Rating: PG-13


Chapter 6

You can't walk down a dirt road without picking up some dust.

- Thru Terry's Eyes

www

There were some sounds that Sam would never forget.

The rumble of his father's voice. The slow roll of Jessica's laugh. The growl of the Impala's engine. His brother's cry of pain.

The weak light of morning fought to pierce through what he now saw were gathering rain clouds building from the west and tumbling toward the eastern horizon, the blood-red water fading to a muted orange as the rays were filtered. The sea had seemed to calm its tidal rush as soon as Dean emerged, wet, bleeding, shaking and empty-handed, to fall with him to the sandy floor.

Sam had only just felt the warmth of his brother's hand against his aching chest when Dean's body tensed, his hand jerked free and his cry crescendoed quickly to an abbreviated scream.

"Dean?" Sam called hoarsely, instinct erasing knowledge as he rolled to his side, reaching for his brother's now-curved back.

His trembling, sand-coated fingers gently pressed against the valley of Dean's spine, his brother's shirt painted to his skin with salt-water. Dean flinched away with a guttural groan. Sam felt panic slam the base of his throat and propel him to his knees, leaning over Dean.

Hands pressed tightly against his ears, face closed like a fist against intrusion, Dean was holding his body still, his arm, side, and chest muscles standing out in flexed contrast to the normal contours of his body.

"Wha—" Sam started.

"God," Dean whispered. "Stop… Ah, God, Sam… I gotta... make it stop!"

Dean's weak plea ate through Sam's heart like spoken acid, compelling him to lean closer, his hands hovering over Dean's tense shoulders uncertainly, looking for something that he could stop, something that he could control. Something he could end.

"Dean," Sam whispered. "Make what... stop?"

"Fuck," Dean ground out, his teeth audibly clacking against each other as he clenched them. "So fucking loud…"

Noise, Sam realized with dread, looking quickly up and around. They were surrounded by noise. The ocean, the birds, even the slow roll of rocks and shells across the sand as the water tripped back out to the sea had to be reverberating against Dean's raw ears.

When thunder rumbled, low and threatening, across the ceiling of clouds, Dean bucked, sliding his hands to the back of his head and pressing the flesh of his forearms against his ears.

"Son of a bitch," he cursed, biting his lower lip hard enough that Sam saw a fine line of blood run from his mouth to mix with the salt water on his chin.

Sam crawled around his brother's body, kneeling in front of Dean, taking stock for a brief moment. Time was his constant enemy. There was never enough of it, and he was always aware of how swiftly it moved. He'd never be able to out-run it, never be able to catch it, and his pleas for it to slow down were met with disinterested silence.

Sam was acutely aware that Mike lay bleeding back at the house. He pressed a hand to his chest, coughing, feeling a rattle inside like an impending cold, but knew it was only the effects of the siren's cry. The cry his brother had saved him from.

Looking around as Dean's tense body trembled against his bent knees, Sam tried to figure out which way from the sea they had to travel to return to Mike and George's body. He wiped at his wet cheeks with the heel of his hand, removing the remnants of bloody tears.

His mind felt sluggish—thoughts started, then were interrupted, unable to follow through to completion. His eyes burned, a familiar, gritty feeling. He'd felt this hot sting before. Looking in Bloody Mary's mirror. Seeing the true echo of his guilt stare back at him. Facing up to his sin, his mistake, his failure to save someone. To save Jess.

Coughing again, Sam spat a faint, pinkish residue into the sand, rubbing at his wounded chest, looking down at Dean. Dark red splotches of blood peppered Dean's shoulders where the siren's talons had dug in, and the back of his shirt was stained from where his neck wound had opened up.

Taking a soggy, rattling breath, Sam reached carefully for Dean's bruised wrists, vowing when his chilled fingers met his brother's heated skin that he wasn't going to fail this time. He wasn't going to fail like that again. Ever. Not with Dean.

"Hey," he said, softly, aware that the firewall of silence that had been between them for the past few days was crumbling in a painful rush of sound. "Let me help you, Dean."

"Too loud," Dean all-but growled.

Sam nodded, though Dean had yet to open his eyes. "I know," he said. "Let's make it stop together."

At that, Dean cracked one eye slightly, peering at Sam in a confused haze of pain.

They won't get us… we're the good guys. Those words had been hovering on the edge of Sam's memory from the moment he'd wrestled with Dean in the pitch black of the tunnel. Looking at his brother now, his face relaxed into a smile, feeling the truth of those words, though he couldn't pin-point the memory of their origin. They were the good guys.

Hell itself wouldn't be able to keep them for long.

At Sam's nod of encouragement, Dean tentatively reached up a hand, his eyes tightening immediately as the protection of his arms left his ears. Sam gripped his hand at the wrist, pushing to his feet and pulling his brother with him.

Upright, Dean immediately swayed, his legs unable to hold him. Sam felt the weight of his brother shift against him and automatically reached, wrapping his arm around Dean's slim, muscular back.

"I got you," Sam whispered as Dean's head fell loosely against his chest, his hand clumsily reaching for Sam's opposite arm, searching for balance. "I got you big brother."

"Don't… let go," Dean managed in a ragged whisper before his legs disappeared. With a soft uhh of air, Dean went boneless, his eyes falling closed, his lips parting as his jaw went slack. Sam's hands slipped on the blood now slick against Dean's shirt, sliding with a salt-water base against his skin.

Grabbing at Dean's jeans, digging his fingers into the belt loops there, Sam grunted, "Wouldn't dream of it," as he hoisted Dean up against him, frowning at his brother's lax face and closed eyes. "Dean?" Reaching up, he patted Dean's pale cheeks. "Dean? Hey!"

Nothing. Barely a flutter of lashes. Feeling his burning eyes well with the unmistakable sting of tears, Sam pressed his lips tight, stilling the tremble of his chin.

"Aw, c'mon, Dean. She didn't get you." He held Dean's face a moment longer. "Dean! Don't you do this to me. She didn't win!"

He swallowed hard, needing to say it more for himself than his unconscious brother. Sniffing, the rattle in his chest shaking another harsh cough loose, Sam crouched and put his shoulder against Dean's belly, bouncing once to take on his brother's weight.

With a shift to adjust Dean on his shoulder, Sam stood, air puffing roughly out through tight lips, his chest protesting.

"Shit. You're the human compass, Dean," he gasped. "Any idea which way the house is from here?"

Dean was silent and limp over his shoulder.

"Right," Sam nodded. "Okay, so… the tunnel exited there," he looked toward the wooded area where the siren had almost ended his life. A chill swept over him, causing him to shiver and raising gooseflesh on his bare arms.

"S-So… that means I just, uh… I go…" he gripped Dean's legs, "this way."

She'd almost had him, Sam realized as he half-walked, half-stumbled away from the beach toward where he thought the house should be. Not just back in the woods. There, her scream had gripped his heart with a crushing strength, pulling his soul through his eyes and leaving a bloody trail in its wake. But she'd never really had him.

At the beach, though, he'd wanted her. He'd seen innocence in her eyes, felt need on her lips, tasted desire on her tongue and he'd wanted her. Thinking of it even now had his belly stirring with a familiar heat that crept lower, making the already difficult task of walking even harder. She'd almost had him, then. Willingly.

"Focus, Sam," he scolded himself. Dean was dead weight in his arms, his blood soaking through Sam's clothes. Mike was wounded back at the house. George was…

"God, Dean," Sam said, just to have a focal point for his wayward thoughts. "She killed George. The only one who'd really cared for her. And… I think she made him kill Camilla… even though… uh—" He tripped, going to one knee, Dean sliding part-way off his shoulder.

"Sorry," Sam panted, looking for something in Dean's face that would offer the reassurance that he was still close, awareness hovering just under the comfort of oblivion.

Nothing. Dean's breathing remained shallow, his head tipping back as his neck lacked support.

"Dammit," Sam cursed, drawing Dean back up on his shoulder and grunting as he pushed once more to his feet.

His body hurt. His chest protested every breath as if Wren had poured a bag of marbles inside his lungs, letting them bruise him from the inside out as they vibrated with the power of her cry.

Focus, Sam, he tried again. The toes of his boots dragged in the sand as he plodded forward, Dean's body growing heavier, Sam's guilt growing stronger.

I was the one that got us into this mess… the one that insisted on this hunt… the one that should have been in the house… the one that got seduced by a goddamned siren…

He stumbled again, his heart beating a pattern of regret: my fault, my fault, my fault.

Dean groaned slightly, and Sam felt the sound through his back, a virtual smack against his guilty heart. He could almost hear Dean's voice in his head, Would you stop? Jesus Christ, Sam! You gonna apologize when the world ends, too?

"I can't… I can't stop, Dean," Sam answered the drill sergeant in his head. "I screwed up."

Then think about something else until this is over and I can kick your ass.

"What else?" Sam swallowed the volume of his question, sweat from his efforts coating his upper lip, even while the cold weight of his brother's wet body soaked through his clothes, chilling him. "Think about what else, Dean?"

And the memory hit him like a wave.

Are you humming… Metallica?

It calms me down.

His mind was blank. He could no more find the words to a Metallica song than he could play Rachmaninoff on the harmonica.

"Baby did a bad, bad thing…" Sam panted, wanting so badly to close his eyes, his thirst driving him forward. "Baby did a bad, bad thing."

The song made him think of Jessica. Of her sexy backside clothed only in short, white briefs, her back covered by a barely-there tank top. Of her long blond curls smelling faintly like amber. Of her full lips against his.

His heart pounded once, hard, and he gripped Dean's legs harder, pausing to look around. Working to focus. Nothing looked familiar. He may as well be in the dark tunnel, dragging Dean back to the house through the dirt that bore witness to untold escapes for freedom.

"Dean…" Sam said, his voice tearing. "I'm sorry."

Dean groaned again and this time Sam felt a subtle shift. He paused his aimless wander, holding his brother, waiting to see if he would come back to him, tell him which way to go, what to do. When no answering snark followed the pained moan, Sam nodded.

"Okay," he whispered. "Okay. It's me. It's up to me. I'm gonna get us out of this, man."

Dean would be counting. Sam had watched him. He counted beats to a song, counted rotations of the wheels, counted lines on the road. He did it without thinking, without fanfare. He just pushed the world away, focused on the problem through repetition.

Sam had tried that calming technique before, to no avail. He just ended up adding a headache to his frustration. Shifting Dean slowly from one shoulder to the other, holding him now with his bandaged hand, Sam moved through the trees, sand having long ago given way to dirt and tufts of grass.

"Take the light, undarken everything around me…Calm the clouds and listen closely, I'm lost without you. Call your name every day when I feel so helpless…I've fallin' down, but I'll rise above this, rise above this…"

Thunder rolled. Sam closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head against the humor of karma. The first fat drop of rain landed on the tip of his nose and he blew at it, splattering it across his cheeks to join its cohorts as they tripped from the leaden clouds to saturate him and worked to wash the blood on Dean's back away.

If Wren hadn't already been returned to the sea, if she hadn't already revealed her hidden truth, her convenient sight, her unfortunate yearning, Sam might have been inclined to believe Dean's mistaken notion that the ala had returned. This storm was a punishment. The rain fell in blinding sheets, turning the rough ground into puddles of mud and stone, grabbing at his ankles, holding him back, working to pull him down, taunting him with the image of dropping his precious burden.

The crack of lightning shook through Sam like a gunshot, and suddenly he was awake. Mike was back in the shell of a house. Bleeding. Alone with the body of his one-time friend. The body of a broken, confused man, who had only meant to act out of love.

Sam felt anger burble up as he hurried forward. Anger at Wren. Anger at himself.

Anger at the whole fucking world and the constant war that pitted lovers against one another, brothers against evil, fathers against sons, mothers against a force they couldn't begin to defeat.

His anger gave him focus. Direction. Strength.

Lightning crashed once more and Sam saw the outline of the house in the after-image of brilliance on his aching eyes. He blinked rain from his lashes, spitting it from his lips, hoping that Dean wasn't drowning in the deluge as he hung loosely down Sam's back, his face at Sam's waist.

"MIKE!" Sam bellowed, wincing audibly as the air pulled harshly against his congested lungs. "Mike! Answer me!"

The morning thunder was his only response. The clouds had build heavy gray walls around them, mirroring Sam's scowl, throwing the obstacle of darkness in his path and beating thunder against his ears until he wanted to scream in retaliation. Stumbling closer to the house, Sam eased Dean off of his shoulder, grasping his brother's wet, limp body as gravity did its job, leaning him against some debris from the house that basically sheltered him from nothing but the worst of the weather.

Dean's head lolled, the rain sluicing down his face and falling from the tip of his nose and his chin in miniature waterfalls.

"I'll be right back," Sam panted, water splashing from his lips. He tried to calm his racing heart. Dean looked translucent in the gray light of the storm.

Turning, Sam grasped the edge of the broken doorway just as another white-hot flash of lightening blasted through the air, peppering the rain with ozone and causing Sam to blink against the brilliance as he pulled himself into the soggy, destroyed house.

"Mike!" Sam called stepping over the loose boards, feeling oddly light with the absence of Dean's weight. He saw the wounded PA several feet away, lying on his side, very still. "Oh, shit."

Sam skidded to a stop on the wet wood, kneeling next to Mike and gently rolling the older man over into his lap. Though it was nearly impossible to detect his breath, Sam felt a pulse at the base of Mike's throat.

"Okay," he nodded, his hair falling into his eyes, sticking there with the plaster of rain. "Okay, man, you're going home. I promise, you're going home."

Sam fumbled down Mike's side, realizing that the Justin Healer had rigged up a sort of tourniquet around his middle, using the leather belt from his jeans to tie the wadded-up curtain tight against the wound.

"Nice," Sam nodded, pushing his hair from his face. As he gathered Mike against him, he heard something fall from the black man's hand. Reaching across Mike's body, Sam retrieved a cell phone, the numbers 9, 1, and 1 smeared with blood. Relief and worry warred for attention in his heart.

"Saved our asses again," Sam said softly, stuffing Mike's phone into his jeans pocket and looking over his shoulder where he'd left Dean, seeing only the top of his brother's head.

"Gotta get you two outta here," he managed, his cough ragged in the rain. "Some place better protected." He shifted Mike again, trying to lift the solid man with arms made, it seemed, of rubber.

Looking for the easiest path out, Sam's eyes lit on George's body, the old man's crushed chest concave and filling with a small pool of rain. The blood on his face had been washed away, but his destroyed eyes were still open, the rain hitting the unseeing orbs without remorse.

Sam shuddered at the sight.

Buck up, Sam, he chided himself. You have to do this.

It took him a moment of heaving, gasping, and kicking away debris to realize that he was hearing something over the beat of the rain. It was so close it sounded as if it were inside his head. Pausing a moment, his bent body creating a sort of tent over Mike's face as he held the man under his arms, dragging him out of the house, Sam lifted his head, trying to track the sound.

Oh, shit. It's that… song. Their song, he realized suddenly, the shard of fear that had embedded itself in his heart at the sound of Dean's cry of pain back on the beach digging a deeper furrow at the knowledge.

He'd forgotten the spirit. Forgotten the original hunt. Forgotten his job.

"Shit."

Sam lay Mike down, gently turning his face so that the rain ran off his features, then straightened, squaring his shoulders as if facing down an enemy.

"Camilla?" His voice trembled and he had to swallow again to avoid a hacking cough.

The humming stopped. The only sound around him was the rain, its hard tattoo beat against his face with wet splats, dropped on the sodden wood of the ruined house with a slow cadence of defeat, soaked through George Cooper's clothes to run down his hollowed-out chest.

Sam blinked when he realized he could suddenly see George's body, as if light surrounded it.

"It's… it's over," Sam said, eyes darting around the house. "She's gone." He had no time—or strength—to return to the cemetery, dig up Camilla's body, and salt and burn the bones. If it was going to end, it would have to end here. "My brother, uh… sent her away." He wasn't sure if Dean had outright killed Wren… only that he'd returned her to the sea.

A shape started to part the rain, water running from a head and down shoulders as if it struck the invisible form of a woman.

"Holy…" Sam breathed, straining to see more, unsure if he wanted to.

Eyes were next—colorless, but holding a sadness that took Sam's breath away. A hand reached through the water, separating the drops, slowing their descent. Hardly daring to blink, Sam watched as Camilla Cooper's sorrow-filled spirit stepped up to her husband, her lover, her protector, guardian, and killer. Sam watched with awe as an oleander stem and flower materialized from the wet air and was laid on George's broken chest.

Camilla stood, turning to face Sam. He swallowed, feeling peace wash over him so suddenly that he swayed. Lightning sliced the air once more, thunder on its heels, and Sam felt the ground shake with the impact.

Camilla's lips quivered in a small smile, her meaning clear. Now, it's over. Her water-shaped body dissolved into the rain.

In her place, Sam saw the unmistakable gold and orange flames of fire spurting from the interior of the protected section of the house.

"Dammit!"

He bent again, gathering Mike up, dragging him from the house, ignoring the clunk of the big man's boots as they bounced down what was left of the porch stairs. Sam spared his wounded brother a heart-wrenched glance as he continued across the lawn to the garage, laying Mike down carefully in the protection of the sheltered building.

Stopping only briefly to ensure Mike still had a pulse, Sam ran back into the rain and to Dean. Dimly in the distance, he heard the whine of an ambulance. The kind of siren he wanted to hear at this moment.

"Dean?" Sam breathed as he dropped to a splashing halt next to his brother. He cupped Dean's cheek, tipping his face up. Dean's skin was wet, the heat of it causing Sam to imagine steam rising from Dean's cheeks into the rain. His breathing was erratic, but his pulse was strong.

"Dean? Hey, man… can you… can you open your eyes for me?" He suddenly, desperately, needed to see his brother's eyes. Needed to know that he hadn't moved too slow, taken too long. That he wasn't too late. He hadn't failed…

Hearing the sirens draw closer, Sam sat in the mud next to his brother, pulling him close and wrapping his arms around Dean's shoulders, trying to protect him from the rain. He lacked the strength to do anything else.

"Dean?" he whispered, hearing the child's need for reassurance in his voice. "Dean… please…"

Inside the house, impossibly, the lightning-fueled fire caught and held, eating through the old wood and erasing the stories it held. George Cooper's body lay in the rain, surrounded by his memories, with his sin resting on his chest.

"Sam."

There were some sounds Sam knew he'd never forget. His name in Dean's voice was officially added to that list.

"Dean!"

"S-Somethin's… burnin'…"

Dean's face was pressed against Sam's chest, the blue and white lights of the approaching ambulance reflecting off his pale skin, his eyes closed against the rain. Sam smoothed his battered hand, bandage all but gone, over Dean's hair, arguing silently that he was not petting him.

"I know," Sam sniffed.

"'S rainin'?"

"Yeah, man, it's raining."

"Y'okay?"

"I'm okay."

"Good," Dean breathed, sagging once more in Sam's arms.

It was only when the paramedics arrived, Sam yelling there's a man in the garage, gunshot, and the house is on fire, that he realized Dean had responded to him without opening his eyes.

www

Somehow, cotton had gotten into his mouth.

Not only his mouth, but across his eyes, and seemed to be stuffed into his ears as well. His mind was clear, however. Clear up to large hands reaching for Dean, easing the warmth of his brother's body away. Clear up to the feel of cold rainwater splashing against his face as he slipped sideways onto the ground, the embers of the burning house dying in the rain around him.

"De—"

"I think he's coming around," a soft, female voice said near him. A warm hand touched his, another against his cheeks. A straw was inserted into his mouth and he instinctively drank.

"M'brother…"

"Take it easy, Sam," a different voice, also female, but more stern spoke from the opposite side. "Your body has been through a great strain. I'm Dr. Wilde; do you remember me?"

"Can't see."

"I'll remove the bandages in a minute. Michelle, can you dim the lights?"

Sam tried to open his eyes, realizing that the sensation of cotton was actual—gauze pads had been placed over his tender lids, taped to either side of his face.

"You remember what happened?"

Sam swallowed. He'd lost time… he didn't know where Dean was, if Mike were alive, what had been told to this faceless doctor.

"Where's my brother?" Sam tried again, his voice stronger. He reached up, rubbing at his chest in an automatic gesture.

"Does your chest hurt?"

Why won't you answer me? Sam grit his teeth. "Is he okay?" he returned.

"We'll talk about your brother in a minute. It's you I'm worried about now."

Sam went cold. Avoidance was a tactic he often used when he didn't want to face a truth, or force someone else to face it.

"I need to see Dean."

Sam heard Dr. Wilde sigh. "In a minute, Sam. Let me check your eyes."

Sam felt soft fingers brush at his temple, gently pulling the tape free. As the gauze was removed, he slowly pried his goopy lashes apart, peering at the doctor through blurred vision.

"Can you see me?"

"You're… fuzzy," Sam reached up to wipe at his eyes.

"Wait," Dr. Wilde stopped his hand. "Let me."

She vanished for a moment, then returned with a warm rag, gently wiping at his eyes, clearing the goop from his lashes. The irritating grit that had scraped against his eyes with each blink was gone. But the burn remained. It took Sam a moment to realize this burn was that of tears building at the back of his eyes, looking for an exit.

"Better?"

Sam blinked rapidly, recognizing the serious-eyed, dark-haired doctor with lines of care framing her feminine features.

"Yeah."

Nodding sternly, Dr. Wilde pulled a penlight from the pocket of her white coat, then shone it in Sam's eyes, making him wince.

"Any pain?"

"Not if you keep that light away."

"What about in your chest?"

"It's sore, yeah," Sam rubbed at his chest again, looking around. He wasn't in the ER. Not the one they'd been in after the explosion.

"I'd imagine so," Dr. Wilde put the pen light back in her pocket. "You have something that looks like… pleurisy."

"Plur…"

"Fluid in your chest cavity. If I didn't know better—" Dr. Wilde stopped, looking at Sam with narrowed eyes. "Well, I'd think you'd been suffering from pneumonia."

Sam shook his head. "Nope," he cleared his throat. "No pneumonia."

"Well, you're going to need to take it really easy for awhile. And I have some medica—"

"Doc," Sam interrupted her. "Tell me about Dean."

Dr. Wilde sighed, dropping her hands into her coat pockets. "He's resting at the moment."

Sam felt the chill in his gut grow to a ball of ice. "What happened?"

"He apparently awoke in the ambulance and…" When she paused, Sam's imagination filled in the blanks.

"He freaked out?"

She nodded. "He was in a fair bit of pain."

And I wasn't there, Sam berated himself. "How is he now?"

Dr. Wilde licked her lips. "He was sedated before he reached the hospital. My call," she clarified. "He's…" She squared her shoulders, looking directly into Sam's eyes. "He has a fever. The lacerations on his neck—which should have been treated by a doctor," she chided, "have become infected. There are puncture wounds on his shoulders from an unknown weapon. And it looks like he was… chained?"

It took Sam a moment to realize Dr. Wilde's tone was accusatory. He was processing the list of wounds, noting she hadn't mentioned his ears. If he was sedated—

"Wait… are you… what are you asking me?" Sam pushed himself up on the bed.

"Michelle? Can you give us a moment?" Dr. Wilde looked over her shoulder at the young nurse that had been lurking in the shadow. Sam heard the door to his room click shut. Dr. Wilde turned to him, her arms crossed, her face stern. Sam felt an instinctive urge to pull away.

"You left my hospital with an injured hand and a brother in need of care due to impact-related deafness."

Sam looked down at his palm, seeing the butterfly bandages spread across the spaces of his cut where the stitches had once again torn loose.

"You return, and one of my PA's is in critical condition, a man this whole town loved is dead, and your brother is worse."

Sam felt guilt lick the edges of his resentment. He didn't appreciate her unspoken accusation, and felt the anger that had propelled him from the beach—Dean draped over his shoulder—climb his heart to nestle comfortably at the base of his throat, waiting for the right moment to strike.

"What's your point, Doc?"

"What happened, Sam?"

Sam lifted hot eyes to hers. "I want to see my brother."

"Not until I get an explanation."

Sam lifted his eyebrow, his jaw set. He reached for his IV and pulled the port from the catheter tube fixed to the back of his hand.

"Wait! What do you think—"

Pressing down on the tube and stopping the backwash of blood, Sam swung his legs from the side of the bed, noting that his boxers remained intact. He was grateful—hospital gowns always made him feel more naked than if he'd actually been naked.

"You want an explanation?" Sam asked, rounding on the smaller woman, meeting her flashing eyes with his own determination. "I want to see my brother. Who do you think is gonna win this one?"

Dr. Wilde's nostril's flared. "You're going to have to explain this whole thing to more than just me if Mike doesn't make it through surgery," she spat at him, her quick fingers fixing his IV so that it no longer bled.

Sam felt a stab of remorse slice through him like the fine edge of a razor blade. "I know."

Staring at him a moment longer, Dr. Wilde muttered, "Follow me," then turned to storm from the room, her frustrated wrenching of the door marred by the hydraulic catch of the hinges. Sam followed, his long, pale feet making quick slapping sounds on the linoleum and mocking him in the fluorescent light of the hallway.

She led him to a room three doors down from his, pushing open another pressure-released door and stepping inside. Sam pushed past her, noting the empty bed by the door, then stepping up to the second bed, curtained off. The only light was that of the one from over Dean's bed.

Dean lay still, quiet, pale in the dimly lit room. An oxygen cannula was inserted into his nose, an IV attached to the back of his hand. Sam saw a blood pressure cuff wrapped around his bicep, the machine making a semi-grinding noise as it filled the cuff with air, making Sam jump.

"How's, uh… his…" Sam licked his lips, stepping closer. "Do you know if he can hear?"

Dr. Wilde seemed to soften. Sam felt her eyes, but didn't pull his from Dean. It felt as if the moment he looked away, Dean would disappear.

"I don't know yet, Sam."

"Mike got him some…" Sam stopped, afraid that he'd said too much.

"Antibiotics?"

"Yeah," Sam whispered.

"He's on some pretty strong ones now. We have to get his fever down. We've cleaned the cuts and treated the wounds, but he was without aid longer than I would have liked."

Sam took another step closer to the bed, his leg brushing against a plastic container hooked discretely below the covers. A catheter, Sam realized. Dean's gonna freakin' love that.

"Talk to me, Sam," Dr. Wilde implored, her voice like the cotton that had wrapped around Sam. "Let me help you."

Sinking one hip onto Dean's bed, Sam felt the heat of his brother's leg through the cool sheets and thin hospital gown.

"You won't believe me," he said, pulling his leg up for balance, resting his forearm on his knee. His fingers dangled just above Dean's wrist; he felt the coarse hairs there and flexed his hand so that he could rest it on Dean's.

"Try me," Dr. Wilde continued, leaning a shoulder against the wall near the head of the bed, her arms crossed, her eyes on Sam.

Sam kept his gaze locked on his brother, memories funneling through him like a freight train. He tried to slow his breathing, aware of the pull and strain on his chest muscles as his heart kicked up speed.

"My brother and I… we have an unusual job," Sam began, watching as a line appeared between Dean's brows. "We… were trying to help George. Mike was… helping us. It just… it all went wrong."

"I'll say," Dr. Wilde commented dryly.

"Wren—"

"Wren?"

"Wren Demeter," Sam nodded. "The girl that George and Camilla were caring for."

"Right."

"She… shot Mike. After she, uh, killed George."

"You have proof of this?"

Sam lifted a shoulder. "I have Mike."

The room was silent for a moment.

"What about Dean?"

"He," Sam started, then stopped as a lump of emotion lodged itself above the anger still waiting at the base of his throat. "He saved all of us."

"What made those marks on his arms?"

Sam clenched his jaw, feeling an ache build at the base of his neck. "I can't explain it," he finally said, feeling weariness and worry bow his shoulders. He wanted to close his eyes, opening them only when Dean was okay and they could leave. He just wanted to hide. "I can't, I'm sorry."

Dr. Wilde sighed. "I'll get you transferred to this room," she said finally. "You two are going to be here a little while."

Sam nodded, not paying attention as she left the room, his eyes focused on Dean's face, willing his brother's eyes to open, willing him to snap, lash out, growl, tease, anything. Anything but this silence. Anything but this stillness. He was done with Dean not hearing him, Dean not next to him in a hunt.

He wanted his brother back.

He slumped sideways on Dean's bed, his body too tired to remain upright. Unaware of falling asleep, Sam was startled awake by the unmistakable sound of Dean cursing.

"Get offa me, man!"

Sam sat up, fast, his head swimming. At some point, someone had moved him to the bed next to Dean's. He was disoriented, sweaty, confused. His chest ached and he immediately coughed, hard, clearing his throat.

"Get the fuck, off!"

"Mr. Winchester—Dean—I just need to check your vit—"

"Ah! God, what the hell is that noi—"

"Dean, I—"

"For Christ's sake, stop, man, Jesus, stop talking!"

Sam blinked rapidly, looking over at Dean, registering two things swiftly: there were three other people in the room, and Dean's raspy voice was responding to their words.

"Hey," Sam clamored out of his bed, tripping slightly on the bed linens. "Hey, back away."

"We need to get his vitals," one of the men in the room with a rolling cart filled with instruments tried to explain. "But he won't let us near."

Dean grunted low in his throat, his fingers clumsy as they fumbled for his ears to try to protect them from the noises swimming around the room. Sam realized the TV was on, as was a beeping intercom. Someone must have grabbed the remote in an attempt to quiet Dean.

"Back away," he repeated, keeping his voice low and controlled. "You're hurting him."

"We haven't been able to touch him, yet!" Another nurse protested.

Sam grabbed her generously proportioned shoulder, moving her aside as gently as he could in his haste. He pulled the plug for the remote from the wall, shutting off the beeping and the TV in the process. Dean stilled, panting, his eyes clenched shut. Sam waved the nurses back.

"Dean?"

Dean flinched.

"Hey, man," Sam continued, not yet touching his brother, all too aware that fever made Dean's skin ultra-sensitive to touch. Even the weight of the blankets had to be rubbing against him uncomfortably. "You're okay… you're okay, Dean."

"Sam?" Dean's voice was barely a whisper.

"It's me," Sam nodded, leaning gently against the bed. "Take it easy, okay? Just go slow."

"Aw, fuck, man," Dean breathed. "I can… I can hear… everything."

"I know," Sam said, his voice even softer. Feeling the presence of the other three people in the room, Sam waved them away, hoping they'd get Dr. Wilde without his having to ask. "I know, man. It's okay, though."

"I can't… it's all like… jumbled," Dean said, pulling air in through tightened lips and easing his arms from his head. Sam watched his hands shake as he curled them into fists in his lap. "What—what happened?"

"There's time for that, man. We just need you to get better so we can get the hell out of here."

Dean cracked his eyes open slightly, as if the light above his bed was too harsh. Sam saw the angry red warring with the green of his irises, turning them almost neon with the contrast. "What's wrong with me?"

"You're a big damn hero, that's what's wrong," Sam grinned, sitting carefully on the side of Dean's bed. "You took out a siren."

Dean closed his eyes, dropping his head back. "Stop that clicking, man."

Sam looked around, trying to figure out what Dean heard clicking. The room was practically silent with the people gone, the door closed. All he could hear was the muted sounds of the activity out in the hall.

"Nothing's clicking, Dean."

Dean lifted a brow. "You sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Freakin' loud," Dean muttered. "A siren, huh?"

"You remember?"

"Yeah… I think so."

"She killed George."

Dean didn't respond.

"Mike got shot—don't know how he's doing."

Dean was silent.

"Dean?"

"Hush a minute, Sam."

Sam quieted, staring at his brother. The casual observer would see a person, perhaps a little pale, resting his eyes, relaxing.

Sam saw a war.

A war waging inside a man so in tune with himself that failure to control his reaction to pain and confusion was not an option. A war with the desire to curl up and whimper and the need to portray confidence and purpose. Sam watched Dean struggle to find the right mask to secure in place, and ached as each one evaporated in the face of pain.

"You don't have to do this, you know."

"Yes, I do," Dean replied. His jaw muscle bounced, his forehead pulling tight. "I can hear you breathing. Your chest is rattling."

Sam blinked. "Wow."

Dean opened his eyes, meeting Sam's. "You look like shit, man. What happened to your eyes?"

"What do you mean?"

"They're all red."

"Hello, pot, I'm kettle. You're black."

Dean's mouth pulled up in an impression of a smile. It's something, at least, Sam figured.

"Seriously, Sam, you okay?"

"She put a decent whammy on me," Sam replied, rubbing his chest. "But you got to her in time. I'm okay."

"She's… gone?"

"You don't remember?"

Dean frowned, then reached up to rub at the line between his brows, his hospital ID bracelet scratching against the two-day growth of beard trimming his jaw line.

"I remember that damned bird. The ala."

"That was Wren, only she wasn't an ala."

"Yeah," Dean sighed. "I know. It's all mixed up, but… but, somehow, I know."

Sam opened his mouth to say something more, but Dean flinched a second before the room door opened, spilling light and sound into the quiet of the room. Sam turned to see Dr. Wilde step in, closing the door behind her.

"I see you have your hearing back," she said. Sam breathed a silent thank you at her blessedly soft voice.

Dean scowled. "Yeah, well… now it's supersonic."

"That'll pass," she remarked. "Can I check your vitals, or are you going to go, what was it they said? Wolverine on me?"

Sam chuckled.

"What are you laughing at, Sasquatch?" Dean grumbled.

"Nothing," Sam stood, raising his hands in surrender. He watched as Dean complied with Dr. Wilde's soft instructions, then answered her questions, his voice growing increasingly weary as the minutes ticked by.

Minutes… Sam suddenly realized. As Dr. Wilde continued her exam, Sam turned and pulled the battery-powered clock from the wall. He held it up to his ear and sure enough, the second hand clicked as it moved around the face. He pulled the battery out.

"Oh, thank God," Dean breathed.

"Better?" Sam asked.

"Yes," Dean replied. "What the hell was it?"

"The clock."

"You both need rest," Dr. Wilde said, straightening up. "But if you follow my instructions, you should be able to leave in a couple of days. Sam earlier."

"No," the brothers answered in unison.

"I'll stay," Sam said.

"I figured as much," Dr. Wilde turned to leave.

"Doc, wait," Dean caught her. "How's…"

"Mike," Sam supplied.

"Mike, yeah," Dean nodded, rubbing his head as if the memories would resurface with force of will.

"He's holding his own," Dr. Wilde replied. "Not out of the woods yet, but he came through surgery. You can see him tomorrow, if you rest."

She left, and Sam stood at the foot of Dean's bed, holding the clock.

"Look at that," Dean rasped, his eyes half-mast with exhaustion. "You really can stop time. You're like a superhero or something, Sammy."

Sam looked over at his brother, suddenly feeling the rain on his face, the weight of Dean's body over his shoulder, the warm stir in his belly when he thought of Wren, the despair that he'd failed again, failed Dean.

"…sit down, kiddo."

"What?" Sam gasped.

"Sammy, sit down," Dean was leaning forward on his elbow, his body trembling from the effort, his face drawn. "You just went way too white."

"God, Dean," Sam blinked, moving carefully around the bed and sinking down on his own, his legs watery from the effort of holding him upright. "We almost didn't make it."

"Yeah, but," Dean leaned back, his finger sneaking up to press against the base of his ear. "We did."

"'Cause we're the good guys," Sam intoned, his voice almost soundless.

"You bet your ass we are," Dean muttered, his eyes fluttering closed, lashes shadowing bruised cheeks. "Don't… forget that… Sammy."

www

Stanford, 2003

California smells different than every other state we've been in. And we've been in pretty much every state. Even drove up to Alaska once, Sam whining the whole way. He liked Vancouver, though.

There's a used scent for a place that, in comparison to the East coast, is so new. It smells…lived in, but not in a way that feels comfortable. Every time we do this, I can't wait to leave. I'm excited to arrive and anxious to go within heartbeats of time.

I parallel park between a minivan and a pick-up truck, two blocks from Sam's apartment. Dad is asleep in the passenger seat. His slurred instructions to keep the car hidden were as unnecessary as his continued admonishment to 'watch out for Sammy.' I know why—there was no way Sam wouldn't recognize the Impala.

I just don't know why.

Why bother checking on him if you don't want him to know? I look at Dad, the words like a bubble of thought between us. After their heated accusations thrown like weapons, me standing in the middle without a bullet-proof vest, I thought Dad was ready to give up on Sam for good. And yet, here we are again, sitting in the dark, hidden from sight, checking on Sam. Fourth time in as many months.

Dad never warns me. Never tells me when, and I never ask why. I figure I already know. We're all Dad has. He pushes his friends away, keeps his lovers, if there are any, a secret, hides so much from us. But yet, we're his family. His obligation. His responsibility. His last connection to reality.

And Sam? Sammy is his baby. I'm not so much a fool that I don't know how important that makes him. I've seen it in how Dad looks at him. How Dad talks to him. How he talks about him. Sam is special. In a way I'll never be.

But none of that matters now. Because Sam left us. Left me. And there's still a fucking job to do.

Pink Floyd creases the quiet of the night with musings about regret, softly strumming through my lonely thoughts like fingers of memory.

"How I wish, how I wish you were here. We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground. What have we found, the same old fears. Wish you were here…."

I hear his laugh. It's low and throaty and shy. I know instantly that he's with a girl; he only sounds that needy and cautious when a woman is around. I glance in the mirror almost instinctively. The back seat is empty, as I know it will be, but I can't stop myself from checking.

I hear Sam talking and slide low in the seat. I can't make out his words, but he's explaining something complicated. I can hear the excitement in his tone. A soft, female voice responds, and Sam chuckles again. My heart tightens. I can almost smell him. We'd been on too many night hunts for me not to know my brother in the dark.

They are approaching the minivan and I hold my breath, almost wanting the confrontation. They turn right and I see a flash of a white shirt on my brother, blonde hair on the girl with him. They head up the walk and enter the apartment building.

I've done my job. He's okay. We can go.

Just… I don't want to leave. Not yet. I look at Dad once more. He's out cold, the road and the whiskey adding to a beating he won't admit to getting two nights ago on a hunt I didn't even know he'd gone on. Licking my lips, I make my decision, reaching through the open window and pulling my lanky body through, knowing the creak of the Impala's door will give me away.

Floyd continues to feed my Dad's dreams as I swing my legs over the edge of the window, jogging quickly across the street.

"Eat your heart out, Dukes," I whisper, feeling the utter coolness of the situation. I am freakin' velvety smooth.

The necessity of stealth causes me to fall into hunt mode and I feel my body responding. Crouching low, I scramble across the lawn and press my back against the wall. I pick the lock on the main security door around the apartment, and find the back stairs. I know from prior visits that Sam is on the third floor.

The stairs are a metal, fire-escape sort and it's hard to maintain stealth while my booted feet thunk upwards. I hold my breath, listening, but no warning call echoes from my brother's room. I pause just outside of Sam's window, hesitating before I open to watch for the shadow of my brother's unmistakable form.

"…nightmares about algebra," Sam is saying, that damned grin still in his voice. "I mean, that's just not normal."

"Oh, like your nightmares about monsters are?"

Her voice is a light-hearted mocking, but I feel myself still. Sam is having nightmares? Again?

"That's different," Sam says, and while his voice remains light, I hear the edge. The edge that always said 'enough, Dean.'

"It's just the stress of finals," the girl replies. "I'll be okay when they're over."

There is a pause in conversation, a rustling, and I lean back against the wall, pressing my hands flat and listening with my whole body.

"What's that?"

"It's a dream catcher," Sam says, his voice sounding heartbreakingly young. "My brother made it for me."

"He made it?"

"Yeah, when I was a kid."

Damn, Sammy, I think. You're still a kid.

"Did it work?"

"For awhile," Sam replies.

"What happen? The monsters get too big?" Her voice has a throaty quality that I easily recognize. Women change tone when they're turned on, attracted, ready. I learned to recognize it long ago. I know she is stepping close to my brother, probably looking up at him, touching his chest. I know I should leave. This is not my place. Not my time.

"Something like that," Sam says softly. "It's the only thing he ever gave me that I kept."

My fingers slide over the amulet. The Egyptian adornment hasn't left my neck since I was twelve. As long as I was alive, it never would. It was my connection to my heart, separated from my body, walking around in the world.

"When you left home, you mean?" She asks.

"Ever," Sam reveals. "Mostly… well, mostly what Dean gave me wasn't something I could hold, y'know? It was all… words and actions and… well, you know."

"Sure, I know. He's your big brother."

"Yeah."

"You miss him?" She asks, her voice tentative, worried.

"Yeah."

My throat closes. I lean my head back against the wall, closing my eyes. I'm here, Sammy, I want to say. But I know that it's only because I'm not there that he can confess such a truth.

"Here," Sam says suddenly, bringing my head up his voice is so close. "I want you to have it."

"What?"

What?

"I want you to have it," Sam insists. "Keep your demons away."

"But, Sam, I—"

"Please? It would mean a lot to me."

She is silent, and I can guess at her answer. Those damn puppy-dog eyes are like fire on ice. I move swiftly away from the window, hurrying down the stairs, uncaring if I called attention to myself this time. I head back to the car and open the door, waking Dad with a startled jerk.

"What are you doing?" he mumbles, rubbing his face and looking around, confused. "Did you leave?"

"Had to take a leak," I say. "Sam's good. You ready?"

"He's good? You saw him?" Dad asks, straightening up.

I wrinkle my nose and look out the window. "Yeah, I saw him. He's got a girl."

"Oh really? Thought you were the ladies man of this outfit," Dad grins, his voice raspy with disuse and alcohol.

"I am," I say, grinning at him, effectively masking the sharp-edge sting of betrayal that wanted to scream through my skin. "Who do you think taught him?"

"Atta boy," Dad says. "Let's go. Got a lead on a spirit in Wyoming."

I shift to drive. "When were you gonna tell me about this?"

"Just did," Dad yawns. "Wake me when we hit the state line."

"Yes, sir," I say, wishing it was possible to leave a piece of myself behind to watch over my brother while I fought by my father's side.

Life without Sam wasn't really living.

www

He saw people in the sea.

Legless people with yellow eyes and reaching arms. They pulled at him, ripping Wren from his grasp as she held on to him, her china-blue eyes pleading for understanding, for forgiveness, for salvation. He held her tight, but only to drag her closer to their reach.

"Don't let them take me!"

"Saving you was never part of the deal, sweetheart," he said, hearing the bitterness in his voice, and surprised at its venom.

"But they won't understand! They won't let me leave! They'll never let me leave!"

"You should have thought of that before you hurt my brother."

"I wanted to love him!"

Dean brought her close, belatedly realizing that they were underwater, their voices bubbling from blue lips, their breath stilling in their lungs.

"I could have loved him," Wren said, her cold lips against his.

"You always hurt the ones you love?" Dean asked, wanting to be sarcastic, tripping over truth.

"Yes," Wren sobbed. "I'm sorry."

She felt tiny, fragile in his grip. Wings swept around them and the legless water people approached relentlessly, their yellow eyes stabbing him with real fear.

"Dean! Please! Don't let them take me."

Dean closed his eyes against her fear and let go. He heard her scream, heard their laughter, felt them rip her apart, felt her body buck and heave as they tore into her. He opened his eyes when he was sure it was over, searching for the water's surface, wanting to breathe again.

But the yellow eyes turned on him.

"No!" Dean yelled pushing against the wings, feeling fingers tangling with his. "I had to!"

The fingers were strong, wrapping around the tender flesh on his wrists, trying to hold his arms down, trying to keep him from the surface. Dean felt anger percolate within him, thrusting adrenaline upwards and giving him strength to surge away.

"I said no!"

"Dean!"

He opened his eyes, panting, sweat matting his thin hospital gown to the contours of his chest, his hair plastered to his skull. He blinked sweat from his lashes, seeing them tent in arrow-like shapes in front of his eyes.

He couldn't catch his breath. He was spinning, falling, the sea was dragging him down. He felt a hand reach for him and he shoved it roughly away.

"Hey!"

The voice cut through his confusion and Dean blinked again, this time focusing on his brother.

"Cut that shit out!"

"What?" Dean muttered, trying to piece together disintegrating thoughts and dream memories. "What?"

"Quit pushing me away, man!"

"Pushing you—" The hands, he realized. The hands had been Sam. "Sorry, Sammy."

He rubbed his face, feeling groves of healing cuts and the sticky residue of butterfly bandages. His neck ached, pulling with the motion of his arm.

"What the hell… what's going on?"

The quiet of the room slapped his ears with a tease of sound, as if he could hear the people four rooms over breathing. Sam's heartbeat echoed his own like a shadow. His own panting sounded like a train through his head and his teeth were chattering.

"Everything is… damn, Sammy. Everything is so freakin' loud."

He felt his bed shift and he looked up, seeing Sam dressed in hospital scrubs and a white T-shirt sitting by his feet. He looked beat up. Worn out. Older than his twenty-four years.

"You okay, Sammy?"

"What were you dreaming about?" Sam asks, softly. Dean could have hugged him for remembering. Their voices were echoing in his head as if there was some kind of feedback in his brain.

"I don't know… water… and Wren… and people with yellow eyes."

"Yellow eyes… like the demon?" Sam asked carefully.

Dean shook his head, pressing the heel of his hand against his temple. "I don't think so. They looked like… birds."

Sam sighed, and Dean felt the weight of that sound settle on his shoulders. "What is it, Sammy?"

"You saved me," Sam said.

Dean blinked. Waiting.

"I did this, Dean."

"Did what?" Dean asked, feeling like he was missing more pieces to the puzzle. His worry for Sam was as good as a shot of caffeine and he sat up straighter in his bed, ignoring the twinge as his punctured skin shifted under his hospital gown. "What'd you do, Sam?"

"I… lost it, Dean," Sam said, staring at the calluses on his palms, his thumb running across old scars and new wounds. "I fell for her."

"So?"

"So… you didn't."

"Dude, I couldn't hear her," Dean sighed, frowning and feeling his body collapse further into the rucked up pillows. "I am sure I would have if—"

"No," Sam shook his head, his lips pressing together. "That's just it, man. You wouldn't have. You're too good for that."

Dean bit back a groan as Sam shifted uncomfortably on the bed, pulling the covers across his over-sensitive skin. He shivered.

"I am good," Dean tried. "But you might be giving me too much credit."

Sam snorted, standing and moving toward the curtained window.

"Or not enough to yourself."

"You were chained to a freakin' wall, Dean."

Oh, yeah, Dean thought, looking at the bandages on his wrists. He'd forgotten that part.

"You still managed to get out, get away… almost choked me in the process."

"Whoops," Dean muttered.

"Don't fucking joke with me, man!" Sam whirled, his eyes hot.

Dean groaned and flinched. "Dude," he whispered. "Inside voice."

"You were wounded, deaf and you still managed to grab that siren from me and drag her to the ocean," Sam continued, his volume maintaining the head-splitting level of normal. He advanced on the bed with each word until his thighs were touching the railing, his angry eyes bleeding pain down onto Dean until he couldn't catch his breath.

"What do you want me to say, Sam?" Dean replied, biting back his plea for quiet. Sam was angry, and it had been building. The only way to fix this was to have it out. He just wished he could stand. "You think I should have just… let her get you?"

"No, but—"

"So what, then?"

"I just—"

"You think that it was easy dragging that girl into the water, drowning her?"

"Of course not, I—"

"You think it's been a freakin' cake walk to be stuck away from you? Not be able to hear a word anyone said? Watch you talk to that guy, watching you run off into danger while I had to stay back at the goddamn car?"

"No! Dean, it's just that—"

"What?"

"If you would shut the hell up I'd tell you!"

Sam's bellow did him in.

Dean almost whimpered as the pain rammed through him shaking him with the force of a seizure. He felt tears, hot and needy, force themselves around his burning eyes to traverse his cheeks, finding a home at the corners of his mouth. He shook until he was panting, until the only sound in the room was the twin beats of their hearts, his rough breath, and Sam's soothing, "Easy, easy, now, you're okay, it's okay."

"Son of a…" Dean tried, unable to release the full wattage of the curse.

He felt Sam's grip, but was unable to take comfort. His body rocked to the unique beat of pain and he felt every bruise, every cut, every pulled muscle, every hair on his body as the fire of fever intensified for a moment, drawing him in on himself.

"Aw, f-fuck… m-me…" he stuttered, his teeth clacking as he tried to stop, tried to slow the shaking, tried to quiet the noise. The only thing he could hold on to was a hand. A hand gripping his. A hand anchoring him. He shuddered out breath until he felt his lungs begin to cooperate.

He opened his eyes when the shaking subsided, realizing that there was another figure in the room. A nurse with a blurred face, injecting his IV with something clear that he felt surge through his veins with intoxicating warmth.

"What the hell…"

"Don't worry about it, man," Sam was saying. Dean registered suddenly that his brother sat next to him on the narrow bed, an arm around his shoulders, a hand gripping his in a wrestler's hold, bracing him and comforting him in one simple embrace.

"Whoa…" Dean muttered as the nurse left. He felt the world shift left in slow motion, taking his powers of speech with it. "Sam… what, uh… what you said… 'bout…"

"Forget it," Sam said, his voice like a record being played at half speed. "It's okay, Dean."

"No," Dean shook his head and blinked slowly as the room followed his vision on a five second delay. "Need t'lie down."

Sam slid his arm from beneath his shoulders, easing him back against the pillows, but kept his hand, forming a lifeline that neither brother took for granted. Dean blinked at his brother's tortured face.

"You're gonna b'ok, Sammy," he said, focusing hard to get the words out. "Not gonna… lose... won't let you…"

"If you say so," Sam sighed and dropped his head.

As the lull of painkillers seduced Dean to quiet oblivion, he tried one last reassurance. "You don't have… to know what… t'do, Sammy. We do't together."

It made sense to him. But he heard Sam's rueful chuckle as he slipped into unconsciousness, giving the miracle of modern medicine one more chance.

When he opened his eyes next, he felt clearer, not as hot, but just as sore. He turned his head slowly on the pillow, feeling the wounds on his neck crinkle with the motion. Sam sat on the opposite bed, his arms on his knees, his feet propped on the lower bar of his bed.

"How long?" Dean rasped.

"Couple hours," Sam replied. "Thirsty?"

"Yeah."

Sam stood, lifting a styrofoam cup with a straw to Dean's cracked lips. He drank deeply, listening as the water fell down his throat in cooling waves. When Sam set the cup back down and settled once again on his bed, Dean took a deep breath.

"Lavender," he said.

"Huh?"

"Someone wears it," Dean explained. "Someone who was just in here."

"A nurse. You gonna keep up this vampire scent thing?"

"You got me," Dean replied. "Hope not, 'cause you can get pretty gamey."

Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Says the man who thinks clean is a state of mind."

Dean smiled softly, closing his eyes. "At least things aren't echoing so much."

"I won't yell anymore," Sam promised.

Dean slid his eyes to the side. "Right."

"Well, not until you're better."

They sat for a moment, breathing. Dean felt the lingering residue of Sam's words sitting like a ghost between them.

"Tell me about it, Sammy," he sighed. "All of it."

Sam dropped his head in his hands, fingers threading his long hair, voice focused on the floor. He spoke of Wren's draw on him, on wanting her like he hadn't wanted someone since Jessica, on it feeling so damn good just to hold her. Dean swallowed, Sam's pain like a punch to his already bruised body.

He remembered that need, that draw, that desire. Hadn't felt it since Cassie, but he remembered. And he knew Sam needed it so much more than he did. Always had. Because, Dean surmised, he remembered what his mother's touch felt like. He remembered that someone had loved him with every piece of her. He remembered her skin and her hair and her smell, even if he couldn't always remember her face.

Sam had none of that.

Sam went on to talk about Mike and his efforts to save them, his willingness to jump into the fray even when he didn't completely buy the reasons. Dean bit his lip when Sam recounted how Mike had been hurt. He wanted to growl in frustrated annoyance at not having been there, but remained silent.

It was when Sam told him of the trek from the sea, Dean limp and helpless over Sam's shoulder, that he couldn't suppress the groan of disgust.

"You were hurt, man," Sam offered. "You grabbed her and… you fought her. I watched her turn into the bird-woman and her talons dug into you and you never let go. You never let go… and then you disappeared in the water and I wanted to run after you, but…"

Dean watched as Sam rubbed his chest, realizing suddenly that the motion was now familiar.

"Anyway, you came out, without Wren, and I knew we'd won. I knew she hadn't gotten us—'cause you were there."

"I didn't do it alone, Sam," Dean reminded him. "I couldn't have done it without you."

"Not true," Sam replied. "You would have been better off without me."

Dean flinched, looking away, those words biting him back as his own thoughts. "What about George?"

Sam sighed. "That's where it gets weird."

Dean almost laughed. The Winchester definition of weird defied convention. "You said… Wren killed him?"

"The first time she, uh… sang, or whatever. It was like his… chest collapsed and his eyes liquefied."

"That's… disgusting."

"Tell me about it. I put my hand on his chest before I realized it was… jelly."

"Okay, so, dinner tonight is out."

"But, Dean, Camilla's ghost—"

"You saw her?"

Sam nodded. "She was… like water. Sad water. Does that make sense?"

"No, but when has anything we've seen made sense?"

"Good point," Sam bounced his head once. "She put a flower on his body."

"Let me guess: oleander," Dean said, rubbing at his head. Memories of the hunt, of research, of a computer screen with frightening facts swam before him.

"Yeah, how'd you know?"

Dean shrugged. "It's my job to know these things."

Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Anyway, she… kinda sighed, then disappeared."

"Wait, she… just… went? No burning of bones? No salt?"

Sam shook his head. "Nothing. I think lightning struck the house because—"

"It was burning," Dean interjected.

"Right. You remember?"

"Kinda… I remember… smelling it."

"I don't think they got George's body out," Sam said, sadness clear in his voice.

"Maybe it's for the better, Sam," Dean offered.

Sam shrugged. "Well, all I know is, that old guy loved his wife. Called her his 'girl.' I just think that they should be buried next to each other."

Dean closed his eyes. "Sam, where you're buried doesn't matter. You know that."

Sam was silent. Dean opened his eyes, turning on the pillow to stare at his brother until Sam lifted his gaze to lock in on him. "We know better than anyone that the bodies are just… shells. Some of us have better looking shells than others, but… that's it. When it's over… the body is… well, good for only one thing."

"I know…"

"She forgave him," Dean said, relaxing back, and letting his eyes fall closed once more.

"You think so?"

"Why else would she have given him the oleander? White flag of peace..."

"I think she planted it to kill Wren," Sam said.

Dean nodded, eyes still closed. "Probably."

"People live sad lives," Sam sighed. Dean heard his bed creak as he laid back.

"Not all the time, Sam. They were happy."

"Didn't end that way, though."

Dean wanted to reply, to dig the sorrow from Sam's voice, but sleep was too seductive and he fell into its embrace once more. When next he woke, it was to someone checking his vitals once more. A fortyish woman, with tired eyes.

"Hi," he mumbled in his best sleepy-voice, his eyes blinking drowsily. "Think I can, uh, get this… thing out?"

"The catheter?" The nurse asked.

Dean nodded. "I really want to get up."

She turned, checking his chart, then nodded. "Think I can take care of that."

With a quick flip of his blankets, shielding his lower body from Sam's bed with her ample hips, the nurse put her latex-covered fingers on his thigh, then looked up at him.

"Ready?"

Dean nodded again. A quick tug, sharp pain and it was over. He smiled his thanks, then closed his eyes as she finished her reports. When he heard the door click shut, he looked over at Sam. His brother was sleeping deeply, mouth open in relaxation, arm hanging off the side of the bed.

Dean smiled. Others might find it strange, living in such close quarters as they did, always around each other, rarely a break from each other's company. And there were certainly tensions there—the Trickster had found them and amplified them.

But there was nothing as comforting to Dean as the sight of his best friend at peace. It brought him solace that not even the arms of a good woman had offered.

Sliding carefully from the bed, unplugging his IV regulator from the wall, Dean moved around the room on weak legs. The air of the hospital was cool against his still-warm skin, the fever down, but not forgotten, and the gown made him feel vulnerable and exposed in ways he should never be willingly exposed, but there was something he had to do.

Grabbing a pair of the scrubs someone had folded at the foot of Sam's bed, he carefully slid them on, trying not to fall face-forward. Slipping from the room, he moved quickly down the hall to the nurse's station. It didn't take him long to find Mike's room. The elevator ride was nauseating, but thankfully short. He made his way to the door, leaning heavily on his IV stand. Mike was in a private room; one of the perks of being a hospital employee, he assumed.

His right leg was wrapped in a blue brace, hanging from a soft sling by the ankle. He had enough wires and tubes in him that Dean was sure he could easily jump-start a car. He was frowning at the TV, pushing the channel up button.

"Daytime TV sucks," Dean said, announcing his arrival.

Mike jumped, then winced, pressing a hand on his side.

"Sorry," Dean offered, moving closer. He watched Mike's dark eyes search his tray, then realized he was looking for paper. "It's okay, man. You can talk."

"You can hear me?"

"Shhh… not so loud, though. Seems my, uh… sound filter is still a bit hinky."

Mike nodded, and they regarded each other silently for a moment.

"You gonna be okay?" Mike asked finally.

Dean lifted a shoulder. "I'll live. You?"

Mike looked down at his leg. "My rodeo days are done," he said. "Can't rescue a cowboy from a pissed-off bull on a bum leg."

"I'm sorry, man."

Mike lifted the corner of his mouth in a small smile. "S'okay. Still got my day job. Saving people."

Dean took a breath. "About that…"

"You're welcome."

Dean's eyebrows went up. "How do you know I was gonna thank you?"

"'Cause you looked about ready to hurl, so I figure it must be either that or, 'you're right, I'm wrong.'"

"Funny."

"I try."

"I'm sorry about your friends, though," Dean said, sincerity making his eyes burn.

Mike looked down. "Thanks."

"Sam told me, uh… what happened."

"It's, uh… really hard to believe."

"I imagine so. Guess Camilla was trying to tell George about Wren for awhile. Even after she was gone."

"Still can't get my head around that… Hey, where were you, anyway?"

Dean held up a wrist. "I was a little… tied up."

"In the tunnels, right?"

Dean nodded.

Mike huffed out a small laugh. "Camilla led us there… well, led Sam there."

"She's a real pal," Dean laughed slightly. "For a ghost."

"Guess George was right," Mike sighed. "They're not all bad."

If you say so, Dean thought, echoing Sam's earlier sentiment.

"Sam okay?" Mike asked.

"He will be."

"He really didn't want Wren to be a… whatever the hell she was."

"He saw something in her that we all missed."

"What was that?"

"Her soul," Dean said softly, causing Mike to look at him, a strange light in his eyes.

Feeling his legs begin to shake, Dean reached out a hand. "Thanks for your help, Denzel," he grinned.

"You're welcome, James."

Dean pulled his eyebrows together. "James?"

Mike jutted his head forward. "Hello? As in James Dean? Rebel Without A Cause?"

Dean's mouth dropped open.

"Dude, I figure you think I got me some of the flash of Mr. Denzel Washington, I had to return the favor. I think you got 'cause' in spades, though…"

Dean's laugh shook him from his toes up. "You're all right, man."

"Not so bad yourself," Mike smiled.

Dean kept that grin with him as he trekked back to his room to fall, exhausted and sore onto his bed, his brother snoring in a peaceful, nightmare-free sleep in the bed next to his.

www

Minnesota, 2004

I grip the steering wheel tightly, finding the worn grooves from my father's fingers, wanting to wipe the sweat from my eyes, but unable to move my other hand from my bleeding side.

The hot burn of the wound has faded to a trembling cold and my teeth are chattering. I know that's not good, but I can't stop until I get there. It's the only place I can think to go, the only home I've ever known besides the one I am in.

The Impala swerves, matching my blurred vision, and I tip my head toward the open window, drawing in air. The radio is on, decibel ten, but GNR's plea about having patience is not what I need at the moment and I yell at the radio to play something worth freakin' listening to.

I search for the elusive road sign, the only marker that will alert me that I must turn or pass his house, my refuge. I am starting to shake and grind my teeth, pressing the accelerator as Tom Petty stated that living like a refugee was not the way to go.

I groan, realizing too late that I'd passed the sign, and think furiously where I can go at this hour, in this condition, to find help.

"…Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some. Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon... it don't make no difference to me baby. Everybody has to fight to be free, you see…"

The lights of the chapel draw me in, and I end up curbing the Impala as I power slide to a stop. Shutting off the engine, I sit for a moment to collect my breath. This is all I have left, the only refuge I know. Because I was a refugee, despite Tom's admonishment. I laugh slightly at this thought, then sober up quickly as I realize my blood is spilling over my hand, down my jeans and onto the Impala's seat.

"Shit," I mutter, pushing the door open and staggering around the front, bouncing off the grill in my haste to get inside. Please be there, I find myself chanting. Just please… somebody, be there.

The door to the chapel is heavy, and I almost lose my grip, but manage to push it open. It swings wide, slamming against the wall and echoing loudly through the empty sanctuary. He's standing at the pulpit, an arm in the air, mouth open, mid-lecture. He looks older, time-worn and gray.

"Dean?"

"I need your help," I tell him, my own voice sounding strange in my ears.

He stumbles down from the altar, approaching me in a cautious, shocked gait.

"Dean? What… Where's John?"

"On a hunt," I say, stumbling against one of the pews the noise of wood scraping on wood loud in the empty sanctuary. "I need your help."

Jim reaches me, his eyes watering from surprise or wonder, I'm not sure, his hands warm and strong on my shaking shoulders. He scans me quickly, taking in the dirt, the grease, the scratches and the bruises. His eyes widen when he sees my side, the gouge visible through my torn shirt.

"What the hell?" Jim exclaims. I am always surprised to hear him swear, though I've heard it often enough.

"Werewolf," I explain. "It's dead. I need your help." I need to get him to realize this.

"Dean, sit down," he orders, trying to turn me toward one of the pews.

"In a minute," I say, reaching a hand into my blood-soaked pocket.

"Where's Sam?" Jim asks.

I know with absolute certainty that if he hadn't been holding me, I would have fallen.

"Oh, dear God, is he—"

"He left," I say. It's the first time I've said it out loud in awhile. "He's at school. In California. He left us."

"He… left?" Jim repeats, shock plain in his eyes.

"I need your help," I repeat, my voice firm, my body betraying me. I can no longer stand and slide down the side of the pew to the wooden floor, Jim following me, still gripping my arms. I pull the amulet from my pocket, holding it out to him.

"It caught on the werewolf's teeth," I say. "Just before I killed it. I can't put it back together."

"What?" Jim asks, taking the amulet from me, confused.

"It tore… the…" My vision swims and I force my eyes wider. "The strap tore and it won't hold a knot. I think… I think because—"

"Of the werewolf saliva," he concludes.

Yes, I think. Yes, thank you. Finally, someone to help.

"Let's get you taken care of first—"Jim tries, shooting his worried eyes to me.

"No!" I cry. "I need. Your. HELP…"

"Okay," Jim soothes. "Okay, Dean. I'll help. I promise."

"Fix it," I implore. I can barely get the words out. I am so cold, yet my side is burning. I press my hand carefully to the wound, the claw seeming to meld with my torn skin. "Please…"

It's everything, I want to say. It's all I have. Jim looks at me, then cups the back of my neck, easing me to the floor. He removes his jacket and covers my shivering body.

"I'll be right back, Dean," he promises. "You stay here, okay?"

"Okay."

I allow him to tend to my wound only when the amulet is safely in place, its comforting weight like the back of Sam's hand against my heart. I allow him to soothe my fever, cleanse the cut with holy water, hold me down as the water burns like acid and I buck with pain, screaming because there is no other way to stop the heat.

I allow Jim to question Dad's choices and Sam's absence, as I heal, gathering my strength until I am able to cross the room unaided. I answer him succinctly, knowing that I need him, knowing his concern is for me. But they're my family, and whatever choices they make, and however those choices hit me, is my business. No matter who wants to care about me.

"You always have a place here, Dean," Jim tells me a week later when I'm finally strong enough to leave, though sooner than he wants me to. "All of you. Don't forget that."

"I won't."

"Remind your Dad."

"I will," I promise. "Thanks," I say, still unable to address him directly. He's aged, as I have. But time has worn him down like water on rock. Beating him and thinning him. He's been a shelter from the storm of life, but I know I won't come back again.

It would be too much risk; I feel my walls growing thin around Jim. I can't let him see me.

"Sam's gonna be okay, Dean," Jim says, laying a hand on my arm. "Sometimes… you gotta let someone find their own way home."

"Yeah," I say quietly.

But it never hurts to send them a map once in awhile, I think.

www

He stood on the edge, boots tied by laces and hanging over his shoulder, jeans rolled up, waiting for the water to climb higher.

The sea was supposed to be soothing, hypnotic, offering calm unlike any other. All Dean saw was loss. All he heard was weeping. All he felt was cold and the gritty discomfort of salt. The one element that should erase evil. The one element that held its prisoners in the fathoms of liquid fear.

"There you are!" Sam's voice was a forced cheer, as if he'd been giving himself a silent lecture on how to handle a recuperative brother.

"Here I am," Dean said softly, not turning from the sea. The water splashed against his feet, tugging softly at the sand. He felt himself sink.

"You didn't leave a note this time," Sam carefully admonished.

"I'm fine, Sam," Dean said, not looking at his brother as Sam stopped next to him. "Just needed some air."

They had been released from the hospital two days prior, Dean's fever broken, but his body weak, leaving him at the mercy of his worried younger brother. He was determined to build his strength so that they could get away from the gray heaviness that was Delaware. At least, Lynch Heights, Delaware.

"I was just… concerned."

"Well, don't be," Dean snapped. "I can take care of myself."

"What's with you?"

"Nothing," Dean lied. "Thinking."

"About what?" Sam persisted.

Dean sank a little more as the ocean collected the sand from beneath his feet. "You ever think about what will stop you?"

"Stop me from what?" Sam asked.

"Hunting."

Sam was quiet for a moment. "I don't know. Getting that demon."

"You'll stop when we get the demon?" Dean slid his eyes to the side.

"What?" Sam asked, clearly off balance by Dean's melancholy.

The forced I'm always all right attitude Dean had held onto for the last few days was erased that morning when he woke and couldn't find his amulet. It had only been off of him two other times: once in a hunt, and once in the hospital. The clasp had rubbed against the stitches on his neck, and he'd loosened it to try to alleviate the discomfort.

He'd found it quickly under his spare pillow, but the moment of panic had brought him to a mind-jarring realization. A realization he wasn't ready to deal with.

"I don't think you'll stop then, Sam."

"How do you know?" Sam replied, petulant.

"I don't think you'll ever stop."

"I stopped when I was at school," Sam threw at him, his voice hard. "I stopped with Jessica."

"But you don't have Jess anymore," Dean pointed out, hating the flash of pain on his brother's face, but needing to say it. He sank a little deeper. "You won't stop because you need this, Sam. You need a purpose."

"Yeah? Well, what about you?"

"You're my purpose."

Sam looked away. "Dean…"

"I mean it, Sam. You and Dad… you're all I've ever really had."

"What about Cassie?"

Dean shook his head. "She was no Jessica."

They were silent for another moment, the sea happily filling the void.

"What would make you stop?" Sam asked softly.

"Losing you," Dean answered immediately.

"What?"

"You said it yourself once," Dean said, looking at his brother, sinking a little more. "You lost Jess, we lost Dad… if I lost you, I wouldn't want to fight anymore."

"But, Dean… you love this life."

Dean simply shook his head, unable to voice a response. Unable to simply say that it wasn't the life he loved, it was the results. It was people alive because of them. It was evil defeated. It was Sam safe. This life… this life would be the death of him.

He rubbed his neck carefully, wanting to rid himself of the ever-present knot, wary of disrupting the still-healing cuts. He hadn't even been able to protect himself from a yahoo and a broken bottle this time.

"You'd go on, though," Dean said. "If you lost me, you'd go on."

"No, I wouldn't," Sam said harshly.

"Yeah, you would," Dean contradicted, nodding toward the ocean. "And that's okay. It's what you do, Sam. You persevere. You'll never stop fighting until the fight's done."

"You're the one that saved me, Dean. You're the one that drowned the siren."

"This time."

Sam grabbed Dean's arm, pulling him away from the slow seduction of the water, forcing him to yank his feet from the wet sand.

"You're the one that's gonna save me, Dean," Sam said. "So you don't have to keep your promise."

They stared at each other a moment, internal wills stepping onto an age-old battleground.

"You get me?" Sam released Dean's arm, but his eyes held fast.

"Yeah," Dean nodded, understanding beginning to brighten. Sam might go on fighting without him, but it would only be because of him that Sam could win the fight. "Yeah, I get you."

"Good. C'mon."

"What?"

"It's freezing out here, for one," Sam said, turning toward the parked car. "And… I got you something."

"Huh?" Dean trotted to keep up with his long-legged brother. "I miss a birthday?"

"No, dumbass," Sam grinned back at him. "Just… consider this a… welcome back to the world of the hearing."

Dropping into the passenger seat, Dean used his socks to knock the sand from his feet as they dangled out of the Impala's doorway. He stuffed his nearly-dry feet into his boots, then turned to face Sam.

"Well?"

Sam turned on the car.

"What are you grinning at, you freak?" Dean grumbled. "You're starting to creep me out."

"Turn on the radio."

"You dedicate a song to me, Sammy?" Dean quipped, reaching for the dial. He realized just as he turned it to ON that there was a cassette tape in the player.

"Been dazed and confused for so long, it's not true. A-wanted a woman, never bargained for you. Lots of people talkin', few of them know…soul of a woman was created below, yay…"

"Sammy… what—"

Sam tossed the case to him. Dean caught it in mid-air, turning it over in his hand to read the cover.

"Zeppelin's anthology," he read in wonder. "You got me Zeppelin's anthology."

"Yep," Sam grinned.

"Who… how… where…"

"Uhh… Sadie, Internet, record store."

"It's a cassette tape," Dean said, amazed.

"That it is."

"But, Sam," Dean looked up, trying to keep the absolutel wonder from his eyes. "You can't just get these…I mean, with all the CDs... how did you pull this off?"

Sam grinned again. "Open it."

Dean flipped the plastic cover open. Two scrawled signatures in blue ink met his eyes.

Thanks for the memories. I'll never swim in the ocean again. – Denzel.

That's one sexy car. Next time you're out this way, we'll bypass Judo's and head straight to the backseat. – Sadie.

"Huh," Dean breathed.

"You like it?"

"I love it, Sam." He looked up at his brother, his face relaxing into his first grin in days. "Thanks."

"Welcome," Sam said, settling back in the driver's seat. "You ready to kick the dust off?"

"Think this time it's sand," Dean said ruefully, looking down at the floor boards.

Sam checked over his shoulder to make sure the way was clear. "Yeah, well, I've had enough Greek mythology and sea life for awhile. How about we just drive for awhile?"

"Works for me—only you're in the wrong seat."

"Chill out, brother," Sam said, his dimples flashing. "Savor the moment."

"…Many times I've lied. Many times I've listened. Many times I've wondered how much there is to know. Many dreams come true and some have silver linings. I live for my dream and a pocketful of gold…"

Dean acquiesced, leaning back and letting his still-battered body relax into the sound of his brother humming off-tune, the rumble of the powerful Chevy engine, the grind of rubber meeting road, and the balm that was Zeppelin.


Playlist:

Crazy Circles by Bad Company

Please by Staind (because I am in love with Aaron Lewis' voice…)

Overfloater by Soundgarden

Achilles Last Stand, Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, When the Levee Breaks (that's for you, SJ), Kashmir by the one and only Led Zeppelin

Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones

Brother by Alice in Chains

Believe by Staind (Sanderspleen, that one's for you, girl)

The Pretender by the Foo Fighters

Wearing and Tearing by Led Zeppelin

Got Me Wrong by Alice In Chains

Seven Bridges Road by The Eagles (Best. Harmony. Ever.)

Savin' Me by Nickleback. T, that one's for you.

Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing by Chris Isaac

Rise Above This by Seether

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Patience by Guns and Roses (in a passing reference)

Refugee by Tom Petty

Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin

Over the Hills and Far Away by yet again, the mighty Zeppelin (Intex, this one is for you, girl.)