It was inevitable, Sam supposed. Now that Cas was no longer hanging around to keep the germs at bay, Dean was bound to catch something. They were just lucky it appeared to be a plain old garden-variety virus that would run its course in a matter of days and leave him not too much the worse for wear, too vanilla even to diagnose more precisely, and not something exotic like MRSA that would be hard to treat and could seriously hinder his ongoing recovery from the IED attack.
Unfortunately for Dean, the fever had gone on beyond zebra and was now pushing 104°. He wasn't hallucinating that Sam knew of, but he wasn't too with it, either, and sometimes his rambles got pretty funny, like the long one on Star Trek vs. Star Wars. The fact that he appealed to Jess for backup, even though Jess had no preference for either one, only made Sam laugh more. So it wasn't too surprising when, in the course of watching TV in his bedroom, Dean tried to reach for the remote with his non-existent left hand and missed. Sam chuckled at Dean's confused frown. Then Dean tried again, more deliberately, and missed again. Looking deeply disturbed, he tried and failed a third time.
Sam started to laugh. Dean started to scream.
Jess was at Dean's side in a flash. "Dean? Dean, what is it? Talk to me."
Dean's eyes were fever-glazed and wild with terror. "I c-c-can't... it w-went through my hand... J-Jess? What... why can't I touch anything?" His voice rose hysterically. "What the hell kind of curse is this?"
Jess spun and glared at him, furious. "Out."
"Okay, fine..." Sam conceded and left the room, closing the door behind him as Jess murmured soothing words to Dean that Sam couldn't quite make out. And he stayed in the hall until she apparently got Dean calmed down and slipped quietly out of the room.
Her jaw clenched as soon as she saw him standing there. "It's not funny, Sam," she said quietly. "Phantom limb is a real phenomenon; the brain doesn't always remember that a limb is missing and sometimes reacts as if it's still there. He can probably still feel that hand even on a good day—maybe it'll itch or hurt, maybe he thinks he's drumming his fingers on the table. It's disorienting enough without the fever, when he's lucid enough to recognize that he can't touch things with that hand because it's gone and maybe even to laugh at himself for forgetting. Knowing the things you've hunted?" She shook her head. "He couldn't figure out if he was out of phase or a ghost or what. Your laughing at him won't help matters."
Sam blinked. "He seriously felt like the remote went through his hand?"
Sam tried to imagine what that would feel like and suddenly felt sick with guilt. "You're right. That isn't funny. Is... is he okay now?"
"Calmer. You can probably help him more than I can, though. You've known him longer. Sometimes massaging the stump helps, too, and I don't think he'd accept that from me."
Sam nodded. "Thanks for setting me straight."
She kissed his cheek and went on to the living room, leaving Sam to steel himself to go in and face Dean again.
Dean was perilously close to tears when Sam walked in. "M'hand won't work, Sammy," he sniffled, making Sam feel like even more of a heel. "Why won't m'hand work?"
Sam sat down on the edge of the bed, to Dean's left. He hated seeing his big brother like this. "It got infected when you were in Germany, remember? They had to cut it off."
Dean's forehead crinkled in a confused frown. "Sammy?"
"Does it hurt?"
Dean nodded. "Aches, kind of. I... I think I'm sick, Sam."
"Yeah. It'll be okay, though." Without really thinking, Sam laid a hand on Dean's arm, just above the stump, and began massaging the muscle with his thumb.
Dean made a funny high-pitched groaning noise in the back of his throat, and his eyes slid shut.
"Dean? Am I hurting you?"
Dean shook his head. "No, 's good, keep... nnnngh."
So Sam kept kneading, trying to ignore his dismay at the heat pouring from Dean's skin and the flush of his cheeks. And although he kept his voice low, Dean let loose with a string of profanity that left no doubt as to his having been in the Marines for two years before his injury, including some particularly colorful expressions in Arabic that he'd probably picked up from the interpreters. Sam knew those mainly from having made a few Arab-American friends at Stanford. There were one or two that he didn't recognize, though, and he assumed those must have been Kurdish.
He was absurdly glad that Jess wasn't in the room. She'd probably heard worse, but some old-fashioned part of his mind still wanted to keep her sheltered from things like rough language and the obscene wisecrack Dean was likely to make when Sam finished because he didn't think he could say what he really felt. Perils of being a Winchester, Sam thought with a fleeting grimace.
But the off-color joke never came. Instead, when Sam finished, Dean slumped against him and mumbled, "Y'r awesome, Sammy. Thanks."
"Want some ice cream?"
"'Kay. 'S hot in here, Sammy. 'M I sick? I think I'm sick."
"Yeah, Dean. You're sick. But we're here, me and Jess. We'll get you through this."
Sam sighed. "I don't know where Dad is. He's back to not answering his phone."
Dean started sniffling again. "'S gonna get himself killed, Sammy... 's gonna get killed and we're not gonna know..."
Sam started rubbing Dean's shoulder. "Hey. Cas is still out there, right? Maybe Cas is looking after Dad." They hadn't heard from the angel in a couple of months, either, but the argument from silence worked both ways. Dean wasn't with it enough to realize it was a fallacy in either form.
And sure enough, Dean nodded. "Yeah. Maybe. Hope so. Don' want Dad to die."
Dean nodded again.
Sam eased him back against the pillows that had been propping him up. "Okay. I'll be right back."
"Love you, Sammy," Dean murmured as his eyes slid shut again.
"Love you, too, Dean," Sam whispered back, running a hand through the hair that was finally starting to look more like his brother's usual style. Then he left the room quietly and hurried to the kitchen to fill a bowl with chocolate ice cream.
Somehow it didn't surprise him that by the time he got back, Dean was chatting quietly with someone who wasn't there, even tried to introduce Sam to the guy—a member of Dean's unit who'd been killed in Fallujah. The apartment was too well warded for it to be an actual ghost, so it had to be a hallucination. Sam alerted Jess once Dean finished his ice cream and fell asleep, and both of them took the next day off from work because they suspected—rightly—that the hallucinations would only get scarier as the fever dredged up memories of hunts gone awry and terrible moments from Iraq. It took both of them to still Dean's flailing limbs long enough to get him through ice baths, coax him into taking Tylenol, and keep him calm enough that he didn't wake up the whole building with his screams.
Finally, though, the fever broke, and Sam was beyond relieved to see his brother's eyes focus on him, sparkling with their normal intelligence and good humor.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean whispered with a tired smile.
"Hey," Sam whispered back. "Feeling better?"
Dean nodded. "Beat to hell, but at least I'm not burning up anymore."
Sam sighed. "That's a relief."
Dean started to reach for Sam with his left hand, then caught himself and patted Sam's arm with his right hand. "Thanks, dude. Guess I was pretty out of it for a while there."
"Is... does your hand..."
Dean looked down and moved his stump like he was turning the hand over. "Still kind of aches." Then he frowned. "You did something the other day... felt really good, whatever it was."
"Would you like me to..."
Sam gingerly wrapped his hand around the stump and began massaging gently, and Dean let out a groan of pure pleasure and began making the kinds of wisecracks that both disgusted and relieved Sam. That, more than anything, convinced him that Dean really was on the mend.
Maybe not every phantom could be dispatched with a salt and burn, but Sam felt better knowing that he could help Dean keep at least a few even of those at bay.