Rating: PG-13


Chapter 2

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.

Ludwig Börne

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There was no fire. No heat. No pain.

Nothing.

He'd been convinced something had hit him, had slammed him forward, rolling him through a punch of air so violently that his eyes had fallen from his face and his ears had slid down the sides of his head.

He was sure the taste in his mouth had been the coppery texture of blood.

But the air around him was crisp, clean.

He felt its breath catch on the rough stubble framing his jaw. Felt it caress his lips and burn his wide eyes. Around him leaves were just beginning to tumble from trees that had turned autumn's hues of red and gold. And the liquid sliding down his throat was the rich malt flavor of his favorite beer. Blinking down, he saw his own arms braced on the worn wood of a split-rail fence, a sweating brown bottle clutched in his hand.

He knew this place. He knew this moment.

He was standing in the heartbeat of time between celebrating survival of a debilitating demonic virus and the confession that destroyed his life. The confession that stemmed from a moment of weakness so vivid he could still feel the hollow sensation in his chest as he exhaled. Still feel the odd mix of liberation and capture as the words tired of this job were caught in the net of his brother's memory.

Sam, please, man. Hey, please. Just give me some time. Give me some time to think, okay? I'm begging you here. Please, please…

He remembered saying those words, remembered how Sam had flinched, how he'd looked at him with a glimpse of fear lingering at the edges of his eyes. Dean pushed away from the fence and turned to his right, knowing Sam would be standing there.

Sam faced the river, his hips pressed against the split-rail fence, his fingers laced behind his head as the muscle in his jaw bounced. Dean knew he was processing, trying to assimilate the fact that not only had his father said he might have to be killed, but that his brother was the one who may have to execute him.

He swallowed, the bitter aftertaste of truth chasing the flavor of the beer.

Sam, listen.

Dean frowned when his brother didn't turn. He knew he'd spoken, had felt his lips part, his tongue hit the backs of his teeth as his mouth formed the shape of his brother's name.

But he'd heard nothing.

Hey, Sam.

The silence pressed in around him, weighing him down with absurdity. He tried to take a step forward, to reach out to Sam, but found the sky suddenly too heavy, the world holding tightly to the heels of his boots.

Sam?Hey, man, look at me, okay? I think… Sam, something's… something's wrong…

The wet bottle of beer slid from Dean's frozen fingers and hit the earth, amber liquid splashing up from the mouth and splattering the base of his jeans. He licked his lips, feeling the softness of the skin under the texture of his tongue. He felt his heart pick up speed, pounding at the base of his throat, sending flashes of light behind his eyes.

Sam?

Dropping his arms to his sides in a slow sweep of motion, Sam turned, his chin lowered, his eyes up. Dean felt a chill ripple across his skin as he met his brother's gaze. There was no heat, no heart in Sam's eyes. They were empty, hollow, echoing the vacuum of space that pressed painfully down around Dean's ears.

What— Dean tried, but the pressure was suddenly too intense, too sharp for him to even complete the plea for comprehension. He gasped, pulling in air in an attempt to alleviate the heavy feeling in his ears.

Sam's eyes turned yellow.

And Dean stopped breathing.

The yellow was hard, cold, and frighteningly familiar.

Mask all that nasty pain… Mask the truth…

Dean shook his head, trying to banish the memory of his father's voice wrapping around a devil's words. The world spun dizzily; he wanted to take a step back. He wanted to push Sam away. He couldn't move. The air pressed tighter, climbing into his ears, squeezing his head so that he groaned from the pain of it.

Sam stepped toward him, his yellow eyes growing, stretching, covering half of his face. Dean opened his mouth, searching for a way to release the pressure building behind his eyes.

What the hell? He demanded angrily, his words falling from his lips into a vacuum of silence.

Sam moved closer. His normally innocent smile spreading into an insane grin until the edges of his lips met the creases of his ears.

I'm dreaming… this is a dream… this isn't real…Dean dared to shake his head once more.

It was wrong, all of it. Just wrong. Sam's eyes flashed at him, blinding him and searing heat through his pupils. He tried to cry out, tried to back away. He was denied reprieve.

And the pressure built.

Get the fuck away from me, he demanded in a silent, empty voice. Just… just get away!

Sam closed the gap between them, his chest against Dean's, his legs against Dean's, his hands like ice on either side of Dean's face. The hard, yellow eyes spread until they were all Dean could see. The cold touch of Sam's hands changed, spread, grew until Dean felt talons digging into his temples, an oily slick of feathers brushing across his eyes.

No…

Dean tried to resist, wanted to move away, wanted to demand his brother return.

But the silence weighed too much.

SAM!

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Fear had a taste.

It lingered in the back of Sam's throat like cheap beer, coating his tongue and making speech difficult. It clung to the soft insides of his lips so that each time he answered a question—yes, that hurts…no, I can't feel that…I don't know the last time I had a Tetanus shot…no, I'm not allergic to anything—he tasted the sticky, metallic flavor of fear.

He felt as if he'd been sucking on a nickel.

The noise of the ER buzzed around him; machines beeping, voices calling out orders and instructions, calming, encouraging, cursing. From the moment he'd opened his eyes on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance, strangers staring down at him with a caring, unfamiliar gaze, he'd been listening for Dean. Searching for him with a secret sense that he had unconsciously employed since a time before memory.

He was still reaching into nothing, the void around him that should be filled by Dean, as he sat on the ER bed, pastel-striped curtains pushed aside to reveal to him the organized chaos that was the emergency unit, back bowed with worry, uncertainty, and…fear.

He pulled his lips against his teeth at the memory of times without Dean. Times he was left behind to wait and wonder. Times he struck out on his own in rebellion. Times they were wrenched apart. Times Dean walked away.

Dean was here, though. Sam had seen his brother's profile as he'd twisted on the gurney to look over his shoulder, caught the sight of the silver-ring adorned right hand resting on Dean's chest as his bed was wheeled into the ER, shoved into the closest alcove to the door, a clear blue oxygen bag fitting securely over his mouth and nose and being pumped by a strong-armed blonde nurse.

"This is a pretty deep wound," the physician's assistant commented as he pulled the last shards of wood from Sam's palm. "You're going to need stitches."

"Okay," Sam replied, distracted, eyes skimming the far end of the open ER for signs of movement from Dean's curtain. Somewhere to his left a baby cried and a woman hushed it with unintelligible, soothing words of assurance.

The bed beneath him was raised high enough that the PA could treat him while standing and Sam's long legs barely brushed the floor with the tips of his scuffed, worn boots. He pressed his toes into the linoleum floor, tightening the muscles in his back as the scent of antiseptic and sterile packaging wafted through the small alcove.

"You saved his life, you know," the black man continued, resting Sam's numb hand on a tray and covering it with a blue suture sheet.

"Huh?"

Sam slid his eyes to the man's face, absorbing his features for the first time. He remembered being told the man's name while a team of people in multi-colored scrubs took his vitals. It had bounced off his ears and evaporated into nothing as the world continued to turn and noise intensified and lights blinked on and off and air brushed his skin and Sam sat in the middle of it.

Alone.

"George Cooper," the PA clarified. "Could have been so much worse if you two hadn't come by. We all like George around here."

"Oh, yeah," Sam swallowed, movement across the room catching his eye.

"This might feel a bit cold," the man warned as he lifted a clear plastic bottle with a bent straw at the mouth, pausing for a second to allow Sam to prepare, then squirted the saline mixture into the open wound at the base of Sam's palm.

"Ah, God," Sam hissed, flinching as the PA held his hand still, letting the solution clean out the residual wood particles. The icy water filled the hollow of his hand and drove misery to his bones, etching its way up his arm and settling into his shoulder.

"Sorry," the man said sincerely. "You two are heroes, you know?"

Sam tightened his jaw, his teeth grinding, letting his breath out slowly through his nose. "Thanks," he managed, knowing instinctively that he should have denied the accolade.

Dean would have. He'd gone back into that house, parting the almost-visible gas fumes with his stubborn body in search of an innocent, unthinking, unwavering. Sam cursed him silently, wanting to yell at his brother for his stupidity. Wanting to push him and shake him and demand that he not be so stupid. Wanting to know who he thought he was. Wanting to know if he ever paused to friggin' think.

Wanting to just see him, dammit.

"Bet you're used to that in your line of work, though," the man continued, having cleaned Sam's wound and moved on to stitching up the torn, puckered skin.

His comment startled Sam, drawing his attention from the powder-blue curtain revealing nothing but feet hustling around a hospital bed.

"What?" Sam asked, baffled as to how this man knew about the lives they'd saved.

The nurse looked up. "Well, you know… as FBI agents."

Sam closed his eyes. "Right."

The EMTs had arrived to find them broken and bleeding in the rubble of the house, their only identification that of FBI Agents Bachman and Turner.

Minutes ticked by. Sam felt his body tightening, the need to curl in on himself, to protect, to hide, warring with the need to move, to search, to see Dean. If their situations were reversed, Dean would have forced himself into that curtained area, hand bleeding, telling them they could damn well sew him up after they took care of Sam.

So, why am I just sitting here?Move, dammit. Do something. Move!

"You're all set," the PA proclaimed.

Sam jumped at the sudden sound of the man's voice, having felt nothing of the stitches. He opened his heavy eyes and watched the man shift back slightly and remove the suture drape from Sam's arm. He gently set a thick gauze pad over the wound, then secured it with long strips of medical tape.

"This could seep a little, which is normal. But if you see any red lines, or swelling—"

"I got it," Sam nodded, cradling his wounded hand against his chest.

"We'll give you a script for some pain meds," the PA said, clearing away the wound-cleaning paraphernalia.

"Thanks," Sam nodded, watching as someone swished their way free of the curtained area around Dean. "Hey, uh, can I go see my bro—partner, now?"

The PA looked over to the curtain Sam had been watching intently since they wheeled him into the ER, Dean silent and still on the gurney behind him.

Sam shivered, the memory of the noise and light as the paramedics pulled him from the broken, twisted Impala, unable to reach his brother, his father, unable to see them, hear them, touch them.

"I'll check."

The moment the black man stepped free of the curtain, Sam was on his feet, balancing himself against the wall with his good hand. His black tie had been removed, his white button-up shirt untucked and unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, exposing a smoke-stained T-shirt. He'd lost his overcoat at the house and his suit jacket had met the same demise as his tie.

Knowing he looked like a frat boy after a drunken toga party, Sam moved free of the alcove and into the noise of the ER. He ignored the motion around him, focused on the last place he'd seen his brother, determined to get to him before his hollow legs gave in and he ended up on his back.

Sam paused just outside the curtain shielding his brother as the last two nurses stepped clear, pulling the blue material shut behind them. He slid into the room on the opposite end of the curtain, drawing a breath as he saw Dean for the first time since cradling his bloody, limp body in his arms amidst the destruction of George Cooper's house.

"Oh," he exhaled, unable to utter more. He took a step forward, his eyes sliding down Dean's still form, pulling in the sight of him.

A pulse oximeter was attached to Dean's index finger, a line of saline inserted through an IV into his arm. Slim wires attached to electrodes were fastened to his chest under a hospital gown, which was unsnapped at the shoulder revealing his collar bone and sternum.

Sam stepped closer to the bed, his numb hand brushing against the sheets, dragging forward with his motion, and resting on Dean's arm. His brother's face was a mess of swollen bruises and thin slices in the skin. Blood had been cleaned away from his features, but was still apparent in his hair where it matted the short, brown spikes into deep red clumps.

"Man, Dean…" Sam managed around the lump in his throat.

Days of annoyance, irritation at habits, frustration with the repetition of their lives faded away as his gut flinched at the sight of his brother's wounds. At his brother's stillness.

"Can I help you?"

Sam jerked, spinning around and thrust a hand out toward the bed to balance himself.

"Easy," a dark-haired woman in blue scrubs stepped forward quickly, placing a cool, soft hand on his elbow. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just…" Sam swallowed, licking his lips. The taste was back. He suddenly wanted a drink. Badly. "Tough seeing him like this."

The woman's brown eyes softened as she shifted her gaze between Sam and Dean. "You're his…" She regarded a chart that had been left on the tray at the foot of Dean's bed. "Partner?"

Sam looked down. Truth or cover?

"What's your name?" She asked, her voice softer and more inviting as she ducked her chin to catch his eyes. He saw minute folds around her eyes, a journal of her life leaving evidence of care on her face.

"Sam."

"Sam, I'm Doctor Wilde. I'll be taking care of your—"

"Brother," Sam whispered. "He's my brother."

Dr. Wilde settled back into her heels, crossing her hands in front of her at the wrists. "I see."

Sam swallowed, feeling an over-abundance of wetness at the back of his throat, amplifying the metallic taste. He leaned a hip against Dean's bed, resting his arm against his brother's, feeling the warmth there, the soft hairs on Dean's arm brushing the back of his hand.

"You're not actually FBI, are you," Dr. Wilde asked.

"We read about George in the paper," Sam explained, staying as close to the truth as he dared. "Went to…" he shrugged, "check it out."

She lifted an eyebrow, the soft, loose skin around her eyes stretching up with the motion. "And you figured impersonating FBI agents would get you in the door?"

Sam shrugged, silent.

Dr. Wilde sighed, regarding Dean's chart once more. "Hate to break it to you, kid, but you didn't have to try that hard. George'll talk to anyone about Camilla, God love him."

Dean shifted slightly on the bed, pulling Sam's attention to him immediately. A frown tugged at Dean's lips, drawing a line between his brows and puckering the butterfly bandages holding the skin by his eye together.

"Doc," Sam said, his voice rough with tension and worry. "What about my brother?"

Dr. Wilde's sigh was weighted and Sam felt a chill shimmy across his shoulders, settling into his lower back. He suddenly wanted to stop listening. He wanted the sound in the ER behind them to drown out the doctor's next words. He refused to hear if or maybe or not long

There simply wasn't a possibility that Dean wasn't going to be okay.

"He was extremely lucky. Aside from the bruising and superficial lacerations, he has a severe concussion," the doctor began. "We will have to do a CT scan to know the full extent, but from what I can tell, he's going to have a pretty massive headache when he wakes up."

When…she said when…not if…when…

Sam nodded, wrapping his fingers tightly around Dean's wrist to anchor himself and warm his chilled body.

"He could suffer some minor complications—we won't know until he wakes up."

"What kind of…complications?" Sam looked over at her.

She lifted a shoulder. "Short-term memory loss, perseverating—"

"Per-what?" Sam frowned, shaking his head once with confusion.

"Repeating the same question over and over as if he didn't hear the answer."

Sam nodded. "He does that anyway," he said softly, a ghost of a smile teasing his lips.

Dr. Wilde smiled softly. "Brothers are interesting creatures."

"He's had concussions before," Sam said, rolling his neck, wanting to sit down, wanting to close his eyes. "We know the drill."

"Honestly, it's not the concussion I'm most concerned about," Dr. Wilde informed him.

Sam looked over quickly, watching as the light seemed to shimmer around her as his eyes blurred. "What do you mean?"

"The explosion ruptured his eardrums," Dr. Wilde said. "A ruptured eardrum will eventually heal on its own, but in the meantime, there can be loss of hearing from complete to simply a hollow, tinny effect."

"Loss of… of hearing?" Sam repeated, leaning heavily against Dean's bed. "For how long?"

Shrugging, the doctor replied, "It's really hard to say. The most important thing is to keep the ears free from infection so the drum has a chance to heal. Take it very easy until hearing returns."

"And… does it ever," Sam blinked slowly. "Ever not return?"

"There have been some limited cases where something as traumatic as what your brother survived permanently deafened the individual," Dr. Wilde nodded, "but I wouldn't worry about that until I had to, Sam."

You wouldn't worry, Sam thought, looking down at his brother's bruised face, because you don't know my brother.

Hunting was Dean's life. It moved him through the dark, anchored him, gave him a reason.

I think he wants us to pick up where he left off…saving people, hunting things.

The eagerness in Dean's voice had been palpable. This life… this life was all his brother had. And if that was affected…if that went away…

I'm tired, Sam… tired of this job…this life… this weight on my shoulders, man, I'm tired of it.

With Dean's confession whispering to him, confusing him, Sam stared unblinking on Dean's closed eyes, the feel of his brother's body heavy in his arms shifting like a memory across his muscles. He ignored the sharp eyes of Dr. Wilde as they scraped across his profile, searching the recesses of his mind for a way to balance Dean if he woke up into a world of silence.

A shriek echoed from the waiting room, let loose into the ER as a man in a white lab coat stepped through the wide entry doors.

Sam's gut pulled at the sound. It was grief wrapped in denial surrounded by disbelief. It was seeing his father lying silent and still on a hospital room floor. It was Jessica pinned to the ceiling, bleeding, burning. It was paddles slapped against his brother's bare chest, his body bucking under the current.

He turned, legs trembling, and watched as Dr. Wilde rotated, swiping the curtain away and heading in the direction of the sound.

"Easy, honey," a man's low voice crooned down the hallway. Sam stepped to the end of Dean's bed, curiosity pulling him toward the commotion. "Easy. I'm here."

"George?" It was Wren, Sam realized. Wren who'd cried out, who'd been left alone in the dark, nothing but the noise of the ER to settle her.

"That's right, honey. I'm here." George's voice was cotton-soft and flowed through the air like syrup, a balm that comforted the terrified girl and at the same time, pushed Sam back into the brightly-lit alcove that shielded his brother from the chaos.

Leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes briefly, Sam absorbed the sounds around him, picturing Wren alone and waiting. Beeps and whistles like Morse code bounced from various machines. Low murmurs followed harsh cries of pain. The baby was crying again, a crash of fear that hollowed Sam's heart and tightened his belly.

And then, like the fabric of sound itself was being stretched over a pillow of needles, Sam heard his name.

"Sam?"

His name in Dean's pain-saturated voice.

"Sam… something's… something's wrong…"

Sam pulled his head away from the wall, blinking rapidly as his weary eyes watered in the recycled air of the ER. He turned to face Dean, registering the blood-shot green eyes, the folds dancing across his forehead that telegraphed pain, the tightness of his lips, the jump of muscle in his jaw.

Swallowing hard, Sam stepped forward. "Dean?"

Dean reached up with a trembling hand and rubbed clumsily at the scruff on his cheeks. As Sam watched, he slid his hand up to press the palm into the bridge of his nose.

"Dean? Hey…"

"Jesus Christ," Dean groaned, his eyes closing beneath his hand. "What the hell…"

Sam bumped the edge of the bed slightly with his hip. "Dean? You hear me, man?"

Dean didn't move. His hand stayed pressed tightly to his forehead as if removal of that support would allow his head to roll free of his shoulders and come to rest in the corner of the room. Sam took a breath, then reached up to gently wrap his long fingers around Dean's wrist.

Dean flinched, blinking rapidly up at Sam's eyes. "Shit, man, I didn't—"

hear you… Sam watched the words form and die in Dean's eyes. Watched the confusion wash in and over his brother like a wave. And he held on for the ride.

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The pattern of light behind his closed eyes formed the shape of a crescent moon.

He was offered one beat of time to register that image before pain obliterated everything else, pulling the sides of his head together to meet in the center of his brain, then blowing his skull outward until he was sure his skin wouldn't be elastic enough to hold everything inside.

"Sam?"

He tried to think, tried to stay very still until he knew where his brother was, until he knew what kind of trouble they were in. But the heat of the pain, the white-fire intensity shook his resolve.

"Sam… something's… something's wrong…"

Bile built at the back of his throat, fought off valiantly by an iron will and complete distaste for the vulnerability that came with getting sick. He blinked blurry eyes, the glaring overhead light shooting spikes through his pupils to the back of his head to mingle with the chaos already making itself home between his ears.

Reaching up, Dean tried to press the pain back, holding his head still with the palm of his hand, pulling air in through his nose, letting it leak out through parted lips, feeling it dry the dampness on the soft skin there.

Where the hell was Sam? He'd seen Sam. He was sure of it. He'd been standing at the foot of… where was he? In bed?

"Jesus Christ," Dean groaned, closing his eyes against the light. "What the hell…"

Searching the bleary flashes of memory that sliced the backs of his eyes like straight razors, Dean saw his hands on the steering wheel of the Impala… saw Sam's questioning eyes as he sat in the passenger seat, looking comfortable and at home dressed in a black suit and overcoat… saw his hands move to the keys and…

Had they been in an accident?

Fingers closed over his wrist, pulling his hand gently from his head and slamming his heart against the base of his throat in a startled reaction.

Dean flinched, blinking rapidly up at Sam's eyes. "Shit, man, I didn't—"

hear you.

Sam was watching him, hazel eyes heavy with exhaustion, worry, fear, and unshed tears. Dean blinked again, carefully sliding his eyes from Sam's face and around his immediate environment. White walls. Narrow bed. Rough sheets shot through with bleach, antiseptic and alcohol smells lingering at the back of his nose. Hospital. ER.

In that moment, it occurred to him that not only had he not heard Sam approach, he hadn't heard anything.

No other voices, no machines, not even the sound of his own voice.

"What the hell…"

Sam tugged at his wrist, forcing Dean to look over. His brother was speaking, full lips moving rapidly with explanation, sound no doubt tumbling free and mixing with the background noise of the hospital Dean was all-too aware he should be hearing.

"What?" Dean asked helplessly, not registering anything Sam was telling him, feeling panic mix with pain as he pulled his hand free, pressing it deep into the hard mattress beneath him.

Sam stepped back, his lips pressing flat, his unbandaged hand parting his hair in four furrows. Dean's eyes fell to Sam's other hand, noting the thick white bandaged taped across his palm. His face pulled together in a frown of lost memory.

When had Sam hurt his hand? Why were they in the hospital? Where were his clothes? Why couldn't he hear anything? And, please God, someone tell him why his head hurt so fucking much.

It was only when he found himself reaching up with a trembling hand to run fingers across his dry lips that he realized he'd asked those questions aloud, his head spinning from confusion, pain, and disorientation at the world of silence around him. Closing his eyes against the tight spin of the room, Dean tried to breathe through the panic at not even hearing his own heartbeat.

Sam's warm fingers closed over his bare shoulder, and Dean opened his eyes. A small, white notepad rested in his lap, Sam's block-like handwriting scrawled across it.

"FBI alias. Ghost of dead wife. House exploded. Concussion. Ruptured eardrums."

"Ruptured eardrums?" Dean repeated, pulling back as Sam flinched away at the sound. Swallowing, Dean attempted to lower his voice, curling in as a wave of pain compressed his spine. "Sam?"

Sam squeezed his shoulder, lips moving in meaningless motion as he no doubt attempted to reassure his brother.

Pulling his legs up, Dean braced his elbow on his tented knee, pressing his palm once more against the bridge of his nose. His body began to beat in a soft symphony of pain, bruises and stretched muscle happy to make themselves known as he sat powerless to silence them.

"Sonuvabitch," he muttered. "What happened, Sam?"

Sam grabbed the notepad and Dean waited until a new message was thrust under his nose.

"Yeah, you said the house exploded. What house?"

Dean waited, pressing his free hand against his side and breathing shallowly as the ribs across his back whimpered.

"Ghost?" he read.

The memory of a record store, a newspaper, and Sam's earnest eyes flashed like strobe lights across his vision. He swallowed.

"I don't… hell I can't hear a thing…"

Sam watched him for a minute, then wrote something else, handing the pad of paper back to Dean.

"Not permanent? How the hell do you know that?"

In that moment, the curtains at the end of the brightly lit, silent alcove parted and a slim, dark-haired woman stepped through. Dean bit the inside of his cheek as he lifted his head, fighting back the sudden groan of pain that fought its way to the top of his throat. The woman looked at Dean, her lips parting in what he perceived as a greeting. When he simply continued to watch her, his fingers pressed tightly to his forehead and temple, she turned to Sam.

Watching his brother talk to this woman, unable to comprehend their words, unable to hear their meaning, was like sinking slowly to the bottom of a very deep, very murky lake. His eyes darted helplessly between the profiles, his lungs burning as he unconsciously held his breath, straining to hear something beyond the hiss of static that was beginning to overwhelm him.

"Hey!"

They jumped in surprised, turning to him in unison.

"Somebody better start talking to me right the hell now," Dean demanded, eyes hot and chest tight. He pushed himself higher in the bed, the loose hospital gown falling from his other shoulder, exposing his chest and the electrodes attached there.

He zeroed in on Sam's face, watching as his brother licked his lips, feeling Sam prepare to deliver bad news.

"Is my car okay?" Dean asked, feeling his stomach turn to ice. "Sam…"

Sam nodded quickly and vigorously, tapping the air with his fingertips in an effort to calm him.

A slice on his forehead throbbed once, harshly, and Dean reached up, pressing the flat of his hand against his eyebrow.

"Last thing I remember…" he started, balance spinning with vertigo as he felt his lips form words, felt the air move up through his throat, over his tongue, felt the meaning in his mind. "…we were in the motel room… no, no, wait, we were in the Impala and…"

He stared hard at Sam.

"Are you okay?"

Sam nodded, tucking his bandaged hand into the small of his own back, trying to hide it from Dean. He flipped the notepad back over to the first message, pointing at it and jutting his chin out, eyes pleading Dean to understand.

"House exploded…" Dean said. "Were there… birds?"

Sam's head bounced back, his eyebrows darting together as he said No… Dean recognized the word as he watched Sam's mouth. Then Sam blinked and grabbed the pad back.

"Wind chimes?" Dean read.

Sam nodded.

"Huh," Dean dropped his head back against the pillow. "Coulda sworn I saw… birds."

Sam tapped his bared shoulder and Dean lifted his head. Pointing to the dark-haired woman, Sam wrote Doctor Wilde on the pad. Dean watched her carefully, unsure how far to extend his trust by sight alone.

There were so many things he could hear in a person's voice. He heard under the words behind the projected meaning. He heard what they wanted to say, what they wanted him to hear. He heard fear, suspicion, trust, need.

With a sick feeling sitting heavy in his gut, he realized he could see none of that.

Dr. Wilde smiled softly at him and extended a hand, speaking to him as he grasped the thin, soft appendage in a firm grip. She continued to speak to him, her eyes darting between him and Sam, providing the information Dean thirsted for, but was denied. Sam nodded sagely; Dean saw his brother absorbing her words with the smallest shift of his stance—his hands relaxing on his hips, his chin dipping, his blink slow.

When the doctor finished her monologue, she smiled again at Dean, patted his leg, wrote something on a piece of paper, then handed it to Sam. With a last, almost sympathetic look at Sam, she stepped back through the curtain and out of Dean's sight. Dean turned his attention back to Sam, waiting.

"So?"

Sam looked down at him, eyes darting in thought.

"Spill it, Sam."

Sam began speaking, too rapidly, too anxiously.

"Dude, stop! Just… stop!"

The pressure pushing out the edges of his skull had faded for a moment, but alone once more with his brother, the shock of silence succumbed to the pain and he covered his right eye with the palm of his hand, searching for some kind of solace.

He tossed the pad at Sam. "Tell me what's going on," Dean ordered, feeling the words butt up against his lips with hard edges of frustration.

A few seconds ticked by and Sam dropped the pad back into Dean's lap.

Wants to do tests. Stay overnight.

"We need to get out of here," Dean whispered. Or at least he hoped he whispered. He pushed the air through his mouth with less force. "We can't stay, Sam…"

He recognized his brother's reassuring grip on his chilled skin and kept his eyes closed. Need for oblivion warred with desire for action and he felt the odd sensation of floating once more. The notepad dropped in his lap and he read car still at Cooper's.

Instantly worried, Dean looked up. "Is my car okay?"

Sam's eye roll told him that he had nothing to worry about, but he didn't take a breath until Sam nodded.

Sam said something, eyes intense and lips moving rapidly. Dean clenched his teeth. Pain doubled the level of frustration and he pushed Sam's hand way from his shoulder. Shrugging the lopsided hospital gown back up onto his shoulder, Dean shoved the covers away and slid one leg at a time over the edge of the bed.

Sam stepped in front of him, immediately gripping his shoulders. Dean sensed Sam's voice, guessed at the words, though the white noise of speaker feedback was the only non-sound he detected.

"Get the hell out of my way," Dean growled, pushing weakly at Sam's arm, strength leaking from him as if someone had punctured his side. "I'm not staying."

He stood, legs trembling beneath him, the skin on his chest resisting the movement as the monitor probes pulled. The IV tubing was long, and offered no resistance as Dean pushed again at Sam, effectively backing his brother up a step.

A silent war commenced. Sam's fingers twisted in Dean's loose hospital gown, pulling it free from his shoulder, his face knotting up in an expression of hurt and anger. Dean watched his brother speak and suffocated in the vacuum pressing around him, frustration building parallel with pain. His back screamed, his legs ached, his head… God his head was two seconds from splitting open and spilling his secrets.

"Get away from me, Sam," he tried, knowing even without being able to hear himself that his voice trembled. He felt it shimmy across his tongue, vibrate in his throat.

Sam gripped him harder, pulling him forward, nearly shaking him. Twisting his arms across his brother's, Dean looked up, seeing with guilt and surprise the tears balanced on the edges of his brother's lashes, tumbling wet trails down Sam's cheeks as he blinked. Pulling air in through his nose to steady himself, Dean saw Sam's lips tighten, words spitting from him in a torrent of verbal pain.

think you were doing…

Dean blinked. Sam shook him, but he kept his eyes pinned to his brother's mouth. Meaning began to sneak into the silence. If he could just hold on… Dean tightened his fingers on Sam's arm.

about me…

"Sam, I—"

The world turned gray.

Images flashed before his eyes like torn pieces of a photograph, blurred and hurried, silent and dizzying. Walking toward a house, drawing his gun, seeing a man face-down on the floor… yellow eyes… oily wings… Dad… burning… Sam… burning…

Thrusting his hands forward instinctively, Dean felt himself cry out in protest, searching for balance, for strength. His legs surrendered to the abuse, disappearing beneath him. Arms wrapped around him. The smell of the hospital faded away and was instantly replaced by the ashy smell of old fire, the musky smell of sweat.

His face pressed against something solid, something soft. His brother's scent slammed him back through years of memory.

The gray turned to black.

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Minnesota, 1994

It's that weird hour of the morning when the world holds its breath waiting for the sun to roll over the edge of the earth when we pull onto Pastor Jim's gravel drive. I hear the small stones crunch under the heavy wheels of Dad's black Impala. He has instinctively turned down the music, Zeppelin having faded to the Stones several miles back.

Sam's head is heavy on my leg. He's sleeping soundly for the first time in weeks, the movement of the car lulling him like nothing else I've tried. I hear Dad pull in a heavy breath and wait. I know his sounds. I know he wants to say something, to order me, instruct me…reassure me in the only way he knows how.

Jim Murphy appears in the frame of the screen door and I see Dad's shoulders stiffen in the seat in front of me. I don't know what has happened between these two; eventually, Dad manages to drive wedges between himself and all of his friends. The only thing that saves him, I think, is that he picks good people. They won't let him go.

Pastor Jim swings the screen door open, taking a step onto the cement landing, his longish, graying hair stirring in the morning breeze. I watch silently, waiting. Jim is wearing faded, torn jeans, an unbuttoned red and black flannel shirt over a white T-shirt, steel-toed work boots, and yet he still looks like a preacher.

I see God around him. And I look away.

"Wake him up," Dad orders.

"He's fine," I reply rebelliously. I want Sam to sleep. I want more quiet. I want a little bit longer to be just me. Just Dean Winchester, riding in the car, listening to music.

Not the protector, not the big brother, not the responsible one.

"Dean," Dad warns.

Sighing, I grip Sam's shoulder, shaking him gently. He mumbles incoherently and rubs his face against my thigh. I wrinkle my nose in a bit of disgust and shake him harder. Dad shuts off the car, stepping out into the gray light of morning. The familiar creak of the door pulls Sam the rest of the way to consciousness.

He rolls over, eyes bleary, confused, pupils large with the cobwebs of sleep. I watch his face, waiting. I've watched him so many times. Mostly when he's not aware of it. I've watched him study, train, talk to strangers at school. I've watched him fight with Dad. I've watched him sleep.

Part of me never wants to stop watching him, and part of me never wants to see him again. Because the more I see Sam… the less I see me.

"What's goin' on?" he mumbles, rubbing at his gritty eyes with a grimy hand.

It's been awhile since we've showered. I notice the musky scent of our bodies in the contrast of the fresh morning air from the opened door.

"We're at Jim's," I say.

"Pastor Jim's?" Sam yawns, apparently comfortable to continue to lie against my leg.

"You know another Jim?" I shove gently at his shoulders, but with enough force to tell him to get the hell up.

"Jeeze, grouch," he says, sitting up and slouching against the seat. "Who pissed in your Wheaties this morning?"

At that, my stomach growls, and I'm acutely reminded that in the last twelve hours, the only one of us who has eaten or slept is Sam.

"Shut up and go get our stuff out of the trunk."

"Hey, you can't tell me what to do."

"I just did," I snap, swinging the door open and stepping out.

Jim and Dad are still talking, verbally circling each other like two alpha male wolves—Dad with his hands on his hips, his chin dropped, but his eyes up, looking like he could tear Jim's arm off and beat him with it without hesitation. Jim stands at ease, arms crossed behind his back, legs spread, his military background having not gone rogue like my father's.

But even with the peaceful stance, there is danger around Jim. It's in the lines that frame his eyes. In the set of his mouth. It's in the smell of him. He is too calm. He's always watching. He sees too much.

"Dean," Dad calls and I step forward, having known my summons was coming. "You and Sam are going to stay here for a bit."

"Yes sir," I reply, as if I weren't the one to suggest this in the first place.

"You watch out for your brother," Dad says, finally turning to face me.

I nod.

"Dad?"

Years fall away from Sam's voice as he asks for explanation and reassurance in that one word.

"I gotta head out, Sammy," Dad says, sounding careful. I hear the false smile in his voice, and look up at Jim. He is watching me.

"For how long?"

"Not sure yet."

I keep my eyes on Jim, my back to my family, swallowing, breathing.

"I wanna go with you," Sam declares.

"Not this time, kiddo."

"Why?"

Dad sighs and I feel my eyes burning.

"You listen to your brother, okay?"

"But, Dad—"

"Sam, I have to go."

"Dad!"

The door shuts and the meaty sound of the Chevy engine fills the pearly morning. I turn at that and meet my father's eyes through the glass. He nods once and I see the corners of his mouth tick up in a rare, genuine smile. I nod back and lift my hand. He twists around to look over the back seat, slowly reversing down the gravel drive.

I know he'll see it then. The arrow. The evidence of the reality of our life. I left it on the seat for him. A reminder that I saw more than he realized. I saw what was under that water. I know what Sam's nightmares hold.

"Dean?" Jim's voice is so different from Dad's. Gentle, heavy. But full of judgment.

"Gimme a minute," I reply, stepping toward Sam.

"Fuck him," Sam growls when I rest my hand on his shoulder.

"Yeah?" I reply.

"He wants to just leave us whenever he feels like it? Well, fuck him," Sam repeats, and I hear his lips tremble. It's tough to fall asleep in safety and wake up without balance.

"Sammy," I say gently, and to my surprise, he turns toward me, burying his face in my chest. He's still small enough to hide against me. He's still small enough that I can stand between him and everything else.

"I hate him," Sam mumbles through hot tears into my chest.

"No, you don't," I say, wrapping one arm around his shoulders and holding the other out as a warning to Jim to just stay back.

"Yes, I do," Sam says. "I hate everybody."

I lift an eyebrow at that, unable to mask my amusement at his decree while he's buried against me. "Even me?"

Sam sniffs and backs away. "Well… maybe not you."

I look at his eyes. An old man inside of a little boy. He wipes his face with the back of his hand, staring at me. Waiting for something.

"I know, Sam," I whisper.

"Huh?"

"I know."

Sam stares at me longer, realization rising in his eyes, echoing the growing light of day. "You saw it?"

I nod.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"I just did."

"To Dad!"

"He didn't need to know," I say. It's my only explanation for the secret.

Sam was mine; I was the one who'd seen the true form of the ala beneath the waves. I was the one who'd kept Sam from its wing-tipped clutches. I was the one who'd held on, waiting for Dad to kill it, waiting for Dad to pull us out.

"He didn't need to know, Sam."

Sam sniffs again, staring at me with those searching eyes. "Yeah, okay," he says softly. "Okay, Dean."

"You boys hungry?" Jim asks quietly from behind us. My stomach growls loudly in response.

"Come on up to the house, then," Jim says, and I hear the screen door bang behind him.

I grab my duffel and turn, knowing Sam will follow. Stepping into Pastor Jim's house feels like slipping under water. I want to hold my breath and have to force myself to exhale. But I know that it's here Sam can beat his nightmare. It's here that he can make it end.

Because it's here that mine began.

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Waiting rooms are the loneliest places on earth.

It didn't matter how many people were in the room with him, Sam realized. The one person he wanted with him was the reason he was sitting there in the first place.

What the hell did you think you were doing? His own words taunted him. I mean, shit, Dean, did you even think about me? You ran back into that house… do you want to die? Is that it?

Sam slouched on the circa 1970's style brown and orange chair, trying to find a comfortable position for his aching body, flexing his wounded hand, and tuning out the drone of the local nightly news on the TV attached to the wall in the corner. He could still feel the sudden weight of his brother in his arms as Dean went slack, his lashes hitting his cheeks in a sigh as he gave way to oblivion.

Closing his eyes, Sam longed for the same, but worry fueled adrenalin, pounding his heart with a cadence unique to those doomed to wait. Doctor Wilde had said the tests wouldn't take long, and that he shouldn't be concerned, but being alone and out of control wasn't a situation Sam was accustomed to. And Dean had been right. No matter what, they couldn't stay.

"Son?"

Sam jerked at the low voice, pulling his head up quickly and blinking blurry eyes.

A man stood before him, looking like an aged Burt Lancaster, soot scuffing the bridge of his nose, a too-big sweatshirt fitting over hospital scrub pants and a gauze pad taped across his forehead.

"Yeah?" Sam replied, memory filling the gaps in his mind that sleep had furrowed. George… George Cooper.

"Sorry to bother you," George said. "I just… I wanted to thank you and your partner for what you did."

Sam sat up straighter, looking past George to the petite girl standing behind him, staring at a spot just over Sam's head, her blue eyes clear, if a little blood-shot, her porcelain face serene. She gripped the edge of George's sweatshirt with slim, fragile-looking fingers as if wary of him stepping too far away.

"He's my brother," Sam said, clearing his throat.

George nodded, then gestured to the seat next to Sam. "Mind?"

Sam shook his head, unable to tear his eyes from Wren as she moved smoothly behind George, flowing into a seat like water.

"Well," George sighed, his knees popping as he sank slowly into the stiff chair. "If it hadn't been for you and your brother, Wren and I would be talking to Camilla. Much as I miss her, not sure I'm ready for that."

Looking at George, Sam shifted in his seat. "George… what, uh… do you remember what happened?"

Rubbing fingers spotted with age across a mustache-covered upper lip, George shook his head slowly. "Darndest thing… she's never been messy."

Sam frowned. "Uh… who?"

"Camy," George said, nodding in an almost unconscious, habitual manner. "Always kept a clean house, very important to her."

Rubbing at the ache growing above his right eye, Sam sighed. "Maybe you should start at the beginning."

Tapping the top of his leg with the heel of his hand, George nodded again. "She died on a Sunday. Never saw it coming. That morning, she'd told me we needed to talk after the church picnic, but… we never made it home together."

"That was about… six weeks ago, right?" Sam clarified, suppressing a yawn. This was the job. This is why they had been there. This is why Dean was broken in a room down a hall, having his head scanned. This is what they did.

"Right," George said, picking up Wren's small hand and squeezing it. "Wren had been living with us for about a month at that point."

Sam flicked his eyes to the quiet girl, remembering her wail of fear. The sound echoing in his ears was a stark contrast to the peaceful expression facing him now.

"You called the police a couple of weeks after Camilla…" Sam let George fill in the space.

"I kept hearing our song, thought maybe someone was being cruel." George glanced at him. "You never can tell with people these days. Some will give their lives for strangers while others will run you off the road and never look back."

Wren whimpered slightly and George tightened his grip on her hand.

"Is… is that what happened to your… to her parents?" Sam asked, his eyes darting between Wren and George, unsure who would be able to answer him.

"I was in the back seat," she said, her voice lower than Sam had thought when not shot through with panic. "The truck hit us and they just… there was so much blood and…"

"Easy, honey," George cooed. "He understands." George looked at Sam, his meaning clear: don't ask her any more questions.

Glancing down, Sam took a breath. "George, tell me about Camilla."

"Camy was happy. We were happy. We never had children, but we had each other," George smiled softly, his brown eyes drifting with memory. "We got that old house and were fixing it up. It was part of the Underground Railroad, you know."

Sam shook his head.

"Yep," George nodded. "Has a trap door in the basement and everything. We were fixing it up, room by room. Started with Wren's room when she came to live with us. Updated the kitchen and the heating and cooling. Camilla loved that house."

"What makes you think she's haunting you?"

George frowned and looked down at the small hand clasped in his larger one. "Like I said, I hear our song. I hear Camy singing Moonlight Serenade. I hear it in my sleep and on the phone and in the kitchen when I was in the office…"

"You sure it's Camilla?"

"It's her voice," George nodded. "I should never have called the police, but… well, they're supposed to help you, right?"

Sam looked down again, silent.

"Then things started moving around. Wren's wind chimes would be down on the porch, the birds broken. Books would be moved from shelves, laid open on the table or the bed…"

Sam looked at Wren, noticing the line that divided her eyebrows. Her mouth pulled in, lips growing tight as George talked. Her quiet beauty seemed to filter through the room, softening the lights, hushing the voices. Sam began to feel comforted, settled, peaceful. Simply watching her react to George's story was like holding Jessica, laughing with his brother, feeling his Dad's arms all at once. It was every good thing in his life filling his heart and protecting it.

"…came in and saw that her office was a shambles. I didn't even notice the smell."

Sam blinked, realizing that George had been talking. He pulled his eyes from Wren's features, honing back in on the old man's smooth voice.

"I hear something behind me, but before I could turn to look there was a pain," George paused, touching his forehead. "Next thing I knew, you and your brother were there. And my house… Camy's house blew up."

"I think there was a gas leak," Sam offered.

George nodded. "That's what the police said, too."

Sam went cold. "The police?"

"They're here. They had to investigate, of course. They want to ask you and your brother a couple of questions."

Sam rubbed his mouth, his upper lip suddenly sweaty. "What did you tell them about us, George?"

George looked over at him, the folds around his ancient eyes deepening with confusion. "Just that you saved us."

"Did you tell them our names?"

George smiled. "Son… I don't know your names."

Sam closed his eyes. "Right."

"There something you need to tell me?"

"Sam?"

Sam opened his eyes and shot to his feet at the sound of Dr. Wilde's voice. She smiled at him. "You look tired," she said gently.

"How's Dean?"

"Stubborn."

"Is he awake?"

Dr. Wilde nodded. "He's in a fair amount of pain, but he's refusing IV drugs."

"What about his ears?"

George stood next to Sam, pulled Wren to her feet beside him. "What's wrong with his ears?"

Dr. Wilde focused on Sam. "There's been damage to the drum and the inner ear. I don't see any reason he won't recover his hearing, but it's going to take some time, and I feel I must warn you, the process could be painful."

The frown deepening the lines on Dr. Wilde's face had Sam stepping forward.

"What do you mean?"

She sighed. "Only that your brother appears to be very stubborn, and it's hard to predict what will happen as the eardrum repairs itself. Balance could be affected. The headaches could be severe…"

Sam rubbed a hand over his face. "But he'll get better?"

"With time," she nodded. "And patience."

The squawk of a walkie-talkie snapped Sam's head around. Approaching them from the opposite end of the hall were two uniformed officers. They didn't seem to be in a hurry; Sam surmised that the name Winchester had either not been discovered, or it hadn't yet been connected with the bank job in Milwaukee.

"Doc, can he leave?"

Dr. Wilde frowned. "He's been through a pretty traumatic experience," she protested. "I'd really like to keep him for observation."

"Yeah, but," Sam insisted, glancing once more at the officers. "I can take care of him—I've done it before."

Dr. Wilde's dark eyes took him in, pulling truth from his weary face that he didn't bother masking. "I'll give you a prescription for painkillers and antibiotic drops. Make sure he uses both."

"I will."

"I mean it," she stressed. "The pain of a concussion can affect more than anyone realizes."

"I know," Sam nodded. He glanced back at George. "I need to go see my brother, now."

"We'll wait for you," George informed him.

"You don't have—"

"We'll wait," George insisted, guiding Wren back to a chair with a hand at the small of her back.

Sam swallowed, stepping around Dr. Wilde and back through the ER doors before the officers had reached the entrance to the waiting room. He heard Dean the moment he stepped into the bustling area.

"Listen, Denzel, I can't hear you, but you sure as hell can hear me. I want my brother and my clothes. In that order."

The black male physician's assistant who'd stitched up Sam's hand was standing at the side of Dean's bed, his hands on Dean's shoulders, his face stern. Sam took in the sight of his brother's pale, drawn face, the visible tremble in his fingers even as they fisted in the man's scrubs.

"Dean," Sam called without thinking. The tone of his brother's voice told him that Dean was at his limit and was taking it out on the physician's assistant with venom.

The PA looked up and Dean followed his eye line. Sam watched relief wash over his face in a wave so keen Sam felt it pang against his heart.

"Where the hell have you been?" Dean demanded, but pain clipped off the end of the sentence and dulled the fire of his words.

Sam nodded to the PA. "I got it," he said.

"Tell him my name is Mike," the man said. "Not Denzel."

Sam shrugged. "I like Denzel."

Mike shot a look at Sam, and to his relief, grinned slightly. "Yeah, well… who doesn't."

With that, he wrapped the loose IV tubing he'd removed from Dean's arm and set it on a shelf above the bed.

"I'll bring you his clothes," Mike said to Sam, then glanced once more at Dean with a scowl that Dean returned.

Sam smiled his thanks, then stepped up to his brother when Mike left the alcove. He tipped his chin up in a silent question. Dean closed his eyes briefly, exhaling and shaking his head. Sam nodded in acceptance, smiling internally at the secret language they'd developed without realizing. Months of being on the road honed skills of communication that their father had instilled in them through childhood. Ways of feeling each other when they couldn't see, seeing what they couldn't hear, hearing what they couldn't feel.

Die-hard habits that just days ago had made him want to lock Dean in a closet and toss the key may actually save them now.

Dean leaned back on the bed and Sam noticed that the shoulder of his gown had been snapped up, the electrodes removed. His face was pale, lashes brushing shadows on the hollowed-out, purple crescents under his eyes. As if sensing his gaze, Dean lifted a brow and opened one eye.

"What?"

Sam smirked and grabbed the pad of paper they'd been using to communicate.

You look like Tyler Durden after round four.

Dean grinned. "Hell, Sammy," he said, his voice like gravel. "You know I'm prettier than Brad Pitt."

Mike returned with a plastic bag of smoke-scented clothes. "George wanted me to offer you a ride."

Sam frowned. "He's got a car here?"

Mike shook his head. "Nah," he said. "I'm giving him a ride to the hotel."

Sam glanced at Dean, noting how his brother's eyes were darting between them, trying to absorb anything that he could understand.

"Think you can take us back to George's house? So we can pick up our car?"

Mike shrugged. "Sure. You planning on sticking around?"

Sam pulled in his bottom lip. Dean needed rest. Needed to heal. They'd healed on the road before, but this was different. He needed time. And… there was a job to do. George still had a ghost. Sam lifted his eyes to meet his brothers. Could Dean hunt like this?

"Whatever you're thinking," Dean said softly, "it had better include finishing this bastard."

Sam's lips quirked and he glanced back at Mike. "Yeah, we're sticking around."

"You can follow me to the hotel, then." He looked at the prescriptions clutched in Sam's hand. "I'll get those for you."

Sam nodded and pulled the curtain closed behind Mike. He looked at Dean as his brother rifled through the bag of clothes, his nose wrinkled against the smell. As Dean dressed, he wrote down Mike's message. Dean glanced at it while he slowly pulled on the black suit pants.

"What about my car?"

Sam tapped the pad where he'd written get Impala.

"Oh, right" Dean said, pausing suddenly, dressed in only his pants and white T-shirt. He leaned against the bed, closing his eyes and dropping his head.

Sam touched his arm, silently asking if he was okay.

"Gimme a minute," Dean whispered. "Head hurts like a mother."

"Yeah, I can imagine," Sam replied. "Good thing you've got a hard head."

Dean lifted his head and smiled weakly. "Guess it's a good thing I've got a hard head, huh?"

Sam grinned and nodded, handing Dean his shoes. Dean sank on the bed, taking the worn boots from Sam, and slumping tiredly as he regarded his feet. Sam could see exhaustion pressing down around his shoulders like a gray blanket of defeat.

He crouched in front of Dean and looked up at the blood-shot green eyes. Dean met his eyes, then nodded, handing the boots to Sam and allowing his brother to help him. It was an odd feeling, Sam reflected, helping Dean in this way. He'd had to do the same not too long ago when a river and a gambler had tried their best to beat his brother.

Dean never backs down, Sam thought. The knowledge both frustrated and balanced him. Dean never backed down.

Once dressed, Dean stood on shaking legs, stuffing his hands into his pockets and curling his shoulders inward in a stance that was at once protective and defensive. Sharing a look, the brothers departed the ER, met up with George, Wren, and Mike, then stepped out into the bright sunlight of mid-day.

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"Denzel" drove a Ford F-150.

Dark blue with silver trim. Dean ran his hand along the edge of the truck bed to steady himself as well as show his appreciation for a well-tended machine. The extended cab took nothing away from the sturdiness and usability of the bed—the whole point of having a pick-up truck in the first place, as far as Dean was concerned.

The reflection of the sun flashed in his eyes briefly as George opened the passenger front door, causing him to suck in his breath and close his eyes as the brilliance seared like a brand. The girl climbed in, guided by the sure hands of the old man. Dean surmised that she had to be Wren. The reason he ached in places where muscles weren't supposed to exist. The reason his head pulsed like a cartoon character hit by an anvil.

The reason he couldn't hear his brother call his name.

The bitter taste of anger overrode any feeling of mercy he knew he should extend this girl. He forced himself to swallow and jerked open the rear passenger door, climbing in carefully.

As Denzel—Mike, he reminded himself—started up the truck, Dean saw conversation happening around him. He saw Sam nodding, responding, George looking over his shoulder, Mike laughing. The only one still, silence as much a part of her as it was Dean, was Wren. Oddly, he felt her listening. She seemed to pull the sound close to her and roll in it.

He shook his head, banishing the dizzy idea and rested his tender forehead against the cool window. Mike shifted into drive and the big engine responded. Dean felt it humming through his feet, riding his calves and trembling his thighs. He felt the vibration across his face through the window. Closing his eyes, he spread his hands slowly across the vinyl seat, relishing the feel of the machine as it rumbled drunkenly across potholes and rough asphalt.

When you can't figure out which way to go, take away one of your senses. Use the others. Dad had been talking about sight. He said eyes can deceive. Not everything is as you see, and you can't see everything.

Never told me how to not hear danger, Dad.

He had one job, one purpose: watch out for Sammy. That directive coupled with the knowledge that he may have to choose between protecting Sam from the world, or the world from Sam, aged him and drove him.

What am I supposed to do now?

An odd thrum bounced off of his heartbeat and he opened his eyes. He felt Sam watching him and pressed his lips back, nodding his assurance. The thrum beat again and he frowned, looking up at the front seat as Mike's dark head rolled in an obvious cadence. Sam ticked his finger against the back of Dean's hand, drawing his eyes.

"Country music," Sam mouthed slowly, clearly. Dean winced and Sam nodded.

As Dean closed his eyes again, he felt a smile creep across the bruises.

He felt the music.

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Minnesota, 1994

He's punching the air, striking at a figure only he can see. It takes me a moment to truly wake up. It's dark in Jim's house, and the sounds of the road are far away. I think that I'll never sleep in such silence, but then I hear Sam cry out and realize I've been asleep long enough that the sun is once again sneaking into the night.

My legs are tangled in the sheets. Jim uses flannel sheets—no blankets. Always has. I freeze in the night when we stay here in the winter. We're too big to sleep in the same bed anymore and I'm not enough to keep myself warm.

"Gotta get out gotta get out gotta get out," Sam is chanting, swinging away into the dark.

"Hang on, Sammy," I call to him, trying to extricate myself before he stumbles from his bed to escape the vision that captures him in his sleep. "I'm coming."

"Can't wait, Dean, can't wait for Dad, gotta get out…"

I stumble from the bed, going to one knee as I trip over my duffel, then launch forward like a runner from start position to cross the room, catching him as he leaps free. He pushes against me, fists catching my sternum, the soft spot beneath my ribs, my chin. I bite my tongue, pushing him back harder than I intend to.

"Stop it!" I order.

He freezes at my tone, nightmare sweat plastering strands of long brown hair to his forehead, his eyes still closed.

"Dean?"

"I'm right here."

"It was here," he whispers.

"You were dreaming."

"No… no, Dean, it was here."

"Nobody here but us, man."

"I saw it," Sam says, fear liquidating his voice and turning tears to daggers in my heart.

"Sammy, it's okay, man. You saw it, I know, but it's not here. I'm here."

"It could get you."

"Naw," I grin, hiking my hip up onto his bed, and shoving at his shoulder. "It's me."

"Dean, don't let it get you." He finally opens his eyes and I almost want him to close them again.

"Dad killed it," I remind him. "It's gone, Sammy. I know it was… it was awful under that water. But you held on and Dad got us out, okay? Dad got us out."

"You held on."

"You bet your ass I did."

"You held on to me," he says, his voice small.

"Well," I shrug, trying not to show the enormity of the weight those words settled on my heart. "You're my brother. Who else am I gonna pick on if I let some bird monster demon…thing… pull you underwater?"

Sam shivers and pulls his knees up, tucking his body up against the pillow. I slide backwards on his bed until I'm resting against the wall, my legs straight out. I stare at my feet. I never really noticed my feet much. I like them better when I don't think about them.

"Dean?"

"Hmm?"

"What if Dad isn't around to kill the next one?"

I swallow. Sam spoke my one fear: the moment it's up to me. The moment I truly do stand between Sam and real darkness. The moment Dad isn't here.

"Then we'll take care of it together," I answer, not looking at him. "I won't let anything happen to you, Sammy."

I reach for him, like I used to when we were kids, and grab his hand. I slap the back of it against my chest, holding it there. My heartbeat bounces against his hand.

"You feel that?"

Sam nods.

"I'm not going anywhere."

He slouches deeper into the bed. "Can't sleep," he yawns.

When Sam was little, Dad would sing to him. Mostly when he was sick, but it always worked. I chew my lip, rubbing at the knot at the back of my neck. His hand is still pressed against my chest and I shift sideways in the bed.

"Frozen in the place I hide. Not afraid to paint my sky with some who say I've lost my mind. Brother try and hope to find. You were always so far away, I know that pain so don't you run away like you used to do…"

"I can feel you singing," he says.

I roll so that I'm staring up at the ceiling. Out of the corner of my eyes I see the shadow of Pastor Jim as he steps away from the open door.

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When they pulled up to George Cooper's shell of a house, Sam had to look away. The image of the fireball, the slam of heat, the cold snake of fear that had only wrapped itself tighter around his heart in the moments since were too vivid.

The same jolt of pain that always sliced across his chest when he remembered Jessica's frozen terror, or his father's body on the linoleum floor, shook him thinking about the possibility of losing Dean.

Mike halted the truck. "That your car?" he asked, nodding to the Impala.

"That's her," Sam said, reaching for Dean's curled form. He'd fallen asleep almost as soon as the truck began moving, and Sam hated to wake him.

"Nice," Mike commented.

"Uh, thanks," Sam answered. "Dean. Dean, hey," he said, the habit of calling his brother's attention before touching him too strong to simply squelch in the hours that had passed. He gripped Dean's shoulder.

The reaction was expected but none-the-less startling. Dean jerked, his hand launching out to grab Sam's wrist and twist it away. He pressed his back against the door and swung out with his free hand, forcing Sam to catch it or get clocked.

Then, Dean opened his eyes.

"Sam?"

Sam smiled weakly, waiting until Dean relaxed before he released his brother's hand. Dean rubbed at his bruised face.

"Jesus, man, why didn't you say—" Dean stopped mid-rant, dropping his hand and looking at Sam, the color leeched from his face as memory flooded back. He rubbed at his neck just below his ears. "We here?"

Sam nodded. Dean looked out at what was left of the house and Sam recognized the same look of horror in his brother's eyes that he knew had been in his at the sight.

"Well, let's get going then," Dean rasped, nodding at Mike. "Thanks, Denzel." He opened the door, and moved stiffly to the ground.

Sam touched George's shoulder. "Listen," he started. "This… thing with your wife? It's kinda what my brother and I do."

George was watching Dean limp toward the Impala. "He's hurting, Son."

"Yeah, I know."

"You got enough on your plate without—"

"Actually," Sam interrupted. "Neither of us do well with down time. We'll be in touch."

"Won't be hard to find," George twisted around to look at Sam. "We're gonna be staying at the same hotel."

"Oh, right," Sam nodded, looking over at Mike. "We can follow you?"

Mike nodded. "Trust Denzel," he said, rolling his eyes.

Sam chuckled and climbed out of the truck. Chris LeDoux echoed behind him from the radio as he joined Dean at the car. Dean waited by the driver's side mostly, Sam guessed, out of habit, leaning against the closed door and staring vacantly inside.

"You aren't driving," Sam said.

Dean didn't flinch.

Sam tapped his shoulder, and Dean looked up. "No," Sam said simply.

Dean pressed his lips out in a pout, moving around to the other side of the car like a child told to go to his room.

Once inside the Impala, they breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief.

"Good to be home," Dean muttered, running his hands across the dash. For a brief moment, he winced, his face folding in as a flash of pain washed over him. He grunted, pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead.

Sam waited, watching. After a moment, Dean straightened.

"Sonuvabitch," Dean muttered. "It's like the worst ice cream headache in the world times ten…"

Sam's eyebrows folded up and he reached out to squeeze Dean's shoulder in sympathy.

"Y'know what's weird?" Dean said rubbing at his ears again. "When it… flashes like that… I can… I almost hear something… like… hissing or something…"

"Can you hear me now?" Sam joked, knowing Dean saw his lips move.

"Very fuckin' funny," Dean muttered, looking away.

"Wait," Sam frowned. "Dean, did you… hear what I said?"

"Start her up, Sam," Dean requested, not hearing Sam's last question as he focused on something outside of the car. His hands were spread across the dark dash, his blunt fingers pressing hard enough to turn the tips white.

Sam shoved the keys in the ignition, firing up the engine. In his periphery, he saw Dean's eyes flutter closed. He looked over and realized that Dean's whole being had shifted—relief was evident. Sam chuckled.

"God, I missed her," Dean sighed, settling back and resting his hands flat against the bench seat as Sam pulled out behind Mike.

Sam shook his head. "It's barely been two days."

"Huh?"

"Nothing," Sam leaned over and turned on the radio, cranking the volume high. Dean followed the movement of his hand with his eyes, a smile creasing his bruised face when the bass beat through the car.

Sam watched as Dean pressed his hand against the glass, one leg flat on the inside of the door, the other up against the dash. Splayed out like he was, Sam could practically see the sound waves from the music working their way into his brother's blood stream.

Dean closed his eyes and tipped his head back, waiting.

The radio DJ came on, announcing something new by Staind, promising they were going to like this one, and Sam turned onto another road, following Mike close enough that he could read the truck's Delaware license plate.

"All the smiles you've had to fake, and all the shit you've had to take, just to lead us here again. I never have the things to say to make it all just go away, to make it all just disappear. Believe in me; I know you've waited for so long. Believe in me; sometimes the weak become the strong. Believe in me; this life's not always what it seems…"

The music filled the car, and the lyrics drew Sam away from the moment. Away from the unnatural silence in the seat next to him. Away from the fact that he was behind the wheel only because Dean couldn't be.

The hotel sign met his eyes in the distance. It was nicer than places they usually stayed. He wasn't sure how they were going to—

"Here," Dean said suddenly, poking him with the edge of a credit card. "Use this one."

Sam pulled to a stop in the parking lot, then looked down. Elroy McGillacuddy. He looked at Dean.

His brother stared out of the window, bouncing the glove box he'd extricated the card from closed with his knee. "I save it for emergencies," he said simply.

Sam pulled his lips in, biting the fleshy insides, and nodded. Leaving Dean to wait for him in the car, Sam went inside to get a room, making sure it was on the same floor as George and Wren. He returned to find Dean slumped on the bumper of the car, waiting for him to open the trunk.

"Man, Dean, you look like crap," he muttered, approaching his exhausted brother. Dean didn't look up as Sam approached. He gently shoved him aside to open the trunk and pulled out their duffels, wincing when the straps flexed against the stitches in his palm.

"Gimme one," Dean said tiredly.

"I got it," Sam answered.

"Quit being a stubborn ass," Dean grumbled. "I know your hand hurts."

He grabbed one of the duffels and turned away.

"You're the stubborn ass," Sam muttered, grabbing the weapons bag, slamming the lid shut, and stepping around his brother to lead the way to the room.

They went inside, looking around. Newer décor, newer carpet, newer A/C… same set up.

"People spend money on the craziest stuff," Dean mumbled, dropping his bag on the foot of the nearest bed, then falling across the mattress.

Sam regarded him a moment, then set his bags down. He fished out the meds Mike had filled for them, dropping down on the bed near his prone brother. He shook Dean's shoulder.

"Hey."

Dean pushed at him weakly.

"Dean."

"Wanna sleep."

"I know you wanna sleep, man, but you need these."

Dean didn't stir. Sam sighed and pushed at Dean again, keeping it up until he knew his brother would roll over just to get away from his hand.

"Jesus Christ! You're like a freakin' giant… gnat," Dean growled, rolling over and holding his head. "Holy hell, Sammy."

"Hurts, huh?" Sam said, sympathy thick in his voice.

"Hurts like a bitch," Dean said, as if answering him. "This seriously sucks out loud. Tell me you have something on this ghost, man."

Sam sighed. He gently tapped Dean's hand away from his face, holding up the pain pills.

"No," Dean shook his head, his eyes bleary.

Sam stared at him, hard. "You're in pain, Dean."

"I'm not taking any pills until we know more about what's going on," Dean pushed at Sam's hand, clumsily shoving himself to the edge of the bed, away from Sam.

"Dammit, you can be such an asshole, Dean!" Sam snapped, standing and rounding the bed to face his brother. "You're taking this medicine."

Dean didn't look at him, apparently knowing what Sam was doing simply by his stance. When Sam stepped forward, Dean stood, weakly pushing against Sam.

"Dean—"

"Sam, stop it, just stop," Dean pressed his palms on Sam's chest, his eyes centering on Sam's throat, his own throat working convulsively. "Something was in that house… something hurt that guy, tried to go after the girl… I… I saw something."

"You saw something?" Sam repeated, too caught up in the moment to remember that Dean wouldn't hear him.

"It's like… trying to remember a dream," Dean said softly, his eyes darting as he searched the shadows of his memory. "I think I have it and then it… slips away." He looked up at Sam. "But something was there. That much I know."

Sam nodded, taking a breath. "Okay, we'll look into it," he said, watching Dean's eyes narrow on his mouth as his brother tried to figure out what he was saying. He slowed down, enunciating each word. "We'll figure it out. But after you get some rest."

"No!" Dean pushed atSam, knocking him away and off balance. "No, Sam, I mean it. Quit trying to take me out of this fight. I'm in it, dammit!"

Sam blinked, surprised, taking a step further away from Dean. "I'm not—"

"Those pills will make me all… foggy and I can't think. I need to be there, Sam. I need to be in this. It's all I—ah!"

This time when the pain hit him, Dean doubled over, pressing the heels of his hands to his temples.

"Dean?"

"Sonuvabitch," Dean breathed. "Don't talk… shhh… don't… don't talk."

"Are you—" Sam almost bit off his tongue to keep from speaking again when Dean went to his knees, his face balled up with pain, sweat beading on his bruised forehead.

Afraid that even his footsteps on the carpet would cause his brother more pain, Sam held still, waiting. He wanted to go to him, to offer him assurance, support, some sort of solidarity. But he didn't move. He waited and he watched as Dean's body shook with wave after wave of pain, his muscles tightening beneath his shirt in visible ridges. Soon, Dean relaxed slightly, sagging to his side on the floor, drawing in great gulps of breath, pressing the back of his hand against his pale lips.

"Holy shit," Dean breathed. "I almost like hearing nothing better than… everything at once."

Sam stepped close, gently eased Dean to a sitting position, then helped him up on the bed. Dean sat with his elbows on his knees, his head resting in the net of his fingers. Crouching down in front of his brother, Sam caught Dean's eyes, speaking slowly.

"If I promise to look into this ghost, will you please take these pills?"

Dean stared at him a moment. Sam held his breath. A drop of sweat ran down the side of Dean's face, bouncing a trail through the rough stubble of scruff along his jaw.

"Yeah, okay," Dean finally sighed.

Sam stood, grabbing the pills and a glass. He filled the glass with water, then returned to find Dean exactly as he'd left him.

"Drops," Sam said, holding up the small vile. "Ears."

"Fine," Dean said, a groan leaking out as he eased slowly down on the bed, offering first one ear then the other to Sam.

Sam watched his hand tremble as he squeezed the clear liquid into Dean's ears, noting the crusted blood on the edges of his lobes.

"Feels weird, man," Dean slurred.

"I'll bet," Sam replied softly, then handed Dean the pain pills and water.

It took two minutes for Dean to find a comfortable position on the bed, another five for the pills to take effect. Sam sat on the chair across the room, watching his brother fall, feeling his own body tick like a cooling engine. He stood when Dean's breath was slow and even, pulling the worn work boots from Dean's feet and flipping the edge of the comforter over his brother's body.

As Dean slept, Sam searched. Time well-spent surfing the Internet and hacking into sites normally denied the average user often times brought him a surplus of information. He found the 911 transcripts of George's initial calls, the coroner's report of Camilla's death. He didn't find an autopsy report, but surmised that since the local doctor had declared it a heart attack, none had been performed. He found the report about Camilla and George taking in Wren, but nothing on the girl's parents, save her report in the article.

He found the cemetery where Camilla was buried.

He looked over at his brother.

something was there. That much I know…

George was certain Camilla was haunting him, and Dean was certain something was going on. Sam knew of one sure-fire way to rid someone of a ghost. He stood, his decision made.

He slipped Dean's Bowie from the weapons duffel, sliding it beneath Dean's pillow. Just knowing it was within Dean's dangerous reach made Sam breathe easier. Leaving Dean to sleep, a note on his whereabouts on the pillow next to his brother, Sam headed for the Impala.

Finding the cemetery wasn't hard. Finding the grave was even easier. Waiting for silence and night was a test of his patience. Digging up the grave tore the stitches in his hand and smeared blood on the shovel handle.

Dean was going to kill him for leaving in the first place; coming back with a bloody hand would be icing on a bitter cake.

But what Sam found inside the casket would trump any ill-conceived escape, any bloody return.

Camilla Cooper had died six weeks ago; Sam knew he wouldn't find bones to salt and burn. He'd prepared himself for the battering his tired body would receive getting to the corpse. He'd prepared himself for the smell of decay and rot that slammed into him with the creak of the unused hinges. He'd prepared himself for the sight of a human face melting away with the cleansing of salt-fueled fire.

He hadn't prepared himself to see Camilla Cooper's body rolled over, laying face-down in her own coffin.