Broken Vessel
K Hanna Korossy

He should've felt more grateful to be free of Michael.

And Dean was grateful, no question. Even if he didn't know what all that son of a bitch did while wearing Dean's skin, the fear, the helplessness, the constant fight not to go under and lose himself for good? He couldn't have survived that much longer. Nor Sam, by the looks of his exhausted, skinny, hairy brother. So Michael being gone was really, really good.

Dean was just having some trouble feeling anything close to happy. More like raw. Confused. Shaky. A whole different kind of scared.

He'd thrown himself into the search for dark-Kaia and her magic spear to find a way to end Michael, and all Dean's nightmares and doubts. But if anything, that had made it worse. He'd been stupid and put Sam and Jody at risk—poor Jody ended up with a broken bone, again—and they were no closer to finding a way to stop Michael. It had been a relief to head back to the bunker.

Then they'd gotten home, and instead of their cave of solitude, of quiet and familiarity and Sam in which Dean could huddle and regroup, it'd been more like walking into a mall. On a Saturday.

Dean had been distracted during his initial return to the bunker, and they'd quickly set out again to find Kaia. He'd kinda forgotten about all the hunters they'd brought back with them from the alternate world. Or if Dean had really thought about it, which he'd been too busy to do, he'd have figured they'd have all found their own places by now, moved out and left the Winchesters with an empty nest. What Dean hadn't expected was the war room being an actual war room and their quiet library a buzzing headquarters, and his brother the "Chief" of it all. Another time, Dean would've given Sam a lot of grief about that one. Right now, though, he was busy not being run over and deluged by the noise and just freakin' drowned again. So he'd said hi to Cas and Jack, met Sam's worried eyes one more time over the crowd, then fled—er, strategically retreated—to his room.

And not come out for the next two days, besides bathroom breaks. As few of those as possible, though, because even the bathroom was busy.

Sam stopped in regularly with pizza and beer and buffalo wings. Once they even started watching Die Hard together. But inevitably there'd be a knock on the door and a "Hey, Chief?", and Sam would be giving him those sorrowful puppy dog eyes as Dean assured him it was fine and he was fine and everything was awesome.

He slept some. Ate a little. Watched a lot of TV and tried hard not to think or remember. It was therapy of sorts, or at least denial.

Then Michael came to him in his sleep.

Probably not for real, although Dean wasn't even sure of that; it wouldn't have been the first time an angel used his dreams to chat. But it was probably his subconscious because Michael looked like him—wearing those stupid clothes—and said all kinds of things about not being able to wait to get Dean back and how they'd Kevorkian the world together and how great it would be. Considering Michael had been the one who'd bailed on Dean, he kinda doubted the archangel would be tracking him down just to tell him they were meant to be together. Or even that he'd start with burning the bunker to the ground, Sam and other-Bobby and Cas all screaming in the flames…

Dean woke with a start, the echo of his screams still in his ears.

The first thing he noticed was that he was wet with sweat, tangled in his blankets. The second was the unfamiliar face staring at him from around his door.

The guy blinked as Dean looked at him, and stammered, "Uh, I thought I heard screaming. Are you—?"

"Get out," Dean growled.

"Oh. Sorry. Uh—"

"Get. Out."

The door quickly slammed shut.

Dean loosened his grip on the knife he hadn't even realized he'd grabbed and leaned back against the headboard, swallowing bile. Swearing non-stop under his breath so he wouldn't start doing something pathetic like crying or hyperventilating, even if his heart was ready to ram its way out of his chest.

Dean threw back the blankets, or at least untwisted them from around his legs and then threw them. He was shaky standing up, and propped himself up on both arms against the bed a moment, head hanging. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, burning his eyes.

That was it. He was done.

It took less than a minute to get dressed, a little more to sneak down to the garage without running into anyone. Even Sam, who would take one look at him and just know, and Dean just…he couldn't.

Baby was all the company he wanted, and he paused a second to caress the shining black body. Even though he apparently hadn't even found the time to shave, Sam had still taken care of Dean's girl. Leaving his panic outside, Dean slid in, shut the door, leaned back. Finally took a deep breath.

There was a distant echo of voices, maybe some hunters coming down to choose a car, or just passing in the hallway. Dean was taking no chances. He gunned the engine to life and peeled out of the garage like his demons were on his tail.

Thank God for rural Kansas. Dean pointed the car away from Lebanon and soon hit farmland. Window rolled down, the smell of fertilizer and ripe fields whipped past the car, clearing out the cobwebs and vestigial nightmares. There was rain in the air, and Dean filled his lungs, each exhale sinking him a little further into the driver's seat and reality.

Under Michael's control, he'd had no senses. Couldn't hear or see or even smell. The taste of ashes was all his imagination, the constant feeling of drowning and sinking, metaphorical. He'd been completely untethered. So the farm smells, the sound of the crickets and the breeze, the familiar dips and scars of Baby's steering wheel under his hands, they were all reminders, proofs he was home.

Dean drank deep, and drove on.

He hadn't consciously picked a destination, but he wasn't really surprised, either, when a familiar sign appeared ahead. Sam actually liked the lake more than he did, although Dean had taken a whack at fishing there once or twice. Bobby had taught him enough not to embarrass himself, even though Dean had never caught anything—he wasn't actually sure there were any fish in the small lake to catch—while Sam would lay in the sun and read. One hot day, they'd even gone skinny dipping, or at least Dean had since Sam was a prude. It was a place of peace and good memories.

Perfect. Dean took the turn-off, and soon pulled up a hundred feet from the water.

The air had an autumn chill to it, and the water would surely be ice cold. Dean was content to sit on the shore and look at the star-glittered mirror of the lake's surface, occasionally chucking a little rock in to ripple the reflection. The grass was damp under his fingers, sure to soak through his jeans eventually, but Dean couldn't bring himself to care. He should've done this sooner. It settled his anxious thoughts like the old movies and older whiskey hadn't been able to. Only thing that would've made it better was bringing Sam out with him, but maybe next time.

He closed his eyes and leaned back, humming Bad Company under his breath. Let himself think about it for the first time.

Michael was gone, right? His departure didn't make much sense, but maybe he'd gotten tired of Dean fighting back, or he'd found a better vessel.

Better than his "sword"? That seemed unlikely.

But even Cas had confirmed that he was really gone, and it wasn't like Dean would be saying yes again anytime soon. Kaia had brought him up short, claiming Dean was as bad as Michael, but Dean kept reminding himself she was a kid, and a murderer, who hadn't exactly seen him in context. So…yeah, whatever Michael had up his sleeve was worrisome and Dean would worry about it later. But Michael was gone. And that was…that really was very, very good.

A bird called nearby, and a frog answered. The cricket chorus rose and fell.

Then stopped.

Dean opened his eyes.

There was the rustle of movement nearby, and Dean's hand slipped toward his waistband and his Colt. Were there any large predators in this part of Kansas? He racked his brain for any mention Encyclopedia Sam had made of any, but nothing came to mind.

"There you are," an oil-smooth voice spoke from the darkness.

Ah. That kind of predator. Dean drew the gun and held it in his lap, ready. "We know each other?"

"No." A few more shuffling steps, and moonlight outlined the hulking figure. Human-shaped, but…off. Dean's monster radar was pinging hard. "But we're about to."

"Oh, yeah?" Dean said mildly. His feet were under him; he could be standing in less than a second.

"We've heard so much about you." Crap, another voice, female, and from his other side. And no time to call for back-up.

"Yeah, well, don't believe everything you hear." There was a sound behind him, too; he was surrounded. Dean swore silently, flipping through possible plans, but there weren't many.

"We haven't." Monster Number One again. "But we've seen it with our own eyes." And then, to Dean's disbelief, the thing went down to its knees. "We want to be one of yours, Michael."

Dean covered his jolt of surprise by climbing to his feet. The creatures, whatever they were, probably wouldn't have expected anything different. But, man, this was not good. "Sorry, but I'm not hiring right now," Dean said with a grim smile. Pretend to be Michael, and soon be proven wrong? Or tell them the truth and face their anger? Neither seemed promising.

"We will do anything." The third one came into view, and Dean shifted with the lake to his back so he could keep all three in sight. At least there didn't seem to be any others.

"Okay, how 'bout you leave now and don't call me; I'll call you." He kept the gun out of sight in his pocket but ready. Trouble was, half the things they hunted wouldn't be fazed by a gun.

The female's eyes narrowed, and she seemed to be sniffing the air. "Wait. I do not smell angel."

Werewolf? Not a lot of creatures could scent like that. "I just showered," Dean said. "What are you guys, anyway? You know, in case I get an opening in my army."

Number One took a step closer, also sniffing. "We are ghouls. And we can smell your deceit."

Ghouls: terrific. And him without his shotgun or machete. Dean smiled grimly and pulled the gun, balancing on the balls of his feet, ready for attack. "Oh well, worth a try."

Then he started shooting.

00000

Sam smoothed back handfuls of hair as he stumbled down the hallway to the kitchen, yawning. Two young women hunters once had broken into giggles one morning at the sight of him after a late night, so he tried to remain at least presentable now.

He'd slept later than he'd intended, but having Dean back had been a powerful balm. Sam glanced at his brother's door on the way, glad to see it still shut; Dean needed the sleep even more than he did. Maybe Sam would make some bacon and eggs for breakfast, if their houseguests hadn't cleaned out the fridge again.

He ignored the confab around the kitchen table as he made a beeline for the coffeepot. Which was empty once again. Grimacing, Sam opened the cabinet above it and pulled out the canister. It felt dangerously light. "Whoever empties the pot makes the next one," he reminded the group behind him. "And someone needs to make a supplies run."

"I think maybe your brother went?"

Sam stopped, turned. He frowned at the guy—Alex—who'd spoken. "What?"

"I saw him heading down to the garage about…five this morning? I said hi but I don't think he heard me."

"He, uh…I think he had a nightmare before?" Kasim added. "He was yelling in his room."

Sam winced at the thought of not only Dean having a nightmare—one Sam had slept right through—but also one of the other hunters witnessing it. Dean would've been humiliated. And…five in the morning? It was almost ten now. Crap. Sam forgot about the coffee and rushed out to the garage.

The Impala was gone.

Sam cursed under his breath and dug his phone out. His call immediately went to voicemail. Crap, crap, crap. He went next to access his brother's GPS.

It wasn't on—no surprise there. But there was a last location, and Sam pulled back in surprise when he saw it. The lake? They'd gone out there a few times for a little break, Sam more than his brother. And not usually at five in the morning, but if Dean couldn't sleep and needed a place to think, some peace and—

"Chief? Everything okay?"

He hadn't even noticed the Jeep that had pulled into the garage, and the two men who'd climbed out. Sam gave them a perfunctory smile. "Yeah, fine. Uh, you done with the car?"

Cliff handed him the keys. "All yours."

"Thanks." A minute later he was on the road.

Quiet. Since the alternate-universe hunters had moved in, there was no quiet. Sam had ignored the hubbub in his focus on finding Dean, or embraced it when he needed the distraction and the hunters needed guidance. But Dean wasn't used to it, not in his home. And definitely not after spending months with company in his own body. Sam should've thought of that. He should have been there for Dean at 5 a.m., having the conversation they still hadn't had since Dean's return. Being the solace Dean needed, especially in their hectic home.

Just the two of them again, what Dean always needed to put himself back together after trauma.

Cursing himself for not thinking of it before, Sam hurried on. He needed to talk to Dean.

The lake finally rolled into sight, and Sam breathed a little easier at the sight of the Impala tucked unobtrusively behind some bushes. Dean was still there, and no other cars were in sight. He pulled up behind Baby and climbed out, trying to peer through the scrum of trees between him and the lake.

"Dean!"

The call echoed in the quiet. Sam grabbed a gun from the glove compartment—just in case—and started down the path toward the water.

The headless body brought him up short.

Adrenaline fully pumping now, Sam broke into a run. He wasn't as reassured as he would've liked to find that the body, head pulped into nothing by the bloody branch lying nearby, was of much stockier build than Dean, and in expensive loafers. Sam scanned the area wildly, eyes lighting on and then passing over another body, this one a woman, her face shot in. But no…

There.

"Oh, God," Sam muttered, hurtling down to the edge of the lake. "Dean!"

Dean lay half-in, half-out of the lake, as if he'd been climbing out when he collapsed. He bobbed a little with the gentle current, face down in the dirt and apparently lifeless, and Sam's heart crowded his throat as he flung himself at the water's edge and reached for his brother.

The body rolled limply, and tears stung Sam's eyes. But even as he shakily felt for a pulse in the cold neck, he saw Dean's chest stutter.

"Dean. Hey. Hey." Sam patted white, frozen cheeks, pushed hair aside to find the lump that had left a watery line of blood down his face. A black eye was forming under it, and blood was dried around Dean's nose. Sam chafed his face, trying to find the life beneath the cold flesh. "Hey, man, can you hear me?"

Dean uttered a sub-vocal groan and was silent again.

"Okay. Okay." Sam quickly patted down his limbs—intact, although one forearm had a bloody score across it—and torso. Bruising down one side, but no soft spots on the ribs or distended stomach. His pupils were the same size and shrank in the sun. The skin on his palms was torn and his knuckles were bruised, but there was nothing that screamed hospital to Sam. A blow to the head and hypothermia: Sam should be able to deal with that.

He'd had his fill of sharing his brother with strangers, good or evil, and expected Dean was the same.

"All right, man, let's get you out of here and someplace warm." Sam considered a moment, then put a shoulder to Dean's waist and flopped the unresisting body up over his shoulder. "We'll take your baby," he grunted under the heavy load.

Dean stayed silent, arms sliding loosely across his back with each step.

The car was thankfully unlocked, and Sam didn't give a rat's ass at the moment about her upholstery, rolling his wet burden down into the passenger seat. He arranged limbs and head for the unconscious man's comfort, then dug Dean's keys out of his pocket and turned on the ignition so he could start the heat. "I'll be right back," Sam promised, unacknowledged.

There'd be no careful salt and burn here. Sam still didn't know what the bodies around the lake were, human or not, but they seemed well and truly dead, and he had somewhere else to be. He dragged the two corpses to the lake and dumped them in, not that surprised to find a third headless figure floating amidst the reeds near where he'd pulled out Dean. Three against one, and Dean was the only one still breathing. Sam couldn't help a quick admiring shake of the head. His brother.

The bodies would be found before too long. Sam tossed the bloody branch Dean had weaponized in after them, and collected his dropped gun. Finally, Sam dashed off a quick text to Alex and Cece, telling them where they should come pick up the Jeep. There, he was done. The water would wash off any trace of his brother's presence, and taking care of Dean was all Sam cared about now.

Dean didn't look like he'd moved since Sam left him, but he made another small sound when Sam buckled him in, his eyelashes fluttering.

"Yeah, I know, I know." Sam swung the car up on the road, heading away from the bunker, to the nearest motel. He put up a hand to keep Dean from slumping over on the turn. "Just hang in there, man, I'm gonna get you warmed up in a few minutes, okay? Stay with me."

Thank God they were still sort of in their backyard: Sam knew where he could go. The motel was back off the road, quiet, and you could park right in front of your door. Sam collected a key and then, with a glance around the empty parking lot, carried Dean in. A cold drizzle had started up, and Sam did his best to shield his wet, freezing brother from that further insult. Sam left him on the bed and dashed out again for the first aid kit and the extra duffels of clothes they kept in the trunk.

"You always love this part," Sam said wryly as he set to peeling off clinging clothes and rubbing frigid skin dry. He paused briefly at the unfamiliar scar on Dean's arm, then kept going. Boxers were replaced without hesitation; they were long past the point of embarrassment. Sam activated two chemical heat packs and nestled them under Dean's arms, then a third against the back of his neck.

Dean had started to shiver, an encouraging sign. The particularly hard shudders carved a line between his eyes, and twice he murmured something incomprehensible, but otherwise he was unresponsive and pliant as Sam stripped to his underwear and slipped under the covers with him.

"Man, you're cold," he muttered. It was only jacket-weather outside, but the combination of water and injury was dangerous. The skin-to-skin contact almost immediately set Sam himself shivering, but he just burrowed closer, tucking Dean's damp head under his chin so his beard wouldn't scratch. His brother's chilled heart labored against Sam's chest, struggling to pump slushy blood.

Heat was most important, but they'd also need antibiotics; who knew how much lake water Dean had swallowed. The bump on his head needed cleaning, and the cut on his arm. Sam would also need to text Cas soon to let him know where they were and what was going on, but Sam was reluctant to summon their friend out to the motel, even for healing. It could wait until Dean was back on his feet and they returned.

Truth be told, Sam had missed this. Not Dean icy and silent, or the musty smell of the motel bed. But sharing a room, hearing the soft breaths of sleep nearby, just him and Dean on the road. In a weird way, that life had been less complicated. Sam had come to think of the bunker as home, too, but wherever Dean was was where Sam's heart lived. And he knew it was the same for his brother.

Dean slowly got warmer, muttering a little more often, stirring fretfully. Sam shushed him, rubbing life back into his arms, along his spine. He didn't realize what was going on in his brother's head until Dean started to really push against him and Sam could make out some of what Dean was saying. Slurred whispers of, "No," an, "Can'-can' breathe," and, "Help."

And, desperately, "Sam!"

I was under water. Drowning…clawing, fighting for air…

"No," Sam breathed, horrified, "no, no, no. Hey. Hey! Dean! Listen to me, you're out, okay, you're out. Michael's gone. It's just me—you're with me. You hear me? You're out."

Dean's face twisted, anguished disbelief, as he writhed and scraped and fought for his life.

Sam loosened his grip so Dean wouldn't feel trapped, but he still tried to keep him contained so he wouldn't hurt either of them. And he kept touching: back, arms, the nape of his neck. "Listen to me, it's Sam. It's Sammy. I've got you—Michael's gone, you hear me? That bastard's gone. You're not drowning anymore, Dean, you're not. You're out, you're okay. You're okay."

Dean fought on, grim and silent. His brother never stopped fighting, Sam recognized with sorrow, and it just made him more desperate to get through. He kept talking.

"Michael left, remember? Probably got tired of your face." Sam couldn't even muster a laugh. "I think you fought harder than he expected, man. Figures—only you could outlast an archangel. But he's gone, just you here, all right? And me. You've got me, Dean. I'm here. You're okay. You're okay." He kept repeating that last in a whisper, rocking, eyes damp.

Dean was struggling less. Calmed, or just resigned? His heart wasn't pounding as hard, either, and he was barely shivering. He still mumbled a few words sometimes, but they were too soft for Sam to hear.

They dozed on and off. When Dean got restless, Sam told him about all the adjustments he'd made to organize a houseful of refugees. How he and Mary and Cas had never stopped searching for Dean, and for a way to a free him. About how Sam had taken care of Dean's car, his family, his home, but maybe not so much his brother. How scared he'd been all those weeks, silently where no one would've seen it but Dean. All the things Sam would never say to his brother awake, or that he wouldn't have needed to in different times, or that he'd wanted to but couldn't put into words until he had to.

Then he'd go silent again, the two of them drifting together.

"Mmm. 'ammm?"

Sam blinked, suddenly wide awake, and leaned back to see his brother's face. He still had to support Dean's head in one hand. "Dean?"

Dean blinked like it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. "Wha'?" Uncoordinated and weak, his arm flopped against Sam's.

"Thank God. You with me?"

"Mmm. Yeah?" Dean's head rolled forward against him, nose tucked against his clavicle, and he sighed heavily. "…'uggin'?"

"Yeah, we're hugging, man." Sam tightened his grip, a laugh bubbling up inside him. He cupped Dean's elbow, his head. "Live with it."

"Grrrm." Dean sounded displeased, but he made no further move to free himself.

"You want something to drink? Some painkillers?"

His only answer was another sigh, and Dean's body going loose as he dropped to sleep.

"Yeah, okay." Sam stayed there a little longer, humming something from Seger, until he was sure Dean was deeply under. Then he reluctantly rolled out from under the covers and shivered into his warmest clothes. He made a pot of coffee and said a quiet, experimental, "Dean?"

Dean slept on, no longer pale and shaking.

Fair enough. Sam downed two cups of hot coffee until he'd warmed up, too. Then he ordered half a dozen dishes off the Chinese take-out menu in the bedside drawer, scarfed food down until he was too tired to eat more, then crawled into the other bed. His last sight was Dean, sleeping peacefully a few feet away.

00000

Scratchy, bleach-scented sheets and a decidedly no-memory mattress had never felt so good.

Dean ignored the murmuring TV, instead watching lazily from the bed as Sam finished putting the first aid kit away, reorganizing things his own OCD way. Dean's head ached, his ears were waterlogged, and his belly was still deciding if it was okay with the wonton soup Sam had coaxed into him, but under a pile of blankets he felt safe and warm and comfortable.

He felt like he was back. Not just in his body, or at home, but with Sam.

"The hunters, they're not gonna stay forever." Sam rolled the gauze around long fingers that seemed made more for that than for firing guns and clutching knives. "Some of them have already moved on. I can get the rest of them out in a few days; you can hang out in your room until then."

"It's not the hunters, Sam," Dean said wearily. Man, his voice was shot. "Or, okay, not just them. It's…Mom being here. And Jack. It's what Michael did when he was taking me for a spin, and how it doesn't feel like it's over. It's losing two months, and feeling…wrong all the time. The full house just made it all…louder."

Sam closed the box and circled the table to the coffeepot by the window. He changed the filter, looking all faux casual as he asked, "What did Michael do?"

"Messed me up," Dean said tersely. "I dunno what he did with the rest of me, but…" He was lost in memory for a moment, clawing to get out, to suck in even a mouthful of air. Dean shook his head, took a deep breathe, and cleared his throat. He gave Sam a grim smile. "Good times."

Sam waited until the coffee stopped dripping, then came over with the mug and sat on the edge of Dean's bed. He helped him up with one hand, Dean still feeling embarrassingly weak, and handed the mug over. Those long fingers stayed wrapped around his until they were both sure he was steady enough to solo. "What were those things at the lake?"

"The lake?" Dean took a sip. "Ghouls. Looking for Mikey, actually. Probably wanted an angelic upgrade, too."

"Ghouls." Sam released an oddly careful breath, and Dean gave him a puzzled look until the light bulb went on.

"You thought they were human." He kept his voice neutral, but his gut felt heavy.

"No," Sam immediately corrected. "I didn't. But…I wasn't sure."

Dean nodded slowly. "Smart. I mean, who knows if Michael left any time bombs behind, right?"

"That's not what I meant." Sam laced his fingers together between his knees and looked down at them. "When you were gone, I had to…take precautions. I sent Ben and Lisa on a paid vacation from a contest they never entered. I asked Jack to go around and collect anything we had at any of our drops. I found some archaic archangel warding to put on the bunker. I sealed up your room, just in case. I just…" He looked up. "I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?"

"Yeah," Dean said quietly. Lisa and Ben—he wouldn't have even thought of that, or putting a guard on Amelia if the tables had been turned. Sam had always been thorough. Dean gulped some coffee, grateful for the warmth. "I need to end Michael, okay? Stop whatever he's doing before he kills more people because of me. I'm not gonna stop looking for a way to do that. But about everything else, I think…maybe we just need time, you know? Both of us. A lot's happened—we need to get used to things again."

Sam nodded. "I can ask everyone to give you some space."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Dude, I'm not fragile. I can deal with the Junior Justice League."

Sam's mouth curled. "Does that make us the Justice League?" They shared a grin; they both knew who Batman would be. "All right." Sam nodded slowly. "I think I'm gonna bunk with you a few days, too."

Dean gave him an exasperated look. "Sam—"

"Dude, they come knocking with questions all the time. You're not the only one who misses the peace and quiet."

Right. Sam wasn't fooling either of them. But…Dean didn't need to tell him how much it helped pull him out of his head to know Sam was right there, to hear him breathing during the night and know if Dean flung out a hand, it would be grasped. And he didn't need Sam to tell him it was mutual. "Fine, whatever," Dean said with just the right amount of grumble.

"Fine." Sam planted his hands on his thighs and pushed to his feet. "And now, before we head back, I gotta do one more thing."

"What's that?"

The corner of Sam's mouth lifted. "Shave."

Dean snorted, snagging his arm in a grip Sam could've easily shaken off but didn't. "Later. TV now."

"But—"

"Dude. Time and quiet, remember?" Dean slowly slid over, making room on the bed. "TV now; gettin' pretty later. Shut up and siddown."

Sam breathed out in exasperation, but he sat. Muttered something about bossy older brothers, but he settled in next to Dean at just about the right height for Dean to use him as a pillow when he inevitably conked out. "And we've seen this movie, like, ninety times."

"Quiet, Sammy."

Sam huffed again. Then pulled the blanket up around Dean when a stray shiver passed through him. "Just don't drool on me," was his parting grumble.

Dean just smiled into his coffee.

The End