Title: Strength to Endure
Beta and Muse: Amy
Warnings: Blood and language, Skin spoilers
Author's Notes: My undying gratitude goes out to Amy, who stopped me from making this a death fic and in the process, turned this into a deeply satisfiying story- and then made me write an epilogue. Oh, and she also named it. Thanks, Amy.
"Sam, get in!"
"No, I got him! Go!"
"Sam!" Dean cursed as he watched Sam sprint into the shadows. With no time to lose, he dropped the Impala into 'drive' and stomped on the gas. In response, the engine roared and the tires squealed, the high-pitched sound of burning rubber echoing through the dark streets.
Moments before, the Winchester brothers had finally cornered the shape shifter they had been tracking for the past two days. They'd caught it by surprise, backed it into an alley with their weapons drawn- but a sudden loud clang had startled them, caused them to jump and momentarily lose their bead on the shifter. By the time Dean saw the scraggly orange cat disappear around the corner, the shifter had already taken advantage of the situation and was escaping. The brothers only took time to curse their stupidity before giving chase.
The Impala was parked right behind them. Dean ran to it, yanked open the door, slid into the seat, then slammed the door all in one practiced, fluid movement. But Sam- with his incredibly long legs- was already going after the shifter on foot. Dean shook his head as he twisted the keys in the ignition. For a guy who was so quiet and reserved, the kid could haul ass.
Dean cursed as the shape shifter took a corner, heading down a side street. He stomped on the brakes, sending the Impala's nose to the pavement, and turned the wheel hard. Again, the sound of squealing tires filled the air as Dean guided the big car around the tight corner. As soon as the Impala straightened out, he pressed the gas pedal to the floor.
"Come on Sam, get him," Dean muttered, his gaze torn between the shifter and his little brother. Sam was doing a respectable job of keeping up, considering the shape shifter had the advantage of supernatural powers. Sam's gun was in his hand but there was no time to shoot. The shifter was simply moving too fast.
The shifter took another right turn and Dean just barely kept the Impala off the sidewalk. "Where the hell are you going?" he growled, fighting with the steering wheel. He hoped the car wouldn't need an alignment after all this abuse. He was frustrated and excited, pumped with adrenaline and testosterone. The car's engine thundered as the hunters chased their pray down the dark street.
Dean shouted another curse as the shifter cut down a side alley. Dean slammed on the brakes as beside him, Sam skidded to a halt and backtracked a few steps before sprinting down the alley. Dean threw the car in reverse, cranking the steering wheel hard as the Impala maneuvered smoothly in a backwards arc across the empty lanes of traffic. Dean shifted into 'drive' and floored it once more. Not being able to see his brother always sent a shiver of concern through him. He didn't like Sam chasing after a shape shifter alone- not after that incident months ago when the shifter used Dean's skin to get the advantage over Sam. That was a nightmare neither brother wanted to relive. With a feeling of unease, Dean pressed on the gas a little harder.
Suddenly something flashed in front of him, a dark blob spotlighted at the edge of the Impala's headlights.
And before he recognized the flash of the shape shifter's eyes, Sam was there, in front of him, and Dean stomped on the brakes.
A moment too late.
The tires screeched, protesting the full weight of the car and melting under the pressure and friction. There was a jolt and a sickening, hollow thud as the car's bumper caught Sam in the legs, slamming him hard on to the hood. The car continued forward, still sliding, and a grotesque spider web pattern splintered across the lower windshield as Sam's head smashed against it. The car's downward momentum flung Sam to the pavement. Powerless to stop it, Dean felt the Impala bounce as it rolled over Sam. The car finally rocked to a violent stop, throwing Dean back against the driver's seat. Sour-smelling smoke blew past in the silence, obscuring the twin beams of light that pierced the darkness of night. Behind the car, Sam's body lay motionless on the street.
Dean gasped, his knuckles bone-white as he clenched the steering wheel. A strangled, "Sam!" tore itself from his tight throat and Dean threw open the car door, stumbling out into the street. His legs were numb and threatened to give out. Dean barely managed to catch himself as he scrambled to the back of the car.
He crashed to his knees on the pavement.
"Sam! Jesus, Sammy- come on!" Dean reached out, unaware of the tremors in his hand. Sam's legs were bent at an impossible angle. His eyes were almost closed, only tiny slivers of muted green visible from under his wet eyelashes. Blood was trickling from a cut at his hairline and when Dean touched it, he found that the entire side of Sam's scalp was split open and bleeding, creating a pool underneath them. His breathing- he was breathing- was very labored and Dean didn't have to lean down to hear the gurgling in Sam's chest. Sam was moaning- a tiny sound that could have been the cry of a puppy or kitten- and blood dripped from the corner of his mouth.
Something burned a trail down the side of Dean's nose and he tasted salt on his dry lips. "Come on Sammy, stay with me okay? I'm gonna get help- it's okay- don't move, okay?" With shaking hands, Dean fumbled for his cell phone, dropping it once before flipping it open. By a small miracle, he managed to dial the correct numbers and put the phone to his ears, reaching out with his other hand as Sam's head lolled to the side and more blood spilled to the street.
His heart was pounding so hard that Dean really didn't pay attention to what he said. The operator was female and tried to sound soothing, telling him that help would be there shortly and don't move his brother. Okay. The next thing he knew, Dean was sitting on his ass next to Sam, tears spilling down his face as Sam's lips began to turn blue.
"Sammy, come on, it's okay… just calm down okay? Can you hear me?"
An agonized moan was his only answer.
Dean picked up Sam's hand with his own trembling one, squeezing it gently before rubbing the cool flesh. He had to stay calm, for Sam's sake. He would protect Sam from anything- even reality.
"Come on Sam, focus on breathing, okay? Nice and slow. Just relax." Dean wiped at his face with a heavy arm, unwilling to let Sam see him so scared. His breath hitched, but he plowed on. "I know it hurts- try to ignore it. Just stay with me, okay? Just lay still- don't move. Breath slowly okay? You can do this." Dean used all his will power to keep the fear from his voice.
Sam's hand twitched and the flood of hope within Dean carried him through the next three minutes. Three minutes of gasping, gurgling breathing. Three minutes of dripping blood. Three minutes of pale skin and sweat and blue lips. Three minutes of cold fingers and hot tears. But Sam was still conscious, and that was the only thing that kept Dean from completely breaking down.
Dean had never felt so powerless. Not even when Sam left for college and Dean watched his meager family fall apart did he feel so useless. He wanted to gather Sam up in his arms, hold him, love him, but he couldn't- physically couldn't- for fear of spinal injuries. He could only sit, sit and watch the person he treasured most in the world fade away slowly, drowning in his own blood. He could feel Sam's will to live and feel him dying at the same time. It overloaded Dean's brain- there was so much he wanted to do, to say- but couldn't. It was building up inside him, swelling against his skull and chest with a white-hot pain that contrasted the numbness of his limbs.
"Sam, don't you leave me, you hear? Don't you dare fucking die. I will reincarnate your ass just so I can kill you again, do you understand?" His grief was escaping as anger and Dean forced himself to slow down. He didn't want his final words to be spoken in a harsh tongue. "I'm sorry Sammy- just please stay awake, okay? Look at me. Ride through the pain- I know it hurts. Just focus on me."
Sam blinked slowly, his gaze losing focus even as he looked in the direction of Dean's voice. His chest rose dramatically as he fought to pull oxygen into blood-filled lungs.
"Good boy," Dean praised, a smile bending his face. "Keep fighting. I'm right here."
In the distance, the wail of a siren cut through the air. Dean took a deep breath and looked to the sky, sending a quick prayer of thanks to whoever was up there. He smiled.
"You hear that, Sammy? Help is on the way. You just hold on for a few more minutes and I'll get you all fixed up, okay?"
A ragged, painful wheezing sound escaped Sam's lips and his eyes slid closed.
"Sammy? Sam?" Dean squeezed his brother's cold hand and inched his way closer, his thigh resting against Sam's shoulder. "Hey, come on," he urged, reaching out and lightly patting Sam's good cheek. "Stay with me Sam. I'm serious. Open your eyes."
There was no response. The sirens got louder, as did Dean's heartbeat.
"Shit- Sam, I'm not fucking around here, open your eyes!"
Dean grabbed Sam chin and studied Sam's face for any sign of movement. He put two fingers to the side of Sam's neck- ignoring the blood- and tried to feel for a heartbeat. Seconds ticked by and Dean realized- in the time it was taking him to find a pulse, Sam hadn't breathed.
"Sam!" Dean's voice was made small and weak with panic. This couldn't be happening! It had been an accident, Sam had ran in front of him and there was no time to stop…
Knock it off, Dean. If Dad were here, what would he tell you to do?
Dean rose up on his knees and crossed his hands over each other, hovering above Sam's heart. But he stopped- if Sam's lungs were punctured then performing CPR would be disastrous. With a broken sob, Dean sank to his haunches.
This was his fault. He had did this. He killed Sammy.
Dean stared at the lifeless body before him, unaware of the ambulance coming to a stop behind him, the doors being slammed and equipment being tossed around. He never heard the shouts, the orders, the inquiries to his own health. He never felt them brush past him, grab his elbow, push him aside. He never saw them cut away Sammy's torn and blood-soaked shirt, poke and prod with gloved hands, move Sammy onto a stretcher. Dean was only aware that his brother was being taken away and he followed, oblivious to his surroundings and what was happening.
Dean rose on numb legs and followed as Sam was moved to the ambulance. He tried to climb inside but something pushed him back. He simply stood, waiting for the barrier to disappear- then he saw a clear tube placed under Sam's nose and an IV shoved into the crook of his elbow. Dean watched, transfixed, as a slice was made in the side Sam's chest and a tube was shoved between his ribs. Blood poured onto the floor of the ambulance.
And Sam's chest rose.
That single, heaving breath was the most glorious sound to Dean's ears and the world suddenly snapped back into focus. He was aware of the two paramedics- one male, one female- the shrill beeps of monitors and life support systems, the overwhelming stench of blood. But most of all, he was aware of Sam.
"Hey kid- get in. We need to roll, and I don't think you should be driving."
Dean took one look at Sam, wrapped in stabilizers and hooked up to machines, his head and chest covered in dark congealing blood, and climbed inside.
As the doors shut behind him, he grabbed Sam's hand and squeezed.
"Are you sure there's no one I can call for you?"
Dean shook his head. "There's no one. Just me." He placed the clip board- covered in lies- on the counter between them. "They'll come get me when he's out of surgery, right?"
The nurse nodded as she took the clipboard. "Of course. You can have a seat over there, I'll let the doctors know where you are." Almost as an afterthought she added, "There's a vending machine around the corner if you're hungry."
At the thought of stale peanut butter sandwich crackers, Dean's stomach sent a sample of bile up his esophagus. Food was definitely out. "Uh- no thanks. I'm good."
Dean turned and made his way back to his chair- the one closest to the door where the doctors emerged from. The emergency room was fairly quite- at least compared to the last few times he'd been in one. The only other occupants were a middle-aged mother and her small boy. The boy sat on the floor playing with a toy car as his mother watched the clock with a nervous expression. She made him edgy, so he turned away.
His knee started bouncing. Sam had been wheeled through the sliding glass doors only ten minutes ago, rushed over a line of red tape that Dean hadn't been allowed to cross, then taken into emergency surgery. Dean had been corralled back to the administration desk and handed a clipboard thick with registration forms, patient history sheets, and insurance claim forms. Creating the fictional answers had kept him occupied for a little while- but now he had nothing to distract him, nothing to keep his mind off Sammy.
Dean wondered- with a heavy heart and a tight throat- if Sam was even still alive. He'd never regained consciousness in the ambulance and the paramedics worked fervently to keep his heart beating. A heart that wouldn't have stopped beating if Dean had been more careful.
He replayed the accident over and over in his head, hunched over in the chair with his hands curled into tight fists on either side of his head. Dean closed his eyes- he could feel the jolt of the car as it struck his brother, see that crystalline spider web of cracked glass, hear the tires screaming, smell the smoke and taste the scent of blood. The image of Sammy laying on the pavement, bleeding, twitching, gasping, gurgling… the image drove Dean to his feet. He had to get out of here.
The little boy across the room looked up, momentarily halting the toy car's trek around his mother's chair. "Bye!" he waved, but Dean was already gone.
He rounded the corner, searching blindly for a place of solitude. He couldn't handle the false solace of strangers right now. Nobody really knew him, they didn't really understand just how much Sam meant. Dean didn't want to listen to an overly-parental nurse tell him everything was going to be okay.
Because it wasn't.
Dean dodged a medicine cart and kept going, his stride quick and determined even though the destination was unknown. It hit him, suddenly, that even if Sam didn't die today, he would eventually- and that realization hurt like a shot to the heart. Because some day, Sam would die. Death was really the only sure thing in the world, wasn't it? But it was Dean's responsibility to make sure that Sam wasn't killed.
And especially not by his own hand.
Dean passed a set of heavy wooden doors and took five more steps before realizing they were out of place. He stopped and turned around, returning to the doors with curiosity. Looking up, he saw a simple sign that read 'Chapel'.
He snorted and started to turn away. Chapels were more Sam's thing; Dean had always felt a little out of place sitting in a pew. His nomadic childhood prevented him from forming any church-going habits and quite honestly, he didn't miss it. Everything he needed to know, his father had taught him. Dean was familiar with the Bible- you had to be when you came face-to-face with creatures of Hell- but he was far from being comfortable in a church.
So Dean didn't really know what made him stop and turn around. He stood there, staring at the closed doors as a different feeling came over him. What use was a God who let Sam die while the demon that killed their mother still plagued the earth freely? Where was the justice in that? Why was his family being punished for something they had no control over? The anger and resentment that mounted and mounted until Dean suddenly found himself inside the chapel.
"You wanted me?" he asked the empty room, walking down the carpeted isle, hands out at his sides. "Well here I am! Except I'm gonna be the one doing the talking."
Dean made his way to the front of the room, approaching the paintings and crucifixes and burning candles. The anger blinded him, provided him with a way to blame someone besides himself, and he jumped on it. "Why are You doing this, huh?" he snapped, pacing along the wall. " What did he ever do to You? Sam's a good kid. He's always tried to do the right thing. You can fix this! You can help him! You have to!" His hands were balled into fists and he was three seconds from punching a hole in the wall.
But then he paused, noticing the single candle burning brightly from a shelf next to his shoulder. The orange flame flickered gently and the glow around it wavered, causing the shadows to dance. That single flame, burning brightly and steadily from its core, mesmerized Dean. He stared at the candle, tall and thin and slowly dripping white wax- then suddenly all of the suffocating, pressing anger relinquished him and he was left with a cold hollowness deep inside him.
He collapsed upon the wooden pew, planting his elbows on his knees and resting his forehead on his palms. And then Dean thought about all the things he never said to Sam- all the 'I love you's that came out as shoulder-punches instead, all the 'Good researching, Sam's that came out as snarky college-boy remarks- and Dean realized that now, the words he really meant may never fall upon his brother's ears. Now, it might be too late.
He looked up, eyes locking on the small flame. "Please. I need him." The plaintive voice sounded foreign to him. His chest hurt and hot tears stung his eyes. "He's my little brother," he whispered, closing his eyes. "I'm supposed to take care of him. He looks up to me. How's he gonna trust me now, huh? What's he gonna think of me now, after I ran over him with a car!"
Dean's lungs were tight, squeezing the air from his body. Tears spilled down his cheeks. "I fucking hit him with my car. I don't want him to die-" he fastened his gaze on the cross behind the alter, beseeching. "Please, I'll do anything. I'll let him go back to college, I'll stop hunting… I'll live a normal, cookie cutter life- just please… let him live. Let Sammy be okay."
Dean scrubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath. His face hurt, he had a headache, his stomach was doing somersaults or God-knows-what, and the only thing that could make him feel better was laying on a cold operation table under a stranger's knife.
"All's I want is my family back. Is that too much to ask?"
He pulled out his cell phone and stared at it. If he called his father, would it make a difference? If he told him that Sam was in an accident, possibly a fatal one, would John show up? Dean didn't like being let down. He'd left messages of similar nature in the past, without any hint as to whether or not John even got them. Dean put the phone back in his pocket. There was no use in getting all choked up for nothing.
"Mr. Bland?" A voice from behind him broke the silence. "Are you alright?"
Dean wiped away the last of his tears and turned around. An older man in light blue scrubs was making his way towards the front of the room. "How's Sam?"
The doctor offered him a small, tired smile. "He's alive."
Dean could suddenly breathe again. A large, goofy smile spread over his face even as tears fell- what an odd sensation it was to both laugh and cry at the same time. "Can I see him?"
The doctor returned the smile, laying a hand on Dean's shoulder. "Come on. Looks like you need him as much as he needs you."
Dean leaned forward as Sam whimpered. "Hey," he said lightly, placing a hand on Sam's arm, mindful of the IV tubing. "You're okay, Sam. Wake up."
Slowly, but obediently, Sam's eyelids began to flutter.
"Thatta boy," Dean encourage, patting Sam's hand. "Open your eyes and look at my handsome face."
Bleary, red-rimmed eyes finally settled on Dean and Sam's brows furrowed. "Dean?"
"The one and only," Dean replied, removing his hand from his brother's. "How you feeling?"
The beeping of the heart monitor mocked him in the background. Stupid… question… stupid… question…
Sam blinked slowly, his eyelids at half-mast. "Like some jerk hit me with their car."
The wit caught him by surprise and for a moment, Dean was speechless. Was this the same Sam who had been at Death's door six hours ago? Dean blinked, regaining his composure. "Yeah, well some bitch jumped out in front of me."
Sam smiled at that, and his eyes slid shut. "You're not… being a girl 'bout this… are you?"
Dean studied his brother's relaxed, pale face. "It's my fault."
Sam started to rock his head.
"Yes it is, Sam. I'm responsible for this. You almost died tonight- do you know how scared I was? I almost killed you." It sounded lame but he added, "I'm sorry."
"I don't think I could live with myself if that happened, Sam." Dean leaned closer to Sam, embarrassment softening his voice. "As moody and bitchy as you are- I don't think I can handle losing you." His throat was tightening again and Dean sniffed. "I kinda like having you around, ya know?"
Sam cracked open his eyes, another smile pulling at his lips. "I'm not going anywhere, Dean. You're gonna have to try… harder than that."
Dean glanced suspiciously at the IV pump, wondering what kind of drugs were being pumping into his brother's battered body. He followed the tubing down to Sam's arm, which was decorated with road burn. A white bandage was wrapped around Sam's head and Dean smiled as he imagined his brother's reaction when he realized half of his head had been shaved. Wires crept out from under Sam's hospital gown and attached to a heart monitor on the other side of the bed. Both legs were in casts.
The doctor's words came floating back to him- 'massive trauma', 'collapsed lungs', 'broken ribs', 'major blood loss', 'transfusion', 'concussion'… and 'Luck'. More words like 'stabilized', 'off the ventilator', and 'no permanent damage'. Dean might not know what all the medical jargon meant, but when he walked into the room and saw Sam's chest rising and falling, he knew his prayers had been heard. He'd never been so happy to see Sam breathe in all his life.
"Did we get him?"
Dean narrowed his eyes. "Get who?"
Shit. After all this… they were empty handed. "No."
Sam flashed a small smile, his eyes still closed. "We'll get him."
Yes, they would. Because Dean was going to make some changes. No more relentless teasing of his kid brother. One chick-flick moment per month. Once in a while, stopping to eat at the place Sam suggested. And no more running over his brother with the Impala.
"Go to sleep, Sam."
Two Weeks Later
Venice Beach, California
"Hey," Dean started, nudging Sam in the ribs with his elbow, "Check out that one. What about her?"
Sam tilted his head down and peered over the rim of his sunglasses. "Dean, I do not want to hit on any girls. I want to lay here and sleep, okay?"
Dean stared after the girl as she moved away. "Yeah, you're right. Not enough meat on her bones."
Sam rolled his eyes and lay his head back, tilting his face into the sun. He had been discharged from the hospital a few days ago with strict instructions to rest and move as little as possible (with the exception of therapy) while he recuperated. So he and Dean had hit the road, making for the sunny coast of California.
He hated being so dependant on Dean, but having two broken legs kinda did that to a person. Sam was wheelchair-bound, which the doctors said was better for his recovering lungs anyway. There was a whole slew of embarrassing things that accompanied his current state of impairment. Sam was cared for like an infant; helped to the toilet, helped to the shower, lifted into bed at night… but while Sam suffered through those ministrations with a red face, Dean seemed undisturbed by it all. He had, Sam supposed, seen it all before.
Sam took a deep breath of the salty air and listened to the gulls overhead. The beach may be the perfect spot for him to recuperate in, but it also distracted Dean from smothering Sam. He was no match for the beach bunnies that overran this place, and Dean's attention was soon lost to an array of long hair, long legs, and full breasts. He was enjoying the peace while he could, before it was time for another bandage change.
"Okay- what about that one?" Dean murmured in his ear.
Sam groaned. "God Dean- Turn on your upstairs brain for a minute, would you?" He sighed, rolling his head to the side. "I wish we were on the road right now, so I wouldn't have to listen to you ogling the local residents."
Dean's attention was still on the bronze blonde as he replied, "No more. I made a deal."
Sam opened his eyes, looking at Dean over his sunglasses. "You what? What deal?"
Dean flinched as if he'd let the secret of the universe slip into the hands of the evil villain. "What? Nothing- shut up."
Sam pushed himself upright, ignoring the twinges of pain that ran through him. "No, tell me. You made a deal about what?"
Dean looked trapped- he refused to look at Sam, instead checking out all the passer-bys. "You know, just something. Back at the hospital."
"What Sam?" Dean said, finally pinning Sam with a glare. "You were dying, okay? At least I thought you were… and it was all my fault."
"Dean, what are you-"
"I made a deal with God, Sam," Dean confessed. "I said that if you lived, I wouldn't make you hunt anymore. We could be normal, like you want."
Sam blinked. What? Since when did Dean even talk to God, let alone make deals with Him? "Is that what you think?" he asked. "You think that I'm only here because you're forcing me into this life?"
Dean glanced away, shrugging. "Well, yeah. You were happy in college. I'm the one who dragged you away from there. You said it yourself- you want to go back."
"Dean-" Sam paused, unsure what he wanted to say first. He didn't even know if he was touched by what Dean had done, or angry. "I'm here because you're my brother. I belong here, helping to find the thing that killed mom and Jess. You really think I'd let you go after it alone?"
"I made a promise, Sam. I don't go back on my word." Dean looked at the sand shifting under his heel as he continued, "You want to quit hunting. I won't stand in your way. I won't see you killed."
Sam looked at Dean- really looked at him- and saw the lines of worry spreading from the corners of his eyes, the frown lines that never seemed to fade, the ever-so-slightly receding hair line… and Sam knew that he would always belong right here. Things had changed since that night when he told Dean he was going back to Stanford after they killed the fire demon. They'd seen things, matured, moved forwards in the grand scheme of things. They'd seen each other flirt with death too many times for comfort. Sam knew what life without Dean would be like, because he'd already imagined it. Life had changed. He wasn't even sure he could be normal anymore.
Did he even want to be normal anymore?
Stanford had been a critical part of Sam's life- he discovered who he was, what he wanted, what life could be like. Stanford made him who he was today. He no longer took orders from his Dad, and even Dean had relaxed their military-style relationship. Sam was an equal. He was his own person, he knew himself- was comfortable with himself- and maybe Stanford had no more purpose for him. Maybe he didn't need it anymore.
Sam understood the value of what Dean was offering. This was Sam's chance to cut the ties cleanly- to end their partnership on a mutual feeling of understanding. The door was open, all Sam had to do was walk through it and it would all be over.
But one look at the way Dean's jaw was clenched, bracing himself for the blow- the loss- and Sam knew this was one door he would not go through. Dean needed him, and he needed Dean, and Sam would not take advantage of a promise Dean made in one of his darkest moments. He knew that Dean would have promised anything during a time like that- Sam would have. But splitting them up, giving up on the hunt and essentially, giving up on Mary and Jess, was too high a price.
"I'm not going anywhere," Sam said at last, his voice thick with emotion. Dean looked at him and he plowed on, "If I ever chose to stop hunting, it'll be by my terms- not because you were afraid for me. I won't take advantage of you like that."
Tears shimmered in Dean's eyes before he quickly turned away, scrubbing his face and clearing his throat. When their gazes locked again, one corner of Dean's mouth curled upwards in a smile. "Dude- that was beautiful. I really felt that, right here." Dean tapped his chest with his fist, breaking into a smile. "Drama Lessons for Dorks, 101?"
Sam clenched his jaw, turning away from the snickering. "You are such an ass, Dean."
"Hey, takes one to know one."
"That's real mature."
"You shut up!"
"Come over here and make me, cripple."
"You know what? I take back everything I just said. I'm leaving."
"Aw, Sammy, don't be like that…"