Title: Country of the Heart

Summary: After being hospitalized for meningitis, fifteen-year-old Sam finds himself put in a foster home while John is investigated for suspected abuse. Against all of Sam's expectations, his foster family turns out to be a caring couple with the kind of home Sam only ever saw from the outside while he was growing up, making him feel even more conflicted about the kind of life his own family leads. To make matters worse, John leaves town to go on a routine hunt in spite of his upcoming custody hearing, prompting Sam to wonder if his own father and brother might be relieved to have him —and his constant demands for normalcy— out of the picture. When his father goes missing, followed by Dean when he goes after him, Sam quickly discovers that they need him just as much as he needs them, and sets out to bring his family back together again, for good.

Characters: Sam, Dean, John, OCs (mostly Sam)

Artist: naisica (You can find her art by going to naisica dot livejournal dot com slash 170659 dot html)

Rating: PG-13 for language and show-levels of violence

Wordcount: 23,606

Disclaimer: All fun, no profit. Please don't sue.

Warnings: Sam!whump like whoa, mild swearing,

Neurotic Author's Note #1: Many, many thanks go to yasminke, who beta'd this thing, and embroiderama, who not only beta'd but also gave me lots of useful insider information on VA. Further thanks go to icelily01 who, many many months ago sent me a huge document on how CPS works in VA so that my story would at the very least hold together. All remaining mistakes are mine.

Neurotic Author's Note #2: I was lucky enough to be paired up again with the extraordinary naisica, who some of you may remember was the artist for my 2010 spn_j2_bigbang, Nihil Inherit. I suggest you immediately go and click on her art post and tell her how absolutely phenomenal her work is. The amount of thought she puts into the composition of her art blows my mind every single time, and the artwork she did for this story is no exception. Go now! I will wait while you do that.

Neurotic Author's Note #3: If this fic feels very long on Sam and very short on anyone else, not to mention really long on whump, it's because it was originally from a prompt by rainylemons for the ohsam Sam-focused h/c challenge, which I then converted to this challenge, with her permission.

Part I

"Hey, Gimpy! Dinner's ready. You coming, or what?"

Sam's head jerks up from where he's hunched over a history textbook, precariously balanced on his thigh, resting against the pure white cast that encases his leg from toes to mid-thigh. He winces as the movement sends a jolt of pain up his spine and right into his head and blinks, suddenly painfully aware of the headache that's been building steadily for the past hour or two without his really noticing. His t-shirt is soaked with sweat under the arms, courtesy of an unseasonably warm month of May.


Dean steps into the tiny living room of the apartment Dad managed to rent for them by the week while he's off on his latest hunt. Sam is officially benched thanks to his broken femur —courtesy of an overenthusiastic poltergeist and a very heavy dresser—which of course means that Dean is stuck with babysitting duty. Neither of them is especially pleased with the situation, Dean because he wants to be with Dad, and Sam because he's fifteen years old and can take care of himself, thank you very much. Except, of course, that his leg damned well hurts all the time, and getting around on crutches is harder than it looks, especially with several bruised ribs and one rib that's slightly cracked. On the plus side, his older brother hasn't yet managed to catch him unawares in order to draw lewd pictures on his cast with a Sharpie, so it's not all bad. The last time Sam had a cast he woke up one day to find Dean had drawn a penis that was alarmingly anatomically correct, forcing him to wear long sleeves for one excruciatingly long week in July until he found some liquid paper that successfully covered it. Otherwise, his casts always remain unadorned –it's not like he has any other friends to sign them, after all.

"Dinner," Dean enunciates exaggeratedly, wiping his hands on a dishcloth. "You sure that poltergeist didn't crack your head?"

"Funny," Sam mutters, although right now it kind of feels like Dean is right. His head is killing him. He rolls his shoulders, trying to get rid of the tension in his neck. "What're we having?"

"Whatever's put in front of you," Dean says pointedly, reminding him yet again that Sam's not the guy in charge of making decisions around here. "But if you must know, macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. And don't whine about the lack of vegetables. This is all we can afford until Dad gets back. You know as well as I do this stuff lasts longer."

"Wasn't going to say anything," Sam keeps his head ducked, fumbles for his crutches, and hoists himself up onto them. The room wavers as he stands, and he has to brace himself against his crutches for a second, willing the dizziness away, before shuffling after his brother into the kitchen.

"Shake a leg, Sammy," Dean is already at the stove, stirring the contents of a large, discoloured pot. "How do you expect that leg to heal if you don't eat?"

"It's Sam."

It's even hotter in the kitchen thanks to the stove being on, which doesn't help at all with the dizziness. Sam plunks himself down in one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table with a sigh and a wince as the movement jolts his head, reaches for his glass of water, figuring he's probably dehydrated, which would explain the headache. "Not hungry. It's too hot to eat, anyway."

Dean rolls his eyes, shoves a plate full of macaroni and cheese toward him. "Eat anyway, princess. It's not like we have money coming out of our ears, so you don't get to waste perfectly good food." He sits down, tucks into his own food with enthusiasm that's bordering on the pornographic, which Sam figures is exaggerated for his benefit.

Sam makes a show of putting a forkful of food in his mouth. "I'm eating, see?" he swallows, then ducks his head and swallows again as his stomach churns. He takes a careful sip of water from the glass Dean set out for him, and very hard to eat the rest of his food. Four bites in he has to stop again, stomach threatening to rebel, and rubs the heel of his hand against his temple, trying to get the throbbing to die down a bit. He considers asking when Dad is supposed to get back, then thinks better of it. It's not like Dean knows how long this hunt is going to take —no more than Sam does, anyway— and all it's going to do is spark yet another argument, and he's tired of arguing with Dean.

"Okay, what's wrong?"

He looks up, squints a bit in the bright glare of the ceiling fixture. "What? Nothing."

Dean's plate is almost completely empty, which means Sam spaced out for a while. The thought is a little disturbing. "Yeah, I don't think so. Usually you're a bottomless pit. What's wrong? You sulking about Dad again? Because you know how the two of you are when you get into it, saying all sorts of stupid shit you don't mean."

"I'm not sulking."

"Girl trouble?" Dean leers.


"Okay, what then? Come on, don't be emo and broody, just tell me what's eating at you, already."

Sam shrugs, which makes his neck twinge in protest. "Nothing. Headache."

Dean's face immediately screws up in concern, and he leans forward. "Migraine?"

Sam bites back the annoyed retort that threatens to spill from him. It's a legitimate question, after all, and he's got no right to be irritated by Dean's probing. Of all the things he could have wanted to inherit from his mother's side of the family, migraines are pretty low down on the list, but they've been his lot in life since he was eleven years old, and he's mostly learned to live with them. Even Dad doesn't mess with the migraines, just lets him shut himself in a dark room with his meds and an ice pack until the pain stops. Sam rubs at his eyes some more.

"No, I don't think so. No spots or anything, and my vision isn't blurry. It just hurts."

"You were staring at that damned history book all afternoon. Can't have helped. You wanna lie down? I can reheat dinner later," Dean is trying not let the worry creep into his voice, and failing, and it just makes Sam's head hurt more. Just once, he'd like to not be on the receiving end of all of Dean's protective efforts. Then again, lying down sounds like the best idea ever right about now.

"Yeah, okay," he nods. "Sorry about the food."

"Don't worry about it," Dean's hand is at the small of his back as he struggles to his feet again and limps toward the bedroom. "That's why they invented Tupperware."

"We don't own any Tupperware."


He and Dean have been sharing a king-sized bed as best they can, which has been harder than usual since Sam underwent his last growth spurt, which added a good three inches to his frame, and harder still now that he has to negotiate his cast on top of everything else. Sam props his crutches against the wall and eases himself slowly onto the bed, wincing even as he drops his head onto his pillow. To say he feels like shit would be putting it mildly. Things are getting a little blurry, soft around the edges, and he wonders if it isn't a migraine after all, even though it's not like the ones he usually gets. Even the dim light from the bedside lamp feels like he's staring right at the sun, and he throws an arm over his eyes to shield them. The bed dips, and Dean nudges his leg.

"I got water and Tylenol. You sure it's not a migraine?"

"I dunno," Sam can hear the whine creeping into his voice, and cringes inwardly. So much for proving how much of an adult he is. "The light hurts, but it's not the same. I just wanna sleep. Please?"

Dean blows out his cheeks, but he pats Sam's good knee. "Okay. Tylenol first, then I'll let you sleep. Let's get you out of your clothes –you can't sleep in them." His brother's talking to him like he's an idiot child, but Sam can't bring himself to care enough to protest. He manages not to whimper as Dean pulls his t-shirt over his head, jolting his neck painfully. He tries to help pull off the sweatpants he's been all but living in since he broke his leg –most of his other clothes won't fit over the cast– but Dean ends up doing most of the work anyway. He ends up in his boxers under the thin sheet on the bed, can't even curl up the way he wants to, the cast getting in his way. Dean pats his hip lightly before getting up.

"Yell if you need anything, okay?"

Sam manages a vaguely affirmative hum, feels himself relax a bit when Dean switches out the light. His head and neck still hurt like hell, but it's not as bad now. He concentrates on relaxing his muscles one by one, the way Dad showed him, and eventually drifts into an uneasy sleep filled with dreams of fire.

He's not sure how much time has passed when he awakens again, but it's still dark. He shoves weakly at the sheet covering him, feeling as though he's being steamed alive, bites back a whimper as pain flares in his neck and shoots straight into his skull. His throat is dry, burning. Water. The word swims to the surface of his thoughts, and he's pretty sure it's the best idea he's had in a while. He wriggles awkwardly on the bed, hampered by his cast and by limbs that feel weighted down by lead. Finally he swings his legs over the side of the bed, gropes blindly for his crutches, and feels the room lurch nauseatingly beneath his feet. He lands in a painful tangle of arms and legs beside the bed, can't help the cry of pain as it feels like electricity coursing through his skull.

A moment later he hears Dean stir on the bed.


There's a rustling of sheets, and his brother slips off the bed to crouch, cat-like and graceful, next to him. The light switches on, and more electricity stabs behind his eyelids. "D'you fall? What happened?"

His lips part, but he only manages a quiet moan in response. His tongue feels like it's three times its normal size and cleaved to the roof of his mouth.

A cool hand presses against his forehead. "Shit, you're burning up." Dean struggles to prop him up against the bed. "Should've seen you were getting sick. Shit!"

He tries to answer, but he's pretty sure that whatever he just mumbled, it's not what he meant to say. A moment later Dean is shaking him gently, trying to get him to drink some water. He does his best, but no matter what Dean says, he can't make himself do any of it, and he whimpers in protest as his brother tries to haul him back onto the bed.

"Come on, Sam. We gotta get you up. Just a little water and the Tylenol, then you can lie down again, okay?"

He tries to shake his head, and moans when that sends pain radiating down his spine. "No, please... Dean... hurts," he manages.

The hand is back, soothing against his skin. "What hurts, Sammy?"

He almost can't answer, his tongue tangling around his teeth. "Light. Turn it off?"

"Yeah, okay. Sure, Sammy. You hold tight, okay?"

The light goes off again, and he sags in relief, but it's momentary. The pain returns, worse than ever. His vision swims, goes dark, and when things come back into focus he hears Dean talking. It takes him a moment to realize Dean isn't talking to him.

"Dad? It's me... No, it's not. Sammy's sick... No, it's bad, I have to get him to a hospital... Yeah... No, it really can't wait, something's really wrong, he's got a fever and he's barely conscious... No, uh, look, can you just come, please? We're going now. Call me as soon as you get back, okay?"

Pain flares bright and loud in Sam's head, and the rest of the conversation is lost in swirling darkness.

Sam doesn't remember much after that. Reality comes at him in brilliantly coloured flashes. There are bright lights, people moving, and there's a lot of jolting and sounds that make no sense. He feels hands on him, and then there are more lights, hands probing at his head and neck and shoulders.

"Sam, can you move your head for me?"

He doesn't recognize the voice, struggles to shove away the intrusive touches, but he can't move his hands, can't raise his arms. The voice comes back, softer, reassuring, tells him to hold very still while they turn him on his side. There's a new pain, low in his back, and he jerks and cries out, and the hands hold him down while the voices murmur all around him. He tries to force his eyes open, sees only pale blue fabric, rustling and moving inches away from his face, and he lets his eyes close again.


"Who's Dean, sweetie?"

The darkness pulls him back under.

The next time he manages to open his eyes he's alone in a room that's almost completely dark save for a few dimly lit ceiling fixtures. His chest hurts and the smell of antiseptic hangs heavy and pungent in the air. Hospital, then, he thinks dimly, before his eyes slip shut again and he lets himself drift back into unconsciousness. He doesn't want to wake up, is all he can think the next time he feels himself surfacing. This time there's someone there: he catches sight of brown eyes above a blue surgical mask. He tries to open his mouth, to ask where Dean is, where Dad is, but there's something in his mouth, in his throat, and he gags and coughs, feels panic bubble up in his chest because he can't breathe past the obstruction. Immediately there's a hand on his shoulder, and a voice breaks through the panic.

"It's okay, Sam. You were having trouble breathing so we had to put a tube in your throat to help you, all right sweetie? I need you to relax, now, and let the machine keep working. Come on, now." A hand tightens over his fingers, squeezes them reassuringly. "Come on, Sam, relax, okay?"

Dad taught him better than this. Winchesters don't panic. He screws his eyes shut, forces himself not to fight the ventilator. He knows what this is, he's seen them before, even if he's never had one up close and personal like this before. After a few minutes the urge to claw at his throat recedes, and he opens his eyes again to find the same brown eyes hovering right above him.

"Good job," the voice says. It's a woman, but he doesn't recognize her. Then again, in that get-up he wouldn't be able to recognize anyone, he thinks. "The doctor will probably want to take that out soon, now that you're back with us. You gave us all quite a scare."

Dean, he thinks. He can't talk, can't really move. He blinks at the nurse, trying to ask the question with his eyes, but Dean isn't here, and Dean's the only person who'd understand.

"It's okay, sweetie," the nurse pats his hand. "We're going to add something to your IV to help you relax, just for a little while longer. You go on back to sleep, now, and the doctor will come talk to you later, okay?"

He wants to ask her a thousand, a million questions, but his eyes are slipping shut of their own accord. He drifts to sleep, still thinking about Dad and Dean, and why they weren't there when he woke up. When he wakes up again, there's even less pain than before. It feels at once like he's floating and weighted down with lead. There are three people there, dressed in identical blue scrubs. One of them is talking to him, he realizes, and he forces himself to focus, squinting stupidly at her. His head is throbbing, but it's not as bad as he thinks it was before.

"... need you to breathe out as I'm pulling, okay?"

He barely has the chance to nod before they're removing the ventilator tube, and it's just as unpleasant as he thought it would be. He coughs and gags, feels like he's choking. A hand rubs between his shoulder blades, eases him back onto the bed when he's able to draw in a desperate, gasping breath.

"That was great, you did really well, Sam," the voice says as more plastic-gloved hands carefully slip a cannula under his nose. It feels weird, but not nearly as unpleasant as the ventilator.

Things are spinning again. "Dean?" he barely recognizes the dry rasp as his own voice. He feels something cold brush against his lips, and when he parts them he feels ice melting against his tongue. "Where's Dad?" he croaks, a little bit louder.

A hand brushes the hair back from his forehead. "They can't be here right now, sweetie. You concentrate on getting better, okay?"

It's not right. Dean should be here, he's always here, but he can't make his mouth form the words. Sam tries to sit up, to make them understand that he needs to see Dean, but his body has betrayed him. 'What's wrong with me?' He wants to ask, can't make his lips and tongue obey him. He lets his eyes close with a sigh of resignation.

It starts getting better after that. He can stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time, and the pain is kept at bay by whatever medication the hospital is pumping into his IV. He's not sure how much time goes by, but when he wakes up he's in a different room, this time with yellow walls and thin, mustard-coloured blanket over his bed instead of the scratchy sheets from before. He shifts uncomfortably in his bed, his skin crawling with the sensation of dried sweat. His breath feels raspy, like someone's replaced the inside of his lungs with sandpaper. There's a call button tied to the bars of his bed, and after a moment's fumbling he's able to press it.

A young woman in scrubs with jungle animals printed on it materializes in the doorway. She smiles. "Hey, look who's awake and using the call button! How're you feeling, Sam?"

He shakes his head. "I dunno. What's wrong with me?" He coughs, his throat dry, chest aching distantly, and the nurse –or so he assumes, anyway– fills a cup with water, adds a straw, and holds it for him to drink.

"Small sips," she cautions. "You had a bad case of meningitis," she explains as he does as instructed. "Do you know what that is?"

He swallows his mouthful of water. "Yeah, sort of. Uh, bacterial or viral?" he doesn't know why he's asking, only that it feels important.

"Bacterial," she smiles. "Aren't you well-informed. Drink some more, okay? We're keeping you hydrated with the IV, but the sooner you start drinking on your own, the better. You also had a pretty bad bout of pneumonia. That's why we had to put you on the ventilator. Go on, drink."

Obediently he takes another sip of water. "Where's my dad? My brother?"

Her smile falters. "They can't be here right now. Someone is going to come and talk to you about that later. They'll explain everything, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," he's tired all of a sudden, his head flopping back against the thin hospital pillow. "Can I see them later?"

"Maybe. I just don't know. Are you in any pain, sweetie?"

He shakes his head, is pleased to note it doesn't hurt to do that anymore. "I wanna talk to my family."

"Aw, sweetie, I'm sorry," her expression goes soft, mirroring her apology, and unexpectedly he feels his throat tighten. "That's not going to happen just yet. You need to hang tight, okay?"

His eyes sting, and he blinks, willing himself not to cry. He's too old to cry, no matter how alone he is. "When can I see them?"

"Not just yet," she repeats. "I'm sorry."

They must be on a hunt. He can't think of another reason they'd leave him by himself in a hospital. "Did –did they leave a message before they went? About when they'd be back?"

"Oh, Sam, honey, they didn't leave," the nurse gives his knee a squeeze, and he feels his heart give a painful lurch at the thought that Dad and Dean aren't gone, after all. "They're just not allowed in right now."

"Why not?"

"The social worker will come and talk to you soon," she says, rather than answering. "She's going to have some questions, and then we'll see, okay?"

"Okay," he slumps against his pillow.

But really, it's anything but that.

The social worker comes the next day, by the time the nurses and an older woman he finally learns is called Dr. Shaw are thoroughly sick of him asking about his family between bouts of coughing. The social worker is another older woman cut seemingly from the same mould as Dr. Shaw, dressed in a drab brown skirt and a sensible-looking cardigan. She tells him he can call her by her first name, Audrey, and for a while he thinks she might be okay, even though Dad has always told them to stay away from social services, that they can't be trusted.

"You gave everybody quite a scare, Sam," she says, drawing up a chair by his bed. "You were a very sick young man." She's plump, sweet-looking, with short red hair framing a round, pleasant face.

He nods, not sure what she's driving at. "I didn't mean to," he keeps his voice quiet.

She smiles warmly. "Of course you didn't. No one ever means to get sick. I just have a few questions for you, okay? I want you to be honest with me."


"You got hurt before you got sick, right Sam?"

This is a trap. He can tell, even though he isn't sure where it's been set, exactly. "Yeah, I broke my leg." As if it isn't obvious that his leg is in a cast.

"And your ribs."

"Yeah," he agrees reluctantly.

"Can you tell me how you did that?"

"I fell down a flight of stairs." The lessons he learnt from Dad: keep your story short, simple. Avoid giving unnecessary details, and base your lie in the truth, that way it's easier to sell.

She purses her lips, jots something down on a legal pad in her lap. "Sounds like a pretty bad fall."

For a moment his stomach bottoms out as he remembers the poltergeist flinging the chest of drawers at him; the sickening crack as it connected with his leg, the dizzying drop as he fell backward down the stairs, tumbling head over heels to fall in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the staircase. He remembers Dean's terrified yell, Dad's face looming over him, furious and worried, the pain that made him wonder if the chest of drawers wasn't still on top of him, crushing his chest. He swallows a mouthful of saliva, wipes palms that are suddenly moist with sweat on his flimsy hospital gown.

"Yeah, it was pretty bad."

"How about your arm?"

"My arm?" He looks at her sharply, thrown off-guard by the question. His arms are fine, at least right now.

"It's been broken before, hasn't it?"

"Yeah. I fell off my bike a while back." He knows he sounds defensive, can't help it. He doesn't know where this line of questioning is heading, but he does know he doesn't like it. He doesn't want to have to lie outright about what he and Dad and Dean do, but it won't be the first time he's lied to an adult to keep the hunting a secret.

Audrey pats his knee. "Sam, you don't have to lie to me. You're perfectly safe, here."

"I'm not lying!" he says hotly, insulted at the suggestion, even though he has sort of been lying, if only by omission, and the outburst makes him start coughing again. He feels a flush creep up his neck and cheeks, rubs his temple with one hand, trying to get his thoughts to stand still, just for one second.

"All right, okay," she lifts her hands palms up in a placating gesture. "But the doctors here tell me you've had lots of injuries like that, that you were covered in bruises when you were admitted, that there's evidence of multiple broken bones going back for years. Do you want to tell me about that?"

He shakes his head, trying to ignore the dull throb that's starting behind his eyes. He should have known, should have seen this coming. This happened to Dean a few years ago when he broke his clavicle on a hunt, the result of yet another angry spirit who refused to go gently into that good night. "It's not what you think."

She fixes him with a look, half-pitying, as though he's some sort of kitten she wants to rescue from drowning, and he decides he hates it. "And what do I think?"

"You think my dad's hurting me. He's not."

"Is it your brother, then?" She asks the question like it's perfectly normal.

"What? No! Dean would never do anything like that!" he struggles to sit up, only to find himself pushed back gently onto the bed.

"Okay, okay, settle down. I believe you, it's not your brother," Audrey says soothingly, and by now he's too exhausted to put up much of a fight. "Look, Sam, I'm going to be honest with you, because I think you're more than old enough to understand this. You're presenting with some pretty classic signs of abuse, and the judge has agreed. Until we can sort this out, your family isn't going to be allowed to see you. Do you understand?"

"What? That's bullshit!" he swallows, trying to stave off another coughing fit. "You can't do that!"

She flinches slightly, obviously surprised at his tone. "I think you'll find that we can."

"But it's not fair. I didn't do anything wrong!" he protests. Dad's going to kill him for this, he thinks with something bordering on panic. He's committed the cardinal of all Winchester sins, drawn attention to himself and by extension to the family, and now the authorities are stepping in. It's a nightmare.

"I know it may seem that way to you now, Sam, but we're just trying to do what's best for you. It's not about what you did."

"What's best for me is seeing my dad and my brother. I just want to go home."

"I'm sorry, but that's just not going to happen. There has to be an investigation first, to make sure you're safe where you are. I know you're angry and upset, and that's perfectly normal—"

"Don't tell me what's normal!" He's on the verge of tears again, and he has no idea why. Dean would be all over him for being a crybaby, Sam thinks a little hysterically, but ever since he woke up it's like the tears have a mind of their own, leaking from the corners of his eyes without so much as consulting him on the matter. He wants nothing more to explain to this stupid woman that there's nowhere safer than with Dad and Dean, but there's no way to make her understand that without making them all sound like they're ten kinds of crazy. He blinks hard, ducking his head so she won't see the tears threatening to spill down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry, Sam," Audrey tells him. "I know it's hard, but eventually you'll see that no one is doing this to hurt you. Quite the contrary."

He leans back, closes his eyes, wants to scream at her to just leave him alone. "My head hurts," he mutters instead. It's not a lie, the throb behind his eyes beating in time with his pulse, but it's convenient, too.

"You want me to fetch Dr. Shaw?" she asks, laying a hand over his. He nods, tries to get his breath to stop hitching. Dad would tell him to suck it up, keep up his front with a stranger, and Dean would be right there with a joke and a distraction, making him laugh even though he feels crummy, but he's all alone now and he has to scrub at his eyes with the back of his wrist. All he wants is to curl into a ball and wait for this all to go away. "All right, I'll get her," Audrey gets up, chair scraping across the cheap linoleum.

He watches her leave, heart thudding painfully in his chest. It's a nightmare, and nothing he does can wake him up. Dad and Dean are gone, barred from seeing him by well-meaning busybodies, and for all he knows they've blown town by now. There are still things out there that need hunting, things killing people by the dozen, and there's no reason for them to stay anymore, not if the State is interfering. It's always been Dad's worry, to attract unwanted attention from the authorities, and now Sam's gone and screwed everything up, as usual. Well, he tells himself, if there's anything he learned from his father, it's that he needs to step up to the plate and own his mistakes. If this is how it has to be, he'll make it work, at least until he's figured some things out. Maybe he can still find a way out of this, if only he can get his head to stop hurting and his thoughts to stop swirling in his head.

Sam scrubs at his face some more, wiping the tears off his cheeks. He'll be damned if they're going to see him cry over this. He settles back on the bed, trying to find a comfortable position to lie in, and squeezes his eyes shut. By the time the doctor comes back, he's asleep again.

They let Dean in to see him, after what feels like forever. He opens his eyes to find his brother standing next to his bed, watching him. He lets out a choked cry and pushes himself off the bed, hindered by his IV and the guard rail, and the next thing he knows he's gathered up in Dean's arms, crying so hard he thinks he might die, coughing and choking between sobs.

"They wouldn't let me see you..." he manages.

Dean just holds onto him, fingers digging into his back, and lets him cry. Sam doesn't know how long it's been, but it feels like he hasn't been safe in years, and he clings to Dean, to the smell of his brother's cheap aftershave mixed in with the antiseptic hospital scent that seems to permeate everything around here, even the soft denim of Dean's favourite jeans jacket. Dean is warm and strong under his hands, heartbeat thumping comfortingly just beneath his ribcage where Sam is pressing his ear in order to listen. It's a good sound, regular and soothing, the same sound he's been listening to since they were little kids sharing a double bed in a dozen different motel rooms across the country.

"I'm so sorry, Sammy," Dean says, when Sam's exhausted himself and Dean's t-shirt has a wet spot from all of Sam's tears –for which he mercifully doesn't rib him. "I'm so sorry." He pulls back a bit, brushes Sam's hair back from his forehead, his face screwed up with worry. "You feeling better? They wouldn't let me in, said you were contagious, and then after... They said they'd have me banned from the hospital if I tried to get in. Are you okay?"

Sam nods, wiping his nose awkwardly on his wrist, his cannula already dislodged. "I want to go home," he says, and immediately starts coughing again, his own body betraying him.

Dean helps him readjust his cannula, rubs circles on his back until the coughing stops again, then glances back at the door . "Sammy, they're not going to let that happen. They, uh, they think maybe"

"They think Dad beats me," Sam finishes bitterly. "Because of this," he flicks a hand disdainfully at his cast. "And the other broken bones. They think I'm lying to cover for him. For both of you."

His brother rubs his hand over his mouth, a sure sign that he's worried and trying not to let on that he is. "It's all gotten fucked up," he says, his face a mask of misery. "I'm sorry, it's all my fault, but I had to bring you in. Christ, Sammy, you almost died..."

He shakes his head. "'s not your fault."

"They want to take you away from me. From us. They won't take my word for it, that Dad's not abusing us. They want to investigate, first."

That's when Sam realizes that there's a yellowing bruise still fading under Dean's left eye. "What happened to your face?"

Dean rolls his eyes and jabs him gently in the ribs. "Never mind my face. I could ask what happened to yours, too, except I know it's like that naturally."


"Don't 'Dean' me. I'm fine."

"That's not what I asked. Did Dad do that?"

A shrug. "We kind of got into it, after... anyway. He didn't mean it, not like that. It's not like he set out to punch me or anything. It was stupid. I pushed, he pushed back, I tripped. So, yeah, technically he did it, but we were both mad."

Sam's head is starting to ache again, and he rests it in the palm of one hand, elbow on his knee. "Yeah. You walking around with a shiner isn't exactly going to convince CPS that he should be up for the father-of-the-year award." He rubs at his eyes with his free hand.

"Sammy? You okay?"


"You don't look fine. C'mon," Dean nudges him, trying to coax him back onto the bed. "Lie back down, okay? Your head hurt?"

"A little" he admits, and then immediately regrets it when Dean's expression turns even more anxious. "It's fine. I'm just tired." Instead of letting Dean push him back on the bed he leans forward, pressing his cheek back to Dean's chest.

"You're such a girl," Dean says, but he pulls him in closer, then manhandles the guard rail down so he can sit on the bed. "Come on, then."

He can't curl up the way he wants to, his cast and the damned IV getting in his way again, but he settles as comfortably as he can against his brother, twisting his fingers in the hem of Dean's t-shirt. "I'm sorry." His breath is already hitching again, and he buries his face against his brother's chest, as much for comfort as to hide the fact that he keeps crying like a damned girl. "I screwed everything up."

"Not your fault, Sammy. You don't have anything to be sorry for, okay?"

"What's going to happen to me?"

Dean ruffles his hair, more gently than usual. "There's going to be a hearing, but not right away. It has to be soon, though, that's the law around here. They're going to find somewhere —some people for you to live with in the meantime. Where you'll be taken care of."

"I could just stay with you," Sam protests weakly, even though he knows it's no good. That's not how these things ever work out. The foremost rule in Sam Winchester's life appears to be that he's never allowed to get anything he wants. It's confirmed when Dean shakes his head.

"They already put the kibosh on that. They don't trust me not to go back to Dad with you."

"Dad's never around anyway."

"Yeah, not exactly a convincing argument against parental neglect and abuse, there, kiddo."

"Why don't we just go, then? We've sneaked out of hospitals before."

Dean hugs him tighter. "We were using fake names, then. I had to give them your real name this time, and..." Sam hears his breath hitch in his chest, but only because he's got his ear pressed right up to Dean's heart. "And I won't risk it. God, you have no idea, do you? You were so sick when I brought you in, you couldn't even tell them your name They had to put you on a ventilator for days. Hell, you're still on oxygen. If you get sick again..." He shakes his head. "I won't do it. I have to make sure you're taken care of. That's my job, right? So that means we stick to the system, at least until we're sure you're out of the woods."

"But I feel fine," he can hear the whine creep into his voice again, and wishes he didn't turn into a complete baby around his brother every time he doesn't feel good. He's lying through his teeth, of course: his head is throbbing and his chest still feels funny, and all his muscles ache mercilessly, but he won't admit it front of Dean, not without a fight. "I just want to go home."

"I know," Dean doesn't even call him on the whining. "I know, Sammy. I promise, I promise that you'll be home by the end of this. I promise."

Sam lets his eyes close. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Dean."

Sam spends a lot of time sleeping after that, unable to stay awake in spite of his best efforts. He is getting better, slowly but surely. He still spends a lot of his waking hours sore and coughing, but even he can tell he's improving. They don't let Dean in to see him much, and sometimes Sam thinks he must sleep through some of his visits, because there's always something left behind that wasn't there before. It's always small, stupid things: once it's a matchbox car, another time it's a plastic egg full of silly putty, and once it's a weird little guy with pipe-cleaner arms and crazy googly eyes. He laughs when he sees that one, but it only brings home the fact that Dean isn't there, that no one is there except nurses in hospital scrubs with cute animal prints because he's still in the children's ward, and then he has to swallow the lump in his throat, curling back up on the bed and trying very hard not to cry again, because it just makes him cough and his head hurt.

He doesn't talk much to anyone who comes in, apart from Dean. For one, he mostly still feels so damned sick that he doesn't feel much like talking. All his time awake is spent either coughing or halfway curled up on his bed, hampered by the cast, trying to find a position that doesn't make his head ache. Eventually, though, he starts feeling better, well enough to sit up for longer than a few minutes and even to switch on the crappy television in the room which shows nothing but daytime soaps and talk shows. Sometimes in the evening there are reruns of Matlock, and a couple of slightly better shows, but by then he's usually too tired to stay awake, pulled under by his medication and exhaustion combined.

Everyone is nice to him. Somehow, that just makes the whole situation worse, because it would be so much easier to hate them all if they were mean. Even the stupid social worker who trapped him into saying all that stuff on the first day is nice to him. She doesn't know what she's talking about, but she's nice to him and doesn't treat him like he's a retard or like he's five. Her name is Audrey, and she explains exactly how the system works and what's going to happen, talking to him like he's just a regular person, and try as he might he can't bring himself to ignore her.

"Normally we'd put you in a receiving home until we found a family for you," she tells him after a week has gone by, "but we got lucky this time, since we had time to look while you were here. Dr. Shaw says you're well enough to be discharged, so tomorrow you and I are going to go back to your apartment to get your clothes and anything else you want to take with you."

"Will my dad and Dean be there?" Sam stares at his hands, clenched in his lap.

"Your brother can come if you want, but I'm afraid your father won't be allowed. Not just yet, anyway."

"When can I see him?"

She sighs. "We're still investigating. We can see about letting him talk to you on the phone, see if that works out. But not just yet, okay?"

He nods, twists his hands together. "He's not abusive."

"I know you don't think he is, Sam, but that's not how this works. He's your father, you love him, and that's truly wonderful," she says, and it's all the more awful because he can tell she means it. "But sometimes love can blind us to people's faults. You may just have been living with this so long that your judgement is skewed. You understand that, right?"

"I understand. But you're wrong."

She gives his arm a pat. "I really, really hope you're right about that."