Last chapter, people! Who's excited? I'm excited.
Three great betas helped me out over the course of this story. Hakirby, A Blackwinged Bird, and Lady Ophelia 14. All of them deserve praise, especially Lady Ophelia, who beta'd eight out of ten chapters. I cannot tell you how much better this story is as a result of their efforts.
Thank you to my readers and especially my reviewers. If you've enjoyed reading this story half as much as I've enjoyed writing it then I can congratulate myself on a job well done. This has been a crap-load of fun.
With that, Hunter/Killer: Chapter 10
Chapter 10: Going Forward
Sam was in his hotel bed, having just awakened from a fitful, nightmare-plagued sleep. The sun wasn't up yet; the clock on the nightstand read 5:15 and in the other bed his brother was snoring gently.
He'd been released a few days ago, and it seemed like the nightmares hit him whenever he closed his eyes. It had been a week since the…conversation…and Sam was trying to keep it together. He'd finally gotten Dean to accept his help, for once admit that he needed it, and Sam had known then that the opportunity-cost would be that he didn't get to talk about his own issues. Telling Dean about the nightmares would only prevent his older brother from putting this behind him. Dean had spent his whole life suffering in silence so that Sam could be the weak one; Sam could handle a few nightmares on his own.
It wasn't just the nightmares, though. Sometimes when Dean was standing over him, or moved suddenly, or when his voice hit that tone—the low, somber one he'd had during the fight—it was hard to suppress a flinch or a shiver. So far he thought he'd managed to keep Dean in the dark about it (an accomplishment in itself). Since he knew the fears were irrational, he was confident that they would go away on their own. He just hadn't expected it to take more than a couple of days.
Then there was the guilt. He knew that was irrational too. Even if the demon that killed his mother and girlfriend had been coming after him, it didn't make it his fault they were dead, any more than Sam's injuries were Dean's fault. But it was hard. Hard because maybe Ansius was right, and psychics like him allowed things like that to enter the world. It made sense, right? And if that was true, maybe it would be better if he wasn't around.
He closed his eyes and pushed the thoughts away. What was so hard about this? Ansius was a demon. Demons lied. And even when they weren't lying, they could still be wrong. He had no reason, none, to believe that as a result of his existence, evil things could come into the world. Plus, even if it was true, killing lots of them had to make up for it.
It didn't comfort him. It never did. Which only demonstrated all the more that talking to Dean wouldn't help anything. What was Dean going to say? What arguments could he make that Sam hadn't already thought of? It wouldn't help Sam, and it would only remind Dean of the things he'd said and done under Ansius' influence. No good would come of it.
He wanted to, to be honest. He wanted to so badly. He wanted to open up to Dean and tell him everything, to drop right back into the role of needy little brother. How pathetic was that? How ridiculous was it that Dean had spent his life dealing with his shit alone, and Sam could barely stand it for one goddamn week? No. He was committed. He wasn't going to say anything.
God, his ribs hurt. No wonder, he was lying on his side. He must have shifted in his sleep. He rolled onto his back but that just seemed to make it worse, like the pressure on his ribs had been all that was keeping the pain in check. He had to choke down a groan to avoid waking his brother. He needed another dose of painkillers.
Dean was dealing with everything pretty well, but he had gone a little overboard with the protectiveness thing of late. If Sam woke him, he'd insist on getting the drugs for him, on getting the water, on helping him sit up so he could take them. As with most of his emotions, Dean didn't vocalize his guilt. It was only detectable in his expressions and actions. It was annoying, but Sam understood it. Still, he didn't want to deal with it tonight. At least one of them should get some sleep.
He slowly, slowly, slid his legs out from under the covers and off the right edge of the bed. Sitting up required considerable effort and bracing with his uninjured left arm, but at least he was able to do it alone now, and without a wall to lean against. He let himself sit there for a moment, taking deep breaths. It hurt. It really hurt to move.
He stood, which wasn't as hard as sitting up, and was able to make his way to the bathroom quietly. He really should have just had some pills and water ready on the nightstand. That would have been much easier.
Once inside he closed the door and leaned back against it. Walking was a chore. Breathing sucked too. He flicked on the lights and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before stepping over to the sink and grabbing the pills from the counter.
He took two and washed them down with water. At least swallowing didn't hurt.
Inspecting himself in the bathroom mirror, he saw that he looked like shit. The contusions on his face were still healing, and Sam wondered if the only reason Dean hadn't noticed how little sleep he was getting was that the dark circles under his eyes were masked by the still-healing bruises. He still had a cast on his right forearm, and would for at least a couple more weeks, but he was no longer in the sling. Even through the t-shirt it was hard to miss how thin he'd gotten on hospital food and bed rest, and it had only been a few days. He wondered when he'd be able to start training again, and hoped he wouldn't have to reset his metabolism.
The pills started to take effect, a little numbing warmth spreading throughout his body. It gave him the courage to pull up his shirt and see how his ribs were healing. It was ugly. Whatever wasn't taped was black or purple, and it hurt just to look at. He let the shirt fall back over his torso.
That's when it happened.
It was just a flash—no headache, not a vision—just an image of Dean's black combat boot smashing heavily into his side, accompanied by the sick crunching sound of his ribs breaking and the memory of brilliant, searing pain. It was over in less than a second but it was undeniable. It was also scary as hell.
The wave of panic was difficult to suppress, and he leaned back against the door again, breathing deeply, trying to calm down. His heart refused to slow. The adrenaline was tying his insides in knots. He slowly slid to the ground, hugging his arms around his chest and waiting for it to pass.
Gut-punch combination knocks the wind out of him.
JESUS! He shut his eyes against the images as if to block them out, but it wasn't like they were coming in through his eyes.
It was a moment before he realized that he knew what this was. He'd taken enough psychology at college to know about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He knew that flashbacks were a symptom. He'd just assumed it was the kind of thing that people suffered because they weren't used to terror and violence in their everyday life, so he'd dismissed the possibility that it would ever be a problem for him. Which made him stupid as well as pathetic.
Elbow to the cheekbone and he's reeling.
Sam unconsciously brought his hands up, like he could ward off the blows. He hadn't been able to then, when it was happening for real, so it was pretty ridiculous to try to defend himself now. The humor didn't really sink in before—
Fist across his jaw. A knee-strike to the abdomen.
Sam pulled his legs in and curled up, trying to keep quiet, trying not to cry. It wouldn't stop. It just wouldn't fucking stop. He didn't see everything, just some of the highlights, but it went on for minutes, and it was more than enough to leave him near hyperventilation. He tried to think about other things. Recite the alphabet, backwards. State capitols. Multiplication tables. It didn't help at all. He had to see his arm being broken, he had to see the knife going in. It had to rob him of his self-control, had to take away his dignity before it relented.
It left him shuddering against the door with tears running down his face, gently rocking back and forth like a mental patient. Yeah, being the strong one was working out really fucking well.
There was some relief when it became clear that the attack was finally over. That feeling didn't last long. This messed everything up. Nightmares he could handle. The occasional twitch was manageable. Full-on theater-quality flashbacks were a serious problem.
What the hell was he going to do?
He had to tell Dean. He couldn't tell Dean. Dean needed him to be strong. What the fuck was wrong with him that he couldn't deal with this? Dean had dealt with tons of stuff at least this bad and never complained. He'd never ended up with PTSD. God, what if he'd been right all along? What if Sam really was so weak that even when Dean had it worse, Sam still needed more help?
Fuck that. Sam was strong. He stifled a laugh at the absurdity of assuring himself of that after falling apart in a hotel bathroom.
Then he nearly cried again. Because it wasn't fucking funny.
Suck it up, man!
He needed to go over his options, think this through rationally. Think strategically, like the soldier he'd been trained to be. Fight fear with reason. Fight problems with solutions. Drugs, therapy, both, or neither. That's what it came down to. Anything but option four Dean would eventually notice, but ignoring this shit wasn't working. Of the first three, drugs were the one Sam could hide the longest. He'd have to find some way to get back to the hospital without Dean's supervision. What was he supposed to say? 'Hey, Dean, I can barely walk but I'm going to take the car out for a drive, be back in a couple hours.' Or, 'Can you give me a ride to the hospital and then not come in or ask any questions?' There was no way this was going to work and what the fuck was he supposed to—
The knock on the door nearly launched him through the ceiling.
Dean had been standing there for about a minute and a half. He'd awakened to the sound of his brother's stifled gasps. He'd quietly made his way over, and had stopped just outside the bathroom. He'd stood there listening to the rhythmic thumping of Sam's back against the door. Dean surmised from the movement of the shadows in the light issuing from under the door that Sam was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth against it.
Dean had known that something was up. Sam couldn't suppress every flinch, couldn't hide the evidence of every nightmare. Still, he'd done a pretty good job if it was so bad he was reduced to crying in the bathroom. Dean hadn't seen that coming.
He didn't want to go in, didn't want to let Sam know that he was watching this, even through the door. Sam's life this last year had left him an open book, barely able to hide his pain even when he wasn't having nightmares or visions. Dean honestly didn't know how Sam did it, how he could survive with his heart out on his sleeve like that.
Dean had fulfilled his lifetime quota for embarrassment a week ago when he'd broken down and cried on his brother's shoulder. Or into his chest. Whatever. Lately it seemed like everything that happened was designed to tear Sam apart. If this was just catharsis, if this was just a little breakdown that had been a long time coming, then his little brother deserved some privacy.
But he knew that wasn't what this was. Sam wasn't sobbing, he was gasping. He wasn't heaving, he was rocking. Dean hadn't taken college psychology, but he knew all about the psychological effects of violence. It was useful stuff to know. And even through the door it was easy to figure out what was going on.
He reached toward the door and hesitated. He knew he had the strength to do this. Sam had helped him reclaim it. He let familiar confidence wash over him and knocked.
Sam scrambled to his feet, bracing against the door and biting back the pain. The medication helped, and he was glad he'd managed to get it down before the flashbacks.
"Sam, are you alright in there?"
"Yeah, Dean. I'm fine," Sam called back, almost too quickly, slurring together the last two words. "I can go to the bathroom by myself, you know."
It was the cut-the-crap voice. The voice that told Sam that his brother already knew what was going on and was only asking to give Sam the opportunity to volunteer the truth. He got a guilty feeling in the pit of his stomach as he heard it, as he realized how bad he'd screwed this up.
"It's…it's not…" Sam stammered before he'd even figured out how to finish the sentence. Dean didn't give him time.
"Sam, open the door."
Sam grudgingly complied. He had to. Hiding wasn't helpful anymore. He unlocked the door and Dean pushed it open, while Sam sat down heavily on the toilet seat. Dean stood in the doorjamb and looked at him expectantly. Sam looked up at his brother. He thought he'd see guilt there, or pain, or judgment, but all he found was worry. He wasn't sure if that made him feel better or worse. He looked down.
"It's not as bad as you think." Sam finally figured out what he'd been trying to say before.
Dean raised his eyebrows skeptically.
"Right now I think you had a breakdown in the bathroom. Did you have a breakdown in the bathroom?"
Sam nodded slowly.
"Well, so far it's exactly as bad as I think." Dean smirked and Sam choked on a laugh. Dean let that hang a minute before continuing. "What brought this on?"
Sam swallowed and considered lying, but his resolve failed.
"Flashback," Sam whispered. He chastised himself for his weakness. He waited for it, in the pause that followed, waited for Dean's façade to shatter, for all the healing to come undone. But Dean's expression didn't change at all.
"Okay," Dean said amicably.
"What?" Sam shook his head incredulously. How was 'okay' an appropriate response? And what the fuck did it mean? How was Dean's voice so goddamn calm when Sam was barely coherent?
"Okay. So we'll get you treatment." Dean gave him that look of reassuring confidence, the nothing bad is going to happen look, that Sam hadn't seen in over a week. Sam felt a little better. Actually, he felt a lot better. If he'd known this was how Dean would take it… He was a little embarrassed that it was that easy. Sam took a deep breath.
"What about you? Are you okay? This…" Sam gestured generally at himself and the room. "This can't be easy to see."
"I'm fine, Sam."
Sam gave him the skeptical puppy-dog look. He could see Dean resisting its power.
"Seriously dude, I'm not that fragile."
Sam maintained the look. Dean sighed and looked away.
"Fine, I still feel like crap, guilty and whatever. But you know what would help? You not hiding this shit from me and focusing on getting better instead."
Sam hung his head and rubbed his neck absently with his left hand.
"I really screwed this up, didn't I?"
Dean put out his hand to help Sam up. After a moment Sam accepted it. They stood there, face to face. Dean held onto his brother's hand for a long moment.
"A week ago I was in a pretty dark place. I didn't want your help. I needed it, but I didn't want it. You forced me to take it, and I started feeling better. You showed me that this stuff doesn't have to go one-way." Dean looked into Sam's eyes with seriousness. "Your only mistake was forgetting that."
It almost moved Sam to tears. Then Dean rolled his eyes emphatically and let go of his brother's hand.
"Come on, Sammy, it's not that touching. This is exactly why I shouldn't let you listen to that Emo crap."
Sam laughed. He couldn't help it.
"It's Sam, jerk."
"I'll call you what I want, bitch."
"Dude, you fell apart and cried in my arms," Sam chided.
"And if you ever tell anybody about that, I will fucking kill you. Slit your throat from ear to ear. I'm not even kidding."
Sam laughed again. His brother hadn't threatened violence since before the fight, and for just a moment, Sam could forget what had happened. It didn't last, but it made him believe that things were going to get better.
He followed his brother out of the bathroom, crawled into his own bed, and slept dreamlessly through the early hours of morning.
For something like this there was no 'all better'. There was no day you could point to as the day you would be done healing, no point in your treatment where an issue was fully and finally resolved.
It was a week before Sam decided that talk-therapy wasn't for him, at least not when he couldn't be honest with the people he was talking to. Dean, for his part, made it clear that Sam could talk to him. That, plus some anti-anxiety drugs, got rid of the flashbacks and reduced the frequency of the nightmares.
On the physical front, Sam healed faster as he began to get more sleep. It was a couple of weeks before he could start training again, and a week more before he felt ready to start hunting. Expenses for that period used up almost all of the reward Jonas had given them, but it was more than worth it.
Dean didn't break down again, and he didn't go to therapy (that would have been a disaster). He also didn't stop blaming himself, though little by little, he was able to release some of his guilt. He worked hard at it, not for his own sake, but because it's what Sam wanted him to do. Sam's forgiveness, Sam's absolution, didn't feel like something he deserved, but he couldn't deny how much it meant. And he didn't want to imagine how screwed up he'd be without it.
Moreover, he tolerated the discussion of 'feelings' and allowed the occasional chick-flick moment. He even instigated a few when he felt Sam was holding something back for his sake. And when his brother was limping (in whatever way) and wouldn't lean on him willingly Dean gave the kid no choice. Turnabout was fair play.
The difference between a hunter and a killer is that one thing you've got left to fight for, that one thing that's more important than anything else, that makes violence a means rather than an end. The difference is the person who's there to catch you when the pain's too much and you're falling, the one for whom you know you can be strong even when you're dying inside.
Ansius' sin left him with nothing, with no one, and he became a monster. Sam and Dean had each other, and that's what kept them from crossing the line.
People say the road to recovery is long and hard. It's certainly long. But when you've got your brother to walk it with you, it's surprisingly easy.