Restoring the Balance
SUMMARY: The brothers struggle to restore their equilibrium after Sam is injured on a hunt, but obviously something supernatural gets in the way.
DISCLAIMER: Same as before.
Okay, for the last time: thank you, thank you, thank you to everybody who made it this far. I've enjoyed writing this way more than my previous 'no fanfick' snobbery cares to admit. The TV programme they are watching at the end is a real documentary that I stumbled across while channel hopping one day and got mysteriously sucked into. I'm not quite sure of the logic behind Sam having the same problem, but it's in there now. An honestly, who can resist a baby panda?
What can I say? Apologies in advance. I tried so hard to be strong and tow an emotional line… Sighs and hangs her head in shame.
Dean would have felt happily vindicated in his objections to the dog sleeping in their room if not for the fact that when it decided it was restless at 5am it wasn't just Sam that it woke. In fact Dean suspected it was doing its best not to wake Sam, and being entertained by Dean while Sam slept was a perfectly suitable substitution.
The early start aside they had a restful morning, and it wasn't until lunchtime that Bobby even mentioned Sam's doctor's appointment again. Sam hadn't brought it up at all, and Bobby got the impression he hadn't wanted Dean brooding on it all day so had followed his lead. Even if they were only going so that Sam could be told he was doing okay, and to have it drummed into him that he was to take it easy, he knew that it would unnerve Dean slightly to be there. He would have suggested Dean stay behind it if he didn't know that the thought of his brother without him in a hospital being prodded and poked would have driven Dean to a place beyond despair.
Dean tried not to show it, knew that it was only a check up and that Sam really did need to go, but the news that he would be losing Sam to a hospital again so soon, no matter how temporarily, was a crushing weight. He hadn't so much forgotten Sam's orders and promise to return to one within a week as blocked it out of his mind.
The sight of the sterile building looming up in front of him was suddenly oppressive, and Dean kept finding that his legs didn't what to continue with their orders of the forward motion necessary to propel him inside. Sam had been glancing at him out of the corner of his eye the whole way here, and had now taken to poking him in the arm and offering him a slight smile every time Dean faltered, in a way Dean wasn't sure if was supposed to be reassuring, endearing, or just plain annoying. But whatever the intention it had the desired effect and allowed him to forget his trepidation for the few brief seconds he was made aware that his brother was still here.
Bobby had accompanied them yet again, and while both felt bad for dragging him away from however it was he managed to fill his days when he wasn't babysitting them, each was glad of the additional support. Dean would never admit to it, but even he was aware of the fact that if at any point they took Sam away for tests and forced Den to endure the wait for him alone, he would implode. Having Bobby around would ensure he fought for calm, and remind him that Sam was as alive and annoying as he had ever been.
As it turned out Dean was allowed to hover with Sam in his sight for their entire stay, and it was Bobby that paced nervously alone so he could give Sam some privacy. Having Dean with him was natural, but Bobby hovering too would be plain weird, and throw in the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff that were wandering in and out of his room and Sam was beginning to feel like a specimen of some kind.
But at least Dean was on hand to hear the doctor's instructions, because Sam wasn't sure if he would fully trust Sam's 'version' of what the doctors had told him, even if he had copied their wording exactly.
More questions, a physical exam, another ultrasound to check that no tear had been missed and was slowly bleeding to a degree that might now be visible, and Sam was referred to an outpatients clinic, who would continue to monitor and advise for the rest of his stay in the area. That meant another wait on uncomfortable plastic chairs, and a newfound respect for Dean and his ability to have endured them for so long, along with a slight lump in his throat at the fact he had never once heard his brother complain or even question the fact this torture device was his home from home. More prodding, a long list of instructions about medication, diet, exercise he could, should, and must under no circumstances perform, a long list of banned activities, and another prodding later, and Sam was free to go. And utterly exhausted. And it was a good thing Dean had been with him because he had stopped being able to fully hear and process information a long time before they finally felt willing to let him leave.
Sam dozed on the drive back to Bobby's looking slightly bemused, and Dean was beginning to look anxious again. The stress of the hospital visit had left him drained, and Bobby knew they were both a lot more put out by what the doctors had told them than they were willing to let on, even to each other.
They weren't idiots. They both knew Sam had been hurt a lot more badly that they were perhaps willing to acknowledge, and at times they even left Bobby wondering if he had been told the full story. But when he was away from the hospital and taking it relatively easy, and improving every day, the focus was on Sam now and in the future rather than on Sam as he had been then. That was an image they did their best not to dwell on.
But it had been dwelt on all afternoon. Discussed in detail and continually referenced, and while they might both have already known it to be true, it was a different thing entirely to have it drummed into you from a variety of different view points that there would be no quick fix for this. Sam's health for Dean was entirely relative, and when you compared him now to as he had been while still in the hospital, it could only make his spirits soar. But when you compared him to the Sam he had lived with before the attack had occurred, then Dean felt sick. He was beginning to appreciate for the first time just how much of a way to go they had. Exactly what the next month would hold in store. And the more the doctors had talked the more anxious glances Sam had thrown in his direction, and it annoyed Dean slightly to realise he was trying to gauge Dean's reaction to what they were being told, and that each new glance was laced with a little more apology.
Dean had heard this all before. He had questioned and questioned until he had thought the doctors might actually start avoiding him in the corridor, obsessively needing to know every detail of Sam's recovery. They were telling him nothing new. But while Sam had also been told this before, Dean doubted that he had really been able to take it in. He knew that was what his presence at all discussions and the insistence Sam return for follow up exams had partially been in aid of. But Sam had heard it this time, and he looked overwhelmed. Everything that had seemed like a positive step that would aid and bring them closer only a few hours ago, suddenly appeared as an overwhelming hurdle, and Sam was too tired now to know if he would ever be able to clear the top of it.
It had been such an obvious choice 24 hours ago, but now Sam wanted nothing more than to have his own room, preferably one with a lock on the door, so he could squirrel himself away and never have to come out and face the world. He knew he was being muttered about, knew that Dean and Bobby were exchanging glances of concern, but that just made him want to hide away even more. And it annoyed him because he didn't understand what he was suddenly feeling so emotional about. He just knew that he was drowning in it.
Less than three seconds. It had taken him longer to be aware that it had happened than the actual incident itself had been. One tiny moment of inattention, one stupid mistake, and they would be months coming back from it. He knew that. He had known that all along, so why was it only now that he felt it to be true?
The life that they had been living was now out of the question, and it was all they had. All Dean had ever had, and all he knew how to be.
He knew that he wasn't alone in this, knew that Dean would never leave him, would never begrudge him the time he needed. But he also hated that that was true. That Dean would put who he was on hold for him without question, that a pointless three seconds of his life could have such a dramatic ripple effect.
He also hated that he was being so irrational. He knew that he was. Knew that they had talked about this. Knew that he had been looking forwards to the challenges that now seemed beyond him, and a part of him still was. He was too tired for his emotions to make any sense, was beginning to feel dangerously close to losing control, and the fear of doing so, of putting Dean through that now, didn't pull him back but pushed him even closer to the edge.
He wasn't sure what he wanted to do. The two most appealing choices were to either tuck himself away in a corner somewhere and cry until the world made sense again, or to take so many painkillers and hold up in bed that it didn't matter what the world did because he would no longer feel it. For the short term at least. But neither of them were an option. Not really. Not while Dean was still recovering from the trauma of having to go near a hospital ward again. Not while the artefact was still intact.
Bobby had been right. They needed to get rid of it tonight so that the only reminder of this whole escapade was Sam himself, and his own private misgivings that Kane was yet to leave his life. It needed to happen, and he needed to be a part of it. Dean needed him to be a part of it, and he could only hope that it would be as cathartic as Bobby seemed to expect.
Hours of prowling in a hospital ward, of being poked and examined, of having no place of comfort other than those stupid orange plastic chairs had left Sam feeling beyond sore. The Impala had been a chariot of luxury compared to that, and he had drifted in and out of sleep with ease the whole way back, refusing to open his eyes even when he was awake because he could tell from their low tone that Dean and Bobby were talking about him even if he couldn't make out the words, and he found some masochistic pleasure in playing the martyr and putting up with being talked about in silence.
So when they got back he was even more stiff and uncomfortable. He was in pain, his head was buzzing with the presence of everything it had been asked to take in, and there was this heavy solid lump in his throat that he couldn't seem to shift. A pressure behind his eyes that he would not give in to; that he didn't have the time to acknowledge.
This was the moment his most recent supply of extra strength painkillers had been designed for. He had taken them for less. But they made him sleep and they didn't have time for that now. They left him emotionally drained and unpredictable, and the thought of that right now was frightening. So he would settle for the regular kind, and he would watch their last link to Kane burn.
"Hey." Dean grabbed his arm as he made his way back into the house; turning him around to face him, and the level of concern Sam saw in his older brother's eyes almost crumbled his resolve. So he broke the gaze. Refused to make the eye contact he knew Dean wanted. Dean needed him to be strong. He wanted so badly to be strong for him, and he needed to be able to understand his own mind before he shared it. So he gently shrugged Dean's hand off, and with a shaky smile of apology turned and continued his walk away.
Dean watched him go feeling as though he had just been hit. One powerful blow straight to the stomach that left him breathless and sick, and it was all the more horrifying because it was Sam that had dealt it. He could literally see Sam hiding himself away behind his walls, locking his emotions away from Dean so completely that he had never felt so alone with Sam in his sight before, while the memory of his touch still lingered on Dean's fingertips. Never.
He was reminded of a toddler sat on the floor in front of him hiding behind a duplo wall they had just built, and Dean had always hated it. Always had to fight the insane urge to knock that wall down and sweep Sam onto his lap so there was nothing obstructing his view. But even as a baby Sam had liked to hide, and Dean tried grimly to hold on to the knowledge that he liked being found even better.
Even the puppy's antics couldn't raise a smile, and Dean knew that it only reminded Sam that he couldn't bend down and reciprocate the gesture of friendship. So Dean took pity on the little guy and picked it up, tapped Sam wordlessly on the shoulder and thrust it into his arms.
The smile he got in return was small but genuine, and it comforted Dean to see that Sam carried the little creature around with him for the rest of the day, like some kind of warm fury security blanket. And nothing in the world could have made the puppy happier than that.
He had been warned about this, told to watch out for the signs, but had never really believed he would see them in Sam. Sure, he was almost always feeling guilty about something, and seemed to like to brood, but hovering this close to depression was something different entirely. Sam had been offered someone to talk to, but Dean had always been enough in the past. Even when they weren't communicating he had somehow been enough. Or perhaps in some twisted way it had been because of that. While Dean was having so much trouble controlling his emotions, perhaps Sam had been too preoccupied to acknowledge his own.
Dean sighed, running a hand wearily through his hair. Things were beginning to spiral out of his reach again. Things that were far too important to let slide.
"Just give him some time to filter it through." Bobby consoled him. He could tell Dean was on the verge of bolting after his brother, even if his legs looked like they would soon refuse to hold him, but if Dean gave chase Bobby was afraid Sam would give in to his natural instincts to run.
Bobby had not mentioned to Dean that Kane's artefact was yet to be destroyed. He wasn't sure if Dean even knew he still had it. As far as Bobby was aware he had never asked what had become of it. He was beginning to think they might be better off leaving it for now, allowing Sam some time to himself to process things. Or would it be better to ensure that Sam wasn't left alone to dwell? This could offer the perfect distraction. Dean would know more fully what Sam might need, but he didn't want to raise the issue with Dean unless it was followed by a 'and we're gonna destroy it now'.
Thankfully it was Sam that made the decision for him, puppy still rapped up in his arms and tucked under his chin, stiller than a puppy had the right to be, as though picking up on its master's mood.
"You sure you want to do this now?"
But Sam just nodded and Bobby took comfort from the determined light in his eyes. He wasn't fooled. He knew Sam had a level of anxiety regarding Kane that wasn't fully explained by their dealings. Sam had been lucky; he had managed to sneak out of the house while Kane was distracted. Kane had confronted him, but the vampire had interrupted any altercation they may have been about to have, and Sam had left, and Dean was safe. And that story didn't quite match the mist that clouded Sam's eyes whenever the merchant was mentioned.
But if Bobby had picked up on it then Dean would too, and Sam would not be able to horde his secrets forever. He didn't doubt that some of the weight Sam felt would leave him when that day came.
If Dean questioned the order to go out back and dig a hole to match a specific set of dimensions, he didn't display it out loud, which Sam found vaguely irritating. But then he supposed that he had rarely been out of Dean's sight or earshot for so long that if he knew what was going on it was perhaps stupid to think Dean did not.
Bobby had prepared pretty much everything they needed during the four days he had been waiting, but Dean had been given his task to do and he sensed that Sam needed to be given something to do to keep his mind active, so he went over the ritual he had found that would ensure the device had shut down, and would both purify and destroy the cloth it had been made from.
Sam's natural curiosity when confronted with a musty old text, an array of strange smelling herbs and other ingredients, did something to pull him out of his shell, but his posture never reached relaxed. He wouldn't sit but continued to hover uncertainly, peering over Bobby's shoulder as he worked but never suggesting he actively participate himself, and he was still clinging to the puppy in his arms like it could shield him from all the worlds' ills. The two eyes that peered down at him told Bobby that they would if they could.
"What does the sage do?" he enquired in a small voice, as though reluctant to admit that he was becoming intrigued despite himself.
"It forms a protective barrier. We're gonna scatter the whole lot in a ring around the pit Dean's digging. It will stop anything residual from crossing over, escaping the cleansing."
Sam nodded his understanding and approval.
"What's the cloves for?"
"It concentrates the rest of the ingredients. Keeps the focus."
Another pause during which there was just the sound of Bobby's pestle and mortar and Sam's slightly laboured breathing.
"Why the lavender?... Bobby?... Why…?"
"'Cos it's gonna smell bad." The older man admitted shifting uncomfortably, glad that his discomfort had caused a mild grin.
Bobby was actually glad he had gone to the effort of doing this before. The properties would be stronger if the ingredients were fresh, and it was clearly working as a tool of distracting Sam from his brooding, but it would have been a challenge to have concentrated on the process and Sam's questioning at the same time if he was not already familiar with what he was doing. He knew Sam only wanted to learn and be able to help, but he also knew how potentially distracting the action could be.
"What about that?" Sam chimed in at last. He had read the ritual thoroughly and thought he could account for everything that Bobby had scattered across every work surface. Everything but the plate of mince in the corner that the dog was becoming increasingly keen to investigate.
"That would be dinner." Bobby admitted at last, knowing that would have put Sam off asking any further questions for a while. And when Bobby had finished grinding together the powders he needed to perform the rite effectively, he started on the meat, and Sam had to drift outside to see how Dean and his hole were getting on because the dog was starting to drool.
He found Dean sitting staring into the hole he had dug as though disappointed it did not contain the buried treasure he had been expecting. He looked up as Sam approached but didn't say anything, and Sam merely raised his eyebrows and stared fixedly into the hole himself.
"What am I looking at?" he asked at last.
"You tell me. I just dug the damn thing."
Dean wanted desperately to say something. To have some magic words that would let his brother know that he wasn't alone. But he didn't know how to state the obvious without sounding harsh and impatient.
"How are you…?"
"Dean…" so soft and weary that it practically answered the question itself, but Dean knew what was coming and it was possible it was the only thing that would have angered him. He'd have taken an 'I'm fine' with more grace.
"Apologise to me and you're going in that hole." And Sam was taken aback by the level of impatience and frustration in Dean's voice.
"Sorry." It was automatic, and Dean stood with a growl of irritation and actually made to advance on him.
"No... I just." Sam backed out of the way to put the hole between them. "I was apologising for feeling the need to apologise. I know that… Well. Whatever you're gonna say, I know. Don't think I don't…" he sighed, eyes suddenly searching the sky as though he expected the clouds to be able to show him what to say. But he found no answers and gave up, shaking his head, looking suddenly small and lost, hiding his face in the dog's back so his brother wouldn't have to see the way his lip was suddenly trembling. But his darting eyes were betraying his need to escape again. He'd just decided to give up and flee when Dean's voice held him back.
"Tell me what's going on in that head of yours."
It was as much of a plea as Dean would ever issue. And that was what it all came down to in the end. The same question asked in a thousand different ways over the last year, and Sam was no nearer being able to answer it now as he was lying on that bed watching Jessica burn.
Sam just shrugged, but Dean really did deserve and answer.
"Too much." He admitted at last. "It's mostly noise."
"Want to share it?"
Sam screwed his face up and nodded, but with astounding effort and a calming breath he managed to get himself under control, and when Dean advanced towards him he merely retreated again, shifting the puppy's weight so it formed more of a shield.
"Later. I just… I can't now. I don't really…" he paused, and as he seemed to be deep in thought Dean waited patiently for him to get out what he was trying to say. "No. I think that's as eloquent as it's going to get." Sam admitted with a rueful smile. "Get back to me?" he offered.
Dean nodded his understanding, again ruffling the top of the puppy's head as a substitute for Sam's, but his brother seemed to understand the gesture anyway. Sam would tell him when he was able to.
"I'll be here." Dean promised. He knew that Sam knew that, knew that was what his fumbled apology had been trying to express, but he wanted to assure those yo-yoing emotions of that fact none the less.
"Bobby says there's a barbeque in the back shed, and there's some gasoline in the garage and some camphor oil in a draw under the wrenches. I don't think the three things are necessarily connected," he added, noting Dean's look of concern.
"Nothing surprises me any more."
Dean set up the barbeque and helped Bobby drag out provisions, which included a couple of flowery deck chairs the origins of which Dean was keen to know, while Sam and the puppy supervised. Sam had been carrying it around for over an hour now, but when Dean offered to take it from him and put it down two sets of slightly scandalised eyes greeted the suggestion.
"Isn't he getting heavy?"
Sam shrugged guiltily.
"Sam." Sometimes firm was the only way to deal with little brothers
"He's warm." Sam admitted reluctantly, which was when Dean realised he'd positioned it across his newly stitch free side like a living, breathing heat-pack.
"You've had enough of him you tell me." Dean told him sternly. Firm and amused was never a productive mix when dealing with this particular little brother.
"And I can keep him 'til then?" Sam asked with just the right degree of innocence and hope that Dean had to walk away rather than answer.
The puppy gave a whine at Dean's retreating back, and he would have sworn it was followed by a whispered 'I know, I'm working on it'.
Bobby could feel a palpable shift in the atmosphere as he uncovered the soul storing device he had produced from one of his numerous store cupboards, and placed it in the hole Dean had dug ready to receive it.
It had been a long day and dusk had fallen while they worked, so it was in the half light that he got Sam to scatter the compound he had watched Bobby make in a neat ring around the edge of the hole, with a light covering over the device itself.
It was Dean that doused it with oil and added the flame itself, and he did so without a word. There was no joke or insult he could find that could detract from what it had done to him.
They watched it burn in silence. Bobby lingered to one side watching them, not wanting to intrude yet wanting to be on hand in case any kind of intervention was called for. But the device was dormant; he had no doubt that it would be.
They took a few shuffling steps, involuntarily moving closer together until their shoulders were almost touching, and while neither said a word it was clear how much support they each received from just knowing that the other was near. Sam even shifted the puppy he was still holding, moving it slightly out to Dean so that its protective warmth now partially shielded the both of them.
Dean acknowledged the gesture with a half-hearted scratch but it wasn't enough, would never be enough, and he suddenly wanted to be able to hold Sam as tightly as his brother was holding that dog. To rap him up in his arms and take comfort from his borrowed warmth, and he hated that he couldn't do it. It wasn't that Sam would have minded. Dean did. That was a level of need that he would not show. Didn't even know how to go about initiating. And it would hurt him. If Dean let go and clung to Sam, then in order to make any difference, to ease the cold that was lodged inside him, then he would afraid that Sam would crumble under the force of it.
He had known this task was still before them, but he had focused on it with all the calm detachment he could muster. Just another job. But as soon as he had seen it that calm had vanished. He had picked that thing up. He had carried it around with him for hours. He had handed it to Sam and left him alone with it, and he knew that if he had got back to that room only a few seconds later… If the dog had not been there and his barking had not attracted their attention, then Sam would be gone. There was no way he would have been able to do what Sam had done. His brother had had a head start as far as research was concerned, but if Dean had been able to leave his side he would have taken the gun's blazing approach, the same one he had taken with Kane in the alley, and it would have had the same effect. And he had handed that thing to Sam, and he had walked away. And it was the dog, not Dean, that was the only reason that Sam was alive. He wondered if Sam knew that. Wondered if that was where part of the attachment lay.
He breathed deeply. He would not let it conquer him. Would not let it take him any lower than it already had. Would not, could not, lose himself to those memories again. Not while Sam was so near, so close he could hear his breathing; feel the brush of his arm against his own as he shifted beside him.
And the longer it burnt the more the pressure eased, and the more he could focus on tomorrow rather than on everything that had passed. And even with the flames so close it didn't hurt so much to breathe again and he felt his shoulders loosen, felt the last of the tension, some newly acquired through the course of the day and others, hidden portions he hadn't known he had squirreled away, draining out of him. And he could smile into the flames because they had not taken who he was. He still had that, and there was still so much left to do with him.
Sam was grateful for the lavender. Not only was the concoction Bobby had produced much more potent when it was smouldering, but the fabric was still crusty and stiff with Dean's blood. They were burning Dean's blood and that was the only thing he could focus on, and he had to train his nose to pick out the lavender he knew was there just to block it out.
It was so small, so worthless looking, and Sam couldn't help but be angry that it was this that had so nearly taken his brother down. Of all the unearthly creatures and scenarios they encountered, a piece of cloth with some symbols on it did not deserve to be able to touch him. And so he stood staring into the fire with his brother at his side trying desperately not to think of the last time they had done this. So close to here. Watching more of his family burn.
But it was over now. It only had power over them if they let it. And if Sam could… when Sam got his spiralling emotions under control then it didn't need to be dwelt on ever again.
The fire was beginning to die out and they shifted simultaneously, breaking their eyes from its hold. Sam gave the puppy a swift kiss of thanks on the top of its head and held it out to Dean, who surprised it with a hug of his own before lowering it gently to the floor. Now that it was over Sam felt less need for his security blanket, and he was suddenly aware of another scent making itself known over the ash and burning herb fumes.
"Food!" Dean informed the little dog enthusiastically, and the pair wandered over to investigate what Bobby was doing.
But Bobby moved the plate away from him, and ignoring the disapproving frown this evoked he ploughed on anyway. There was one last part of the tale to clear up before he would let them eat.
"I didn't go to the cabin." He informed them, "But I know people who did. The place was deserted. There was no sign of Kane or the vampire. No bodies. But they did have at least a day to clean up their mess."
"You think he's still alive?" Sam asked. It didn't really matter, he did, but maybe there would be some comfort in having his suspicions confirmed or denied.
"They found the basement lab. It was in a pretty poor state. Most of it was in ruins. There was some evidence of a fire but it was probably left much as it had been after they'd got through with each other. Even if he was alive I don't think Kane would have worried too much about someone stumbling on it and having a rummage through. He was probably counting on it. One last bit of mischief. There's nothing to tie the cabin to him, nothing official. Nothing that would be accepted by anyone not in our line of work."
He broke off, watching Sam closely as he continued. "Several shelves had been cleared. Not just scattered on the floor cleared, but deliberate. And there were certain items, charms and the like, that a guy like Kane would have that simply weren't there. They actually found and inventory. And there are some holes."
"Wouldn't the general destruction account for that?" Dean asked.
"Some of it. But if the discrepancies were noticeable among that much mess…"
"The stuff that was taken… What did it do? Are there any connections between them..?" Sam managed to keep the trepidation he was feeling from reaching his voice.
"You wondering if he's got something specific in mind?"
"It's probable that he just took the most valuable items. Or the most portable. If he was pushed for time – he must have known people would be coming to check out the damage after you got away – I doubt he had much more than covering his tracks in mind."
It was a statement but it came out more like a question, a gentle prodding to get Sam to admit to what was troubling him. But Sam just nodded his understanding of Bobby's logic and kept quiet. Dean watched the interaction silently. He didn't like the idea there was something else they were trying to keep from him. The artefact had been destroyed and there was no need to protect him any longer. But it seemed that Bobby was equally as out of the loop on this, and Dean wasn't really sure what he was alluding to. What Sam had done to make Bobby vaguely mistrustful. But he knew the look in his brother's eyes and it said the conversation was over, and Bobby responded to it with a nod of his own and moved aside to leave the way to the food he had set out clear. As Sam moved past him Dean and Bobby shared a glance. Bobby could stand down now and not have to bring it up again, because Dean was on the case.
Sam honestly didn't know why he was so reluctant to bring up all that Kane had told him. It would have to come out eventually, Kane would see to that. But Sam would take whatever small reprieve was offered him. They were just getting their lived back on track, and Sam couldn't bear to give Dean another reason to hover. Another reason to look at him any differently, to be any more concerned about where Sam would potentially, if inadvertently, lead them than he already was.
And it was also paralysingly private. A guilty secret he couldn't bare to have known. It was in his blood. That was something over which he had absolutely no control. And now he knew that, he could convince himself he could feel it too. A constant grain of unease. A mild tingling from deep within him. An itch he had no idea how to scratch. And the fear of that would be private until Kane made it otherwise. There was too much shame to want to share. Physical proof that whether he wanted it or not the thing inside him could cause harm.
His blood. So much of it had been spilled. There had been a time not so long ago when his body had been supported by more of someone else's than his own. But that had made no difference. And he couldn't bear to share the nagging suspicion that they would all have been better off if it had stayed there. If he had just bled out in that alley then they would have been spared whatever was to come. But he couldn't bear to share that thought out loud. Couldn't bear to see the look in Dean's eyes if he thought for a second that maybe that was true.
But he had lived with secrets before. There was a special corner of his mind where he stored them. Where this new one could find a home until circumstances changed and it was necessary to let it out. Sam had made it clear that he though Kane would come after them. He was not keeping private anything that had an immediate effect. Anything that they could change. When it became imperative that he share he would do so, and it was the knowledge that it wouldn't be in there forever that allowed Sam to slam that ever expanding corner of his mind closed. He had too much to dwell on without giving that any more thought. There were other fears and struggles that he could face, and maybe when they were over he would be strong enough to let this one back out.
It was dark now but the night was warm and the food was good and Bobby had produced some beer. Sam had been given some soda and told he should be grateful because it contained caffeine, something else that Dean had been strictly monitoring, and Sam vowed to double his determination to be fit and hover free so he could drink as much coffee as he wanted. Did Dean honestly think he couldn't tell when he switched it to decaff?
The deck chairs were not the most comfortable contraptions in the world. Dean was almost remembering his hospital chair with nostalgic fondness. At least that didn't tip over every time he shifted his weight. And he could tell from Sam's searching eyes that his brother was wondering how, now that he had got down here and sunk into its folds, he was ever going to get out of it again.
Not that it mattered right now.
With each fresh beer Dean and Bobby became more jovial and the tales of their exploits became more dramatic and exuberant, and Sam had to admire the man's ability to tell such wild stories while maintaining his completely deadpan expression.
The puppy divided its time between lazing peacefully under Sam's chair and standing underneath the still slightly smouldering barbeque, on the off chance there was a spare sausage up there that was going to leap down and join him of its own accord. When it was not doing either of these things it would approach the corner of the yard where their mystical bonfire had once been. There was only a patch of disturbed earth left, Bobby having refilled the hole Dean had dug and buried the remnants. But it would approach this spot with its hackles raised, barking and threatening, but the way its tail was wagging didn't quite fit with the action, and it probably remembered that the first time it had done this, growling with genuine indignation, Dean had rewarded it with food.
Sam took some more painkillers when he went inside to use the bathroom, slightly embarrassed that he had needed Dean's help to stand so that he could do so, but he knew he was the only one of the three that was annoyed at the action.
The sensation in his side had moved on from twinging to painful, but he wasn't ready to give up and go to bed yet. This was perhaps the longest he had been up and about in one go for weeks, and while the day may have involved a lot of sitting it had also been incredibly draining. But Dean and Bobby were showing no signs of letting up, and there was a part of Sam that was afraid of missing something if he left. He wasn't participating in their conversation at any great length, but he was enjoying watching their dynamic. Being able to see his brother being happy again, and he was grateful that Bobby had given him that because Sam had tried so hard yet somehow always failed. He knew that Dean had been happy with him over the last week, but he had always had a slight guard raised too. Been on the alert even if he didn't know what he was looking for. It was habit, one that Sam knew he of all people would never be able to get Dean to break, but somehow being here and trusting that nothing was going to get through the now triple layer of protection between the outside world and Sam, was enough to convince him to more fully relax.
The humming in his mind was also much quieter sat out here under the stars. He really did feel so much safer just knowing they were watching out for him, and if he could share in a moment like this, deserve their trust, then maybe he couldn't really be all that bad. It was a reminder of why he would fight to stay that was.
But Dean was a brother before he was anything else, and soon Sam's shifting to get more comfortable would not go unnoticed, and his newly stitch free side was starting to sting. He knew it would break up the party more if Dean had to drag him off to bed so he reluctantly struggled out of his chair again and bid them both goodnight.
It wasn't long before the sound of voices from outside got more sporadic and subdued, and then it was only a matter of time before they followed him in.
Sam was giving him nervous glances from the passenger seat. God he wished he'd stop with that. Wished he would just trust for three seconds that maybe Dean knew what he was doing. Wished he didn't have to deal with the question 'where are we going?'
Sam had always been content to just pick a direction and drive in the past. Drift until something specific came along. Why all of a sudden should that be different?
Dean sighed. Because everything was different. The whole world was different now. And as long as Sam continued to hover between uncertainty and nervousness then nothing could right it. Noting could ever be the way it was.
It didn't matter where they were going. Nothing could have mattered less, and he would have thought someone of Sam's intelligence would have seen that. It was what they were moving away from that was of key importance in this scenario. They needed to get as far away from this place as possible. They couldn't stay here. They couldn't have Sam; Dean wouldn't let them. Surely Sam needed to get away from here as much as Dean did. Surely he at least understood that.
Dean spared a darting glance from the road to take his brother in. Sam was sitting bolt upright in his seat, pressing himself as far back into the support of it as he could. His eyes were closed and his breathing horribly shallow, and if possible his face was paler than Dean had ever seen it.
As if knowing he was being scrutinised Sam slowly turned his head, opening his eyes questioningly as he did so. And the sight of them froze Dean. They shone with a shimmering haze of pain, which he swallowed and tried to blink away, but beneath that he saw his brother's confusion and fear.
And Dean realised that yes, Sam probably did need to get out of here, but he needed somewhere to stop and rest so much more.
But they were in the middle of nowhere now. He had left civilization behind them, removed his brother from the threat that it posed. Surely there must be something around here somewhere, something they could use. Dean was shifting frantically in his seat now, eyes scanning the road ahead and behind, trying to decide where to turn off for the best.
"What are you looking for?" Sam's voice was still so low and horse that it always took Dean by surprise. Made his heart clench because it was as though Sam was nervous each time about using it.
"Motel." Dean offered bluntly, giving his brother another once over. "You need somewhere to rest." And his eyes were back to darting again.
"I can rest in the car." Sam offered. It wasn't hope in his voice, it was something else, something Dean couldn't quite place, and yet it angered him. Whether because Sam had been reduced to using it or because he didn't fully understand it Dean didn't know, but the rage it caused was undeniable. His grip on the steering wheel was so tight that it hurt.
"If you want to stop we'll stop." Sam added hurriedly, not knowing what he had done to suddenly upset his brother, "But I can sleep in the car."
"No you can't." Dean was harsh. "I don't need to lie down. I wasn't in a hospital for the last two months."
"Yes you were" Sam told him sadly and slowly, "But I got a bed."
Sam sighed and looked away from him, and Dean bolted upright with a tremendous gasp.
Dean woke up in so many different rooms during the course of a year that he rarely expected to remember the exact layout the instant his eyes were open, so he turned instead to the only constant fixture in his room. And there was the second bed just as he had expected. Only it was empty.
With a frown Dean made to get up, but held himself back. If Sam had got up to use the bathroom or get a glass of water then he would not appreciate being followed.
He laid himself back against his pillow rubbing his hands across his face, wanting to wipe his mind clear of what it had seen. It had been a while now since a nightmare had woken him. And that one was new. The focus had almost always been the few heart stopping moments of almost losing Sam. Having him in the car beside him almost complete didn't seem like real nightmare material considering everything that had gone before it. But something about it had unnerved him a lot more than it had the right to.
Perhaps it had been Sam staring at him with those horrible lost eyes, just like the expression he had been wearing since they left the exam room that afternoon.
But no, it wasn't the same. It was close, but it wasn't the same. And he knew where today's expression had come from, had seen its slow haunting approach. Part guilt, part exhaustion, and part a drowning sense of overwhelm, of accepting failure before he had even begun. And it was all internal. The focus of that gaze had always been solely on himself, and while Dean might get caught in the blast of it whenever Sam looked his way, Sam had done his best to battle through his confusing and conflicting emotions to explain that this was not in any way about Dean. The way he viewed his brother had not changed. His support and presence had never been in question. The fear was of his own weakness and inability to succeed. To somehow betray the hope that Dean had placed in him.
And that was where the fundamental difference lay. Because the look in his eyes in the car as Dean had driven them away from the place his nightmares had started. The one he had worn almost constantly since the moment of waking, and had only recently lost… That had never been about himself. The fear and confusion and uncertainty he had felt had only ever been about Dean.
And it was a good thing that Dean was lying down because the realisation of that made his head spin. He had thought Sam was afraid of him somehow. No longer trusted Dean to protect him. Feared for his own safety. But nothing could have been further from the truth. He wasn't afraid of Dean, he was scared for him.
Dean had never stopped to consider those early days from Sam's perspective; he had been pretty schizophrenic. He was like a caged animal while in the hospital. He had sat in a still and dazed lethargy for days, unable to even breath if Sam was no longer within his sight, lost in a hollow empty void, his mind not even able to function if for a moment he was forced to break contact. The room and the air had been as still as Sam, and the weight of it had kept Dean immobile. But the second his brother had woken Dean's shackles had broken free. He had been inactive for too long; he had to do something. He had to pace, he had to badger the doctors, to get out of this room as soon as was humanly possible. And he had to do all of these things without once having to leave his brother's side.
And somehow he had transferred his desperate need to leave onto Sam. Had argued until they released him because Sam could rest and do nothing just as well under his own care as he could in a hospital bed. But outside those walls was a big and scary place, and maybe it would be better if Sam never ever had to go out into it. But if it was just a question of medication and sleep then as soon as they were sure there was no, no, no chance of a relapse, and Dean had studied all of the danger signs until his brain was about to explode, then there was absolutely no reason why they needed to be here.
And Sam had meekly acquiesced. That was all he had done for days. Given Dean whatever he though he wanted. If they were leaving the area so soon Sam must surely have expected Dean to have in mind somewhere for them to stay, but in truth, he could no longer plan that far ahead. Here and now and Sam, listening to every breath and feeling each and every heartbeat; the immediacy of so much life. He could see nothing beyond that. He had needed to get Sam away, and Sam had let him, had not once asked him to stop the car when his every nerve, his every instinct must have been screaming to put it in reverse and head straight back to where they had come from.
It hadn't been until Sam was practically crying with need that Dean had figured out what he wanted. And even then Sam had tried to hide it to let Dean have what he wanted, had tried to make Dean see that maybe he needed rest too, maybe he needed to acknowledge that things weren't going the way he had perhaps envisaged.
But Sam had been too out of it, too medicated, too weak to do anything but lie there and watch Dean pace with those huge frightened eyes, while Dean grew more paranoid and irrational around him. Even if that side of his personality had never been allowed full reign, had been stamped down by the brother that could only see and respond to his family's pain.
He had been so desperate to prove to Sam that he would never fail him again, so desperate to see him live, that Sam's passivity and frailty had terrified him, and he had not once stopped to see that maybe he had caused it, because Sam could think of no other way to help him other than to let him do what he wanted, and hope that by achieving those small goals Dean would somehow figure his next move out.
And that had lasted until Sam had regained enough of his strength and awareness to participate in Dean's daily routine of hovering and worry. As soon as he had been physically able to life his arm Sam had used it to push his brother away. To insist that he was fine. To force himself to believe that.
But Dean couldn't cope with the idea that Sam might be fine. As perverse as it might sound he couldn't cope with a fine Sam because a fine Sam was a leaving Sam, and Dean had never needed anything more than he needed to be able to sit on the edge of his brother's bed and just try to find some harmony in the still lines of his face, or the gentle sound of his breath. To let that take away the screaming horror that was inside his mind.
It was all so obvious now, but at the time Dean could find no fault with his own actions. The fault was in Sam's, and that had been one of the most painful beliefs imaginable.
And sitting here in this bed with the peace and quiet his mind had somehow been able to find, that had been with him since talking to Bobby on that hospital bed. The calm he now felt could not comprehend how he had lived with that much noise inside him. How he had failed to notice that it was there. Because he hadn't. It was perhaps only now that the tension had left him that Dean could see how much he had carried around with him, how much he had been an accident waiting to happen. If he had been left to simmer for just a few days longer he would not have needed Kane's aid to implode.
He had known his hovering, his need for Sam had been unhealthy and he had wanted to tone it down, but he hadn't known how. And he marvelled that they had held it together for as long as they had. Dean saw that it was somehow the need to be Sam's strength that had saved him from a complete meltdown.
He turned his head and looked again at his brother's bed, smiling slightly at the thought of the figure that usually occupied it. How Sam's faith and need continued to save him every single day, gave him purpose when it was so easy to fall into the darkness that surrounded them.
It hadn't all been bad. There had been moment of such hope and peace; oases of bliss that had no doubt kept the madness at bay. Days when it was so easy to sit at Sam's side, to bask in his light, to run his fingers through his brother's shaggy brown hair and to feel Sam's unspoken gratitude. To know he was loved, that his presence was needed, even if Sam was too weak to express it with words. When the stillness and reverence of that hospital room could be echoed in Dean's heart, because the only thing he would ever need was right here beside him, held his arm hostage in his gentle grasp and trusted implicitly that it was okay to close his eyes because Dean was here, that it was okay to be so tired, that it was okay that his lungs were still too weak for the doctors to want to risk leaving him to breathe alone, okay that he could give nothing in return because Dean was there whenever he opened his eyes. And as long as he continued to be so then Sam was safe.
It was madness and it made no sense, but both realities were true, had lived side by side for so long that it was hard to break them apart. Hard to see where the problem lay and harder still to fix it. But they would. They had taken giant steps towards that goal in the past week. It was perhaps only because Sam knew his so well that he could see through Dean's fault-lines; make it through the calm exterior to the turmoil within.
Dean had been awake and musing for quite some time, and Sam was yet to return to bed.
He picked up his watch from the nightstand. It wasn't yet 2 o'clock. It was barely more than an hour since he had come to bed; his mind had wasted no time in letting its thought's be known. Sam had been here when Dean had got in. Hadn't been asleep yet himself, but he had been here.
Eyes scanning the room Dean realised the dog was missing too. He couldn't hear it padding around on the floor outside their room. If it was following Sam about he would be able to hear its steps, no matter how stealthy his brother might be.
Fighting down a wave of choking unease Dean eventually gave in to his anxiety and scrambled out of bed. He would conquer his hovering and his obsessive need, but he would never stop the worry. Never not need to know that his brother was safe. That was part of who he was.
He found Sam on the couch hugging a hot water bottle, the dog curled up with its head on his knee, watching a programme about a year in the life of a baby panda at the Smithsonian zoo, and he didn't think his brother could have done or said anything more to make him feel better.
The lights were all off and the volume was low, and in the flickering illumination of the TV screen Dean could just make out a glass of water and Sam's bottle of prescription painkillers, two pills already ready and waiting, lined up neatly on the low table in front of him.
"Couldn't sleep?" he asked, moving through the room and taking a seat in a chair at Sam's side, from where he could take his brother in. Could bask in the peace of having found him again.
Sam jumped slightly in surprise at his voice, and tearing his gaze away from the TV he turned to greet Dean with a smile that couldn't reach his eyes.
Dean could tell from the way Sam's attention had been so fixed on the TV, from the slow steady rhythm of his breathing, that he was fighting hard to distract himself from the pain.
"Want me to pass you them?" he asked, nodding towards the pills on the table, curious as to why Sam had gone to the trouble of lining them up and not taken them, when he so obviously needed to.
"I can't. Not yet." A whisper that was slow and calm, and required far more concentration than the words deserved. "Not for about another hour." He answered his brother's unspoken question with a rueful smile. Taking that second lot of painkillers had seemed like such a good idea at the time, and yet they had done absolutely nothing to take the edge of. If he didn't already have about two solid months worth of drugs in his system Sam probably wouldn't have minded, but he had already taken more of those lightweight pills than he perhaps should have, and an overdose was hardly what they needed right now.
Dean hung his head. He no longer wanted to look at Sam because there was nothing he could do about that admission. He could guard Sam all night, he could shoot anything that dared to look at him the wrong way, but he could do absolutely nothing to take his pain away.
"You could distract me," Sam offered, as though sensing his thoughts.
Distraction. For some reason the word reminded him of the question Bobby had asked him at the hospital. Reminded him of his dream. Of what Sam had been prepared to endure for Dean's own peace of mind.
"We're gonna figure this out." He promised. He still wouldn't look at Sam, but he could sense him become still beside him. "I know it seems like a huge battle right now, but we will figure something out. And things will be better this time. I'm gonna be better this time."
"Dean…" Sam was looking at him now, and Dean found himself unable to deny his gaze. To ignore those deep sympathetic eyes. "You can't have given me any more…"
"That's not true. I know that's not true. I..."
"Were hurting." Sam told him simply. "And you had a right to. You did more than… Dean, you always do more than anyone has a right to ask of you. And you do it without question. It's okay to ask yourself what you want once in a while."
"I have what I want."
Sam screwed his eyes up quizzically, but Dean could find no clearer way to say it.
"Why were you so keen to do that hunt?" he asked instead. "What was it about that particular one?"
"Nothing." Sam answered, confused. "The location. That it seemed like a relatively straight forwards track and kill. No obvious external wounds, nothing that would put up much of a fight. I'd picked out a few, but that was the closest."
"But why? Why did you seek out any at all? We had that room for another week, and you were still under orders to take things slow, so why…"
"Because I thought it was what you wanted." Sam admitted with something close to anger, but not at Dean, never at Dean. Maybe at himself for having read the situation so wrong. "I just wanted to give you something… something else to focus on other than…" he sighed, defeated. "I thought it was what you wanted." At the level of apology in his voice Dean felt like he'd been struck.
"But I told you that…"
"Yeah, well. I didn't say it was logical. I just… You looked so lost." He said, his voice soft and distant, "I'd made you lost, and I thought that, if we just did one job. If I could help. If you'd let me help you, then maybe I could find you again." Sam wasn't looking at him. Was staring into the dark as though willing it to cover him. Willing that he had not said those words out loud.
Communication breakdown had been an understatement, and it wasn't just their recent history that had brought this about. Sam had spent so much time and energy trying to be what he thought Dean had needed, to be what he thought Dean wanted him to be, that he had never once stopped to consider that he already was. Probably even now was unaware of that fact. Sam had thought they needed to be on a hunt so that Dean could remember who he was, but he had only ever been Sam's brother, and that was the only thing he needed.
"You want to remind me who I am, then all you have to do is be alive." He whispered through the lump in his throat, trying so hard to draw his mind away from the memory of that place. Of the world with no Sam.
They were silent for a long time. Could think of no words to follow that. After an eternity, curiosity won over his mortification and Dean risked a glance at his brother. Sam was sat as if frozen, not even a muscle twitching, still staring into the distance as though he could see a whole world there. The tears of pain that he had refused to let escape had been replaced by another kind, over which he had no control. They trailed in perfect twin lines down his cheeks, and as Dean watched one dropped tenuously from his chin. They made his face glow in the unearthly light from the TV, and the sight of him made Dean ach.
As though aware he was being watched and knowing he needed to find an adequate response Sam took a struggling breath and closed his eyes, nodding minutely to express his understanding and apology. But it was not Sam's fault alone that he had read his brother so wrong. Forced him to admit those words.
Dean stood suddenly, hovering uncertainly between the desire to break away and leave, and keep his brother's pain within his sight. But he was suddenly so afraid of what Sam might say. Sam had heard him, and that was all that mattered.
But Sam didn't always need words to be expressive, not with those eyes, and when he turned them on Dean they made him weak, and he actually had to sink down onto the arm of the couch at his brother's side, just to be able to endure them.
Sam flicked his attention back to the TV, needing a diversion but knowing that Dean could no longer bare his gaze. Wanted the conversation over before it had begun. Dean's struggle to find something suitable to say was not as distracting as the screen. Especially when the eventual comment was:
"It's not like there was a lot of choice." Sam defended. "Plus, I dropped the remote." He admitted, indicating to where it lay, poking half under the chair Dean had just vacated. Dean bent to pick it up, powerfully sad that the action he had never questioned was something Sam found beyond him. He aimed it at the TV but before he could press the button Sam's fingers were encircling his wrist, and the look he flashed him was decidedly apologetic.
"It's his birthday. There's gonna be fruitsicles and cake." He offered, which just mystified Dean further. "I've been watching for like an hour. Can you just leave it?"
"Sure" Dean replied, setting the remote back down on the table. Whatever you need. But he didn't move to go. Instead he slid down from the arm of the couch where he had perched until he was settled onto the seat beside Sam. His brother shifted slightly to accommodate him, but whether he was too stiff for the movement to be effective or because he had secretly planned it that way, the action seemed to end up leaving him snuggled closer to Dean's side rather than give him any more room.
Dean lent back into the seat and closed his eyes with a smile. He could hear the soft strain of his bother's breath, gentle music, and when it would catch then Dean would give his arm a reassuring squeeze. And affectionate rub of comfort to distract his mind from the pain. From the forty minutes he had left to wait before he could end it. Forty minutes wasn't that long to wait, and it would go even faster now they were together.
Dean's eyes were still closed but he could feel his brother smile at whatever the baby panda was up to now. Yes, he had everything he needed right here. Warm and alive and leaning slightly into him, using Dean to ease the pressure in his other side, and Dean didn't mind, because that was exactly what he was here for.
Obviously this is left wide open for a sequel I hadn't been expecting, so you're going to have to give me time to have a think about exactly what to do about that.