Summary: Post 8x19 – Sick Sam / Big Brother Dean – For the past two weeks, Dean had restlessly slept on a cot that was right beside Sam's bed, within reaching distance if the kid called out for Dean in the night; the big brother keeping vigil literally 24/7. Because Sam, the most independent Winchester, didn't want to be left alone – not even for a second – and Dean didn't want to leave him.

Disclaimer: Not mine

Warnings: General spoilers for events in the last half of season eight

A/N: A sequel of sorts to The Secret Inside. And although the lyrics below are quoted from Mumford & Sons, the inspiration for this story is from The National's haunting, makes-me-want-to-cry song, "About Today".

You are not alone in this. ~ Mumford & Sons

Sam had always craved his independence.

Even when he was an infant, he would attempt to hold his own bottle; his pudgy little hands resting on Dean's – or sometimes worming their way beneath Dean's – as the four-year old would feed his brother; the baby warm and content, squirming and slurping and trying to take over.

A bossy, stubborn little bitch even then at six-months old.

Dean twitched a smile, thankful for the brief spark of a happy memory in the dark silence that surrounded him now.

Because all these years later, that was definitely still one of Dean's favorite memories; could remember with startling clarity how it felt to hold his baby brother in his arms and look down into the round face that blinked up at him with so much love and trust that it made a four-year old's heart ache.

And if he was honest with himself, sometimes it still made Dean's heart ache how much Sam openly depended on him; how much the kid sought him for comfort and reassurance, especially when he was sick.

Like now...

Dean sighed soundlessly – not wanting to wake Sam since his brother had finally drifted to sleep on the bed – and continued to lay motionless on his back, resisting the urge to shift on the uncomfortable cot.

The cot he had restlessly slept on for the past two weeks; the cot that was right beside Sam's bed, within reaching distance if the kid called out for Dean in the night; the cot that had thankfully been stashed in one of the forgotten rooms in the Batcave and was now helping the big brother keep vigil literally 24/7.

Because Sam, the most independent Winchester, didn't want to be left alone – not even for a second – and Dean didn't want to leave him.

The kid often agitated and disoriented in these days that had followed the completion of the second trial.

Sam alternating between asking about the location of a hellhound – where was it...was it close...had he missed it? – and talking about Purgatory...and Hell...and Bobby...and even Benny.

Dean sighed again, his own voice echoing in his head as he remembered what he had said to calm his brother. The words not as important as the tone he had used; his gentle murmur assuring Sam not to worry about it, not to worry about anything because everything was okay.

Sam had blinked up at him but had seemed to believe him, had instantly stilled beneath Dean's touch – the big brother's hand having settled beneath the kid's floppy bangs, his thumb having rubbed back and forth across Sam's forehead.

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.

But it wasn't.

When Sam wasn't experiencing psychological symptoms – wasn't reliving past trials – he was battling physical issues.

The kid usually alarmingly breathless; coughing as some unseen force sucked the oxygen from his lungs...only to return it seconds later with the unnerving tendency to deliver blood along with it.

Here – have a rush of air and a mouthful of blood.

You're welcome.

Shall we do it again?

Gasp, cough, repeat...over and over and over.

Dean swallowed, remembering how he had sat on the edge of the bed barely an hour ago and had helped support his brother.

Had held the kid upright and had pressed tissues against Sam's mouth to collect the blood as Sam had coughed.

Had been careful not to let Sam see – though he knew his brother had tasted the blood coating his tongue – and then had wiped Sam's lips of the red-tinged spit that had lingered.

Had offered Sam water when the coughing spell had finally passed, had lifted the bottle to his brother's mouth.

Had leaned back against the headboard as an exhausted Sam had slumped against him.

Had patiently held his brother – all boundaries erased by the crisis at hand – and had rubbed the kid's back as he had assured that everything was okay.

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.

Even as the trashcan had been steadily filling with bloodied tissues all day, but...

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.

And Sam had believed him, had drifted to sleep wrapped snugly in the shared cocoon of denial.

Neither brother wanting to admit that Dean was wrong; that nothing was okay.

Dean sighed as he continued to lay on the cot, clenching his jaw against the emotion that surged through him, well aware of their situation and the likely outcome.

His mind recreating the familiar scene of a little brother's chest-rattling coughs staining tissue after tissue with red – bright red, indicating that Sam was actively bleeding somewhere inside.

But no one – not doctors, not angels, not even worried big brothers – could seem to pinpoint the source of the bleeding.

Sam was just...bleeding.

Slowly bleeding out day-by-day; his body exhausted with the effort of breathing; his organs sluggish from the decreased blood supply circulating within; his skin pale but bruised, marked in kaleidoscopic patterns of blue and purple as the blood seeped and pooled with nowhere to go.

Dean closed his eyes, his mind buzzing – always buzzing – with ways to fix this, to fix Sam.

But so far, nothing had worked.

No one could heal Sam; the kid damaged beyond an angel's repair, beyond the knowledge of the books archived in the Batcave, and beyond the reach of even modern medicine.

"We've run tests," the doctor had told Dean at Sam's bedside that morning several weeks ago when Dean had found his brother unresponsive in his room and had rushed the kid to the hospital.

"And..." Dean had prompted, had briefly dared to hope for good news as he had tightened his grip around his brother's limp hand while Sam had slept.

The doctor had shrugged, had stared at Sam with a mixture of confusion and fascination.

"They were all inconclusive," the man in the white coat had finally reported and then had sighed. "But we're not giving up. We'd like to run more tests. Maybe – "

" – no," Dean had interrupted, his tone having been sharp from the wound of fresh disappointment.

The doctor had frowned, had shifted as he had stood on the opposite side of Sam's bed in the small curtained cubicle of the bustling emergency room. "But, sir..."

"No," Dean had repeated, had refused to let strangers treat Sam like a lab rat when he knew they could do nothing to help his brother.

If an angel couldn't heal Sam, then what chance did the doctors have?

What chance did Dean have?

The trip to the hospital had only been a hope – the last-ditch effort of a panicked big brother desperate to save his kid.

But like all other recent efforts, the doctors were useless.

...which meant Dean had to try harder, had to think harder, had to figure this out before it was too late and Sam was gone.

Dean opened his eyes and sighed, wishing the cure for Sam's condition was as easily identified as the cause.

And not for the first time, Dean wondered if the cause was even worth it...if the trials were worth it...worth losing his brother.

It was a simple answer, one that came from the core of Dean Winchester whenever Sam was threatened.

"No," Dean whispered to the dark silence and stared at the ceiling of Sam's room, listening to his brother's wheezed breaths as the kid slept in the bed beside him.

Because no – the result of these trials wasn't worth it.

Closing the gates of Hell forever wasn't worth trading Sam's well-being.

Nothing was worth Dean's little brother's life.

And yet that seemed the direction in which they were headed.

Tit for tat, swapping this for that.

Dean shook his head, deciding that tomorrow – if tomorrow was a good day, if Sam felt better than he had today – he would again attempt to convince his brother to abandon the responsibility of these trials; to instead help figure out a way to transfer them to Dean.

Because Dean couldn't do this anymore, couldn't continue to watch Sam slowly deteriorate.

When he had told Sam that he would carry him, Dean had meant that he would carry the kid to safety.

And Dean intended to do just that.

When he was a toddler, "do it myself" was one of Sam's favorite phrases, delivered in that determined, often grumpy tone as his small forehead would wrinkle in concentration of doing whatever he was doing completely by himself.

And that trend had continued as Sam had gotten older.

But that was over.

Sam didn't have to do these trials by himself.

It was time for the kid to tap out and let Dean step in.

Dean nodded in agreement with himself and then frowned at the restless movement on the bed; holding himself still as he listened, waiting to see if Sam was just shifting in his sleep or waking up with a new crisis.

Seconds passed.

"Hey..." came the familiar weak voice, followed by Sam's hand slipping over the edge of the mattress, clearly seeking Dean. "Are you awake?"

"Yeah. I'm right here," Dean responded, grasping his brother's hand and sitting up on the cot, reaching for the lamp on the bedside table and clicking it on so the kid could better see him. "What's wrong? You need something?"

Sam shook his head, his hair fanned out on the pillow as he wheezed and coughed and swallowed. "No," he finally replied. "Just..."

Sam's voice faded, the effort of speech too much.

Dean nodded anyway as if Sam had finished his thought, not needing Sam to explain, words never needed between them.

"I know," Dean assured his brother, lacing his fingers with Sam's and lightly squeezing the kid's hand; indeed knowing that Sam was just checking to make sure that Dean was still there.

Like Dean would be anywhere else.

Like Dean would ever leave Sam, especially when the kid was weak and sick and vulnerable.

Like Dean would ever abandon Sam when his little brother needed him.

Dean shook his head at his stupid kid and quirked an affectionate smile. "I'm right here," he repeated and further proved it by standing from the cot and settling beside Sam on the mattress, carefully nudging his brother over to make space.

His movements lethargic, Sam edged closer to the opposite side of the bed and watched as Dean situated himself; his big brother releasing his hand and waiting for Sam to come closer.

All boundaries once again completely gone with no threat of teasing later because Dean knew that Sam needed this – needed the comforting reassurance of touch, the physical reminder that he was not alone in this.

He was not alone in this.

The trials may have been kicking his ass, but Sam was not alone in enduring them.

Dean was there, was always there.

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.

And although Sam knew that wasn't true, he still believed.

There was silence; Sam's whistled breaths filling the room while the sheets rustled with movement as Sam slid closer to his brother and rested his head against Dean's leg.

"You're okay," Dean told Sam, his hand instinctively moving to rub the kid's back.

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.

Maybe one day that would be true again.

Sam sighed and relaxed beneath Dean's touch, leaning more heavily against his brother as he drifted back to sleep surrounded by Dean's strength and comfort.

As long as I'm around, nothing bad is gonna happen to you.

And although experience had taught that wasn't true, either, in moments like this Sam still believed that it was – that Dean was still invincible, that Dean would figure out something to fix this, that Dean would carry him or die trying.

"Thanks," Sam whispered drowsily before allowing sleep to fully claim him.

Dean glanced down at his brother and smiled softly; his hand still rubbing back and forth between the kid's shoulders as he wondered how close he was to losing Sam for good – his little brother falling asleep and never waking up again.

It was a possibility that haunted Dean every time Sam closed his eyes.

Dean clenched his jaw, sighing as he leaned back against the headboard.

There was silence in the lamp-lit room; Sam's wheezed breaths the only sound filling the space – the only sound Dean needed to hear.

Seconds ticked by.

Sam slept on.

Dean's arm wrapped further around his brother, the gesture as possessive as it was protective.

"We're gonna get through this, Sammy," Dean promised; his voice quiet but his tone hard with determination. "I'm gonna carry you through this."

One day, one night at a time.

One hour, one minute...whatever it took.

Dean was going to carry Sam through these trials.

Dean was going to get his happy ending with his brother.

One way or another, Dean was going to do what neither angels nor doctors could – he was going to fix this.

Dean nodded. "Damn right I am," he heartily agreed with himself, his hand still rubbing Sam's back as his sick brother slept against him.

Shhh...shhh...everything's okay.