The Hospital

Sam Winchester was furious.

Taking his rage out on the car was an option he'd seriously considered. If said car had been the Impala. But said car was not the Impala. It was some poor schmuck's suburb-mobile, one that Sam had misappropriated from a nearby lot. All because Dean had gone and done what Sam had just known he would go and do. He felt his anger bubble again, making his knuckles clench on the steering wheel of the nondescript moss green Hyundai he'd hot-wired. He felt a near Hulk-like desire to explode with a roar and tear the whole thing to shreds.

But, he shook his head, fighting to relax his grip, poor old Merv didn't deserve that. Merv apparently being the name of the car, if the bumper sticker was anything to go by. Sam had a fleeting thought that maybe Dean and Merv's owner weren't so different. Except for the fact that Dean wouldn't have been seen salted and burned in a car like Merv.

Sam set his jaw, worry easily washing over his anger and almost sweeping it away. Almost. Dean had sounded urgent on the phone, and Sam had spent a lifetime learning to hear the things his brother didn't say. The louder Dean's protest, the less he cared. The elder Winchester would bitch and moan for days if Sam got the wrong kind of pie, or – heaven forbid – if he forgot to get pie at all. No, it was when Dean got sketchy that Sam started to worry.

Like now. As usual, Dean was where the danger was. The younger Winchester exhaled heavily, glowering at the slow moving car in front. Jeez, even walking would have gotten him there quicker. His hand hovered over the horn.

Sam had no idea what Erikson was going to do, but it was unlikely to be an act of kindness. The mask was supposed to reflect the wearer's inner fears, violently. Acts that were against everything they believed in, everything they stood for. Marsha Parrish had killed herself and her three beautiful children by steering her car off a cliff edge. Who knew what Erikson would be forced to do?

Sam swallowed nervously. He had to get to that mall, and fast.

His hovering hand slammed down on the horn, giving three short blasts. The car in front wavered and then hastily changed lanes. Sam might have smirked if his thoughts hadn't already been racing ahead, focussed on getting to his brother.

When police cars and ambulances started overtaking just a few minutes later, Sam knew things had just turned apocalyptic. His heart slammed painfully against his ribcage, his muscles turning shaky with rising fear as he floored Merv's gas pedal and surged forward in pursuit of the emergency vehicles. He didn't want to think about what that meant, or about what he might find when he got to the mall.

Or Dean...

He considered calling his big brother, but if Dean was in the middle of something, a mistimed ringtone could mean disaster.

Sam flicked on the radio, hoping to catch a bulletin as he weaved and dodged through the traffic. The fuzzy reception filled Merv's interior.

"–police and paramedics are now at the scene, but it's still not known whether the gunman has been apprehended–," An excited male newscaster was breathlessly announcing.

No, no, no! Sam gulped down a breath, blinking harshly at the confirmation of his fears.

"If you've just tuned in," The man began again, voice vibrating with growing hysteria. "We have some breaking news: A masked gunman entered Riverfield mall at approximately 10.45 this morning and opened fire on shoppers. Survivors who managed to escape the mall described the scene as a 'massacre', telling us they'd seen countless victims who were seriously injured. We don't have any details about fatalities at this point, but police and paramedics are now at the scene."

Sam swore and thumped his fist against Merv's steering wheel. Damn, Dean. Damn him! They should have been in there together, not one brother in the line of fire and the other waiting desperately on the sidelines. Dean had better be okay. He'd just better be. Or god help him, if Dean had gotten himself shot, Sam would go ahead and finish the job.

The younger Winchester punched at the radio, cutting off the newscaster's panicked speech midway through. He didn't need anything else to fan the flames of his own fear. He allowed Merv to put on a burst of speed and began overtaking the car in front, deciding that the police had bigger fish to fry than a speeding Hyundai.

The traffic around the mall was turgid and chaotic, but most of it was going the other way, trying to escape from the complex. Sam's path to the parking lot was far from clear, but the convoy of emergency vehicles had blazed a discernible trail for him to follow. No effort had yet been made to close off the road, and Sam was confident it would stay that way to allow police and paramedics a way of circumventing the avalanche of traffic surging in the opposite direction. Making his job a lot easier.

By the time he'd managed to navigate his way into the mall parking lot – were all mall road systems this labyrinthine? – the front of the main building was obscured by a haze of red and blue lights which flickered and flashed like fireworks. Cars and vans were scattered this way and that, like fallen dominoes. A swelling throng of onlookers was being kept at bay by several harried officers.

Sam parked as close as he could get, spotting the Impala several rows down, pulses of red and blue reflecting off her gleaming hood. The sight made swallowing difficult for several beats as something tightened in his chest. Sam swerved to take a detour past the car, giving her a firm, reassuring pat as he went. He'd be back. Dean too.

Reaching the back of the crowd, Sam tapped the shoulder of an overall-clad, beefy man with a backwards baseball cap perched atop his greasy head.

"They get him?" The younger Winchester asked as steadily as he could, his heart in his mouth.

"Looks that way," the Southern drawl made the statement sound like a lazy, afternoon sports report rather than the serious situation it was. "Shot dead."

Sam nodded his thanks, suddenly unable to form words as the tide of dread receded ever so slightly. He began working his way to the front of the crowd, feeling the reassuring presence of his FBI badge in his pocket should he need it to expedite his progress. He bulldozed his way through clusters of looky-loos craning their necks for a good glimpse, but manoeuvred more gently past the worried onlookers, hands covering their faces, their mouths hanging open. Sam could feel their pain.

Eventually managing to reach the cordon itself, the younger Winchester finally got a clear view of the scene. Some scattered police officers were conferring in a huddle next to a larger riot van, others were running hands through hair and tiredly sticking fingers in eye sockets, their expressions vacant and traumatised. Paramedics were loading up a waiting ambulance with urgent calm, their barked snippets of conversation just out of earshot to the waiting horde. Sam's eyes zig-zagged the busy tableau, looking for any sign of his brother. But Dean could have been anywhere. Hell, Dean could have been in the crowd somewhere with him.

But Sam just had a feeling.

And when he saw the next stretcher emerge through the glass doors, he knew his instincts had been right. He'd have recognised that spiky head anywhere.

"Dean!" He blurted, his chest imploding as he saw the blood even from a distance. No, no! He was throwing the police tape over his head before he could even process what he'd just seen. "Dean!" One of the crowd control officers was on him in a flash, hands raised in warning or placation, Sam couldn't tell. Didn't care.

"My brother. My brother!" Sam insisted, frantically pointing at Dean, who was swiftly being wheeled towards another waiting ambulance.

The officer, plainly seeing his distress, nodded tightly and allowed him passage. A good thing, really, because the younger Winchester had been seconds away from decking him.

Sam sprinted across the open space, eyes only for the stretcher, and the pale figure strapped to it. "Dean!" He called again, seeing his brother blinking sluggishly as he neared.

"Sam?" Came the weak, pained response as the younger man reached his side. Dean looked terrible; his face so milky pale it was almost translucent, his eyes dulled with pain. His upper chest drenched in blood.

"Hey, hey!" Sam breathed out, relief buckling his knees as he tried to keep up with moving gurney. Dean was alive, that one fact completely obscuring everything else. But he'd clearly taken a shot to the shoulder, sticky clumps of gore caking his shirt to an alarming extent. Nevertheless, Sam's own eye, trained to assess injuries through years of experience, told him that it wasn't life threatening. Not now that he was heading to hospital.

The paramedics were polite but detached, giving Sam a pointed stare but otherwise allowing his presence as he jogged alongside. He nodded back, his gaze returning to examine his brother.

"Took you long enough," Dean croaked, a tired smirk lifting one corner of his mouth. "Missed one hell of a party, Sammy."

Sam could have made any number of unimpressed, exasperated responses, but couldn't find the will. Breathing normally still felt like more than enough for his fraught nerves to cope with. "You're going to be okay," was all he managed. "We're going to get you to the hospital."

He looked up at the nearest paramedic. "I'll be riding with you."

"No he won't," Dean overrode him, raising an objecting palm. He shot Sam a significant, beckoning glance and the younger man leaned in as close as he could.

"What is it? Are you okay?" Sam felt his pulse speed up again.

"You need to get the mask, Sam," Dean whispered, sounding strained. "Before someone else does."

Sam was instantly shaking his head. "What? No, way, I'm coming with you, Dean. You've been shot!"

"I know, Sam. I was there!" Dean rolled his eyes in irritation, a mere gunshot wound not enough to dampen his exasperation. "You need to get that mask!"

"Dean–" Sam began another protest.

"Sir–" The paramedic began a different protest as they skidded to a halt beside the waiting ambulance.

"Just a couple more seconds?" Dean pleaded up at the frustrated woman.

"You have as long as it takes us to get things set up inside," she warned him with a disapproving huff.

Dean sighed and nodded back, his attention returning to his brother. "I'll be fine, Sam." He insisted, his unconvincing effort ruined when he coughed painfully, wincing as he tried to recover. Sam was about to step in and make an executive decision when he felt Dean tugging weakly at his jacket sleeve.

"You said yourself, I'm on my way to the hospital." Dean maintained, his gaze unwavering. "There's nothing you can do there. You have to fix my screw up, Sammy. You have to get that mask!"

"Dean..." The last thing Sam wanted was for Dean to take the blame again, but he knew his big brother was right about one thing: they had to stop the mask from disappearing again. But dammit...he didn't have to be happy about it.

"Fine!" He grunted, curtly releasing his grip on the stretcher. "But you'd better be waiting for me when I'm done." He hoped Dean was awake enough to catch his meaning. No springing yourself from your bed without my say so!

Dean let out a feeble snort in response, and Sam realised it was all he was going to get. "I'll see you soon," Sam promised, needing every fibre of his being to keep him standing still while his big brother was lifted into the ambulance.

"Be careful, Sammy." It was just a whisper, but its warmth kept Sam going all the same.

Dean was still in surgery when Sam skidded, empty-handed, into the ER reception area.

The younger Winchester knew he looked like he'd been dragged backwards through a thick hedge, all wild-eyed and electrostatic hair, which was probably why the standard issue, bored-looking receptionist nearly fell out of her standard issue swivel chair as soon as she laid eyes on him. Recovering herself embarrassedly, she'd smoothed down her coffee-stained blouse, shooting him a standard issue smile that was watery and over-practised.

Sam had been in no mood for small talk, setting eyes on Dean as quickly as possible being his top priority since he'd allowed his brother to be lifted into the ambulance and out of his sight back at the mall. That had been well over two hours earlier, and Sam was champing at the bit. Even though he wasn't looking forward to giving Dean the bad news he'd brought with him.

The receptionist – Ayleen, as her nametag cheerfully chirped – had twirled a peroxide strand of hair around a garishly manicured talon as she'd looked up Dean's information. Taking her sweet time. Sam had tried not to shuffle and huff and clear his throat. He'd tried, but Ayleen had narrowed her eyes all the same.

Eventually she'd told Sam his brother was in the OR on level two, that he'd been in for about an hour and a half, and that she had no idea when he'd be out. Dr. Moncrieff was the surgeon leading the procedure, though Ayleen could give him no information about the nature or seriousness of the surgery. She'd merely shrugged, as if life or death moments were no more out of the ordinary than a stationary order or a weather forecast, and told Sam he could sit in the waiting area on level two. Dr. Moncrieff would see him there.

Sam had barely paused to grab the standard issue paperwork before he was off down the hall, jabbing on the elevator button and tapping his foot in impatience until it arrived. He ran out of steam as soon as he reached the waiting area. It was about as dull and nondescript as every other waiting area Sam had ever been in – and he'd been in a lot. Mostly because Dean had taken it upon himself to play hero. He snorted softly, some things never changed.

There was an apologetic pot plant shrugging its leafy shoulders in one corner, a small, chipped formica table bearing a knitting magazine, what looked like yesterday's newspaper, a motoring magazine, and several tattered women's weeklies in another. Just what a person wanted when they were waiting for the guillotine to drop.

The younger Winchester glanced around, taking note of his new companions. An elderly man flicked listlessly through one of the women's weeklies; Sam doubted he was even reading. A mother clutched a bewildered-looking child, who turned wide, suspicious eyes on Sam as he approached. There was a rumpled, middle aged man in the corner next to the plant, his face as grey as his hair. All were sitting at least a chair apart. Standard issue.

Sam nodded at them in solidarity before gingerly taking a seat, making sure to maintain the regulation distance. He stared at the paperwork in front of him, his eyes blurring. Clearing his throat, clearing his thoughts, he clicked the pen he'd been given and began filling in as much as he could. He had no idea what name Dean had given, knowing he'd just have to wait until the surgeon came looking. The rest of it he could do by rote.

He'd had a hard time arguing to be let into the mall after Dean had been whisked away, the puffed-up, over efficient sergeant manning the entrance more than a little reluctant to let him duck underneath the second cordon. The swarthy man had shaken his fleshy jowls at Sam, giving a Churchill-esque grumble and telling the young hunter that he'd have to wait for authorisation. But eventually Sam had waved his FBI badge around, telling him that the mask belonged to the Mexican authorities and had been stolen and sold on the black market. Grim-faced, the sergeant had finally nodded him through, and Sam had hurried inside, wanting to get the mask quickly and get back to Dean.

Bodies were still being wheeled out in crumpled black bags and Sam had needed to step aside to let them pass. He'd felt a shudder ripple through him, the reminder of how close Dean had come to death yet again making him nauseous. Someone's world would be collapsing that day, he'd just been glad it wasn't his.

The horrific scene that met his eyes still felt surreal even in memory. The mall had been echoey and oppressive, the occasional shouted command ricocheting around the cavernous space as forensic teams patrolled and swabbed. Shattered glass glittered the tiled flooring and crunched underneath his boots while gaping shop windows curved inwards like gasping mouths. There had been blood everywhere; splattered on walls, puddled and oozing on the floor, shiny and sticky. Which spatter had been Dean's? He'd wondered, nausea curdling in his stomach.

He'd jogged up the escalators, in a hurry to find the spot where Erikson had been taken down. He hadn't wanted to remain in the building longer than he had to, the smell of blood and death clogging the air. His brother too had been on his mind, Sam constantly wondering what was happening to him, if he was okay.

Erikson's body had been left where it had fallen, a trio of forensic crime scene officers surrounding him, picking at him like scavengers. Arms and legs splayed, the cursed cop looked as if he'd been trying to make a snow angel on the floor. His torso was polka-dotted with bullet wounds, the blood coalescing into a giant stain that had turned tacky and viscous. His face had been grimacing, eyes wide and terrified. His face...

Sam had seen instantly that the mask was gone, and he'd picked up his pace, something heavy dropping into the pit of his stomach. He'd marched across to the officers, flapping his badge into each face and demanding to know what had happened to the mask. The forensics team had merely gawped at him, telling him that they'd seen no such thing. They'd heard the reports from the shoppers and security guards, but there had been no mask present when they'd arrived at the scene.

The younger Winchester had felt a vein throbbing dangerously in his temple, but he'd managed to keep hold of his anger – this couldn't all have been for nothing – and had asked whether the mask could have been removed as evidence. He'd been assured that nothing should have been disturbed until the preliminaries had been done. Heck, the body hadn't even been bagged. Meaning that the mask was now missing. Again.

Sam sighed at the memory, shifting in his plastic chair as he searched – fruitlessly, he knew from experience – for some comfort. The middle-aged man raised his eyebrows in sympathy before hastily averting his eyes, as if that one act of communication had been too much. Sam ran a hand across his features, tugging down at them. He hated this.

He'd managed to get a copy of the mall's security tapes before it occurred to the police that they might be important, but he hadn't wanted to spend the time going through them there and then. He'd just wanted to get back to Dean. Being around all the blood and devastation had been making him antsy, making him want to see for himself that his brother was really okay. The urge had pulled at him more heavily with every step, as if a length of stretched bungee cord held him attached to Dean.

The tapes could wait, he'd decided, and Dean would be there to help him. He'd hoped.

"Family for Dean Clapton?" A weary voice interrupted Sam's reverie and he leapt up from his chair, over-balancing in his haste. A firm arm came out to steady him, and he looked down at the petite redhead in scrubs who had apparently broken his fall. "You alright there?" She checked, giving him a brisk, assessing look. Doctors. Constantly triaging.

"Uh, yeah, yeah," Sam breathlessly waved away her concern, nodding so vigorously it made his vision streak. "Thanks." Just get to the point!

"No problem. I'm Doctor Moncrieff," She motioned to him to move away from the small gathering in the waiting area, where the others were starting to watch curiously. The surgeon had sharp, defined features, a perma-frown furrowing her brow, but her eyes softened when she took in Sam's bedraggled appearance.

"I'm Sam. Dean's brother," Sam hurried to explain. "How is he?"

"The surgery was successful," Doctor Moncrieff reassured him as they paused a few steps down the corridor from the waiting area. "When your brother was shot, the bullet fractured his clavicle and caused considerable muscle and ligament damage; but worse than that, the bullet became lodged in his shoulder. We had to remove it and repair the damage, which required us to apply some screws to the bone. He also sustained a concussion when he hit the floor."

Sam swallowed, trying to take in the information past the sudden rushing in his ears. All he could process was the relief. He felt lightheaded and oddly disconnected from his body. "But he's going to be okay, right?"

"We'll want to monitor him for any post-op infection and keep an eye on his concussion, but yes, he'll be fine. He's in recovery now." Doctor Moncrieff smiled at him, the expression transforming her features, ironing out the frown lines and giving a sparkle to her eyes.

Sam bit his lip and fidgeted.

"You can see him as soon as he's been moved to a room," the doctor nodded, reading his mind. She made to move away but paused, meeting his gaze. "Your brother was very lucky."

"I know," Sam jerked his head sharply and broke eye contact, not wanting to be reminded of the what-ifs. "Uh, thank you," he managed, realising that it was important. This one he couldn't have fixed himself.

Doctor Moncrieff smiled again and patted him on the shoulder before marching off down the corridor, her shoes squeaking slightly on the hospital linoleum.

Dean floated lazily up to the surface, his body light and buoyant. Thoughts trickled by, and he allowed them to, as if watching water burble idly past in a stream. Images splashed up every so often, sensations and feelings broke gently against his rocky consciousness, muffled words languidly ebbed and flowed. But still Dean stayed dry, separate. He didn't want to dip his toe in the water. He was pretty sure it wouldn't lead to anything good.

His state of pleasant suspension came to an abrupt end some time later, though, and he was plunged into wakefulness, ice-cold awareness suddenly drenching him. Eyes still closed, he flinched, assessing his situation. His right side felt odd, bulky and stiff. His arm was braced across his chest, secured firmly, as he found out when he tried to move it.

"Ugh," he groaned involuntarily as pain shot across his shoulder. He felt his heart speed up as he tried to make sense of his situation. It felt as if his brain been replaced with cotton wool and his eyes felt crusted up and gritty.

"Dean, hey!" A large, comfortingly familiar paw landed on his left side, and Dean automatically felt himself relax, his whole body sagging back against the mattress of whatever bed he was lying on. Sam was here, that was all he needed to know. He was safe. "You with me?"

"S'mmy?" Dean croaked, feeling like his tongue had been wrung dry. He cleared his throat messily and opened his eyes a crack.

There was hair and a grin. Yeah, that looked like Sam. The kid was sitting at his bedside, poised like a coiled spring.

A clearer blink showed the familiar minimalist trappings of a hospital room. Plain white walls, drab artwork, utilitarian furniture, the usual medical appliances. It was amazing how similar they all looked, all the hospital rooms he'd checked into down the years. The room could have been from the little rural clinic he'd spent the night in as a twelve-year old after suffering his first serious concussion, or from the big city hospital he'd skipped out on after being slashed by a black dog while Sam was at Stanford. It was more than a little disorientating.

But he remembered the mall, the shooting. Erikson in the mask, stance rigid as he robotically squeezed the trigger.

"You get it? The mask, Sam. Did you get it?" The question spilled from his lips, though his voice cracked half way through. Seconds later, and his brother was holding a glass filled with ice chips to his lips, tilting it in encouragement. Dean absently nodded his thanks, too preoccupied to comment on mother hens and babying, but continued to fix the younger man with an interrogatory stare.

Sam grimaced almost imperceptibly but otherwise ignored the question. "How're you feeling?" He asked, eyes molten with concern as he began fussing with Dean's pillows. The elder hunter batted him away as well as he could with only one free arm, ignoring the pinched reproach that tightened his brother's features. Dean did a brief diagnostic: limbs still attached, head still on shoulders, heart still beating. Could be worse.

"Never better," he grunted unconvincingly, previously hidden aches and pains deciding to burst out from the shadows, yelling Surprise! and pulling party poppers.

Predictably, Sam wasn't buying it. The kid looked edgy and unsettled, even if relief had dappled some of the worry lining his features. "Sure, Dean." He snorted loudly. "You just got shot, broke your collarbone and had surgery. Oh, not to mention the concussion! Yeah, you're awesome." Ah, there it was, the beginnings of a bitchface. Did they really have to do this now?

"I'm alive, aren't I?" Dean probably could have sounded happier about that, but his irritation was beginning to flare. Sam dodging his question and turning the conversation into a bingo call of his injuries was not acceptable.

"Yeah, no thanks to you!" Sam wasn't sounding happy himself, didn't look it either when Dean turned to scowl at him. There were unhealthy patches of puce colouring the kid's cheeks, his eyes hooded and flashing, his fists clenched.

And then Dean remembered that he'd deliberately waited to call Sam until Erikson had reached the mall. He wouldn't have been pleased with himself either. He closed his eyes as a surge of exhaustion engulfed him, and it must have showed on his face because his little brother was instantly contrite. "You alright?" Exasperation immediately replaced by worry.

"Just a little tired," the elder hunter grudgingly admitted with a one-shouldered shrug. He glanced down with distaste at the sling trapping his arm. "What the hell is this?"

"You broke your collarbone, Dean," Sam reminded him with painstaking patience, as if his big brother was a kindergartner and not a grown man. "They had to put screws in it, dude. You'll be wearing that for a while." That last one sounded worryingly like an order. Dean frowned sulkily. "No use bitching at me, dude. You need to keep that arm steady for at least a few weeks."

Yeah, right.

Dean allowed his head to fall back against his pillow, disappointed to find it as lumpy as he'd feared. Sam immediately reached out to plump it but halted when Dean shot him a glare. "Fine," the elder hunter responded testily, because that was what was expected of him, but it was far from an agreement. "So, you gonna stop avoidin' my question?"

"What?" Sam's voice shot up a few dozen octaves.

"You know," was all Dean needed to say.

Sam pursed his lips and cleared his throat, eyes dropping to the floor. "The mask was gone, Dean."

"Come again?" Dean growled, feeling his pulse start to climb again. He shifted uneasily on the bed.

"It wasn't with Erikson's body when I got to it. The forensic guys told me they hadn't seen it at all." Sam's eyes flew up to meet his brother's, as if the kid felt safe now that the bombshell had been dropped.

"And you believed them?" Dean steepled his brows.

"I didn't have a choice. They told me nothing had been moved. If one of them had it, why would they all lie?"

The kid had a point. "Terrific," Dean muttered with a sigh, and fidgeted on the bed once more, eager to get out and get moving.

Sam watched him sharply, his glare a warning. Dean rolled his eyes.

The younger man continued after a pointed pause. "I did get the security footage, though. It might show us who was near Erikson after he was taken down."

Dean furrowed his brow as a fleeting image of the masked cop strobed past, screams and drumming footsteps crescendoing and falling, blood splattering, bodies thudding. He gave his head a small shake to clear it, ignoring his brother's concerned glance, and re-focussed on what Sam had just told him.

At least they had something, but knowing their luck the video probably wouldn't show them anything useful. "You watch it?" He asked briskly, back to business.

Sam took a deep breath and bit his lip, looking like he wanted to say much more than a soft "No."

"Why the hell not? Sam, you know we gotta find this thing before it causes another freakin' bloodbath!" Dean spluttered, incredulous, staring at Sam as though his little brother had just announced that he was about to take up burlesque dancing.

"Dean..." Sam was now gazing with some fascination at a badly painted, blotchy landscape on the opposite wall. The title suggested it was a picture of Cape Disappointment, Washington. Strangely apt, Dean thought. "I..."

The elder Winchester rolled his eyes in annoyance. Jeez, he recognised that look. Emo-Sam, right on time. Dean could set his watch by him. "What?" Just spit it out, Sam!

"You scared the crap out of me, man." Sam abruptly turned to stare at him, and he found himself squirming in discomfort under the unexpected intensity of his brother's gaze. "When I heard what happened on the news..."

Dean swallowed, he really didn't want to have this conversation. Screams were still ringing in his ears. "Yeah, well it wasn't much fun for me either," he snapped.

"Dean, for the love of–" Sam threw his hands up and pushed himself out of his chair, propelling himself over to the room's small, streaky window, his back to Dean. "You went there alone, Dean! You were supposed to call me!"

"What, and get you shot too? 'Cause that woulda worked out so well!" Dean retorted, but he was starting to lose his breath from the exertion.

Sam, head bowed and clearly overcome, didn't seem to pick up on it. "Dean...I thought I was going to find you dead! Don't you get it? I wanted to make sure you were okay. I wasn't going to hang around, watching security videos while you were being sliced open!"

Dean felt a growing lump in his throat as he saw how upset Sam was getting. He'd never been especially good at tolerating his brother's distress. Dammit, Sam! Any more of this and I'm gonna start ovulating. He fought to calm his breathing, not wanting to give Sam another reason to freak out. "I'm okay, Sammy," he said reassuringly, waiting for the kid to turn around and face him.

When Sam cleared his throat, he sounded suspiciously choked, but by the time he returned to Dean's bedside he had himself under control. "I know," he nodded, but for the briefest of seconds he looked young – young and lost – instantly catapulting Dean back twenty years. He knew what his stunt had done to his brother, but they didn't have time to emote over it.

Dean let the moment hang there for a few seconds before he broke it. "Okay, so let's get me outta here!"

The reaction was instantaneous.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Dean! Slow down. You're not going anywhere. You just had surgery!" All of a sudden Sam was looming over him intimidatingly, using his already inconvenient height advantage to even greater effect. As if Dean was going to be browbeaten.

"Sam, we need to see those videos." Dean reasoned, battling to remain calm as Sam continued to tower over him. "We need to get our hands on this mask before someone else does! Not exactly likely if I'm stuck in here." He used his free hand to gesture in disdain at his surroundings.

"But Dean–" Sam had set his jaw, readying himself for another clash.

"Are you listenin' to me?" Dean cut across him, his voice rising. "We need to stop anything else from happening!"

Sam seemed to sense his big brother's growing agitation, and he acted swiftly to quell it. "Okay, okay!" He raised his palms and took a step backwards, giving Dean his personal space back.

The elder Winchester took a breath, preparing to acknowledge his victory.

But Sam wasn't quite finished. "Look, how about I just bring the laptop here? We can watch the videos–"

Dean stopped him with a patented are you serious? glare, complete with strategically arched brow. "You know I'm right, Sammy." And Dean knew he knew.

There were a few seconds of silence, but Dean was certain now that he'd won.

"Okay, fine!"

It made a nice change.

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