"Story?" The brothers spoke up in unison.
"You're not gonna wanna tuck me in afterwards are you?" Dean snorted, "cos' I was kinda hoping that little nurse would come back to do that."
Bobby looked down at the weak attempt at an obnoxious grin playing on Dean's pallid face and rolled his eyes. "Don't flatter yourself boy," he muttered with a smile.
Rummaging in the paper bag containing the donuts, he drew out a chocolate frosted one and passed it to Sam. "Wow, thanks Bobby;" Sam's eyes lit up and he took the donut, his face lifting into a smile of blissful delight as he disposed of half of it in one massive bite.
Bobby passed another donut to Dean who took it eagerly, filling his face without hesitation.
He paused, mid-chew, nose wrinkling in disdain and glared up towards Bobby's smiling face.
Sam let a muffled snort of laughter through his stuffed cheeks, spraying the back of Bobby's head with fragments of chewed donut.
"Funny, Bobby. Real funny;" Dean mumbled sulkily, through a well-packed mouthful. Both Sam and Bobby noted, however, that he was clearly not too offended to polish off the remainder of his treat with enthusiasm.
"Anyway, Bobby;" Sam licked his sticky fingers, and drained his coffee. "What were you saying about a story?"
Bobby screwed the paper bag up and tossed it over Dean's bed into the trashcan.
"Uh, story … yeah!" Bobby looked across to the bed, noticing Dean's head slowly nodding and his eyes softly drooping; "still with us, Princess?"
Dean's head snapped upwards with a snort; stifling a flinch and a yawn he turned to Bobby; "don' get rid o' me that easily …"
"I went down to see your farmer friend this morning;" Bobby began; "I decided to conduct my own little 'unofficial' Parks Authority investigation."
The brothers listened intently as Bobby continued,
"He was very helpful; turns out you guys did everyone farming that area a damn good turn getting rid of the 'rogue cougar' that's been taking the livestock."
Sam gave a mirthless smile; "rogue cougar, yeah, right!"
Bobby shrugged; "apparently the damn thing has been decimating local flocks; put two farmers out of business so far."
"Yeah, yeah;" Dean interrupted impatiently, "so we're the worlds greatest pest control." He shuffled down, wincing as he tried to get comfortable. "Get to the good bit; how did they know we were in trouble?"
"That horse that died," replied Bobby; "it was the first …"
"Hannibal;" interrupted Dean, "his name was Hannibal."
Bobby hesitated, smiling; "okay; well … Hannibal was the first animal our farmer friend had lost to the 'cougar', but the weird thing is he was sure Hannibal had died even before the Parks Authority turned up with the other horse on it's own in the horse trailer after you both got picked up and carted off to hospital."
Sam threw a glance at Dean and shrugged, "so, how …" he began and trailed off.
Dean picked up the question, "so how did they know? How did his wife know we were in trouble?"
Bobby nodded, "I was hoping to speak to her, but she just won't talk about what happened; too upset; she's denying it ever happened."
Sam shrugged "too upset? What, about Hannibal?"
Bobby gave Sam a strange look. "sort of …"
Dean's brow furrowed in confusion; "Bobby … c'mon; what're you sayin?"
Bobby sighed; "according to the farmer, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner. She just happened to glance up through the window out towards the paddock and she saw your hor … Hannibal. She said he was just standing in the paddock staring right back at her; not moving or nothing, but he looked dishevelled and bloody, all beaten up. She said he looked like he'd been in a fight."
He paused, and saw that he had the Winchesters' undivided attention.
"He was still wearing his saddle and bridle, but it was all scuffed and dirty and the reins were just dragging along the ground; and when she saw there was no rider, she figured ya must have got into trouble out there on the trail, so she went and called the Parks Authority to send someone out to try to find ya."
Sam and Dean swapped bemused glances.
"When she put the phone down, she went straight outside to tend to the horse, but she couldn't find him;" Bobby paused, "she said she searched all over the yard and when she walked over to the paddock where she had seen him …"
Two pairs of eyes stared at him, unblinking.
He rubbed a hand over his face and looked at the ground; "the paddock gate was padlocked, there were no prints in the sand … no sign anyone or anything had ever been there."
Dean stared up at Bobby, brow furrowed in an expression somewhere between confusion and regret; "so … so, are you saying …?"
"This was early evening two days ago," Bobby said quietly.
"Two days ago?" Sam murmured, "the evening? that would make it …"
"After Hannibal was killed." Dean cut in quietly, looking down at his lap.
For a moment no-one made a sound.
"Hannibal saved you bro'," Sam broke the silence, the disbelief clear in his barely whispered words.
Bobby spoke up; "the poor woman's completely traumatised. She can't explain it, especially after the Authority found Hannibal and saw that he was already dead and had been for a while." He shrugged, "she flatly refuses to talk about it."
Dean opened his mouth to speak but glanced helplessly up at Sam and closed it again when no words seemed adequate.
"She's got a lifetime of therapy to look forward to;" Bobby mumbled as he drained his now-cold coffee.
The three men settled into a preoccupied silence.
Sam sat beside his brother's bed and watched through the room's one small window as the sun slowly set over the distant buildings, bathing the room in a dim amber glow.
Dean had slipped into a light sleep, and shortly afterwards Bobby had excused himself, leaving the boys to themselves and heading back to his motel room.
Sitting quietly, Sam watched him sleep; his hand resting flat on the thick cotton sheets which he had pulled up over his sleeping brother's chest, and reflected numbly on what Bobby had told them.
He stared hazily into the darkening sky; tormented by thoughts of Hannibal and Indiana; of Dean hurting, bleeding, dying; of Dean's grey, sweat beaded face, contorted in pain, gaping desperately for breath that wouldn't come; of the grotesque heaving of Dean's chest, his yawning blue lips, a mist of scarlet foam staining the air.
Blinking away a terrible image of him sitting on that dusty trail cradling his brother's lifeless body, he took a long shuddering breath. Dean was safe; Dean was going to recover; and Sam had the two most unlikely allies to thank for that. Mouthing silent thanks, he knew that ultimately, those horses hadn't just saved Dean's life, they had saved his own too.
His life meant nothing without his brother.
He could feel himself trembling, terrified at how close this hunt had come to that dreadful, unthinkable conclusion; closing his eyes he took another deep breath to try to slow his pounding heart.
He sat in that manner for a few moments, relaxing under his closed eyelids, his long, deep breaths calming and soothing, chasing the terrible images away.
It was then he heard it.
He opened his eyes and looked across to see Dean's sleep muzzed green eyes staring up at him.
Sam's eyes travelled down and noticed with horror that as he had been lost in his unhappy thoughts, his outspread hand had strayed under the bedsheets and was absently tracing lazy, comforting circles across his brother's bare chest.
Snatching his hand back, he gasped. "Oh jeez … crap, sorry Dean;" he flushed crimson, "kinda got distracted for a bit there…"
"Yeah, well; now you've finished manhandlin' me, perhaps you can get me a drink!" Dean croaked, squirming upwards in an attempt to sit up straighter.
Sam poured Dean a drink from a jug of water on the nightstand and handed him the glass.
"Uh … good sleep bro?" he mumbled, still burning up with embarrassment.
Dean yawned, "Uh, yeah … 'til I got woke up by someone's 'wanderin' hands'!" He wiggled his fingers to reinforce the point.
"Told you Dean, I got distracted." Sam smiled sadly, "I was just thinking about what Bobby told us."
Dean downed his water in one long draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
"Yeah, respect to my fat buddy;" he sighed around a sad smile, "there can't be many dudes who've had their asses skinned and saved by the same horse in the same week."
Sam smiled, desperate to refocus his embarrassment onto Dean; "how is your ass, by the way?"
Dean rolled his eyes; "I suppose I should be thankful I didn't wake up with you rubbing that!"
Sam presented Dean with a vending machine coffee and a candy bar, and lowered himself down into his usual chair beside the bed, propping his crutches against the wall only to watch in exasperated resignation as they slid down to the floor in a clattering heap.
Hate. Friggin'. Crutches.
He watched Dean grimace as he sipped the bitter liquid and smiled. He'd warned Dean, but his brother was adamant; a crap coffee's better than no coffee at all. And Sam had to admit, coffee didn't come much crappier than this.
They talked through the events of the past few days; Sam keeping a constant watch on Dean, noting how his train of thought was occasionally derailed by the weapons-grade medication still pumping through his battered system.
He smiled as he thought back to that blissful morning outside the tent, almost surreal in it's peacefulness and calm given the terrible events that followed it.
"It was kinda fun though, wasn't it?" His smile receded as Dean looked up at him as if he was raving mad.
"The camping, I mean;" he corrected abruptly, "I mean before it all went wrong".
Dean was obviously unconvinced so Sam tried again; "camping, with the horses, under the stars, just you an' me dude. It was kinda fun, like bein' kids again; don't you think?"
Dean's face suggested that he didn't think at all; "what, apart from the bug bites, the nettles, the sweaty sleeping bags, the dead things floating in the coffee and the weird animal noises all friggin' night?" He grunted with an unenthusiastic shrug. "Yeah, it was a blast …"
Sam's shoulders slumped; "well the burgers were nice cooked over an open fire …" he offered meekly.
"Yeah, I guess so," Dean replied, "thirty million ants can't be wrong;" he snorted as he took another tentative sip of the appalling coffee.
Sam smiled sadly, leaning against the mound of pillows supporting his brother and sighed; "well, I guess that's one thing we'll never have in common…"
The sun rose the following morning, illuminating two sleeping figures.
Leaning into each other, under a huffing whisper of soft snores, Dean's head nestled onto Sam's shoulder, his empty styrofoam cup scrunched loosely in his hand, a drain of cold coffee staining the white bedsheets. Slouched untidily in the padded chair beside the bed, Sam's long arms were folded limply across his chest.
And suddenly it didn't matter … under the stars; in a hospital; in a motel room; at the end of the world?
Against all the odds, Sam had his brother, safe and sound.
He didn't care where they were …