Hey everyone!

So this is it: the last chapter. Apologies for the amount of time it took to get this one finished, but I hope the length makes up for it! Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me throughout this story, and who has been kind enough to drop me a review, favourite or alert.

I had a couple of guest reviews that I wasn't able to reply to directly, but just want to say how much I really appreciate their kind words and encouragement.

And last, but definitely not least, I want to take one final chance to thank my wonderful beta Sharlot for her support, encouragement and friendship during the writing of this story. She was generous enough to cast her eye over the last part of this chapter today so that I could get it posted before I head off on holiday. You're a star! :)

Okay, enough rambling from me. Hope you all enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural, nor any canon characters therein, and I am making no profit from this piece of fiction.

o0o0o

Chapter 19 – Us Against the World

The room was shadowy when Dean opened his eyes, but it was more the artificial dimness of curtains closed to keep daylight out rather than the deep darkness of nightfall. Reclining pleasantly on the cusp of sleep, pain for the moment dulled by anaesthetic drowsiness, the elder Winchester dreamily meandered his gaze around their latest motel room. He wasn't sure exactly where they were, he just knew that it wasn't quite what he'd been expecting – a vague image of gyrating colours and nauseating flower patterns rippling just beneath the surface of his memory – but it was clearly a motel room of their usual fare. The wallpaper was ugly and blotchy; standard. The furniture was musty and grubby; typical. A lampshade on the wall opposite his bed was hung at a jaunty angle, clearly broken; same old, same old. He eased his head around on a pillow that felt like a bag of marbles and took in the view to his left.

Wait...What?

A not-so-normal sight met his exploring eyes and his brows locked together in confusion. The lump on the opposite bed was clearly too bulky to be Sam, but the gloom prevented him from getting a better look. He squinted in bewilderment until the shape shifted sleepily and sighed contentedly, and Dean immediately identified the interloper as Bobby. He frowned more deeply still, wondering what and how much he'd missed, delving the fingers of his consciousness deep into the reservoir of his memories to try to find the stray piece of information that would make all of this clear.

But his mind was a blank canvas, and Dean felt his fists tighten in frustration. Bobby being there was weird enough, but more to the point, where the hell was Sam? Dean felt his heart quicken as he worriedly cast his gaze about his surroundings, searching for a familiar, sasquatch-shaped figure. The fact that Sam hadn't even sensed his big brother's return to wakefulness was a major cause for concern. Dean would swear the kid heard changes in breathing on a frequency even dogs would have struggled to detect. It was something Dean himself did without thinking, so in tune with his brother that he found himself noticing even the most minute of changes in Sam's rhythm. But there was no huffing and puffing and tutting and fussing, and the elder Winchester felt his stomach flip anxiously. Where was Sam? The kid was never far away if Dean was hurt. Dammit, Sam should be there.

If Bobby was there in Sam's place, what did that mean for his little brother's fate? What if Sam was hurt...But wait, Dean could recall now the younger man's presence earlier, floating above him when he'd been almost delirious with pain. Sam had been there then, and he'd been fine.

No, Sam was definitely around somewhere.

It wasn't until he'd shifted on the bed to get a better view of the room, the accompanying spike of pain nearly making him gasp out loud as it crushed his lungs, that he finally realised where his little brother was. Sam was a slouched mess of akimbo limbs, arms and legs tangled inextricably as he sat barely propped up against the wall in the space between the room's two beds, head lolling drunkenly. His neck was bent at an angle that was definitely going to make his vertebrae crackle and pop when he straightened, and the tip of his chin rested precariously on his chest, teetering at each exhale. Dean felt a soft smile curve at his lips as he fondly watched his brother, murmuring a soft "girl" as he realised that the kid had clearly sacrificed his own comfort for that of Bobby's. Not that Dean would have expected any less, or done any differently himself, but it still made him smirk affectionately at the sight. And then he noticed that his bed was furthest from the door.

Sam had outdone himself this time, Dean glowered with an eye roll that caused far more pain than it should have. His little brother clearly needed reminding that he was in fact the little brother – in principle if not in physical dimension – and Dean would make sure he reasserted his authority as soon as...well, as soon as he was able to do anything more than lie on his bed like a pile of rotting bones. The elder Winchester raised his eyebrows, ruefully acknowledging to himself that any hope of winning that particular battle with Sam was likely to be several days away. He'd need to bide his time.

Looking at his little brother, Dean could see the toll that the past however many days had taken on him. Sam was pale and gaunt, the skin underneath his eyes purpled and hollow. Dean frowned as he caught sight of the faint bruises that peppered his brother's jawline, signs of abuse that were more recent than Sam's tussle with Gordon. What the hell had happened? Dean jotted down a mental note to interrogate Sam about it later, but at that moment the younger Winchester was sagging bonelessly against the wall, and the fact that he hadn't registered either Dean's presence or the scrutiny was testament to just how exhausted he was. The older man sighed softly, concern gnawing at the lining of his stomach. Sam needed to sleep, and Dean didn't need to wake him. Nevermind that pain had started banging its fists against his insides and outsides like a child in a tantrum. Dean had weathered many a childhood sulk – Sam at age four had been a fearsome thing to behold on numerous occasions – and so he would deal with this one too. Besides, he had a feeling his brother was already planning to mother-hen him to death at the earliest opportunity, so why extend the torture?

Laboriously, Dean returned his head to a more comfortable position. One that offered little more excitement than staring straight up at the ceiling's bland, polystyrene tiles. Awesome.

Dean held his gaze rigid, watching with vague interest as his vision attempted to entertain him with multi-coloured patterns and swirls and bursts on the grey space above. The light, gentle breaths that filled the air around him were comforting in their slow, relaxed rhythm, and Dean used their cadence to release the tension in his muscles. He lay in silence, allowing his mind to wander, giving it free rein to stroll down whatever pathway took its fancy. He wanted to know what had happened to him. Really wanted to know. But the more effort he made, the further from his grasp the knowledge seemed to slip. So he submitted to the tide of images and sounds and feelings that washed over him, stayed passive as they distilled like crude oil and separated out into memories, remained calm as the pieces slowly reassembled into something that made sense.

The dementia ward he could remember now and the haunting figures that had shuffled and stared...Jennifer Lawrence, the woman he'd spoken to, and the many people she'd spoken to in return. He recalled the teenager who'd taken pot-shots at random grocery store customers, and the woman whose mother had died in the care home. He'd taken the case behind Sam's back; he could remember that too. And why. Each realisation settled into place, brick by brick, until the foundations of his suspicions were laid.

Somehow he had become infected by the supernatural disease, and somehow, Sam had saved him. That much he was certain of, but the rest was more than a little hazy. The realisation sent bile spurting up his throat in a geyser of nauseating humiliation. He'd seen what had happened to the others, what they'd become...The thought that he...No. That couldn't have been him. Sam would have saved him before he'd gotten that bad. That had to be it. But the reassurance rang hollowly.

Dean wasn't quite sure how long he stayed like that, staring into his thoughts, or how long it had been since he'd first woken, but the fact that pain had gradually ebbed from full-on apocalypse to a mere tropical storm made him think that it had probably been a while. That and the fact that nature's call had begun blasting out. Very, very loudly. He'd felt it somewhere in the background of his ruminations, hoping it would go away if he ignored it. But Winchester luck was the very worst kind.

"Dammit," Dean hissed softly as the pressure from his bladder began to expand, the discomfort growing with every passing second. He really needed to go. But he'd been avoiding that conclusion for as long as he possibly could, because even the thought of raising his body into a seated position was almost enough to make him want to hurl. His broken ribs already seemed to grind and crunch with every breath – a fact that would have had Sam twitching and bitching about hospital stays and x-rays if he'd known – so bending and stretching were going to be nothing short of harrowing. "This sucks ass," he spat out on a sharp exhale as he attempted even the tiniest of movements backwards. Sagging back against the mattress, he swore vehemently under his breath. Even the test run had been an epic fail

Waking Sam was out of the question, though Dean was still faintly amazed that the kid hadn't already sensed his big brother's intentions or heard him cursing. If Sam hadn't been as tired as he was, he'd have been on his feet and bitchfacing in two seconds flat. Especially if he'd realised what Dean was planning. But the kid's gas can was past empty, and he needed his rest – not that he'd get much in that ridiculous position – and Dean wasn't about to disrupt it, not for something as trivial as walking across a room. And Sam had already babied him far more than Dean was comfortable with, or was ever allowing again. No, the elder Winchester was sure he could manage just fine. After all, he'd mastered the ability of walking at the age of one, and he'd been doing it unassisted – more or less – ever since.

Right. So why did the distance from bed to bathroom seem to stretch impossibly into the horizon as if he was viewing it through the wrong end of a telescope?

Dean bit his lip in dread, heart fluttering like a caged bird as he placed his hands against the mattress on either side of his body and pushed upwards. Pain lanced through him and he instantly crumbled, managing somehow, to hold back a yelp and avoid alerting Sam to his scheme. "Sonofabitch!" Dean gasped as his lungs shuddered. He collapsed back against the mattress for a brief moment, chest heaving, ribs shifting as he tried to gather his resolve. He could do this. He would do this. He did not need Sam's help.

He didn't.

Gritting his teeth determinedly he pushed up again, holding his breath protectively against the pain that sought to steal it from him. Every muscle straining, he inched his body backwards inch by inch until his shoulders touched the headboard behind him, feeling flesh and bone protesting each movement with crashing, percussive throbs. Allowing his back to slump against the headboard while his energy levels regrouped, Dean fought back a retch as his ribs jarred from the impact. He felt the blood drain from his face as a blizzard of white blew across his vision. It took several minutes for his brain to recover from the static interference, the flickering picture gradually being restored to its normal definition. Despite being almost dizzy with exertion, Dean turned his head and considered his next step. And his heart sank.

Sam.

Sam was lying between the beds, limbs everywhere. Meaning that Dean was going to have to practically climb over him if he had any hope of appeasing his bladder. And given that the damn thing seemed to be continually expanding like a water-balloon, Dean knew he was just going to have to get on with it, and fast. But dammit, even the level of anticipated pain was almost unbearable. Dean sighed again, wanting to stamp his foot and bawl like a disgruntled toddler. But just as quickly, he buried the notion. It wasn't the Winchester way. The elder hunter hadn't been allowed such an indulgence since he'd become an adult at the age of four, and he wasn't about to start now. He'd had worse than this, many times when he hadn't even had anyone to fuss over him or help him. Stubbornly setting his jaw, he examined the terrain before him, trained eyes quickly mapping out a passable route. His pathway meant moving forward again though, to the end of the bed, before he could get to a clear spot. Damn Sam and those stilts he called legs.

Though Dean moved with painstaking care, the agony from his ribs knifed him at every change in position, radiating outwards until his body felt as if it was covered in slices and gouges. He'd closed his eyes at some point along the way, he couldn't remember when, so it came as a surprise when his calves finally slid over the edge of the mattress. Wrenching his eyes open and blinking until the blurry film of pain evaporated from his vision, he assessed his progress. He'd made it, he'd actually made it. But he'd taken so long to accomplish even that small achievement that his bladder now felt like a ticking time bomb seconds from imminent detonation. Clearly he was going to have to hurry things along a little.

He placed his bare feet squarely on the floor, pretending that for once the carpet wasn't harbouring some form of toxic bacteria, and stared at them for a few preparatory seconds, reassuring himself that they would definitely hold his weight. That decided, he took as deep a breath as he could without irritating his ribs and nodded resolutely. Then he stared at his feet a little longer, desperately procrastinating. This was going to be a bitch, and he knew it. But it was always better to just rip off a band-aid, Dean tried to convince himself, no wussing-out, no whining. Sure it always hurt like hell for a few seconds, but better that than a slow burn. If he just launched himself from the bed, the same principle would apply, he was sure of it.

Like, ninety percent sure.

Taking another fortifying breath, Dean ignored the niggling ten percent and levered himself upwards. For a brief moment, everything was wonderful, and he wondered why he'd ever doubted himself. But then seconds later his blood seemed to drain straight to the floor, taking his balance with it. The room suddenly swayed and rolled like a ship on choppy waters, and Dean felt his jellied legs instantly begin to give way. This was a bad idea, he barely had time to think before he felt himself go down.

There was a grunt and a thud and a gasp behind him. "What the–? Dean!" The elder Winchester could hear Sam frantically scrambling to his feet before large hands grabbed his underarms and held on tight, steadying him and easing him back upright. Dean felt himself fall backwards against his brother's chest, Sam's grasp tightening protectively as he took the bulk of Dean's weight. The younger Winchester gingerly shifted his hands to his big brother's shoulders. "Are you alright?"

"Jesus, Sam!" Dean gasped out in affected indignation, trying to cover the pain his antics had caused with a standard joke, but he suspected his strained voice had somewhat ruined the effect. "You know the rules, dude: you want a cuddle, you gotta buy me dinner first!"

"Are you nuts? What the hell do you think you're doing?" Sam ignored the jibe, voice squawking out several octaves higher than usual as he gently but firmly turned Dean round towards him and insistently began nudging him sternly back towards the bed.

Oh, yeah, Sam was in full-on, over-protective mode. Dean attempted to resist his little brother's restraint, frowning as his swatting hands failed to dislodge Sam's authoritative hold. "Well, I think I'm goin' to the bathroom, Sammy. I gotta piss like a racehorse."

Sam's bitchface looked as if it didn't know whether to do disapproval or disgust, so it settled for both. "Dean..." he began, exasperation turning his eyes a deeper brown. "Dude, look at you, you can barely even stand up by yourself, and you've basically been out of it for, like, the past twenty-four hours! Would it have killed you to friggin' wake me up?"

"What're you talkin' about, Sammy?" Dean deflected, trying not to show how much his brother's words had unsettled him. "I'm fine, and I don't need your help to put one foot in front of the other!" Once again Dean tried to bat away his brother's hands, refusing to acknowledge the fact that they were doing a pretty fine job of keeping him upright. But Sam repelled his attempts with frustrating ease.

"Right, of course, how could I have been so stupid? There's nothing wrong with you; you didn't nearly die, you don't have broken ribs, and you aren't beat to hell. That's why I just woke up to the sight of you taking a nosedive, huh?" Sam scowled at him, surging past 'unimpressed' and hurtling towards 'seriously pissed'. His lips had disappeared into his face, making him look as if he'd just sucked a lemon.

Dean opened his mouth to argue back, more because it was a familiar and rote than because he truly believed his own reasoning, but stopped as Sam suddenly tightened his grip even more. Something in the hold made the words evaporate from Dean's lips. The elder Winchester felt the world shrink around him until they were the only ones in it, and he raised his eyes to meet Sam's. The brothers stood contemplating each other in silence for a few beats, both spellbound by some indefinable power. Sam was staring intently at him, the pockmarked frown on his forehead smoothing out as he swallowed thickly. That was never a good sign. "Dean..." the younger man began, breaking the connection as he shifted his gaze towards an unknown spot over Dean's shoulder. "You gotta...I didn't even know if you were going to wake up. You were...I nearly...I thought...You can't just...pretendthat–"

"Alright, alright!" Dean interrupted, easily recognising how upset Sam was from the level of stuttering and stammering. Things were already descending far deeper into chick-flick territory than Dean was comfortable with, so he decided to head his brother off at the pass. "Sam, I get it. I do," he said genuinely with a soft smile, hoping the kid would take the hint and leave it at that. Sam's eyes were gleaming with a suspicious wetness that suggested imminent waterworks, so Dean quickly morphed his smile into a smirk. "But I really gotta go."

Sam flexed his jaw, looking like he wanted to resist the change of subject, but then he relented. He nodded in acquiescence but shot Dean a look that told the elder hunter in no uncertain terms that they weren't done. That they were going to have that 'conversation' whether Dean liked it or not. Awesome, Dean grumbled to himself as Sam shifted his hold so that he was supporting more of his big brother's weight.

"You ready?" Sam asked encouragingly and Dean bit his lip to prevent the irritated response that sprang instantly to his lips. I'm not friggin' five! He grouched internally, but outwardly he merely nodded and they moved forward as one, their pace averaging at somewhere between snail and slug. But Dean was finding even that too fast for his battered body. Not that he was about to admit it to his little brother, the fact that Sam was practically carrying him already more than his dented pride could take.

Dean felt himself stumble slightly as they neared the bathroom door, his legs trembling as they tried to keep holding his weight. He caught his breath sharply as his ribs grated together. Sam immediately grasped him more firmly, halting them both as he peered down at Dean in concern. "You okay?"

"Peachy," Dean grunted in response, refusing to meet Sam's probing gaze. He heard the kid's soft huff of frustration but mercifully Sam didn't call him on his sarcasm.

They started forward again, Sam setting the pace more slowly this time. Dean wanted to protest – hell, his bladder was shouting loudly enough for the both of them – but the journey across the room had taken more from him than he wanted to concede. When they reached the doorway of the cupboard-sized bathroom, Dean laid a shaky hand on the chipped wooden frame, preventing them from going any further. "And that's as far as you go, Sammy," he announced, his breathlessness making the words sound far less authoritative than he'd intended.

Sam, of course, was having none of it. He swivelled so that he was blocking the entrance, staring Dean down, his hands switching places until they were clutching at the older man's shoulders; holding Dean back as well as keeping him vertical. "But Dean, you can barely even–"

Dean clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes, more than confident that he could out-stare his little brother. He'd had plenty of practice, and Sam's level of exasperation meant that the big-gun effect of the kid's puppy-dog eyes was greatly diminished. "Didn't know you were such a voyeur, Sammy!"

"And I didn't know you even knew what that word meant!" Sam snarked back.

"Shut-up!" Dean hissed back before squaring his shoulders and raising his chin defiantly. "I think I can manage this, Sam. I'm the one who potty-trained you, remember?"

"No, I don't. Thank god!" Sam responded with an expression of deepest disgust, but it was followed almost instantly by an unwillingly amused smile.

The tension easily defused, the two men shared a look filled with veiled affection before Sam reluctantly removed his hands from Dean's shoulders and stepped aside.

"Don't even think about locking that door, Dean," Sam warned sternly as the elder Winchester moved past him.

"Bite me!" Was all he got in response before Dean closed the door firmly behind him.

o0o0o

Sam bit his lip and hovered close to the bathroom door, listening worriedly for any sign or sound that his big brother's balance had faltered once more. But Dean's hearing didn't seem to have suffered as a result of his ordeal – or the sixth sense that he seemed to have when it came to his little brother – and he loudly and irritatedly ordered Sam to go and get his kicks somewhere else. Wrestling with his concern, Sam's desire to give his brother some much needed privacy won out and he paced back across the room towards the small, round table. In a fit of frustration he threw himself down onto one of the chairs, windmilling his arms madly as it tipped backwards and wincing as his lower back took the brunt of the impact.

Righting the chair at the last second, Sam ruefully rubbed the sore spot on his back and leaned forward, eyes on the closed door across the room. It stared impassively back. Taunting him. Lip twitching, he glowered at it, wondering if he was bitchfacing a piece of wood or the brother that stood beyond it.

His gaze abruptly snapped to the occupied bed as Bobby let out a soft chuckle. Sam hadn't even realised his old friend had been awake. The older man was sitting up and shoving aside the quilt with a stiff, creaky swipe. He moved like a wind-up toy that had just run out of juice. "That was real smooth, Sam," The elder hunter commented dryly with a slow shake of his head, eyes twinkling in amusement.

Sam bounced his eyebrows wryly and flashed a brief, self-deprecating smile as he snorted in acknowledgement. "So you're awake, huh?" He asked redundantly.

"Kinda hard to sleep with you two ladies yammerin' away," Bobby's sarcastic response was punctuated mid-way through by an enormous yawn. Despite the hours of catch-up sleep they'd both had, the older man still looked grey and bedraggled, his clothes rumpled and hanging limply from his frame.

Sam studied his old friend and felt a pang of guilt, forehead crinkling as he lowered his voice. "Sorry, Bobby."

But the veteran hunter merely batted his apology away with an unconcerned wave and got to his feet with a groan. Sam could practically feel the kinks ironing out as he watched his friend stretch out his limbs. "How's he doin' anyway?" Bobby asked as he moved slowly to join Sam at the table, lowering himself down onto the remaining chair with considerably more care than the younger Winchester had, punctuating the manoeuvre with a loud exhale.

Sam's attention had returned to the bathroom, but he glanced at his old friend out of the corner of his eye. "He's back to his old self alright," the younger Winchester muttered, surprised at how frustrated he sounded. He knew he ought to be pleased, but could already feel irritation beginning to simmer and hiss in the background. Dean's insistence on doing everything himself was hardly unexpected, but it was infuriating nonetheless. But then he reminded himself of how he'd prayed for his big brother's bullheadedness when Dean had been as pliant and mouldable as a posable doll. How could Sam really complain?

Because he was worried still. Because days of anxiety and fear and guilt and exhaustion didn't just vanish at the opening of an eye. Dammit, couldn't Dean just let himself be taken care of?

"Have you told 'im what happened?" Bobby's question caught Sam off guard, interrupting the younger Winchester's internal calculation about how long Dean should have been taking in the bathroom, and he dragged his gaze away from the still-closed door to give the older man an assessing look.

"No," Sam answered shortly, beginning to turn away when Bobby again latched onto his drifting attention.

"But you are gonna tell 'im?"

This time Sam twisted his body around more fully so that he was directly facing the elder hunter. Bobby's expression was shrewd as he examined Sam's features, his eyes steady as they held the younger man in place. Sam tried to meet his friend's stare, but something stirring beneath the surface of Bobby's gaze sent his eyes shying away. Looking for an out, he focussed instead on the wide gouge that scarred the table surface, wondering vaguely how it had gotten there as he tried to sift through the emotions Bobby's question had scattered. Just what exactly was he going to tell Dean? Sam took a deep breath, eyes still digging at the groove on the table surface. "Of course I'm going to tell him. Bobby–"

"Tell me what?" Dean's still-scratchy voice suddenly rang out, startling Sam and sending him reflexively to his feet. The younger Winchester couldn't believe he'd missed the sound of the door opening, and he mentally kicked himself for his blunder. It figured that Dean would pick that precise moment to make an appearance.

Once upright, the younger hunter whirled on the spot to see his big brother leaning heavily on the bathroom's door-frame, one arm clutched protectively across his ribs, swaying precariously as he stared suspiciously at Sam from beneath hooded lids.

"Dean!" Sam had crossed the room in four strides, hands already outstretched to grasp supportively at Dean's shoulders before he even realised he'd moved. The elder Winchester had paled considerably and Sam could see tiny beads of perspiration beginning to bloom across his forehead. "You alright?"

But Dean quickly batted away the assistance, features stormy as he scanned Sam's face. What he was looking for, Sam wasn't sure, but he knew his brother wouldn't get anything other than concern. "Tell me what, Sam?" Dean repeated, voice gaining in intensity even as he trembled slightly on the spot, sending his little brother's worry shooting ever higher. Sam took an instinctive step closer but stopped when Dean removed the arm from his midriff and held up his palm defensively. "Sam?" He demanded again.

Sam frowned at his brother for a moment, wondering at the depth of the suspicion he saw reflected in the elder Winchester's expression. How much did Dean know already? How much had he remembered? Not that any of that mattered as long as his brother was still obstinately trying to remain upright when he looked as if he would concertina to the floor within seconds. "Dean..." Sam began, and then paused as he huffed out an agitated breath, his shoulders sloping dejectedly. "Can we not do this right now? C'mon, let's get you back to bed before you fall on your face. Even you couldn't pull off the carpet-burn look, dude," the younger Winchester determinedly ignored Dean's swatting hand and slipped an arm around his brother's back, beginning to ease him forwards out of the doorway.

But Dean had put down roots. "Sam..." he warned dangerously, but the intimidation he'd clearly been aiming for was sadly ruined by the grimace that suddenly contorted his features. "Ugghh!" He groaned sharply, beginning to bend slightly at the waist, his free arm immediately moving to brace his ribs.

"Okay, enough!" Sam's concern hit tipping point and he decided there and then that there would be no more humouring, no further indulgence of his brother's requests. Dean needed to be horizontal and he needed another dose of painkillers. Anything less would not be tolerated.

But maybe a small incentive wouldn't go amiss either. "If you go back to bed now, then I'll tell you, I promise."

Dean eyed him warily for a moment, seeming to weigh up his options. "Alright, fine," he conceded after several long seconds, which Sam thought probably had more to do with the fact that his legs looked to be threatening imminent collapse rather than anything his little brother had to offer. The younger Winchester nodded briskly, trying not to let his triumph show. The scowl Dean shot him moments later told him he'd failed on a spectacular scale. Easily deflecting the hurled daggers, Sam carefully arranged himself so that he was taking more of Dean's weight, more even than he had during their initial journey. He wasn't happy with the way his brother was quivering from top to toe, and wanted nothing more than to get Dean comfortable and off his feet. The elder Winchester was determined to resist the closeness every step of the way however, and Sam knew that his brother was barely tolerating the assistance. Painstakingly, they inched their way back across the room, Dean's breathing becoming more laboured with every step.

"Hey Bobby!" Dean seemed to brighten as he finally acknowledged the older man, smiling at him as if he'd only just realised Bobby was in the room.

The elder hunter shot him a warm smile, genuine affection radiating palpably from him even as he greeted the elder Winchester with characteristic deadpan. "Good to see ya up and around, son. So, your cereal box still fulla fruit loops or what?"

Sam winced and felt himself stiffen, knew Dean had felt it too, the effect passing between them in a chain reaction as the elder Winchester suddenly tensed beside him. "Bobby!" The younger Winchester hissed in reprimand, but Dean was already speaking, sounding as if a hunch had been confirmed.

"I'm guessin' I got hit by the crazy stick, huh?" Dean's voice was as wobbly as his legs as Sam silently urged him onwards towards the bed.

Sam hurled Bobby a disapproving bitchface as the two brothers finally arrived at Dean's bed. "Dean..." the younger Winchester murmured reluctantly, easing his big brother around so that his back was to the mattress.

"That's it though, isn't it?" Dean continued, his tone flat and muted. And Sam wasn't quite sure what to make of that.

The elder Winchester said nothing more as Sam gently helped him to lower himself back down onto the bed, but the younger man could still feel the tremors that wracked Dean's body; evidence of how much his big brother was trying to keep at bay, both physical and emotional. "Isn't it?" Dean repeated on a shuddering exhale, and Sam could tell from the tightening skin around his eyes that his big brother was grimacing through another spasm of pain.

"Okay, yes. You got infected!" Sam blurted impatiently, concern increasing with every passing second. He slipped a hand behind Dean's back and guided him as the elder Winchester shuffled further back onto the bed.

"How bad was it?" Dean demanded, his cheeks beginning to pinken from exertion...and something else Sam didn't want to think about. The younger Winchester wasn't entirely comfortable with that, but it still beat the ghostly pallor Dean had been wearing for the past few days, even if humiliation and shame were at its core. "Sam?" Dean asked again when Sam continued to chew the insides of his cheeks in silent procrastination, and resisted when his little brother tried to push him down flat.

Sam glanced helplessly at Bobby, who merely shrugged in response. Thanks for that, Sam grumbled internally. He tried again to get his big brother to lie flat, nostrils flaring angrily as he realised that Dean was prepared to compromise his health even further out of pure stubbornness. He had to be in agony, and yet he was forcing himself to stay upright. Sam bit his lip, wondering how to approach his answer. He thought about everything that had happened: Dean losing the ability to drive the Impala, nearly killing them both; his big brother crying out his pain over their father's death; the way he'd found Dean in that doorway, battered and bruised; the kidnapping...Dean killing Jud. Sam killing Fiona.

It was too much.

He couldn't do it. He just couldn't. There was no way he could tell his brother how bad it had really been. Dean would be mortified if he knew, if he realised how much of his innermost thoughts and emotions he'd revealed. He'd be devastated. Sam knew he would do anything to spare his big brother that, even if it meant shouldering the knowledge – the guilt and recrimination – alone. Dean didn't need to know something that would only hurt him, torment him. The elder Winchester was too fragile for that, and Sam knew there and then that all he wanted to do was protect his brother. Sam had learned lessons from this, lessons that he wanted to put into practice. But they were his lessons, and there was no purpose to be served by telling Dean something that would only...

Damn.

And then the penny finally, really and truly dropped.

He told me I might have to kill you. The words echoed loudly in Sam's head, taking him back to that evening in Oregon, Dean gazing at him with an anguish that looked to be ripping him in two. He told me I might have to kill you, Sammy. Realisation began to gather within him like rolling thunderclouds, blocking out all other thought. How could you not have told me this? Take some responsibility for yourself Dean, you had no right to keep this from me! Sam got it now. Jesus, he got it. And being on the other side of the coin toss? It sucked. It was crippling. And it hurt like hell.

He knew the situations were different, knew that the implications could never be truly compared, but he understood why his brother had kept their father's secret now more than he ever had before. How could he blame Dean for that when he was about to do the same thing?

Shaky from the adrenaline rush of his epiphany, Sam almost forgot what his brother had asked just moments before. Scrabbling around for a band-aid answer that would buy him some time, he responded with a stilted joke. "It wasn't that bad, Dean. Apart from the time you stripped off all your clothes and decided to take a stroll downtown, nothing much happened."

Dean merely blinked back, unimpressed.

The two men locked eyes in a silent battle of wills for what seemed like an eternity before Bobby interjected with a loud throat clear. "Well I think I'll let you two get all caught up. I'm gonna go grab a shower."

Neither Winchester so much as twitched.

"Oh, and try not to kill each other while I'm gone," the older man ordered with mock sternness, though Sam could detect more than a hint of irritation. It was enough to snap him out of the unacknowledged staring contest he'd been having with Dean. He barely noticed the curt closing of the bathroom door as he dropped down onto the bed beside Dean, removing his hands from his brother's shoulders to begin picking and fiddling with his fingers as they rested on his lap.

"Dean," he sighed for the umpteenth time when he realised that his brother was still watching him steadily, feeling like a harried parent trying to put a child to bed, "can you just lie down? You need to keep those ribs steady and you need to take your meds."

"Not until you tell me what I wanna know," Dean's response was about as malleable as an iron rod and Sam felt the frustration build up in his chest until he wanted to scream.

But he settled for stern instead. "Don't be stupid, Dean! You can't keep sitting up like that, I can see how much pain you're in."

"I'm fine," Dean dismissed the concern and raised his chin determinedly, putting the mask firmly in place even as his body continued to tremble. But after a ten second stand-off he conceded defeat and began to lower himself downwards, shooting Sam a warning glance as the younger Winchester moved to assist him. "My arms were goin' to sleep," he explained to Sam, as if that was the reason he'd given in.

"Yeah, sure they were," Sam muttered sarcastically even though he was secretly pleased that Dean was finally where he should be. He watched fretfully as Dean settled himself, lips thinning at the cavalcade of winces that trooped across his brother's face. Sam knew he ought to be pushing the painkillers, but this was Dean, and the younger Winchester also knew that picking battles with his big brother could be as painstaking as a hostage negotiation. He'd have to keep that one on the back burner for now.

Once the elder Winchester looked as comfortable as he was going to get without pharmaceutical assistance, Sam bit his lip, taking a moment to build his courage before asking the question he dreaded being answered. Dean wasn't going to rest until they'd had the conversation. "So...what's the last thing you remember?"

"Uh...I um..." Dean was looking abruptly abashed as he flicked his gaze towards the ceiling, avoiding Sam's eyes as his Adam's apple convulsed uneasily. "I couldn't leave that hunt alone, Sam. I just couldn't. When I went to the hospital and I saw those people..." He broke off, shifting to look at Sam again, regret shining in his eyes.

"I know," Sam nodded, no censure in his response. He got it. None of that mattered anymore, not when Dean was alive and safe. "It's okay."

Dean pursed his lips and glanced away again, this time staring at a point somewhere past Sam's arm. "No, it's not. I shoulda told you...I'm sorry." He sounded wretched and miserable, and it cut Sam right to the core.

"For what, Dean?" Sam flapped his arms earnestly. He'd forgiven Dean for that a long time ago, knew he had his own mistakes to face up to. "For trying to save those people?" He shook his head, falling silent for a moment as he searched for the words he wanted to say. His brother never normally wanted to talk like this, usually running a mile when he spied any hint of an apology on the horizon, but dammit, Sam was going to take advantage of it this time. There were things that needed to be said. "Dean...I'm sorry too. I was too caught up in my own crap, too focussed on trying to find Ava–"

"Ava? Did you find her?" Dean cut across him, completely ignoring Sam's apology and ruthlessly honing in on yet another topic the younger Winchester hadn't wanted to go anywhere near.

Sam shook his head slowly, knowing where this was going to go and feeling powerless to stop it. "Not yet. I kind of got a little...sidetracked."

Dean snorted in self-recrimination, eyes cowering away from Sam's. "Because of me." It wasn't a question.

The younger Winchester straightened authoritatively, determined that Dean wasn't going to blame himself this time. "Yeah because of you, you jerk! You think I regret that?" He sputtered incredulously. The extent of his brother's self-loathing never failed to astound him, or break his heart. And Sam knew the stunt he'd pulled in Oregon hadn't done much to help that, or the way he'd behaved when they'd arrived in Peoria. But that was all going to change.

"I'm sorry, Sammy. You probably woulda found her by now if it wasn't for me," Dean was continuing dejectedly, still refusing to connect with his little brother. Yet another thing Sam planned to change. Right now.

Sam reached out and grasped his brother's shoulder, squeezing gently until the older man finally turned to look at him again, albeit unwillingly. The elder Winchester's features were stricken as he stared up at Sam. "Dean, stop," the younger man ordered gently, a fond smile curving at his lips, "you really think Ava means more to me than you do?"

Dean's eyes shot away so quickly they almost left a cloud of dust in the air, and he cleared his throat to fill the awkward silence that had erupted between them. The younger Winchester would have chuckled at Dean's characteristic display if he hadn't been so horrified that his brother believed he was worth less than a girl Sam had barely known for twenty-four hours. He opened his mouth to drive home his point when Dean began speaking.

"So, the last thing I remember..." Dean picked up Sam's earlier question as if the past five minutes had been erased from memory. "I'm guessin' you found my research?" At Sam's stiff nod he continued. "I went to check out that old care home, see if I could find anything hinky. I remember walkin' inside, and then...that's about it. I musta blacked out." He looked at Sam and raised his eyebrows. "Did you find me?"

"No," Sam muttered darkly, thinking of those frightening few hours when he'd assumed the worst. "You were missing for a couple hours and then you turned up back at the motel. That was when you started acting a little weird. It wasn't long after that that I figured something was up. Did some digging." Understatement. But Sam was sticking with his planned censorship.

"What did you find?"

Sam let his eyelids flutter closed for the briefest of moments before taking a deep breath. This was going to be a lot harder than he'd originally thought. How had Dean kept this up for so many months? "Uh...Long story short: we were dealing with a bunch of creatures called Maniae–"

"Mani-what?" Dean sounded utterly nonplussed as he frowned up at Sam.

"Maniae," Sam repeated patiently. "Apparently they're Greek...spirits of madness."

"Oh." Dean was looking put-out as he considered this. As if it wasn't quite as badass as he'd been hoping for. Or maybe he'd just finally mastered the embarrassment that had coloured his cheeks earlier.

Hoping for the former but sure he was seeing the latter, Sam hastened onwards with his explanation. "Yeah, it was Bobby who figured it out. They uh, feed on memories, thoughts, stuff like that." Nice and vague.

"And what, they just decided to make me their entrée? And why didn't they just infect everyone?" Sam should have known that vague wouldn't cut it where Dean was concerned.

"I don't know, Dean!" The younger Winchester blurted in exasperation. Why couldn't his brother just leave well alone? "We just figured out what they were and got rid of them. End of."

"Bull." Because it was Dean. "What aren't you tellin' me?" Sam's big brother had been punching holes in his lies since the younger Winchester had been old enough to talk. Why should now be any different? "And how did you get all those bruises, huh?"

"Look Dean, it's nothing, alright? It's over. They're gone. You're okay. I'm okay. Why do we need to go over the fine print?"

"Because I need to know what happened."

"Nothing happened. You just went a little loopy for a while there. Got a whole lot of blackmail material, dude. You're going to be doing my laundry for the next ten years." Sam aimed for a light-hearted smile but fell short of his mark as he saw Dean's pallor go granite grey, the still blooming bruises seeming to brighten sharply in contrast. Worried that renewed pain was the culprit, Sam leaned forward. "Hey, you okay?" He reached out a hand, only to withdraw it halfway when Dean turned his face away.

There was a moment of claustrophobic silence before the elder Winchester spoke, his tone hesitant and quiet as he continued to avert his eyes, dropping his pupils to begin tracing the orange and brown blobs on his bedcover. Sam hid a wince as the image suddenly unearthed memories he'd rather have left buried. "Sam...I saw those people. Talked to 'em. They were sayin' some pretty crazy crap..."

Sam felt his heart go rigid as his brother faltered. "Dean–"

"Did I...say anything I shouldn't have?" Dean pulled his gaze up and skewered Sam with the heat in their depths. The younger Winchester stared back, trying to project an image of calm while chaos reigned within. Dean suddenly looked very small and pale below him, looking at him with a trust Sam knew only too well how hard it was for the older man to give, even to his little brother. But the memory of what Dean had said – about him, about their father...it was too potent to let the truth spill from his lips.

"No," Sam shook his head carefully, tension coiling in his muscles as he waited for his subterfuge to again be found out. "Nothing more than you usually come out with when you're high on pain meds. I promise."

"Well, that's reassuring." Sam couldn't quite tell if his brother believed him or if he was just being sarcastic; they both knew that Dean's lips had a propensity to be somewhat loosened when he was under morphine's influence. Sam had once recorded a whole hour's worth of his brother's ramblings after Dean had badly dislocated his shoulder, gleefully playing back the recording in its entirety when the elder Winchester was more lucid. Dean had done impressions of everyone from Bobby to Sam's longest serving sixth grade teacher, he'd waxed lyrical about a pie shop he'd discovered somewhere in the bowels of Wisconsin (I'm tellin' you, Sammy, it was like the Casa Erotica of pie!) and he'd taken it upon himself to give his little brother a sermon in how to pick up women in bars, because Sam needed all the help he could get. That last one Dean hadn't minded so much when he'd heard it back, telling the younger man he should keep it for personal reference.

If Dean genuinely doubted Sam's claim, he didn't call his little brother on it. To the younger hunter's relief; a euphoric rush that ended about as quickly as it had begun when he saw a flood of pain cascade down his big brother's features, Dean's eyes screwing shut and his jaw clenching as he rode out another spasm.

"You okay?" Sam demanded, brows colliding in concern.

"Yeah," Dean grunted through gritted teeth, not even putting any real effort into the ruse this time. Which was never a good sign.

"Okay, that's it. I'm getting you some more pain pills," Sam announced and rose from the bed, ignoring the elder Winchester's protest as he strode over to the room's kitchenette and briskly reached for a glass.

"I'm fine, Sam!" Dean insisted, his voice cracking and crumbling as he started trying to push himself up. "I don't wanna go back to sleep, dude. All I've done is friggin' sleep!" He whined, sounding for all the world like a wailing child.

"Stay put," Sam ordered sternly, twisting round to nail his brother with a commanding glare. "You need to rest, Dean." He huffed out an exasperated breath when the elder hunter merely pouted in response, unknowingly reinforcing his already childlike persona. "Okay, look. I'll ask Bobby to go get some takeout and I'll wake you up when it gets here."

"You'd better," Dean went for threatening but ended up sounding like a sullen teen. Well at least he was maturing, Sam thought, hiding a smile despite himself. Sort of.

Sam turned back to the bottle of pills that sat on the counter. Quickly, he filled a glass and shook out a couple of pills before padding back across the room and returning to his position on the edge of Dean's mattress. He'd been about to set the water down on the nightstand when Dean made an emphatic gimme gesture with his fingers. Remembering the way he'd had to help his brother the night before, and easily recalling how humiliated Dean had looked, Sam decided not to challenge the demand, reminding himself again that he was picking his battles. Dean was doing what he was told, something that was too much of a rarity to risk ruining, so Sam dutifully handed him the glass. He fretted slightly as Dean eased himself upwards to transfer the glass to his injured hand before gesturing for the pills with the other.

Within seconds Dean was glassy-eyed and languid, and by the time Bobby emerged from the bathroom he was snoring softly.

o0o0o

The next time Dean woke up, he woke up fighting.

Shadowy flickers of violence and pain had haunted his dreams; the feeling of being restrained, lost, tormented. A low, scratchy voice had wheezed into his ear while the world dissolved around him. There had been terror, confusion. A wild, devastating grief.

So when Sam had gently patted him on the shoulder to wake him up as the kid had promised he would, Dean had come off the bed in a wailing, spitting, frenzy of fists. Only to jackknife straight back down again when his broken ribs nearly carved him in two. Sam had clearly been torn between outright censure and hovering concern, the younger man realising that Dean had erupted from a nightmare but still disapproving of his big brother's ill-advised contortions. Sam had fussed and scolded like it was going out of fashion – which it was as far as Dean was concerned – bitchface and puppy-dog eyes somehow merging into something the elder Winchester didn't know whether to laugh at or cower from.

The images and surround-sound effects from the dream had seemed to cling to the periphery of his mind like cobwebs, snagging his attention every so often as Sam grumbled and bitched. Dean hadn't quite known what to make of them; they felt like memories, and yet he didn't feel any connection to them. It didn't seem like they had come from his eyes and ears. Nevertheless, they had troubled him, and made him think of the conversation he'd had with Sam earlier. He didn't know how much of the truth his little brother had been telling him, wasn't entirely sure now that he even wanted to know. But this was Sam. This was Dean's brother. The man who, just days earlier, had reamed Dean out for not being truthful, for not revealing what their father had said. Who had friggin' taken off and left his big brother behind because he'd been so pissed. No, Sam wouldn't be that hypocritical...

He hoped that was true even as he acknowledged to himself just how flimsy the kid's story had been. Dean knew all about the desire to protect, even if its sudden development in Sam felt strange and unnatural. Or maybe Sam was trying to protect himself as much as he was his big brother, and that was something Dean could live with. Mostly.

Dean had shrugged off the thought, deciding that he would go with the tried and true method of burying any and all unwanted emotions, and easily deflected all of Sam's worried questions. Nose catching the scent of something meaty and dripping with grease, the elder Winchester had loudly and dramatically announced that he was starving, neatly cutting across any further mother-henning that Sam might have had planned. Bobby had returned with takeout of the artery-clogging variety – the kind that Dean loved best – and with news of the few remaining live victims of the Maniae.

The elder Winchester had tensed at that, feeling the burger start to congeal nauseatingly in the pit of his stomach as he'd waited for the verdict. He could easily picture the way Jennifer Lawrence had wafted towards him in the hospital corridor, could easily recall the sound of Hailey Meier's monotone voice passively reciting the alphabet. The thought of them and the others dying while he had survived had been almost more than he could handle. But to his relief, they had apparently all made a full recovery. Their miraculous return to normal had caused something of a media storm, and Bobby had described a great many newspaper articles featuring glowing pictures of the victims alongside shots of the baffled, defensive medical staff. He'd tossed the elder Winchester one of the local papers he'd picked up, and Dean had had to swallow back an enormous guffaw – in deference to his ribs – at the front-page picture of a flustered, red-faced Doctor Phelps hurrying from the hospital entrance. It wasn't quite the Tribune, but Dean thought it somehow fitting that the supercilious neurologist had eventually gotten his wish for media stardom.

Recalling his visit to the hospital once more, Dean had shied away from anything approaching heartfelt, staying to the safer outskirts as he mused out loud about the young, buxom, orange secretary there...Poppy, Penny...

Polly, Sam had supplied sheepishly, fiddling awkwardly with his fingers as he'd informed Dean that his brother was unlikely to get a date after the younger Winchester had unceremoniously hung up on her a few days ago. Dean had merely shrugged internally: you win some, you lose some. There were plenty more women out there, and really, he knew he didn't have a hope of getting any action until his ribs had healed – mostly because Sam was unlikely to let him go anywhere unsupervised for a good long while. Aloud however, he'd taken the opportunity to tease his brother mercilessly for being a total amateur when it came to charming women. The kid had taken it well, though Dean had seen something dark flit across his brother's features; something he wasn't going anywhere near.

Because he knew that look, and it never meant anything good.

Though Dean had been happy to hear that the others had recovered, he couldn't help regretting the way things had gone down before he'd gotten sick. He'd lied to Sam, had gone behind his little brother's back after he'd promised he'd support the kid in the search for Ava. No matter how well-meaning his reasons, nor how much Sam told him it was okay, he'd still been wrong to do that. He and Sam, they had to stick together. Apart from the precious few others they allowed into their lives, they had only each other. And when push came to shove...when push had shoved, it had been them against the world. And that was the way it was going to be from now on.

As long as that was what Sam wanted, he corrected himself uncertainly, a pain that was all too familiar – and non-physical – twinging uncomfortably as he remembered waking to an empty room back in Oregon.

Returning to the present, Dean shook himself slightly as he watched Bobby slap his thighs with finality and rise from his seat. "Well, now you two idgits are back to your normal selves, I got another ass to go pull outta the fire down in New Mexico," he paused, seemingly for dramatic effect before continuing, "I'll be a couple days away, boys, so if you could keep your asses outta trouble for, oh, let's start with a week..." He left the last few words hanging, eyes glinting with a seriousness that stood at odds with the gruff amusement in his tone. The older man looked first at Sam, exchanging a wordless sentiment Dean couldn't hope to decipher, and then at the elder Winchester.

Dean, who had been preparing a sarcastic comeback, felt the jibe dissipate from his mind as the depth of the affection in his old friend's eyes punched him solidly in the solar plexus. He'd known it had been bad, what had happened to him; Sam's constant fretting had been as big a clue as any, but then the kid could be such a drama queen sometimes. If he'd ever doubted how close it had been however, Bobby's expression erased any lingering denial instantly. They stared at each other for a brief moment that nevertheless felt like an eternity, their gazes tussling over something indefinable before Sam loudly interrupted.

"Well, Dean's not gonna be going anywhere for at least that long..." The younger Winchester eyeballed him sternly. It wasn't even a threat, it was a promise.

Bitch, Dean thought, and not affectionately this time. "Don't I get a say in this?" He demanded, wincing when it came out sounding more like a petulant whine. Dammit he needed to get his mojo back or he was going to lose all credibility.

"No!" Sam and Bobby tossed back simultaneously, twin glares beaming back at him with a synchronicity that had to have been practised. Annoyed at their tag-team response, Dean clenched his jaw and went for the best bitchface he could muster, but it rebounded off the two men like a fly bouncing against a windowpane.

Bobby just shook his head, chuckled and looked at Sam. "Good luck," he offered sceptically before tossing Dean an easy wave and turning towards the door.

Momentarily forgetting that he was supposed to be in the midst of a hissy fit, Dean called out softly. "Hey, Bobby!" When the veteran hunter pivoted to face him, the light shining in through the open doorway giving his silhouette an almost ethereal quality, Dean cleared his throat awkwardly, settled his eyes on a point just above the veteran hunter's cap and mumbled out a quick "thanks". He ignored Sam's knowing smile, and Bobby's suddenly warm expression, and dropped his gaze to begin picking at the bandage around his wrist.

"I got a whole truck load o' parts needin' looked at back at the yard. Guess I just got myself a volunteer," Bobby accepted the apology with typical pragmatism, though the smirk playing at the corners of his lips told Dean that his surrogate uncle was definitely going to milk that one for all it was worth.

The elder Winchester felt his discomfort disappear as he rolled his eyes in mock exasperation before shooting Bobby a cocky grin and waving the older man on his way.

When the door clicked closed, Sam leapt up from his chair as though it had suddenly sprouted spikes. Dean shot him an amused glance, before realising that his brother was still firmly in hovering mode. And heading his way. "How you holding up, dude? You okay? You need anymore pain meds?"

"Sam, enough with the Clara Barton routine already!" Dean complained as the younger Winchester reached his bedside and made to sit down. "I'm fine." Sam made it halfway down before the elder hunter sent him a warning glare and then gestured to the other bed. "Personal space, dude!" The younger man pursed his lips in dissatisfaction but nevertheless obeyed the command, thudding heavily down onto the mattress Bobby had vacated earlier with an exasperated sigh.

Dean raised his eyebrows in faint disbelief at the victory, feeling the triumph resonate hollowly as a seismic rumble of pain spread through his body. He did need more painkillers, but he wasn't about to tell his little brother that. Heck he'd only just managed to get Sam to give him some room to breathe. He looked at the closed door, Bobby's departure feeling like an ending of some sort, and then back at his brother, studying him. There were taut lines around Sam's eyes, hardening the planes of his cheeks as he swallowed and chewed his bottom lip. "You alright?" Dean asked softly, realising again that he was not the only one who had suffered.

"What?" Sam looked up, surprised at the question. "Yeah," he answered just a little too quickly, eyes bouncing off Dean's and spinning off around the room. "It's just..." he trailed off hesitantly, returning his gaze to his brother. "What happened to you, it made me do some thinking..."

Oh that can't be good, Dean groaned internally. "C'mon, Sam! What have I told you about doin' that?" He chided with an affected levity that was about as convincing as it was sincere.

"Dean, just hear me out!" The younger man began leaning forward earnestly, features growing urgent. "Look, about what happened before–"

'Before' could have meant any number of crappy things that were best left in the past, but somehow Dean thought he knew where this was heading. He sighed heavily, ignoring the pull on his ribs, and leapt in to interrupt. "Sam, I thought we were past this. What dad said–"

"What?" The younger Winchester was looking genuinely nonplussed at his big brother's response before finally seeming to realise what Dean had meant. "No, this isn't about what dad said...well, not exactly anyway."

Now it was Dean's turn to look perplexed. "Then what?" He stared, wide-eyed at his brother, trying to figure out what the hell had gotten the kid's panties in a knot if it wasn't their father's cryptic warning.

"Look, Dean..." Sam began and then broke off, taking a deep breath as though to gather strength. Dean watched him closely, concerned.

"Sammy, you alright?" He repeated his earlier question, worry spiking when his brother didn't immediately respond.

Sam wasn't looking at him when he started speaking again, as if connecting with Dean would stop him from saying what he needed to. "When I took off on you, it wasn't about being pissed. Not really. I mean, I was. Pissed, I mean. But–"

Okay, left field...Dean tented his brows in confusion. Where the hell had that come from? He swallowed the lump that had suddenly risen in the back of his throat. He really didn't want to bring all that crap up again. The last time they'd spoken about it they'd nearly come to blows. "Sam, what the hell are you talkin' about?" He feigned ignorance as his traitorous heart began pounding erratically.

Silence ticked back and forth for a few seconds, Dean beginning to worry at the edges of his bandage again as he waited for Sam to speak.

"Quit picking at that, Dean!" The younger man scolded softly as he reached out a hand to swat at Dean's. When the elder Winchester desisted and turned to look at him, feeling all kinds of awkward, Sam cleared his throat and picked up the earlier thread of their conversation. "I needed to know what was going to happen to me – still do – and I thought you were gonna try to stop me." So they were back to that again. Awesome. "And...I wanted to make sure that you weren't gonna get caught in the crossfire of whatever my destiny means. I couldn't deal with–I couldn't handle–"

What? Dean felt his thoughts go into a tailspin. Sam thought he had been protecting him? From what? Surely he wasn't still harbouring worries that he was going to hurt his big brother..."That's not gonna happen!" The elder Winchester argued vehemently. Why didn't Sam understand? "It's why I didn't wanna tell you in the first place, man."

He hated the way his voice cracked on the last word; hated his brother's sad smile. "I get it, Dean. I do. But you don't know that," he said gently, addressing Dean as if he was a trauma victim. "You can't know that. But I need to find out. And I meant what I said back in Lafayette..." He paused for a beat before spearing Dean with the intensity in his eyes. "I really need you with me on this."

The elder hunter puffed out an agitated breath, cocking his head at Sam as he considered his answer. "I ever give you the impression I wasn't gonna be around to back you up?"

There was a shallow sigh, a quick jerk of the head. "No, that was all me, going it alone." There was regret there, deeper than Dean had imagined or expected, and it threw him. Sam heaved in a gulp of air and glanced away for a moment before turning back. "Dean, I'm sorry I took off on you."

"Sammy..." Dean groaned, feeling all kinds of unwanted emotions spark into life, jolted awake by Sam's defibrillator revelation. He couldn't have put into words what he'd felt when he'd realised his brother had ditched him, years' worth of fears and wounds utterly disabling him until he'd had to pull it all together to go chasing after Sam. He hadn't even known if his little brother would want to see him. To hear Sam's apology should have meant everything, but somehow it still hurt.

"No, I mean it," Sam's voice had grown in strength and vehemence. And determination. "I was wrong to walk out, we need to have each others' backs, man. I mean, Dean you almost died, and I was so distracted that I didn't see it until it was nearly too late." The younger man was almost visibly shaking as he took another shuddering breath. "We need to stick together, Dean. Alone we get shot at, kidnapped, sick..."

Dean didn't quite know what to do with that. It was everything he'd ever wanted to hear from his brother; an assurance that he wouldn't be alone, that Sam actually wanted to stay. But hadn't he heard it all before? He wanted to believe it, wanted to believe it more than he wanted to listen to the lingering doubts. But actions spoke louder than words. "Didn't know you were so romantic, Sammy!" He deflected distractedly, thoughts still whirling.

Yes, actions did speak louder than words. And Sam had dropped everything to save his life, more times now than Dean could keep track of. All of those moments had to mean more than the few times his brother had abandoned him.

"Dammit Dean, would you be serious for a second!" The bitchface was back in full force.

Of course they did. The past few days ought to have told him that more than anything else. "I dunno what you want me to say, Sammy," he said solemnly, "I'm not plannin' on goin' anywhere."

Sam met his gaze head on, heat blazing from his eyes. "Me neither."

There was a long, pregnant pause as the two brothers looked at each other in silence, the oath between them strengthening and solidifying. It felt like something momentous had passed between them, and Dean revelled in the reinforcement of their bond even as he registered just how far into chick-flick country they'd strayed. Again. And he couldn't have that. "So, what now?" He asked, breaking the spell. Albeit reluctantly.

Sam seemed to shake himself back to the present. "Now...nothing. You're gonna get some rest for a few days and then we're going to pick up where we left off."

"Ava?"

"Ava," Sam confirmed with a nod. "We're going to find Ava. You and me"

Dean watched his brother quietly for a moment. Yes, they were going to find Ava, he thought. And even if they didn't, Dean knew now that they were going to be okay.

"Yeah," he agreed, before shooting Sam a cheeky smirk. "Okay, well if you're done gettin' your chick-flick kicks, dude, toss me the remote. I got some catchin' up to do."

"I don't think there are any Oprah reruns on at this time of day, Dean." Sam snorted with a teasing smile.

"No, but I betcha I can find some Bozo the clown reruns!" Dean growled back.

"You do that and you'll be on salads for the next week, Dean!"

"Bitch!"

"Jerk!"

The End

o0o0o

So that's it! We're done!

Thanks so much for reading and I really hope you enjoyed the story.