Previously appeared in Route 666 #6 (2013), from Ashton Press
K Hanna Korossy
"Who are you waiting for?"
The lilt of the voice dragged Sam Winchester's head up from where he'd been staring at his scrubbed-raw hands. Dean's blood, fresh and dried, had lined every crevice and been flaking off his palms when the nurse had shown him to the residents' shower room. That was what happened when you tried to stop an arterial bleed; even his clothes had been a lost cause.
He focused on the woman who was sitting in the chair perpendicular to his. Maybe in her fifties, with her hair in that ubiquitous short, permed middle-age style, she had kind eyes and more laugh lines than wrinkles. And she was looking at him not with the boredom or morbid curiosity he usually got, but what seemed like honest concern.
That was what prompted him to answer. He cleared his throat. "Uh. My brother." He tried to remember what Dean's name was on their current insurance cards and came up blank. Whatever, it didn't really matter. "Dean," he finished.
She nodded. "Was he in an accident?" Off his surprise, she nodded at the scrubs he wore. "It looks like it was an emergency?"
"Oh." He thought back to the Oogle-Boogle whose name Dean had mocked ruthlessly, right up until the serpent lashed a serrated tail around Dean's leg with its last gasp. It hadn't managed to drag him down with it into its watery grave, but it had sliced neatly through the femoral artery. The water and dirt were red before Sam had the bleeding slowed enough to call for help.
He would definitely consider it an emergency when the last thing he heard from his brother was the fading whisper of his name.
"Uh, yeah. Dean cut up his leg." Sam's mouth twisted. "Construction accident."
"I'm so sorry." She reached out, hesitated. "May I?"
He swallowed, nodded through blurry vision.
She laid a much smaller hand on top of his, squeezing gently. "I'm sure they'll have some news for you soon."
"Yeah." His head bobbed. Every movement felt jerky, wrong. "Yeah."
She squeezed again. "My son's in surgery, too."
Sam blinked, glanced up at her again. Now that he was looking for it, he could see the worry. "I'm sorry."
He was surprised by her smile. "It's okay, I'm sure he'll be fine. We had some time to prepare, too. God willing, everything will go smoothly and this'll fix him right up."
Right, God willing. Except God never seemed to will them anything but grief. Sam nodded once and dropped his head again.
He'd had this feeling they were living on borrowed time ever since the semi hit them. First Dad died, and Dean almost with him. Then things were just starting to get better when Dean told him about Dad's final orders. After that, it had seemed like just a matter of time.
But Dean wasn't supposed to go before he did.
Sam's head snapped up. He didn't get to his feet, his legs too wobbly, but he perched on the edge of the chair as he stared up at the doctor. Vaguely, he felt the woman's hand tighten on his.
The doctor looked drawn, tired and sad. There was no reassurance to be found in his face.
Sam felt his heart stutter, his lungs lock.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Cousins. Your brother lost too much blood—we couldn't stabilize him."
And that was how his world ended, not with a bang, but with his whimper.
Something hurt. Make that, everything hurt. It was hard to think. Weird sounds and smells.
Hospital. Bad news.
Dean struggled to open his eyes. His hands curled open and shut in a vain attempt to grasp something, but nothing—no one—was there to hold on to. Blurred vision cleared enough to see curtains on both sides, movement beyond his feet, but no one sitting close, waiting on him.
Alone again then. Awesome.
How had he gotten there? Did Dad—? No, it hit like a fresh blow: Dad was gone. Just Sammy. And the Oogie-Boogie monster. Didn't they kill it? Dean dragged a hand up to his face, rubbing at rough cheeks, swollen eyes, trying to remember. His stomach was squirming and his body ached like he'd just had the flu—twice—which meant blood transfusion. Which meant blood loss. Maybe they hadn't killed it? If it had gotten in a few last licks, gotten Sam—
The doctor had snuck up on him. Dean was blaming the drugs. He tried to focus on the guy, who looked like he'd lost his puppy.
"Mr. Cousins, can you hear me?"
Dean resisted a roll of the eyes, afraid they'd roll right out of his head. But it took three tries to get enough saliva together to answer the doc, so maybe the question wasn't so ridiculous. "Yeah."
"You just had surgery on your leg—do you remember what happened?"
"Uh." Not really, nor would he have any idea what story Sam cooked up. "Yeah," Dean muttered, and left it at that. He moved on to the more important part. "Sam?"
"Your brother?" The doctor fidgeted, grimaced. "I'm sorry, he isn't here. He, er, said to tell you he hoped you recovered quickly but he had to go back to…looking for answers?"
He could've hidden the flinch if he weren't so weak. Dean closed his eyes instead, shutting out the doc with the sympathetic eyes, the empty room, his brother's parting words. Looking for answers—yeah, because that had turned out so well last time. He'd really thought after Gordon…after Ava…
"'M tired," he said gruffly, not needing to fake the exhaustion in his tone. Sick and tired.
"Of course. Get some sleep and I'll check in on you later."
He waited until he heard the doctor's footsteps fade before he opened his eyes and studied the room. There, they always kept extra gowns in cabinets like that. If he'd lost as much blood as it felt like, his clothes would've been trashed, or claimed by police. But Dean needed something to wear right now.
If Sam hadn't stuck around, God knows Dean wasn't about to.
At least as he lurched out of bed, he could pretend his misery was just because of his injuries.
"I don't understand," Sam said dully. It felt like it wasn't the first time. "He's my brother—I have ID—"
"It's not about identification, sir," the nurse said with a smile that was probably meant to be placating. "It's hospital policy—the body needs to be processed before it can be released to the family. You have to come back in the morning."
"I'm not…" Sam winced, pinching his nose. Not a vision, just a headache. Maybe an aneurism if he was lucky. "I'm not asking you to release him. I just want to…want to see him." To convince himself Dean was gone, he didn't add.
It was probably why he was so calm, the detached Psych 101 student part of him figured. Denial, numbness, whatever you wanted to call it: Dean's death didn't seem real, didn't seem possible. A few words couldn't change the world so completely.
"I just want to see him," he repeated, a little more desperately. "I don't understand why that's so—"
"I'm sorry," the nurse said with quiet insistence. "Your brother was…he's going to be cleaned up. You don't want to see him right now, honey, trust me. Come back in the morning and you can spend some time with him then. Okay?"
That produced a flare of…something in his chest. Irritation, maybe. Nobody kept him away from Dean. But…if he insisted, if he saw…it would be real. Right now it was like Shroedinger's Cat: Dean was dead and he wasn't. If Sam saw, if he opened that box, he'd know for sure.
And there was a terrible dread rising in him about which way that would go.
"Okay," he whispered. "Okay." In the morning. One last night of pretending Dean was just out late.
But even as he turned and stumbled down the hall, he knew he wouldn't be able to wait that long, even if the answer killed his hope. He had to know.
Because surely the world couldn't just keep going on like normal if Dean Winchester was no longer in it…right?
He wasn't sure, exactly, how he got out of the hospital.
His wallet—and ring, and amulet, and silent phone, and Dad's pocket knife and flask—had been in a bag in the nightstand. No gowns or scrubs, but once he made it swayingly to his feet, Dean was pretty sure he wouldn't have been able to change clothes. He settled for a robe and slippers that Sam would have made fun of him for if he'd been there.
Then he'd just acted like he knew what he was doing and had every right to do it and, as expected, no one asked any questions. The details were fuzzy, but somehow he made it down to the front doors and a waiting cab.
The cab driver had been willing to look up the first hotel in the phone book for him for an extra ten, and dropped him off at the door. The clerk barely raised an eyebrow at Dean's get-up, but he seemed to be telling the truth when he checked the records and told Dean there was no Jim Rockford registered there.
And…that was where Dean's plan had ended.
He got a room. What else was he going to do? It was the nearest one they had, and thank God for that because by the time Dean reached it, his vision was tunneling and he couldn't hear anything over the thud of his heart.
Dean shut the door behind him, then hobbled over to the bed and sank facedown on it with a groan.
Then promptly rolled over and threw up over the edge onto the floor.
His hand was shaking as Dean wiped it over his mouth and rolled away from the smell. He whispered a curse and laid his arm over his eyes.
"You are so screwed," he muttered to the quiet.
There'd been times when Dad had left him on his own on hunts that hadn't gone well. Once or twice when Dean had been this bad off or worse and alone, an island of hurt. But he could always call his dad if he needed to, or even…even Sammy at school as a last resort. And he'd had his car, and his guns, and his pride.
Pretty sure he was down to zero now. Sam had even taken the car and the weapons. Like another time, when a hospital had kicked Dean out for lack of payment and he'd ended up in an empty motel room just like this one. Sam had been horrified then, having been out at an emergency job he'd been sure would be over before Dean was even aware he'd left. He'd had every intention of being there for Dean when he woke up.
Not this time, though. He'd taken off once already a few weeks before, and had made it pretty clear to the doc that he was leaving again.
Maybe, a small voice inside Dean taunted, Sam wasn't planning to come back at all. To what, a brother who'd been tasked to kill him if he went off the reservation? A guy who drank too much and would rather hit those he loved than talk about what was bothering him, and who was an aimless mess without his dad to give him orders? What did Sam have to return to, anyway?
Dean swallowed harshly, eyes stinging with the despair he usually locked away so Sam wouldn't see it. He dug his fingers into the sockets, bit down on his lip.
And grieved for the thousandth time that he was the one who kept walking out of the hospital, not their dad.
When the knife he was using to jimmy the window slipped and sliced across his left hand, Sam didn't even feel it.
It was the warm trail of liquid down his hand and the spatter on the dirty white frame, black in the dim parking lot lights, that made him realize he was leaving critical evidence behind. Dispassionately, Sam wrapped a handkerchief around his hand, dribbled some holy water over the window to wash the blood away, then went back to prying open the morgue window.
He wasn't really thinking anymore. If he had been, he'd probably be worried about himself. But nothing seemed to matter when he was breaking in to see his brother's corpse.
The ancient latch finally gave. Without any sense of triumph, Sam slipped the knife away and shrunk himself down as much as possible to slither in through the window.
Unlike in many TV shows, blanket-covered bodies weren't laid out on stretchers all over the place. Decomp was quick and odorous, and the corpses that hadn't already been autopsied and stowed in refrigerated lockers were neatly lined up in the large freezer. Sam was just as glad not to see them, and turned with single purpose to the morgue computer in sleep mode on a nearby desk.
A minute later, he sat back, perplexed.
There was nothing to hack into, not from the pathologist's computer itself. No locked files, and no reason to think any information was hidden or kept in an unexpected location. But there wasn't any record of a Dean Cousins, Dean Winchester, or any other alias Sam could think of that had been in his brother's wallet. The only new arrival that day, in fact, had been an eighty-six-year-old woman who'd probably died of a heart condition.
"What the…?" Sam pushed up and headed for the bank of clipboards in the rack by the door. No, no, and…no. Frown deepening, he went over to the freezer, took a breath, and opened it. Two bodies rested inside. One was the old lady, and the other… The other was a middle-aged Middle Eastern man. Probably in a bureaucratic limbo over being autopsied despite his beliefs, Sam absently figured, but more to the point, the guy wasn't Dean.
A suspicion, half hope and half horror, began to take root in his gut.
Sam whipped through the room, pulling morgue drawers open and sliding them shut again. Many were empty. The few that weren't held a range of ages, ethnicities, and genders, even a young girl. But not Dean.
Sam stood in the middle of the room, puffing like a race horse and running a hand through his hair as he processed that. Not Dean.
Jaw set, Sam turned back to the computer.
Hospital records told a different story than the doctor had. Dean Cousins, admitted with trauma to the upper left leg, taken to surgery to repair the damage…resting and stable after. Reported missing, AMA, by the duty nurse at 8:36 that evening.
"Holy crap," Sam muttered, dazed. According to his watch, Dean—alive and well enough—had snuck out of the hospital nearly three hours before. Seven hours after Sam had been told he was dead.
He jabbed the button on the desk phone so hard, he nearly broke it.
The morgue door opened two minutes after his page. The doctor walked right through the devil's trap Sam had drawn with a Sharpie just inside the door, and stopped at the sight of Sam.
"Is…?" He blinked, clearly unnerved by whatever he saw in Sam's face. "Where's Dr. Perry?"
"I came to get my brother. You remember my brother, Doc, Dean Cousins? Didn't survive the surgery on his leg?"
The furrows of confusion on the doctor's brow deepened. "Sorry, when was this?"
"Today," Sam growled, striding closer. "This afternoon. Although, I can see why you'd have trouble remembering because, oh, yeah, Dean isn't really dead. He came through surgery just fine. So you mind telling me why you lied to me today, about this?"
The doctor seemed to deflate. He rubbed a hand over his mouth in a gesture that reminded Sam sharply of his brother, and he noticed for the first time that the man had bloodshot eyes and a pronounced tremor. He took a step to the side to lean against a counter. "I…don't know."
Sam was almost in his face now, hand itching to punch the man in the face. "You don't know?"
"I was… I think I had a waking seizure today." The man's eyes were darting everywhere, but he was clearly fighting guilt and distress, not dissembling. "I…lost some time. I'm sorry, but I don't remember your brother…or you."
Sam stared at him, slack-jawed. Then leaned even closer to the man's open shirt collar…and took a sniff.
He stumbled back the same time the doctor did, the man looking as shocked and afraid as Sam. "Listen, if you, uh…," the doctor stammered, "if you want to file a complaint, Legal opens at 9 tomorrow." He was moving faster toward the door with every step backward. "I have to… I'm sorry." And then he was gone, the morgue door swinging in his wake.
Sam stared after him blankly, mind racing.
Sulfur. The doctor had smelled of sulfur. Like someone who'd been recently possessed. Sam would've bet good money the nurse he'd talked to that afternoon also reeked and was missing some time.
Demons wanted him to think Dean was dead and, what, told Dean the same lie? Or worse? Something bad enough that Dean had taken off without even trying to call him.
Sam pulled his phone out, thumb hovering over the speed dial. Then he shook his head and shoved it back into his pocket with a curse. After all the tricks and lies, this was something he had to do in person. Besides, he had an idea where Dean was.
And, Sam thought bitterly as he wriggled back out through the window, what his brother was going through.
Reality and dreams blurred.
He was burning up, then freezing. Thirsty and sick to his stomach. There were whispers and shouts, lights prickling over his eyes. He tried to rub them but found himself paralyzed, apparently not really awake. Dean swallowed, tongue thick in his mouth, and wished desperately it would end, one way or another.
And then there was the pounding.
It sounded like Sammy, but he was pretty sure Sammy wasn't there. No one wanted to stay with his pathetic, loser ass. Dad's voice whispered in his ears, urging him to kill Sam, and Dean twisted away from the poisonous words. No way, he'd die himself before—
"Dean?" Hands, cool on his burning skin, skimmed his forehead, his cheeks. "Hey, can you hear me?"
He heard. He'd heard it all: every fight Dad and Sammy ever had, Dad's mutterings about disappointing children, Sam's about not wanting to be there. Gordon's claims of Sam being evil, the crossroad demon's about Dad screaming in Hell, Sam's about what he feared he was becoming.
"Dean, hey, hey." He was jostled, jolted with nausea. Something patted his cheek. "C'mon, man, look at me."
He obeyed, because he always obeyed. Lifted heavy, crusted eyelids to stare at the blur that was incomprehensibly his brother. A blink, and Sammy's face sharpened, creased, aged. He was already looking more like Dad.
"Dean?" Sam said, but if anything, his voice sounded even younger.
He blinked. The scenery wavered like a mirage, but Sam stood solid in the center, hands gripping Dean hard. Not letting him go.
He licked his lips, sandpaper against sand. "'ought you left," he managed to mumble.
Sam's mouth twisted, eyes shiny bright. "I thought you were dead." And then that big hand was sliding under Dean's neck, tipping his head forward against Sam's mop of hair. Pressed together at just those two points of contact, forehead and nape, as Sam took some deep, unsteady breaths.
Maybe…maybe he wasn't the only one who was scared at the thought of being alone?
Dean raised a clumsy hand to pat Sam's chest once, then hooked his fingertips into the flannel to keep his hand from falling back. He swallowed again, oh so thirsty but needing even more to drink this in.
"D'you see it?" he finally whispered when he couldn't take any more. "Way 's tail came out… 'was like Gandalf an' the Balrog."
Sam spluttered and lifted his head, eyes wet but crinkling. "Seriously?" He shook his head with a huff. "Dude, only you would compare yourself to a powerful wizard."
He didn't have enough spit left to answer, just watched Sam standing next to him smiling and relieved. And even though it was just the two of them and there was still so much crap hanging over their heads, Dean felt surprisingly…content.
Unsurprisingly, Dean was still pretty much a mess. They talked—or at least Sam talked and Dean seemed to be doing his best to stay awake and listen—as Sam checked his sutures, gave him swallows of Gatorade, and helped him change into something warmer and less embarrassing. He told Dean about the possessed doctor and the lie that had separated them and even the lady in the waiting room who'd made him think of their mom, and gleaned from Dean's few words that his brother had been similarly misled. In between scrubbing up dried vomit and wiping off dried sweat, he saw Dean's faith return that Sam hadn't walked out on him, and resolved that his brother wouldn't have future reason to think so.
Those hours when he thought Dean was dead were still fresh in his mind and heart. When he felt the weight of his father's loss all the more for having no one else to share it with, and understood with fresh clarity the burden of John's final words that Dean had shouldered alone for months. The awful grief and pain and loneliness. He got it a little more now, and he wouldn't be forgetting it anytime soon.
"So I guess this means we're some kind of threat, huh?" Sam called from the bathroom as he rinsed out the threadbare motel towels.
"Mmm?" Dean was sliding into badly needed sleep, and Sam knew they'd probably have to have this conversation all over again once Dean was aware and processing. But he continued in part thinking out loud and part wanting to share with the brother he'd briefly lost.
He stuck his head out the bathroom door to catch Dean's flagging attention. "The demon. Maybe we're doing something right if they want to separate us that bad." The fact the demon hadn't actually made a move on either of them, especially a vulnerable Dean, was disturbing in its own way, but Sam needed to focus on the positives right now.
Dean yawned, shoving himself up a scant inch or so on the bed. "I guess?" He tilted his head forward to give Sam a surprisingly alert look. "See? Even Yellow Eyes knows 'm looking out for ya."
Sam left the towels and stepped into the room, absently drying his hands on his jeans. He should've known better than to think Dean was out of it, especially where Sam was concerned. And what he said made a certain amount of sense. Wishful thinking, maybe, but still a reason for hope. "Yeah, okay," he conceded, mouth bending up in spite of itself. "Demons check their closet and under their beds for you every night. But it's my watch now, man—go to sleep."
"Dude," Dean rolled his eyes, and somehow managed to shut them in the process, "'m hungry."
"You're always hungry," Sam said fondly. "Get some rest—I'll get you something later."
"Pie," Dean yawned.
Sam's eyebrows went up.
"Nachos n'cheese." Dean's voice was drowsily winding down. "Milk…shake."
Sam dropped his head, hair swinging in his face as he shook it.
"Panca…pie…" Dean sucked in a congested breath and let it out in a snore.
Sam smiled, a real smile for the first in a long time. "Yeah," he whispered on a nod. "Good-night to you, too."