Characters: Dean, John
Rating: PG-13 for language and mature scenes
Spoilers: None. Pre-Series.
Summary: With Sam at school, John and Dean must find a way to connect and survive. When John is hurt on a hunt, Dean is forced to pick up the pieces. However, when ghosts threaten to take Dean down, it's up to his father to keep him from fading.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity. Story title from Led Zeppelin song of the same name.
Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself. - William Butler Yeats
Licking at his skin, curling up the edges of his hair, drawing moisture from his body.
So fucking hot…
Pain rippled through him, pounding in a demanding cadence from his head and shaking out through his bound hands in almost visible waves.
The air itself seemed to be burning.
Dean didn’t remember falling, but he knew the body he now rested against wasn’t his father, and he knew he was in trouble. He tried to breathe, working to fill lungs flattened by the force of impact with the unforgiving floor. Smoke immediately made an even exchange for air and Dean began to cough, a harsh, wretched sound of desperation.
The body against him rolled, tipping him and turning him to the side. He was able to pry open eyes that were swollen by tears ripped from him in retaliation from the heat and peer in front of him. Cole Lawson’s blood-covered face greeted him. Instinctively, Dean tried to push back and away, but his cuffed hands made him clumsy and his wounded body refused to respond.
Cole blinked back at him, and as Dean stared, the man’s lips curled up in a feral snarl. He reached for Dean’s jacket and rolled him to his back, swinging astride his body, flames from the walls and support beams framing him like a specter from a horror film.
He heard his father’s voice, dimly, as if sifting up from a memory. He reached up, his blood-slicked skin slipping against the sleeves of his jacket and worked to push Cole away. The man’s meaty hands were at his throat, fingers clawing, grasping, closing. An inhuman sound worked its way from Cole’s belly and snapped out, impossibly louder than the firestorm around them.
Dean twisted weakly, his body working to obey, the need to survive beating heavy wings against his heart, but losing to the enormity of the abuse he’d heaped upon himself. The heat from the fire ate through logic, consumed reason, and he was left with nothing but the basic urge to live, to breathe, to survive one more moment.
He bucked against the weight of Cole’s body, suddenly ferocious in his will to live. He heard a ragged sound and only when he felt the rawness of his own throat did he realize the cry came from him. Cole’s grip loosened, and he slipped sideways just enough that Dean was able to turn and use his forearms to pull himself away.
The world was on fire.
Flames inhaled the structure, licked the underside of the upper floor, began to work its way along the floor toward him. There was no clear path, and as Dean looked wildly around for his father, he suddenly knew that this was it. He was going to die just as his mother had. In that moment of clarity, he almost laughed, thinking how foolish he’d been for fighting so hard against such an inevitable fate.
A sudden blast of cool air caught him by surprise and he turned away from the mesmerizing sight of the fire to see the figure standing in the middle of the chaos, untouched by the hurricane of hellish fire.
“He is mine.”
“Aw, no way, man! No fucking way!” Cole exclaimed.
Dean looked over at Cole who was poised over Kwaiya’s still-inert body, the bar John had used to free Dean raised as if to strike. The man stared at the spirit of Brooke Marcus with abject horror and Dean knew he was seeing her face buckle and melt just as he had when he’d first glimpsed the spirit.
“You can’t be real! You aren’t real!”
Dean wanted to scream out that Cole’s father had made her real, but he couldn’t breathe for coughing. Bowed from the effort, he simply watched through teary eyes, his body shaking, his heart hammering against his ribs.
“He is mine.”
Brooke’s dying oath seemed to lend her spirit power as she moved through the flames, closer to Cole and her son. Dean thrust out his bound hands for balance, having unconsciously retreated from the approaching spirit, and suddenly felt with the tips of his fingers the hot barrel of the sawed-off shotgun Cole had used to threaten John. The familiar imprint of the weapon grounded him, offering him purpose and he pushed away from the scene playing out before him.
With a grunt of effort, Cole swung the bar he’d been about to bring down on Kwaiya’s head at the advancing spirit. It did nothing to sway the approach of Brooke Marcus. Dean tried to lift the shotgun, but the blood from his wrists now coated his fingers and the weapon slipped from his grip. Cole swung again, this time tumbling back directly into a wall of flames.
Dean flinched away as Cole cried out in terror and pain. Brooke moved forward, relentless in her quest. The flames were growing closer to Kwaiya’s body and Dean tore his eyes between the two horrors. Brooke seemed to dart, her image shifting as pieces from the ceiling fell down around them.
How John had gotten to him in the first place was a mystery, but Dean knew he was now trapped above with a wounded leg and Dean had no strength left to save him. He’d doomed them both…
A strangled, gurgling cry grabbed his attention and Dean saw Cole being lifted off his feet, his body seizing as the spirit thrust him backwards through the fire. With a ragged gasp, Dean looked quickly away as Brooke impaled the murderer on a building stud, a sharp-edge piece somehow still intact from the fire’s destruction. In his rapidly diminishing periphery vision, Dean could see Cole’s legs flinch and shake as life fled.
In moments, the horrific smell of burning flesh joined the already noxious fumes the fire emitted. Dean looked back for Kwaiya, but saw that, amazingly, the man was no longer lying there. He searched with his eyes through the smoke for any kind of escape when suddenly Brooke’s face loomed before him.
“No,” Dean choked out. “No, you… don’t get it…”
Brooke reached out, her hand rending his layers of clothing with the burn of ice. He felt death in her touch. His head dropped back and Dean screamed, certain it would be the last sound he’d ever make.
It had taken a supreme effort to not simply launch himself down through the hole after Dean, but John knew his leg would never handle the landing, and the fire was working its way towards his boy too fast for him to internally debate the issue. He’d pulled himself toward the now-burning stairs on his forearms, using his good leg as leverage, his mind bouncing from the horror of now to the nightmare of war with each push forward.
He kept his head low as time folded around him, feeling the imagined effects of bullets zipping over him, the certainty of death heartbeats away. As he crawled head-first down the stairs, he could hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle over the literal roar of the fire and he fought back the pain-induced nausea with an almost physical thrust. Dean’s cry of rage spurred John forward and he refused to relent, to buckle with surrender when he felt the bones in his leg slip along the pins that held them in place.
John stiffened as the fire's heat suddenly gave way to an icy cold that instantly permeated the building despite the roar of flames around him.
Brooke had arrived.
Unaccustomed to feeling true fear in the wake of a spiritual enemy, John puffed out air between protruding lips, working his way down the stairs, feeling the wetness of tears coat his cheeks and soak into his whiskers. He couldn’t be sure if they were pulled from him by the ravaging heat of the fire, in reaction to the pain that threatened to white-out his vision, or induced by the soul-crushing realization that this is what she’d felt, this is what she’d heard, this was the last his girl knew of the world.
The bulk of his body parted a thick wall of smoke at the base of the stairs in time to see a man impaled on a broken wall stud, paint from the protective markers bubbling and melting from the heat, streaming down the walls in black tears. John’s arm gave out and he fell against the bottom step.
He heard Dean’s choked voice, rough and wretched from smoke. Blinking, John lifted his eyes to see the spirit standing astride his son, her hand reaching out.
“No, you… don’t get it…”
Dean’s scream ripped John’s heart in half. He reached for his son, tugging Dean toward him even as he pulled his own body further down the stairs. Dean sagged in his grip, limp in his arms, and John watched in wonder as Brooke stepped back, her distorted face staring at them with what appeared to be confusion. In the distance, John heard a mechanical wail and knew that if he could just hold on to Dean—just hold on a little longer—there was a chance they might survive the rapidly increasing inferno.
“He is mine.”
Brooke’s voice had become plaintive.
“Not this one,” John rasped. “This one is mine!”
He rolled down the last step until he’d managed to wedge himself behind Dean, wrapping an arm around his boy’s chest. He could feel the torn edges of Dean’s shirt front and looked down, blinking away tears. A handprint was burned into Dean’s flesh — just below the pentagram necklace that Brooke had worn so long ago.
“Goddamn, kid,” John whispered. “Full of surprises.”
He looked back up at Brooke, watching as she tilted her head, staring at her pendant. Her eyes flicked to John and he felt his lungs curl inward at the sight of her bubbling flesh. He knew what was in that look: the pentagram may have protected Dean, but it wouldn’t protect them both. John shook his head, reaching around to pull Dean closer. He saw the fire before he felt it: the sleeve of his coat was burning.
With a cry of more surprise than pain, he slammed his arm on the ground, the back of his hand making contact with the heated barrel of a discarded shotgun. Without further thought, John raised the weapon, aimed it at Brooke’s heart, and pulled the trigger.
As the spirit broke apart, John saw Kwaiya’s large form through the dissipating paranormal threads as the man stumbled in the shadows of the burning building, his back in flames. He broke through a missing piece of wall and vanished into the night. John dropped the shotgun, turning his attention to Dean.
“Hang in there, kiddo,” he whispered against his son’s cheek, the endearment slipping out unguarded. “Help’s on the way…”
Flames cut off their only means of escape. John’s eyes tracked the path of fire around, beside, and above them. He jerked when he realized Dean’s right pant leg was burning. Shrugging out of his coat as quickly as his awkward position would allow, he began to beat at the fire before it climbed higher up Dean’s leg, not noticing at first when the garment collected flames as it passed through the air.
“I won’t let it end this way, Dean,” John growled through gritted teeth. “It’s not supposed to be this way for you.”
It had been roughly ten minutes since he’d first entered the building in search of his son, but it felt like he’d lived three lifetimes. And none of them had been enough. Flames singed the hairs along his arm and the back of his hand and John roared in retaliation.
All of the frustration, anger, helplessness, fear, and pain he’d worked so hard to ignore since that night in September when his youngest son had walked away rolled inside that sound. He shook with the force of it, rebelling against the inevitable loss that was his life.
“I see them! I got them! Here!”
The voice sounded tinny, far-away. John blinked, wracking coughs chasing the sound of his pain. Moving through the smoke were two men dressed in flame-retardant yellow uniforms, helmets with oxygen masks covering their faces. In moments, he and Dean were flanked by their rescuers and John felt the padded plastic of the oxygen mask held over his face as someone began to tug Dean from his arms. He tightened his grip.
“You gotta let him go, Sir,” yelled a voice in his ear.
He knew the voice was right. He knew they needed to get to safety. But he couldn’t seem to command his arms to relax. He couldn’t give up his child. The hands shifted from Dean to John and he felt himself lifted, the oxygen dizzying in its relief. With surprising ease, John’s savior slung him across his shoulders and in seconds John felt the shift from the fire’s insane heat to the cool of the October night.
Coughing, John complied with instructions as he was moved from one fireman to another and carried to a waiting stretcher. The flurry of movement around him was disorienting and his vision spun in reaction.
He couldn’t speak. His lungs were too busy evacuating the noxious black smoke to comply with his need to find Dean.
“He’s here,” a different voice called to him. John rolled his eyes toward the voice as a new, smaller oxygen mask was placed over his nose and mouth.
In the reflecting glow from the burning building, John saw Dean on a similar stretcher several feet away. His face was black from soot, the handcuffs finally removed, his wrists and hands bloody. John could see the red, angry welts of skin through the burned-away denim of Dean’s jean leg.
“Is—“ John attempted, eyes darting to the unfamiliar face that had drawn his attention.
“It’s not good,” the man said. “Let’s get you two to the hospital.”
As they began to wheel him toward a waiting ambulance, John heard the cacophonous crash of the roof falling in. He looked toward the ruined building and saw Gus sitting on the bumper of another ambulance, his shirt off, and a white bandage peppered in bits of red covering his chest. John had almost completely forgotten about the contractor and his attempt to help them vanquish this spirit.
Gus was staring at the destruction with desolation, all color leeched from his face, leaving an after-image of hopelessness on the backs of John’s eyes. As they lifted him into the ambulance, a slight back-spray from the fire hoses ghosting his singed skin, John gave a fleeting thought to the hunt they’d been attempting to finish. But as the doors to the ambulance closed, he reasoned that the heat of the fire and the amount of salt spread around the interior of the building would act in the same capacity as a little digging and a Zippo.
“Relax, Sir,” soothed one of the paramedics. “We’ll be there in about five minutes.”
“My son,” John croaked.
“He’s in the bus behind us.”
“How is he?”
“I don’t know, Sir,” the paramedic shook his head, fixing the bag of saline that John now realized was attached to him via an IV catheter. “I’m just worried about getting you there.”
“I need to know.”
“We’ll find out when we get there, okay?” The paramedic looked down at him. “What the hell were you two doing inside that place anyway?”
John closed his eyes. “Long story.”
“Yeah, well,” the paramedic replied, his hands cool on the inside of John’s wrist as he took his pulse. “You’d better be able to tell it to the sheriff ‘cause he’s gonna be waiting for you.”
He knew this room.
It was the room where he could never find Sam. It was the room where if walked through the doorway on the other side he’d simply walk into the very same room. Over and over again until he could go mad from it.
He knew the small white desk with the wooden stool that pretended to be a chair and the silver-edged round mirror that hung from a twisted wire just above the desk surface. He knew the wrought-iron bed with the white comforter. He knew the faded circular rug in the center of the floor. He knew the closet with the accordion doors on the wall opposite the bed.
And he knew that if he bent down and looked under the bed, he’d see the corpse of a dead turtle.
It was the same room he’d come to every time he’d closed his eyes from the moment he’d miraculously survived the beach attack. He was always so anxious to leave this room. Because there was nothing there but the reminder of death and absence of color.
But this time, he noticed the coolness of the room. The quiet. The fact that there was no pain and no heat and nothing pulling at him or pushing him or demanding he be, do, think, act.
It was just a room.
Curious, Dean dropped to his hands and knees, pulling in a quick breath and closing his eyes. He turned his head toward the underside of the bed, bracing himself for the always-shocking impact of the sight of the dead turtle. He opened his eyes and nearly collapsed in surprise when he saw Sam’s hazel eyes staring back at him.
“What the hell are you doing under there?” he asked, stupidly.
Sam’s lips folded down in a shrug. “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”
“Well, get out, you freak,” Dean commanded, his forehead furrowed. “It’s weird.”
Sam scooted sideways until his upper half was visible. Dean blinked at the sight of his brother’s blue T-shirt sporting an image of a green turtle on the center. He pushed himself back until he sat on his haunches and waited until Sam had extricated himself completely from the underside of the bed and sat opposite him, his back against the bed frame, his long legs pulled up so that he could loosely tripod his arms on his knees.
“Hey,” he greeted Dean casually.
“Hey? That’s all you got? Hey?”
“What do you want, a monologue?” Sam asked blandly, tossing his bangs from his eyes in a heart-achingly familiar twitch.
“I haven’t seen you in like… two months, man,” Dean said, his heart suddenly thundering against his ribs, beating out a three-word rhythm of joy mingled with disbelief: Sam is here, Sam is here.
“You’re not really seeing me now,” Sam pointed out. “Your dream, remember?”
Narrowing his eyes in a challenge, Dean reached out and pinched Sam’s upper arm as hard as he could. His brother flinched away, his eyes widening in surprise.
“Ouch! What’d you do that for?”
“The hell I’m not seeing you,” Dean retorted, lifting his eyebrow in cocky satisfaction.
“Look at your skin, jerk,” Sam pouted, rubbing his arm.
“Bi—“ Dean started to automatically retort as he glanced down to his own upper arm and gaped at the sight of a rising bruise. “Son of a—“
“Told you,” Sam said snottily. “Dream.”
“Okay, smartass,” Dean fired back. “If it’s my dream, what are you doing here?”
“Letting you talk to me,” Sam shrugged.
Sam lifted his shoulders in a long-suffering sigh. “I’m giving you someone to talk to,” he said slowly, enunciating each word as if English were Dean’s second language.
Sam rotated his hands outward, lifting his palms up in a what are you gonna do gesture.
“Why you, huh? Why not… some hot chick, or… or myself for that matter?”
Sam’s lips quirked in what Dean recognized as his brother’s poor attempt at suppressing a grin. His own upper lip bounced in an automatic snarl in reaction.
“Because I kinda think you dreaming about a chick would not end up in a conversation, and you talking to yourself is just crazy.”
Dean rolled his eyes and pushed himself to his feet. “’Cause this has all the earmarks of sanity.”
Sam stayed where he was. Dean felt his brother’s eyes on him as he walked across the small room to the closet. He opened the doors and peered into the emptiness inside. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find; in previous visits to this room, he’d always been looking for Sam. But Sam was sitting right behind him. Sam is here, Sam is here.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Sam said softly.
“Well, I’d hope so,” Dean muttered, closing the closet doors and turning slowly to face his brother. “You’re me, after all.”
“From a certain point of view,” Sam amended.
Dean arched an eyebrow. “You channeling Obi Wan Kenobi now?”
“Dude, your head is full of random pop culture.” One dimple flashed as Sam’s lips ticked up in a half-hearted grin.
Dean shrugged. “True.”
“But everyone has parts of themselves that they don’t listen to or purposely ignore,” Sam continued, tapping his temple with his index finger. “And you have almost a whole ‘nother person in here.”
Dean dropped his chin and lifted his eyes to regard Sam. “Okay, Sigmund. What am I thinking?”
“You’re wondering why you never found me when you looked for me before.”
Dean dropped his eyes, staring at the tips of Sam’s sneakers peeking out from beneath the cuffs of his jeans. A dull ache grew in his chest. He reached up to rub at it, the touch of his fingers somehow turning the ache into a burning, stinging sensation. Grimacing he turned away.
“So?” He retorted, at a loss for how to rebut such a blatant truth.
“Maybe you didn’t want to,” Sam offered.
Dean shook his head. “For being me, you’re not very smart.”
“Or… am I?” Sam said, a cocky grin tucked into the corners of his voice.
“Why wouldn’t…” Dean tightened his stomach suddenly as the burning feeling on his chest flashed, then faded once more. “Why wouldn’t I want to find you?”
Sam lifted one shoulder, the image of the turtle on his T-shirt rippling disturbingly with the motion. “Maybe you didn’t want to admit you were having a good time without me here.”
Dean frowned at his brother. “A good time? With Sergeant Fucking Winchester and his perpetual hunts? C’mon.”
“Hell, yeah,” Sam nodded, seemingly warming to his theory. He stood, then leaned casually on the edge of the bed. “Dad’s all you’ve ever wanted to be. And with me gone, hell, you had a clear shot to showing him how much of a Bad Ass Hunter you are.”
Dean continued to rub at the place where he’d felt the burn, noticing how the ache had shifted and become almost a weight. As if someone were sitting on him, preventing him from taking a breath. His frown became fiercer, more from the discomfort than in reaction to Sam’s completely-off-base ramblings, but Sam squared his shoulders in reaction.
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Dean muttered, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t actually speaking with his brother. That this Sam would only say what was in Dean’s head. That he was, in effect, arguing with himself.
“Enlighten me then,” Sam retorted, spreading his arms wide, his eyes flat with challenge.
“You’ve always been so wrapped up in your own world — have you ever bothered to think what things have been like for Dad?”
“For Dad?” Sam exclaimed. “You’re kidding, right?”
Dean stepped forward until there was less than a foot between himself and his brother. “No, I’m not kidding. You think he just shrugged off you leaving? Think he was… relieved? He’s been making himself eight kinds of crazy trying to figure out what to do next — and how to do it without—“
The weight in his chest suddenly turned sharp, stabbing unexpectedly through him and stealing his breath. He staggered slightly, reaching out. Sam’s arm came up, grabbing him and balancing him in an automatic response.
“Dean?” Sam’s voice was laced with youthful concern—just as he knew Sam always sounded when Dean was hurt or sick. Sam’s voice, calling his name, seeking reassurance, looking for confirmation that Dean was or would be okay.
He couldn’t answer. The pain stabbed again, and Dean remembered. He remembered the heat, the building, the spirit. He remembered the cuffs, the bruises, the fire.
“Dude… you’re bleeding!” Sam’s hand was on his arm, fingers closing tightly, but Dean was already sinking, his knees hitting the hardwood floor. “What the hell?”
“S’okay,” Dean muttered, his reasoning clouded, his memory folding, overlapping, slipping around what was real and what was this world where Sam was here, Sam was next to him. “S’okay, Sammy.”
“I’m gonna go get Dad,” Sam said, releasing Dean’s arm and starting for the door.
The door across the room. The door that led nowhere.
But all he saw was his brother’s broad back vanishing through the doorway as the sharp pain slashed through him once more, taking him to the floor with the force of it.
There was enough time on the short ride to the hospital for his body to remind John what pain truly was. Every bump in the road shivered up through his leg and his vision went white, a soft buzzing echoing through his ears. Somehow he missed the moment they stopped at the hospital and wheeled him through the automatic doors. The next thing he knew, the unforgiving fluorescent lights recessed into the ceiling were glaring down on him as people moved around in the unique cadence of organize chaos known only to the medical community.
John struggled to sit up, ignoring the voices raised in protest as he made it to his elbows, his chest burning as he coughed into the oxygen mask. He saw Dean’s gurney being wheeled in almost immediately and his stomach turned to rock at the sight. A man in a navy-blue uniform sat astride Dean’s body as two others pushed the gurney rapidly down the hall.
The man was compressing Dean’s chest, calling out statistics as three other people grabbed the gurney and wheeled it into the alcove next to John’s. No one bothered to pull the curtain. A hand pushed against John’s shoulder, an insistent voice in his ear, demanding he lie back so they could examine him. He felt someone removing the walking cast and the pain from the minor jarring of his leg was tempered only by the sight of Dean’s shirt being ripped open as a female physician reached for two small paddles.
“Sir, you need to calm down,” said an overly-controlled voice, drawing John’s attention to the fact that he’d been shouting. He’d been trying to order someone—anyone—to tell him how Dean was even as he stared at the life-saving efforts going on around his son not five feet away.
Shaking, John lay back, staring with numb disbelief as Dean’s body arched, then fell flat once, twice, three times before he heard the reassuring words: we have sinus rhythm. He didn’t know what sinus rhythm was, except that it meant they stopped pressing those paddles against Dean’s chest, stopped rending his wounded body with electrical shocks. Someone tried to turn John’s face away, pulling off the blackened oxygen mask and replacing it with one that seemed to be attached to the wall.
He felt their hands on his body, felt the prick of needles going into his arm, felt his clothes being cut away and words shouted across him. He rocked with the disorienting sensation of morphine slipping its psychedelic relief through his system. He knew when someone so much as breathed near the broken bones of his leg.
But he never took his eyes from Dean’s limp figure and slack features. He watched as they cut away Dean’s clothes, listened to their exclamations of his wounds—third degree burns on his right leg and chest, lacerations on his wrists, abrasions on his neck, bruises on his face, broken ribs—saw needles being inserted into his skin, charts being written on, and orders being called out to take Dean away.
Take him to where John couldn’t see. He began to push against the many arms, intent on following Dean’s disappearing gurney.
“Sir, calm down—you need to—“
John pushed the restraining hands away, unaware that he was swearing. He felt the air escape his lungs, felt the vibrations scrape against his throat, but he couldn’t care less what he said. His only concern was keeping Dean in his sights. He couldn’t lose him. If he lost Dean, he’d have nothing left. If he lost Dean, he’d lose himself.
“You’re not going to lose him,” said a voice in his ear. A soft voice, familiar in its richness and weight. A hand cupped his cheek. Another rested lightly on his chest. “John! John, listen to me. You’re not going to lose your son.”
John stopped fighting and turned, his eyes meeting the calm, brown eyes of Dr. Rice.
“Hey, Doc,” John rasped through the oxygen mask.
“They’re taking him up to do a scan, see if he has any internal bleeding. I will let you know if he goes into surgery,” Dr. Rice promised.
“Thank you,” John said, confounded by the calm he felt seeping into him at the very sight of this woman.
She sighed, her eyes scraping him with shame as she looked down at his leg. “You are a mess.”
John simply stared at her.
Arching an eyebrow, Dr. Rice looked back at him. “If any screws are loose…” she said with mock-sternness. Eyes softening, she asked, “How’s the pain?”
“Hurts like a sonuvabitch,” John confessed. “But it’s… getting numb.”
“I’ll up the morphine dosage before we take you to X-ray,” she promised. “Hate to tell you this, but you’re back in here for awhile.”
“With Dean,” John slurred, the effects of the morphine causing his tongue to trip over the insides of his teeth. His eyes drooped and he forced them open, needing her promise.
Dr. Rice smoothed her cool hand across his forehead, drawing away soot as she pulled it back. “I promise,” she said softly. “I’ll make sure you’re with Dean.”
With that, John succumbed to mercy of medicine.
Sam was wearing fatigues.
Dean stood in one room, empty save the familiar white furniture, and stared through the opened doorway into another room, the twin of this one in every way except that on the floor in it sat his younger brother, dressed in fatigues, field dressing what appeared to be an M16.
He stepped through the door, feeling a strange sort of weightlessness as he did so. Confused, he looked over his shoulder at the room he just left. As he watched, a small box turtle crawled out from beneath the bed.
“Hey, there you are!” Sam’s voice greeted him.
Dean turned back to face the room he now stood in, looking down at his brother. The M16 had become a Glock and Dean watched Sam’s fingers move swift and sure, reassembling the weapon. He lifted a brow.
“What are they teaching you at that school of yours?” he asked.
“Huh?” Sam looked up at him, his brows meeting over his nose in question. His hands never stopped moving.
“I’ve never seen you do that so fast.” Dean pointed to the pistol in Sam’s lap, noticing that it was now Dean’s old nickel-plated Colt .45.
Sam rolled his eyes and shook his head, looking back down at the weapon. “That’s because I’m not doing it,” he sighed. “You are.”
Dean rubbed the back of his neck and moved away from Sam — a freakin’ fatigue-wearing Sam — and moved to the mirror. It hit him that the room had no windows, no lamps, no overhead light, and yet he could still see perfectly well.
“Well, since there’s really nobody here but me,” Dean said, staring at his reflection, “you won’t mind if I say this is fucked up.”
He heard the click of metal on metal and looked over his shoulder. Sam was now wiping the barrel of a shotgun with a soft white rag. The Colt — along with the rest of the weapons Dean had seen in his brother’s shockingly capable hands — was nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe,” his brother allowed. “I mean, you could argue that you’ve been running away from yourself for so long it’s only when you’re forced to stop that you actual face what’s been tearing you down from the inside, or,” Sam looked up, his years melting away from his face as he grinned, “maybe you just missed me. Either way, I’ll give you that it’s weird.”
Shaking his head slightly with tolerant wonder, Dean turned back toward the mirror and jerked in surprise. Written in black marker, words scrunched up in the much-smaller space, was his what if list. What if John never came back, what if he was truly alone…what would he do? The largest item on the list, the letters practically appearing in 3D as they reflected in the mirror, were the words check on Sam.
“Yeah,” he conceded with a short hitch in his voice. “I do miss you, man.”
“Wonder what happens with the barrels?” Sam suddenly asked.
Dean turned away from the mirror and blinked at the sight of Sam now sitting on the bed, same position, same clothes, a sawed-off shotgun broken down in front of him.
Sam hefted the weapon as he inserted the firing pin. “The barrels. Think Dad just throws them away? Melts them down for bullets?”
“How the hell should I know?” Dean replied. “Maybe he has a secret stash somewhere. How’d you get up on the bed so fast?”
Sam lifted a brow. “What are you talking about?”
“Forget it.” Dean waved at him. “What’s with the getup?” He moved closer to the bed and flicked at the collar of Sam’s camouflaged shirt.
Sam’s hands were now taking apart a Winchester rifle, his hazel eyes flicking up to meet Dean’s. “I’m a soldier, right?”
Dean instantly shook his head. “No, Sam.”
Sam frowned. “Yes, I am, Dean. It’s what Dad was always harping about. It’s what you are—“
“Right,” Dean nodded. “Me, not you. You were never a soldier.”
The Winchester rifle was gone. Sam swung his legs over the end of the bed causing Dean to back up a step. “Oh, because I’m not good enough?”
“No, dude,” Dean shook his head. “Because you’re too good.”
Sam stood, planting his hands on his hips. “I don’t get you. All you ever wanted to be was like Dad. Why can’t you let me be the same?”
“Because you’re better than that, you idiot,” Dean snapped, pushing two fingers into Sam’s shoulder. “You’re better than Dad and me put together and you damn well know it. Don’t play like you’re about to deny it.”
Dean felt a sigh of satisfaction in his gut as Sam closed his mouth.
“You’ve known it since we were kids, Sam,” Dean went on, turning away, needing suddenly to see something other than the white room or his brother, finding nothing to rest his eyes on. “Your happiest moments were when you could show me up.”
“Because you were always such a cocky bastard, Dean!” Sam yelled. “You were always stronger, faster, better. I couldn’t keep up!”
Dean frowned at him. “What are you talking about? I would never have left you behind.”
“Yeah, you would’ve,” Sam replied, eyes darting in doubt. “I know you would’ve.”
Dean shook his head, sadness making him heavy. “I would never have left you, Sam.”
It was quiet for a moment between them. The kind of quiet Dean worked so hard to avoid. The kind of quiet that screamed at him.
“Like I left you, you mean,” Sam said softly.
Dean swallowed. “You did what you had to do, Sam, I know that. I wanted you to go. You… you’d earned it.”
“But you wouldn’t have gone,” Sam said, his voice sounding oddly hollow, as if it were echoing inside of him. “That’s what you’re saying isn’t it? You wouldn’t have left me.”
“I…” Dean stopped, his voice strangling. His gut reaction was to tell his brother — this image of his brother standing before him dressed for war — that he’d never leave him. That it would never have crossed his mind. But something held him back.
What if Sam had never applied to Stanford? What if Sam had withered, given in to the lifestyle, become a hunter? Would Dean have continued on, fought the good fight next to his father until the world decided his time to die? Or would he have sought a different life?
Was there a different life than this?
“There has to be,” Sam said softly.
“What?” Dean blinked.
“A different life than this one,” Sam clarified.
“How’d you know I—“
Sam simply raised an eyebrow, his eyes bouncing a bit.
“Okay, dude, that’s just wrong on so many different levels,” Dean grumbled. “You really know everything I think?”
Sam’s lips dipped in a suppressed grin. “Eventually.”
Feeling ornery, Dean regarded his brother with hooded eyes, conjuring up a favorite image. A full-fledge grin split his face as he watched Sam’s face fold in disgust at the thought of his older brother in such a situation.
“Dude! Seriously!” Sam protested, turning slightly away.
“Payback's a bitch, Sammy,” Dean chuckled.
“Just… let’s keep this PG, okay? This is a family dream, man!”
Dean crossed his arms over his chest. “Fair enough. If you stay out of my head until I’ve actually had a chance to say my thoughts.”
“Dude, how many times do I have to tell you? I’m already in your head!” Sam jutted his head forward to drive his point home.
“You know what I mean!” Dean protested.
“Fine, then, answer the question!” Sam demanded.
“Fine, then I will!” Dean retorted, his voice rising.
“Fine!” Sam yelled.
“What was it?”
“Would you have left me?”
“NO!” Dean fired back his answer in a quick attempt to silence his brother, not realizing that he’d unconsciously voiced the truth. He stepped back, leaning against the accordion doors of the closet. “No,” he said more softly. “I wouldn’t have left you. I… I couldn’t, Sammy.”
“Why?” Sam’s voice was soft, child-like. He seemed to be shrinking inside the fatigues as they spoke.
“’Cause this is all I have, man. This is me. My life. Watching out for you, doing the job. I… I’m not built for anything else.”
“But…” Sam boosted himself up on the bed and Dean blinked at the rounded features and large eyes staring back at him. “What if you could, y’know, learn something else? Don’t you want… to like, get married? Have your own kid?”
Dean shook his head. “Maybe. Someday. I don’t know. But… I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t supposed to take care of you. I mean, besides shooting things and fixing cars… it’s the one thing I’ve been good at.”
And suddenly Sam was twelve. And the fatigues hung from him, swallowing his hands and feet, exposing his collar bones. His brother stared up at him with liquid eyes, tears balanced on the edge of thick lashes.
“And then I left you.”
Dean felt his throat constrict, his eyes burn. He wanted to reassure this kid sitting on the bed across from him. Wanted to tell him that it was okay, he was okay. That leaving was the best thing he could have done. He wanted to offer him hope that this choice was the catalyst to a whole new life for both of them.
But he couldn’t speak. Because Sam had left him and had taken with him the only sure thing Dean had in his life. He’d knocked over the fragile house of cards that was their family and Dean was ashamed to admit he wasn’t strong enough to reassemble it alone. Not with the pendulum that was their father swinging over the delicate balance.
“Yeah,” he choked out finally. “You did.”
Sam sniffed, looking down, his bangs falling across his eyes. “Hey, Dean?”
“Yeah, kid?” Dean replied, wanting to also roll back time, wanting to be sixteen to match Sam’s youth. Wanting to forget what it was like to hurt the way he had. But at twenty-two he was ancient compared to this image of his brother. He was ancient and weary and had learned that that the world had limitless ways to make him bleed.
“I’m here now,” Sam said, looking up as a tear lost its war with gravity and danced down his cheek.
Dean felt his lips tug up in an automatic smile. “This is true.”
His back to the closet doors, Dean slid down to the floor so that he now looked up at Sam. He glanced down, looking beneath the bed out of habit. It was no surprise when he saw the turtle.
“Dude,” Dean shook his head. “What the hell is up with this freakin’ turtle?”
Sam shrugged, the too-big shirt barely shifting with the motion, and wiped the back of his hand beneath his nose. “Hell if I know.”
There was no real transition between nothing and everything. Not this time.
He simply moved from quiet darkness to demanding light.
Only one thing kept him from crying out in protest to the assault on his senses: the blessed weightlessness of his pain medication. John took a slow, hesitant breath, testing to see if his lungs would hold, or if they would burst inside of him like two balloons, bleeding out his failure in an impressive exit.
When nothing happened, he took another breath and hazarded a slow turn of his head, tracking his eyes to the steady beat of a monotone beep. His eyes ached. It was the only thing he could really feel. They seemed too big for his head and he wasn’t convinced that moving them too quickly would result in their tumbling from their sockets and rolling across the floor.
Blinking slowly to soothe the incessant burn, John focused on the image opposite him. Dean lay quiet and still in a bed much like his own, a ventilation tube inserted between barely-parted lips, his face clean of dirt, but shadowed with bruises. John scanned his son’s form, noting the bandages on Dean’s wrists that gave off the impression of a suicide attempt. The lower half of Dean’s body was covered with a white sheet, but he could see the thicker layer of what he assumed where bandages along his right leg.
What drew John’s eyes, however, was the angry red mark on his son’s bare chest—and the fact that there was nothing covering it.
The beeping came from Dean’s side of the room. Looking around his own bed, John saw that he was only tethered by an IV on the back of his right hand. His left leg now sported a snowy-white cast and was propped up on a pillow, but there was no contraption suspending it from above. And best of all, no catheter.
With a clumsy hand, John reached up and pulled the oxygen cannula from his face, annoyed with the way the stream of air tickled the inside of his nose.
“Ah! Wait,” called a voice from the doorway of his room. John looked over, eyes meeting Dr. Rice’s. “Not yet,” she shook her head, reaching his bed and slipping the cannula back in place. “Not until I’m happier with your oxygen levels.”
He swallowed, gratefully accepting the cup of ice water and pulling in a cooling drink through the straw she held steady for him.
“Surprised to see you,” he managed.
“It’s a small hospital,” she allowed. “And you’re a special case.”
John looked over at Dean. “How is he?”
Dr. Rice sighed tiredly and moved to the foot of Dean’s bed. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it, John,” she said, picking up Dean’s chart. “I’m concerned. There’s no internal bleeding, which is fortunate, but the previously cracked ribs fractured further, which is something we need to keep close eye on.” She glanced at him quickly. “I don’t have to tell you of the dangers of infection from broken bones.”
John shook his head once, waiting for the rest.
“The burns on his leg have been treated, and we’re dosing him with a pretty hefty antibiotic. They’ll heal, but he’ll have some rather interesting scars when he wears shorts.”
“Dean doesn’t… do shorts,” John rasped, suddenly transported by memory. The last time he’d seen his son in anything other than jeans or sweats he’d been a toddler and Mary had dressed him.
“The rest of the wounds are superficial and with time will heal,” she said, putting the chart back down and looking at Dean. “But he’s… fading. His vitals seem to be slowly diminishing and I can’t…” She lifted her shoulders helplessly. “We’re doing what we can. I promise you,” she looked over at John, “we will do everything we can.”
“Dean’s a fighter,” John declared.
Dr. Rice nodded. “I don’t doubt it,” she replied. “But when you’ve practiced medicine as long as I have, you learn that some battles can’t be won.”
John swallowed hard, looking at Dean’s face. “What about his chest?”
He heard the frown in Dr. Rice’s voice as she answered, “That burn worries me. It hasn’t blistered, and the darkening of the skin around the edges makes it appear as though it was caused by… well, dry ice, almost. Not fire.”
“Ice?” John asked, confused.
“I’m leaving it uncovered for now. A nurse will be in to clean it every hour until we see some improvement.”
She turned from Dean and regarded John, her head tilted to the side a hand on her hip. “Now, you…”
John lifted an eyebrow.
“You were pretty lucky,” she moved closer to his bed. “Your pins held, though the bones did shift slightly.”
“No shit,” John muttered.
Dr. Rice matched his raised brow. “None whatsoever. Do you have any idea how badly you could have damaged this leg? How easy would it have been to do… whatever it is you do if I’d had to amputate?”
John blinked, his mind unable to compute the possibility.
“Exactly,” Dr. Rice nodded, evidently satisfied that she’d horrified in enough. “You have some second degree burns on your hand and arm, but they should heal quickly with the way your body seems to generate new cells. You’re to stay off that leg,” she poked the air just above his chest, “for the next two weeks. Then we’ll talk crutches.”
“Fine,” John nodded.
It was Dr. Rice’s turn to draw back, eyes blinking rapidly with surprise. “Fine?”
John glanced at Dean, the pounding behind his eyes reminding him to take it slow. “I’m not going anywhere ‘til my boy’s better.”
The quiet in the room was punctuated by the slow, steady rhythm of Dean’s beating heart. He heard words bouncing around inside of Dr. Rice’s head, felt her working through the tension of figuring out what to say next. He shifted his eyes to her, catching her gaze with his unrelenting one.
“I’m not leaving here without Dean,” he said, each word clipped at the edge, an order implied.
“Okay, John,” she said quietly, crossing her arms over herself as if holding back reality. “You hungry?”
John shook his head.
“You need to eat.”
“Later, maybe,” John said, watching Dean breathe. It was calming, reassuring to see the motion.
“Get some rest,” Dr. Rice said. “Sherriff Bonner has already been asking for a piece of you.”
“He can get in line,” John replied.
Dr. Rice chuckled softly and he heard her move toward the door.
“Hey, Doc?” he called. He heard her pause and turned his head to look at her. “What’s your first name?”
She hesitated and he watched as she set her mouth in a careful line. “It’s Anne.”
John’s lips quirked. “Your name is Anne Rice?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You giving me lip, MacGillicuddy?”
“Touché, Doc,” John smiled. He looked down, pulling strength from his gut, then glanced up at her through his lashes. “Thank you.”
“Just heal up, John,” she replied, her hand on the door. “Maybe one of these days you can tell me what all of this… pain… was for.”
“Maybe,” John whispered as she closed the door. He looked back at Dean. “If I can figure it out myself.”
At some point he’d shucked his jacket. He didn’t remember taking it off, but he no longer had it on as he sat on the floor opposite Sam, a jumble of blue and red marbles between them. Sam — the twelve-year-old version of Sam — was wearing a Metallica Black album T-shirt and jeans with ripped knees. His bare feet were tucked up under his legs.
“How come you never gave these to me?” Sam asked.
Dean shrugged. “You kinda grew up too fast, man.”
“I woulda liked them,” Sam protested.
Dean lifted a shoulder. “Maybe.”
Sam flicked his thumb against the large red shooter and knocked one of Dean’s blue marbles out of the circle. He leaned over with a grin to gather his winnings and Dean saw something dangling from his brother’s neck.
Sam straightened up. “What?”
“Why are you wearing my pendant?”
“Your what?” Sam’s face twisted into a question mark.
Dean reached over and thunked his brother on the chest with two fingers. “That, man. You gave it to me.”
Sam looked down and fingered the leather strap holding the pendant in place. “I did?”
Dean started to reply, then looked again. It wasn’t his pendant he now saw, it was a pentagram. He reached up to his neck and felt the familiar, reassuring presence of his own pendant right where it should be. Looking back at his brother, he saw that Sam was staring at him with worried eyes.
“Forget it,” Dean shook his head. “Let’s do something else.”
“What is this thing, Dean?” Sam asked, bouncing the pentagram between his fingers.
“A pentagram,” Dean replied, drawing out the word.
Sam rolled his eyes. “I know that,” he replied snottily. “I mean, why the hell am I wearing it?”
“You think I know?”
“This is your dream,” Sam pointed out for the fiftieth time.
Dean stood, impatiently kicking the marbles aside and watching them scatter, some rolling beneath the bed, some under the crack in the closet door. “Like hell,” he grumbled. “If it were then I’d get out of this damn room.”
“Why?” Sam asked, his voice cracking slightly. “I like this room.”
Dean turned away, his arms spread out to the side. “Why? It’s… tiny and white and… tiny.”
“Don’t you remember this room, Dean?” Sam’s voice was deepening, the edges of his words rumbling slightly so the Dean was suddenly reminded of their father. He turned around and saw with a slight bit of horror that Sam was aging. He was caught somewhere between twelve and eighteen.
“Why would I remember this room?” Dean replied, trying not to visibly freak out in front of his brother.
Sam started to push himself to his feet. Dean half-expected his jeans and shirt to tear ala The Incredible Hulk as he stood to his full, eighteen-year-old height, his shoulders broadening, his muscles growing. But as things can do only in dreams, his clothes grew with him and Dean found himself having to look up to his meet his little brother’s eyes.
“This was our room, man,” Sam said. “In Uncle Mike’s house — after the fire.”
Dean looked around him once more. He’d first dreamed about this room the night after they’d fought the Kappa. He’d dreamed about it nearly every night since, always searching for Sam, never finding him. He tried to go back, to recall that time, but it was so far away, and so much had happened.
“How do you remember this room?” Dean challenged. “You weren’t even one.”
“Well, I don’t,” Sam said, shifting his weight to one leg and resting his hand on his hip. “But this is—“
“Yeah, yeah.” Dean waved an impatient hand at him. “Spare me more of your dream weaver crap, okay?”
Sam lifted his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. I’m just saying—“
“Well, don’t say,” Dean snapped, walking around Sam to stand in one of the two doorways. “If this is a dream, then why can’t I leave, huh?”
Sam was quiet behind him.
“And why do the doorways just lead me in circles?”
Sam said nothing.
Dean rested a hand on the doorjamb, dropping his hands with a tired sigh. “Why are you here, Sam?”
When Sam still didn’t answer him, Dean turned around. The room was empty.
“Sam?” He called, a slight panic whispering through his heart. “Sam! Where are you?”
He moved to the closet and practically ripped the accordion doors from the hinges as he tore them open. It was empty save for a few marbles. He turned to face the bed, knowing the only other place he could look. Fear gripped him. He was terrified to look under that bed. He was terrified to find Sam, and terrified not to find him.
Panic rose, curling gnarled fingers inside of him and clenching a tight fist.
Continued in Part 6B, here: http://gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/71611.html>