See? It didn't take long! I was planning to update tomorrow, but after all your nice reviews, I just had to hurry. Thank you all for your support. Now, on with the story…
"Dammit! Shit, Dean. Goodammit!" Sam cursed under his breath as he half-dragged, half-carried his brother into the room.
The older hunter let out a grunt, but other than that he remained silent. His shirt was sticky, soaked in sweat and blood from the gash across his abdomen. Although it had stopped bleeding profusely a few minutes ago, Dean had still lost a lot of blood.
Finally in the room, Sam helped Dean to the bed closest to the door and propped him against the headboard before rushing for the first-aid kit. Back with his brother, he cut off Dean's shirt and carefully peeled it away from the wound. Dean hissed, and Sam spared him a brief glance. The older man's eyes were closed, and his face was scrunched in pain. Sam's heart was pounding hard inside his chest, and he had to avert his eyes, because the hated to see Dean in pain; it made his stomach twist and churn, and his eyes sting.
Sam swallowed his emotions down, steeled himself against Dean's discomfort, and focused on the wound. After cleaning it the best he could, he could finally see that it wasn't too bad. It was definitely going to need stitches, but nothing vital had been affected and Dean wasn't bleeding to death anymore.
The rush of knee-weakening relief that washed over him with the realization elicited a short snort from the younger hunter. It had been too close. A few inches deeper or in a more delicate spot, and that would have been it.
Sam's hands started to shake. He felt the urge to laugh again, but his vision was tunnelling and his emotions bubbled so close to the surface it would take only the slightest push to have them exploding all over the place. He swallowed convulsively in his fight to get a grip, but when he felt his throat closing up, his breath hitched and he knew he was bordering on panic.
Luckily, in that moment he felt Dean's grounding hand brushing his, and he instinctively raised his eyes to meet his brother's gaze.
"It's okay," Dean said, as steadily as he could manage. "I'm okay."
Ashamed, Sam gave a curt nod and looked down, forcing some air into his lungs and trying to hide the fact that Dean's soft, reassuring tone had brought him even closer to tears.
"It's- " Sam cleared his throat, "It's gonna need stitches."
Dean nodded his agreement. His permission, so to speak. Sam pulled away from his brother's hand and stood up awkwardly.
"I'll bring you something for the pain," he mumbled as his gaze spotted their duffle bags.
Sam turned around to face Dean, surprise evident on his face.
"I don't want painkillers," Dean clarified.
"B-But—" Sam stuttered, absolutely taken aback.
Sure, Dean had never been crazy about drugs, but he had a gash across his belly! Besides, it wasn't as if they kept a stash of morphine locked in the trunk. Tylenol or Advil wouldn't go beyond taking the edge off the pain. At most, it would make his brother sleepy…
"You've got to be kidding me," Sam growled, as soon as the reason behind Dean's refusal hit him.
Dean's eyes didn't waver from Sam's which were now sparkling with fury. His brother's calmness unnerved him and all the fear that had gripped him when he had seen his brother on the ground became mingled with rage in his tone.
"This is ridiculous, Dean! You have your damn stomach ripped open, for Christ's sake! And your main concern is that you might fall asleep?
Dean's eyes hardened defensively. Never good at dealing with his own vulnerability when it was out in the open, the older Winchester's retort was laced with venom.
"It's my damn stomach," he hissed, "and that makes it my damn call. I don't want painkillers, Sam, and that's final."
Sam glared back at him. The tension mounted and the air between them became so charged it was only a matter of time before it caught fire.
"Well," Sam shot back, "I'm not stabbing a damn needle into your flesh without using something to dull the pain, Dean. And that's final."
"Yeah, fine. I'll just grab the kit and do it myself," Dean said, snarling. "Wouldn't be the first time."
Sam set his jaw so hard he almost pulled a muscle. Okay, that was so not fair. Muttering words that suspiciously resembled, "Stupid asshole," he stood up and stomped his way to the bathroom to retrieve some towels. He then grabbed the kit he had left on the floor, sat back on the bed and dropped the kit between them. The movement jarred Dean's abused body, and he bit back a gasp, but after a moment he pulled it together and was reaching out for the kit with determination. Sam clenched his teeth and batted his brother's hand away, earning himself a new glare from Dean.
"I'll do it," Sam scoffed.
The words 'stupid' and 'asshole' were back, dwelling unmistakably in his tone.
Dean's glare turned into cautious scrutiny, but Sam avoided it altogether and focused on the wound. He might have relented ―because, well, he might behave like a brat sometimes, but he wasn't going to sit down and watch his brother stitch himself up―, but he was still furious. The sight of Dean's injury did nothing but add fuel to his anger.
Sam was well aware of the dangers of their job. And he knew that sometimes it was inevitable that they got hurt. However, this time it could have been prevented. It hadn't been an accident, but a mistake born of exhaustion and that was something unacceptable. That could cost them too fucking much.
Then of course, Dean had to be stubborn about it. Leave it to Dean "Invincible" Winchester to refuse a damn pill that would certainly make their lives easier; at least for Sam, who wouldn't have to be working with the soundtrack of his brother's pained breathing every time he inserted the needle into his flesh.
Stupid. Stupid asshole!, Sam thought, jabbing the needle into Dean's flesh a bit harder than necessary. Dean flinched, and Sam swallowed bitterly. For a second he was vengefully glad that his stoic brother hadn't been able to hide the pain. It was Dean who had gotten himself into this mess, and it served him right.
That was only for a second, though. Until his brother's reaction sank in and caused him to look up. Dean was sweating, far too pale, and stared at Sam with a mixture of confusion, apology and aggravation through shiny eyes. Sam could almost hear the silent hurt of his expression as it conveyed, I thought you understood.
And maybe he didn't understand, but that wasn't the point. It was an unspoken rule between them that when they were taking care of each other's injuries all other tension or friction was to be left aside. These moments were complicated and their balance was extremely delicate, since they were about the only times either man allowed himself to appear vulnerable before the other. Even though it was a given that they would be inflicting pain during the patching up process, there was an implicit trust that it wouldn't be more than what was strictly necessary.
Sam had betrayed that intimacy, and now it was all he could do to look down sheepishly and swallow hard. Unable to find an apology that entirely covered how lousy he felt, he kept his head stubbornly low and avoided his brother's eyes. He worked on the wound with extreme gentleness to make up for his previous behaviour. After a few minutes, he had to start blinking periodically to clear his vision, which was blurry with tears, because he didn't want to raise a hand to wipe at them and give his silent crying away.
Once he was done with the stitches, he tightly bandaged his brother's midsection, a procedure that elicited a muffled groan from Dean. Sam could imagine how hard ―not to say painful― this ordeal was for the older hunter. Putting aside the kit, Sam ducked his head and wiped his eyes hastily, before turning back to Dean with his gaze downcast. He rested a hand over his brother's wrapped abdomen. Dean's breathing was shallow, and his skin felt a little warm to the touch, but Sam knew that his brother had gotten through worse.
Then why did Sam feel as if Dean could vanish the moment he closed his eyes?
Chewing his lip, Sam rubbed Dean's bruised stomach mindlessly, drawing small, gentle circles with his fingertips. He kept his palm flat against the bandaged muscles, allowing it to absorb some of the warmth. He stayed like that for a little while, momentarily reluctant to let go. Finally, he took a deep breath and looked up at Dean for the first time since he had hurt him.
Instead of the reproachful expression he was expecting, he found a thankful, warm look in Dean's eyes —a muted smile shining in them around the pain.
"Thanks, Sammy," he said softly.
Sam felt his chest tightening at the heartfelt tone of his brother's words. The way Dean thanked him after tending to his wounds always struck a chord in him. When positions were reversed and Sam was the one doing the thanking, he did it as a sign of appreciation, a kind of "love you too" in answer to Dean's gentle ministrations. However, when Dean said the words, he sounded honestly grateful, as if he really had to thank Sam for taking care of him.
As if it was a special favour Sam had no obligation to grant.
It killed Sam that Dean didn't take him for granted. That while he insisted taking care of his little brother was his job, he doubted that Sam felt the same way. Then again, it was probably Sam's fault too. So far, he hadn't done such a great job proving his brother wrong.
Sam shook his head, awkwardly. He didn't deserve Dean's gratitude. Maybe if he had been a little bit faster when the beast attacked Dean—
No. The truth was that Sam should have found a way to stop this mess before it became dangerous for both of them. Instead, he had tried to go around it. He had looked the other way and trusted a quick fix to keep them going in the most classical Winchester way. In short, he had allowed it all to grow out of control.
Dean would have known how to fix it for real if it was Sam who was hurting. He had always known how.
It was Dean's attempts to stand up that startled Sam back from his guilt-trip and into reality.
"What are you doing?" Sam croaked, regaining his voice.
"Help me up," Dean breathed. "I need coffee."
With a frown, the younger brother pushed him gently back.
"Dean, no," he started.
"Sam—" Dean countered, but he wasn't strong enough to fight his brother and instead slumped back against the pillow with a grimace. He shook his head dazedly, trying to keep his eyes open despite being half-vertical. "Sammy," he murmured.
Sam bit his lip. It was hard to see Dean so weak that he resorted to begging instead of fighting back. He sounded so tired. So sad. Dean shouldn't sound like that, and yet, Sam was only now starting to notice how often exhaustion and sadness burdened his brother voice lately.
"You need to sleep," Sam said thickly. "You…dammit, you deserve to rest."
Dean sighed. His eyes were starting to glaze over.
"You too," he mumbled.
Sam snorted bitterly. Yeah, he definitely needed to rest too. But leave it to Dean to make him the center of the conversation.
"We can't go on like this," Sam said, worriedly.
Dean set his jaw and averted his haunted eyes. Sam took a deep breath and pulled out his last card again. The one he hated to use on Dean the most.
"I can't go on like this."
Dean's attention darted back to Sam and the older hunter studied him wearily. Sam held his gaze, squirming internally. Finally, Dean looked down, defeated, and Sam's heart lodged in his throat.
It was also his most effective card to play.
"You're right," Dean whispered.
Sam blinked, momentarily stunned.
"You're right." Dean repeated, louder, looking up at his brother. "You're right, Sam. It's just—"
"I know," Sam said.
Dean gave him a little smile for letting him off the hook. The brothers remained silent for a minute, and Dean's eyelids began to drop. He sank deeper into the pillows as his body grew heavier. Aware that he was falling asleep, Dean made a last, weak attempt to move, but his body didn't respond. He fisted the sheets in frustration and let out a helpless groan. Witnessing his brother's misery, Sam pulled away the hand he had kept on Dean's chest and placed it on his brother's wrist.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked, ready to give in. "Want me to help you to the car and drive for a while, or…?"
"I want you to get some sleep."
Sam closed his eyes for a second and shook his head.
"I'll get some sleep too," he rasped. "It's not like…God!" A sudden wave of pain contorted his face and forced him to hold his breath. When it passed and Dean exhaled, he looked all kinds of spent. "It's not like coffee is gonna make any difference at this point," he finished, his voice merely a puff of air.
Sam, who had tightened his grip on Dean's wrist when his brother's features collapsed in agony, considered his next words carefully.
"Are you sure, Dean?" he asked, seeking confirmation that Dean was okay with them sleeping at the same time.
"Yeah," Dean breathed. "It's bound to happen at some point. It may as well be today."
He tried to sound nonchalant, but his actions betrayed him when he shifted his hand so that he was the one holding Sam's wrist. Immediately, his thumb found his brother's pulse point and settled over it.
"Just—" Dean added in a fading voice, "don't—"
"I won't," Sam reassured him, knowing instinctively what his brother was trying to say.
Don't go anywhere. Don't you die. And also, Please, stay awake while I still am.
Sam sighed sadly, realizing in how many ways Dean had always needed that promise from him.
Please, let me go first.
If only that was as easy as keeping vigil over him. If only Dean hadn't managed to take that promise to a level far, far beyond the realm of tolerance when he had offered his life for Sam's in the most stupid, reckless and self-destructive possible way.
Sam had had to forgive Dean for it, though. Not only because his brother had pleaded to him not to be mad, but because he recognized that it had been the only time Dean had ever actually acted selfishly. It had been the only time he had put himself first and just gotten what he needed, the rest of the world be damned. Sam needed to respect that, although he certainly wished Dean could have found another way to be happy. One that didn't involve bringing him back from the dead.
Now, as Dean surrendered to sleep, Sam renewed his promise to save him no matter what. That, and to be awake before him. It was the least he could do.
If only all promises were so easy to keep.
Sam woke up to the feeling of frantic hands roaming up his arms and shaking him. He opened his eyes but at first was unable to see anything in the darkness of the room. What time was it? He had hoped to wake up early in the morning —he had even set the alarm on his watch to make sure of it—, so that he would be up before Dean, who had fallen into a deep sleep as soon as he had let himself go.
"Wake up! Sammy, wake up!"
It was Dean's voice calling him; his hands on his shoulders. And something was very wrong. Even with his mind still half trapped in the cobwebs of sleep and his heart beating too fast after having been startled awake, he could hear the distress in his brother's tone and the panic in his touch.
"Please, wake up. Please, Sam, open you eyes—"
"Dean?" Sam muttered groggily. He could now distinguish his brother's form looming over him. "What's wrong?"
"Please—" Dean sobbed.
Sam's breath caught at the broken sound of his brother's voice. Dean was reaching out for him and before Sam could do something about it, he was pulled against his older brother's chest with shocking urgency.
"Dean!" Sam exclaimed.
He resisted the unexpected embrace since he was mindful of his brother's wound. However, his resistance only succeeded in making Dean more agitated. Sam finally gave in and let his brother hold him as he wrapped his own arms loosely around Dean's back, trying not to add much pressure. If Dean was in pain, he didn't show it, but merely clutched more fiercely at Sam. It was then that Sam realized his brother was burning up.
"Wake up," Dean was saying, as he shook him weakly. "Wake up."
"I'm awake, Dean," Sam said, trying to reassure him.
His brother didn't seem to hear him. He was rocking him. Rocking them both and that nearly undid Sam, because even though he knew it was the fever, he couldn't remember a time when Dean had held him like that.
"Dean," Sam swallowed, starting to pull away from his brother's warmth and do what he had to do, "I think your wound might be infected. You need to let me check it."
"No, no, no, no," Dean moaned, clinging to him even tighter. "Come here, it's alright…It's alright, I'm going to take care of you, okay?"
Sam frowned, suddenly overcome by a distant memory of pain, followed by numbness…by darkness. His brother's arms around him, his voice fading, but his words still audible next to his ear—
It's not even that bad. It's not even that bad, alright?
Sam felt Dean's clumsy hands touching his back in his delirium, finding the scar. He shivered at the contact despite the heat of his brother's feverish skin.
"W-We are going to patch you up, okay? You'll be as good as new. Huh?" Dean said.
I gotcha. It's my job, right, watch after my pain-in-the-ass little brother—
"It's alright, Dean. We're not there anymore, you hear?" Sam tried again, but his own voice was hoarse now, betraying his tears as past and present became entangled in his mind.
"No… no-n-n-n-n-no," Dean cried. "Oh God. Oh God... Sam, please."
Dean started to shake as he fisted Sam's hair desperately. Sam closed his eyes and mimicked his brother's gesture, although he was gentler and trying to be comforting. Then his brother began to sob, and Sam sighed sadly and started running a hand up and down Dean's back.
"I'm fine," he whispered into his brother's hair, hoping to reach him. "We're both fine, bro," he added, as he gently massaged the tender skin behind Dean's ear.
Dean's silent sobbing was his only reply. His cries were muffled against his little brother's shoulder and an endless tirade of "No, Sammy, no" kept pouring from his lips. Taking a deep breath, Sam reached back and tried to disentangle Dean's hands from him. Dean let out something disturbingly similar to a whimper and struggled weakly against the prying hands.
"Shhh," Sam shushed, getting a firm grip on his protesting brother and pulling away a couple of inches so that he could look him in the eye. "Hey, hey. Look at me."
Dean looked at him. Or rather, he looked through him. Now that Sam's eyes were accustomed to the dim light in the room, he could see that Dean's wet eyes were unfocused and glassy. He wasn't completely with it, not by a long shot.
"Sammy," Dean croaked, "d-don't die."
Sam felt his own chin tremble, and he bit the inner part of his cheek as he wiped the trail of tears from his brother's face. When he was more or less sure he'd be able to speak without choking, he forced out his most stern voice, one that demanded Dean's attention.
"Dean," he said, grabbing his brother's hands, "I'm not cold," he assured urgently, squeezing Dean's hands between his. "Don't you see? My chest's moving. Can't you feel my heart beating?"
Dean gulped. His hand trembled slightly inside Sam's, and the latter waited with baited breath for his reaction. Any kind of reaction. If Dean didn't snap out of it Sam was going to have to force him down to the bed and fight him to take a look at his wound, and he really, really, didn't want to do that.
A few seconds passed, and Sam started to lose hope. Then, suddenly, Dean blinked and for a fleeting moment Sam had the feeling Dean could finally see him for real. And damn if that wasn't the most extraordinary feeling he had experienced in the last few weeks.
Dean frowned and, slowly, he released his hands from Sam's grasp. Sam let him pull away, half reluctant half expectant, and remained perfectly still as Dean reached out and cupped the side of his neck. Sam's heart was pounding so hard, he had no doubt Dean could feel his racing pulse against his palm.
"Sammy?" he breathed.
His voice was tinged with confusion but it also held such raw need and affection that Sam felt his throat becoming impossibly tight. It was the hesitant, hopeful edge of his tone, though, that spurred Sam to get it together and ease his brother's distress.
"Yeah, man. I'm here." Sam reassured him softly.
Dean let out an undefined sound, low and vulnerable, coming from deep inside his chest. His fingers traced Sam's jaw and then paused again on his throat, effectively checking the rhythmic vibration of life being pumped through his arteries. A spark lit in his eyes when he finally registered Sam's pulse, followed by a mixture of love, fright and relieved tears so intense that Sam almost closed his own eyes in a reflexive action of self-preservation.
Only almost. Because now that Dean was finally seeing him, he was by no means going to break the connection, even if holding his gaze succeeded in tearing him apart. After all, Winchesters and self-preservation had always had a complicated relationship.
"Sammy." Dean repeated.
This time it wasn't a question, but a confirmation. Too moved to talk, Sam managed a shaky smile. He knew he had to get a grip. He knew that the more coherent Dean was, the easier it would be for him to notice the tears pooling in his eyes. It was so not the time for him to be weak.
However, Sam couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the situation, because he had finally recognized Dean's look. The look of a shell shocked little child who has been badly shaken. A child who still needs to cling to his mom or dad even after the danger has passed. A child who needed to cry his heart out before finally letting go of the fear.
It was the same look Dean had been giving him every time Sam had fallen asleep during the last month. Only, of course, there had been no tears to release his buried fears, and Sam wasn't Mom or Dad, nor was Dean the clingy type, at least if he was in control of himself.
"God, Dean," Sam whispered, almost to himself.
Dean's breathing evened out, and his eyelids grew heavier over his fevered pupils. He licked his lips and let out a groggy sound just before his body tilted forwards. Sam, who had been expecting this, grabbed his brother by the shoulders to ease him down on the bed, but Dean took his little brother's supporting embrace as permission and leaned heavily into Sam's body. The movement pulled at his stitches, and Dean let out a groan.
"Easy, man," Sam soothed, shifting so he could support Dean's side against him without jarring his abused body too much. "You with me? You need to lie down now, alright?"
Only half conscious, Dean didn't answer. He burrowed himself deeper into Sam, who could feel his panting breaths against the crook of his neck. Sam sighed and didn't try to pry himself off.
"Alright." he muttered. "Your way, then, jerk."
He had intended to sound resigned, but he couldn't stop the edge of fondness that seeped into his voice. Somehow there was no point in bitching about the awkwardness of the moment since the one person who may actually find it awkward was out of it.
And so, after giving Dean's shoulder a long squeeze, Sam leaned back against the headboard, pulled Dean with him gently, and breathed out his own exhaustion. He wouldn't be getting more sleep any time soon, but he was fine with it as long as he could watch over Dean. When he sensed that his brother had fallen asleep —really asleep, instead of half there, half out cold—, he would ease him down on the bed and clean up the gash. Experience had taught him that a peak of fever was relatively normal after the kind of injury Dean had sustained. Even so, Sam would make sure there was no infection setting in. The fever would probably break by morning, and Dean would be okay after a couple of days rest.
If he managed to get some rest, that is.
Sam sighed again, rubbing Dean's arm absently up and down. He needed to do something to help his brother; he couldn't keep ignoring the serious problem they had. If he did, sooner or later it was going to explode in their faces again, and maybe then they wouldn't be so lucky.
There was some place they needed to go. Something they needed to do. Or, to be precise, something they should have done a long time ago. Dean wasn't going to like it. As a matter of fact, Sam wasn't so sure he was ready to go through it himself. But he would still try.
"Dammit, Dean. You're such a stupid asshole!" he thought, while he unconsciously pulled his brother closer to him. "And I love you so fucking much."