It was a struggle beyond the ordinary, but Sam stayed awake and watched Dean after they'd both been moved into the same room. Apparently, the nurses weren't happy about it. Sam needed rest and Dean needed to be kept awake, but somehow their savior had made it happen and Sam could do nothing more than lie there and watch his brother. Dean was cranky like hell, which was understandable. He had thrown up twice, an obvious side-effect of the concussion, and the last one had worn him out severely. And when the nurse on duty dropped in every half hour or so to wake him up again, Sam figured Dean had a right to snap. Not that he really did. He just growled and grumbled, tried to push her off, demanded weakly to be left alone, his words slurred.

And it scared Sam. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. With the hypothermia and the concussion and the broken bones and the way his brother had been living the last half year, the risk that his body would shut down still existed. And what lay beyond was scarier than anything else. Sam had meant what he had said to Dean before leaving him in that damned forest. If Dean died of this, he would follow him to Hell. There was no way around it. Just in case he couldn't find a way to get his brother out of the deal, he at least wanted this last half year with him. Dammit, he deserved more than this, more than waiting for his brother to die.

His head hurt and his chest hurt and his arm hurt and he was so tired he wanted to scream. His hands and feet were tingling, the pinpricks of his skin reviving itself a constant, uncomfortable reminder of what had happened to them. And he couldn't let go of that image, of that desiccated corpse of that kid, lying on his stomach on that bed, tied down, not a thread on.

He closed his eyes and tried to force the image from his mind, but it only became clearer. It would give him nightmares. He would dream about it and he would wake up gasping for breath. So close. Those yahoos in Hibbing had been nothing compared to those three. He couldn't even imagine having to live with something like that.

A sudden thought flared to life and he raised his right hand and stared at his wrist. The cuffs had been removed, but the memory of breaking free still tingled in his mind. How the hell had he broken the chain of police issue cuffs? They were built to last, built to resist a hell of a lot of pressure. Maybe they had been damaged? Or worn? He tried to remember how they had looked, but couldn't.

The nurse came back to wake Dean up again and Sam wanted to tell her to back off, to let Dean sleep. He had so precious little time left as it was. But he couldn't say that and knew it was necessary for them to keep waking his brother up to rule out brain injury.

The nurse checked Dean's vitals, then glanced over at him. "You should sleep," she said, then returned her attention to Dean. She leaned in and patted his face. "Wake up," she said, urging him to do so.

He weakly batted her hand away. "'l'me alone," he muttered.

"I'm afraid I can't do that," she said and pulled out a penlight. When Dean refused to open his eyes, she forced one lid open and shined the light into his eye. He groaned and tried to make her stop, but his movements were feeble at best and Sam didn't like that. He had watched his brother drag himself into the Impala and drive for an hour with worse injuries than this and all he'd done was glare and insist he was fine. Sam didn't like it when Dean couldn't fend for himself, because that meant he was in a really bad way.

The nurse let off him again and stepped over to Sam's bed. "You want something to help you sleep?" she asked.

"No," he said and cleared his throat. He wanted to be awake so he could watch Dean.

"You need to rest," she insisted.

"I will," he promised and knew she didn't believe him. He wondered where Grace had disappeared to. "Where's Grace?" he asked.

"She went home. She said she'd be back in the morning," the nurse said. "Look, you're not doing yourself any favors," she added, pulled out a capped syringe and injected the liquid into the saline drip.

Sam glanced up at it and suddenly realized it was his drip she had injected something into. "No!" It was too late to complain and even if it hadn't been, he was sure she would still have given him a knock-out drug. "I need to watch over him," he pressed out, angry with her for disregarding what he wanted.

"He is being watched over. Don't you worry about that. You need all the rest you can get," the nurse persisted and lowered the head of the bed.

Sam was already fighting against the effects of the drug, struggling to stay awake so he could watch over his brother like his brother had watched over him so many times, but the drug was too strong and it pulled him under bit by bit.

The hospital room faded out on him and darkness engulfed him, throwing him instantly into the land of nightmares.

***

The following morning
Presentation Medical Center ER
Rolla, ND

To say that Grace had slept well would be the overstatement of the year, but she had managed to catch a few hours of sleep and felt fairly rested. The snow had once again made the streets fairly impassable, but with a four-wheel drive and heavy snow chains on the tires, Grace had braved the weather and had returned to the ER in Rolla to check on her charges.

It was still fairly early and the nightshift nurses had just gone home an hour ago when Grace stepped into the ER and passed through to the hospital beyond. Nobody gave her a second glance. Half of the employees knew her and the rest wouldn't dream of stopping her mainly because of the confident way she walked. She looked like a woman with a purpose and nobody questioned her right to be there.

When she stepped into the room the boys were in, her very well-developed sense of trouble started clawing at her. Sam was sleeping peacefully, which actually surprised her a little. She grabbed his chart and noted that the night nurse had given him a shot of something, stating that he hadn't wanted to go to sleep.

She returned the chart to its place at the footend of the bed, then turned her attention toward Dean. Something was wrong. She stepped up to the bed and eyed him for a second, then reached out and sought out his pulse. "Dean?" She tried to rouse him, but he didn't react. Somewhat concerned, she took a gentle hold of his chin and rolled his head over toward her. "Shit!" she hissed when she saw the blood on his pillow. Without delay, she hammered a flat hand onto the emergency button and a moment later two nurses came rushing in.

"What is it?" one of them asked, her blue eyes wide.

Grace glared at her. "How long has it been since you idiots checked on him?" she demanded. "His right ear is bleeding, for pity's sake. And he won't wake up."

Having rattled them into action, Grace stepped back to let them do their job, and watched with slight concern while they struggled to revive Dean. He wasn't making it easy on them either. It took almost half an hour to get any life sign out of him and by the time he finally emitted a groan, something tugged lightly at the back of Grace's jacket. She turned, realizing that Sam was awake, although he looked like he had just about as much trouble as his brother in that department right now. "Dean," he whispered.

"It's okay. Don't worry. They'll fix it," she said and took his hand, which he weakly wrapped around hers. This one sought the help of others. His brother didn't. Grace watched the nurses at work until they were satisfied that Dean wasn't going to bleed to death or something and then they withdrew, promising to call the doctor on duty to have him take a look at the patient. Grace let them go with a warning look and at the same time realized that Sam had fallen asleep again, but that his fingers were locked tightly around hers even now. She patted his hand lightly and made no move to disengage his hold on her.

***

Sam felt sluggish, his mind in a haze. He was aware that something wasn't right with Dean, but he couldn't figure out what it was and it scared the hell out of him. "Dean," he rasped, barely able to make his mouth function.

"It's okay. He'll be fine."

He blinked, then squinted at the woman leaning in over him. She looked familiar. "Mom?" Some part of him knew it wasn't his mother, but she just gave off that feeling. And he couldn't think clearly, couldn't string two words together and make sense of them.

"No, it's Grace. Remember?" she said, her tone soft. "What the hell did you give him? He's completely out of it," she snapped at someone else. He knew this only because she didn't look at him when she said it.

"Just a sedative so he would sleep," a second voice replied.

"He's been like this for twelve hours. Where the hell did you get your education? In a vending machine?"

Sam couldn't help the twitching smile that slipped over his lips. He felt drunk, somehow. "You're bossy," he whispered.

Grace looked down at him and smiled a little. "Second nature, sweetie," she stated. "I'm not sure I should be asking you this. For all I know you'll give him rat poison because you can't read the frigging labels," she added to whomever she was talking to.

"Mrs. Alden, please."

"Spare me. Go get the head nurse," Grace shot back angrily. "As in now!" She returned her attention to Sam. "I'll make them give you something to counter the effect of this drug. You obviously don't take to it very well."

Sam rolled his head to the side and squinted over at his brother. "Dean," he muttered and tried to reach across the expanse, but his arm didn't work for some reason.

"Steady now," Grace admonished. "Dean's sleeping."

"What's going on?" a third voice asked. Sam was getting confused by all these voices.

"Your nurse here gave him a sedative last night and he still hasn't shaken it," Grace said, her tone stern. "I suggest you give him something to counter it before it kills him."

"Of course," the third voice said.

Things happened around him and he closed his eyes because it made him dizzy. And then the cloud in his mind began to lift. Sounds became less confusing, sharper, and after a while the feeling of being dead drunk abated little by little until he just felt tired. With the clearing of his mind came the incessant need to check on Dean. He forced his lids open, squinted at the sunlight flooding the room, then looked over at Dean and the nurse once again trying to rouse him.

"Ge' off," Dean groaned and managed to give the nurse a rather powerful push. "Leave'm alone."

The nurse sighed irritably. "You're not making life any easier for yourself," she said. "If you don't stop fighting me, we will have to restrain you."

Dean obviously wasn't clear enough to get the point and lashed out at her weakly when she tried to approach again.

"Alright, that does it," she muttered and left the room.

Groggily, Sam tried to push up on his elbows only to realize that his left arm wasn't going to be any good. And the attempt at pulling himself up made him groan in agony.

And that roused Dean. He forced his eyes open and squinted over at Sam. "Sammy?" he muttered.

"I'm okay," he countered and generally felt that he sounded just like Dean right now. "Stop fighting the nurses, Dean. They're only trying to help you."

"M'head hurts," Dean muttered and his eyelids began to slide shut again.

The nurse returned, a look of determination in her eyes. She didn't even make it to the footend of Dean's bed before Grace stepped in. "What the hell are you doing with those?" Grace asked, her tone bordering on the surprised.

"He's being difficult," the nurse said, her tone miffed.

Sam hadn't noticed the restraints she had brought back until now and he tried to rear up, to interfere, but Grace raised a hand, stopping him short, while never taking her eyes off the nurse. "What the hell do you think this is? The ward for the criminally insane? Get the hell out of here. Right now!"

The nurse glared at Grace. "I am only trying to do my job here," she barked aggressively.

"No, you're not. You're trying to make your job as easy as possible with no regard for the well-being of your patients," Grace shot back, her tone going painfully flat. "If you don't leave this room right now, I will find a way to get you fired, Nurse Ratchet," she added coldly.

The nurse stared at her for a moment, then made a face and left the room again.

It took exactly half a minute before the head nurse turned up. "What is going on in here?" she asked. She sounded a little exasperated, was obviously closer in age to Grace than the other nurse.

"Is it common practice to tie down a patient with a concussion?" Grace asked and stared the woman down with a look that struck Sam as familiar. Those hard eyes, the set of her jaw, the way she pursed her lips. He couldn't really say why it seemed familiar though.

"No, of course not, but Nurse Jenkins tells me he is violent," the head nurse said, her tone uncertain.

"Violent?" Grace sounded stunned.

The head nurse looked uncomfortable.

"He's not violent," Sam inserted and could have cursed his present weakness to hell right now.

The head nurse glanced at Sam, then returned her attention to Grace. "Look, Grace, I know you and I know you wouldn't say this without reason," she said, then looked back at Nurse Jenkins. "What exactly do you consider violence in this case?" she demanded.

Nurse Jenkins made a face. "He nearly shoved me off my feet," she insisted.

"Bullshit," Sam snapped. The anger bloomed at this blatant lie. He was not going to lie here and let that woman make his brother look bad. "He gave her a weak push. He can't even keep his eyes open, let alone shove anyone of their feet right now."

The head nurse eyed him for a second, then looked back at Nurse Jenkins. "Is that true?" she asked.

"No, it is not. He was drugged. What does he know?" Nurse Jenkins snapped, an angry look in her eyes.

"Jane, just reassign her," Grace said, her tone even. "But if I were you, I would keep an eye on her. She has no business working with critical patients," she added.

Jane, the head nurse, sighed. "Right," she said. "Nurse Jenkins, go home. We'll talk about this tomorrow," she added.

Nurse Jenkins opened her mouth, but Jane's expression made her shut up and she left.

"I'm sorry about this, Grace," Jane said.

"Don't apologize to me," she replied. "Just make sure that witch gets nowhere near them again."

Jane arched an eyebrow and sighed lightly. "Don't worry about that," she promised and left again.

Grace turned to face Sam and smiled lightly. "It would seem that I can't leave you two alone even for a minute, huh?" she asked.

Sam didn't know what to say to that and figured it was a rhetorical question anyway. Instead he turned his head and looked over at Dean again. "Dean?"

Dean grumbled something, then cracked his eyelids a little and squinted at Sam. "What?" he rasped, then weakly raised a hand and swiped at his right ear.

"You okay?" Sam asked.

A grimace was all the answer he got to that before Dean closed his eyes again and his breathing evened out almost instantly.

"He'll be fine," Grace said. "Eventually," she added and gave Sam a quirky grin when he looked back at her.

"Thanks," he finally managed. "For helping us."

"No problem, honey," she countered. "So ... how are you two going to handle yourselves once you're out of here?" she asked.

Sam glanced at his splinted left arm and considered his aching chest for a moment and had to admit to himself that he had no damned clue. Dean would be out of commission for a bit and with a broken shin on one leg and a broken toe on the other, he was pretty much handicapped. The broken ribs and the concussion were additions they could have done without. "I don't know. We'll manage somehow, I guess," Sam finally said. Most of all he wanted to ask for her help in some way, but figured she had already gone out of her way to help them out. There was something nagging him, but he couldn't quite get a grip on it right now.

"Grace?"

Grace turned around to face the head nurse again. "What's up?" she asked.

"We have a bit of an issue," Jane said. "I just got a call from your health insurance."

"About what?" Grace asked, a little cautious now.

Jane nodded toward Dean and Sam. "About those two. They say you didn't fill in what your relation is to them and unless they're family, they won't cover it."

"They're family," Grace said immediately.

"You'd better tell them that," Jane suggested and held the cordless phone out to her.

With a sigh, Grace took the receiver. "Grace Alden," she said and listened for a moment. "No, I'm sorry. I forgot to tick that box. I was a bit in a hurry and concerned ... yes, I understand that ... no, I'm not blaming you ... of course. Nephews." Grace grimaced. "No more than that?" Again she sighed. "Okay, fine. Thanks for letting me know ... no, I didn't know that ... well, I do now ... of course. Thanks again." With that, she switched the receiver off and handed it back to Jane. "Thanks," she said.

Jane nodded and left again and Sam had the creeping sensation that things had just gone from bad to worse. "Trouble?" he asked.

"In a sense," Grace agreed and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "My health insurance just informed me that they will cover your treatment, but only for three more days," she said and stared thoughtfully ahead of herself for a moment.

"Don't worry. We'll just have to find a way to get by," Sam said, although that wasn't what he wanted to say.

"With your broken arm and ribs and his broken legs and ribs?" Grace asked and shook her head lightly. "No, I don't think so. He won't be able to walk for a while. And you can't help him with your injuries." She shook her head and pursed her lips in contemplation. "I've got a better idea. You two are gonna stay with me until you're able to fend for yourselves again."

Sam just stared at her for a moment. Lately he had begun to believe that people like her didn't exist, but it would seem like he had that wrong. It somewhat restored his faith in other people. "We don't want to be a burden to you. I mean, you've already ..."

Grace raised a hand, stopping him. "Don't, Sam, okay? I don't offer things like this without wanting to do it. And you're not going to be a burden. Besides, I'll enjoy the company. That house gets too lonely sometimes."

It was an offer he almost couldn't refuse. He knew what Dean's take on this would be, but Dean wasn't awake right now. "If you're sure," he tried, giving her plenty of opportunity to withdraw the offer.

"I'm sure," she said. "So, let's see how Dean's doing around that time. He should be getting better gradually now."

Sam sent a brief glance over at his brother and nodded. "Yeah," he agreed. "I hope so." At any other point in time, he would have been inclined to turn her down. Besides, they could always call Bobby and get his help. But with the snow out there, it was unlikely that Bobby could make it out here in three days.

"Get some rest, Sam," Grace suggested with a vague smile. "I get the feeling you'll need everything you can give once Dean gets a little more clearheaded." With that, she left again to give them some peace.

He watched her go, then glanced over at his brother again. His head was thudding, his chest was aching and for some reason his left arm had the jitters. The muscle seemed to suffer from mini-spasms at regular intervals. They didn't hurt, but they were annoying.

Carefully, he prodded the area around the fracture and grimaced when he hit a sore spot. He wasn't entirely sure he should have taken Grace up on her offer, but on the other hand, what other options did they have?

Of course, Bobby wasn't that far away. Maybe he should give him a call. But there was that niggling little voice in the back of his head that didn't want him to admit that they'd once again gotten in over their heads. "Dammit," he muttered and decided to get some more sleep. He couldn't think straight with his head thudding away with a heartbeat of its own.

***

Dean had the feeling of having been awake several times, but couldn't really remember what had happened. His mind was muddled to say the least, but it didn't really matter while Sam was within reach.

When he woke up again, though, his mind seemed to be a little clearer although his head was hurting like hell and his body in general seemed to be on fire from the inside out. It wasn't so much heat as it was a burning sensation, the prickling under his skin driving him nuts.

With a dissatisfied grunt he shifted a little and sucked in a breath when that hurt his chest. Broken bones aside, something else was wrong. He couldn't move his right leg. With an effort, he cracked his eyelids open and tried to focus his eyes. He had an odd taste in his mouth and it took him a second to realize he was parched. "Son of a bitch," he rasped weakly and forced his lids open a little more. The light was searing and his eyes instantly started to water. "Sam?"

"Right here." A hand settled calmly on his left arm and he let out a light sigh. "How are you feeling?"

"Just swell," Dean said and grimaced at the sluggishness of his own voice.

Sam's grip on his arm tightened a little. "Good to hear. We're getting out of here tomorrow," he said.

Dean would have frowned if his head hadn't hurt so damned much. "Out of where?" he muttered and cracked his eyelids open again to squint at Sam.

"We're in the hospital, dude," Sam said.

He tried to string together what had happened, but it was all an unholy mess right now. "Why?"

For some reason that question drew a barked laugh from his brother. "Why do you think?"

Dean tried to frown, but his brow hurt like a bitch and he gave up on it. "We got hurt?"

"What do you remember?" There was an undercurrent in Sam's voice that Dean didn't like. The kid sounded worried; deeply worried.

With an effort, Dean tried to put things into order, but they kept falling apart like a house of cards in a draft, adding to the mess his mind was right now. "We got hurt," he tried.

"You don't remember how?" That undercurrent in Sam's tone grew stronger.

"I don't know," he admitted reluctantly and let his lids slide shut again.

"Dean?"

He groaned, then squinted at his brother once more. This time, his vision was a little clearer. "What?"

"You have a concussion, man. You have to focus," Sam insisted.

"Right," Dean muttered and drifted off again.

***

Sam gave up on keeping Dean awake and had to admit that he was anything but happy about having to leave the hospital the following day. Of course, Grace being a former paramedic did put a damper on his anxiousness, but he couldn't help worrying.

Worn and tired, he settled back down on his own bed and wished they were far away. A hospital was a public place, no matter how remote it was, and even though they had officially been declared dead by the FBI, he knew how officious some people could be.

"Sam."

Grace's voice almost made him jump. He hadn't heard her enter and his senses were a little dull at the moment.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," she said with a smile on her lips.

"No harm done," he countered and glanced back at Dean. "He's getting a little more lucid now."

"That's good. I just made a deal with Hank. Dean will be driven back to my house in an ambulance. The guys promised to help get him settled," she said. "We're leaving tomorrow at nine, if that's okay with you."

"That's fine," Sam said and met her eyes again. "Thanks, Grace. I mean it. I have no idea how I should have handled him in our present condition."

She settled on the edge of the bed next to him. "You're welcome," she said. "You seem worried, Sam. Is it Dean's condition?"

He blinked and focused on Dean for a moment. How would she know if he was worried? She didn't know him. But, the fact remained that she was right. He was worried. But it wasn't really something he could share with her. "It's just Dean. He doesn't seem to remember much about how we got here. He didn't even know he was in the hospital."

"He's almost had his brains bashed in, Sam. I assume," she added and eyed him with equal amounts of curiosity and apprehension. "Wanna tell me what happened now?"

"I ..." He stopped, unsure of what to tell her. Sure, he could lie with the best of them, but it felt wrong to lie to her. It was ridiculous, actually, but he couldn't help the feeling.

"I think I should warn you that my next door neighbor recognized Dean," she said after a moment. "He claimed to be a journalist and asked about that kid."

Sam grimaced. He couldn't help it. He hated it when they got busted. Dean always found it so easy to come up with an excuse, plausible or other, but Sam always struggled to make it believable and hesitation was never a good thing when you were cornered. "Uhm ... well, we're not ... journalists," he said. "We're ... investigating what happened to that kid," he added. It wasn't a lie and as such much easier to swallow than making up some wild story about being private detectives or some such nonsense.

Grace eyed him for a moment. "Uh-huh," she muttered and looked over at Dean. "Honestly, I don't really care why you're here. What I'd like to know is what happened to you two out there. Why are you both in such dire shape?"

That was not exactly what he had expected her to say. Most people tended to get angry when they caught someone in a lie. She obviously didn't. "Well ... we ran into these ... guys. Or rather I did. And they knocked me out. And obviously they got a hold of Dean too. They beat the crap out of us with baseball bats," he said while the whole sordid mess rose in him like foul water from a stagnant well. "I think they were the same ones that ... attacked that kid."

"Seems right," Grace agreed. "I think we should involve the police in this, Sam."

He shook his head before thinking. "I'd rather ... not. I kinda ... bashed their heads in to stop them from hurting Dean," he said and grimaced at the thought of what they probably would have done. He expected Grace to withdraw then, but she didn't move. She just sat there, a thoughtful look on her face.

"I take it they ... won't be doing this again?" she asked after a moment.

"That's highly unlikely," Sam agreed. "But maybe ... you could wait with reporting it until we're gone?"

She glanced at him. "Maybe ... I don't even need to report it," she suggested quietly. "Maybe I didn't ... hear what you just told me." She smiled vaguely. "I know how strong the urge can be to bash someone's head in when loved ones get hurt," she said and clapped a hand onto his shoulder before she got up again. "As long as they're not around to hurt anyone else," she added and shrugged lightly, "that's all I need to know."

Sam eyed her closely for a second. "Well, they won't hurt anyone else," he said. "Thanks."

"No problem," she countered. "Get yourself to bed, Sam. You look like death warmed over and I have the feeling the transport tomorrow might be a bit tough on both of you. You wanna ride with your brother? Or should I swing by to pick you up?"

"No, I'll ride with Dean," he said.

"Alright then. I'll see you back at my place tomorrow then," she said and left.

Sam just sat there for a moment longer, weary enough to make the idea of moving a strain, but a weird kind of peace had settled on him. It seemed to him that Grace understood them on some level and it would make the coming days easier to deal with. It didn't subdue his anxiousness about Dean's deal, of course, but the here and now seemed pretty much taken care of and that gave him the opportunity to relax a little.