Disclaimer: Not mine blah blah blah blah blah blah.
Warnings: Spoilers abound and I might have gone a little overboard on "angst."
Story is set between "Faith" and "Rout 666."
I have a tendency to write flashbacks in stories. If they are and/or become unclear or confusing, please let me know.
Additional notes you don't really need to read: Those thrifty enough to look it up on a map will note Lander is an actual place, as is Sinks Canyon, as are many of the locations utilized in this tale, including the Pronghorn Lodge. I like using real locations because it lends to a more realistic backdrop—I'm not from there, however, I am familiar with the area, being loosely affiliated with an organization headquartered there, and I have thus tweaked some of the particulars to adapt it to my literary needs. In the initial draft, I was more precise about the geography, but ultimately felt it was cumbersome in the context of the story. Alas... therefore, consider this a slightly simplified and skewed version of Lander, and let's leave it at that.
Outside Lander, Wyoming, 1996
There was a whooshing. A steady humming between his ears.
Cold, grainy dirt was sticking to his jaw.
Dean didn't like the feel of it sitting there but he couldn't brush it away. He couldn't do anything. His hands felt thick, useless, and no matter how he tried, he couldn't get his eyes to open. Everything else felt dull, weighted, and out of his control. Funny, he thought, that when everything else seemed so numb, sound could be so amplified.
Sammy breathes too loud, he realized.
Who knew twelve-year-olds had such a massive need for oxygen?
Sammy wheezed. Close to him. And through the numbness of his prickly skin Dean could feel a hand fist in his t-shirt. Sammy thought he was unconscious, Dean knew—and knew that always scared the kid. Hell, who wouldn't it scare? But Dean was powerless to tell his brother otherwise—completely unable to tell Sammy he wasn't unconscious at all.
Farther away, the crisp gasps of his father slowed until they could no longer be described as pants. And that other sound—the sound Dean had been listening for before he'd got distracted by the ugly-feeling dirt on his face—was sharply absent, like someone had suddenly unplugged a vacuum that had been left running for hours. The lack of vibration between Dean's ears leaving him to feel peculiar and empty.
"Is the ghost dead, Dad?"
Sammy whispered loudly too. Or maybe with everything else on the fritz, Dean's hearing had been pushed into overdrive. He could hear the rustling of Sammy's jacket against his own pants—could picture his little brother crouching nearby, hand still tangled in the material of his older brother's shirt. Dean wanted the image confirmed, wanted to see it, and really wished his eyelids would start working.
"It's dead, Sammy."
A cold palm penetrated the rubbery feel of Dean's forehead. Enough awareness registering for him to know the hand was large, belonged to his father, and left his skin tingling where it made contact. The touch was comforting and was somehow bringing his numb skin back to life. Another touch followed, and sensation suddenly sharpened enough for him to know the awkward fingers brushing the dirt from his jaw, were Sammy's. Thank you, Sammy.
"Why is Dean still sleeping, Dad?" The kid was still young enough to exchange words like sleeping for unconscious because they sounded less traumatic. His little brother wouldn't stay in that phase much longer. But maybe, Dean thought, maybe I am sleeping. Maybe I can't really hear all of this and I'm just dreaming.
He dismissed that as soon as he thought it. Clarity was too sharp to pretend this reality away.
As if to remind him of that, a strong arm slid beneath his shoulders, another hooked under his knees—the points of contact penetrating and breaking further through the rubbery sensation that had seized him. Vertigo struck as he was lifted and, at sixteen, he felt silly to be carried. Burdensome. He wanted to tell his dad to put him down, but couldn't.
Couldn't move his lips.
Couldn't make his eyelids flicker.
"The ghost just made him real tired, Sam. We'll take him back to the cabin, put him to bed. He'll be fine."
Dean could hear Sammy huff the twelve-year-old boy huff that, loosely translated, meant he'd wanted a real answer—not one so carefully and condescendingly garnered for a six-year-old. Sammy huffed like that a lot lately. Dean would have reassured him if he could have, because he could tell by his father's tone he was telling the truth. Dean's own fears had been alleviated by the juvenile answer. Obviously his father knew what the ghost was capable of—what it had done to him. Dean wondered if his father knew he could still hear them.
For some reason, he doubted it.
"Lift his head, will you, Sammy?"
Sammy's hand materialized underneath Dean's strained neck, easing the tightness, sliding up and pushing on the back of his head till it lolled sideways, resting on the rough corduroy of his father's shoulder. For a moment Dean felt four again—when he'd pretended to be asleep on the couch just to feel the comfort of his mom or dad picking him up and carrying him to bed so gently and carefully he'd felt fragile and valuable and always… safe.
Lander, Wyoming, 2006
Dean was dreaming. A fabulous stress-less dream with no ghosts and long island beaches he'd never remember. A hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing.
He blinked wide his gritty eyes, taking in his surroundings and sitting up straighter. "Yeah, I'm awake." He nodded at Sam who was watching him from the driver's side of the Impala, looking apologetic. They were sitting in the parking lot of the Pronghorn Lodge in Lander, Wyoming. Dean was about to tell Sam the city park allowed free camping but the same set jaw that had worked his brother into the driver's seat of Dean's own car made the thought useless. Besides, neither of them were big campers, and if it weren't for Sam's overly-compensating and newly discovered fussing, Dean never even would have considered it.
Sam reached into the pocket of Dean's jacket, pulling his wallet and yanking one of the credit cards out with flourish. "Stay here. I'll get the room." Dean watched him take the scammed credit card out of the car and into the clerk's office with a confidence and lack of guilt not often seen. He smirked tiredly, idly wondering how long he'd allow Assertive-Sam this illusion of control.
Assertive-Sam could be hard to stop once he got going. There was skill required in dealing with the ebb and flow of him, though Dean didn't dwell on it all that much. For him, it was intuitive where Sam was concerned. Sam the control-freak. Dean shook his head, tiredly leaning it back against the car window after Sam disappeared behind the glass door, letting his mind count off the most recent times Sam's assertive tones had seen fit to take over. "I'm driving," he'd told him after the Wendigo incident, in such a strong voice Dean wondered if he might actually fight should Dean oppose him. "You have got to calm yourself down!" he'd demanded the one and only time they'd been on a plane together. And in St. Louis with the shapeshifter—Dean's favorite—which he hadn't listened to, "Dean, stay out of the sewers alone!" And when Dean hadn't replied, "I mean it!"
Then of course, there were the still too recent events in Nebraska—where Dean's sudden and serious heart condition had been miraculously healed, though not without psychological consequence for either one of them. Even walking into that tent of a church, Sam had displayed assertiveness he never would have had Dean been truly well enough to fight him. When Dean had gone for two seats in the back, Sam had caught his arm and shoulder, pulling, directing him determinedly toward the front, not put off in the slightest when Dean had pushed his hands away and told him to get off him.
It was enough for him to think his little brother actually cared what happened to him. Dean smirked against the window, then darted his eyes toward where Sam had disappeared. As amusingly gratifying as that thought was, Dean was worried about Sam. For someone who'd walked away from their family so completely, he seemed to have more than completely grasped onto them again.
It was odd, and left Dean scrambling to catch up to his own feelings about their life - his missing father, his re-found brother, his dead mother.
He closed his eyes, dropping his head back against the headrest. For now, he'd allow Assertive-Sam to continue. Truthfully, he was too tired not to.
Sam felt rumpled.
Unnatural creases snaked up and down his mud and rain stiffened jeans. The collar on one side of the button up shirt he wore refused to lie flat, and his damp hair kept going up and out in back. He brushed at it repeatedly, knowing the fuss was futile and recognizing the small vain streak as a longstanding weakness.
He knew he looked bad—he and Dean had pulled to the side of the road to help a woman, who had two children screaming in the backseat of her Outback, change a flat tire in the rain two miles back. The motel clerk—no doubt used to seeing rumpled travelers—gave him a suspicious twice over before handing him the room keys, and seemed to take special note of the Impala's make and model, which made Sam nervous. He hadn't expected Lander's service staff to be quite so picky. He thought of a few excuses he could give for his appearance, but ultimately decided attempting to explain might make him look like more of an axe murderer than he already did.
Dropping his hand away from the back of his head, he took the key without comment. They'd be there a few days and the clerk could suffer his suspicions or ride them out, but couldn't cause them any real problems—Sam hoped. They needed the rest. So much so that Sam was hoping the ghost sightings in Sinks Canyon would prove purely myth.
Some indefinable feeling was telling him otherwise though, and had been telling him otherwise since he'd read about the sightings off his computer in their rented room in Nebraska.
And there were the three missing hikers to consider.
But maybe this time those vibes were just coincidental, Sam hoped. Maybe it's all coincidental.
And that thought came because they'd been to Lander before. He only vaguely remembered the experience. He'd been twelve at the time and at the time they'd also been chasing a ghost. He couldn't remember the specifics—just that something about the ghost had put Dean into a kind of coma for days after they'd killed it, or rather, after their father had killed it. He remembered that more than the ghost itself—Dean being still and his father trying to constantly reassure him that Dean would wake up and be okay.
Sam remembered remaining scared, no matter how much his father had said so.
It wasn't that he'd thought his dad was lying. It was more the fact that Dean was never still and the fact that the immoveable John Winchester, when he thought his youngest son was sleeping, would sit with sixteen-year-old Dean propped against his chest, rubbing his head and singing softly. Sam hadn't ever heard his father sing before and though barely audible, he'd memorized the words, always meaning to ask Dean about it later.
It was a rare memory, because while his own relationship with his father had been defined by alternating cycles of heated hollering and gentle tenderness—with occasional bouts of fuming silence—Dean's was all gruffness and hidden affection. Whether that was because Dean seemed to struggle with displays of fondness toward him, or the reason he struggled with displays of fondness toward him, remained a mystery to Sam and probably always would.
He was stuck trying to figure most of this out in retrospect—which made some things about his family history clearer and others more hazy. At age eight, or twelve, or even fourteen he'd seen things differently. All he'd known then was Dean was there—the personification of wisdom and coordination. Dean was responsible. Dean was the quintessential good son and hunter—and eventually—the person Sam was supposed to be more like but would never measure up to.
Coming back into this life after Stanford... Dean was more human to him now. Maybe his father would be too… if they ever saw him again. Currently, John Winchester was the looming force hanging over them, around them—sometimes between them. Sam still alternated between worry and anger. His father had told them to stop looking—said he was fine, but—Sam remembered when Dean was dying how much he'd just… wanted his dad to come and fix it all. He had figured if anything would spur their father into talking to them again it would have been the thought of losing his oldest son.
He never had asked Dean about the song. He doubted Dean would even know what it was from. He wouldn't have remembered the experience anyway, being unconscious at the time.
Walking back out to the car with the hotel keys, Sam wondered if Dean remembered anything about what all had happened back then and mentally plotted a casual way to bring it up.
In the passenger seat, Dean had his eyes closed and looked way too still. "Dean," Sam called before even reaching the car.
Dean's eyes popped open, finding Sam without effort. "First floor?" he asked, and it was the asking that made Sam worry more. Dean hadn't slept much since leaving Nebraska—had driven most of the way to Wyoming, right up until they'd crossed the state line where he'd finally rescinded the keys to Sam's grip, admitting weariness.
He's overcompensating, Sam thought—trying to look and be overly well after the near miss with his failing heart. Sam could see straight through it, could see how the tiredness had set into Dean's eyes as their journey continued—could see aching lethargy take greater hold on him as they neared their destination. He was fairly certain Dean wasn't having a relapse of his heart condition, but it worried him, just the same.
He didn't think now that he'd ever stop worrying about Dean.
"What are you staring at?" Dean asked, annoyed.
"Nothing." Sam slid into the driver's seat. "And yeah, we're on the first floor." He turned the ignition and drove them another thirty yards to their room number.
Outside Lander, Wyoming, 1996
John Winchester opened the back door of the truck where Dean lay sprawled across the bench seat. Dean knew it was John, not Sammy, because even though he still couldn't open his eyes he swore he could feel his little brother's gaze boring into his chest from the truck's front seat.
Strong arms lifted him, wrapped around his chest and pulled him backward across the seat awkwardly. With his numb skin now more awake, he could feel the pain of numerous bruises as he was moved. He would have groaned if he could have—even knowing Sam was listening.
"When's he gonna wake up, Dad?" He heard Sammy climb out the front and shut both doors. Felt Sam's hand lifting his head back up to his father's shoulder.
"Soon, sport. Get the room key from my pocket, will ya?"
Muffled sounds were followed by the clicks of an opening door. Dean felt a rush of vertigo as his father swung him sideways—no doubt trying to get him through the cabin door without catching his feet on the frame. Gently, then, he was placed on one of the beds. His dad's hand came behind his head, lifting to slide a pillow beneath. Another hand, or perhaps the same hand—since Dean couldn't tell—rested heavily on his chest for several long moments. Dean assumed the gesture was meant to check his breathing. He wasn't having any trouble breathing, but he wished his dad would notice that when he'd put him down on the bed his shirt had bunched awkwardly beneath him. Dean wanted to shift it. It aggravated him that he couldn't—like not being able to scratch your nose when it itched.
"Watch him for me, will ya, Sam?"
"Where are you going?" The twelve-year-old huff was bleeding through Sammy's voice loud and clear.
Dean heard the jingling of keys. "I'm going to get us some food and I need to pick up a few things for Dean. I'll be back in just a few minutes, okay?"
"Okay." Dean could tell Sam wanted to protest.
"There's a twenty-two in the black suitcase. Put it somewhere you can reach it."
"I know, Dad."
"Bolt the door after me."
"Watch your tone."
"I'll be back soon."
The door opened and shut. There was the sliding sound of the bolt and then silence.
Dean wondered what Sammy would do, left alone with a supposedly unconscious brother. Sam had been reading a lot lately—and not the books on urban legends and world lore their father regularly added to their studies. From Colorado Springs to Cheyenne he'd had his nose buried in a copy of The Outsiders. Dean had read it too—had to for school a few years back—then reread it from Cheyenne to Lander when he saw Sammy's interest. He thought the book was alright, but worried his little brother might be over-identifying with it—not the part about warring social classes, but the part that showed most of the characters trapped and frustrated with a life they never would have chosen.
Dean wasn't stupid. He saw the parallels. If Sammy didn't identify with a character like Ponyboy, he didn't know who would. And the way Sammy dwelt on some of the pages while sneaking glances at Dean—he'd half expected his little brother to start calling him Sodapop. In one of Dean's more sensitive moments he'd wanted to point out to Sammy that in the end of the book the family had each other… and that is what had made everything else okay. He hadn't—not having words enough to bring it up with him. But maybe Sam hadn't been as dense about that part as he suspected.
Sam had taken to watching a lot of TV lately too. Shows that were always on rerun and could be caught nearly anytime in any motel room or rental cabin they resided in. The Brady Bunch. Family Ties. Charles in Charge. Shows Dean just couldn't get into. He figured Sam might take the chance to watch one of these while his father wasn't around to give him a hard time about it. Not that John Winchester didn't allow TV watching. He just thought Sammy did it too much, and didn't understand the use or appeal of watching anyone else's unrealistic lifestyle.
Dean expected to hear Sammy click the remote control—expected to hear the theme song for The Munsters or Andy Griffith playing in the background. Instead he heard the zip of the suitcase sliding open, the click of metal on wood as the weapon inside was placed within easy reach. Then, he felt Sam's fingers on his shirt, straightening it downward, un-bunching the wrinkle under his back.
The bed jiggled as his brother climbed onto it, slight weight giving on Dean's right side as the kid stretched next to him and stretched Dean's arm out so he could lay his head on it in a way Dean was sure would make it go numb again.
The only sound for some time after was the steadiness of their breathing falling into sync.
"Wake up, Dean," Sammy said later, more as though he were talking to the room at large rather than Dean himself. Like a plea, or a prayer.
I'm trying, Sammy, Dean thought.