. "You?"
Sam huffed. "I'm fine—you were the one running a fever with half a window buried in your back."
"Huh?" A moment, then Dean's eyes darkened. "'s a guy—didn' know 'im. Think he…think he was lookin' f'r Dad."
Sam sat forward. "So you were…bait?"
Dean snorted. "Glad 'm good," he breathed out, "for somethin'."
"Don't," Sam sat flatly. "Don't put yourself down like that."
But Dean was already unconscious again.
He continued to sleep a lot after that, chafing at his weakness and inactivity when he was awake. It took two more attempts at sitting up before, ashen, Dean had surrendered grudgingly to the inevitable and remained prone and still, blinking up at Sam with defiant but pained exhaustion.
The doc brought them in a TV, and it wasn't distraction so much as an excuse not to talk. Sam sat next to his brother, watching Dean doze through programs on woodworking and World War II prison camps, and pretending he didn't miss the connection he'd felt when Dean had been too sick to put up an act.
When Sam's phone rang that afternoon, he excused himself with some relief. Five minutes later he was back, and Dean looked at him questioningly.
Sam stabbed his hands into his pockets. "Uh, that was Caleb. He got a message from Dad. Seems like the guy who took you—JJ Carpenter?—had an old grudge against Dad. He sent Dad a picture of you in the cage and told him to come to a meet if he wanted you let go." Which meant John had known what had happened to Dean long before Sam had, but he would dwell on that later and in private.
Dean's face clouded. "What happened?"
Sam squirmed. "Caleb doesn't know exactly, but…Dad said we didn't have to worry about Carpenter anymore."
Dean took that in, gaze growing distant.
"That doesn't, uh…" Sam made a face. "You don't think Dad…"
"Wouldn't be the first time he killed to keep us safe," Dean said dully.
"Oh." Sam wasn't sure how to react to that. The idea of their dad killing people, even evil people, twisted his gut. But the memory of Dean lying helpless and hurt in that cage, or the thought of it happening again, was like a fist tightening around his lungs. Sam swallowed convulsively.
"Hey." Dean's voice snapped him around. His brother's eyes were focused on him now. "Sit down, Sammy."
He did, sinking into the chair by the bed, arms limp between his knees.
"He only does what he has to," Dean offered. "It's not like—"
God, Dean was advocating for Dad, again. "I know, Dean, all right? You don't always have to defend the man!" Sam snapped, cutting him off.
Dean's expression shut down and he turned his head to the other side with some difficulty. It was the closest he could come to walking away just then.
Sam winced, shoulders collapsing. "I know," he whispered, his voice as ravaged as he felt. "It's not…it's not that. I just… I wish it had been me, you know? When I saw you there… I would've killed Carpenter if he'd been there, Dean. I couldn't even find you. I shouldn't've… I should've…"
Dean had turned back somewhere in the middle of that ramble, eyes wide and dark and…and there it was again. Concern and care and love. Not because he was delirious, and in spite of his being flat on his stomach with a torn-up back, and ignoring the fact that he was still so tired and weak that his hand shook when he tried to lift it.
Didn't stop him from wrapping it around Sam's wrist and tugging it into the curve of his shoulder and neck. When the rest of Sam followed, Dean's hand slid up to the crown of Sam's head, until his chin was tucked into the mattress by Dean's collarbone and his face rested damp and fretful against his brother's throat. He could feel Dean's throat bob, the vibration of his voice when he spoke.
"I'm still here."
And in that moment, Sam maybe understood his brother better than he ever had before, because damned if that didn't truly make all the difference.