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Warnings Language; references/allusions to torture and non-con.

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24. Just Keep Swimming (Alternate Ending)

It's dark in Dean's room, the overhead lights dim. Equipment beeps quietly and flashes regularly, the screens Sam has seen on every hospital drama detailing innocuous sounding things like BP, pulse, sinus rhythm, things he knows can go wrong, can lead to doctors barking out orders, flatlines, lithe nurses leaping up to straddle limp bodies and apply CPR while gurneys fly along hospital corridors to ORs where surgeons tie trendy bandanas over their great hair and operate along to Handel's Water Music, and bleeders happen while anxious relatives watch from glass-enclosed balconies. He knows it always ends with some short, squat nurse calling it, and everyone stepping back from the operating table as it fades to black along to some cheesy Sarah McLachlan song.

Dean looks twelve in hospital beds, always has, and Sam muses that maybe it's because his brother was twelve when he first saw him in a hospital bed, his leg hoisted up, toes peeking pinkly from plaster, his face white and pinched with pain as he bitched about itchy fuckin' toes, scratch 'em if you wanna live, midget.

"The nurse says it's dark because bright light could cause him to spasm," Bobby murmurs from next to him. "We need to keep our voices down too, it could set him off. And be careful about touching him – keep it to a minimum."

Sam's gaze travels down the bed, across the bruises, and cuts, and silvery scars, to Dean's foot, heavily bandaged, toes peeking pinkly. He tracks up again to study his brother's face, wills his eyes to crack open. Please look at me, he thinks. Please tell me to scratch that itch, bitch, and fuck hospital food, get your ass in the car and bring me back something from Kentucky Fried Panda if you want to live…


Sam breaks out of his reverie, glances over at Bobby and sees that the old man's eyebrows are racing up towards his hairline.

"Kentucky Fried Panda?" Bobby prompts.

"It's finger ling-ling good," Sam murmurs, snagging the arm of the nurse as she leans over him and tweaks the drip. "Will his foot be okay?"

She flashes white teeth in a sympathetic smile. It's a reminder that every nurse Sam has ever met, ever bonded with across his brother's wrecked body or ever watched his brother flirt with across his own injuries, has always been fucking reassuring, so warm, so compassionate, maybe because they know the writing is on the wall in big letters that say no chance, but just go through the motions for show or they'll sue. Her kindness cuts into his heart like condolences, and he has to bite his tongue so he doesn't tell her where she can stow her pity.

"We debrided it, cleared away the dead tissue and he's been lucky," she says. "There's no evidence of infection in the bone, so he should keep the foot. We just really need to keep him still, make sure he doesn't spasm… he could dislocate his shoulders or even fracture his vertebrae. Hopefully that shouldn't happen with him this deeply sedated, but we need to take precautions."

Bobby leans forward, waves to catch her eye. "How long is he expected to be here?"

"We're looking at a good while," the woman says. "It might be three or four weeks, even more, before we can get him breathing by himself and wean him off sedation, but when he comes round he won't be in any pain. He'll be weak, but he won't be hurting bar the odd twinge from his foot."

Sam can already count Dean's ribs, see his hips jutting up from pale blue scrub pants like the ones he's wearing. "He'll be hungry," he notes. "He hasn't eaten in a few days." He knows his voice is small and afraid, because it's his eight-year-old voice talking about his twelve-year-old brother lying there all broken in pieces and defenseless.

"He's pretty skinny as is," the nurse concedes. "I'm Mason, by the way – I guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other. We're tube feeding him – that's the line going into his abdomen, just there under the gauze. The nerve activity involved in tetanus burns a lot of calories, so he may still lose some muscle mass."

Three weeks, four. Maybe more. It'll be the longest Dean has ever been still. Sam wheels himself closer to the bed, rests his arm up next to Dean's, watching over his brother but not touching. It's all he can do not to put his hand over Dean's, not to hold onto him in the way he never gets to unless unconsciousness is in the equation, when it's him that needs the comfort of contact.

"You can hold his hand," Mason says suddenly. "I don't think it'll cause a spasm." She smiles again as Sam looks up at her mutely, winks as she turns to leave.

"You okay, boy?" Bobby says from behind Sam as she exits.

Sam's guts sting, his shoulders ache where he impacted with the walls of the root cellar, and his throat is bruised where Bender gripped it. He opens his mouth, almost says yes by rote, swallows it back down. "What do you think would be worse, Bobby," he asks instead, as he watches his brother's face. "Do you think it would be worse to actually see it happen or get a phone call, maybe months later because he had a fake ID on him when it happened?"

There's no answer, just the quiet whirr of machinery.

"Do you think it would be worse to hold onto him as it happens or have the morgue give me a baggie with his ring and his amulet in it, and ask me if they're his? Or maybe walk me to the deep freeze where they've had him on ice for weeks on end?" Sam looks over his shoulder, and Bobby's face is impassive. "That's my future," he says softly. "That's my future and his future." He looks back down at his hand, and he lays it over his brother's and grips it loosely.

"Is this you saying you're going back to school?" Bobby says, and Sam doesn't answer.

The quiet hangs over them like a pall for a moment before Bobby clears his throat. "I don't know what would be worse," he responds. "But I know I'd want to be there with him. Being there would make a difference. Even if it only meant he wasn't alone when it happened. Wouldn't you want him there with you? Wouldn't you want him to be able to go on knowing you weren't by yourself at the end?"

Sam wants to ask what kind of choice that is. He wants to yell that it isn't fucking fair, that he wants normal, that he wants the mother he never knew, that he wants to have sat at home wistfully watching his brother heading out to shoot hoops with his friends instead of parenting him, wants his dad to have hung a dreamcatcher over his bed and mixed up cologne and water in a spray bottle and told him it was monster repellent to squirt in the closet at bedtime, instead of giving him a gun. He wants his folks to have driven him to college, helped him carry his stuff to his dorm room, met his roommate, maybe one day met the girl he wanted to marry. Wants Dean to have fixed cars and found himself a good woman.

But he can't yell because he needs to be quiet for his brother, and he sucks it all back inside. Instead something else slips out, and he doesn't know why because he isn't even thinking about it. "What was your son's name?"

Bobby takes it in stride. "His name was Jacob," he says. "Jacob Robert Singer."

And maybe this is the reason why it came to Samm, he thinks, as Bobby's words in the pit echo around his mind. "I can't remember what my brother looks like living," he whispers. "I mean, really living."

"You will, son," the old man replies quietly. "You will."

"But he's so still. He's been hurt, hurt bad. But he's never been this still. He's never been not there." Sam drifts off for a minute watching Dean, jolts back to a tap on the shoulder.

"I said, what happened down there anyway?" Bobby prompts. "I came round just as Kathleen was dropping the ladder in. How did you light the place up?"

It had been crazed, Sam isn't really sure he can recall it all clearly but it's a distraction he can use, so he tries. "Kathleen found a bottle of moonshine and my lighter, threw them down to me. I torched the bones and pop went the weasel."

Bobby huffs. "What about the wendigo?"

Sam finds that he's savoring the moment. "Dean killed it with his ring."

Bobby gapes. "How the hell did he manage that?"

"Sunk his fist right in where you opened it up. Elbow deep, like he was freeing up the S bend, or birthing a cow, or fisting a—"

"I get the message, Sam. Jesus."

Sam manages a grin "It was fucking awesome, Bobby. Awesome."

"Boy's so sharp he'll cut his throat one of these days." Bobby stands up, stretches. "Will you be okay here for a while? I'm going to get a cab into Hibbing, pick up the car and find us a motel. I need to hack into Blue Cross and take his health insurance to the next level. Using it for drive-by stitches is one thing, but if he's in here for a month or more I'll need to lay down some background so we don't come unstuck. I'll be back in a couple of hours." He ruffles Sam's hair. "Make sure he don't go anywhere."

Mason walks in again as Bobby leaves, scribbles something on Dean's chart. "Lot of scars your brother has there," she comments. "Is he military?"

"No," Sam says mechanically. "Farming accident. He got sucked into a combine harvester. Forgot to switch it off first, leaned in, and bam."

It turns out the fact they don't see much tetanus in these parts or anywhere because of vaccination means that every morning when Sam arrives at the ICU there's a small battalion of fresh-faced interns clustered around the bed while McNeill hisses out words like pathogenesis, and clostridium tetani, and pre-synaptic acetylcholine at them. After two weeks of strange eyes, strange hands, and some really strange interns, Sam decides he's had it to here and tells her in no uncertain terms that his brother isn't an exhibit at her personal petting zoo.

"Since tetanus is so rare, many physicians have little experience with its serious complications and management," she intones grandly, and Sam stops her there.

"I like you Doctor McNeill, I really do," he says. "When my brother wakes up, he's going to like you too. More than you can possibly imagine. But since my brother is rare, and you don't have any experience with his serious complications and management, please stop using him for show and tell. Please."

She frowns. She's unconvinced, Sam can tell, so, "Look," he says. "My brother, he's pretty quiet, withdrawn." You fuckin' liar Sammy, he can hear in his head, and in there Dean's voice is heavy with admiration, respect, because lying is his brother's second language and if there's one thing he appreciates it's the ability to spin one like Nixon. "He guards his privacy," Sam adds, making his voice plaintive, and he gazes shyly down at her through puppy dog fuckin' eyes, bitch, that's cheating.

McNeill smiles, and her face lights up. "Okay, Sam. Point taken." She spins on her heel, walks towards the door.

"Wait a minute, Doc," Sam calls after her. He needs to know, he's thought about it since day one, scanned his brother's face for signs, stared at his closed eyelids for long moments. "Does he dream?" he says. "Does he dream when he's like this?"

She quirks her mouth. "Well, Sam, I can't tell you for sure. But he's under so deep I doubt it. I don't know much about dreams but I'm pretty sure we only have them in REM sleep and this is much deeper than that." She studies him for a minute, reads him, or so it seems. "This is peaceful sleep, Sam," she assures. "He won't be dreaming about anything that might have happened to him. I'm as sure as I can be about that."

Maybe it's the first peaceful, dreamless sleep his brother has had in twenty-three years, since they were set adrift on that night, and it's like Sam's own load suddenly lightens. He sits down as the woman leaves, leans up close to the monitor so the blue glow falls across the page of his book, ponders the weird anomaly of seeing Dean lying in a hospital bed, his expression serene even though he's as sick as he has ever been.

"Hey Dean," he says, quiet and easy. "Looking good, dude. Maybe it'll be time to wake up soon, huh? You've had so many antibiotics, I think your sweat must be medicinal by now. Feel better. Feel better, huh?"

He opens the book, finds where he left off, starts to read to his brother. "He hated to break the lovely stillness of dawn by using his voice but he couldn't think of any other way to locate the mysterious new friend who was nowhere to be seen, so Wilbur cleared his throat…"

Abbott Northwestern is vast, thronging, worse than O'Hehir. Bobby has never been around this many people, which means he can't help doing the odds and working out that there's bound to be at least one demon on the premises.

His gas station bouquet is pathetic by comparison to the roses, roses, and more roses sprouting from every flat surface in Hudak's room, and he blows a layer of traffic dust off the unhappy looking generic blooms before he makes his presence known, hovering in the doorway, cap in hand.

"Who are you?" Hudak says distantly. "Another person I used to know before I hit my head?"

Bobby gapes and she waits a few seconds before smirking.

"I'm joking, Bobby."

"Well it isn't funny," he chastises as he pulls up a chair. "How's the head?"

"Pretty okay, albeit shaved," she reports. "Looks like it does when you get your cat neutered." She smiles faintly. "But still, having my brain makes up for it, I guess. It was a small bleed. I'm alert, my memory's fine and I haven't been confused at all. I may not develop post-traumatic epilepsy, but on the other hand… Overall, I'm lucky." Her voice catches in her throat. "So lucky it makes me feel sick to think that I might have been unlucky."

"Yeah," Bobby mutters. "Me too."

"So. Guess I let you down out there," she starts. "Booth tells me they found you right after I nosedived."

Bobby snorts. "Let us down the hell. You went above and beyond, have done since the day you met the boys. And I need to tell you I'm sorry. Near bit your head off out there, and it was uncalled for. If I'd known…"

Hudak wriggles up higher in the bed. "We were all under pressure," she recalls. "We were worried. All of us." She's casting nervous glances at Bobby, eyes flicking back and forth. "So… is he doing any better?"

Bobby nods. "He's been pretty sick. He's still being ventilated and they have him in a medical coma for the spasms. But he's past the worst of it and the doc says she might even have a go at bringing him out of it in a day or so."

"Three weeks," Hudak marvels. "How's Sam been coping with that?"

Grimacing at the reminder, Bobby says, "He was pretty skippy at first, but you know I think he values the peace and quiet."

"Ouch. Did you mean it to sound that way?" Hudak asks, lifting a sarcastic eyebrow, and Bobby grins.

"No, in fact I did not," he concedes. "What I mean is he values the fact Dean's getting some peace and quiet. He called me just now, tells me the doc said Dean can't dream because of the drugs, that he's peaceful." He pauses a beat, finds the thought is a comfort. "Means a lot to him that his brother's resting free of all of this."

Hudak smiles. "Yeah. It is a good feeling to know that."

"So, you're doing pretty okay then," Bobby ventures. "Think this'll affect you in the job at all?"

"No clue. Depends on what happens over the next few months… they tell me seizures are a possibility. The further along that happens, the more likely epilepsy is, which might be a problem." She shrugs. "Guess I'll drive off that bridge when I get to it. There are drugs. Hopefully I won't end up riding a desk."

She chews her lip for a minute, seems lost in thought, and Bobby glances at the roses. "Pretty flowers," he offers.

"Yeah, I think my ex is finally apologizing after all these years," Hudak says wryly.

They sit quietly for a moment before Bobby speaks again. "I'm assuming you spoke to the Feds then? They pulled their guys off Dean's room a couple of days back."

She nods. "Booth was pretty interested to know how Bender was still walking around when he was eight weeks dead." She huffs out as his face falls. "Don't ask me how, but they identified him."

"And what did you tell him?" Bobby sputters.

"Booth had one fairly grainy photo of Bender, and I just told him it wasn't the guy who threw us in the pit," she says with a grin. "I told him I never got a really good look at Lee first time round, so that's why I thought it was him at first – and that the fact he'd told me he thought Lee was out there played into me just hazarding a guess, really. And that the head injury must've confused me. He seems convinced."

That's so much better than Bobby hoped for that he can't help smacking his clenched fist down on his thigh in triumph. "So they think it's some other guy?"

"Yep. And that he killed Bender and dumped him down there. So we're in the clear. They'll search for a while longer and then just wait for more hikers to disappear. Which they won't, so all's well."

She smirks, self-satisfied, and Bobby chuckles. "I'll give you that one," he says. "You have your moments, Kathleen. You sure as hell do."

She smiles, lifts something off the nightstand to her right. "They have me doing things that involve concentration," she says. "Poker? For money?"

"You're on."

V-day is what Mason calls it, and Sam hovers nervously as they remove the tube. "We'll start weaning him off the sedatives now," she smiles, and it's funny but now when she curls her mouth it comforts Sam.

Day one of the rest of his brother's life is what he calls it, as Dean starts breathing on his own. The silence is deafening without the thrum of the ventilator and Sam sits, watches, ever-alert, his eyes glued to Dean's chest rising and falling under its own steam for the first time in almost a month. He listens to every single breath, counts them, twelve breaths per minute, give or take. That's seven hundred and twenty breaths an hour, he calculates, seventeen thousand, two hundred and eighty breaths a day.

After fifty one thousand, eight hundred and forty breaths, Dean opens his eyes.

He doesn't talk and his eyes are glassy and empty. Mostly they gaze blankly into space, but sometimes Sam sees them follow him around the room the way he remembers the eyes in Bobby's RFK in 68 campaign poster always used to when they were kids. Dean doesn't move except to shift his hands from time to time, and when he does that Sam tenses, waits for them to flex and clench, waits for alarms to sound, but Dean just scrapes and picks at the sheets.

"He's still real weak," the physical therapist call me Abbey, cause you know what, hon? That's my name!, tells Sam when she stops by to do his brother's rehab. "I read up on it. Lockjaw takes a lot out of a body, clenches it up inside. Like this." She fists her hand so tight Sam can see it shake slightly, her eyes spark bright blue at him behind her glasses, and she even bares her teeth in a silent growl though Sam doesn't think she's aware of it.

Watching her minister to his brother is hypnotic. She hums under her breath, stray locks of that reddish-blond hair chicks like to call strawberry come loose, and her glasses slip slowly down her nose when she leans over the bed, so that she has to push them back up every few minutes. It's like a dance, Sam fancies, as she stretches Dean's limbs, laces her fingers through his and circles his arms at the shoulder, smoothes her fingers up and down them, rubs the muscles back to life. She rolls him onto his side and drives the heel of her hand up his spine, long, slow, reverent strokes, runs her hands up the full length of his legs, bends them at the knee and circles them at the hip, kneads into his thighs, with her fingers, knuckles, palms.

Her concentration speaks of care, and on the one hand her worship of his brother's body is uncomfortably erotic; but on the other, it's utterly detached, a job of work, and for some reason it reminds Sam of Dean's hands cleaning the guns, how his brother's eyes gleam with appreciation at perfectly balanced sights and mechanisms, while his hands are economical, efficient, practical.

Abbey never mentions Dean's scars, and Sam is pathetically grateful that she can work on his brother's hide without comment, that she sees past the damage. She only clucks over reddish patches on Dean's shoulders and hips at the back there, and tells Sam to show them to the nurses, reminds Sam to make sure the bottom sheet is stretched good and smooth underneath Dean, because creases will turn those red patches into pressure sores, advises him to bring pillows for his brother's heels to rest on, and to change his position every hour.

She's there on the dot of 10am and 4pm every day, and Sam could swear Dean is lapping it all up, smirking at him with his eyes even though his features are lax.

After one hundred three thousand six hundred and eighty breaths, Dean looks at Sam and sees him. He frowns lazily, and then he moves his lips.

Sam surges up out of his chair, his book falling to the floor, leans down close. "What?" he says frantically. "Dean. What? Tell me?"

Dean's voice is a distant hoarse whisper, a burnt toast voice slowly creaking up out of his throat over long seconds. "Who am I…?"

And Sam barks out a high-pitched lunatic giggle of relief, joy. "You're John… John Denver…"

Eyes widening, Dean manages a scowl. "John f'kn' D'nver? F'kn… pr'k."

It's a brief glimpse of lucidity. Dean mumbles incoherently every now and then for the rest of the day, and even though his eyes look more alert, he's wary. Some time after midnight he regains the use of his vocal cords and screams himself into a wild-eyed, sweat-soaked, shivering wreck, pulling mindlessly at drips, flailing his arms so that blood spatters across Sam's face from where the butterfly needle tears out of his skin. He erupts out of the bed and rolls himself across the floor in a frenzy of terror that has McNeill yelling for security. Sam is pushed aside as thickset men in uniform wrestle his brother, who is alternately hollering and sobbing out pleas that make it abundantly clear exactly what he's afraid of, back onto the bed while McNeill readies a syringe and buries it in Dean's arm.

Dean's pleas are quieter but no less desperate as he drifts away and McNeill fixes Sam with an icy stare, motions him outside into the hallway.

"Is there anything more you need to tell me about your brother's injuries, Sam?" she asks, and her tone is so sharp Sam reckons it could cut firewood. "And you can cut the macho bullcrap because if he was attacked in the way he seemed to be indicating, we need to—"

"It was a long time ago," Sam cuts in. "You don't need to. It was a long time ago. This guy in the woods, he looked like the guy who did it. It just – brought it all back, I guess."

McNeill looks at him for a long, endless moment, her eyes searching his face for some sign he's feeding her a line. "Has he had an HIV test?" she queries finally.

"Yes, negative," Sam mutters. "He's fine. He's been through a lot. But he'll be fine. He just has the odd bad dream."

McNeill shakes her head in annoyance. "These are things we need to know now that your brother isn't under sedation," she reproves. "He's lucky he didn't get hurt, weak as he is."

Sam stares at his sneakers, mute, doesn't know what to say.

"Did he get any help?" the woman follows up, kinder now. "Counseling?"

Sam snorts. "He's not exactly the sharing type."

Frowning, McNeill notes, "Well, that was pretty strong stuff in there. Maybe you should try and persuade him, huh?"

Nodding at her Sam trots out the lie. "I will."

Dean wakes with a dull, stuffed head, tries to sit up and fails miserably, sinking back onto the pillows. But it turns out helplessness has its perks, and he's more than happy to have I'm Mason and her minion, this is Dixon, lean over him and heave him up with that sturdy strength all nurses possess, rock-hard biceps brushing his cheeks so he can lean in and inhale Secret Platinum Strength or whatever the heck it is they wear.

And so Dean spends the next hour or so sliding himself back down the bed, pressing the call button and feebly asking whichever of them turns up to pull him up again, injecting just the right note of embarrassed apology into his voice, glancing up shyly, blinking slowly, fluttering his eyelashes. And they're smitten, like they always are, and they lean over him again, and if he sniffs hard enough there it is: faint underlying sweat that has him practically panting, because it turns out that now he's up and at it, he's sure as hell up and at it. And there's nothing like that faint underlying scent of real women, women with needs, women with flesh that he can sink his fingertips into, suck into his mouth, women with parts that jiggle when they aren't really supposed to but they're so secure in themselves they don't care, women who don't constantly ask if their ass looks big in this, and hell yeah, if he's honest, it's older women, fuck-me boots, and the way they—

"How does a sponge bath sound, John?" Mason trills.

Dean is almost certain that when he says, "Sounds damn great," he trills too.

"I'll bet you're desperate to get cleaned up," she remarks obliviously.

"Desperate," Dean echoes her, faintly and, well, desperately.

"We've been topping and tailing you all these weeks, didn't want to set you off," she chatters, and Jesus, she brought the water, towels, and Dean doesn't even have time to go to the safe place, she's folding down the sheet, tilting him on his side, laying a towel there.

"Topping and tailing?" he croaks. "Set me off?"

"Even a slight touch can set of spasms with tetanus," she confirms, and God help him but she's dipping the cloth in the water, wringing it out. Spasms, Christ, and Dean focuses on spasms, pain, woods, trees, bushes, root cellars, monsters, angry spirits.

"We'll start at the top," Mason decides. "I'll need to roll you over on your side to do your back, and then I'll work down. Need to get into all the creases."

"Uh," Dean whispers. "Creases…?"

"Yep, and then we'll do the bottom half."

Bottom half.

In Dean's brain, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is singing the Hallelujah Chorus, only they're singing Hallefuckin'lujah. And Jesus, wet cloth describing soapy figure-eights all over his neck, chest, pits, arms, and Mason stares hard as she washes between each finger, and holy crap, that means she's going to do the exact same thing to his fuckin' toes. And then she's wiping his belly, and warm water trickles down, before she rolls him, starts languidly passing the newly moistened cloth across his shoulders, across, around, down, to the small of his back, and then she tugs the scrub pants down, and Holy Mary, mother of God, Dean realizes that is what she meant when she said creases—

"How do you feel this morning, John?"

"No I wasn't!"

Dean bleats it out, squawks it in fact, at a vaguely recognizable blond who popped up so unexpectedly he's full sure she teleported in.

"Mason, think you can finish up later?"

No! No, no, no-the-fuck-no!

Doctor McNeill we met last night, John, though you might not remember is immune to him, it seems, though it doesn't stop Dean's eyes crossing as she leans over him, her blouse gaping just slightly between her breasts, so that he gets an eyeful of flesh, and fuck, lace with a rose appliquéd in the center. And thank you, God, he crows inwardly, because that thing is lifting and separating just for him at this moment in time.

"Lean forward, John."

"Fuck yes," Dean breathes, and Jesus, he's going in, and he may be some time, might even need a goddamn snorkel because that's a hell of a—

"Okay, you can lie back now."

"No!" he squeaks.

McNeill tenses. "I'm sorry, John, what was that?"

"No…" Dean clears his throat, manages to wrestle it back down into something vaguely male, though it's still high enough that he sounds like one of those Ancient Roman guys who had their balls cut off and spent the rest of their lives putting grapes in Julius Caesar's mouth, unicorns, whateverthefuck, no, eunuchs. "No sign of, uh, my brother yet I suppose?" he covers.

McNeill glances at her wristwatch. "Perhaps he's catching up on some sleep," she remarks. "He's been burning the midnight oil here, even spent a few nights in the chair."

She studies his chart, clucks her tongue off the roof of her mouth, looks up. "You've been quite unwell this last month, John," she says brightly. "Your foot was badly infected, tetanus in fact. But you were lucky, it wasn't as severe as it could have been. Though of course, with vaccination this could all have been avoided."

Dean gapes at her. "A month? I've been here a month?"

She nods. "Give or take. We had you heavily sedated until a few days ago, to control the spasms."

"Spasms…" Dean blinks hard, has this dim memory of Bobby gripping him tight, of rigid joints, bone-snapping pain, the feeling giant hands were holding onto him at either end and wringing the life out of him like water from a washcloth.

"Now. About last night, John," McNeill continues, and Dean scowls, because her voice is all dread mixed with thrilled, the way a terminally sick man pronounces the name of his disease. "Do you remember your nightmare? Some of the things you said suggested that you might have been assaul—"

"Stop there," he yelps, but horror swells suddenly in his throat and he thinks it must show in his face, because he sees her narrow her eyes. "It was a long time ago," he mutters. "I'm over it."

"I can arrange a psych consult," she says. "Some counseling."

He almost laughs out loud, and it's on the tip of his tongue to tell her that any shrink that gets him on her couch will be running screaming from the building within five minutes. "I'm fine," he insists. "It was a long time ago. All this, this, getting beat up on… just brought it back is all. I mixed it all up in my head."

She stares at him again for a minute, a look that drills into him. "Any pain, John?"

Moving on, and Dean sighs out his relief so vehemently the subsequent lack of oxygen makes him feel spaced out and dizzy. "No. But. I feel so fuc—freakin' tired," he reports, because she's the damn doctor and she's supposed to fix him, but also because he really is jaded, drained, fed up. "My arms, hands…" He looks down at them slumped by his sides, hands palm up, fingers curled up just slightly. "I'm so tired I can't even twitch my fingers. I'm telling my pinky to twitch right now…" He flares his nostrils, stares at the digit for emphasis. "And bupkis."

She smiles, fondly if he isn't much mistaken. "It's only been a few days since you came round, John, and you've been very ill. Seriously ill. You've lost muscle mass and condition… tube feeding can't keep up with this illness. We'll be starting you on soup today, maybe some jello, work up to solids over the next couple of days, small frequent meals."

"Hospital freakin' food," Dean glowers. "That should be against the Geneva Convention."

McNeill hooks his chart back on the end of the bed. "I'll mark you down for extra jello," she says as she clicks away on her heels.

"Chocolate," Dean calls after her hopefully. "And can I get a burger with that?"

Drifting back to consciousness a few hours later, Dean opens his eyes again to see Bobby parked in the chair next to his bed.

Bobby beams at him. "Good to see you, boy. Real good."

And Dean finds he can't answer, can't squeeze the words past the lump in his throat, so he just lies there for a minute, meets the old man's gaze and smiles, until Bobby clears his throat and looks away.

"Food," Dean manages to force out then. "Did you bring food?"

Bobby's eyes snap back to his, wide and more than a little freaked.

"S'matter?" Dean fishes. "Bobby?"

The old man makes a face. "Just. Reminded me of waking up in the root cellar. That other cop was there, Kathleen's friend. She kept asking me for food, if I brought food." He rubs his jaw. "Haven't really thought about it all that much while you've been here."

Dean shifts a tad, because that's all he can manage. "Counseling," he says.

Bobby looks up, questioning.

"Counseling," Dean repeats tiredly. "Maybe you need counseling. Or a psych consult."

Bobby's no fool. "You mean the Doc told you a psych consult or counseling might help you," he says shrewdly.

He never could really hide much from Bobby, not ever, after all these years of care and love. "I, uh. Had a nightmare," Dean says softly. "A 747 at maximum thrust nightmare. So they tell me. I don't really remember it. But, uh, apparently some things became clear. To them. About what Bender did back then. So…"

"Your brother told me," Bobby says placidly. He taps his hand on his thigh a couple or three times. "Psych consult," he muses thoughtfully. "Might be a good idea, son. When you think about it." He's careful, picks his way through the sentence like he's hopping from rock to rock across a stream. "Might help you to, uh, think it all through and come to terms, maybe—"

"No," Dean mutters. "I said no. I'm not telling some shrink that, I just—" He has to stop to catch his breath. "What the fuck is the point? Nothing is ever going to make it better, Bobby. Nothing is ever going to make it go away. I want it to be in the past now. I want to move on."

Bobby studies him for a minute. "Think you can?" he inquires bluntly. "Move on? Wasn't moving on supposed to be what you were doing before, when you were drinking yourself into oblivion every day and shooting my dogs?"

Dean feels his face grow hot. "But I think I can this time," he says earnestly. "Last time… it's like even though Lee was dead, I never got away from him. But this time – I did. I fought that sonofabitch, took that piece of myself back. Told the fucker… I told him." He smiles weakly. "You should've heard me, Bobby. You'd have been proud of me."

The old man's eyes go shiny for a second. "I've always been proud of you, boy," he says gruffly. "Always. Always will be."

Sam is power walking along the hallway, his jacket wrapped tight around the gift, nodding innocently at nurses. He has a close escape as McNeill hails him and then gets distracted by the inefficiency, ineptitude and lack of initiative in this damned department!, skids around the corner and into his brother's room.

"I got something for you," he announces, and then his heart sinks at the stifled sounds of a nightmare, heaving breaths, quiet whimpers of fright seeping out from behind the screen surrounding his brother's bed.

He drops his duffel, closes the door over, can damn well do without McNeill calling in the cavalry, can damn well do without a setback that will have Dean doped to the eyeballs and staring at him in bewildered confusion again on the day he's supposed to be walking out of here. He pulls back the screen, and—

"Fuck! Sam! What the fuck?"

Nurse Dixon springs off his brother like Dean just shoved a firecracker up her and Sam wonders for a minute if that might be exactly what did happen as she blushes a furious red and rams her arms back through the sleeves of her scrub top.

"Jesus, Sam, you nearly gave me another fuckin' heart attack," Dean barks. "Warn a guy for Christ's sake, announce yourself or knock, or something."

Sam squints, furrows his brow. "Dean. What's that all over your face? And your chest?"

Dean doesn't even blush. "Chocolate jello, fucktard. And if you hadn't just cockblocked me yet again, I was about to lick it off her—"

Sam spins, almost overbalances. "Wait! Nurse Dixon! You've got chocolate handprints on your…"

The woman doesn't let the door hit her ass on the way out and Sam briefly wonders how she's going to navigate her way past McNeill to the staff lounge before Dean starts sniffing loudly.

Sam pulls the bag out of his jacket, holds it up. "Double bacon cheeseburger and fries. I supersized it."

Dean's face splits in a grin. "Christ, Sammy. You're like a brother to me sometimes, I swear it…"

Dean is wide-eyed as he wraps his chops around the sandwich, grease leaves a shiny trail down his chin, and he chews so noisily he sounds like a cow pulling its hoof out of mud, slurps like the wendigo, in fact, and Sam says as much.

"You sound like the wendigo."

Raising a quizzical eyebrow, Dean rams a handful of fries into his mouth.

"When it ate," Sam clarifies. "The wendigo. You sound like it. Family trait, maybe."

Dean gulps the mouthful down, wipes his chin with the back of his hand. "Bitch," he retorts. "You got my clothes?"

Sam nods, gestures at the duffel he abandoned just inside the door so he could pin his brother to the bed before the explosion.

"Freedom at last," Dean marvels. "Can't fuckin' believe it. Bobby get off okay?"

"Yeah," Sam confirms. "Told him we'd be there tomorrow, probably, late afternoon."

Dean shakes his head. "Not so fast, boy wonder. There's something I need to get out of the way first, so we'll need to make a pitstop, might take a few hours so—"

"I spoke to her actually, said you might drop by," Sam interrupts. "She's doing pretty good, no headaches and she said she—"

"World's largest ball of twine," Dean jumps in abruptly. "It's in Darwin. It's a must-see. Nurse Dixon said so. Thought we'd head out there first thing after we pack up. Maybe hit the Spam Museum too. Austin. It'll mean taking the scenic route, but it's not too far out of the way."

"But I thought you'd want to—" Sam starts, only to be cut off again.

"Break in my new boots? Damn right. Spam Museum's the perfect place." Dean cackles. "Spam, spam, lovely spam. Wonderful spam."

And Sam knows this, knows it from old. This is his brother detaching himself, shaking the dust off his boots, onward motion, straight ahead, because Dean is like a shark, has to keep moving forward or he'll sink into the black, bottomless depths of this ocean and die, and he leaves a swirling trail of missed connections and one-nighters in his wake. And for some weird reason it makes Sam think of Jess, of that connection he made, and he wonders if Dean will ever have that, thinks maybe his brother never really had it with that Cassie chick despite the fact he told her what he did, because Sam knows damn well that when you find it, you don't walk away from it.

"You and Kathleen," Sam begins carefully. "Well. You seemed to. Get along. Well. I mean. What I mean to say is that, uh…"

"Bring it home, Sammy," his brother replies acidly. "Use your words."

"That thing," Sam says awkwardly. "You know how it… that whole replaying loop it had going? It replayed… something. In the root cellar."

Dean stares at him blankly.

"You were pretty out of it," Sam stumbles on. "But it sounded like you and Kathleen had, were… that you got along. Well." He's looking Dean right in the eye. "Really well."

Dean scratches his chin, releases a leisurely exhale. "Not fifteen minutes ago, Sammy, Nurse Dixon was licking chocolate jello off my nipples," he says. "And I was planning on doing the same for her. I'd say that's proof positive Hudak isn't exactly my wonderwall, wouldn't you?" He hmmphhs in emphasis, raises his eyebrows, and rams in another handful of fries.

Sam eases back in the chair, rests his sneakers up on the bed, laces his fingers together and rests his hands on his belt buckle, hums softly to himself, counts down. Ten. Nine. Eight. Sev—

"Anyway, she's better off without us," Dean snaps out suddenly, in between chewing. "We brought her nothing but trouble, both fuckin' times, nearly got her killed."

Six. Five. F—

"She could have lost her job. She still could, Bobby says this head-bleeding thing could end up giving her epilepsy. They drilled a fuckin' hole in her skull, for Christ's sake." Dean sounds indignant now, the tone he always uses when he's trying to kid himself. "Anyway. I heard her say it, Sam, after that thing dragged you out of there and she thought I was sleeping. She said she wished she'd never met us, and she's damned right because we're nothing but trouble. So I say we get on our way, and leave the woman in peace. Capische?"

Sam considers it all. "So you're not even going to stop by and thank her?"

"I'm not doing this with you," Dean insists.

It has a note of finality that sounds pretty convincing, so what the hell, Sam fires another salvo. "Bobby and I had a lot of time to talk down there in that root cellar. He said maybe some part of you doesn't want this life, wouldn't have chosen it, and that—"

"Well of course I wouldn't have fuckin' chosen it," Dean interjects crabbily. "Jesus. But that doesn't mean I don't want it." His tone softens. "We do good things. We save people. We make a difference."

"And that's enough?" Sam pushes.

Dean looks at him, steady, intense. "Yes it is. It is enough."

"But you said you had dreams," Sam reminds him softly. "Dreams that weren't this."

"Had," his brother replies. "Had. Not have, Sam. This is what I do, and what I am. I don't think beyond it, or look beyond it, or want beyond it. This is how it is for me." His eyes narrow for a second, grow suspicious. "Is this you, Sam?" he adds sourly. "Is this you walking? Is that what this is? Don't turn it into me if it's you."

Sam sighs out a deep exhale, shakes his head. "No, it isn't me walking, Dean. Family business, remember?"

But in his head, he thinks he doesn't want to live this life forever.

Dean looks blearily at his wristwatch. It's seven-thirty in the morning, and the world's largest ball of twine is a few hundred miles in the opposite direction, because he pulled on his jeans and new boots, snuck out of the motel room, and drove all the way back into Hibbing after leaving a hastily scribbled note, gone out, back soon, for his brother.

He's plowing a furrow on Hudak's porch, rubbing his hand across his brow, down to his jaw and back again, because he's nervous. He feels like he's taking a leap into the unknown, doesn't know what the fuck he's doing or why he's even here if he's honest, does know that if his smarticles were fully functioning he'd still be tucked up in bed heckling his brother forcoffee, bitch, now.

"Can I help you at all?"

Dean almost jumps out of his skin, whirls to see a guy wearing a toweling robe leaning on the doorjamb. He's mute for about thirty seconds, then, "Um. I was lookin' for Kathleen. I'm a friend…" He swallows. "I heard she was in an accident…"

The man's gaze is flinty, suspicious. "She's not long out of hospital, pretty worn out. She's still asleep… I'd just as soon not wake her."

It doesn't matter. Dean is already backing away, stepping down onto the path. "That's okay, that's fine," he races out. "As long as she's okay. I just. Just wanted to make sure…" He starts down the driveway, and the guy calls after him.

"Can I say who called?"

Dean stops, turns. "Sam. Tell her Sam Winchester stopped by."

The man nods. "Hey, come back later. She should be up and about…"

Dean smiles, nods. He walks away as the door closes on him.

It's over, Sam thinks, as the big car eats up the miles and the last few buildings dotting the road out of town dwindle to specks in the rearview mirror.

"It's over," he says out loud, just to make it definite. "It's really over."

Dean glances across from staring idly out the shotgun window. "It's over," he agrees quietly, and they sit in easy silence for a few moments. "Anything interesting on the world wide web?" Dean asks then, as he gazes out at the treeline speeding by.

"Woman murdered in Chicago inside a locked room," Sam recalls from his latest research session. "Middle-aged guy turned up the same way last month. Bodies mutilated, sounds pretty ritualistic. They're calling the unsub the Stealth Killer."

Dean blows out, thoughtful. "We should check it out after we stop by Bobby's."

"You sure you're up to it?" Sam says doubtfully. "Three weeks ago you were in a medically induced coma with a potentially fatal disease."

"I'm up to it. Got to get back on the horse Sammy. And ride 'em cowboy." Dean yawns, stretches.

"We could stay for a while, you know," Sam blurts out abruptly.

Dean casts a look at him, seems perplexed. "Why the fuck would we want to do that?"

Sam chews the inside of his cheek for a moment. "Don't you ever think about staying somewhere forever?" he says then. "Don't you ever want boring, and mundane, and everyday? Don't you want to read the newspaper and walk the dog and mow the grass? Don't you ever think about making an honest living, and complaining about the boss, maybe having a drink after work with the guys?" He hazards a look and Dean is staring ahead, eyes fixed firmly on the road. "Dean. Don't you ever think about pushing your kids on the swings? About real life? About normal?"

Dean's voice is dead flat when he replies. "No, Sam. I never think about those things."

"Dean. Come on, I know—"

Sam reacts instinctively, slams the brakes on, and the car screams to a halt, veering half off the road, tires tearing a groove on the blacktop.

Dean yelps as he's flung forward, reaches out to brace with his hands before he hits the dash, squeaks out a faint fucking-fuck as he instinctively jams his feet down into the footwell. "Christ. Foot. Christ."

But Sam is already tumbling out of the car, falling on his hands and knees and pushing up, and he lurches along the side of the car, staring back down the road where it curves over the hill, heavily forested now they're a few miles out of Hibbing. He can feel his breakfast coming back at him because he knows he wasn't imagining the figure he saw flicker into view in the rearview mirror.

"What the fuck?" Dean snaps from behind Sam, and he looks back to see that Dean is limping up beside him.

Sam glances from his brother back down the road, empty now, and his guts do a slow, deep roll inside him that tells him he's about to hurl. Sure enough he does, twisting and retching hard into the grass.

"Jesus," Dean mutters, and he retreats, but a minute later he's back, handing Sam a handful of Kleenex and a bottle of water.

"Get back in the car, Dean," Sam barks between spits, and he wipes furiously at his face, strides back to the Impala, his brother trailing in his wake.

"Are you sick?" Dean presses. "Sam?"

"I'm fine," Sam insists. "Something didn't agree with me but I'm good now. Come on, we're leaving."

Dean frowns at him as he gets in the car. "Better out than in," he announces, as Sam maneuvers the car back onto the road.

"Yep," Sam says tightly, as he floors the gas.

Dean throws a few more curious glances in Sam's direction before his head starts to cant and loll, and he finally slumps against the shotgun window. And Sam breathes deep, in, out, rolls his shoulders, forces himself to watch the white lines the car vacuums up as it purrs along, and tells himself his eyes are playing tricks on him.

Back aways, the air crackles then goes hazy, and it flickers into phase again.

And then the big man turns and walks back into the woods.

The End

Thank you for reading… you may also want to consider reading the third story in this 'verse: Never Come Back…