A/N: I know there's already been a ton of fic based on this episode, but hey, what's one more, right! I found that I couldn't let go of it quite yet. So here's my offering. The angst is on me. Enjoy!
It had been three days, and Dean couldn't stand it one more second. The room that got smaller with each hour; the incessant beeping and whirring of machines; the truly awful food that made him nauseous just from the smell; and most of all, the doctors and nurses who were either far too cheerful around him, or else sympathetic and pitying – he had had enough.
Nor had Sam put in much face time to ease his boredom, leaving him with too much time to think and brood. Sure, he slept a lot, fatigue dragging him into catnaps throughout the day, but there were still plenty of hours that found him staring at the ceiling or the vapid offerings of daytime television. His brother had at least been by each day, but he never stayed long. Dean didn't know whether to be grateful or hurt. Grateful in that he didn't have to keep up his carefully constructed façade of stoic bravery and casual acceptance; hurt in that . . . Jesus; he was dying, and where the hell was Sam? Maybe he had some stuff he'd like to say to the brother who had gone away, maybe he'd like to spend some last few precious days trying to tell Sam everything he couldn't say before . . . .
Dean winced at that and shifted uncomfortably under the thin hospital blanket. Yeah, right. Deathbed confessions were hardly his idea of a good time. Sam had to know how he felt, didn't he? Even after all those years apart, his brother had to know how much he still meant to Dean. Did he have to put it into words?
But Sam . . . . Sam had been in an odd mood each time he dropped by. Not that Dean expected him to carry on like nothing was wrong, Sam wore his emotions on his sleeve, but Dean couldn't quite figure out what his brother was up to. He was restless, he seemed to be buzzing with some idea or another that he wasn't sharing, and he refused to listen to Dean's practical (or so Dean thought) advice on what to do . . . afterwards. Despairingly, Dean had come to the conclusion that Sam was steadfastly resisting the truth of the situation. His little brother was off somewhere in his own world, doing whatever he had to in order to avoid dealing with the grim reality of Dean's dying.
And what would Sam do, when Dean was gone? That scared him more than anything.
He didn't want to die, he still wanted his life, but it wasn't like he was being given a choice here. He could accept his own death, not that he embraced the idea like some sort of martyr (except if it meant saving Sam, of course), but he could deal with it for himself. Sam, however, was another story. How did he deal with it for Sammy? He hadn't quite figured that one out yet. But first . . . .
The hell with this.
Though his entire body ached, and simply moving in a normal manner was impossible, Dean somehow hauled himself out of bed and pulled on his clothes. The act left him exhausted and panting, with sweat beading his forehead, but he'd done it; now for step two . . . .
Getting down to the nurses' station took some time, and quite a bit of leaning on the wall. The duty nurse took one look at him and she was on her feet, ready to escort him back to his room. He knew he looked pretty damn awful. The mirror in his room had shown him a horribly pale and haggard face, with dark bruising beneath his eyes. Well, he felt pretty damn awful, too. But he pasted a smile on anyway, and got right to the point.
"I'd like to check out now, please. What do I need to sign?"
After a good deal of adamant protestation from the nurse, a hurried page of Dean's doctor, and way too much waiting around on Dean's part, it was finally – and very reluctantly – agreed that Dean could leave if he wanted to, since there really was nothing in the way of treatment that they could provide for him. It was against the doctor's strenuous advice, of course, with much head shaking and warnings of everything that could go wrong (I'm dying, how much more wrong could it go?), but Dean was too tired to listen anymore. He knew he was being a stubborn jackass, but that wasn't going to stop him. He had to get out of here. Dying in a hospital bed wasn't the way he'd envisioned going into that long goodnight.
They called him a taxi to get him to the motel he and Sam had crashed at, and he wished it was because he'd been able to smile, flirt, and be charming, rather than have them all feeling sorry for him. More indignity was heaped upon him when he had to be taken out of the hospital in a wheelchair to meet the waiting taxi. "Policy," was how they explained it to him. Though he bitched about it, he knew he probably couldn't have walked twenty feet; the exhaustion and pain had left him shaking, weak, and cold.
"This sucks," he muttered, not caring if the nurse heard him, not sure if he meant just the wheelchair, or the whole dying issue. But a gentle, understanding squeeze on his shoulder nearly made him weep. The nurse, a tall, fortyish woman with kind eyes, helped him into the taxi, got him settled, and gave him a pat on the leg.
"You take care, now, young man," she said in a soft voice. "I'll spare you the usual platitudes, because I don't think you're the type to want to hear them, but you take care. Let that brother of yours look after you a bit. Don't do this alone, honey. Look out for each other, all right?"
Dean met her kindly blue-eyed gaze, his throat suddenly tight, and could only nod, and whisper, "Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
She gave his cold hand one last squeeze and shut the door.
He managed to give the address to the driver before he slumped back into the seat, eyes closed. His heart, his broken, failing heart, thudded in his chest, beating away to count off the seconds and minutes he had left in this world.
His thoughts turned back to Sam. He'd been wondering if his brother had called their father. Dean hadn't been able to do it. He'd looked at his cell phone, picked it up, and put it down again, more times than he could count, but found he just couldn't say what he knew had to be said. "I'm dying, Dad. And though you might not care enough to come see me before it's too late, come for Sam's sake. He's gonna need you. Don't leave him alone, not like you did me . . . ."
Coward, he screamed silently at himself.
He knew Sam had made that phone call. For Dean's sake, not his own.
The other sixty-four thousand dollar question was, of course, would John Winchester do anything about it?
Dean didn't even want to think about that one. It hurt far too much.
All too soon, the cab pulled up in front of the motel. Dean paid off the driver, suddenly daunted by the mere act of getting out of the car and to their room. He pushed open the door, stood on somewhat shaky legs and gathered his strength.
The walk left him breathless and trembling, and when he knocked on the door, he was hunched over and leaning into the doorframe to keep from falling. Sam's face was a mixture of shock and exasperation, but he quickly recovered and helped Dean to a chair, handling him as though he were spun glass.
Dean tried to hide his own discomfort and pain with his usual smartass attitude, but Sam wasn't buying it. His brother sat down across from him, practically buoyant with his research results and the plan he presented to Dean. Weary, feeling far too fragile, Dean didn't really have it in him to put up much of a protest. It was hard enough just staying nearly upright in the chair. If Sam wanted to do this, well, he'd do it for Sam.
They hit the road the next morning, early. Sam had coaxed him into eating some breakfast, bundled him into an extra sweatshirt, then hovered until Dean lost it and snapped at him.
Sam silently got their bags stowed in the trunk, and stood by, not helping him but ready to lend a steadying hand as Dean got into the passenger side of the car.
Sam drove. And didn't that just feel way too freakin' weird.
The long, vanishing horizon of the prairie lulled him into a doze as the Impala ate up the miles; fields and sky and highway passed in a blur. They stopped, once to grab some lunch, another couple of times to get out of the car and stretch. There was a whole lot of stuff that wasn't being said between them, but Sam was keeping quiet, and Dean was hardly the one to delve into a heartfelt discussion of his emotions right now.
But Sam had all his hopes pinned on this so-called specialist he was driving them to, and Dean was more afraid for his brother than himself if those hopes turned out to be false.
Like he'd told Sam in the hospital, it was a dangerous gig, and he'd drawn the short straw – but better me than Sam – and quite frankly, despite all his training and skill, he was surprised he'd lasted this long. So many years of hunting were bound to catch up with him . . . .
They found a motel on the outskirts of nowhere as dusk was falling. It was on a par with their usual fly-by-night places, faded, a little shabby, but a bit cleaner than most. Sam took care of all the tasks of checking them in, unpacking, finding something to eat (at the lone truck stop on the other edge of nowhere), and despite his napping, Dean found he was too tired to help.
Moments later, eyes closed, he sagged against the wall of the shower stall, the water blissfully, surprisingly hot, and cursed. Dammit, he hated this. He hated being sick and weak and tired all the time. If this was what it felt like to be old, he was glad he wasn't going to be around for it.
Well, he only had to deal with it for a couple of more weeks, right? According to the doc, a month at the most. Shit. And Sammy would be there until the end, for every horrible moment. Unless, of course, some miraculous cure showed up. Yeah, right.
There was only the one double bed, but it wasn't like they hadn't had to share in the past. Sam gave Dean all the blankets, keeping only the bedspread for himself. It was pretty funny, really, and he found himself actually smiling for the first time that day. Sam was too long for any normal-sized bed, and this one was no exception.
Sam glared at him. "Oh, yeah, laugh it up, jerk."
Dean smirked. He just couldn't help it. "The only way you're gonna fit on this bed is if you sleep crossways. And you are not sprawling on top of me."
"Fine. I'll sleep sitting up. I want to read for a while, anyway." He hesitated, obviously not liking the evident exhaustion in Dean's voice. "If that's all right with you."
"Sure, Sammy." He yawned. "You stay up all night if you want. Just don't steal my blankets. And stay on your side of the bed."
Sam smacked him with a pillow, Dean laughed, and suddenly they were back to being brothers again.
He curled up in the blankets and fell asleep with the tiny bedside lamp on, Sam sitting up and reading. When he woke again, it was to see Sam, finally sleeping, but still sitting up, if a little slumped over. What Dean had thought was his pillow actually turned out to be Sam's leg, and Sam's arm was draped protectively over Dean's shoulder. His first instinct was to pull away.
Except he was warm, and comfortable, and moving would take too much work.
So he went back to sleep.
The next day passed about the same way, more fields of waving grain and all that, but the mood in the car felt considerably lighter. When Dean popped in a cassette, it was because he wanted to listen to the music, not drown out the silence. He felt the glance Sam flashed at him.
"What?" he asked, as though offended.
Sam just rolled his eyes. "Nothing."
"Good. Keep your eyes on the road, then."
That earned him another eye roll, and he turned away to hide the grin. But then the chronic fatigue caught up with him again far too quickly, and he fell asleep leaning against the window.
Another motel room, in another dusty town. Both to be soon forgotten.
"We'll be there tomorrow," Sam said, sitting cross-legged on the other bed, staring at his laptop. Dean hadn't had much appetite today, he'd slept in the car, and he knew Sam was growing worried again. The glow from Sam's laptop was all that lit the room, but he could still see the concern on his brother's face.
"Good," he grunted. He borrowed under the covers and sighed. "Sammy, if this specialist of yours can't do anything, let's head somewhere warm, okay? I'm sick of freezin' my ass off. If I gotta go, I want to do it on the beach, with a cold beer in my hand, surrounded by beautiful women in little bikinis. Promise?"
After a long moment, Sam finally spoke. "Don't say things like that," he said in a strained whisper. "Please. This is going to work. You're going to be fine. Trust me."
"I trust you, Sammy," Dean said, not looking at his brother. "But you have to face the possibility, here. If things . . . ." He faltered. He knew this conversation had to happen; he didn't want to, but he forced himself on. At least it was dark. It was easier to say this in the dark. "If things don't work out . . . .You need to find Dad. Don't do this on your own, okay? I mean it. No hunting alone, all right? Either that, or you hightail it back to Stanford, pick up your life there again, and forget all about this crazy shit we do. You deserve that, Sammy."
"Yeah. I just wish . . . I mean, shit, Dean," he burst out. "I just found you again, you know?"
"I know. You'll be okay, though, Sam. It'll be all right."
"No it won't," he said, his voice low. "Not ever."
The room went darker yet as Sam logged off the laptop and put it on the bedside table. Dean could hear the shifting of the blankets as he rolled over, saw the curve of his shoulder as he turned his back to Dean, and it was a long while before either of them slept.
He didn't know what woke him this time; maybe it was just his screwed up internal clock, what with sleeping away most of the day. But something snagged at his subconscious, and he opened his eyes to stare upward at the ceiling before glancing over at Sam's bed. It was empty. A quick look around showed a thin slit of light coming from beneath the bathroom door. Dean relaxed – at least until he could make out the sounds from behind the door.
Sam was crying. Quiet, muffled sobs.
Dean swore silently. Oh, Sammy, I'm sorry. I don't want to leave you, either.
He thought about getting up. But if Sam still wanted to appear confident about all this, Dean would play his part in keeping up the illusion, and let him. They were both wearing a mask; and neither one of them was hiding behind it very well at all.
When the sobs at last slowed and came to an end, the light eventually went off, and he heard the door open with a quiet creak. He had already rolled over onto his side, feigning sleep, and didn't move when he felt Sam's hand delicately brush across the top of his head, stirring his hair. He almost started crying himself then. But he bit down on his lip, and stayed awake until Sam's breathing slowed and evened out.
The morning dawned grey, grim, and raining.
Dean grimaced up at the sky. "Lovely," he said sourly.
"We're almost there," Sam said, "a couple of hours, I think." One hand hovered near Dean's elbow; the other strayed to Dean's back as Dean once again climbed into the wrong side of the front seat.
"Good," he sighed. "Let's get this show on the road, Sammy. Remember, someplace sunny."
"Shut up," he was told, very firmly.
Well, no sign of tears this morning, at any rate.
"Okay. Let's go meet your specialist."
Sam smiled, started the car, and with Metallica blasting from the speakers, they hit the road.
It would be over soon, Dean thought, staring out the window, one way or another.