Half an hour later

Dean paced. He damned near wore grooves in the reception area floor while his heart hammered away in his chest and his head throbbed with a pulse of its own. That bastard had obviously managed to clip him somehow and the gash in his scalp probably warranted attention, but that would have to wait.

He had stood by the door, watching the doc and her nurses work on Sam until they got to the point where they opened him up again to clean out the wound. Dean had felt himself forced to withdraw, to divert his attention away from what was happening in there to keep his stomach at bay. The mix of mental trauma, alcohol and a head wound didn't go over well and he knew he was going to crash once Sam was out of the woods. But until that happened, he couldn't afford to let down his guard.

Sudden commotion in the examination room drew his attention and he hurried over to the door again. The nurses had that hectic look on their faces that spelled trouble and the doc had the defibrillator pads on Sam's chest. Dean clenched both hands into fists and watched in tense silence as they shocked his little brother again and again. "Come on, man," he whispered hoarsely. "You can't leave me, Sam."

As if in reply to his plea, the flat line on the cardiac monitor started jumping again and Dean let out a slow breath.

The doc backed off, put the pads away and glanced over at the door as if she could sense his presence. The smile she gave him was a bit shaky and whatever concern he had felt before escalated. The fact that she hadn't been able to determine what was wrong with Sam before Dean had turned up had struck him as odd, but not so much that he would have reconsidered bringing Sam here. Now, however, he started to worry for real. This woman didn't seem good enough to deal with something as severe as an abdominal wound and her shaky smile had cemented that feeling in him. She was out of her league. All Dean could hope for was that she knew it and would acknowledge it.

He briefly closed his eyes and tried to steel himself. He couldn't barge in there now and take Sam away. He had to see it through, had to let her do her thing and for once in his life have faith in that his firsthand impression might be wrong. Dean wasn't big on trusting others. He had trusted his father and he trusted Sam and that was the extent of his trust in others. Whenever he had to put his life in other people's hands, he always expected the worst. Whenever he had to put Sam's life in other people's hands, he nearly broke.

As the women in there returned to working on Sam rather than trying to shock him back to life, Dean broke away from the door once more and started pacing again. There was that heavy feeling in his head that he couldn't subdue, the burning in his eyes, the constriction of his throat. He knew the signs and he hated them. No amount of tears were going to change anything here. They never had and they never would. He couldn't give in to the beast of hopelessness that lay coiled in the pit of his stomach, beginning to stir awake, clawing at his insides to be let out. He wouldn't let it. Not while there was still a chance Sam would make it through this. 'He has to,' he insisted in his mind, then glanced up at the ceiling. 'Dad, if ever there was a time that I needed you, this is it. If you're out there, you better watch over him. I need him,' he added silently as he came to a stop at the twin front doors.

What little town there was of Fort Belknap lay two miles to the North of where they were right now. The few buildings surrounding the Critical Access Hospital lay to the South and the view across the road was only obscured by one low building and behind that there was nothing as far as the eye could see. The sky was clear, the black canopy above broken at the horizon by a faint orange glimmer that grew stronger while he stood there and watched. A brief glance at his watch told him that it had been no more than six hours since this nightmare had begun. He felt as if 'normal' was a lifetime ago at this point.

He knew he should be tired, but he felt alert and clear-headed, ready for action. How long the adrenaline rush would keep him going was a question he didn't think too much about, though.

***

It took another hour before the doc finally stepped out of the examination room, looking tired and drawn and not very sure of herself.

Dean eyed her. "How is he?" he asked, his tone tense.

"Well, we cleaned out the wound, put in a few drains and closed the whole thing up again," she said. "As you noticed, he crashed once, but the readings are encouraging. His heart rate is steady and he's breathing on his own. But there is a bit of an infection and ... to be honest, Dean, the next twenty-four hours are going to be critical."

"In other words?" he asked, his hands buried in his pockets, his tone a bit steely by now.

She eyed him, obviously saw what was going through his head right now, and made a face. "In other words, Dean, I would much rather have Sam transferred to the hospital in Lewistown. I have never dealt with anything like this before. I know this is a critical access hospital, but ... we're small fry compared to the bigger hospitals. We don't get many critical cases here."

He generally felt like she had smacked him across the face. There was a hospital in Lewistown. He should have know that, should have taken Sam there straight away instead of going here. He pursed his lips, forcing the wave of guilt back. He would have to deal with that later. Right now, he needed to stay focused. "Well, then have him transferred to Lewistown," he countered.

Doc Wilder nodded, her expression one of borderline defeat. "I'll have Bettina arrange it," she agreed. "She just needs your details to make it happen." Her expression turned a bit cautious. "You do have insurance, don't you?"

Dean eyed her for a second, then nodded once. "Yeah, sure we do," he said. He was always a bit uncertain about using the health insurance cards he applied for. For small things like when Sam had broken his wrist and needed a cast, it wasn't an issue. But this was a big thing; a lengthy period with constant care was needed, and he knew that the risk of leaving Sam in the hospital for too long was that some officious bastard might start questioning their latest scammed card and investigate further.

Doc Wilder nodded. "Just give your card to Bettina and she'll handle the rest," she said. "He'll be fine. Don't you worry," she added and patted his arm before pushing past him to disappear into the back of the building.

Moments later, the dark-haired nurse came over to him, a smile on her lips. "Let's deal with the paperwork and get it out of the way, okay?" she suggested, took his arm and pushed him lightly toward the reception desk.

Dean glanced back at the examination room door and sighed. He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and handed her the card.

Nurse Bettina eyed the card for a moment. "Daniel Weatherly?" she asked and glanced up at him. The card had been issued to Daniel Weatherly and Dean had to think fast to explain why Sam had called him Dean.

"Dean's a nickname. Dates back to when we were kids and Sammy couldn't pronounce Daniel," he said with a crooked grin.

"Ah," Nurse Bettina said and obviously bought the explanation.

"It just kind of stuck, you know?" he continued with a smile. "I'll be damned if I know how to change his mind about that too. It's like he hasn't aged a day and ... well, you know. He's my kid brother. I let it slide."

Nurse Bettina glanced at him, but said nothing while she checked the information through the computer. Then she handed the card back to him. "Thank you. You just need to sign a few things," she said and handed him the papers.

"Can I see Sam?" he asked while quickly scrawling his fake signature onto the pages before handing them back to her.

Nurse Bettina sent a quick look across the reception area, pursed her lips and then nodded. "Sure. Just don't try to wake him up. He'll be in enough pain as it is. The more he sleeps, the better it is," she said.

Dean nodded, stuffed his wallet back in his back pocket and walked over to the door. He stopped outside and stared in at Sam for a moment. The other nurse – he had forgotten her name – had tidied up and for all intents and purposes it looked like Sam was just taking a nap. The machinery around him was hard to ignore, though, and when he opened the door, the slow yet steady ping of the cardiac monitor tore down any remaining illusions of this being a restful sleep.

He closed the door behind him and leaned back against it. "Damn it, Sammy," he muttered and pressed his lips together into a thin line. Even in unconsciousness Sam's brow was dotted with beads of perspiration, his hair moist with it. Two IV-bags were connected to his right arm and wires snaked away from his chest to the machines monitoring his vital signs.

Whenever Dean was forced to spend any time in hospitals, he usually skimmed right through it by cracking jokes and flirting with the nurses. But this time was so different it was tearing him up inside. Critical injuries had been the norm in their lives, but never like this. The injuries had never been sustained in this way before and Sam had never been at the receiving end of it. Granted, he'd had his share of injuries that needed medical attention and sometimes even a hospital, but never anything like this. Even up until the time that Sam had left for college, Dean would have thought of him as an innocent. Sure, Sam knew how to hunt and could shoot the bad guys when he had to, but he had always had a big heart and he had always been the one to ask questions first and shoot later. Somehow Dean feared that this quality in his brother, that he had always admired silently, would be gone now.

For every injury Sam sustained, for every person out there that let him down, for every life he couldn't save and for every lunatic he couldn't avoid, a bit more of his innocense was chipped away. At some point, there would be nothing left and then what? Would Dean have to do what Dad had told him he might have to?

He shook his head lightly, pushed away from the door and stepped up beside the table, that served as a bed for now. Without consciously thinking about what he did, he reached out and pushed moist bangs away from Sam's brow. "There is no way I will ever be able to do anything to hurt you, little brother," he whispered. "No way."

Sam stirred, shifted his head a little.

"Easy, Sammy. It's okay. You'll be fine," Dean muttered soothingly, repeating a very worn phrase that dated back to that night when Dad had put his baby brother in his arms and told him to get out of the house and not look back. He had said those words to Sam that night, standing out on the curb, watching his childhood home go up in flames with his mom still in it. He could not count how many times he had said it since, but it had been quite a few.

Dean pulled over a chair and sat down on it, then took Sam's hand carefully in his. He only held Sam's hand when he was unconscious or frantic. Under normal circumstances he wouldn't be caught dead holding his brother's hand, but that was only for show. A vague smirk tugged at one corner of his lips, but it died as fast as it had appeared. Over the past twelve hours Sam had died on him twice and he couldn't stomach the thought of losing him.

"Now, you listen to me, Sammy, and you listen good, okay?" he said quietly. "If you ever do something like this again..." He trailed off with a sigh. "Who am I kidding? Even when you're unconscious, you're not hearing me. What the hell am I supposed to do about this, dude? This isn't small. This is huge. You're going to be out of commission for a good long while, man, and we don't even have a frigging home to take you back to so you can relax and heal." He wrapped his other hand lightly over Sam's. "How the hell am I supposed to keep you safe if this sort of shit happens?" he whispered and briefly had to fight back the tears once again rising in his eyes. "I can't let my guard down around you, can I? I'll just have to be on my toes from now on."

The first smokey fingers of fatigue started stirring in the back of his head and he briefly closed his eyes, trying to steel himself against the coming days. Twenty-four hours, the doc had said. Twenty-four hours of not knowing whether his baby brother would pull through. He hated waiting, hated not being able to act. The worst enemy he knew was the one he couldn't fight physically.

Sam's fingers suddenly tensed around his hand and he looked up to meet eyes bright with pain. "Dean?" he whispered, his voice barely audible.

"Hey, Sammy," Dean countered with a grin on his lips as the armor slid back into place. "How're you feeling, dude?"

Sam just stared at him for a moment, then blinked, his reactions painfully slow. "Been ... better," he confessed and managed a ghost of a smile. It was the barest tug on the corners of his lips.

"Yeah, I bet," Dean agreed, patted his hand and tried to let go.

But Sam's fingers tightened even more, holding on. He swallowed hard. "Don't ... leave ... me," he whispered.

It was a simple plea, delivered in a nearly non-existent voice, but it cut Dean deeply that Sam would even think he might consider going anywhere. "I never would, little brother," he assured him. "You just rest easy. Get as much sleep as you can. I'm not lugging your ass around in a wheelchair for a month, so you better heal up fast."

The attempt at a joke fell flat when Sam's face scrunched up in pain and his grip on Dean's hand became painfully hard. He had tried to move and was now paying for it. The cardiac monitor's formerly slow beat sped up, becoming a cacophony of noise. Dean rose and leaned in over Sam. "Hey, Sammy, calm down. You've crashed twice. This isn't exactly good for your heart, man," he tried, hoping somehow that he could talk Sam through this. But his brother twisted, shifted involuntarily to get away from the pain and thereby only caused himself more. He whimpered in agony, his grip on Dean's hand tensing even more.

"I told you not to wake him up," Nurse Bettina snapped from the door.

He hadn't heard her come in because his attention had been solely on Sam. "I didn't," he countered.

"Step back," she ordered, her tone strict.

Dean was standing, but he had no intention of leaving Sam's side. Sam wouldn't let him anyway. Nurse Bettina grabbed a syringe, filled it with something clear and injected that into the IV connected to Sam's arm. It took a moment, but eventually his crushing hold on Dean's hand loosened slightly and then his hand grew slack.

Then Nurse Bettina turned around to face Dean, her expression as strict as her voice had been. "I think it's time you left," she said, folded her arms over her chest and eyed him.

Dean met her gaze dead on. "I'm not going anywhere," he countered.

"You are disturbing the patient. The ambulance is an hour away and I don't want you in here with him until they arrive. Now get out," she said, nodding toward the door.

Dean took a step forward. "Don't make me get rude," he warned. "I am not leaving my brother and that's final."

Obviously there was something in his tone that worked on the woman, because her resolve to intimidate him wavered visibly. "Your brother needs all the rest he can get and you're not helping," she snapped nonetheless.

"You bitching about it doesn't help either," he snapped back, grabbed her arm and forcefully pushed her out of the room.

Enraged, she swirled around, opening her mouth to tell him off, but he slammed the door in her face and turned his back on her when he walked back over to the bed and sat down on the chair once more. He had dismissed her and that usually meant that people left him alone.

Dean glanced over at the door and noted that she had gone away, but he assumed that she wasn't going to give up that easily. And he turned out to be right. He rose again, turned to face the door and reached for the gun shoved into the back of his pants, wrapping his fingers almost tenderly around it when Nurse Betty turned up with the two orderlies.

The biggest one of them opened the door and stepped through. "Roughhousing our nurses isn't the best idea, buddy. It's time for you to leave," he said.

His partner, however, seemed to have a few more marbles to play around with and almost gingerly grabbed the big guy's arm. "I don't think we should provoke this guy right now," he said, nodding toward Dean's already defensive stance.

The big guy eyed Dean for a moment. "What the hell are you doing, pal?" he then asked. "You gonna draw a gun on me in a hospital?"

"Unless you go away and leave me alone right now, I might," Dean countered evenly.

"We could call the police. You'll end up in jail and won't be able to help your brother. Is that what you want?" the big guy asked. He was obviously the mediator.

"No, but I'm not leaving him," Dean replied calmly while he kept his eyes on the two men.

The big guy frowned, then glanced back at Nurse Betty. "You said he attacked you unprovoked," he said.

"I told him to leave and he manhandled me out the door," Nurse Betty snapped, angry and hurt.

The big guy glanced back at Dean, then put a hand on Nurse Betty's shoulder and pushed her backwards away from the door. "Leave him alone, Betty," he said and closed the door behind him.

Dean relaxed a little and released the gun. Whether the big guy had told Nurse Betty to back down because he could tell Dean was serious or because he understood where Dean was coming from was something Dean didn't waste much time thinking about. Instead he returned his attention to his once again unconscious sibling and wished desperately that he could do something more for him.

***

An hour later the ambulance from Lewistown arrived. In Dean's opinion, the paramedics were a hell of a lot more professional than Doc Wilder and her crew, but he was still marginally grateful that they had given Sam something for the pain.

One of the guys from Lewistown – Greg was his name – eyed Dean for a moment. "Should you be driving?" he asked.

Dean frowned. "What?" he countered.

"You're bleeding, buddy," Greg said. "Let me take a look at that."

"That's okay," Dean said and pulled back a bit. "Let's just get my brother out of here."

"And how much good do you think you're going to do him when you end up in a ditch because you've got a concussion?" Greg asked. "Take a seat. It won't take a minute," he added and waved at the chair Dean had spent the last hour on.

Reluctantly, Dean settled back down and allowed Greg to tend to the gash on the back of his head. He didn't flinch, but it did hurt. Greg cleaned it out, then stepped back again.

"It's not bad. You'll just have to make sure you keep it clean until it's healed up," Greg said, opened the bag he'd brought in with him and dug out a pill bottle. He shook out two and held them out to Dean. "Take these. They'll take the top off the pain and clear your head a little," he said, then gave him a thoughtful glance. "You want to ride with the ambulance? I can take your car to Lewistown."

Dean eyed him for a moment and realized that he liked the guy, but going as far as trusting him with his car? At that very moment he noted the tattoo on the guy's arm and almost smiled. Greg was a Marine. Without a second thought, Dean dug the keys out of his pocket. "It's the black Impala," he said.

Greg smirked, took the keys and nodded toward the door. "Let's go," he said.

Dean rose and briefly touched the lump on the back of his head, then made a face and followed Greg out the door.

Greg and his partner loaded Sam's gurney into the back of the ambulance, then Greg filled his partner in and headed for the Impala. Dean climbed into the back of the ambulance and sat down next to Sam, while Greg's partner slid behind the wheel after slamming the rear doors shut.

"You just relax, sonny. Your brother's in good hands. Central is the biggest hospital in Montana. Got some of the best doctors as well," Greg's partner said.

Dean nodded, acknowledging his words, but said nothing. Instead he took Sam's hand in his and squeezed it lightly as the ambulance pulled out and the Impala followed closely behind.

"Name's Michael, by the way," the paramedic said.

"Dean," Dean replied.

Michael, who had to be around forty-five or fifty, chuckled under his breath. "I hear you gave the boys in there a run for their money," he said. "You got a gun hidden on you?"

For a moment Dean considered not replying, then glanced at Michael, who was keeping his eyes on the road. His tone didn't sound concerned or upset or annoyed. He just sounded curious. "Yeah," he finally said, seeing no harm in admitting it. Lots of people carried guns in these parts.

"You'd better leave it in your car when we get there. The folks at Central aren't too keen on weapons on the premises, if you know what I mean," Michael said with another chuckle.

"Don't worry. I had no intention of bringing it in with me," Dean assured him, then glanced at the other man's back again. "I noticed Greg's a former Marine. Are you too?"

Michael met his eyes in the rearview mirror for a second. His eyes were smiling. "Yup. The other paramedics aren't too keen on hanging out with us ex-Marines. Why do you ask?"

Dean smiled vaguely. "My dad was a Marine," he said quietly and returned his attention to Sam.

"Was, huh? Sorry, sonny. Not nice to lose your dad that early," Michael said, then fell quiet.

For the rest of the trip, they rode in silence and Dean was grateful for that. He didn't want to be distracted from his brother's plight right now.

***