Out of Reach

As a freshman at Stanford, he had been warned of the brutal all nighter. The hours of guzzling can after can of Red Bull while ferociously finishing up 20 page term papers or cramming for finals. Granted, Sam had never procrastinated to the point of needing to pull one off in order to pass in his latest monstrosity, and rarely had he stayed up until dawn studying for an exam. And so, Sam had never truly understood what it was like to be physically and emotionally exhausted until reuniting with Dean seven years earlier. And even then, he was usually able to grab a few hours' sleep, either in a crappy motel or riding shotgun in his brother's beloved vintage Impala. In fact, he had gotten used to running on fumes, relying on a large double double to get him through the endless hours of research and interviews.

But now, with Lucifer constantly tormenting him, never giving him a moment's peace, Sam Winchester was sleep deprived to the point of being physically ill. Of course, he had tried to hide the fact from Dean, despite knowing that nothing could get past his brother's eye. Pesky cough? Are you ok, Sammy? Slight fever? Maybe you should sit this one out, Sam. Mother henning to the point of driving the young hunter insane. Dean had always been like that, the consequences of having been brother and parent to him since he was still in diapers. But this time, it was not the added attention which was prompting Sam to keep his condition a secret from his brother. Sam Winchester, truth be told, was more than worried about his prognosis: he was damn well terrified. And if he were that scared, then Dean would be a basket case.

But of course, Dean was not stupid, knew right from the start that there was something not right with his brother's behaviour. That he was restless, on edge, dangerously thin. Because, needless to say, the kid wasn't eating either. Dean had noticed how thin his younger brother was, his ribs clearly jutting from his back and abdomen. God, he knew it had been bad, but to see his brother's skeletal form had been disturbing to say the least. Sitting on his bed, oblivious to the B movie showing on NBC, Dean watched his brother as he sat on his own bed, wringing his fingers like an anxious groom waiting at the altar. His eyes were staring unseeing at the TV screen, his hair in disarray from having run his fingers through the locks nervously. Dark circles hung from beneath his hazel eyes, and beads of sweat trickled from his forehead. Every now and then, he would mutter something (no, get out of my head, you sonofabitch, LEAVE ME ALONE!) and every time, Dean would try to provide some sort of comfort, be it a hand on his shoulder or rubbing his upper back in circles, a trick he had used when Sam was a kid to help calm him down. Normally this worked like a charm, but lately, nothing Dean tried could calm his brother, and eventually Dean had moved back to his bed, afraid that his attempts at comfort would result in Sam either hurting Dean or himself. It was all he could do to sit there, but with Bobby gone and Cas MIA, presumed dead, there was little, if anything, the older brother could do for the younger.

"You ok, Sam?" Dean knew the question would fall on deaf ears, but he asked anyway, not so much for his brother's benefit but more for his own. As expected, Sam did not respond, merely began to rock back and forth on his bed, once again clutching at his temples, to the point of drawing blood. Alarmed, Dean was off his bed in a flash, his barely touched beer crashing to the motel room floor. "Sam! SAMMY!"

For Sam's eyes had suddenly rolled back in his head, body limp as he fell face forward off the bed. In moments Dean was at his side, desperately searching for a pulse. Though present, it was weak, sporadic, and Dean felt his heart sink. This wasn't good. Trying to fight back his terror, he held his brother's head up with a trembling hand, memories of that horrible night in Cold Oak flashed in his mind, like the unwanted verses of an annoying song.

I'll take care of you. That's my job, right? Take care of my pain in the ass little brother?

Dean had been devastated. That night, the one that had changed the Winchesters' lives forever, he had watched his younger brother die in his arms. He had promised his father that he would look out for Sam, always look out for Sammy; a promise which he had ultimately failed to keep, prompting him to sell his soul to a crossroads demon. History had a terrible habit of repeating itself, and as Dean Winchester held his unconscious brother in his arms, he was deathly afraid that it cyclical pattern was about to bite him in the ass.

The Winchesters were never ones to rely on hospital care, not unless there was no other alternative. And Dean desperately wished that this was something he could fix, something that a few shots of whiskey, some stitches, and a good night's sleep would cure. But that was the problem. Sam wasn't sleeping, wasn't eating, and frankly looked like death warmed over. This was one time when he would definitely have to break their cardinal rule; hell, he should've brought Sam to a hospital long ago. And even though Sam had inherited his father's stubbornness, Dean still felt the familiar guilt he always experienced in regards to his brother's wellbeing. Watch out for Sammy, his father had drilled into him, even at the tender age of four. And now, as Dean pulled out his cell phone and frantically dialled 911, he could hear his father's voice in his head, scolding him even from beyond the grave. You were supposed to take care of him. You were supposed to protect him, Dean…

"Shit," Dean murmured, impatient as the muted ring of the other line continued. Dammit, aren't there supposed to be dispatchers at the other line? But finally, after what seemed like an eternity but truthfully was only half a minute, a kindly voice on the other end answered, and Dean hurriedly spat out his location, eyes peeled on his brother. He was burning up, had to have had a fever of at least 105 or higher. As he rushed to the motel bathroom in search of a cloth to dampen, the elder Winchester tried to calm himself down, to push away the nightmarish memories of the night Sammy had died, and to think only on the now. "Help is coming, Sammy," he promised, laying the cold washcloth on his brother's fevered forehead. "Everything's gonna be fine. I'll take care of you, I promise."

XXX

Dean felt numb. Throughout the seemingly endless ride to the hospital in the back of the tiny ambulance, he had watched as paramedics worked tirelessly on Sam, fighting to keep what little contents he had in his stomach down. It seemed as if he were frozen in time, in a world where everything around him stopped in its tracks, leaving only him and his intense fear as he watched his brother fight for his very life. When the paramedics whisked his brother away, Dean could only stand by the door helplessly, watching as his very life, the only family he truly had left, was taken from him, no longer in his hands but in those of strangers. He had promised he'd take care of Sam, had promised from the time his brother was still a newborn. And now, standing alone in a crowded hospital lobby, Dean was terrified that he was about to break that promise.

He had tried to follow Sam as he was wheeled to the ER but had been restrained by hospital staff. "But, my brother…" Dean had protested feebly, but his requests had fallen on deaf ears.

"I'm sorry sir, you can't possibly see your brother now. His condition is far too unstable. The doctors need to work on him."

"No! I need to see Sam!"

"I understand, sir, I can't imagine what you are going through right now, but you will not be helping your brother if you get in the doctors' way. If you just follow me I will escort you to the waiting room."

Dean had tried to protest, but at this point the fight was gone from him, as some power source had been severed, leaving him helpless and vulnerable. Without a word, he allowed himself to be led to an overcrowded waiting room and plopped on one of the few remaining uncomfortable plastic chairs, where he buried his head in his hands. No. This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not when he had finally gotten his brother back.

The hours ticked away slowly, and gradually the number of people in the stifling room began to diminish; until only Dean remained, pacing the sterilized prison anxiously. It hadn't taken long for Dean's anxiety to once again flair up. That pent up energy which truthfully was intense enough to make him want to lose control. It was taking more than a little will power for him to keep his destructive behaviour at bay, to keep from overturning tables or pounding his fists against the wall. Truthfully, he had been moments away from giving in to his urges when a tall woman, her blonde hair tied in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, walked in, a clipboard in hand. Her surgical mask was pulled down, revealing a tight lipped frown, one the doctor was trying hard to keep neutral. But it was the eyes which gave her away, soft brown orbs filled with sadness as she approached the lone man in the once overly crowded space.

"Mr. Jones?"

Dean nodded, struggling to control the pounding of his heart in his chest. He had never felt this terrified since the night he had been mauled by Lilith's Hellhounds, or the moments in Stull Cemetery before his brother had jumped in the pit. Thoughts of every moment he had lost, or nearly lost, his brother flashed before him, a slideshow of memories Dean Winchester would far sooner forget.

"It's like I had one job. That one job. And I screwed it up. I blew it…"

"Go ahead, Roy, do it. But I'm going warn you, when I come back I'm going to be pissed."

"Sam, it's okay. It's okay. I'm here. I'm here. I'm not gonna leave you."

"Mr. Jones? I'm doctor Anders, Sam's attending physician. Mr. Jones?"

Dean blinked, unaware that he had blanked out. "How's Sam?" he had finally asked after regaining some of his composure. The doctor nodded sympathetically, flipped through the medical charts attached to the worn clipboard, as Dean looked on, trying to keep his frustrations at bay. He'd already been waiting for hours in this goddamned dump of a waiting room, at least she could show a little decency and let him know how his brother was doing…

"Sam has been stabilized," Dr. Anders continued, the pages of Sam's medical history settling softly on the corkwood. "He is severely dehydrated, and is sleep deprived. What worries the most, however, is the swelling in the brain."

"The what?"

"Has Sam suffered any serious falls as of late? It would be understandable, where his malnutrition would easily result in a state of dizziness."

Dean closed his eyes, trying to look back on past events. Come to think of it, Sam had fallen on more than one occasion, the most recent just a few days earlier. How could he have not noticed? Shit, his brother was possibly dying before his eyes and he had done nothing.

I was supposed to protect you…

"We had no choice but to put Sam into a medically induced coma. Our hope is that in his comatose state the swelling to the brain will go down, while we feed him intravenously." She looked up, gently placed one hand on Dean's shoulder. Blankly, he pushed it away. He didn't want some stranger's cold comfort. He wanted his brother. He wanted Sammy. "I wish I had better news, but I didn't want to give you any false hopes. I'm sorry, Mr. Jones, but the only thing we can do now is hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

No. No way could this stranger be writing him off. Not his Sam. She had no clue who they were dealing with, after all. He was Sam freaking Winchester. The man had survived being stabbed, shot, struck by lightning, even a stint in Hell. No way that a coma was going to bring him. And she didn't know Dean. A man who would sell his soul for his brother. No, he was not about to let Sam slip away again. Not on his watch.

"Can I see him?"

"Of course," the kindly doctor nodded, "this way." Numbly, Dean followed as Dr. Anders led him along a few corridors, brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs, to the ICU. With each step, Dean felt the dread, the intense fear, building up inside his chest, tightening like a vise. As they walked, the doctor filled him in further on Sam's condition, but the words were meaningless, empty. Eventually, Dr. Anders noticed that she was being ignored, and remained silent the rest of that seemingly endless journey to his brother's bedside. And when Dean finally found himself in the room where his brother lay comatose, the doctor wisely left him alone, stating only that she would return shortly to check up on Sam. "Get some rest," she did manage to say before slipping out the door. "You look exhausted. You should at least try to get some sleep, grab something to eat."

As if I could really sleep with my brother dying beside me.But instead of voicing his true opinion, Dean merely nodded his thanks and waited for the kindly doctor to leave before beginning his vigil at Sam's bedside. The younger man looked so still, deathly pale, cheeks sunken from lack of nourishment. Beside him, a maze of equipment hummed and beeped; the machines that were keeping him alive. Looking down at his brother, Dean realized just how young, how helpless, Sam looked in this state. And sitting at his bedside, listening to the whoosh of the ventilator, Dean realized just how helpless he was as well. Demon deals were out of the question. Hell, he remembered how the last one had turned out, and besides, there was probably no demon who would deal. Crowley sure as hell wouldn't. For a moment, he thought of a faith healer, and memories of Roy LaGrange, the preacher who had healed him from his damaged heart, flashed before him. But those miracles had come at a horrible price: one innocent life in exchange for another, and Dean would rather die than kill anyone.

"I don't know how to help you, Sammy," he murmured, reaching for his brother's limp hand. Gently he squeezed, praying for any response, and not in the least surprised to receive nothing in return. No gentle squeeze back, no flutter from beneath his lids. And for the first time in a long time, Dean felt a lone tear as it slid across his cheek. "I'm so sorry man. This is all my fault. I shouldn't have let Cas break that wall. I should've been there to protect you. Seems like the only thing I do is let down the people I love…"

Dean paused for a moment, wiped the tears with the back of one trembling hand. "I need you, Sammy. I can't lose you, man. I've already lost Bobby, Cas. I can't lose you too. Please." The tears were flowing freely at this time, and Dean did nothing to stop them as he sat at his brother's bedside, still holding his hand. It seemed so thin, a vast contrast from the strong grip Sam had had even a few months earlier. Subconsciously Dean ran his thumb against his brothers, staring out the window and its view of an adjacent hospital wing. He had to do something, to somehow save Sam. There was no way his brother was going to live like this, lying helpless, hooked up to a seemingly endless stream of tubes and machines. No, he would find a way. Or his name wasn't Dean Winchester.

XXX

The answer had come to Dean, not surprisingly, in a dream. In his subconscious, the elder Winchester remembered a moment, shortly after making his deal, when Bobby had taken some African Dream Root, a powerful herb which had the ability to produce a dreamlike state, allowing one to take a journey through the mind of one unconscious. The brothers had taken the root and followed their surrogate father on an incredible journey, one in which they became face to face with not only Bobby, but twisted versions of themselves, including a demonic version of what Dean would ultimately become after an extended time in Hell. In his dream, Dean is walking beside his brother on a clear autumn day: leaves are falling, the sun shining brilliantly on the nearby lake. And Sam is going on about some of the psychology courses he had taken in Pre Law, of how amazing it was to be able to look into someone's mind, to be able to use that knowledge to help others.

When Dean awakened from his restless sleep, he already knew what he has to do. Without hesitation he left Sam's bedside, headed off on a mission to collect the ingredients to make a dose or two of the powerful concoction. When he finally returned to his brother's room, it is well after dark, the hospital silent. ´Good, Dean thought to himself, settling comfortably (or at least as much as possible) in the chair hospital staff had been kind enough to bring him. The fewer people around, the better. The last thing Dean needed was someone to find him, try to bring him back.

"Well, Sammy, here goes nothing." Breathing deeply, Dean downed the disgusting liquid in a few gulps, grimacing at the horrible taste. Within minutes, he is under, body limp in the chair, glass slipping from his hands and rolling across the linoleum floor.

XXX

Sam stood alone in a dense forest, eyes darting around his surroundings cautiously. He had no recollection of his whereabouts, a feeling which Sam found unsettling. Though not always sure of the exact location he has been to during hunts, the hunter had always had some knowledge of what was going on, even if it was only narrowing down a specific state. But now, standing alone amidst the foliage, the only sounds being the whispering of the wind as it rustled the branches, Sam felt more than a little uncomfortable, despite the beauty of his locale. For despite the grim ambiance of the place, the sun still manages to dapple from between the branches overhead, its rays casting shadows on the greenery below.

Instinctively Sam reached for the hilt of his knife, not fooled by the peaceful setting. Anything could be lurking in the shadows, poised and ready for the kill. "Shit, Dean, where are you when I need you man," he muttered, taking a few cautious steps ahead. It hadn't taken the younger Winchester long to realize that the older brother was nowhere to be found. Great. That's just awesome,he thought to himself, and suddenly chuckled at how just like Dean he had sounded. Man, the guy isn't here and I'm thinking like him. Guess we really are co-dependant.

Quickly Sam snapped back to the present, continuing his journey through the thicket. After a few moments of uneventful travel, the hunter stopped, eyes wide in surprise. There are no memories of Hell tormenting him at every second, no hallucinations of Lucifer, still wearing Nick's vessel, singing "Stairway to Heaven" in his off key baritone or tossing firecrackers around just for kicks.

He felt at peace.

"What the hell," Sam muttered, as before him the forest disappeared before his very eyes; in its place was a series of heavy, wooden doors, stained in a cheap cherry coloured varnish. He felt his grip on his weapon tighten as he approached the door farthest from the right and hesitatingly reached for its brass knob. Should he really take such a risk? It would be foolish to walk blindly in an unknown situation, a rookie mistake for any hunter. Hell, this situation as a whole was messed up on so many levels. Ignoring the instincts from years of hunting with his father and brother, Sam slowly turned the knob; the door opened with a creak.

Before him was a cramped, dingy looking motel room, one of the many clones of sleeping establishments the boys had inhabited since childhood. The room was surprisingly neat considering the fact that its occupants were a five-year-old boy ad and his nine-year-old older brother. The children were the only occupants, John having gone out on a recent hunt. An old black and white TV was showing a re-run of Inspector Gadget, the sound blaring as the older brother tried to watch his program.

"Dean," five-year-old Sam whined, pleading up at his brother with big hazel eyes, "please, please, please tell me what my first word was!"

"Stop bugging me, Sam, or seriously I will end you!" Dean pushed his brother gently to the side of the couch, eyes still glued to the screen as the intrepid, yet not so bright Inspector Gadget called out "go go Gadget binoculars!", the dog Brain looking up in sympathy when a pinwheel protruded from his cap instead.

"But Dean, you promisedyou'd tell me my first word! You promised!"

Adult Sam stood at the doorway, watching the scene unfold before his very eyes. He knew what his first word had been, remembered this day as if it had happened yesterday. Why had he not had this memory years earlier, when the brothers had shared their heaven following their murders by Walt and Roy? Feeling the nostalgia welling in his chest, like a nice shot of whiskey, Sam leaned back against the doorframe and continued to watch as the memory unfolded before him.

"Why do you care so much, anyway?" Dean grunted, and Sam could tell that his brother was about to cave; he could see him reaching for the remote to switch off the TV. He'd seen this episode enough times anyway. Sam looked up at his brother in anticipation, watching as Dean tossed the remote carelessly on the nearby recliner.

"Because I just wanna know," Sam answered in a matter-of-fact tone, and Dean rolled his eyes. He loved Sam dearly, but sometimes the kid was too persuasive for the older brother's liking. "You promise you won't tell Dad," he warned, "or I swear Sammy, I won't tell you anything ever again!" Sam nodded in agreement, oblivious to the melodramatic threat, and snuggled on the couch next to Dean. In the background, adult Sam closed his eyes briefly, suddenly remembering why his brother had tried so hard to keep his little brother's first word a secret.

"It was 'Dean', Sammy," Dean admitted, not looking his brother in the eye. Beside him, little Sammy's face lit up. Of course his first word had been Dean! After all, the kid had not only practically raised him, but had been his idol, the one he had looked up to since he was four. Dean finally smiled a little, secretly pleased to see his kid brother's reaction to the truth behind his first word. "Well, it was more like "D'e," the boy admitted, ruffling the mop of hair the kid had had even as a kindergartner. "You'd go around the place laughing around and yelling "D'e" at the top of your lungs. Drove Dad nuts."

Watching the scene before him, adult Sam felt a tear slide down one cheek. He remembered now why Dean had been so adamant on not telling him his first word: because his father had been more than a little upset that his son's first childhood lisps were not of his own father, but of his older brother. No "Dada" or even "juice" or "milk", but Dean. His brother did not want little Sammy looking back on those moments and thinking that his father's anger had been his fault. Granted, the fears were a tad irrational, as the events had happened four years earlier, but Dean had always had a protective instinct around him. "It's my job to protect you," he had told Sam on more times than he could count on both hands.

As the memory faded before him, a horrible thought suddenly hit Sam like a ton of bricks. Am I dead? Is this why I'm reliving all these memories? Sam felt a horrible tightening in his chest, as memories of recent events played before him: his stint in the Cage, receiving his soul back after months of roaming the country as "Robo Sam", Lucifer's wall crumbling, the torment by the evil angel himself...

…Dean running to his side in fear as he collapsed in their motel room.

"Shit," he muttered to himself, feeling a wave of panic fighting with the intense grief. "God, Dean, I'm so sorry man, so sorry you have to see this…." Fighting the urge to be sick, Sam, once again finding himself back in the forest, leaned against a tree, closing his eyes as he fought off the wave of nausea. Memories of the times he had seen Dean on the brink of death flashed before him: lying comatose after the possessed trucker had T-boned the Impala; that horrible time loop in which Dean had died so many horrible deaths for days on end; his brother being ravaged by the Hellhound which drug him to Hell. Yes, Sam Winchester knew how devastating it was to watch his brother die, and the thought that Dean was about to endure the same thing was too much.

"Sammy…"

Sam paused, looked up in surprise. He could have sworn he had just heard his brother's voice from the shadows. His eyes scanned the thicket, certain that he had been only hearing things but desperately wishing otherwise. As expected, there was nothing but the whispering of branches dancing in the wind.

"Sam!"

No, that was definitely his brother's voice. That had to be Dean. Feeling slightly hopeful, Sam once again looked around him. This time, he thought he could see, running through the trees, his brother, a look of relief on his face. But in a flash, he was gone. Sam once more found himself alone.

"What the hell." Was the image of Dean just that, a manifestation? For a moment, Sam remained rooted in place, not wanting to miss another opportunity to steal a glimpse of his brother. But, when after several minutes nothing reappeared, the younger Winchester decided that it would be foolish to stay in place. Perhaps he was dead, but there was also a chance that somewhere, he was still alive, and that the visions of his brother was his subconscious, an image of what was going on in the real world.

Visibly shaken by the sudden vision of his brother, but determined to get to the bottom of whatever was happening to him, Sam tentatively walked toward yet another wooden door, the previous one having vanished once the memory had passed. What lay beyond the wood panelling before him? Hopefully another pleasant memory of his childhood, but knowing Sam Winchester, there was bound to be trouble. Hell, it seemed to follow him wherever he went, so why would there be an exception within his subconscious? For a moment, he hesitated, fingers brushing against the cool metal of the knob. But then, he thought of his brother, no doubt nearly losing it with fear of his brother's wellbeing. Sam had read somewhere that if one followed the doors of the mind while in a death like, or comatose state, there was a possibility that one could rejoin the land of the living. Granted, that had been the situation while a Reaper was on one's tail, and at the moment, Sam seemed to be at least free of that unpleasant occurrence, but it was most certainly worth a try. After all, there was definitely more harm in sitting on his ass, waiting for random visions of his brother to pop into view.

Drawing a deep breath, Sam turned the knob and pushed open the heavy door.

XXX

When Dean came to, he found himself lying in a thick wood, his face brushing against a pile of fallen maple leaves. For a moment, he was unaware of his surroundings, or what had happened in the first place to cause him to wake up in the middle of the goddamn woods. And then, it came to him, as clear as the flashing from a marquis sign: Sammy is in a coma. Took some African Dream Root to try to haul my pain in the ass little brother back to the living. For a moment, Dean shuddered, scanning his surroundings with anxious green eyes. This place was freaking huge! It sure as hell wasn't going easy to find Sam, Sasquatch or not.

Fortunately, his hunter instincts had kicked in practically as soon as his senses had adjusted to his new surroundings. Sitting up carefully and gingerly rubbing his aching temple, Dean scanned the forest floor in search of any clue which could pinpoint Sam's whereabouts, or at least the direction he was headed. "Ok, Sammy, hope you left me something," he muttered.

It hadn't taken Dean long to find the first clue in his search for his brother. Lying practically in front of him, as if screaming to be found, lay a silver lighter, the initials S.W engraved carefully on the device. "Bingo," Dean murmured, bending to pick up the lighter; he stuffed it in his pocket, next to his own, and continued to follow the trail that Sam had subconsciously left him. A few things were scattered here and there along the make shift trail: a few coins which seemed to have conveniently fallen from his pocket; footprints, their size a perfect match for Sam's enormous feet. Perhaps these signs were a tad too convenient, but Dean decided to chalk it up to something good actually happening for once, and followed his "yellow brick road" further into the woods, determined to find some sign of his younger brother.

Not three minutes into his journey, Dean stopped dead in his tracks, jolting his head quickly to the left. "Sam?" In a voice barely above a whisper, lest he startle any other creature lurking in the dense thicket. No reply, and Dean listened, in hopes of somehow being treated to a repeat performance. No such luck; the woods were silent.

"Shit." Dean kicked at a stone in frustration before gathering his bearings and continuing along the path. Of course he wouldn't find Sam as soon as he arrived at wherever the hell he was. Nothing in life was easy, especially if your last name happened to be Winchester.

"Hang in there, Sammy," Dean muttered, pushing his way past the barrage of branches along the overgrown path. "I'm coming, little brother. I promise."

XXX

"You walk out that door, don't you ever come back."

Sam shot an icy glare at his father, duffle bag slung over his shoulder. There was he was again, trying to force him into a life he had never truly felt he belonged in in the first place. Dean, he had embraced the life of the hunter, as if it were his true calling, the sole purpose of his existence. Admittedly, it was possible that the reason for this love of the job was stemmed from his devotion to his father. In fact, it was pretty damn likely. But regardless of his intentions, Dean would always be eager to hunt down a Wendigo or travel hundreds upon thousands of miles for a simple salt and burn. Not Sam. He saw a bright future ahead of him, one that featured a nice office, a wife and kid or two, family barbeques in the backyard of a nice suburban home.

A life of freedom.

Beside him, Dean shot his brother an equally angry look, but there was something else in those green eyes, something that made Sam nearly drop everything. Was that sadness? Trying to keep his resolve, Sam found himself looking down, the speck of dirt on the toe of his sneaker suddenly fascinating. "I can't do this anymore," he muttered, the anger suddenly drained. Without another word, he turned and headed out, the front door slamming behind him.

"Oh, shit." Sam knew this memory like the back of his hand. It was the night he had left his family for Stanford. Years earlier, the young man would have marked this as one of his better memories. Hell, it was the day he had told off his drill sergeant father, stood up for himself, and kick started his four years of independence in California. But now, the memory was far from pleasant, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Because this was the night he had hurt his brother in the worst way possible, even more so, in a sense, than he had by failing to save him from his deal. Because on this night, he had nearly lost not only his father, but his older brother as well.

He wanted to leave, tried to head out the door which somehow remained visible behind him, but felt his feet glued to the ground. Surprise, surprise. Sam Winchester fails his big brother again. He felt the sudden urge to vomit, but somehow manages to keep from voiding his stomach contents on his shirt.

"Sam, don't do this! Come on Sammy, I'm your brother! It's my job to look out for you! How am I supposed to do that when you're god knows where?"

"California, Dean." Sam didn't turn to his brother, who had followed young Sam out the door, attempting some last ditch effort to convince him to stay. But he did stop dead in his tracks, and Dean relaxed for a moment. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't go through with it. Maybe Sam might come to his senses and get his ass back in that piece of shit house where he belonged. Was Dean proud of his brother? Hell yeah. Did he want him to head off to some preppy college or whatever, hang out with a bunch of filthy rich douchebags? Not in this lifetime. And he especially didn't want his brother exposed to whatever supernatural shit was out there without him, Dean Winchester, there to keep tabs on him. Overprotective? Sure. But at least then he'd be sure Sammy was safe

"Sam?" The awkward silence was proving too much for Dean. He continued to stare at his brother's back, watching as his shoulders tensed. He was about to say something, anything, to break it when Sam finally turned and spoke. "I'm sorry, Dean, really I am, but I have to do this. I just can't take it anymore. Dad and I can't go ten minutes without a shouting match. He's stressed, I'm stressed, and you're about to explode. I just…"

"Just what, Sammy?"

"I just want to be normal for once."

"What, so Dad and I are abnormal to you?"

"You know what I mean," Sam answered, trying to hide the annoyance in his voice. "For once in my goddamned life I would like to do something without worrying about vengeful spirits and shapeshifters. Is that too much to ask?"

Sam cringed, knowing what's about to happen next. That night been one of the worst in his life, other than Bobby's death or watching Dean being torn apart by that Hellhound. He wished that the memory will fade away and let him move on, but the scene played out for another five minutes before Sam finally storms off down the dimly lit street, his brother yelling after him before heading back inside, slamming the door behind him. Sam felt moisture coming from his hazel eyes as the memory finally faded. No wonder Dean was so upset with me that time in Heaven, he thought, quickly wiping his eyes with the back of a hand. Shit, I'd be pretty pissed myself.

Still haunted by the ghosts of his past, Sam continued his way through the thick brush, until he came across a neatly packed dirt path. As he walked, Sam realized that he has literally found himself reliving his years at Stanford. Along both sides of the pathway, he found reminders of happier times: laughing with friends at the local watering hole, drinking piss warm beer and listening to drunken karaoke; celebrating the end of exams with pizza and drinks (only a few for Sam, of course), the first time he met Jessica and their first date. Sam relished them all, and the pain of the last memory begins to dissipate, from a sharp intensity to a dull ache. But it is always there. Sure, he was happy as a college student, and had met the love of his life there (though if he had known what the outcome was to be, he would have never taken Jill Hudson's advice to ask her out). But as good as those memories were, they are nothing compared to those shared with his brother. Even if it had taken Jessica's death to reunite with him.

An all too familiar sound suddenly echoed in the stillness. Dean. It had to be him. There is no way that he would mistake his brother's voice. As Sam continued along the path, his college memories fading away with each step, he scanned his surroundings, looking for any sign of his brother. A part of him hoped that he would see him, because, well, he missed him. So much. Dean was more than just his brother, but also his rock; his best friend. He's home. And if there is ever a time that he wants to be near him, it's now, especially after the rather unpleasant reminder of his past. But then again, if his brother is here, that could mean possibly two things: Dean has died, just like Sam has, and has once again found his way into his Heaven (well, they are soul mates, according to Joshua), or Sam is somehow still alive and is hallucinating. Because there's no other possible explanation for this…is there?

Sam decided that he didn't care; he just wanted to see his brother. Eyes peeled, Sam continued his journey, hoping that somehow Dean is waiting around the corner.

XXX

"Wow, Sammy, your mind is messed up."

Dean groaned a little as he continued along the mind of Sam Winchester, still searching for his brother. With every step he was reminded of just how much of a Geek Boy Sam really is, as images of his brother's college years pass before him like a freight train. He paused as he watched Sam in a massive library, chewing absently on a pencil as he flipped pages in a massive volume. The building is empty; it's dark outside. Clearly the kid is staying well past any normal hours, researching something. And Dean felt a lump forming in his throat. The kid is happy, or at least not completely miserable. He has an astronomically large cup of Starbucks coffee at his side ("It's called a Venti, Dean," he remembers his brother chastising him shortly after picking him up from Stanford that October, to which Dean had replied, "still douchey, Sam."). Dean had to chuckle at the sight. Wow, his brother, the same one who hunted Rugarus and shapeshifters, drinking Starbucks?

Dean shrugged it off, continuing his search. He hadn't found Sam yet, and while that is not a complete surprise, considering how vast Sammy's brain seems to be, it still made the older Winchester a little anxious. What if he never did find him? What if this trip in his brother's noggin is a wasted effort?

No. It isn't. We saved Bobby that time before, I can surely find my pain in the ass little brother.

Dean sighed, remembering the time he and Sam had both taken African Dream Root to save a comatose Bobby. It had been a tough time, with Dean having to face the demonic version of himself, a small taste of what life in Hell was going to be like. Despite himself, Dean shivers at the memory. As tough an act as he has put on for his brother on many other occasions, he feels a little less confident at the moment. Pushing aside any negative thoughts, Dean continued along the path, searching for something, anything, which could lead him to Sam. He had no sense of time in his brother's mind, and perhaps had only been trapped here for a few hours, but it seemed like days. A thought that was more than a little unsettling to Dean Winchester, the one who has always been by his brother's side, always found a way to make it right, to protect Sammy at all costs, is at the moment failing miserably.

"Come on, man, where are you? You're not exactly helping me out here."

And then, Sam's voice in the distance, urgent, calling for help.

"DEAN!"

XXX

Up to this point, Sam's journey through his mind had been, while definitely unpleasant, not exactly frightening. He had undergone his share of unpleasant memories, ranging from epic fights with Dean to that horrible, and yet somehow also gratifying, night he had left for Stanford, but there were also some pleasant ones as well: Dean initiating a prank war of massive proportions, rivaling the one years earlier from that Hell House job in Richardson; eating take out suppers on the hood of the Impala and watching the stars for what seemed like hours on end, Sam identifying the constellations and Dean playfully rolling his eyes as he stuffed himself with a bacon cheeseburger, but secretly enjoying his brother's geek talk; watching hours of cartoons as kids while Dean tossed M&Ms at him, hoping to score one in his mouth. That one had made Sam laugh out loud. It had been ridiculous, eleven-year-old Dean whacking his kid brother on the forehead with the candy and Sam rolling his eyes before popping it into his mouth. Those were the days.

And then, as the memory faded, Sam felt the telltale moisture from beneath his lashes. Damn, he missed his brother. He needed to be with him, to listen to his terrible music, even hear of the latest young barmaid he has seduced with that typical Dean Winchester charm. It still bothered him that he had no sense of time and space, that he had no clue if his brother is hurt or even alive. And as comforting as those glimpses of his brother were, despite the fact that they were fleeting, they also gave him a lingering feeling in the pit of his stomach, a sense that something was deeply wrong, and not just with Sam. He needed to find Dean, if he even is here, to somehow put his mind at rest.

Sam walked, continued to call out for his brother, eyes peeled for any sign of him in the distance, when suddenly, the scenery before him changed. The forest disappeared and instead, Sam found himself standing in a dark, freezing cavern, its rough walls foreboding in the shadows. Stalactites hung from the roof of the cave, dripping eerily on the dirt floor beneath. As Sam's eyes desperately tried to adjust to the darkness, he found himself staring at himself, hazel eyes wide in horror and pain. He is chained to the wall, clothes torn and bloodied, his face twisted in pain. Beside him, Lucifer, no longer in Sam's vessel, or even Nick's, stands before him, torturing him as he plays a series of mental images before him, not of Sam or any of the regrettable acts he has committed over the years, but of Dean, his big brother, tied to a massive rack and being slowly carved into little pieces. The other Sam squeezes his eyes shut, not wanting to watch anymore, and Lucifer laughs, forcing the young man's eyes open with a simple touch. Oh, you will watch, Sammy. You did this. You brought this on your brother, so you better damn well WATCH!

"No!" Hell Sam screams, once again tries to close his eyes, but this time, is unable to. For several horrible minutes the tortured man watches as his brother endures god knows what in the hands of Alistair. Watching the scene before him, present Sam felt his knees weaken below him, and he leaned against the cavern wall, dry heaving. He remembered the event all too well, one of the constant reminders of his stint in the Cage. Of all the torture he had endured at the hands of Lucifer, watching Dean endure his own was by far the most painful, worse than any physical pain the Devil and his minions could throw at him.

"SAMMY!"

Sam blinked, and slowly the picture before him wavers a bit, like a television screen out of focus, before settling back to where it was before. Apparently the Powers that Be or whatever wanted him to relive this horrible moment. But it didn't matter; nothing matters, because Sam could have sworn he'd heard his brother's voice in the distance, calling his name in a tone just slightly under panic. Or is it an illusion, a horrible trick of the mind provided by Lucifer himself, to add to the torment of the scene before him? Sam blinked, and for a moment, believed that he really had only imagined his brother's voice.

Until he heard it again.

"SAM!"

"Dean?" Sam barely had the strength to call out, is almost afraid to, just in case his brother wasn't real. But he had to take the chance. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he had missed Dean because he was too stubborn to believe he was there. And, as a reward, he heard Dean call his name again, and in a moment, there he stood, his favorite Colt 1911 poised and ready to kill any supernatural being in his way. At the sight of his brother, however, he lowered the weapon, relief overwhelming him. Moments later Dean was at his brother's side, wrapping him in a tight embrace, relishing in the fact that Sam is here, with him, even if only trapped in his brother's subconscious. Equally relieved, Sam leaned against Dean's shoulder, taking comfort in the scent of blood, sweat, and cheap cologne. Dean is here, with him, and if anyone can get him out of this mess, it's his older brother.

"Dean, what the hell is going on?" Sam finally released his grip on his brother, gestured with a quick shrug at the scene still playing before him. At this point, Sam is no longer suspended, but secured tightly to a gurney, as Lucifer forces him to replay the night Jessica died, over and over again, like a broken record. Sam is squirming in his bonds, screaming his late girlfriend's name, squeezing his eyes shut as a sudden brightness fills the room. Fortunately, caught up in seeing his brother again, present Sam is oblivious to the scene before him. Thank God for small mercies.

"You're in a coma. All that insomnia shit and Lucifer was making you go all Jack Torrence. Without the homicidal tendencies, of course."

Sam was somehow not surprised. What better place to relive one's memories, good or bad, than when the body is in a permanent state of rest? The Greatest (and some, err, not so great) Hits of Sam Winchester. But if he is in a coma, then why is Dean here? Oh god…

"Dean? Are you ok? If I'm in a coma, then why are you…?" Please don't be dying. Please, Dean, you can't be dying too…

Dean sensed his brother's anxiety. "African Dream Root," he replied promptly, and Sam somewhat relaxed. "Couldn't live seeing you like that, Sammy. So I remembered that time when Bobby was in that weird coma and we took that stuff. Forgot how freaking nasty it is." Dean grimaced in remembrance, and Sam let out a faint smile. Good. Just what Dean wanted to see. Not a brother on edge and unable to focus. One who can help get the both of their asses back to reality.

"So how do we get out of this?" Sam's voice brought Dean back from his reverie. He pauses briefly, trying to remember that last time the brothers had been invading each other's dreams. And then another memory, from years ago, when he had been attacked by the Djinn in Illinois: his mother, beautiful as always, offering the promise of "comfort" and safety; Jessica, alive and happily engaged to Sam; a beautiful girlfriend who loved him for all of his flaws; and Sam, a brother who was finally getting the happiness he had craved for years. All were there, begging Dean to let go, to come with them, live a happy, pain free life. But it had been all a lie, a fantasy created by the Djinn to comfort (torment?) him while the life was slowly draining from his body. And the only way he had escaped that curse was to stab himself in the stomach. To die in a dream meant to wake up in the real world. Dean cringed a moment at the thought. As much as he didn't want to see his brother die before him, Dean knew that it was the only chance he had to bring them both out of this mess. And at least they could make it quick and painless.

Sam seemed to have already understood his brother's plan, and nods in affirmative. "It worked for you, right?" He forced a faint smile and outstretches is arm, waiting for Dean to hand him a weapon. Reluctantly Dean hands his brother his favorite Taurus (one blessing of being in this horrible dream state was access to virtually any weapon imaginable), eyes filled with anguish, and yet grim determination.

"You know I'm going to wake up on the other side, right? You're not watching me die, Dean."

"Yeah." Dean did know, he'd done it himself when he had stabbed himself before his "family" in that abandoned warehouse. But it sure as hell didn't make it any easier. Taking out his own gun, Dean cocked the weapon, cringing to hear Sam do the same. God this sucks. "Count of three, right? One, two, three…"

XXX

Dean sat up with a jolt, not on the cold floor he had been on earlier, but in a hospital bed of his own, thankfully beside Sam's. He gasped for air, struggling to control the painful heaves of his chest, tears of strain trickling along his cheeks. After a few minutes of painful gasps, Dean finally regained control of his breathing, but not the anxious pounding in his chest. Is Sam awake? Did his crazy plan to bring his brother back actually work?

A quick glance at the bed beside him answered Dean's question. Sam was also sitting up, gasping and struggling to breathe despite his intubated throat. In a heartbeat Dean through his blankets aside, frantically pushing the "call" button at his bedside. There seemed to be no response, and Dean was about to get up and find someone on his own when a nurse rushed in, surprised at the sight before him. Not only was the mysterious coma patient awake, but so was his younger brother. The one whose prognosis had been bleak only half an hour earlier. Stunned, she stared at the two for a moment before Dean glares at her. "What are you waiting for? Get the doctor," he snapped and the nurse hurried away, grateful that someone else will be in charge. In an instant Dean was out of bed, at his brother's bedside, grabbed his brother's hand and looked down at the man who had been so close to death only hours earlier, hoping to ease the fear in his hazel eyes. "It's ok, Sam," he murmured in a choked voice, tears of relief threatening to spill. "It's going to be ok, I'm here, Sammy."

It worked. His plan to save his brother actually worked. Dean watched in awe as Dr. Anders examined Sam, giving him a clean bill of health. "It's incredible," she murmured, flipping through Sam's chart. "I'll have to conduct an MRI to be sure, but it seems as if your brother has dodged quite a bullet, Mr. Jones. No signs of any brain damage and I bet that your MRI results will show little, if any bleeding or swelling in the brain. You're very lucky, young man," with a smile and a pat on the shoulder to a still rather bewildered looking Sam. "As for you, Mr. Jones," flipping through charts which must have been Dean's after being discovered unconscious on the floor, "we believe you've been suffering from acute stress related exhaustion. We administered a sedative and an IV for fluids, and looks like it did wonders." The doctor smiles, flips her charts closed. "You really should take better care of yourself, Mr. Jones."

"Thanks, doc," Dean muttered, waiting impatiently for Dr. Anders to leave. She did seem to take the hint, and in a few minutes, the Winchesters were alone. Sam looked up at his brother, still trying to piece together what has just happened. Before Sam can even open his mouth, Dean answered for him.

"You were in a coma dude, for a week or so. Took some African Dream Root to bring you back."

"You did what now?" Sam's voice is still weak, hardly above a whisper, but the thought that his brother had deliberately induced a coma like state to save him… what was he thinking?

It would be the same thing Sam would have done if the situation was reversed.

Sam sighed. Sometimes he wondered if they should give up with the martyr act. One look at his big brother is answer enough: not in this lifetime.

"So I'm guessing it wasn't stress and over exhaustion that knocked you out, then?" Sam smiled faintly and Dean nodded, flashing a grin of his own. "My body's a temple," he teased. "Wouldn't go through that for my pain in the ass baby brother." But one gentle squeeze of Sam's hand says it all. Dean would do that, and more, for Sam. In a heartbeat.

"So what was it like? In my mind?"

"Weird, dude. Didn't see much, just this huge forest. Like in Maine or someplace like that. It was kind of like the yellow brick road of Sam Winchester. Followed your trail and it led to you." Dean conveniently didn't mention Sam's horrific vision of Lucifer. If his younger brother couldn't remember what happened while stuck in limbo, then Dean would chalk it up as a win. "I have a feeling that you were reliving your past. Kind of like that time we were in Heaven."

"That's it? I'm wandering in the woods? Kind of weird, man." Sam didn't remember anything of his so called trip into his mind, or reliving his greatest hits or whatever. Part of him was relieved: who knew what horrible memories he'd been repressing, that conveniently resurfaced while he was asleep? On the other hand, it is also a disappointment. Because with the horrible memories, there were bound to be some pleasant ones, too. Memories which now would fade away, with Sam none the wiser.

"How are you feeling, anyway? Do you need some water? Something soft to eat? I can get the nurses to bring some pudding or some other hospital shit."

Sam smiled. "Nah, I think I just want to sleep." As if on cue, Sam yawns, leaned back on his bed, closing his eyes. "Thanks, man." A silent I love you.

Dean smiled, gently rubbing his brother's shoulder. "Any time, Sammy."

I love you too.

XXX

"You want anything? Bottled water, energy bar, rabbit food?" Dean grinned devilishly as he placed the nozzle back at the pump and twisted the gas cover on the Impala's tank. Truth be told, Sam was still not quite hungry, his appetite returning only in small degrees, but a bottle of water did sound nice. "Sure. Water's good. Maybe a muffin too."

"Dude, you get crumbs in my car, you're a dead man." But Dean returned with a warm carrot oatmeal muffin, fresh from…well, the microwave. Sam accepted it with a smile, spreading a small amount of butter on one side as Dean slid in the driver's seat, a bottle of Coke and a bag of plain chips in his hands. "Breakfast of champions," he grinned, uncapping the soft drink and taking a liberal swig from the bottle. Sam turned up his nose in disgust. " do know its 9AM."

"And I haven't eaten in about 24 hours. This is my supper, Sammy."

Shrugging, Sam uncapped his water, downed a quarter of it, and nibbled on his muffin. Dean was liberally scarfing down his greasy "breakfast", tossing the empty chip bag into a plastic grocery bag before turning the Impala's engine.

Only to hear Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."

Sam chuckled, trying to hide his laugh with another drink of water. Dean glared at him, immediately pushing one of his cassettes in the tape deck. Over the opening chords of "Ride the Lightning" Dean couldn't help but smile, the familiar, comforting words Sam knew too well, slipping from laughing lips.

"House rules, Sammy…"