By the time Dean returned to the waiting area, Maryann had come back, but the look she gave him was still full of pity and he had to keep a grip on himself to not get upset about it. Instead, he focused all his energy on his brother's well-being. "So?"

"They're almost done. It's gone well. They've put in some drains, but with a bit of luck, they can be removed within a week," Maryann said. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," he countered, generally brushing off her concern because he had no use for it right now. "How's he going to be pain-wise?"

A brief flicker of hurt feelings fluttered through her eyes, but she was a professional and subdued it instantly. "Well, only time will tell. It should be more comfortable for him now, but there will still be pain. And he obviously shouldn't try to sit up or anything for a while."

Dean nodded. "Thanks. How long before he's back in his room?"

Maryann glanced at her watch. "I wouldn't expect him to be back on the ward until late tonight, maybe even tomorrow morning. They have to finish up first, then he has to stay in recovery for a few hours until we're certain he's doing fine."

"And I can't stay with him during that time?" Dean asked.

"No, sorry. That's off limits to visitors," Maryann replied with an apologetic smile.

"Okay," Dean said. "I'll head back to the motel to get some descent rest. Could you give me a call when he's back?"

She nodded. "Of course," she said. "I'm off tonight, but I'll leave a message with the attending nurse to call you if Sam is transferred back tonight."

"Thanks. Appreciate it," Dean said, then thought better of alienating her just yet. "Sorry," he added and gave her a quirky smile. "I'm very tired. Didn't mean to snap."

She draped her hand around his upper arm, giving it a light squeeze. "That's okay. Don't worry about it, Dean. Go get some rest."

***

Clearview Motel
Lewistown, Montana

Back at the motel, Dean went out to get some food first and took a time-out watching some television while eating, his mind a blank. He needed to wind down, needed to stop thinking for a while and this was the way to do it.

He had no idea when he fell asleep, only that he woke up some time later with the remains of the burger still sitting in its wrapper on his chest while some commercial blared on tv about how clean your kitchen could get if you only used this specific product.

Blearily, he groped for the remote control and flicked the set off, then removed the cold burger and sat up slowly. A quick glance at his watch told him he'd been out for a few hours. A quick glance at his cell phone told him nobody had called, so he headed for the bathroom to take a shower.

Half an hour later he was back on the bed, the tv was on again and he was drifting off again, deliberately keeping his mind on idle, and he could feel it working. He was relaxing, the tension slowly seeping out of him. His intention was to head back to the hospital a bit later regardless of whether Sam was out of recovery or not. All he needed was to be close to his brother right now, to know that he was still alive and breathing.

He jerked when his phone suddenly rang and sat bolt upright, disoriented for a few seconds. The disorientation came from the fact that it was no longer dark outside. "Shit," he muttered and grabbed the phone. "Yeah?"

"Dean, it's Maryann. I don't want to rush you or anything, but Sam is asking for you," Maryann replied.

He glanced at his watch and frowned. It was ten past ten. "Shit. Uh ... tell him I'm on my way. I'll be there in half an hour tops," he said, a little flustered. He had been asleep for more than twelve hours. Granted, he had been in definite need of a good night's sleep, but this was ridiculous.

"I'll tell him," she assured him and he could hear the smile in her voice.

He hung up and rushed to get dressed and was out the door ten minutes later.

***

Central Montana Medical Center
Lewistown, Montana

Sam had woken up only once before and had been so groggy and disoriented that the doc had decided to put him under again. When he woke up the following morning at the crack of dawn, his senses were oddly acute, his memory fully intact and he knew not to move too much from the very second that awareness set in.

Nurse Gowers had been there with a smile and a comforting word and Sam had somehow managed to avoid a full-blown panic attack at the realization that Dean wasn't at his side.

"He's on his way," Nurse Gowers said. She checked the machines monitoring him, then looked down to meet his eyes. "Your brother really needed some downtime. He's been with you twenty-four seven since this started."

Sam managed a vague smile. "I know," he muttered. He couldn't boast about much strength right now and generally felt like he had been sucked dry of all life and left to turn to dust.

Nurse Gowers held the back of one hand against his brow for a moment, then took his pulse. "You'll be fine," she finally said and placed the call button on its string within easy reach of his right hand. "In case you need anything, you just push that button, okay? I'll be in to check on you in an hour."

"Wait," he rasped, trying to raise a hand and failing. Even the effort of thinking of moving his hand exhausted him.

"What is it?" she asked and stepped closer again.

"I'm ..." he rasped, fighting a wave of nauseating fear rippling through him. He had to hesitate before he could speak again, because the simple act of stringing words together added to his exhaustion. "... scared."

"Why are you scared, Sam?" Nurse Gowers asked, seeming genuinely interested.

The effort of keeping his eyes open was almost more than he could muster, but he needed to convince her to stay. He needed someone to stay right now. It was almost a physical craving akin to hunger or drawing breath. "Don't ... want ... to ... be ... alone," he managed.

His breathing had become labored and some part of his mind chided him for being such a wuzz about this, but he just couldn't subdue the fear in its bone-jarring intensity.

The look in her eyes turned to slight concern when she glanced at the cardiac monitor's rapidly jumping line, accompanied by the rapid beeping from its tiny speaker, before she looked back down at him. For a moment he thought she would tell him to suck it up, she had work to do, but then she took his hand in both of hers and smiled at him. "It's okay, Sam. I'll stay with you until Dean gets here, okay?"

Her promise to stay made it easier for him to regain control and her warm hands encasing his added to the relief that rippled through him. "Thanks," he managed, then closed his eyes briefly to focus on slowing down his breathing and thereby his erratic heartbeat. "Feel ... stupid," he added after a moment, his voice hoarse, his tone low.

"Don't," she said, still smiling. "There's nothing stupid about being afraid, Sam. And I don't blame you for being afraid. Not after what's happened to you. But you're going to be okay, you hear me? You'll be fine. You need to heal and then you need a bit of physical therapy and then you'll be good as new."

He eyed her for a moment and desperately wanted to believe she was right. But she had no idea what he had seen, what he had experienced in his life. This shouldn't be something that bothered him that much. He had seen worse; like when that damned demon had nearly squashed the life out of Dean. That beat being cut open by a raving lunatic, but he still couldn't rise beyond the fear, because he felt vulnerable, exposed, unable to fend for himself in his weakened condition, and nobody understood the danger of being weak better than Dean. He needed his brother, needed to know that Dean would be there and protect him.

"Thanks," he breathed and allowed his lids to close.

***

Dean skittered to a halt outside the door to room 315 after having jogged all the way up there without stopping and took a second to regain his breath before he pushed the door open and stepped inside, a fake smile plastered all over his face. "Sammy!" he exclaimed good-naturedly.

Maryann gave him a brief smile, patted Sam's hand and left to tend to her duties.

Dean waited until she was gone before he pushed the door shut and then sidled up beside Sam's bed to eye him critically. "I must say, dude, all things considered, you still look like crap," he said and smirked. He didn't feel like smirking. He felt like cringing, like he wanted to voice how deeply worried he was about the way his brother looked.

To say that Sam was pale was the understatement of the year. His skin had this wax-paper semi-transparent look to it that made him appear to be one step away from death's door. Dean had seen zombies looking healthier than this. But it was not helpful to Sam's health for Dean to voice his concern. Instead he had to do his very best to make Sam feel like there was nothing at all wrong with the world.

"Hey ... Dean," Sam whispered and managed a ghost of a smile.

"Well, okay, I stand corrected," Dean said with a snide grin. "You are actually looking better. So, did the doc say when you can get out of here?" he added and chuckled at the inappropriate joke.

Sam, however, made no move to reply. He just lay there and looked miserable and Dean hated every second of it. Sam wasn't supposed to look this way. He was supposed to be ready to kick ass. It didn't take much for Dean to realize that Sam was on the verge of drifting off and was only trying to stay awake because of him.

He smiled, cutting out the b.s. for now, and grabbed Sam's shoulder lightly. "You rest, Sam. As much as you can," he said quietly.

Sam closed his eyes as if he had just waited for Dean to give him the go-ahead and was out cold before Dean could think of anything to say. Instead he dropped down on the chair by Sam's bed and just sat there.

***

Two days later

"He can't sleep if you're not there." Maryann eyed Dean calmly. She had only now told Dean about the incident before he had arrived back at the hospital two days ago and Dean was a bit ticked off about it. She had dragged him out into the corridor to inform him of a few things without Sam overhearing it and now all he could do was stare at her while trying to control the anger surging through him.

"Why didn't you say so before? I wouldn't have left him for even a second if I knew it spooked him that much," he countered a little grumpily.

"I didn't tell you because you need to rest too. As I keep telling you, you're no good to him if you collapse from lack of sleep, Dean," she insisted.

Sam was doing better. He was able to say whole sentences now without having to gasp for breath in-between. But that did not make up for the fact that he looked about ready to throw a fit every time Dean even indicated he might go somewhere.

"Yeah, whatever," he growled and made a face. "Look, Maryann, I know you mean well. I appreciate it, okay? But you have to tell me these things. I can't help him get better when I don't know that he nearly has a nervous breakdown every time I turn my back on him. This is important. I know my brother better than anyone else does and I know how to handle this sort of thing. He's freaked because of what happened. Once I get him to open up and talk about it, he'll get better in a flash."

"Dean ..." she tried, but he cut her off.

"Sam's not that complicated, okay? I know how he operates," he interrupted. "Don't worry about it. I'll fix this. He'll be fine."

Maryann eyed him for a moment, then shrugged lightly. "Just don't take on more than you can handle, Dean. Sam is suffering from post-traumatic shock syndrom. He needs professional help and, like it or not, you're not a professional."

Dean made a face. "Look, Maryann, I appreciate your concern, okay, but butt out. This is none of your business. My brother is not going to be subjected to some shrink who doesn't get how his head works. I do. I can talk him out of these anxiety attacks and that's how it's going to be."

She sighed. "Okay, fine. I'll let you try. But you better not make him worse. And I feel I have to warn you. Some of the other nurses aren't as understanding as I am. Only last night, Laura mentioned how quickly this situation can go wrong. And I agree with her. But I don't agree with her solution."

Dean frowned. "What solution?"

She eyed him for a moment, then dropped her gaze briefly. "She is very adamant about protecting her patients and she doesn't think you're helping him, Dean. If she raises a stink about this, it won't take much to turn this thing so Sam becomes a ward of the state until he's ready to fend for himself again. And ... with his anxiety issues ... I don't think he would stand a chance of avoiding extensive psychological profiling."

The frown on Dean's brow deepened. "What the hell does that mean?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know. He had a pretty good idea what she might be talking about, though.

"I think you know what that means. Dr. Faulkner is already talking about a hospice. He doesn't think you have what it takes to take care of Sam's needs once he's ready to leave here," Maryann countered.

"A hospice?" Dean stared at her, suddenly afraid. Was there something she hadn't told him? Something the doc hadn't told him? "I thought that was for the dying."

"It's more like palliative care, Dean. A place where they can tend to his needs for physical rehabilitation without him having to spend the next half year in the hospital," Maryann said.

"Half year? The doc said his rehabilitation would take two months tops." He didn't like the misinformation, didn't like not knowing what was true and what was a ruse told to grieving relatives to keep them complacent. "Sam's doing better already and he's only been here for a week," he added.

"I know, but he won't be able to stand up on his own or walk upright for quite some time to come, Dean. He may have other issues as well that need medical attention. Are you telling me that you know how to deal with that sort of thing?" she countered.

"We'll deal. We always do," he growled and folded his arms over his chest. "I'm telling you right away, though, that if I even get the idea that someone's trying to push me out of the way here, I'm taking Sam out of here faster than you can blink. He's not a little kid. Nobody's going to question his competency while I've got anything to say about it."

"I figured you would react that way," Maryann said and pursed her lips. "That's why I told you in the first place so you're aware of what's going on. But, please, whatever you do, don't move Sam until he's fit enough for it. You can do more damage than can be repaired if you move him now."

"Then tell the other nurses to butt out," Dean countered aggressively. "Nobody comes between my brother and me. And I'm prepared for a fight if that's what it takes."

Maryann nodded vaguely. "Alright. I'm just letting you know, Dean. I know how much you guys mean to each other and I personally think it's a crime if they split you up, but my word doesn't carry much weight. Laura is the head nurse on this ward and her word is law."

"I can handle Laura," Dean muttered. "Excuse me. I need to have a word with Sam in private," he added, turned around and returned to Sam's room.

Sam eyed him quietly when he stepped back inside and closed the door behind him. He still looked like the walking dead, but Dean could feel the improvement in him with every passing day. "What's going on?" he asked. His voice was still painfully weak and it sent a shudder through Dean that he only barely managed to suppress.

"We may have an unforseen problem, man," Dean growled and glanced angrily at the door. "Maryann just informed me that the head nurse on this ward isn't happy about my presence here. She wants me gone and they're actually talking about sending you to a frigging hospice," he added and returned his attention to Sam.

"For what?" Sam asked, a slight frown furrowing his brow.

"Your rehabilitation, dude," Dean countered and sighed. "Shit," he added vehemently. "Maryann also told me you had some sort of panic attack two days ago. What the hell was that all about?"

Sam sighed lightly, briefly closed his eyes and made a face. The drugs were no longer as heavy-duty, but as long as he didn't move, he was okay pain-wise. But Dean knew how little it took to aggravate the wound and Sam was slowly but surely getting antsy. Soon he wouldn't be able to lie still any more. "I ..." he tried and swept his gaze over the ceiling for a moment before glancing sideways at Dean. "I'm scared," he finally admitted.

"Yeah, I get that, Sammy. Trust me, man, I can follow you there. But you have to get a grip on this, because ... man ... if they barge in here with a court order, I'm pretty much out of the picture and I'm not going to take that sitting down," Dean countered.

"It's better now," Sam tried, but Dean knew he was lying.

"No, it's not. Don't you think I notice the fear every time I go near the damned door?" Dean asked while pointing at the door. "Sam, you're a tough guy. You can ride this out. But you have to keep it in check until we're out of here. And I'm beginning to feel that sooner would be better than later."

Sam nodded vaguely. "I will. Don't worry," he said quietly. "I just wish I could move," he added.

"Yeah, well, you can't. Not yet. Just do whatever the hell the doc tells you to do and don't tell any of them anything," Dean countered. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Maryann still wants the police involved in this, by the way. How the hell do we persuade her to leave that alone?"

"Keep stalling her," Sam suggested, his tone tired.

"I've stalled all I can, dude. I'm running out of plausible lies. The second I hit the less plausible ones, she'll be on the horn to the cops and then we have to haul ass out of here," Dean growled.

"I'll talk to her," Sam said. "Later, though. I'm really tired."

Dean nodded. "Sure thing, bro. You catch some z's. I'll just plan our escape route if it comes down to that."

Sam smiled vaguely, already half asleep again.

***