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Title: On the Surface
Show: Supernatural
Author: [info]gaelicspirit
Genre: GEN
Characters: Dean, Sam
Rating: PG-13 for language
Spoilers: Set in Season 2 dove-tailing the end of Episode 2.12, Nightshifter. If you're just joining the fun, spoilers up to then.
Summary: On the run from the FBI, the brothers are sidelined by a snowstorm and find themselves at the mercy of a sheltered town filled with secrets. Staying alive means staying together as they fight to stay on the surface.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity.
A/N: This author's note is ridiculously long. Apologies up front.

We've come to the final chapter! Thank you all so much for returning to finish out the story with me; the hunt may have been over, but the story wasn't complete. At least not for me. Those of you who wanted to wait until the story was done (assuming you came back *smiles*) I hope the wait was worth it. A special thank you to those of you who took time to leave me a review or comment; your words are gold to me and a reward for the time spent working out this story.

There are always people who help us reach our destinations. My wonderful friend thruterryseyes has patiently provided a sanity check for each chapter—often times reading 50 pages in a few hours to help me meet self-imposed deadlines. Not only that, but she's created beautiful posters for each chapter. I'll be setting up a Master Post so that each piece of art is captured and can be enjoyed. Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us, Terry.

This story was written because one person knew I needed to do it. She claimed it was for her—that she wanted to request a story from one of the earlier seasons—but I think it was really because she knew I needed one more long story fix. Caroline, you are a brilliant writer, gorgeous person, and dear friend. You have done amazing things so far in your life and I know you will make the world more beautiful through your current efforts. Thank you for poking me into writing one more long fic. And thank you for allowing me to follow my muse.

With that extra bit of rambling, I give you the final chapter—a way for me to bridge the gap between impact and meaning when it comes to pain. I've talked to many of you about why we like to put our heroes through these trials by fire and the thing that I've come to realize is that—for me—it's simply seeing them heroically emerge on the other side. Changed, scarred, damaged to varying extents, but still standing.

I can do nothing to stop the pain many of the people in my real life feel, but in this world, through these characters, I can create it, experience it, survive it, and end it.

I hope you enjoy.


 

 

And I understand
These winds and tides
This change of times
Won't drag you away
Hold on, and hold on tightly
Hold on, and don't let go

~ Drowning Man by U2

www

The Impala was a heavy machine.

Her powerful Chevy motor had carried them across endless miles of road. She'd been broken and rebuilt, offered them shelter and protection, and had stood her ground as the one constant in their lives.

And Dean could sense all of that coming to an end.

He felt her floating across the pavement, the grip of his hands doing little to assuage the panic shaking through him as she lost traction for a moment before cleaving once more to the road. Everything that mattered was in this car with him, in this moment with him.

Everything.

The blare of sirens beating in time with the red and blue flashing lights glinting off the rear- and side-view mirrors tattooed their fate across his vision: Hendrickson had found them and this time they weren't slipping away. He didn't dare tear his gaze from the road ahead of him to look askance at Sam, though he wanted to. He had so many things he needed to say.

We tried.

You did good.

I'm sorry.

Ahead of him were two police cars creating a blockade and several officers with weapons drawn positioned behind it; behind him were two more police cars, gaining quickly. He'd tried to out-run them; banking on the power of the Impala to slip free of this net, needing her to be the good-luck charm she'd been so many times before.

But their luck had run out.

The Impala's tires hit the speed spikes that had apparently been rolled out as a deterrent to continue the chase. Dean gripped the wheel tighter, an automatic reaction and a desperate attempt to keep them on the road and in one piece. But the laws of physics were too great even for a Winchester to combat.

He felt the car kick sideways, rolling to her passenger side and sending him slamming against Sam, crushing his brother against the door. His equilibrium toyed with his vision as they rolled, gravity becoming irrelevant. Arms flopped, legs collided, back hit chest and chest smacked dashboard as the Impala continued to roll.

Dean lost his air, unable to draw it back again as the world spun in slow-motion around him. When the car came to a rest—on her roof—the engine was still revving, unwilling to give up, unwilling to give in.

Everything hurt; he couldn't move, he couldn't blink, he couldn't breathe.

His eyes desperately searched for Sam—needing to see him before they came, before they pulled him away and ended this life forever. He tried to turn his head, but felt trapped, pinned. He reached out with his left hand—the only thing he could manage to move—and willed Sam to reach back.

He'd know it was Sam and not someone else coming to take him away. He'd know.

"Dean."

He heard him, then. Sam was alive. And near. He stretched his hand, wanting to order his brother to grab it—pull him free. Get them out of this. Escape one last time.

But he couldn't speak.

"Dean!"

I'm here, Sammy. See me? I'm right here.

"Hey, c'mon, man. Open your eyes."

He hadn't realized they were closed. Obeying, he opened them and blinked in confusion. He was in the Impala, but she was upright, intact, and still. No desperately revving motor, no crushed interior.

Just daylight, Sam…and pain.

Dean blinked again, rolling his eyes down to his chest where he felt the most pressure. Sam had one hand resting lightly there, not enough to cause the wicked stab of pain he felt cutting across his ribs, preventing him from taking a full breath. Sam's other hand was gripping Dean's left, both sets of knuckles white from the hold they had on each other.

"Easy," Sam said, his voice low, gentle, as if talking to a wounded animal.

Dean swallowed, working to take in air, finding that simple, automatic task terrifyingly difficult. He turned to meet his brother's eyes, slightly shocked to see how battered Sam's face was. Confused, disoriented, and weaker than he could remember being in a long time, Dean fought to draw words to the surface, searching for reason in the chaos of sensations.

"You were dreaming," Sam supplied at the behest of Dean's wordless croak. "From the sound of it…pretty nasty one."

Dreaming.

Dean continued to blink at his brother, trying to weave together meaning. The police barricade, Hendrickson finding them—none of it was real. They hadn't rolled the Impala, they hadn't crashed…but then why did he hurt so much? And why was he freezing?

"I had to pull over," Sam continued. "We're only like an hour and a half out of Lethe, but…."

Sam pulled his hand away from Dean's chest and Dean nearly tipped forward into the space it had occupied. Slowly, Dean released his grip on Sam's hand, retracting it with uncertainty. He felt off-balance, too-light. As if without Sam anchoring him, he'd slide off the Impala's seat and into nothing. He took the bottle of water Sam offered and cooled the fire in his throat.

Reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose, Sam sighed. "I couldn't get you to wake up," he told Dean; his eyes closed, his voice dampened with weariness. "And I need some aspirin."

"Wh—" Dean tried, but was forced to stop, the stabbing in his chest choked off by the unbelievable urge to cough. He instinctively worked to resist, but his body betrayed him. Shoulders shaking, eyes streaming tears, he bent over, catching himself against the seat with his elbow, unable to breathe.

Sam's hand was on his back, not moving, just a weight of familiarity grounding him as the world came painfully back into focus, memory returning with jagged claws that ripped up through his throat, tearing his insides apart. He was suddenly burning up, heat rocketing through him and burning the backs of his eyes. He took a slow, shuddering breath, wiping the tang of blood from his mouth with the back of a shaking hand before forcing himself upright to sag against the passenger door.

He remembered now. All of it. The snow storm, the lake, the darkness….

And for a moment, he almost wished they were in the dream. For a moment, he simply wanted it all to be over.

"You okay?" Sam asked, peering at him through hooded eyes.

Sam was hurting; Dean could see that much even with the fever he felt burning through him, confusing him, and sending him spiraling into too-realistic dreams. Sam held himself carefully, as if his bones were made of glass and one wrong move would shatter him into pieces too small to reconstruct.

It was a look that had started to become familiar in the wake of Sam's visions, but Dean knew that this time it wasn't a vision that pulled his brother's eyes tight and set his mouth in a thin line. It was the course of their lives.

"'M fine," Dean rasped, slightly surprised at how rough his voice sounded in his ears.

"Don't move, okay?" Sam said, resting his hand lightly on Dean's shoulder. "I'm just going to get some stuff out of the trunk."

Dean watched Sam slide backwards out of the car, a blast of mid-day winter chill swirling inside the car as he opened the door. Burrowing deeply into his sweatshirt, Dean tried to still the fever-hungry shivers that took control of his muscles. He couldn't seem to stop shaking—it felt as if it had been going on for hours. His body was weary from the effort.

He leaned his forehead against the cold glass of the side window, drinking in the relief to the heat of his skin, even as he knew it would make his chills worsen. He tried to remember the last time he'd been this low.

Nebraska. The rawhead.

Even after that cabin in Missouri he hadn't felt as weak. That had been a different kind of pain; a sharp, vicious bite inside of him, a nameless hurt from seeing the yellow eyes of a demon caught in his father's face.

He remembered the cab ride from the hospital to find Sam after he'd been handed a death sentence back in Nebraska. Before Roy LaGrange. Before the miracle.

He'd remembered the feeling of resignation, the helpless acceptance of the weakness that had overtaken a body he once thought capable of withstanding almost anything. He'd barely had the strength to flag the cab and mutter directions to where Sam had been staying.

He remembered the feel of the cold vinyl seat, the buckle digging into the base of his spine, too exhausted to shift it out of the way. He remembered the stale smell of people and tobacco, the cool of the window against his forehead, the constant murmuring of the cabdriver into his cell phone.

The surprise on Sam's face when he'd opened that door had been the only thing that had kept him from falling face-first to the motel room floor. He'd instinctively resisted, he remembered. He'd not wanted Sam to help him, not wanted to need Sam's help so much. But Sam had been there, bracing him, guiding him to a chair.

"Keep that around you, Dean."

He frowned, turning his face toward Sam's voice, confusion setting in once more. He was so hot; he felt as if his bones were burning.

"You need to keep warm," Sam was saying. "You're shivering so much you're shaking the seat."

He opened his eyes, looking around. They were moving again, heading down a snow-framed, empty highway to destinations unknown. He didn't recall Sam getting back into the car. He hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep.

He was losing time, losing focus. His world was reduced to dreams, pain, and memory with only the warring factions of heat and cold to keeping him within the confines of life.

Looking down at whatever his brother was tugging back up around him, he saw that he was covered with a large, plush towel—one of the nice ones they always tried to lift when they found them in a motel along the way.

"'the hell?" he mumbled.

"We don't have any spare blankets," Sam explained tiredly, as if he'd said the same words before. "Gotta keep you warm."

Dean peered around them blankly, trying to keep his mind on what was happening now, not what had happened a year ago.

"Where'r we?" he mumbled, his voice a low scratch. Feeling cold once more, he clutched the towel around him.

"East, like the man said." Sam shook his head, his face tight. "Stuck to I-94 for awhile. Didn't want to end up in another snow bank. Got nervous and turned off before we hit Madison."

"Need to stop soon," Dean declared, watching his brother's profile.

"I know, Dean," Sam snapped, worry clearly getting the best of him. "Just…we gotta be careful. When we stop, it'll have to be for awhile."

"You try Bobby?" Dean asked.

Sam shook his head again. "No answer."

Dean closed his burning eyes. It was too much effort to keep them open when the only thing to see was a world buried in white and his brother's strained expression. Sam didn't even have the radio on, Dean realized.

The quiet around him, between them, was screaming at him. He suddenly felt strangely alone, as if he'd never left the lonely confines of the buried Impala.

Maybe he hadn't, he mused. Maybe the whole thing had been a dream. Maybe he was frozen behind her wheel, stuffed in a snow bank somewhere in Minnesota. Or Wisconsin. Or wherever the hell they'd been. Or were. Maybe he—

The cough exploded out of him, taking him by surprise. He bent forward, reaching blindly for a brace and gripped the dash. Blinking blurry eyes, he saw droplets of red staining the large towel wrapped around him.

"Dammit." Sam's voice was a literal growl. "That's it."

"Sorry," Dean gasped, managing to flop back against the seat, head canted, eyes closed.

"For what?" Sam's voice was incredulous, his teeth clicking together as he bit off the ends of the words. "For some asshat looking to make us the next notch on his belt? For getting shot by a ghost? For doing your job?"

Concentrating on the supremely difficult task of breathing, Dean simply nodded.

Any of those.

All of them.

"My fault," Dean rasped. He could feel the Impala turning, but didn't open his eyes. He couldn't.

"Yeah? And how do you figure that?" Sam's voice was pissy. He always sounded pissy when he was scared. Dean frowned. If Sam was scared, then Dean wasn't doing his job.

"Coulda…left," Dean tried.

"How?" Sam demanded. "The Impala was buried in the snow."

The car stopped; the engine's vibration a comforting rumble beneath Dean's fever-sensitive body.

"Ronald," Dean said simply.

Sam had wanted to leave it, let it go, not tell Ronald the truth. If Dean had somehow handled Ronald differently…if he'd somehow managed to keep the man from taking the bank hostage…maybe this all could have been prevented.

No Hendrickson, no Channel 8 News. No running.

"You couldn't have known, Dean." Sam's voice was subdued. "You just did your job. Our job. We did the best we could."

The quiet inside the unmoving car was almost enough to convince Dean to open his eyes. Almost.

"I'll be back," Sam said, and Dean felt his brother tug once more at the towel wrapped around him.

Which was good because he couldn't keep warm. He was either on fire from the inside out or so cold he ached from it. There was no solace, no middle ground, and it was taking its toll. He felt himself fading; if Sam blinked just right, Dean was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to see him any longer.

He knew things were bad this time. Out-of-his control bad. He felt everything slipping away.

Things had been bad before; it had been scary before. He remembered scary. He remembered hiding, slipping free of child services, of inquisitive teachers. He remembered Dad being hurt—bad enough that they'd needed help from Jim, from Bobby—and trying to figure out how he'd take care of Sam if Dad were gone.

But now he was. He was gone—not a voicemail away, not just out of reach. Gone.

He'd traded his life for Dean's. Gave himself over to a demon so that Dean could be here, watching out for Sammy, saving him so he wouldn't have to kill him. Without a guide, without a rule book, without someone or something to follow, to show him the way.

He was going to get them either caught or killed and it would all be because it should have been him. He should have died after that wreck, in that hospital bed. John should be the one here; Hendrickson would never have caught wind of John—he was too good, too quick. One deal, one moment had messed it all up and now here they were, broken and alone.

"I got a room." Sam's voice was suddenly beside him once more.

Dean tried to open his eyes, turn his face away from the memory of an empty dirt road and his one chance to make it right.

Your dad's supposed to be alive. You're supposed to be dead. So we'll just set things straight, put things in their natural order.

He shook, shivering with fever and regret, feeling a fire burning through him.

"It's around back, so we can hide the Impala," Sam continued, the car's motion modulating his voice slightly. "I don't think Hendrickson knows what the car looks like. Yet."

His brother's words seemed to be muffled, vowels and consonants striking glancing blows against a film of memory and pain that surrounded him. He knew the car was moving, knew Sam was talking to him, but all he could feel was an unbelievable pressure clenching his chest, a need to change things, to make it right.

All he could see were a girl's dark eyes and wide lips smirking up at him, sharing truth that cut into him like a thin blade.

See, people talk about hell, but it's just a word. It doesn't even come close to describing the real thing…. If you could see your poor daddy? Hear the sounds he makes 'cause he can't even scream?

"It's got one of those kitchen things in it so…Dean?"

He wanted to call the demon back. He wanted to change his mind. He wanted to switch places, give Sam his father, take up his place in Hell. He didn't want this weight…he wasn't strong enough for this fight.

"Aw, Jesus, Dean." Sam's voice was breaking, the plea in it penetrating the fog of memory enough that Dean turned toward the sound. "Hang in there, man. Just a little longer, okay?"

Sam voice was tight with unshed tears. There'd always been a tight trip of air at the back of his brother's voice when he pushed words past emotion. Dean heard that and wanted to take it away; opening his eyes he saw Sam on his right, peering over him, his brother's image bending and blurring as if the universe were messing with the world's focus.

Behind Sam was a white blur, reality on the other side of a piece of cellophane, muted and distant. He saw his brother reach for him as if stretching his arm across a great chasm; he felt Sam's fingers find him, get a grip of his shoulders, pulling him close. He rolled, his body pliant, weak, unable to do much to help.

"Easy, I gotcha," Sam muttered, sniffing.

Dean felt his arm flung across Sam's shoulders, felt the odd weightless sensation of being lifted, his knees disappearing as his body was slow to respond. They stumbled, Dean's weight pulling at Sam, both nearly landing on the snowy pavement next to the Impala before Sam's hand slapped her roof, catching them.

"I need you to help me, man," Sam implored, his voice strained. "I don't have much left."

"Trying," Dean promised, focusing his energy, his waning strength on his knees, forcing them to lock, gripping Sam's shoulder in a weak hold. "Gotcha."

"Few steps, okay?" Sam told him. "Just gotta get inside."

"'Kay," Dean whispered.

They stumbled forward; Dean felt himself dragging, pulling on his brother. He fought to stay upright, worked to carry his own weight. His vision swam, the image of Sam blurring and fading, a memory too full of monsters eager to allow nightmares their hold. Dean felt himself shaking against the onslaught of fever chills, his body quaking too much to keep hold of Sam.

"Almost there," Sam encouraged, adjusting his grip on Dean's side, turning him until Dean felt himself being dragged.

There was a brief pause at the door, a click of a key in a lock, and then the familiar, stale smell of a motel room. Dean closed his eyes, perfectly willing to fall to the floor and lay there forever. Sam had other ideas.

"Little bit further, man," Sam grunted, hauling Dean's mostly-uncooperative body forward until Dean felt his legs hit the side of a bed.

Sam eased him down, the side of his face rubbing against the course fabric of the comforter. He felt Sam lift his legs, resting them on the end of the bed, his hand pausing, heavy on Dean's calf.

With a last shuddering exhale, Dean slipped into a dark too deep for memories.

www

"Dean?"

His brother's breath rattled with almost disturbing consistency. Sam could tell by the completely lax expression on Dean's face that his brother was truly out this time; no nightmares no dreams no it should have been me.

Hearing those words whispered with fearsome vehemence from Dean's chapped lips had sent shivers through Sam that no amount of heat could have eased.

Swaying with exhaustion, Sam turned from the bed and went back out into the cold afternoon. Going through the Impala, he retrieved the duffel of clothes, a few weapons they always brought into motel rooms with them, and the canvass bag of medical supplies. He locked the car, returned to the motel room, and set everything down against the wall.

He slipped the chain lock in place, double-checking the deadbolt. He was too thrashed to ward off visitors and right now he didn't have Dean watching his back. Rotating slowly away from the door, he stood and blinked for a full minute before making himself cross the room to his brother.

Sam's mind screamed at him to move faster—Dean was burning up, shaking apart before his eyes. But his body rebelled, the pain in his head traveling down his neck to grip his shoulders and send him staggering.

Clumsily he pulled Dean's boots free and tugged the comforter and sheet out from beneath Dean's body until he could lift it up to cover up to his shoulders. Sam knew he needed to get more medicine into his brother, the constant shivering from the fever was beginning to really get to him. At least this helped Sam feel as if he was doing something productive, something that might help ease his brother's pain.

Turning away from the bed, Sam took two steps toward the canvass bag, fully intending to grab aspirin and cough medicine. But then, the world tilted, spilling him with almost gentle grace to the motel room floor.

He never felt himself hit the ground.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, the muted ringtone pulling him from oblivion just as the call ended. Blinking in confusion, Sam pushed his head from the carpet, gingerly rubbing his already bruised cheek. The room around him was dark—no outside light from the barely parted curtains offering him a clue as to the time. Rolling to his back, he stared up at the unfamiliar ceiling, working to gather his bearings.

He didn't remember passing out; he couldn't remember what had woken him. He had no idea why he was on the floor. And for a moment, he couldn't remember where he was. There had been so many motels in so many towns over so many years….

Until his phone rang again, he was utterly lost. The vibration in his pocket made him yelp and this time he was able to pull it free before the ringtone ended.

"'lo?"

"Sam?"

"Yeah." He pinched the bridge of his nose, the headache returning along with awareness.

Fennimore, Wisconsin.

Motel.

Dean.

Fever.

"It's Cooper."

"Yeah." Sam blinked his eyes wide, staring once more at the ceiling, defying it to burst into flames and take him away from all this.

"You boys okay?"

"No," Sam answered automatically, too tired and in too much pain to censor himself. A dull, almost-recognizable hum ran in a constant vibration in the background of the motel room.

"Yeah, figured as much."

"What is it?"

"Your Agent fella finally showed up a little while after you left." Cooper's voice sounded thin, reedy, as if he'd been running or was talking to him from the inside of a tin cup.

"Yeah?"

"Had a reward for information on your brother."

"Swell," Sam sighed, pushing himself up on an elbow. He had to pause with the change in elevation; his head literally swam.

He needed to check on Dean. He had no idea how long he'd been out—long enough that the light had disappeared leaving them cloaked in a suffocating, murky dark.

"Couple of people cashed in."

"Marshall or Mead?" Sam asked.

"Does it matter?"

"Guess not," Sam sighed, managing to get to his knees and peer over Dean's bed. He went cold.

The bed was empty.

"I'm the only one who knows what your car looks like," Cooper reminded him.

"True," Sam conceded, using the side of the bed to haul himself to his feet.

"I'm coming to help you. I've been driving south on I-94 about an hour now."

"Thought you couldn't leave," Sam replied.

"Decided to cash in on some vacation time."

"You're not gonna sell us out, are you, Coop?" Sam asked, his voice hard as he switched on the light beside the bed, turning in a slow circle to scan the empty room. Where the hell…?

Cooper was silent for a beat. When he spoke, his voice dug a furrow in Sam's heart.

"I'd no sooner turn you in than I would my own son."

Swallowing, Sam nodded, catching a glimpse of his worn, ragged appearance in the mirror across the room. In the reflection behind him, he saw something shimmer in the mirror.

The light was on in the bathroom, the crack beneath the door shining through.

"Oh, shit," Sam gasped, turning quickly—too quickly. He reached out for the bed, catching his balance.

"What? What is it?"

Sam dropped the phone in his haste to get to the door. Water. That had been the dull hum he'd been hearing. Running water.

He shoved the door open, the sight that greeted him enough to turn his blood to ice. Water poured unchecked from the bathtub faucet, running down the drain, the sound of it suddenly deafening in the confines of the small bathroom. Lying on the floor, dressed in only his jeans, was Dean—his face white, his lips blue, his quaking body the only sign that he wasn't dead.

"Oh, God," Sam gasped, going to his knees beside his unconscious brother.

He gathered Dean up against him, shocked at the heat that poured from him even as he lay half-dressed on the cold tile.

"Hey, hey," Sam patted Dean's cheek, cradling his brother's shoulders in one arm, the other feeling for a pulse, for the reassurance of breath. The gold amulet his brother always wore rested at the base of his throat and as Sam brushed it aside, he could feel the heat from Dean's body radiating from the metal.

He looked around the bathroom, seeing Dean's shirts puddled behind the door, trying to piece together the events that would have compelled Dean to be here, collapsed on the floor, the water running.

"Dean, what the hell, man?"

Sam cupped Dean's head beneath his chin, rolling his shoulders around his brother's, trying in vain to stop Dean's muscles from jerking and twisting, the heat from Dean's fever knifing through Sam and sending his heartbeat skittering to the base of his throat.

He reached over and turned off the water, once more hearing the rasp of Dean's ragged breathing as quiet returned to the bathroom.

"Hey, man, open your eyes." Sam shook him slightly. Dean's head slid forward against Sam's chest. "Wake up, Dean, c'mon."

When Dean remained stubbornly unresponsive, Sam clenched his jaw, left without choices. Rising up on his knees, he shifted Dean until his brother's heavy body was draped over one shoulder. Using the edge of the sink as a ledge, Sam pulled himself to his feet, gripping the back of Dean's legs, and stumbling forward until he had returned his brother to the bed.

Gasping from the effort, Sam cast about for his phone. The world spun in the opposite direction from his search, the motion sending him tumbling to the bed, his ribs hitting Dean's legs, his air huffing out in a grunt.

They needed help. They needed it now.

"Cooper?" Sam breathed into the phone, rolling forward at the end of the bed until his forehead rested on the comforter.

"What happened?" Cooper's frantic voice cut through Sam's dizziness, drawing him upright until he could once again see Dean's face, hear his brother's rasping breath.

"Dean," Sam said, pulling a knee up on the bed and resting his elbow on it. He dropped his forehead into his palm, knifing his fingers through his hair. "He was in the bathroom. On the floor."

"How is he?"

"The water was…the water was running…and he was passed out on the floor."

Why was it so hard to think?

He forced his mind to slow, to focus on his brother's face. Dean's left arm was splayed out from his body were it had fallen when Sam rolled him to the bed. Sam watched as his brother's fingers flexed and twisted the comforter as if fighting to anchor himself.

"How. Is. He?"

"He's hot. He's really hot." Sam closed his eyes. "And his breathing is…it sounds like crunching glass."

"Okay. Listen to me. It's going to be okay," Cooper tried, his tone edging on frantic. "I need to know where you are."

Sam opened his mouth, two heartbeats from telling him. His heart shouted you can't do this alone; in his head, however, he heard the one voice he and Dean had always instinctively trusted, the one voice that had given them the tools to survive as long as they had: his father.

Be careful. Be cautious. Can you trust him?

In that moment he looked at Dean and saw his brother's fever-bright eyes staring silently back at him, his expression grim, his lips parted, his body thirsty for air. It was almost as if Dean, too, had heard the voice.

Dean shook his head. Once. And then he closed his eyes again.

But it was enough to remind Sam who they were. Why they were here. And that Cooper had just told him that people in a town they'd just saved—a town Dean was literally dying for—had turned them over to the Feds.

"Are you being followed?

"What? I…no, I don't…I mean I didn't tell anyone why I was leaving."

"Anyone else get access to your phone before you left?"

Sam kept his focus on Dean's face, listening as his suspicion cut through the silence on the other end of the line, hearing the realization in Cooper's tone as he answered.

"I don't think so, Sam."

Dean shivered, rolling his head on the pillow, his brows pulled close, his mouth slipping down into a scowl.

"I can't risk it, Cooper."

"Sam, don't—"

"Have you ever read Last of the Mohicans?" Sam asked suddenly, trying for one desperate attempt at reaching out. If anyone were listening, he hoped the M.E. would be quicker on the uptake than any Federal Agent.

Cooper was quiet a moment. "Yes. A long time ago."

"You ought to take another look."

Sam closed the phone, his heart choking him, praying he made the right choice. Dean made a low sound in his throat—not quite a groan, not quite a word.

"Dean?"

"Fuck'n hurts…," Dean rasped.

"What does?"

"Everything."

"Okay," Sam nodded. "Okay, I got meds here, Dean."

"Too hot," Dean groaned.

Sam closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead in frustration. He'd been trying to cool down. That's what he'd been doing with the water. Dean had been trying to cool down and Sam had been too out of it to help him.

"Think, Sam," he admonished himself. "You're better than this."

He knew what to do about high fevers. Pneumonia and Dean's rasping breath, bone-breaking coughs, and blue lips were out of his league, but he knew what to do about fevers.

Gotta cool him down.

He pushed himself to his feet, bracing against the wall as dizziness threatened to overtake him once more. The dimly lit room seemed to warp, turning in a slow, nauseating circle. He took a breath and then, goaded by the sound of Dean's breathing, he crossed the room to the duffel bags.

Not knowing how close Cooper might be, if he was being followed by Hendrickson, if his phone was bugged, how safe they were, Sam moved on instinct. He grabbed the .45 he'd pulled from the trunk of the Impala, checked the clip, then tucked it into the front of his jeans. Next, Sam dug through the canvass bag, finding it hard to focus on the myriad of supplies.

In moments he found a bottle of water and ibuprofen. He swallowed three pills before turning to Dean.

"Hey," he called gently. "Think you could swallow some aspirin?"

Dean laid still, his heavy-lidded eyes regarding Sam dully. "Sam…," Dean swallowed, licking his dry lips sluggishly. "Should've been me."

"Stop saying that," Sam pleaded, climbing up on the bed and leaning a shoulder against the headboard. "Just take these, okay?"

"Mean it."

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," Sam sniffed, surprised to find his throat choked with tears. "Brain's all fever-fried."

"I…know," Dean sighed, his eyes slipping closed. "Y'd be…better off."

"No." Sam shook his head, though Dean was no longer looking at him. "Don't say that, Dean. No."

Dean coughed weakly, turning slightly to his side. Sam took advantage of the angle and cupped the back of Dean's neck, bringing his head forward. He worked to ignore the fact that it was almost painful to touch his brother's skin. Easing the coated pills between Dean's lips, Sam helped him drink some water.

"Got some cough medicine here, too," Sam said, tipping the small cup to the edge of Dean's mouth.

"Sucks," Dean muttered after swallowing the medicine.

"I know," Sam whispered, gripping Dean's shoulder in what could—in their family, at least—pass for a hug.

He eased his brother back to the bed, then worked on the buckle of Dean's jeans, sliding the garment from his brother's legs, needing to rid him of as much clothing as he could to try to cool him down. Dean was awake enough to be aware of what was happening, unable to do much in the way of resisting the invasion of privacy.

Sam remembered acutely having the opposite problem just days ago, needing to warm his brother quickly and, as Dean put it, annihilating his personal space to do so. The plea in Dean's eyes now matched the desperate way Dean had shoved at him, trying to shield himself any way he could.

"Hendrickson's in Lethe," Sam told his brother, trying to distract him. "Has a reward on you."

"Swell," Dean croaked, one hand moving upward to rest on his sternum as if in protection.

"Cooper wouldn't tell me who turned you in." He pulled the sheet up, covering Dean to the waist.

"Doesn't matter," Dean sighed, the sound bleeding pain into the room.

Sam stood and draped the jeans on a chair, leaving Dean's black boxer-briefs in place, and made his way into the bathroom. Turning the water to cold, he gripped the sides of the sink for balance, desperately willing the pain throbbing through his head to subside, the dizziness to pass.

He just wanted to sleep. Just sleep.

But then who would watch over Dean? When had this become so hard? They had barreled through life, fighting against forces others never even realized were there, surviving because of skill, luck, and each other. And now, life decided to smack them down, show them they're fragile, that they can be broken.

Wetting three smaller towels, he twisted the excess water out, thinking about Cooper's grim words to Dean.

The human body can only take so much abuse.

He returned to Dean, folding back the comforter so that only covered up to Dean's knees, then carefully lay the first towel across his brother's forehead. Dean flinched back, eyes opening wide in confusion.

"Hey, hey, easy," Sam soothed. "It's just me."

Dean slid his eyes to meet Sam's and the look of pained remorse held there wrapped a tight fist around Sam's heart and squeezed. Swallowing, Sam tucked the other two towels up under Dean's arms, against the pressure points.

Working to help Dean swallow more water, Sam ended up sitting next to him, his hip at Dean's shoulder, his back against the headboard.

"'M sorry, man," Dean whispered.

"Shut up," Sam snapped, looking anywhere but down at Dean. "Just…shut up."

"Supposed to watch…out for you." Dean blinked slowly.

"Don't you dare say Dad should be here instead of you," Sam sniffed, finding the tears spilling down his face before he was able to deny them. "Don't you dare say that."

"Miss him." Dean swallowed.

"I know," Sam whispered. "But he…he made that choice, Dean," he declared, his voice gaining strength. "Not you. And if you keep talking like this…I'm…I'm gonna take you to a hospital."

"Can't," Dean looked at him quickly and Sam felt his heart slam against his ribs at the look of desperate panic caught in his brother's expression. "No…no matter what."

"Dean—this is…please, just—"

Dean reached for him, his hot fingers wrapping around Sam's wrist with surprising strength, his nails leaving four small crescents on Sam's skin.

"Promise me," Dean said, his voice two octaves deeper than normal, but his words unwavering for this one moment. "Sam. Promise me."

Sam was struck with the wicked sting of memory; his vision blurred and for a brief moment, he saw them not as they are now—Dean lying weak and shivering on a motel bed, Sam bent low so that he could catch his brother's words—but as they had been not long ago. He saw himself looking up at Dean, alcohol turning his world sideways, demanding the same words from his brother. Promise me.

And both times the promise could end in death.

"I can't make that promise, Dean," Sam replied, feeling like a hypocrite.

Dean gripped tighter, his fingers burning Sam's flesh, his eyes wide, the green barely visible in the dim light from the bedside lamp. Sam couldn't tear his gaze away, but felt as if he were staring into pools of pain.

"Sam."

He said it with a clear demand for compliance in a tone that Sam had rarely been able to ignore. Sam looked away, swiping roughly at the tears he could feel on his cheek, angry at himself for this weakness.

"He. Can't. Win."

Dean pulled once on Sam's wrist, calling his eyes. Sam looked down, listening with a broken heart as Dean's breath rasped through his blue-tinged, cracked lips. Dean reached up and pulled the towel from his forehead, turning his head on the pillow until he stared directly back at his brother.

"Don't let him."

Sam sniffed again. "You mean Hendrickson?"

"He doesn't…know us." Dean closed his eyes, his face pulling tight, his lips flattening in a line as he rode out a wave of pain. "He doesn't know…."

With a low groan of protest, Dean turned his face toward the pillow, a rasping cough sounding as if it were gutting him. His fingers fell away from Sam's wrist and his body shook.

"Okay!" Sam replied, reaching out to grip Dean's bare shoulder once more, flexing his fingers until he was sure his brother felt him. "Okay, Dean, I promise. I won't let him get us."

"He's…w-wrong," Dean gasped, his face still pressed close to the pillow.

Sam eased him back, wincing at the splash of blood visible on his brother's lips. He took a towel and gently wiped Dean's mouth clean. Dean lay as still as possible, his body trembling, but not quite as much as before. His eyes closed tight, his face fisted in quiet pain, he simply breathed.

"I know," Sam said finally, with the same soft resignation as before. "We'll stay off the grid. He won't find us. I promise."

For a moment, Sam felt very small. There was no one nearby, no one who understood, no one to help them. Their lives weren't all that different from the ghosts they hunted: in the world, but not of it. Invisible to almost everyone around them; when someone caught sight of them, it didn't end well.

"At least…this way a d-damn ghost…w-won't get me," Dean said, a wry half-smile cracking his dry lips.

"You're not gonna die, you jerk," Sam choked out, running the back of his hand across his nose. "C'mon, you really gonna let some…some cold take out the great Dean Winchester?"

Dean started to chuckle, but closed his eyes tight as another cough rocked through him, the force of it curling his weak body to the side, the helpless moan of pain fishtailing the end of the ragged sound enough to turn Sam's belly to liquid. Rubbing his forehead, Sam looked across the room to the canvass bag, trying to think through the medications Cooper had sent with them, frightened of making the wrong choice.

He dug his phone from his pocket, scrolling down to Bobby's number. The endless ring in his ear told him the elder hunter still wasn't reachable. In any other situation, this might be cause to worry, but Sam didn't have enough left in him to worry for someone else. He was all used up.

Pushing himself up, using the wall as a guide to keep his balance, Sam made his way over to the bag and began to set supplies out on the table. The labels blurred as he tried to read them; his fingers felt too large, his hands clumsy. He bent forward, bracing himself on the table and closing his eyes. He'd had concussions before; he knew this was more than his head being cracked by a ghost on steroids.

It was not sleeping for days. It was lack of food. It was worry and fear.

It was a brother who wouldn't quit until the world slapped him down. It was a dead father and a cryptic message. It was a murky fate and frightening visions of death.

It was the relentless pursuit by a Federal Agent. It was a lifetime of fighting and hiding and living on the edge.

And it was too much.

Sam's knees trembled and he almost fell. The ringtone of his cell phone grabbed him, catching his attention. Without looking at the screen to see who was calling, he flipped it open and answered.

"This is Sam."

"Motel 6 or The Watershed?"

Sam's relief at hearing the voice on the other end was so great he almost laughed.

"Where are you?"

"I'm at a payphone at a gas station in Fennimore, WI," Cooper replied. "No one followed me."

Sam bowed his head, pinching the bridge of his nose, willing himself to shove his emotion back where it couldn't get in the way.

"There are only two hotels in this town, so which is it?"

He couldn't remember; he hadn't been paying attention when he pulled off. He'd simply needed to get Dean out of the car. He looked around, spying a notepad on the table next to the canvass bag.

"The Watershed. Room 60B."

"I'll be right there."

Sam looked over at his brother as he closed the phone.

"We got help coming, man," he said softly, sinking down to the edge of the bed as his legs turned hollow. "Hang in there."

Minutes ticked by. Darkness grew. Dean breathed.

Sam waited.

When the knock came, Sam flinched in startled surprise. He almost couldn't gain his feet. Leaning heavily on the wall next to the door, he pulled the .45 from his waistband and clicked the deadbolt. Opening the door just the length of the chain, he raised the gun and peered through the crack.

"Sam?"

"Cooper?"

"It's me."

"You sure you're alone?"

"Yes."

Sam closed the door, slipped the chain free, then opened it once more, not moving away from the wall. Cooper slipped inside, closing the door behind him and hastily refastened the locks. He turned to Sam, his body tightening and pulling away at the sight of the gun.

"Hi," he said, hesitantly.

"I can't believe you found us," Sam replied honestly.

"You can thank Mrs. Walker, tenth grade English for that one." Cooper had his hands up in a gesture of surrender. He made his way cautiously forward. "I had to search a map of Wisconsin for awhile before it clicked. James Fenimore Cooper. Fennimore."

"Resourceful," Sam commented. He felt oddly detached, almost weightless.

It wasn't until Cooper eased the weapon from his grasp that he realized he'd been training the barrel on the man's chest.

"How 'bout we get you two checked out, yeah?" Cooper said, taking hold of Sam's arm and guiding him from the wall toward the vacant bed.

Sam sat obediently, the world seeming to slowly retreat, bringing only Dean and Cooper into focus. He watched Cooper set the .45 on the nightstand between the beds, then lean over and touch the back of his hand to Dean's forehead.

"Damn," Cooper muttered. "You take his temp?"

Sam shook his head mutely. He could feel himself listing, trying to keep the world balanced around him. Suddenly, Cooper was in front of him, hands on his arms, mouth moving. It took Sam a moment to figure out what he was saying.

"Easy, I gotcha, Sam, just lay back."

Cooper held onto his arms as Sam melted into the bed. He took a breath, preparing to say something, remind Cooper of something, but he couldn't remember what.

And with no more resistance than a sigh, Sam gave in to the black.

www

Voices rose and faded around him. The sound of the mingled words felt like water, pulling him low, then buoying him up. He couldn't find one to hold onto, one to anchor him.

The tones were soothing when heat seemed to surround him; it burned with intensity from his heart through his skin. When the heat suddenly vanished to be replaced by cold, the voices became sharp, insistent, demanding.

The pain sucked away his air, pressing his lungs flat, drowning him in darkness. He tried to find relief, trying to roll away from the ache, trying to fight the quiet sighs in the back of his mind beckoning him to fall inside the black. His body pleaded for relief, for peace, for one breath without pain.

Then the fire returned, shaking him with its veracity, threatening to tear him apart, to burn him alive. He cursed it, fought it. He curled his fists tight, putting everything behind his punches, every bit of energy he didn't have. He fought and threatened, telling whatever it was that wanted to take him that he wasn't ready to go.

He had a job to do. And it wasn't finished.

A cooling hand and a whispered promise stilled him. Wetness flowed across his burning lips and down his parched throat. The voices returned; he didn't know what was real, what was memory. But this time there was one among the many. One that stood out, speaking softly, a gruff sense of affection echoing in words he'd never forget, words he held onto when others threatened to tear him down.

Don't be scared, Dean.

He turned to the sound of that voice, wanting to hear it again, wanting to escape from the heat, the cold, the pain in his chest, in his throat, the weakness that suffocated him. He wanted to hear that voice again, wanted to believe the words.

I am so proud of you.

He half-sobbed, needing to live up to those words, needing to know he'd earned them. And then he felt the heat begin to fade, not replaced by cold this time. Simply fade, ease up and drift away as if he were being granted a stay of execution. With the heat, the pain receded enough to allow him to gather a breath, his shaking body relaxing with the return of air. He sighed as darkness rolled over him once more, this time bringing peace.

Continued in Part 5B, here: gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/111476.html

 

 

Comments

( 4 Tall Tales — Tell Me A Story )
deangirl1
Mar. 24th, 2011 09:36 pm (UTC)
Posting after the last part... which I should have been doing all along... d'oh...
gaelicspirit
Mar. 27th, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
*laughs*

No worries. I got your comments; I'm working through replies. Thank you so much for reading. :) Hee.
tobyanca
Mar. 28th, 2011 07:43 am (UTC)
OMG, reading the very beginning of the chapter I freaking thought you were killing them! I was all NO NO NO SHE WOULDN'T!

And he heard Johns words, you're killing me. Poor Dean. So much hurt and pain. :(
gaelicspirit
Mar. 28th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
*laughs* I promise you that no matter what, I won't kill them. Permanently. Technically, Dean died in Holding On To Let Go, but it was just for a minute and they got him back. :)

And I could NEVER hurt that gorgeous car. Permanently. ;)

Those words from John in IMTOD crushed me but good. I haven't gotten over them.
( 4 Tall Tales — Tell Me A Story )

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