Okay, first of all, let me say sorry for the extra long delay in getting this chapter posted. I can blame some of it on the craziness of the holidays, but mostly this chapter just didn't want to let me beat it into submission. Oh well, it is extra long, so hopefully that will help make up for some of the delay.

Thanks again to everyone who has read and especially to those who have reviewed this story. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Also, thank you to firstcatfish for beta reading this story for me. Everyone should go and check out her new story "Memories of Madness." It promises to be a very good one! You can find a link to it on my favorites page.

Now, without further ado…

Chapter 8

Sam woke to a persistent beeping sound, the noise coming from somewhere behind and to the right of him. He blinked open bleary eyes, fighting against the thick cobwebs of unconsciousness as he stared up at the white, nondescript ceiling.

He didn't have to look around to know that he was lying in a hospital bed. The sharp scent of antiseptic and the starched feel of the sheets against his skin were only all too familiar. Add to that the pain,…distant and muted by drugs, but still definitely there…the weakness, and the overwhelming weariness, and he would have known where he was blindfolded.

Letting out a low sigh, Sam rocked his head slowly back and forth on the pillow, taking in the small details in the room around him; the needle stuck deep in the crook of his right arm, the multiple IV bags hanging from the pole beside the bed, the blood pressure cuff around his upper arm, the pulse-ox meter taped to one finger, and the white bandages encasing his left arm. He also noticed the empty chair sitting in the far corner of the room, and he frowned at it, disturbed by its presence…or more accurately, disturbed by the fact that it was unoccupied.

Grabbing the remote stuck down between the mattress and the edge of the bed frame, he pushed the button to raise the head of the bed. As the top of his body slowly angled upward, he couldn't hold back a low hiss of discomfort as his side came alive with a fierce aching pain. Pushing back the blankets, he realized he was bare chested but for a large white bandage taped over his left side.

He blinked down at the bandage, trying to remember exactly what had happened to him.

It was just one of the many things he hated about hospitals; the drugs they gave him always made it hard for him to think, leaving him feeling disoriented and confused. Most of the time his brother or father were there to help fill in the gaps for him, but this time he was left floundering, and he couldn't help but throw an accusing glare across the room at the empty chair.

The door to his room suddenly swung open, admitting a pretty blond nurse carrying a clipboard. Glancing over and seeing him awake and sitting up, she gave him a huge grin. "Good to see you awake," she chirped, moving over to the bedside and running a critical eye over his form. "You gave us quite the scare, young man," she added firmly, as though Sam were a naughty two-year old who had purposefully caused trouble.

"Where am I?" Sam asked, still trying to clear his clouded thoughts. "What happened?"

"You're at Price Regional Hospital," the nurse replied succinctly, peering over his head to read the numbers off the machine recording his vital signs. "And a hundred and thirty-two stitches is what happened. Dr. Cooper says it's a new record for him."

Sam blinked up at her in surprise. A hundred and thirty-two stitches? It was a new record for him as well.

"You were unconscious when they brought you in," the nurse continued, jotting down the numbers from the machine onto the clipboard she carried. "And you had lost a lot of blood. We had to give you nearly 5 pints before your vitals stabilized. It was pretty touch and go for a while. Like I said, you gave us quite the scare." She turned and smiled at him again.

"What happened?" Sam repeated, reaching up carefully to rub wearily at his forehead. He had a headache building right behind his eyes, and the nurse's friendly chatter was not helping at all.

She finally took pity on him. "You were mauled by a mountain lion, sweetie. Don't you remember?"

For a split second Sam stared up at her in disbelief, but then his mind was suddenly filled with the vision of a giant cat sailing through the air at him, its mouth pulled back in a rictus snarl. Then, just as if someone had flipped a switch, his memory returned to him in a flood; Jeremiah's cabin, the cat attacking him, his father showing up, Dean torching the bones, getting in the helicopter for the ride to the hospital. It was there that his memories became hazy. He could remember taking off and the helicopter pilot talking to him, and then…nothing.

Biting his lower lip he glanced up at the nurse, noting the name tag on her right shoulder. "Lori, do you know what happened to my dad and brother?" he asked worriedly. "Another helicopter was supposed to bring them in."

Lori looked away, her fingers fiddling with the wires of the pulse-ox. "They're here," she replied carefully. "I think they're still downstairs in the ER."

"Is my brother okay?" Sam asked worriedly.

"I don't really know all the details, Sam," she answered, still not meeting his eyes as she pulled back the blanket to inspect the bandage on his side. "I can send someone to find out and then get back to you?"

Sam frowned, not really liking the way the nurse seemed to be purposely avoiding his gaze. Reading body language was something John had taught his sons at an early age, and right now Sam was fairly certain there was something Lori was not telling him.

"Yeah, okay, that'd be great," he replied softly.

Lori nodded and finished her inspection quickly. She asked him to rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, and Sam gave her a low number, not wanting any more pain meds that might make him drowsy until after he found out about his family. After asking if he needed anything else, Lori made one final notation on her clipboard and then slipped silently from the room.

Sam settled back against the pillows, unconsciously gnawing at the edges of his thumbnail as he waited, alone in his pain and worry. He knew he might be overreacting, but something about the nurse's hesitant behavior, combined with his own instincts told him something was definitely wrong. He pulled to his mind the last image of his brother as he'd walked away toward the waiting helicopter. He had glanced back at Dean, and his brother had smiled at him and given a thumb's up, assuring him that everything would be fine. And Sam had believed him…Sam always believed him.

He glanced at the clock on the wall, noting it was shortly after six. That meant almost four hours had passed since he had last seen his dad and brother. John had told him after lifting him into the helicopter that he would see Sam soon, and he knew only one thing could be keeping his dad from fulfilling that promise.

Something had happened with Dean.

The minutes seemed to tick by with agonizing slowness, and Sam couldn't seem to keep his gaze off the clock. He tried turning on the TV to distract his mind from all the maybes and what ifs, but after a half an hour of watching, he had yet to digest anything he had seen. The face of the clock seemed to swim through his vision, even when he was purposefully not looking at it, the seconds ticking a slow rhythm he thought he could feel resonating inside his head.

Finally, it was too much.

Sam reached for the remote beside his bed, intending to summon the nurse, but before his finger could find the button, the door swung open and his father stepped quietly into the room.

Sam jerked further upright in the bed, ignoring the sharp twinge of pain from his side and the sudden flare of nausea that the abrupt move ignited. "Dad," he gasped, feeling at once both relieved and nervous.

John shut the door gently behind him, then turned to face the bed. Any hope that Sam had held that he might be over-reacting, that nothing was terribly wrong after all, faded as soon as he caught sight of his father's face. John's expression was pinched and worried, a shadow lingering in his eyes that set Sam's heart racing.

"Dad?" Sam heard the fear in his voice, but didn't care. "Dad…where's Dean?

John hated hospitals in general, but if there was one portion that he disliked more than any other, it was the CCU. For some reason the smell of antiseptic was always stronger here, and the hush that permeated the air reminded him of the quiet of a graveyard at midnight. Death was a palpable presence in this part of the hospital, slipping soundlessly through the hallways and lurking in dark corners, waiting silently to claim its next victim.

But it's not taking Dean!

The thought flowed unbidden through his head, and he felt his hands tighten on the handles of the wheelchair in front of him. The ER doctor's words kept flowing through his head over and over again; punctured lung…respiratory distress…critical condition. The man had made sure John was aware of the seriousness of the situation, but the truth was, they didn't know Dean the way he did. His son was a fighter, as simple as that. He would pull through and be just fine. Considering anything less was not even an option for John.

Of course, that didn't mean he didn't realize exactly how close he had already come to losing his son. He could still remember gripping Dean tightly against him, encouraging his son to hold on, to just breathe. If the rescue helicopter had been only a few minutes later in arriving, and if the paramedic on board had not been familiar with the procedure necessary to intubate Dean and force air into his unresponsive body, then the Winchester family would currently be short one member. It was a harsh truth that left John feeling more than a little shaky.

This wasn't the first tough hunt his family had faced, but it was the first hunt where John had come so close to losing both his boys. He knew it would haunt him for some time to come.

A small sound from the chair in front of him pulled John from his thoughts, and he glanced down at the top of Sam's head as he steered the wheelchair toward the large double doors that would lead them back into the critical care unit. He couldn't see his son's face, but there was definitely a strain to Sam's breathing, and his grip on the armrests of the chair was white knuckled.

"You alright, kiddo?" John asked softly, reaching forward to press the intercom button next to the wide doors. They would have to be unlocked from within, as the CCU was a restricted access portion of the hospital.

A small grunt and a nod of his shaggy head was John's only answer, and he let out a small sigh, wondering not for the first time if he had made the right decision allowing Sam to make this trip. As soon as his youngest had learned the news about Dean, he had insisted that he needed to see him. John had tried to convince him to wait until the morning when he would hopefully feel a little stronger, but Sam had adamantly insisted that he needed to see Dean now!

Dr. Cooper, Sam's physician, had been dead set against this excursion, insisting that Sam's blood pressure was still too low and he needed to stay in the room and rest in order for his body to recuperate. Strangely enough, it had been this argument that had convinced John to allow Sam the trip. He knew there was absolutely no way his son would be able to relax enough to rest until he had been allowed to see his brother. At least, not without some heavy duty sedatives, which Dr. Cooper had already admitted he was hesitant to use lest they mess with Sam's already low blood pressure.

It hadn't been easy to convince the doctor, but eventually the man had worn down under John's arguments and Sam's pleading, agreeing to let Sam go on the condition that he only stay an hour.

Now, John hoped he had made the right decision. It had taken several minutes to get Sam unhooked from the multiple machines he was attached to and settled into the wheelchair, and by the end of it Sam's face had been a ghostly shade of white. John was half expecting his son to either throw up or pass out…or perhaps both. But with a visible effort, Sam had pulled himself together, an iron mask of determination slipping over his features, reminding John that Dean was not the only tough son he had.

There was a small buzz and click from the door as it was unlocked by someone on the other side, and then it swung slowly open, revealing the CCU. The special ward was laid out in a rough circle, with over a dozen small rooms surrounding a large nurses' station in the center of the unit. The walls of the rooms were made of glass, revealing neatly made beds and an array of medical equipment stashed in each one. Three of the rooms had curtains drawn across the doorway, and John immediately made out the name 'Dean Williams' scrawled in black marker on the nameplate of one of them. Even across the unit he could make out the whisper-hiss of the ventilator, and his insides seemed to twist nauseatingly in response to the sound.

A nurse moved from the station to come and greet them, smiling in a friendly manner. She obviously was expecting them, for she motioned them forward, leading the way to Dean's room without comment. John took a deep breath, reaching down to squeeze Sam's shoulder gently before silently moving forward after her.

Sam felt his stomach twist with apprehension as he slowly approached the curtained off area that marked Dean's room. He found it amazing that he could feel so anxious to see his brother, and yet dread it at the same time. He found himself holding his breath, the sound of the ventilator filling his ears as the nurse moved into the small room, lifting a hand to brush back the curtain surrounding the bed.

Sam's gaze immediately sought out Dean's form, tears springing unbidden to his eyes at the first glimpse of his injured brother. Dean looked surprisingly small beneath the mound of tubes and wiring that crisscrossed his slim form, the white tube protruding from his mouth looking like some monstrous deformity trying to force its way up and out of his body. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling to the steady rhythm of the ventilator, his features pale and drawn. A blanket covered him to mid-chest, showing off the top of the bandages binding his ribs, and another bandage wrapped around his head, replacing the strip of shirt Sam had used earlier. His arms were resting at his sides, and Sam could make out what looked like cloth handcuffs binding his brother's wrists to the rails of the bed.

This whole thing felt like a horrible nightmare, and he yearned to just wake up. Dean would be beside his bed, commiserating over his stitches, teasing him about the nurses, and encouraging him to sign his cast. That was what should have happened. That was the way it was supposed to be. He swallowed hard, fighting to keep the moisture pooling in his eyes from spilling over. Never in his life had he seen Dean looking so sick…so weak. The sight terrified him. He was having a hard time reconciling his final image of his brother…waving and giving him a thumbs up…with the still and broken figure before him. It just didn't seem possible.

"I'll let Doctor Morrison know you're here," the nurse said quietly, giving both Winchesters another small smile before leaving them alone in the tiny room.

John pushed Sam's chair up close beside the bed, and Sam reached out to touch his brother's arm, hesitating at the last moment. Dean looked so fragile, Sam was afraid the slightest touch might somehow hurt him.

"It's okay, Sam." John's gentle words reminded Sam that he wasn't alone, and he glanced up at his father, seeing an immense pool of emotion reflected in John's normally steady gaze. "You won't hurt him."

Sam nodded, allowing his hand to fall lightly against Dean's forearm amidst the tangle of wires and cords. "Hey man," he whispered, emotion making his throat tight. "What do you think you're doing…lying down on the job?"

The whisper-hiss of the ventilator was his only reply, and Sam fought to choke down a sob. Dean was so quiet, so still. It was unnerving because his brother was never this still. He was action and motion, always busy, always moving. Even when sleeping Dean tossed and turned, his body in constant need of motion. Sam hated seeing him like this…resembling a corpse more than his active and energetic brother.

A low cough from behind him had Sam twisting in the wheelchair, grimacing as the motion ignited a flare of pain along his side. A tall black man in a white coat stood just inside the room, observing them with a clinically detached expression.

"Dr. Morrison," John greeted. The doctor moved forward, reaching out to give John's hand a single shake before his gaze fell on Sam. "This is my son, Sam," John said by way of introduction, and Sam exchanged a simple nod with the man.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Dr. Morrison intoned in a deep voice, his facial expression never changing.

"How's Dean doing?" John asked, drawing Dr. Morrison's gaze from Sam.

"Your son is a very sick man, Mr. Williams," the doctor replied, his voice businesslike. "The lungs are a delicate organ, and once injured, it takes a while to heal." He stopped and cleared his throat, his eyes shifting to Dean's prone form. "With that much being said, I have to add that he is doing remarkably well, all things considered. His vitals have remained stable and he seems to be holding his own pretty well. We have him on the ventilator to give his lungs a chance to heal, but hopefully he will begin to breathe on his own again soon. Right now we are keeping him heavily sedated as he's already tried to pull the tubes out once."

Sam winced, glancing down at the strips of cloth binding his brother's wrists to the bed. He could only imagine the panic he would feel if he woke up with a tube stuck down his throat. He felt his fingers flex slightly, pressing against the skin of his brother's arm in an unconscious gesture of comfort.

"What about his other injuries?" John asked, his voice matching the doctor's in its business-like tone.

Doctor Morrison gave a small half-shrug. "He has some mild swelling around his brain indicative of a concussion, but nothing that overly concerns us. He's running a low grade fever, but that's not that surprising considering the extent of his injuries. We're monitoring it and as long as it doesn't get any worse, he should be fine. I've schedule some x-rays for his ankle tomorrow morning. They should tell us whether he'll need surgery later to set the bone correctly. We'll need to watch his lungs pretty closely over the next several days, but barring any unexpected complications, they should heal without the need for further surgical intervention. All in all, your son is a very lucky man, Mr. Williams."

Sam stared down at his brother, unsure if 'lucky' was a word he would use to describe Dean at the moment. His brother was a mess. Still, considering all they had gone through, he knew things could have been worse…much worse. It was a miracle Jeremiah hadn't killed Dean outright when he had thrown him off the cliff.

The doctor was saying something more, and with an effort Sam pulled his thoughts back to the present.

"Your father tells me it was you who put the clay on your brother's ankle," Dr. Morrison addressed Sam. "I must say, I'm impressed. It helped keep the ankle from shifting and causing more damage. Very well done, young man." The doctor offered the first hint of a smile.

Sam blinked up at him, his brain taking a moment to catch up with the doctor's words. When it did, he flushed and looked down at his lap. "Thanks," he mumbled.

"You should look into a career in medicine," Dr. Morrison continued. "We could use a few more 'out of the box' thinkers like you, if you ask me."

Sam felt his flush deepen, and wished that the doctor would just drop it already. "I already know what I want to be," he muttered in reply, his voice barely above a whisper. He could sense John's eyes on him, but couldn't bring himself to meet his father's gaze. Let his dad interpret that however he wanted. Sam was simply too tired to care anymore.

"Pity," Morrison replied, already turning toward the door of the room. "Let me know if you need anything further." And with that, he was gone.

Sam let out a long breath, leaning forward to rest his head against the guardrail of his brother's bed, his hand still gripping Dean's arm. A moment later he felt a hand settle against the back of his neck.

"Sammy?" John asked quietly. "Do you need to go back to your room?"

Sam shook his head, rolling his forehead against the hard plastic of the rail. He was exhausted, hurting and afraid, but right now he was exactly where he needed to be.

John was silent for a moment, and then the hand on the back of Sam's neck squeezed once and then lifted. Sam heard his father moving about the room, and looked up in time to see John pull an uncomfortable looking plastic chair up to the far side of Dean's bed. Sinking down into it with a small sigh, he reached out and placed a large, work-worn hand on top of Dean's. John's gaze found Sam's across the bed, a silent message passing between them with that single glance.

They would keep watch together. For now at least, Dean would not be alone.

The next morning, Sam was released from the hospital.

Upon his return to the room, Dr. Cooper had given him some pretty powerful pain killers, and despite his fear to the contrary, Sam had slept soundly through the night. If he was plagued by any bad dreams, he did not remember them. He awoke in the early morning feeling stiff and sore, but otherwise much better. He even managed to maneuver his way to the bathroom on his own, and if his steps resembled a ninety year old, he at least made it there without pitching face first onto the floor.

He longed for a hot shower but had to settle for a warm washcloth and a bar of soap instead. By the time he was done washing his face and as much of the rest of his body as he could easily reach, he was out of breath and shaky, and had to move back to the bed before he fell down.

The next hour passed by in a blur. A nurse came by to take his vitals and give him some more pills, which Sam took without question. Shortly after, a breakfast tray was brought in, the tantalizing smell of bacon and coffee making his stomach rumble and reminding him that it had been some time since he had last eaten.

He was halfway through the tray when his father showed up, entering with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a familiar brown duffel in the other. Sam eyed the duffel with barely concealed excitement, knowing it contained his spare clothes and toiletry items. Obviously his father had gone and picked up Dean's car, which would explain why he hadn't been in the room when Sam woke.

"How ya feeling, son?" John asked softly, dropping the duffel at the bottom of the bed and running a critical eye over Sam's form.

"Better," Sam replied honestly. "Have you been up to see Dean yet this morning?"

John shook his head, moving over to stand by the window. "The CCU won't open to visitors until nine," he replied simply, gazing out the window into the hazy morning light. Sam waited for him to say more, but his father remained silent, staring out the window and sipping at his coffee. He looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes and a weary slump to his shoulders. The nurse had told Sam that John had stayed at the hospital all night, sitting in the chair beside his bed and only leaving for the occasional cup of coffee. Even though he had been too out of it to know his father was there, Sam found he was strangely grateful that he had stayed.

He turned back to his breakfast, no longer feeling hungry but knowing that he would need the energy the food would provide in order to make it through the day. He was just finishing up the last of his eggs when there was a knock on the door, and Dr. Cooper entered.

Sam eyed the man warily, wondering if the doctor was still upset at being strong-armed into allowing Sam to see his brother. He knew from all too much experience that a determined Winchester was a force to be reckoned with, and last night, the man had done an admirable job trying to face down two of them. He had failed, of course, but Sam still had to respect the fact that he had tried.

If Dr. Cooper was still feeling upset about the incident, he didn't show it, smiling at Sam and moving to stand next to the bed. "How are you feeling this morning, young man?" he asked brightly, peering down at Sam intently. "You certainly look much better…less pale."

Sam nodded. "I feel much better, thank you."

Dr. Cooper nodded. "Glad to hear it. Now let's take a peek at those stitches, shall we?" He quickly pulled on some sterile gloves and then gently reached out to peel back the bandages on Sam's side. Looking down, Sam couldn't help but wince at the four rows of neat black sutures marching across his ribs. There were a lot of them, and he knew he was going to have a pretty spectacular scar when all was said and done. Dean would be jealous.

"Very good," Dr. Cooper stated brightly, replacing the bandage and moving on to check Sam's arm. "Stitches seem to be holding well, your blood pressure is back to normal, and you're not running a fever. Ready to get out of here, Sam?"

Sam nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, sir." He was anxious to get back up to Dean. He had been glancing toward the clock every few minutes all morning, yearning for the freedom to go and see his brother again."

"Well, I already have Karen working on your release paperwork. It will include detailed instructions on how to take care of your wounds, a prescription for antibiotics and some pain meds, and when you need to come back to get the stitches removed. Make sure you take all of the antibiotics, and if you start experiencing any problems…severe pain, bleeding through the stitches, swelling or fever…come back here right away, okay?"

Sam nodded his understanding, having been through this whole spiel on more than one occasion. He had dealt with stitches before, if not ever this many at once.

"Just make sure you take it easy for the next couple of days," Dr. Cooper went on. "Your body's been through quite the ordeal, and it's going to take a while for you to fully recover. You'll need plenty of rest, and don't be surprised if you feel a little shaky at times."

Before he could reply, John spoke up quietly from across the room. "Don't worry, doc. I'll take good care of him. I promise."

Sam glanced over to find his father's gaze locked on him. His words had been directed at the doctor, but Sam couldn't help but think that his dad was talking to him as well. He gave a small smile, hoping his father would recognize the unspoken gratitude in his expression. John gave him a tired smile in return, along with a small nod of his head.

"As Sam is still a minor, I'll need your signature on the paperwork," Dr. Cooper informed him, turning toward the door and giving Sam one last glance. "Please don't hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns. My extension will be on the paperwork, so you can call me directly."

"Thanks," Sam replied sincerely. Despite their argument the previous night, he found he liked the friendly warmth of Dr. Cooper much more than the cold indifference of Dr. Morrison.

Once John had left with the doctor to sign the release paperwork, Sam carefully maneuvered out of bed and began the slow and painful process of getting dressed. He settled on dark sweat pants and a loose fitting button up shirt, aiming for comfort rather than style. He was just finishing up when his father re-entered the room, pushing a wheelchair in front of him.

Sam sighed softly at the sight of the chair, but he didn't bother trying to argue against it. He always felt ridiculous rolling along in one of those, but if he was honest, he would have to admit that this time he was grateful for it. Just the act of getting dressed had left him feeling weak and shaky, and the thought of walking up to the CCU was not a pleasant one.

"Am I a free man now?" he asked, sinking down into the chair, his duffel resting on his lap.

"Free and ready to go," John answered. "I also went down to the hospital's pharmacy and picked up your prescriptions." He handed a white paper sack over Sam's shoulder.

"Thanks," Sam mumbled, slipping the bag down into the edge of his duffel. "I'm ready."

The next twelve hours were some of the longest in Sam's life.

He did not leave Dean's side at all, except for a few needed personal moments in the small bathroom next to the room. Despite his growing weariness, he didn't allow himself to sleep either, but kept his quiet vigil, alternating between watching the small TV over Dean's bed and speaking softly to his brother, his words an offering of encouragement and comfort. He knew Dean couldn't hear him, but he hoped on some deep level his brother would be able to sense his presence and know he was not alone.

John also remained faithfully by his son's side, leaving only a handful of times; twice for some coffee, once to grab some sandwiches for them from the cafeteria, and once to make a few phone calls. It was the most time Sam could remember being in his father's presence in a long time without some sort of argument ensuing. He was glad John was there, his father's voice picking up his words of encouragement and reassurance when Sam's faltered in the face of his brother's continual lack of response.

Nurses filtered in throughout the day, and even Doctor Morrison made several appearances, checking monitors and delivering medication through the IV ports. Occasionally the machine operating the respirator would let off a series of loud beeps. The first time it had happened, Sam had jerked upright in his chair, exchanging an alarmed look with his father. His panic was short lived, however, as a nurse informed them that the beeps were merely indicating that Dean's lungs were attempted to work on their own. "It's a good thing," she told them gently. "It means they are beginning to heal and he's starting to want to regulate his own breathing."

After that, Sam began to listen for the beeps eagerly, his gaze searching his brother's face for any sign that Dean might be waking up. But as the hours dragged by with no change, he felt his hopes slowly dwindling. He knew they were still keeping Dean heavily sedated, and as frustrated as that knowledge made him, he could also understand the need. He wanted Dean awake, but he knew his brother was probably better off unaware. Dean would only panic if he woke now, a tube shoved down his throat and a machine breathing for him. Still, it didn't stop him from wishing for a glimpse of those familiar green irises.

Time lost all meaning for Sam, and so it came as somewhat of a surprise when a nurse appeared to tell them that visiting hours for the CCU were over and they would have to leave. Sam blinked up at her wearily, feeling more drained and exhausted than he cared to admit, but still ready to argue for the chance to stay for just a little bit longer.

The nurse never gave him the chance. "The best thing you can do for your brother right now is to go home and get some rest," she stated in a firm but gentle voice. "You won't be doing him any good if you make yourself sick. Don't worry, we'll take good care of him."

"She's right, Sam," John spoke up from across the bed, slowly rising to his feet and moving around to stand next to Sam's chair. "You look like death warmed over, son. It's time you get some rest."

Sam wasn't sure his father had any room to talk…he couldn't remember ever seeing the man looking so rough…but he realized that arguing wasn't going to get him anywhere. Besides, he was simply too tired to make the necessary effort.

After promising Dean's silent form that he would be back first thing in the morning, Sam allowed his father to wheel him from the room, looking back for a final glimpse of his brother before the nurse drew the curtain closed. He suddenly felt empty and lost, drifting at sea without a lifeboat.

They ate a quick and mostly silent meal in the hospital cafeteria, and then walked a block and a half to a nearby hotel. It was a lot nicer than the usual places they frequented, with an actual running fountain in the main lobby and free HBO and Wi-Fi offered in every room. Sam barely noticed. Exhaustion sat heavy on his shoulders, muting sounds and turning faces into indistinct blurs.

Once they got to their room, John shoved a handful of pills at Sam, along with a glass of water.

Sam swallowed the pills without argument, then collapsed gingerly onto the nearest bed. The sheets were soft, the pillows comfortable, and in his current state Sam should have gone right to sleep. Instead, he tossed and turned, his side and arm throbbing with persistent pain, the image of his brother's still, pale face haunting him every time he closed his eyes.

Eventually, the painkillers kicked in, and he was finally able to drift to sleep. Dreams haunted him, indistinct and unformed, like shadows dogging his footsteps, feeding off his fear and uncertainty. He woke several times, tangled amongst the blankets, shaking and sweating. The overwhelming sense of emptiness and loss refused to leave him, and his throat burned with the effort of holding back tears. He could hear the even breathing of his father from the other bed, but even that familiar sound failed to work to comfort him.

What he really needed was Dean.

In the early hours of the morning, sheer exhaustion eventually won the battle for his subconscious, and he finally drifted into the deeper realms of sleep, to a place where his nightmares could not follow.

He woke hours later to a rough hand on his shoulder, his father's voice urging him toward consciousness. He blinked open blurry eyes, surprised to see the bright sunlight filtering in around the edges of the curtains. "'M awake," he muttered drowsily, lifting one hand to rub at his gritty eyes. His mouth was dry, like he had swallowed a cotton ball, and his limbs felt heavy and unresponsive. He was half tempted to simply roll over, lift the blanket over his head, and go back to sleep. But his need to see Dean outweighed even his weariness, and with a low groan he used his right arm to push himself upright, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.

John moved away, returning a moment later with more pills and another glass of water. Sam took them with a nod of appreciation, then glanced toward the alarm clock sitting on the table beside the bed. He nearly choked on the pills when he saw the red digits, the readout showing him that it was nearly 10:30.

He cast his father a slightly accusing look. "Why didn't you wake me earlier?" he demanded, pushing himself off the bed and glancing around for his duffel bag.

John shrugged. "You needed the sleep," he replied simply, his gaze unapologetic.

Sam couldn't exactly argue with that, so he merely grabbed his duffel and headed for the bathroom. Despite his desire to get back to the hospital as soon as possible, he decided to try for a shower. It took some creative maneuvering to avoid soaking the bandages on his arm and side, but by the time he turned off the water and stepped from the shower, he felt more alert and refreshed than he had in days. Even the muted pain in his side and arm seemed somehow more tolerable.

He dressed quickly, exiting the bathroom to find his father waiting patiently at the small table in the corner.

"You need to eat something?" John stated, holding out a plastic wrapped pastry. "I figured you probably wouldn't want to stop and grab something from the hospital cafeteria, so I grabbed this from the vending machine at the end of the hall."

Sam took the offered pastry with a nod, then glanced toward the coffee maker at the edge of the table. "Any coffee left?" he asked.

John grabbed one of the paper cups next to the machine and silently poured him a cup, adding two packets of sugar and a creamer before passing it over. Sam felt his eyebrows climb in surprise. He'd had no idea that his dad knew how he liked his coffee. It was an observation that he would have expected from Dean, certainly, but not necessarily his father. John wasn't exactly the most observant…at least not when it came to his sons.

As if he could read his thoughts, his father gave him a small smile before turning to sweep his gaze across the room. "Dean would like this place," he commented casually. "No suspicious stains on the sheets."

Sam let out a small huff of laughter, tearing the wrapper from his pastry and downing half of it in a single bite. "The stains don't bother me," he replied around his mouthful of food. "It's the smells that always drive me crazy."

John let out a low chuckle, and Sam found himself relaxing slightly. He couldn't remember the last time he had sat down and eaten a meal…albeit a pretty pathetic one…alone with his father. He decided he couldn't include last night in the hospital cafeteria, as he had been half unconscious at the time and there had been no conversation. It was nice, but at the same time it somehow made him miss his brother even more. He had realized a long time ago that Dean was what made their family a family…without him, they would have crumbled apart a long time ago.

"Let's go," he said suddenly, feeling his earlier anxiousness to get to the hospital return. He quickly swallowed the last of the pastry, washing it down with his coffee. His father didn't say anything, merely finished his own coffee and then rose and followed Sam to the door.

Sam used the short walk back to the hospital to mentally prepare himself for the day ahead. Dean had always been there for him, through thick and thin, and now it was Sam's turn to return the favor. He was determined not to let his brother down.

They had just reached the hospital entrance when John's cell phone began to ring. Sam paused at the door, watching as his father pulled the phone from his pocket. He glanced at the caller ID, then looked over at Sam. "Pastor Jim," he informed, flipping the phone open.

Sam bit his lower lip, glancing longingly toward the hospital doors. He glanced back at his father and found John silently waving him onward. Sam gave him a quick nod, then slipped into the building, heading straight toward the elevators.

He arrived at the CCU five minutes later. He was halfway to his brother's room when his mind suddenly registered the unnatural quiet around him. He missed a step, stumbling slightly when he realized the whisper hiss of the ventilator was glaringly absent. He felt his heart beginning to pound in his chest, hope and fear blossoming in equal parts. In front of him, he could hear the low murmur of voices from behind the curtain leading into Dean's room.

Stepping forward, he reached up and grabbed the curtain, sweeping it aside and quickly taking in the scene before him. Dr. Morrison and two nurses looked up in startled surprise at Sam's sudden entrance, but he barely noticed them, his eyes glued to the figure on the bed between them; the figure that was currently sitting up against a mound of pillows, looking tired and drained, but very much awake. The breathing tube was gone, and though Dean still had more wires attached to him than a telephone pole, the very fact that he was awake and breathing on his own sent a thrill of joy through Sam that almost had him yelling out loud.

Dean glanced in his direction, green eyes meeting hazel, and Sam felt a wave of relief wash over him, the force nearly buckling his legs. One corner of Dean's mouth turned up slightly, and then he spoke, his voice soft and rough, and yet the most beautiful sound Sam had ever heard.

"Hiya, Sammy."

It was a warm afternoon, the sun shining down from a clear blue sky and birdsong drifting on the morning breeze. In the distance, church bells were calling the faithful to worship, while the distant buzz of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly cut grass filled the air. All in all, it was a beautiful day.

Dean barely noticed any of it as he shifted impatiently in the wheelchair, his neck craned to the side as he anxiously watched the front drive for any sign of his beloved Impala. He had no idea what could be keeping Sam so long, but if his brother didn't show up soon, he was going to get out of this chair and start walking, broken ankle be damned. Over a week in the hospital, and he was more than ready to get the hell out of dodge.

They would be heading to Pastor Jim's. His father had made the announcement while Dean was waiting for his release paperwork. He had informed them that they would be staying there for at least a month, giving both boys a chance to rest and recover. He had also mentioned getting Sam pre-registered in the nearby high-school, his gaze locked on Dean while he spoke.

Dean had merely nodded, his gaze dropping to his lap, his mind a swirl of at-war emotions. On the one hand he felt a small thrill of victory, knowing that Sam would be able to stay at one school and work on getting the perfect grades he so desperately wanted. On the other hand, if this plan worked, and if he was correct about Sam's intentions, then he had to face the unsettling fact that all too soon his brother would be leaving. The fear of that moment was strong enough that he could feel his earlier determination waiver. Nothing had changed, he still wanted to see Sam safe, but he was beginning to wonder if he had acted too hastily, if there might not be a different way, a better way, of achieving that goal…one that didn't involve Sam leaving them.

'But that's what he wants,' a traitorous voice whispered in the back of his mind, and try as he might he could not banish it. It had been enough to sour his mood for the rest of the morning, despite the relief over his imminent release.

The familiar roar of the Impala's engine caught Dean's attention, and he sat up straighter in the chair, a small smile on his face at the sight of the shiny, black car turning into the hospital's front drive, his father's truck following closely behind.

"Nice wheels."

Dean jerked in surprise. The orderly standing behind his chair had been so silent that he'd almost forgotten the man's presence. "Thanks," he replied, his smile slipping into something more resembling a smirk. He was proud of his baby and always appreciated when others saw her beauty, not just her age.

The Impala pulled to a stop and Sam jumped out, hurrying around to open the passenger side door. The orderly wheeled the chair directly up to the car, and Dean prepared to lever himself up and out of the chair and over into the car. Suddenly, he felt Sam's hand reach out to grasp his elbow, his brother leaning over and invading his space in his effort to be helpful.

"Dude, I've got it," Dean ground out, fighting for patience. "It's like two feet!"

He was so done being babied. Sam had been mother hen extraordinaire for the last week, and Dean had graciously put up with it, knowing he owed his brother something for almost dying on him. But enough was enough, and if Sam thought the coddling was going to continue now that Dean was released from the hospital, he was quickly going to learn differently.

A hurt expression flashed briefly across Sam's face as he backed away slightly, and Dean found himself fighting down a sigh. He quickly levered himself up and over, sliding into the passenger seat, his right leg stuck out awkwardly in front of him. He had to fight back a grimace as his numerous bruises let their presence be known, but in a second he was sinking down into the seat, breathing deeply the familiar fragrance of his car.

He felt himself begin to relax for the first time in a week. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back, soaking in the comforting warmth of the seat through the thin cotton of his shirt.

The door slammed shut, and he heard Sam saying something to the orderly, then the driver's door opened and the rustle of cloth signified Sam had joined him in the car. He waited for several long seconds, but when the car failed to move, he opened one eye to peer over at his brother. Just as he had suspected, Sam was watching him while trying to pretend not to.

"You have to shift it into drive in order to go, Sammy," Dean mumbled, opening both eyes and sitting up straighter in the seat. "If you don't think you can handle it, I can take over…"

Sam smiled ruefully, flushing slightly as he shifted the car into gear and slowly pulled out of the hospital's drive. "So, how are you feeling?" he asked a moment later, his voice slightly too nonchalant.

This time Dean didn't bother stifling the sigh. "I'm fine, Sammy," he growled, repeating himself for the millionth time in just one day. He had a slight headache, enough bruises on his back and chest to earn him a spot as the main display in a modern art exhibit, and a freakin' uncomfortable cast encasing his right ankle. Altogether, he couldn't help but think he was pretty darn lucky. Back in the park, he had been certain he was going to die.

Sam didn't push it, for which Dean was extremely grateful. Instead he merely asked, "What do you want to listen to?"

Dean leaned his head back against the warm glass of the window, shrugging his shoulders as he watched the town slipping by outside. "You choose," he offered. "Just none of that emo 'my-heart-can't-go-on-without-you' crap. I don't want to throw up inside my baby."

It was Sam's turn to sigh, but he obediently turned the car's radio to a station playing rock from the 80s and 90s. He kept the volume low, for which Dean was grateful. Normally he would have put full use to the car's amazing speaker system, but this morning he didn't think his head could handle it.

"So, what are the rangers saying about everything that happened?" he asked, watching as the town disappeared behind them to be replaced by rolling hills and tall trees. "They still saying the attacks were caused by some form of rabies?"

"I don't think they know what to think," Sam answered, shrugging one shoulder. "Last I heard they had gone in and tranquillized a bunch of the wildlife in order to pull samples. My guess is it's probably going to take them a while before they figure out there's no longer a problem."

Dean let out a grunt. He didn't really care what the rangers made of all this. They had done their job and now people would be safe again. In the end, that was all that mattered.

Sam suddenly let out a low chuckle, causing Dean to arch a questioning eyebrow in his direction. "Something funny, Francis?"

"Dad got interviewed by the news," Sam blurted out, the amusement in his voice evident.

Dean felt his eyebrows shoot all the way up into his hairline. "No way," he retorted, staring at Sam and wondering if his brother was trying to get one by him. John's number one rule was to stay out of the public's line of sight. Always. No matter what. No exceptions. Period.

"Yep," Sam replied, his grin widening. "Apparently a lady reporter cornered him in the cafeteria. According to Dad, she was very…tenacious."

Dean stared at his brother, then slowly shook his head back and forth. "What did he say?" he finally asked, still half expecting Sam to tell him he was just pulling his leg.

"Oh, just the same story we came up with at the cabin…about our 'fishing accident.' It was in the paper a few days ago. She called us 'heroic survivors.'"

Dean let out a small huff. "Well, that's better than what most people call us," he snorted, turning his attention back to the passing scenery and making a mental note to get his hands on a copy of the article. After all, it was important to gather mementos for once in a lifetime events.

The thought of mementos reminded him of something, and with a sudden grin he twisted carefully around, reaching for the straps of his duffel bag sitting in the back seat.

"What are you doing?" Sam asked, glancing worriedly in his direction.

"Here," Dean grunted, locating the correct pocket of his duffel. "I know it's not your birthday or anything Sammy, but I got you something. You know, for all your help in the hospital and for just being there for me…"

Sam frowned. "Dean, you didn't have to do that," he objected, his expression earnest. "I'm your brother, of course I'm going to be there for you."

"Oh, but I did have to do it, Sammy. I really, really, did." Dean retorted.

Something in his voice must have tipped Sam off, because his expression suddenly turned wary. Before he could say anything, Dean pulled the gift from the bag and plopped it down on Sam's lap, a vicious grin spreading across his face.

"What the…" Sam groaned, his eyes flashing from the road and down onto his lap. "You have got to be kidding me. Seriously, Dean, how old are you?!"

Dean couldn't help it. He burst out laughing, one hand wrapping protectively around his protesting ribs. "Ahh, Sammy. You should have seen your face," he chortled, his laughter picking up a notch at the disgusted look on his brother's face.

"Yeah, yeah…hilarious," Sam groused, grabbing the stuffed cat and flinging it into the back seat. "Are you sure you ever grew out of puberty?"

Dean continued to chuckle, turning to watch the scenery fly by outside the Impala. From the corner of his eye, he saw a quick grin flash across his brother's face…one he was certain he was not supposed to see.

He leaned back against the side of the passenger door, feeling truly relaxed for the first time. He allowed all thoughts of the future, of Sam and college, and everything else to fade from his mind.

They were together now, and for the moment, that was all he needed. For the moment, that was enough.

"So, Pastor Jim's," he stated, stretching his casted leg further beneath the dash to relieve a growing cramp in his knee. He let his head fall back against the glass, his eyes drifting closed.

"Yeah," Sam replied, his voice taking on a contemplative tone. "Should be a nice change of pace, huh?"

Dean smiled, not bothering to open his eyes. "Sure. And you'll get a chance to catch up with your girlfriend. What was her name again? Melanie? Mellissa?"

Sam's indignant splutters were lost beneath the low purr of the Impala as she gracefully swept down the road.

The End.

Hope you all enjoyed! Thanks for sticking with me throughout this story. Please let me know what you think!