The Difficult Patient
Dean had been full of bravado; all, I'm fine, and piece 'a cake and personal space, Sammy replete with dismissive hand waving and defiant chin raising. Until he'd had to face the possibility of woozily doing everything one handed, including dressing himself. It had taken all of Sam's self-control not to step in and push his big brother back down onto the bed – and hell, cuff him there if necessary – but he'd known they didn't have much time. They had a job to do.
He'd folded his arms sourly, irritated as Dean had emphatically refused his help. The only thing Dean would let him assist with was the removal of his IV. Thereafter, Sam had been dismissed, watching impotently as his brother fumbled first with the bedcovers, and then with the clear plastic bag containing his clothes. He'd had to clench his fingers into the fabric of his shirt to stop himself from taking two strides across the room to do it for him. Especially when he'd seen the ashen, horrified expression on his brother's face at the prospect of negotiating a pair of jeans.
But Dean had done what Dean always did. He'd made some lewd joke about voyeurism and kinky fetishes all the while giving Sam his patented steely eye of determination. Then the younger Winchester had been banished behind a feebly drawn curtain, forced to cool his heels while Dean dressed in privacy. Sam had waited worriedly, straining his ears for any sound of over-exertion or pain, at the same time keeping an eye on the door for any curious medical staff who might interrupt their flight.
More than a few grunts, groans and Don't even think about it, Sammys later, a shirtless Dean had tiredly pulled back the beige curtain, pale, clammy and unsteady. Apparently pulling on a pair of jeans had wiped his big brother out. And Sam had cursed himself all over again. Nevertheless, he'd stayed silent as he'd stepped in to help Dean with his shirt. His blood-soaked shirt. Sam had stared at it for a few long seconds, feeling the bitter taste of bile at the back of his throat. But he hadn't thought to grab any clean clothes for Dean, so there had been no other choice but to dress his brother up like a murder victim.
He'd steadied a wavering Dean with one hand, mouth thinning with concern when the older man didn't protest the touch, and had gently helped his brother to remove the sling. He'd held the shirt open as Dean had painstakingly threaded his stiff, injured arm through the sleeve, wincing as his brother hissed in pain and berating himself yet again for allowing it in the first place. The fact that Dean had even asked for help, let alone allowed it, was major cause for concern.
Their escape from the hospital hadn't been much fun either, not with Dean still lurching this way and that like a tree in high wind. The blood-stained shirt had attracted some curious stares, but Sam had tried to keep Dean behind him as much as possible to shield him, checking frequently to make sure his brother wasn't about to take a nosedive. Dean had flat out refused to take an arm, arguing reasonably that it would most likely end up attracting even more attention to them. It was always worrying when one of Dean's ideas sounded reasonable. Sam was pretty sure it was one of the undocumented signs of the Apocalypse.
Now back at the dank, shabby motel, Sam watched his brother settle and resettle himself on his chair, a creaky, brittle affair which looked to have been constructed entirely out of used popsicle sticks. Dean's discomfort beamed from him like a lighthouse lamp, unceasingly drawing Sam's gaze again and again to the locus of his pain. Dean's arm was still securely strapped, though his fingers twitched against their confinement every so often. Taut lines of pain hollowed his cheeks and dulled his eyes.
Shouldn'ta taken him out of the hospital, Sam chided himself for the umpteenth time. The paltry motel light made Dean look even more sickly, and the younger man could barely resist the urge to check his big brother's sweat-dampened brow. But even one armed, Sam was pretty sure Dean would be able to break his nose for trying. The elder Winchester had already threatened bodily harm if Sam offered him any more pain pills. He'd already vehemently rejected them earlier, insisting that he needed his head clear for the hunt. Typical Dean. Even if it meant constant winces, grimaces and shaky breaths.
Stubborn jackass, Sam shook his head.
The younger Winchester returned his gaze to the laptop screen. They hadn't been watching the security footage for long; having a reasonable estimate of the time frame they were searching through, though Dean couldn't be sure how long he'd been unconscious before he'd woken to find the paramedics peering urgently down at him. Sam was trying not to dwell on that too much.
It had taken a while to locate the camera angle they needed, but eventually they saw Erikson's classic shooter stance, stark and cruel against the pale, pristine consumer décor of the mall. The masked face baring its teeth. The screen was grainy and splodgy, like an impressionist's video rendering. The playback jerked abruptly from frame to frame, little bursts of light erupting from the barrel of the cop's gun as it moved, showing Sam just how many rounds Erikson had fired in a short space of time. The younger Winchester glanced at his brother, noting the heavy cloak of tension that had settled around his shoulders. Dean's features were grim, his jaw jutting.
Sensing that reliving memories of the shooting couldn't have been easy for Dean, and predicting that his brother would not welcome him sharing this realisation, Sam kept silent but began skipping the footage forwards as quickly as he dared. If Dean knew what his little brother was up to, he didn't acknowledge or protest it.
After a while, Erikson began spasming backwards, limbs jerking spider-like as he danced macabrely to the tempo of the bullets striking his body. Sam could hear Dean's heavy swallow as they watched, but again the younger man said nothing.
The mask, which had up until that point appeared surgically attached to its wearer, went skittering from Erikson's skull as it rebounded off the hard flooring. It spun violently, its momentum easily carrying it away from the downed cop. And straight over the edge of the second floor walkway as it whirled neatly through the space underneath the glass-rimmed balcony and plummeted.
"Dammit!" the horrified brothers yelled simultaneously, and Sam immediately leapt forward to pause the video.
"Sonofabitch!" Dean spat, furious, and Sam couldn't blame him. Still the damn thing evaded them.
"Wait, just wait a minute," Sam tried to douse the flames of his brother's frustration before they raged out of control. He began tapping at the computer keys, pupils darting from side to side as different windows began popping up before his eyes. "If I can isolate the time the mask went over the edge on the other cameras, we should be able to track its fall."
Dean's breathing was still strained, but he nodded, trusting Sam. Bolstered, the younger man began stampeding his fingers across the keyboard once more.
"Okay..." Sam murmured, pulling up the different windows he'd opened, one by one. He pointed at the first. "Look, there it is." He changed angles. "And again. We just need to see where it lands."
Both brothers scanned the images, noses beginning to lean ever closer to the screen until their heads almost bumped together.
"I see it!" Dean declared triumphantly, pointing to a dark object that had bounced in a huge arc after rebounding off the ground floor tiles.
"I got it," Sam assured him, switching the camera angle to see the mask tumbling towards the doorway of – and the younger man twitched an involuntary glance at his big brother – a lingerie store. Dean's eyebrows quirked despite the seriousness of the situation, and he cleared his throat, preparing, no doubt, to make an inappropriate comment. "Don't say it, Dean!" Sam warned him with a raised finger. "Just don't."
He caught Dean's eye-roll but ignored it as he focussed on the entrance to the store. It seemed empty at first glance, but after several minutes' wait, the brothers hit pay dirt. A tentative hand reached towards the mask, lifting it up for a closer look. Then she stepped more clearly into focus; a young woman with thick, peroxide locks and tottering heels, wearing what Sam was pretty sure was a store logo t-shirt. She was evidently an employee. As she stood staring at the mask, others were moving around her, darting and running for escape. She was still, however, as she slowly turned the mask over and over in her hands, fascinated. After several moments she stiffened and purposefully placed the mask in her large tote purse.
"Well, I'll be damned," Dean murmured, rubbing absently at his injured shoulder.
Sam could only shake his head as the woman began to walk out of the camera's range.
Dean grew more taciturn as the evening wore on.
Sam had sternly vetoed the possibility of doing any further investigating that night, and his big brother was not happy about it. Dean had argued for marching straight down to the mall and demanding the store's employee records – at gunpoint if necessary. Then he'd wanted to charge over to the girl's home and take her down (double entendre not picked up or capitalised on). Again, at gunpoint if necessary. But the younger Winchester had categorically refused.
For one thing: "Dean, you got shot earlier today! You had to get your bones screwed back together. You need to get some rest!"
And another: "We still don't know what to do with this thing! We can at least use the time to do some research. You saw how quickly that girl turned into a zombie. It looks like this curse is speeding up. We need to make sure we can handle it when we do find it."
Sam knew he was making sense. Hell, anyone would have seen that he was making sense. But Dean...Oh no, Dean Winchester wouldn't have known sense if it smacked him upside the head. Which, Sam had to admit, he was seconds away from doing, if his brother hadn't already been recovering from a concussion.
The younger Winchester closed his eyes, dug his fingers into his sockets and counted to ten, adding ten or twenty more for good measure. "Dean." He said with as much as calm as he could manage, trying to halt the older man in his tracks.
Dean, who was at that moment pacing the room, blithely ignored him and continued his grumbled mutterings, only some of which Sam could hear. The ones he was able to make out he was certain his brother had intended for him to hear. The words 'bitch', 'bossy', 'pole', 'ass' and 'up' featured heavily.
Sam twisted his lips in irritation and pushed himself up from his chair, putting his hands on his hips authoritatively. He knew his brother was only acting the way he was because of pain and discomfort. Not to mention that he was almost certainly still dealing with the after effects of the shooting he'd just survived. But he also knew that Dean had refused painkillers. The jerk. And for that, he had no sympathy. "Dean!" he called, trying to channel his best John Winchester drill-sergeant growl.
But still the floorboards continued to creak under the tread of Dean's boots, the elder hunter nailing him with a murderous glare.
Thoroughly fed up, and in no mood to deal with a grouchy big brother through the night, Sam stepped into Dean's path and reached out to grasp his upper arms, physically blocking him. He was careful with his brother's injury, but was otherwise insistently firm. "Stop!" he barked, feeling the thrum of Dean's agitation through his coiled muscles.
Dean's eyes flashed, his lips thinning. "Get off me, Sam! I'm flattered, but I don't swing that way." He tried to dislodge Sam's grip but couldn't, his fingers lacking strength.
The younger Winchester played to his advantage, pushing Dean backwards and manhandling him down onto his bed. The one nearest the door, as always, though it would be Sam keeping watch that night. "You have to take it easy, dude. You're exhausted and you're hurt." He kept his hands on Dean, applying pressure to keep his brother seated.
"I'm fine!" came the expected snark, but fatigue easily took away the intended sting, making it sound more like the protesting whine of an eight year old denied a favourite toy.
With Dean finally still, Sam had a chance to look at him close up. He was pouting like the little boy he resembled, but he was pale and shivery. Sam put a palm to his forehead, managing to hold it there for a few seconds before Dean recovered enough to shove it away.
"Hold still," Sam muttered, frowning at the growing heat there. Not a significant fever, but Dean was warmer than he ought to be.
Sam bit his lip. The doctor had mentioned the possibility of a post-op infection, after all. And Sam had allowed his brother to manipulate him into leaving the hospital. He cursed again, gathering himself up to his full height. He was getting his brother into bed if he had to friggin' hogtie him to the frame.
"Sam, seriously, pull your g-string outta your ass. I'm fine. We need to keep goin'!" Dean tried again to bat his brother away, but the motion lacked its usual force.
"No." Sam set his jaw. "You're gonna take your pain meds and some ibuprofen, then you're gonna to go to bed, and you're gonna go to sleep. Now!"
"Oh, is that so?" Evidently Dean wasn't about to back down without a fight.
"Yeah, actually it is." Neither was Sam. "'Cause I have this!" He pulled out the key to the Impala and tossed it into the air a couple of times. Dean's eyes tracked its progress like a dog eyeing up a treat. "And you ain't going anywhere unless I say so."
Dean shot him a mutinous look. "Or I could just take them offa you! Even one armed, I could still take you down, princess."
Sam doubted it, the way Dean looked he couldn't have fended off a light breeze. But the younger man didn't particularly want to test that theory out. Dean needed to recover. Sam sighed, knowing he had one last play, but hating himself for it all the same. He dropped to a crouch in front his brother. "Look, man, I need you at the top of your game. I need you watching my back. That means you need to get some rest." And out came the doe eyes he knew his brother couldn't resist. "Please, Dean." He held his palms up beseechingly.
And watched his brother's resolve crumble.
"Alright, alright," Dean response was an ungracious grumble, waving Sam off as he sourly reached for his sweats. "Bitch."
Sam ignored the jibe, already heading for the bathroom to get his brother a glass of water for the pills. Their first aid kit was out of morphine, and with Dean so intent on staging a break-out from the hospital, he hadn't had time to replenish their supply. They'd have to make do with codeine.
He returned to the room to find Dean wrestling with his sling, his shirt half off and hanging down at a comical angle. Sam tutted, placing the water and pills on the nightstand and immediately reaching round to undo the sling. Dean endured the attention stoically, but tried to push his brother away with his free arm as soon as the sling had been removed. But Sam was not to be budged, and he deftly and carefully pulled the shirt free from Dean's injured arm, ignoring the older man's groan of protest.
The younger Winchester tossed the shirt on his own bed and picked up the water and pills, lifting his brother's uninjured wrist and pressing the pills into Dean's palm.
"Dude!" Dean was glaring indignantly at him. "I'm not a freakin' baby!"
"Really? Well you could have fooled me, Dean!" Sam snorted, holding out the water and wiggling the glass in front of Dean's nose.
"All babies do is eat, sleep, cry and crap," Dean groused, but he popped the pills in his mouth and snatched the water from Sam, taking a deep gulp.
"Well, if the shoe fits, Dean..." Sam couldn't suppress a smirk when Dean choked slightly on the water.
Sam found himself chuckling harder, feeling some of the tension he'd been carrying across his shoulders since he'd found out Dean was at the mall dissipate. He took the glass from his still spluttering brother and set it down again on the nightstand. "C'mon dude," he gave Dean a fond pat on his good shoulder and grabbed the discarded sling.
"Oh, no," Dean shook his head vigorously, wincing at the ill-advised motion. "I'm not puttin' that damn' thing back on again!"
"Yeah, you are," Sam insisted matter of factly. "Doctor's orders, Dean. You have to wear it at night too. You need to keep your arm still." He thought of the way Dean usually draped himself across the bead, octopus limbs splayed everywhere, and shuddered. They couldn't have that.
Dean looked so crestfallen it was all Sam could do to stop himself from reaching forward to ruffle his brother's hair. "Fine," Dean mumbled, pouting while the younger Winchester reattached the sling and giving a small grimace as his arm was jarred.
"Sorry," Sam murmured as he secured the contraption behind his brother's neck. "There," he announced, taking a step back from Dean and beginning to arrange the pillows on the elder hunter's bed so that Dean's shoulders would be more elevated as he slept.
Dean watched his little brother's fussing with a single arched brow but otherwise made no comment.
"What?" Sam asked as he straightened up, confused by Dean's expression. The older man didn't look pissed, exactly. He didn't look happy either, but there was something softer there too.
"Thanks." There was a faint blush colouring Dean's cheeks, and he scratched at a point just behind his ear.
Sam smiled fondly at him. He was pretty sure his brother's low grade fever was the real culprit for his expression of embarrassed gratitude, but he also knew it was coming from the right place.
The younger Winchester puffed out a short breath and put a hand on Dean's uninjured shoulder, guiding him down onto the bed. "Don't mention it. Just go to sleep, Dean. I'll be here when you wake up, alright?"
The elder hunter's eyes were already at half-mast and he let out a sleepy sigh, his body melting down into the mattress. He was out for the count by the time Sam had drawn the bedcovers over him, a soft snore already purring out. The younger man stood back, giving his brother a final, assessing sweep. Satisfied that Dean was comfortable and sleeping peacefully, Sam heaved a giant sigh, relief dulling some of the sharper pangs of concern, and returned to the laptop. Lifting the screen he reached for his cell and pressed the speed dial.
"Hey Bobby, it's Sam. It's been a hell of a day...What you got?"