A/N: AARGH! This one practically killed me! Anyway, I wanted to let everyone who reviewed my other SPN oneshots and who might be reading this one, know that I appreciate every comment you've made. I started writing fanfic before authors were able to reply to reviews, and I never got into the habit after the reply feature was introduced. I'm so sorry! But rest assured, I read every bit of feedback, and love it all! I hope you enjoy this fic! Emrys
Disclaimer: I don't own SPN. I'm not making money off of this. They're not mine (wah!)! Please, I beg of you, don't sue!
WARNINGS for language and disturbing imagery (well, disturbing only if I did this right).
'Anchises replied by explaining the plan of creation. The Creator, he told him, originally made the material of which souls are composed, of the four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, all which when united took the form of the most excellent part, fire, and became flame.'
Thomas Bulfinch (Age of Fable: Vols I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes)
Dean is screaming.
Sam doesn't know what happened, because he was sleeping when it all started. And now, he can't wake Dean who is screaming and howling in the night dark hotel room.
He touches Dean's shoulder again, puts his hand out to try another time to wake his brother, hoping to get a different response than the last time he tried this. But it's only the same as Dean's cries are smothered, and he loses air along with the ability to scream.
Sam abruptly withdraws his hand, and Dean begins breathing again. But the yelling continues shortly after, and Sam is practically beside himself.
"Dean!" he yells, and his voice barely projects over his brother's. "DEAN! For Christ's sake!"
He's tried yelling before as well, but it didn't work the first time, and it sure isn't working now. Sam doesn't know what to do, and he doesn't know what's happening, and now he's just waiting. Waiting for the occupants in some other room to start knocking at their door, waiting for Dean to stop screaming, waiting for something else to happen because he can't seem to break out of this limbo where his brother is yelling, and Sam can't do anything to help.
His hands hover and flutter just out of reach of Dean's body, and there's moisture on his face that he refuses to acknowledge.
Finally the torture of total, paralyzing helplessness ends when Dean's screams turn into quieter sobbing and, simultaneously, someone begins pounding on the door, knocking with authority, anger, or noble purpose. Sam can't tell which.
He leans over Dean, unsure whether or not he should touch him. Dean's still not awake, but he's quieter and breathing, so Sam opts to answer the door since the knocking has become more fervent and dangerous sounding.
"I'm sorry. Sorry," Sam's saying before he's even got the door open a crack. A kind looking man, with thick, white hair and a few too many pounds on his frame, is peeking through the crack with concern heavily lining his tired face.
"What's going on? Is everyone okay?" the man asks. "My wife and I heard screaming."
Sam's mind automatically produces the story that his mouth then so smoothly tells.
"Everything's fine, sir. I'm sorry. My brother, he's been having nightmares since returning from Iraq. He screams sometimes. I'm sorry."
The tension in the man's spine disappears, although the concern in his face does not. He shuffles a step forward, closer to the door, and whispers his next words.
"No, it's all right. My brother was the same way after…after Nam."
Sam doesn't know what to say, wishes that he didn't have to lie to this well-meaning man. He feels relief that the guy immediately buys the story, but he's not all too surprised. It has been Sam's experience that most well-meaning people don't like to bring too much trouble on themselves.
"I need to get back to him," Sam says after the awkward pause. "He's not well."
The man nods, says goodnight, and then shambles away. As he leaves, Sam notices that the guy's wearing slippers over bare feet.
There's heat and smoke, and he pounds his way up the staircase, because the house is on fire.
He rushes to the source of the flames. The fire is hot, and it's loud, and it's coming from above. He looks up. Looks up with a feeling of dread. Looks up with a pain in his chest. Looks up at the ceiling and everything, every little thing, is chaos. It's chaos and hellish, because his mom is up there. Up there on the ceiling. It's his mom who is on fire, and she's screaming and burning away, away, away to ashes.
His mind begins shrieking.
Don't look! Don't look!
But he is looking, and he can't stop, and he wants it all over right now!
A sound comes from further in the room, and suddenly he's able to tear his gaze away from the horror above.
"Dad? Dad where are you?" he yells, because this is all wrong. This isn't how it happened; he's not supposed to see her. His dad is supposed to be here.
But Dad isn't, and Dean sees that the noise is coming from the baby who is twisting and turning in the crib. The baby—Sam!—who is too close to the flames, who is going to burn if Dean doesn't get to him soon.
He lunges towards the crib, but flames strike out at him from above. He's sweating and desperate, and dives forward again. The fire burns him, and he coughs on smoke and the smell of his own burning hair. His skin is too hot, and he feels it blistering and sees it…sees it…oh God, he won't think about what's happening to him. Won't think anymore, because the smell of cooking flesh is making him sick, and the pain will make him stop if he gives it too much power.
Won't think, because Dad's not here, and Mom's on the ceiling, and Sam is the only one that matters now.
So he pushes through the flame so that he can go save Sam who is on the other side.
But he makes it to the crib before he passes completely through the fire, and he can't seem to understand what he's seeing as his skin continues to burn. He's looking down into the crib with failing eyes, and he doesn't understand, but suddenly he does, and now he's crying.
"Sam! No, no, no, NO!"
He looks away from the unbearable sight. Looks up, and sees that his mother's face is no longer hers. He thinks that this is important, but then the pain hits, and he remembers that only Sam is important. Only Sam. And Sam is…Sam he's….
Dean can't think any further and only wants to scream and scream and scream.
But instead of a scream, it's just a soft whisper that barely escapes from between his blistering lips.
Sam is slouching into the chair that he has pushed close to Dean's bedside. He's keeping vigil over Dean as he's flipping the pages of their father's journal.
He still hasn't been able to wake his brother, and he's more scared than he'd like to admit.
At least the sobbing has stopped now.
Sam's bitten his fingernails until they've bled, and now, the nervous hand that isn't turning pages is tugging at his hair so hard that his scalp is complaining.
Dean is breathing, but it's too fast and shallow. Sam has tried to monitor his brother's pulse, but it's an impossible task, because every time he's grabbed Dean's wrist, the too fast, too shallow movement of his brother's chest abruptly stops.
The dawning sun shifts position to a place a little higher in the sky. A ray of brightness slips between a small slit in the curtains and strikes Sam directly in his eyes. He moves out of the way of the escaping sun and flips another page. He tugs his hair too forcefully, and the nervous hand migrates to his mouth.
He's biting his nails again when Dean's breath starts to stutter and slow. Sam doesn't know what this means, because he isn't touching Dean. This isn't supposed to be happening. The rule is that Dean's breathing is compromised only when Sam is touching him. And Sam's isn't touching Dean right now. He's following the rules! It's not fair, and Dean should be breathing fast and shallow, not slow and stuttering.
But apparently, Sam doesn't really understand the rules, because fairness isn't written anywhere in them.
Not even between the lines or in the fine print.
It's wet and fucking cold out here, and Dean's sick of waiting for the black dog to show its ugly dog face. He wonders what Dad would think if he and Sam just called it quits and returned to the car, but that bout of pondering lasts for all of a second, because he's pretty sure Dad wouldn't be exactly happy. Dean grimaces at the cold dampness that is slowly seeping through the thick denim of his jeans as he kneels in the moist, aromatic earth staining the spot under a towering oak tree. He turns to his right to bitch to Sam who is supposed to be there beside him, but when he doesn't see the familiar outline of his brother, the complaint dies on his lips. He thinks, for a moment, that he's just not seeing Sam because it's too dark. But when he senses that the warm presence of his brother is also gone, confusion turns into full-fledged panic.
He stands quickly and spins around in a fervent need to catch sight of Sam. Part of his brain is registering that something beyond the absence of his brother is wrong, that he's standing too tall, much taller than the teenager he had been when this hunt went on the first time.
But Sam's gone, inexplicably and frighteningly gone. He has no time to think about anything other than finding his brother, his little brother who is much too young to be wandering around the woods in the night. By himself. With a black dog prowling.
He's angry and scared, and his breath is coming fast in little puffs of condensed air when he hears the yell. It's followed by the unmistakable sound of splashing water, and Dean remembers that there's a lake in these woods.
He's running before he consciously realizes it, and his breath is coming even faster now. It's suddenly quiet, and the only sounds he hears are the bellows of his heaving chest and the rustle of the frost covered undergrowth that is passing in a leaf-crackling rush beneath his winter boots.
Sam is thrashing in the water, the cold water, when Dean stumbles across the lake. Without thought, without wondering how the hell Sam could have fallen in, he is diving into the water. The cold rips the breath from his lungs, and he feels his extremities and his thoughts begin to ice over. The pain is incredible, but he forces frozen muscles to move, and soon he has a numb hand wrapped around one of Sam's arms.
Sam's limp and unresponsive, and Dean loses his fragile grasp on his little brother when he scrabbles to gain leverage. Sam's smaller body immediately begins to sink, drawn to the bottom of this watery horror by a heavy winter coat and thick, metal-toed boots. Dean's breathing is stilted and wrong, but he dives after his brother anyway. He just manages to nab the hood of Sam's jacket and is beginning to pull his brother up when something viciously tugs his beloved burden downwards.
That's when Dean loses his grip on Sam again.
He's screams inside his head and dives deeper than he thinks his overtaxed body is going to be able to handle. But he sees Sam. He's just a hairsbreadth out of his grasp. If he hurries, he can save him. He can save his brother. He just needs to grab him one last time.
Dean's hand brushes against cold fingers. He lunges and catches and pulls. He closes his eyes with exertion, and when he opens them, he has Sam with him, and he is looking upward towards the surface of this bitter cold lake.
A woman's face is looking into the water. Looking down from above.
Dean startles, and then breaks the surface, heaving in lungfuls of air. The woman is gone, but Sam is in his arms, so that's okay. In fact it's better than okay. It's freakin' spectacular.
Spectacular, that is, until he drags Sam's body to the water's edge, and he can't get him started again.
Sam's not breathing, and his heartbeat is gone. So Dean pounds on the thin chest of his baby brother, and begins sobbing, and breathing, and pushing, and pulling, and willing life to return. He does this forever and remains unsuccessful.
"Please, Sam. Please. No, no, no, don't go. Please. Please stay. Please. Sammy."
And the words are a whispering, anguished prayer that won't ever be answered.
It's a witch's curse. Well, it could be a witch's curse, at least according to Dad's journal. Sam finally found a helpful entry shortly after Dean's breathing returned to fast and shallow. He was happy about that, but not about the waxy complexion Dean took on afterwards.
The problem is that there are all sorts of curses, and all types of witches, and Sam doesn't know exactly who put this curse on Dean or what type it is. He can't even really hazard a guess, because it could be an associate of any number of black witches, warlocks, or necromancers. There have been quite a few magic-wielding bad guys that have crossed paths with the Winchester boys, and those magic-wielding bad guys quite often had a following that would be more than happy to exact revenge.
But who exactly could be originating this curse, or even what specific curse it is, well, those facts are beyond Sam's descrying. And even the theory he has about the curse originating from one of their cases is a weak guess at best. They are always careful about taking on anything related to genuine magic, always seeking anonymity in order to prevent the possibility of being on the receiving end of curses just like the one they're on now.
Sam grimaces as he realizes that this particular curse that has only struck his Casanova-like brother could actually be generated by one of the idiot's jilted lovers.
He thrusts the thought away, because it's a useless waste of energy. According to their father's journal, there are some generic things that can be done. Protection symbols that will diminish the effects of any curse can be drawn. Incantations can be spoken. Rituals can be performed. There's more to do than obsess over the source of the spell.
He rifles through his bag for a Sharpie and wonders if the girl Dean had picked up last month in that bar in Washingtonville could have done this.
She had been a real bitch.
Dean's face is pressed into dry earth, and he's breathing it in and choking on dust which is as desiccated as hot bones. He's confused, because he doesn't know how he got here, and he can hear Sam faintly crying somewhere in front of him, but he just can't see him. Dust is clogging his throat, and he really thinks that he's going to suffocate when the rough arms that are holding him down lift him up.
He's in a schoolyard that looks vaguely familiar. He can't place it amongst all of the different schoolyard memories he has, but he knows he's been here before. And this is either the worst case of déjà vu that he's ever experienced, or something big is happening to him.
Sam is crouched in the dirt near the basketball court. Dean can't see him clearly, because there are other boys hovering over his little brother, concealing him from Dean's sight. But Dean knows that it's his little brother over there as sure as a compass knows where true north is.
The crowd shifts, and Dean gets his first clear view of Sam. Sam's face is red pulp and raw meat, and he's not moving or even crying anymore as the other kids continue to punch and kick him into the ground. And that's when Dean accepts with utter certainty that this isn't real, that something is terribly wrong. Accepts this because he distinctly remembers beating the shit out of these assholes after one of them dared to even talk disrespectfully to Sam on his first day of Junior High.
Dean cringes when he hears the unmistakable sound of one of Sam's bones snapping. Despite his conviction that this is all pretend, he can't help the spike of fear that courses through him when he realizes that Sam didn't even flinch when that bone, whichever one it was, was shattered. He tries to reassert control over his own imagination by remembering the mix of emotions on his father's face after informing him that he had been suspended from school for fighting. That gut-wrenching image offers him some fragile restraint, and he's able to search the crowd for further information.
There's a woman there, dressed like a teacher, but who isn't acting like one. She's not intervening, not even going for help. She's just staring with shocking glee as the two upperclassman holding Dean begin to rough him up a bit. She garners Dean's attention, but all he can tell about her is that she looks vaguely familiar in the way one sibling might resemble another.
She's behind this, he thinks, and attempts to take a step in her direction, but his efforts are defeated by the two assholes who continue to slap at his face. When he's able to look into the crowd again, she's gone.
And Sam is making strange sounds that convey pain and suffering even from way across the schoolyard. The noises are thick and soft and so appallingly weak, and Dean finds that he can't take any of this anymore. Even if this is some kind of dream or other kind of trick, he suddenly finds it inherent and necessary to save his brother from the agony and danger that is surrounding them both.
He looks across the yard at the huddled mass of raw flesh that is his brother, sees a bubble of blood grow then pop between Sam's broken teeth, and rage explodes within him. He shrugs off the two goons holding his arms and begins to hit, and punch, and render pain for pain, until his fists are torn and bleeding.
He's freely fighting and trying to make his way to Sam, but for every bully that is crushed by his fury, there are two more that take his place. He's no closer to Sam, but he can see that his brother is bleeding too much and too fast. And even though Dean's bleeding himself and is broken in very bad places, he needs to get to Sam, needs to stanch the life that is coursing out of baby brother and turning the dusty earth to red mud.
He brings down one more kid by hitting him in the face and then chances another look at Sam. He doesn't think that his little brother is breathing anymore, and a scared and frustrated cry escapes him. Sam's still and slowly oozing, and Dean's no closer to him when his adversaries slowly, inexorably take him down to the ground.
Red black wrath takes Dean over, but he knows that no amount of anger is going to save Sam. He growls and kicks and bites because he is diminished to base animalistic action and emotion.
"SAMMY!" he howls and roars his rage as he catches one last glimpse of his lifeless brother.
The protection symbols aren't completely stemming the attack, but they've stabilized Dean well enough that Sam can touch him. It's a privilege that, with trembling hands, he takes advantage of now, because he thought Dean was well on his way to dying just a few minutes ago.
Sam was sketching the symbols on practically every surface of the room when Dean's body had clenched and then convulsed. Sam had felt his mouth open in shock, and he had almost dropped the Sharpie, when he suddenly realized that this curse could easily be killing his brother in an immediate way.
He had rushed to Dean's side but hadn't dared touch him. And as his brother's body seized and bucked against some unseen enemy, Sam had intuited a possible course of action. Panic had made clear thinking and a steady hand difficult to attain, but somehow Sam had managed to correctly draw the safeguarding symbols on Dean's skin. When the first sign had been completed, Dean's body had immediately relaxed, and Sam had been presented with a brother who was still breathing, but who was beginning to look wasted in sickness.
Now, arms and legs and even one side of Dean's face are littered with rough drawn characters that offer Dean some small amount of defense and offer Sam the ability to make tangible contact with his brother.
Sam knows that Dean, when he wakes up, is going to have something to say about the indelible ink that covers him.
Sam struggles to let go of his brother's shoulder, because he has to start the ritual before this goes any further. But he's unwilling to release the life-warmed flesh beneath his hands, so he takes another moment, just for himself.
Afterwards, his shaking hands struggle to find the correct page in Dad's journal. When his sweaty, fidgety hands slip on the book after he finds the ritual spelled out in their father's neat handwriting, he swears coarsely. He catches the journal before dropping it, but a dozen or so of the paper scraps that are loosely pressed between the bound pages flutter to the floor. They each carry vital information that their father, at one time or another, had scribbled down and placed in the journal in a sensible arrangement. Now they are a jumble of disorganization that would normally insult Sam's well-developed need for order.
But he just can't bring himself to care overly much about them right now.
In fact, he completely ignores the errant scraps of paper, barely notices as he steps over them to light both a blue and a white candle which are standing tall on the nightstand. The bloodwort leaves are smoldering nicely, and their rising smoke is giving the room a pungent scent that isn't entirely unpleasant. Sam stands over Dean's reclining form, clears his throat, and then, hesitantly at first, but with growing confidence, says the proper words.
It is a perfect day. Perfect in the way that dreams can make the sky an unfathomable blue and decorate it with cottony clouds and streaming rays of soothing sun. The leaves on the trees are so brightly green, that they look like part of a water color painting he once saw in a book. They whisper like bells in the gentle breeze that also plays with his hair and which is teasing and faultless in its own way.
He feels warm in every way that a person can. Skin, sun-kissed; soul restful.
But he is suddenly, unfairly, shocked to bitter coldness when he sees Sam standing at the edge of a cliff side, looking as if he might jump off.
He starts to run, and now he's sweating, but it's a cold, frozen sweat that slicks his skin and makes him shudder. His heart is beating too fast, and his mind is racing almost as quickly. He continues to run towards the horizon and shouts something unintelligible to grab the attention of his brother. He is relieved when Sam turns and faces him.
Sam smiles broadly, waves and takes a step towards Dean and away from the deadly precipice. He seems relaxed and more than willing to give Dean the time to catch up with him.
Dean does, and despite the fact that he's bent over his own knees trying to regain his lost breath, he manages to sputter out the words of his fear.
"Sam, are you crazy? Stay away from the edge. I don't want you to fall."
Sam's openly affectionate smile broadens further.
"We need to leave now," Sam says, reaching for him, grasping his shoulder. "Come on, I'll show you."
"What in the hell are you talking about, little brother?" Dean asks the other man, incredulous.
Something's not right. He knows something's not right, and that it hasn't been right for quite some time now. But he just can't seem to place a finger on what's wrong.
Sam tugs him closer to the cliff, and he resists. He tries to wrap his mind around what is happening, tries to remember if he's ever been to this place before. Ignoring Sam for a moment, he scans the area and sees a woman watching them from the safe side of the cliff. Her hair is white, and her face is pale, and her eyes are gleaming with something unsavory. She's smiling and beckoning, and is seriously creeping Dean out.
He steps towards Sam, and the woman's face shades to angry. The airy breeze whimsically pushes him further in Sam's direction, and he follows its advice. The woman is becoming angrier and more frightening, and Dean thinks that this really can't end well.
"Trust me," Sam says, and his words tear Dean's attention away from the scary woman whose anger is burningdrowningsmothering killing him.
"Okay. Okay, Sam," Dean says, and follows Sam to the very edge of the cliff.
Beneath the rock face, there is nothing but air, and empty space, and that friendly breeze. Vertigo hits Dean in a strong wave, but Sam grabs his shoulder again, and everything is better.
"Jump," Sam says with a supportive squeeze to Dean's shoulder.
Dean thinks his little brother has gone crazy, and he turns to tell him so, but then he sees the terrible woman advancing on them.
"Dean," Sam says. Dean turns to his little brother, who is looking at him with outright love and compassion, and that in and of itself should scare him, but for some reason, in this place, it doesn't.
"Dean," Sam repeats. "Jump."
Dean breathes in a deep breath of air and then jumps because Sam told him to do it, and he trusts Sam above all others. Suddenly he's hurtling through air and wind that has lost its innocent edge and has become angry and raging. His breath is stolen away again, and he's scared, and he doesn't know where Sam is. He needs so desperately to understand what is happening, what is fucking going on, but can't seem to make sense of anything as he falls and falls and falls to the nothingness that is below.
Suddenly fire erupts around him, but it's a cold fire, and the flame is his and does not burn. No longer afraid, he watches the fire, revels in it, and is amazed that the violent wind does not snuff it out.
And then, like a light blinking off, the world goes dark. There is no wind battering at him to indicate that he's still falling, but yet he's not quite sure where the earth is either. His mouth goes dry, when he realizes that the cold fire has also died out.
It's dark, so he opens his eyes.
Dean opens his eyes, and Sam can't quite believe it. He had had his doubts about the efficacy of the ritual, but the proof that it works is here in the green of Dean's weary gaze.
To put it bluntly, Dean looks like shit. He's obviously confused, so Sam settles in the chair beside the bed, and places a heavy hand on his brother's shoulder to better ground him.
"It was a witch's curse, Dean. I'm not quite sure who or what, but there was a ritual in Dad's journal. It worked," he says, a little too quickly if Dean's scowl of annoyance is any indication.
"You'll need to rest, but we'll be safe here. We'll stay here for the next couple of days. I'll go make arrangements with the manager," Sam says as he stares intently into Dean's eyes, looking for any indication that Dean understands.
Dean blinks slowly and then nods. Sam stands up, and shuffles his coat on before heading towards the door.
"Sammy," Dean whispers, with an exhausted, yet grateful expression on his face. He seems incapable of finishing his thought, but Sam understands completely.
"How many times do I have to tell you? It's Sam," he says, gruffly.
When Dean's eyes slip closed, Sam returns to the bedside. He doesn't take his jacket off, just slumps in the chair and watches his brother sleep peacefully.