A/N: I'm baaaaack! I've survived the writer's block from hell and come out the other side--this fic has been three months in the making. Many thanks to iamstealthyone for polishing it up so it's nice and shiny.
He drove until the sun dipped below the horizon and stars pierced the darkness. Until too many miles with too few rest stops put an ache in his lower back and left every muscle feeling tight and brittle. Until his eyes burned and the yellow lines blurred.
When the headlights hit the blue sign signaling food and lodging, he flicked on his turn signal and took the ramp without asking for a second opinion.
Not that he expected one.
Sam had barely said ten words since they'd left Lawrence. He'd slumped into the passenger seat, curling his long-limbed body until he appeared unnaturally small, his forehead pressed to the glass and his eyes fixed on the passing scenery. For all the times Dean had wished he could shut his brother up, he now found himself hating the long silences and monosyllabic answers.
"Lodging" turned out to be either a hole-in-the-wall no-name motel or a decent-looking Comfort Inn. After a brief hesitation, Dean picked the Comfort Inn. Considering the last 48 hours, the least he and Sam deserved was a clean bathroom and a lump-free mattress.
The lobby felt too bright after the darkness of the car, the desk clerk overly friendly after Sam's brooding withdrawal. Dean handed over a credit card that was nearing its limit and signed with a secretive smirk--adios, James Page. Gotta be moving on.
Sam didn't comment as he parked in front of the room, and Dean had the bags out of the trunk before his brother extricated himself from the car.
He quirked an eyebrow when Dean handed him the little cardboard sleeve. "Dude, we get key cards?"
Dean grinned as he plugged his into the slot below the knob. "Livin' high, Sammy. Courtesy of my friend James Page--may he rest in peace."
Sam snorted as he dropped his duffel onto the nearest bed, then just stood, staring at the bland watercolor hanging over the headboard with unseeing eyes.
Dean kept his gaze on his brother as he moved around to his own bed. He sank onto the mattress, kneading the tight muscles at the small of his back. No lumps or exposed springs, but damn, looked like the only magic fingers in this motel were his own.
Sam was still zoned, absently rubbing under the collar of his shirt and chewing on his lip. Dean narrowed his eyes. The lip thing was a dead giveaway--had been since Sam was a little boy.
"Hey. What's up with you?"
The question carried an edge, a sharpness he hadn't intended.
Sam didn't appear to notice. He blinked, then rummaged through his duffel, pulling out his toiletries and a clean pair of boxers. "Gonna shower." He disappeared into the bathroom, and the door shut firmly behind him.
Dean flopped onto his back, hands laced behind his neck, and closed his eyes. In the bathroom the toilet flushed, and the shower came on with a hiss. Something--shampoo? soap?--hit the tile with a dull thud, and Sam cursed softly. A moment later the curtain rattled across the rod.
Sounds he'd heard countless times over the past few months--ordinary, boring, routine.
Except nothing about the last 48 hours had been ordinary, boring, or routine. Sammy wasn't just having nightmares, he was having nightmares that came true. With eerie accuracy.
It all made sense now--the guilt so liberally mixed with Sam's grief over Jessica's death. His absolute certainty that he'd be able to summon Bloody Mary. His insistence that something wasn't right inside Jenny's house, despite Missouri's assurances that the poltergeist was history.
Dean rolled the word around in his head, flooded with a fresh sense of stunned disbelief. Sam--all arms and legs, shaggy hair and big, liquid eyes--could see the future like some kind of oversized Zelda Rubenstein.
It should be funny, right?
He wasn't laughing. Because that thing in Jenny's house…it had wanted Sam. Dean, Sari, Richie--they'd all been allowed to leave. Hell, the damn door had been slammed in their faces. Sam was the one it had grabbed, had tossed around and pinned to the wall like a bug. If it hadn't been for Mom…
Dean pressed the heels of his hands to eyes that felt suddenly hot and wet. Twenty-two years had come and gone. He wasn't that bewildered little boy any more, constantly asking when Mommy was coming home, searching for her in the shabby little apartment, the grocery store, the mall.
Mommy's gone, Dad would repeat in the mechanical, dead tone that Dean had grown to hate. Eyes red-rimmed and a little wild, tremors in the rough-gentle hands that squeezed his shoulders. Mommy's gone, Dean, and she's never coming back.
But she had. Twenty-two years, and her hair was still the color of early morning sunlight. She still smelled like soap and sugar cookies and baby powder. And she still made "Dean" sound just like "I love you."
For a moment twenty-two years had melted away, and he'd forgotten that those feelings of comfort and safety were just an illusion. For a moment Dean was that little boy again, ready to throw himself into her arms, bury his face in her neck, and breathe her in.
And then, for the second time in his life, he'd watched his mother disappear in a burst of flames.
Mommy's gone, Dean, and she's never coming back.
This time he wouldn't go looking.
The bathroom door creaked open and a waft of humid air clung damply to Dean's skin. From the corner of his eye he saw a boxer-clad Sam bend over his duffel.
Dean sucked in a deep breath and wrestled himself upright, dragging a hand down his face. "You want something to eat?" His own stomach cringed a little at the idea.
"Nah. I'm not--really hungry." The slight catch in Sam's voice was imperceptible--to anyone who hadn't been attuned to his every ache and pain for twenty-three years.
Dean sat up straighter, senses sharpening. Sam hadn't turned the light on for his side of the room, so he was shrouded in shadows as he slipped his arms through a tee shirt. Dean caught a quick flash of skin before his brother tugged it to his waist.
His suspicion ratcheted up a notch. The room was stuffy, overly warm. And Sam rarely slept in a tee. "What's wrong?"
With a huff, Sam pulled back the comforter on his bed, staying on the far side of the mattress. "Nothing," he said, evading Dean's gaze. Lifting a pillow, he scowled. "Damn it, this one's ripped. So much for the comfort in Comfort Inn."
"I'm just tired, Dean, okay? Not like we got much sleep last night." He dropped the offending pillow on the floor and peeled back the blanket and sheet.
Sam was speaking with the measured, through-his-teeth tone that signaled tight control, and his movements were unnaturally stiff. Dean narrowed his eyes as he reached for a pillow. "I don't need both of these. Here." He lobbed it at Sam.
His brother reacted without thinking, just as Dean had expected. Sam jerked up his arms to grab the pillow, then doubled over with a soft gasp. As he struggled to catch his breath, Dean walked over and lifted his shirt.
A spectacular array of black-and-blue patches mottled Sam's sides and back, a gruesome addition to the livid bruising around his throat. Dean gently pressed the darkest area on Sam's left side, just over his ribs. "Holy crap, Sammy."
With a hiss, Sam twitched away. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said, smoothing down his shirt.
Dean snorted. "That's good. 'Cause it looks pretty damn bad. You take anything?"
For once, Sam obeyed without argument--a clear indication he was hurting more than he'd admit.
Dean circled the bed and fished the first-aid kit from his duffel. After shaking three ibuprofen into his palm, he filled a glass with water and returned to where his brother perched rigidly on the edge of the mattress.
"Why the hell didn't you say something?" he asked as Sam swallowed all three pills at once.
Sam shrugged, aborting the motion with a wince. "It didn't hurt that much when we left Jenny's. I stiffened up in the car."
"You sure those ribs aren't cracked?"
Sam shook his head. "Just bruised."
Dean took the empty water glass. "Fine. But if the pain gets worse or you start pissing blood, we're finding the nearest ER."
"Yes, mo--" Sam bit off the retort, blinking hard. "I will." He gingerly stretched onto his stomach, wrapping his arms around a pillow, and closed his eyes.
Dean stared at his brother for a long moment, absently tracing the rim of the glass with one finger. Sam didn't have his own memories of Mom, just recollections and stories shared by Dean and Dad, stitched together like a beloved quilt. Seeing her last night--not a photo in a frame but a three-dimensional being--had to have shaken him. Badly.
With a sigh Dean, moved toward the bathroom. Despite his big-brother instincts, his own emotions were too raw to offer comfort.
A hot shower left his body loose and clumsy with exhaustion, but his brain wouldn't shut off. Like a hamster on a wheel, his thoughts ran in circles, never really getting anywhere. Sam's dreams, his sensitivity to the poltergeist's presence, their mother's soft apology… Dean intuitively sensed they were all pieces to a larger puzzle. And that made him damned uneasy.
Sam was sprawled in the same position, eyes closed, his breathing deep and even. Dean turned off the light and tumbled into bed. He laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes, trying all the little relaxation techniques he'd picked up over the years to settle himself before a hunt--deep, slow breathing, relaxing one muscle group at a time, visualizing a safe, tranquil place.
It wasn't working.
His deep, slow breathing turned to a hammering heartbeat as he considered how Sam's new ability might impact his own ability to keep Sam safe. His muscles clenched as he recalled seeing Sam, battered and pinned to the kitchen wall. And every attempt to visualize tooling down a country road in the Impala morphed into his mother's beautiful face--and the accompanying ache of loss.
"She was really beautiful."
Sam's soft voice pierced the silence, eerily mirroring Dean's thoughts.
"Yeah. She was." Forced past the tightness in his throat, the words came out sandpaper rough.
Silence stretched between them, but Dean waited it out.
"I asked Missouri what happened. She said Mom's spirit and the poltergeist's canceled each other out." Dean didn't have to see Sam's face--he heard the tears in his voice. "She sacrificed herself for us." Sam's breath hitched. "For me."
Dean propped himself on an elbow, peering hard through the darkness. "Sam, it wasn't--"
"Don't." Sam sucked in a shaky breath. "Just... That fire started in my nursery, Dean. And now... It's like, she's dead all over again. Because of me."
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Dean reached up and turned on the lamp.
Sam shaded his eyes with one hand, gingerly pushing himself upright. "Dean? What the--"
"You are not responsible for what happened to Mom." When Sam opened his mouth to argue, Dean cut him off, his glare fierce. "Just shut up and listen, okay?"
Sam pressed his lips together but gave a sharp nod.
Dean drew in a deep breath. "You were just a baby," he continued, working hard to keep his voice calm and even. "Mom and Dad would have done anything to protect us. That doesn't make you responsible. Sam." He chased his brother's gaze, forcing Sam to look him in the eye. "You didn't kill mom. And we're going to find and kill the thing that did."
"Dean..." The name caught in Sam's throat, and he swallowed hard. "You don't get it."
Apprehension prickled Dean's spine and twisted sickly in his stomach. Sam was looking at him like a drowning man grasping for a hand held just out of reach. "Then explain it to me."
With a strangled laugh, Sam shook his head. "I can't even explain it to myself." He rubbed the back of his neck and pulled in a shaky breath. "Something's happening to me, man. And whatever it is...it's not over."
"You don't know that."
Sam looked away, but not before Dean caught the too-bright shine to his eyes. "Yeah. I do."
Dean bit his lip, silence weighting the air between them. "We'll deal with it," he said, then fought to not grimace. It hadn't sounded nearly as lame in his head.
"We'll deal with it?" Sam scowled, stiff-lipped. "Great. I feel so much better."
The sarcasm sparked Dean's anger, and he latched on to it like an old friend. "What the hell do you want from me, Sam? You want me to start wringing my hands, freak out over a few dreams?"
"A few dreams? Dean, my mother burned on the ceiling of my nursery, twenty-two years later my girlfriend dies the same way, and I'm suddenly seeing shit before it happens," Sam said, voice cracking. He scrubbed an unsteady hand across his forehead, shielding his eyes. "Don't try to tell me you think it's a coincidence. Dad's pulled together jobs from a lot less."
How the hell was he supposed to respond to that? Sam wasn't saying anything different from the nagging little voice in his own head.
"Look," he said, gentling his tone when Sam's slumped shoulders stiffened. "I'm not gonna pretend to know what's going on in that freaky head of yours. But we'll figure it out, Sammy. Are you hearing me?" He waited for Sam to drop his hand and look at him. "We'll figure it out."
"How?" There was no challenge to Sam's question, just the tug of weary hopelessness Dean had heard all too often since Jessica's death.
Good question, Dean thought, but he kept his uncertainty from his face. "We find Dad. He's got a line on the thing that killed Mom and Jessica, I'm sure of it. Find him, and we'll find the answers."
"What if you're wrong?" Sam persisted, but Dean heard a kernel of hope amidst the doubt. "What if he's no closer to catching this thing than we are?"
"Then we work together, just like old times. With three Winchesters on its ass? That evil sonuvabitch won't stand a chance." Dean cocked an eyebrow. "But you're forgetting something important."
Sam took the bait. "Yeah? Like what?"
"I'm the older brother. And I'm never wrong."
After gaping a moment, Sam barked a laugh, only to clutch his ribs. "Jerk," he groaned, but a little of the darkness left his eyes.
Mission accomplished. The knot in Dean's gut loosened, just a little. "Can I turn out the light now? 'Cause I gotta tell you--you really need your beauty sleep."
"Least some of us aren't beyond help," Sam muttered, stretching carefully onto his stomach.
"Sam, Sam," Dean tsked, shaking his head. "Jealousy doesn't become you."
With a flick of the light switch, he sank onto his mattress. He listened to rustling sheets and soft hisses followed by a gusty sigh as his brother searched for and finally found a comfortable position.
Though his own muscles were stiff with tension, he forced himself to lie still, relieved when Sam's breathing slowed and deepened. Certain his brother had drifted off, Sam's voice startled him.
Soft and slurred, filled with an implicit trust Dean hadn't heard in years--since before Jessica and Stanford and a terrible night filled with raised voices and divided loyalties.
Though he swallowed the lump in his throat, his voice came out raspy with emotion.
"Go to sleep, Sammy."
He closed his eyes and willed himself to do the same.