For What It's Worth
Sam spun quickly, firing right through the temple of the first body that emerged. Bloods arced and splattered as the infected man fell forward, hung up in the splintered section of the wall and the thick, black veins on his neck and cheek stood out starkly against his otherwise white skin.
They surged forward after that, breaking more of the wall supports and widening the gap in their determination to get to the three of them. Finding the way impeded, some of them finally spilled through the open door, each of them loosing that wordless guttural growl that set Sam's teeth on edge.
Four or five? His initial estimation wasn't even in the ballpark of accurate. They were looking at ten of these things, at least, and each of them was moving with a feral, single-minded focus to rip them apart. The only plus was that, so far, he didn't recognize any of the veiny faces hell-bent tearing him limb from limb.
"You see the difference yet?" Sam called over his shoulder to Risa, frustration driving his voice up in volume.
"Don't let them take me," she returned, steady but frightened. But whatever vulnerability she'd just allowed to slip past her considerable inner defenses was quickly stifled as she pursed her lips and took aim at the infected rushing them, dropping another one easily before they began to break through the wall in earnest.
"Don't worry," Dean assured her with a bloody, deadpan expression. "I owe you a headshot." He squeezed off a round and missed horribly wide, the bullet ineffectually striking the wall.
A hard, cold ball of dread formed in Sam's gut, because even with his head bleeding like it was, even with his vision compromised and his balance fucked, Sam really thought his brother could make that shot when push came to shove. And that wasn't his fault, because he'd been conditioned to.
The attacking infected were smart enough to recognize that miss of Dean's as a sign of weakness, of a vulnerability begging to be taken advantage of, and two of them split off from the rest of the group.
Dean managed to fire two more useless shots that damaged the structural integrity of the house more than they hurt his surging attackers. He went down much too quickly as they rushed and collided with his unsteady body, sending him thudding to the hardwood on his back with a shout.
Sam stepped forward and fired with a steady aim that was at a complete juxtaposition to the anxiety and adrenaline coursing through his veins as he watched Dean go down and stay there. When the pile went motionless, he waded through the deadweight arms and legs to thankfully find his brother in one bruised, rumpled piece, and dragged him upright.
There was no time to exchange reassurances or assign significance to any new injuries; not two seconds after he got Dean back on his feet, Risa cried out, tackled into the doorframe and drawing Sam's attention. She'd lost her gun in the attack but before he could decide to lend assistance, there was a flash of steel as she produced a blade, fought and hacked her way through her attacker. A bright spray of arterial blood decorated the floorboards as she slit his throat.
Sam didn't get the chance to be properly impressed, as one of them growled, grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and threw him into the wall. He hit, hard, and now it was his gun that was sent skittering out of play. He heard it clatter to the hardwood and immediately raised his arms to defend against an onslaught of blows that snapped his head left and right and left again. The face in front of him was snarling, nearly foaming. The infection had nearly run its course in this man, but this last burst of rabid, furious violence certainly didn't come across as death throes.
Sam's ears were ringing, and the arm pressed suddenly against his throat, forcing him against the wall was thick and sturdy as a tree branch. They were getting choosier, pickier about those that were killed and those that were turned. That much was obvious, or he'd have been one of the two already. But they weren't looking to do either with him. They were trying to incapacitate. To collect.
Hot, fetid breath oozed over the exposed skin of his face and throat and Sam gagged at the sensation, pawed at the arm and tried to pull away, tried even harder to pull in a solid lungful of oxygen, and failed on both accounts. His head swam and he blinked hard, sending the black spots scattering and bringing tears to his eyes, and through the wetness gathering on his lashes he thought he saw his bloody brother standing behind the infected man that had him pinned against the wall. Thought Dean might have had a gun pointed right at one of them.
He'd already made it quite clear that he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn right now, but with Sam backed into a corner, push shoved, and Dean squeezed the trigger.
Any shot, slash or stab that would kill a human being would kill one of these things. It was distracted by the shoulder hit Sam could only hope was intentional and not a missed shot taken at some other, more vital body part. A second shot squarely to the forehead proved him right and sent the creature careening completely away to slam thickly, bodily against the wall to slide to a heap against the baseboards.
Dean shifted his attention and aimed in tandem with Risa, who'd had time to collect her fallen Glock, and they fired three shots each at the remaining infected, dropping them to the floor in a twisted heap of veiny, stiffened limbs and dark, pooling blood.
Sam pulled away from the wall and kicked the body of his assailant onto its back, sent a discrete, cursory glance across the lax, distorted features of the others as he stooped to retrieve his gun and comforted himself with the knowledge that it didn't look like either of their guys were in the room. He remembered what was left of the team that had been with Dean when he'd been taken, and his mind quickly superimposed the gruesome images over the faces of a smirking Colin, and a too-young Jackson. He shook his head roughly, sending the mental pictures scattering away.
"Nice shooting," Risa offered in a shaky voice, breaking the somber silence that had fallen over the room.
Sam stared at her with a mixed bag of feelings. She'd shot his brother, dammit, and it was a shot meant to kill him. There was a bullet left in his suddenly incredibly heavy-feeling Beretta carved with her name, but she'd had more than one opportunity to finish the job, or turn tail and run, and did neither.
"Didn't I tell you we had a connection?" Dean asked, throwing her a wide, goofy smile that resembled a Halloween mask, or the twisted grin of a madman, with blood splattered across and dripping from his face. Not all of it his at that point, but more than enough. The seams of his jacket sleeve were ripped over his right shoulder, and he winced as he shifted his weight to his left leg.
Risa, looking equally embattled, didn't answer, just turned wide eyes to Sam. Whatever "connection" she may have never had the chance to have with an otherwise apocalyptic war-hardened Dean, Sam was the one who held her life in his hands.
But as he was prone to do, Dean made the decision for him, as his eyes rolled up and Sam was forced to drop the gun and step in quickly to catch his brother around the shoulders, halting his descent to the floorboards as he started to go down.
Sam's tired body protested the additional burden with creaks and cracks in joints that had seen their fair share of battle, and he was mindful of Dean's possibly once more fucked-up leg as he attempted a controlled drop, ended up in an awkward seated position with most of his blood-drenched, deadweight big brother flopped across his lap.
A silence fell once more over the room, the chilly air dense with displaced dust, heavy with death, and tangy with the scent of fired guns and spilled blood. A scent Sam had grown nauseatingly accustomed to. "Damn," he said, breaking the quiet, voice thick with exhaustion and just a sprinkling of awe.
"What?" Roughed up and trembling from her own waning burst of adrenaline, Risa's voice was brimming with more than one emotion, but awe certainly wasn't anywhere in the picture.
"Nothing. It's just…" Sam shook his head and drew his bloody brother closer to his chest, pressing two fingers against the pulse thrumming beneath Dean's stubbled jaw and pretending for just one moment that they were safe, surrounded by friendly faces and anywhere but here, regardless of the tacky blood staining the cool, clammy skin beneath his fingertips. "He made the shot."
She did little more than completely ignore his observation, spinning stiffly in the center of the dark room. "Is that all of them?"
"Yeah, I think so."
Risa snorted, a weary, decidedly unamused sound. She scrunched her nose, swiped her shoulder against her cheek to rid her face of a smear of blood there. "Considering our circumstances, I'm gonna need a little better than I think so."
"Yeah." Sam couldn't argue that point, and jostled his fallen brother as subtly as possible, trying to rouse him without it looking like that was what he's doing. If they hadn't yet given away the farm that Dean could sense the mere presence of the infected, Sam would have liked to not make it so blatantly obvious, no matter how desperate he might have been to put his own mind at ease and get them the hell out of there.
Dean's head rolled limply against Sam's shoulder but he wouldn't wake, mouth slack and closed eyes ringed with smoky, exhausted smudges against the seemingly bloodless backdrop of his pale, faintly freckled skin.
Sam had a gut instinct, and he'd been raised and trained to trust that, but he dug under the cuff of Dean's jacket for a second opinion, finding his brother's wrist cool, but thankfully not cold, and his own fingers remained warm where they were pressed against his skin. "I think we're in the clear," he said, without any clue how he was going to justify his reasoning if she asked.
But Risa already had other things on her mind, and it turned out that, no, they weren't in the clear just yet. Because she was stepping forward with a dark, heavy gaze, eyes trained on Dean and still gripping on her pistol like they weren't quite finished. Like Sam maybe shouldn't have been so hasty in allowing his own weapon to fall from his grasp, because she was frightened and desperate, wounded and unstable in ways that didn't come with visible marks or blinking neon signs.
Sam followed the line of her stare straight to the gaping furrow cut across his brother's head, and his fingers tightened on Dean's sleeve. "What the hell are you doing with that?"
She blinked hard, like he's startled her, and gestured with the barrel of her Glock. "He has an open wound."
"So?" Risa raised her eyebrows. "So he's covered in blood, and that wound is a point of ingress for the infection." She shook her head. "And I didn't have eyes on him the whole time."
Well, I did," Sam said loudly, stubbornly, and not inviting further argument. "You're not shooting my brother."
Risa jerked her head back in surprise, then lowered her voice to a softer, almost sympathetic tone. Like she'd been there, like she'd stood on the other end of such a conversation. "I get that he's your brother, Sam. But if you love him, then you won't let him turn into one of those things."
Rejecting her sympathy, Sam clenched his jaw and sent a harsh exhale through his nostrils. She misunderstood him, seemed to think he was trying to prolong the inevitable instead of pleading his case that Dean wasn't infected, but there was only so far he was willing to go. Only so much information he could share. "You don't get anything, lady, and you're not shooting my brother." Not again, anyway, he angrily and silently supplemented. "He's not infected."
Risa's eyes narrowed. "How could you possible know that?"
"I just do, okay?" Sam all but shouted, throwing his arm across Dean's chest. "Now put the damn gun away!"
"No." Risa shoos her head, her eyes bright and a little crazed as a rare shaft of sunlight hit them just right. "I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. I can't take that chance. I can't become…that."
She'll kill us both before she takes that chance, Sam realized, and he held up a hand. "Put the gun down, all right? He can't…" He worried his bottom lip. This wasn't exactly dinner table conversation, and Dean was going to kick his ass for this when he was feeling up to it. Better than being dead, he had to figure, though he wasn't entirely sure how true that was these days. "He can't be infected."
Risa's lip curled, and her finger inched toward the trigger. "What do you mean he can't be?"
"Complicated?" Risa lowered the gun, thumbed the safety but didn't completely tuck the Glock away. "Like how he knew those things were here? That kind of complicated?"
Sam nodded, relieved and irate, all at the same time. "Exactly that kind of complicated."
He was used to people coming back from the dead but the last face he expected to see in the doorway was Jackson, as he slipped in a smear of blood across the hardwood in the hall and thudded into the doorframe, not unlike Dean had before. Mere moments earlier, though it felt like it had been days ago.
Risa whirled, brought the gun up and took aim, and she was edgy and she'd already proven that she had an itchy trigger finger but she somehow at the same time had her wits about her, and she scared the shit out of the kid but didn't squeeze off a shot. So that was progress.
"Whoa, whoa." Jackson raised his hands quickly, ducking his head a bit. He seemed rumpled, ragged and bruised, a fist-sized maroon splotch coming to color along his jawline. He sucked in a few deep breaths, and didn't speak again until he was satisfied that he wasn't about to eat a bullet, at least for the moment. "Sam, you making friends?"
"Yeah," Sam answered, with a pointed look at Risa. "I think so."
"Not until I check him over," Risa persisted with a tight jerk of her chin. Sam would swear he saw a blush creep into Jackson's cheeks before she added, "Open wounds, lemme see 'em."
"No worries there." Jackson dropped a sheepish, embarrassed smile. Sad, even. "They didn't touch me. Didn't even see me." He raised his eyebrows, like he was requesting permission to move, then waved a hand back toward the hallway. "I'm guessing he was with you? Got the drop on me. I missed the entire party." His face fell, the smile melting away entirely and his eyes taking on a remorseful, faraway look Sam had grown tired of seeing on the faces of his people, but had been an inevitability from the day the kid joined up with them.
It must have been one hell of a guy that she lost downstairs, because Risa accepted this explanation far easier than anything Sam had attempted to chuck at her. "Did you see him? After, I mean?"
Jackson nodded slowly, keeping his hands raised. "Yeah. I did."
That was enough for her. The Glock thumped roughly against her thigh as she dropped her aim and spun away from them. An obvious gesture of more than one kind of surrender.
The kid mirrored the motion, allowing his hands to drift slowly down to his sides. "We okay here, Sam?"
"Not even close." Sam sighed and shifted Dean's weight, propping his unmoving brother up against his chest. They were no safer than they ever were, and without additional distractions, concern for Dean was muscling its way to the forefront of his mind. "Help me get him to the car."
Sam remembered long drives in the Impala, atrociously, hellaciously long drives, with his brother chucking empty pop bottles into his lap when he dared to say he had to piss, and listening to Zeppelin IV for the third time since getting in the car. What he wouldn't have given to go back to those days, to be riding shotgun with Dean claiming the tape was stuck in the deck and the radio suckd here anyway, then cranking the volume and crooning along, too loud and horrendously off-key. Those days Sam had never appreciated at the time.
He had a long drive ahead of him now. Maybe one of the longest of his life.
Sam's eyes cut a frantic road ahead-side mirror-rearview circuit, and when he didn't trust – or maybe didn't want to believe – the shadow-y reflection in the mirror he twisted enough to peek over his shoulder to where his brother was crammed as horizontally as possible across the backseat of the Jeep with his head propped in Risa's lap. There were jokes to be made, bad ones, and a dozen of them. But all Sam could focus on were Dean's closed eyes and ashen complexion, the blood covering his face and still oozing from the stubborn and seemingly mile-wide gash in his temple.
Risa was futilely attempting to stop the flow by pressing the edges of the ragged wound together but her fingers, already slick with Dean's blood, kept slipping. "Sam," she said after only a few miles, his name sounding foreign in her voice. "I need something better to keep pressure on this."
Sam's grip on the wheel tightened, until his knuckles went white and his fingertips tingled. He jerked his head roughly, hating himself. "Then you'd better come up with something. Because I'm not stopping yet."
"Wha – Sam."
"We could have a tail, Risa." Her name was no less a stranger on his lips.
"You don't know that," he returned, and her exasperated release of breath had Sam tipping his temple in concession that he was being something of a hypocrite. He tossed a look down at the gas gauge and swallowed. "We'll have to refuel in another hundred miles or so." A horribly off-the-cuff ballpark estimate, just using his voice to fill the hollow, uncomfortably silent space in the car that felt like a lack of Dean. "We'll figure something out then."
"Yeah, if he doesn't bleed out first," she muttered, and he caught sight of her trailing apologetic fingers through Dean's hair.
Something about her words, about her tone – the feisty one that Dean would have loved but made it sound like this predicament his brother was in was somehow HIS fault, it snapped a string inside Sam, pulled the cover off of the anger he'd done well to keep in check for more than a few years, discounting his manhandling of Dean the previous day.
"Risa?" Sam watched her face in the rearview, waited for her dark eyes to rise and meet his in the mirror. "If my brother doesn't make it back alive, then neither do you."
To her credit, she seemed to understand that she deserved every bit of the threat, ducking her head completely out of his eye line. Which, he guessed, was how she found the sack to ask, "How did he know?"
"That they were there." Risa shifted in her seat, raised her eyes and pinned Sam in his with a stare so intense, it smoldered even through the curtain of her bangs. "How did he know?"
Sam rolled his shoulders uneasily but returned her steady gaze. He'd had the time to reestablish his line in the sand on the playing field of explanations. "He just did. And we're gonna leave it at that."
She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck, looking and sounding both irritated and bone-tired, and seemingly unable to decide which one should take precedent. So at least they had something in common. "Where are we going?"
Sam's eyes slid to the side mirror, confirming Jackson was sticking close behind them in the second Jeep. Kid's face was all kinds of colors back at the house and he was probably nursing some degree of concussion but they couldn't afford to leave one of the vehicles behind. They'd had to assume Colin was killed, but never did find a body. "Safest place on Earth," he answered stiffly. "Don't worry, you'll fit right in. Lots of 'shoot first' types."
Risa's eye twitched. "I am sorry, Sam."
It still sounded odd, though not entirely lacking sincerity, and Sam wondered how many times he was going to have to hear her say it. Wondered if maybe she wasn't even really telling him anymore, if she was telling herself. Telling Dean, because it was easier when she knew he couldn't hear her.
"He said he knew me."
"Yeah," Sam said, grateful for the change in subject and aiming for something at a temperature cooler than homicidal hostility in his voice.
Sam sighed. "I guess there's no good way to say this other than to just say it. About ten…nine?" He cocked his head. "Yeah, nine years ago, an angel named Zachariah zapped Dean five years into the future to see…" He adjusted his grip on the wheel, found his toe pushing that line in his ability to explain things, the one he wouldn't let himself cross. "Anyway. That's where he met you."
She was silent for a full five miles. "That was the good way to say it?"
Despite himself, Sam smiled. "Yeah."
"An angel?" Risa asked skeptically, raising a splayed palm and moving it about as she processed Sam's words. "An angel. Zapped your brother into a future that happened four years ago."
"Except…it didn't happen."
Because you saved the world."
"Well." She shook her head, dropped her gaze back to her unconscious charge. "Bang up job, guys."
Sam didn't want to like her, but she was making it really damn hard to hate her. Then his eyes were drawn once more to the spill of crimson staining Dean's face and neck, and it steeled his resolve.
She noted the change in his expression, and Sam knew it had to be pretty obvious what was upsetting him. "Listen," she offered. "I'm not the kind of person who just goes around shooting people."
"Really? Because that's pretty much the reason I decided to let you come along." And the reason I decided to let you live, but Sam bit down against those particular words, even as his eyes refused to look away from the bloody silhouette of his brother in the rearview mirror.
Risa stared out of the window, at the matte, ashen darkness that years ago would have been a sunny afternoon. Her fingers continued to rake absently through Dean's hair, and Sam kind of wished she would stop touching him. "Things are changing out here. It's getting harder to tell who's infected and who's just gone batshit."
She had a point, but Sam wasn't exactly looking to help this woman make excuses for nearly killing his big brother. Sam's own reflexes were the only reason she didn't. He cleared his throat. "So what were you?"
"I just mean…well, you sure knew your way around those weapons." Sam's eye narrowed. "Were you a hunter?"
"What?" Risa shook her head. "No, I'm not…and I've never…I just, uh, I had to learn when I was young. And we're gonna leave it at that," she said, low and steady and parroting his earlier remark.
Sam lifted a surrendering hand from the steering wheel. "Fair enough."
He spared a moment to once more take stock of their situation. One man lost, another struggling to keep up. Dwindling gas, a possibly unpredictably hostile passenger and bleeding brother to round out his day. Hours and miles upon miles left to go, and he couldn't remember the last time he slept. But, as Sam reminded himself, his hand snaking up to pat the bulk of the spell tucked away inside his coat pocket, with the mission more or less successfully completed. The dense tree line at the edge of the road petered away to a few narrow, broken trunks, and a faint blush of dusky, setting sunlight lightened the interior of the vehicle and its passengers.
Sam's constantly roaming eyes completed another circuit, taking note this time not just of the unhealthy pallor of Dean's skin, but also of Risa's skinny face and chapped lips. He cleared his own dry throat and softened his tone. "There should be a bag somewhere back there, with some water. Might find some food, too, if you dig around enough."
She swallowed hard, and it looked like it hurts. She shook her hair from her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand against the tear in Dean's head. Dean didn't even twitch, hadn't since they'd loaded him into the car. "I'll be okay until we stop."
Sam chuckled lightly to himself, because if there was one damn thing to wring some dark humor from, it had to be this. Punishing herself for what she'd done to someone else; hell, she was going to fit right in.
It might have just been the wishful thinking of a buzzy, overloaded mind both weary and wary of answering any more questions, but Sam thought maybe there was an air of finality to her tone, signifying this would be the last of her inquiries. At the same time, there was something hesitant as well, like she was well aware it might also prove the hardest for him to answer. "Yeah, Risa," he responded, trying not to sound impatient or annoyed, before realizing those were the things she should only be hoping he was still feeling, instead of having had the time to work himself up to something much worse and unappealing for her.
"I…I thought he was infected." Said like that makes up for almost killing the guy. "Or…I don't know. He just looked…"
She didn't need to go on; Sam could fill in the blanks well enough for himself. Dean looked like shit. Had for a while, honestly, but that didn't make it okay. Maybe Sam had just grown used to it, memories of his brother's once larger-than-life personality struggling to fill the cracks and crevices the Hollow Men had left in their wake.
"He said something about getting better," Risa continued, absently, like she wasn't really speaking to Sam, but just speaking.
"Yeah." He cursed himself silently, that ability Dad had always taken advantage of and Dean had always ragged him for, to somehow give every damn person he met the impression that he was open to whatever conversation they may have wanted to have.
"Better from what?"
Sam steeled himself and constructed the wall in his mind, took his time preparing the mortar and placing each brick. She'd been in the trenches with them, and though he knew he didn't owe her a goddamn thing, he was finding himself too tired for any further lying or misdirection. It wasn't often that honesty seemed the easiest course. "You know those people that don't come back?" he began, when he was ready. "Well, Dean came back. I got him back." He hoped that would be the end of it, lest he be left to dwell on the memories of exactly how he'd found his brother.
He was wrong.
"What was it like?"
Sam's jaw clenched painfully, and forced himself to remember that he wasn't the only one to have someone taken. He was just the lucky one, the one who took back what had been stolen. "Where he was, what he went through…being infected definitely would have been worst case scenario."
Risa digested the implications of that with an inhale dragged sharply through clenched teeth, but boy, did she ever have a pair on her. "And best case scenario?"
"Dead," he answered simply.
"But he wasn't either."
She didn't know them, and that was how Sam had to figure it was so easy for her to pry. He shook his head, done with words for the time being.
"What was he?"
Sam found Dean in the mirror once more and took in the sight of this blood-streaked, pale and damaged man, lying prone at the mercy of the woman who'd aimed to kill him. A man who gave two hits for every one he took, which was more than his fair share. A man who wouldn't accept no as an answer, and who was stronger than he'd ever given himself credit for. Stronger than Sam had ever given him credit for. For all the thoughts running through his mind, he could only catch one in his grasp. "My big brother."
A faint ding alerted Sam to their diminishing fuel levels earlier than he'd estimated, and he dropped his gaze to the light on the dash. "We'll stop now."
Sam couldn't remember the last time he managed to catch more than two hours of rest, let alone a full night's sleep, and the fleeting glimpse of himself he spied in the window pane of a passing door was a shadowed, ghostly reflection more suited to one of the things they used to hunt than a living, breathing human being. He dragged a heavy hand through his admittedly gross-feeling hair, moved his fingers down to knead a stubborn knot in the back of his neck. His jaw cracked from the size and force of the yawn that ripped from his lips, but there was one more stop he had to make before he could finally crash.
He'd gotten Jackson tucked cozily into the infirmary and found Risa a room and some bedlinens, pointed her to the women's showers, and then he'd given everyone else the rest of the night off. No one was manning the large consoles, monitoring energy fluctuations or changes in weather patterns, and no one was mainlining caffeine while scouring texts in the library. The corridors and main areas of the bunker were deserted but for Sam, sparsely lit and weighted with an unfamiliar kind of quiet, the stillness a nearly tangible presence. The halls felt wider and noticeably empty, and if Sam didn't know any better he'd have thought he'd gone back in time five or so years, prowling these hallways in the dead of night or the too-early morning, unable to sleep and swallowed by a place built with the intention of housing dozens instead of just he and his brother, and the wayward prophet or angel.
Sam found Dean's room curiously, perhaps alarmingly, unoccupied. With a freshly stitched head wound – and one carved from a bullet, no less – he would have really appreciated the man staying tucked into bed for the night, or preferably for the next few days. But Sam didn't often seem to get what he wanted, and Dean had stopped making his decisions based on his little brother's needs a long time ago.
The blankets had been kicked to the foot of the bed and the long winding of gauze Paige had sent around Dean's head to stabilize and protect the stitches and bandaging lie in a discarded, slightly blood-spotted pile on the bedside table, and there was matching a swipe of blood across the pillowcase.
Damn it, Dean.
Sam bit the inside of his cheek and backtracked through the bunker with much hastier, more alert steps, poking his head into all of Dean's old haunts, the places he'd once been known to wander in a wounded, drugged stupor. The library was just as empty as it had been when he'd previously passed through, as was the kitchen. He was on his way to the shooting gallery, ready to sprint there if need be and smack a loaded gun from the moron's stubborn but unsteady hands, when a faint wash of light spilling in from the garage entrance at the end of the hall drew his gaze and attention.
Sam stopped on the threshold of the open door, eyes roaming the wide space and searching for his misplaced brother in all of the gaps between each vehicle both old and positively ancient. When he saw the Impala gleaming at the far end, her protective tarp shoved aside in a heap atop the concrete, it made so much sense it broke his heart a little.
He approached with deliberate, however cautious steps, wary of Dean's current state of mind given the events of the day, and came to a stop a few feet from the passenger side of the car. He crammed his hands into his pockets and stooped, peering through the open window. "Hey."
"Hey," Dean returned, thickly but seemingly unstartled by Sam's sudden presence. He was staring out of the windshield, even though there was nothing beyond the glass but a thick, pockmarked concrete wall, and despite his pale, nearly translucent complexion and the blood-spotted bandage on the side of his head, he looked comfortable, and somehow younger by years, nestled behind the steering wheel of the Impala. He looked at home.
Sam's eyes lingered on the spots of blood but living in this wrecked world had only served to strengthen Dean's sense of self-preservation, and he spoke up before his little brother could reprimand him for being up and about when he should have been anything but. "Risa?"
Sam eyed the glass of whiskey in his brother's hand, opening the passenger side door with a creak that had a way of lightening his heavy heart. "Got her set up in a room. She's still pretty freaked about you knowing her from the future. Or…past, I guess." He settled on the soft leather bench seat, leaving the door propped open and one leg outside the car, maintaining an important connection with the real world so he didn't disappear down the rabbit hole with Dean. "I think she's just clinging to it because it's the least freaky thing happening right now, you know? She said to tell you sorry. Again."
Dean squinted, swirled the liquid in his glass. "I'm fine."
Sam rotated a bit on the seat, putting the sharp angles of his shoulder blade in the junction of the seat and door, and frowned. "No, you're really not." He threw a glance around the interior of the car. "What are you doing?"
"S'a free bunker."
"It's also freezing out here. You should be in bed," Sam persisted.
Dean raised the glass to his lips. "M'not gonna be stuck in that bed again, Sammy."
The crack in Dean's voice might have just been indicative of the cocktail he was working with, pain and pills and alcohol and exhaustion, but it put a matching fissure in Sam's resolve. The well of angel healing had been tapped for the time being, and Dean was gonna have to ride the entirety of this one out on his own, at the mercy of his impressive pain threshold and a handful of whatever meds Paige had scrounged up from their dwindling storage. Sam hadn't taken the time to label or count the pills he'd watched Dean reluctantly swallow, but maybe he should have.
Thinking of the meds, Sam reached out to relieve Dean of his drink. "Okay, well, if you're gonna insist on being up, you definitely shouldn't be drinking whiskey." He dragged the glass from Dean's limp fingers, bringing the liquor into his own possession without a fight. Still fairly full, almost as though the weight of the drink in his hand, coupled with the presence of the car, had been comfort enough. "So Jackson's a little banged up, but you've got him beat for sure. He's gonna be okay."
Dean nodded, but he didn't look as though any of the weight had been lifted from his shoulders. If anything, he slouched even more in the seat. "Colin?"
Sam dropped his gaze to his hands. "We cut out of Upland pretty quick." For obvious reasons. "I'll send a couple of guys back to look for a body."
Dean bit down hard on his lower lip. "Yeah," he managed, and Sam knew the only reason he squeezed out that much was some deep-seeded, unnecessary feeling that he owed it to the man.
"He didn't die because you said you didn't like him, Dean," Sam said softly. He reached out hesitantly, gripped his brother by the shoulder for a moment, just a brief link and reassurance. "I mean, you're good, but you didn't make that happen."
"It doesn't matter." And it truly seemed as though it didn't. Sam hadn't ever heard Dean's voice so devoid of…any feeling. "All of our friends, all the people we...they're all dead."
"Dean…" Sam began softly, but didn't have a damn clue where to go from there, and that was just fine, because it didn't seem as though his brother was remotely finished with his morbid train of thought.
"So are we legends, or just some kind of failed martyrs?" Dean shook his head, and his fingertips rubbed against themselves, like he was wishing for that glass of whiskey to be between them if he was going to have to think these thoughts and say these words. "Sometimes I wonder what the real difference is."
That was a hell of a heavy thought, considering the circumstances. Or maybe, considering the circumstances, it was one of an absolutely appropriate weight. Either way, Sam couldn't seem to find it within himself to properly deal with such a musing at the moment. He squinted, grasped desperately for a change in subject. "What are you doing in the Impala?"
Dean's throat worked around a swallow, and his fist curled against his thigh, but he didn't answer.
He didn't have to, because Sam didn't need the words. He could see the answer in those distant, heavy eyes. His brother was escaping. This world, this life, feelings of weakness and failure and responsibility. Escaping to a time and place where he still felt relatively safe and in control.
Sam contemplated the whiskey in his hands, weighed it against the persistent pound of exhaustion in his temples. "You, uh, you come out here a lot?"
"Yeah, sometimes, when..."
When it feels like everything's gotten away from me.
When I figured out what lies beneath rock bottom.
When I don't know what the hell anymore, Sammy, and I just can't do it.
Again, there was no requirement of words to know what Dean was thinking, or how he was feeling. Not in this particular moment, when he was as open a book as he'd ever been. Honesty was a fairly new, and not entirely unpleasant, color on Dean.
Dean hooked his left wrist over the wheel. His eyes were faraway, staring down a road only he could see, and a lazy grin slowly cut across his face. He turned towards Sam, draping his right arm over the edge of the seat and looking almost like he would if he were cruising those sunny, dusty backroads of a decade ago. "Hey, you, uh…" He looked over his shoulder at the empty backseat, and the grin widened. "You remember Piper?"
Sam cocked his head. "Who?"
Dean dragged his teeth against his bottom lip, shook his head and dropped his arm from the top of the seat, squaring his body back to the windshield. "Nothin'."
Head injuries tended to jar loose all kinds of thoughts and memories Dean wouldn't have usually put to words but without his usual stubborn self-restraint, he spat things out at random, like a playlist set to 'shuffle.' Sam had learned a long time not to put much stock or significance into what popped out of his brother's mouth in such a scenario.
"What would you do differently?" Dean asked suddenly, not really looking at Sam, or at anything in particular. The palm of his left hand ran distractedly against the worn leather of the steering wheel, taking a turn neither of them can really see coming up ahead. "If you could do it all again?"
This, though…this might have been something Sam should assign some degree of significance to. In the course of one day Dean had been forced to face the future they'd been able to prevent and the reality of a present they'd been powerless to halt. And, oh yeah, he'd also been shot in the head. This wasn't an entirely unexpected train of thought but all the same, regret wasn't something Sam liked his brother digging around in. He was likely to lose Dean there.
"I wouldn't know where to start," he answered honestly, after a weighty sigh.
"Yeah." Dean's dark, glassy eyes shifted around, searching out the location of his stolen drink, or just some other lifeline, perhaps feeling he'd exhausted them all at that point. "Yeah, me either."
Fellow fans of "Providence," when the idea for the end of this story hit me, I was so distracted by it that I literally splashed three hundred and thirty degree oil all over my arm. So you could say that "Providence" has scarred me for life.
Or, more accurately, that it's left a lasting mark.
Okay, Chick Flick Moment over. Thanks for stopping by, everyone! Don't forget to grab a gift bag on your way out!