(c) 2007, kira
Thanks to koyote19 for the beta; you are awesome, m'dear! And scout27 and littlehands for reading through this and being my keepers. ;)
A shift, and a dog toy squeaks from somewhere in depths of the worn couch. Rums, Bobby's newest adopted dog, saunters over, age taming puppy energy, and sticks his nose into the cushions in search of the toy; another shift, this one uncomfortable, and the toy squeaks again.
"You don't sit still, he's gonna start chewin' on your leg."
With a little help, the large mutt gets his toy...halfway across the room, after smacking – hard – into the wall. There's still a crack there, from when the seal on the ceiling wasn't enough to contain exactly what it was made to do, and on the edges of the smallish living room are crumbled bits of marked drywall, swept to the edge, forgotten as soon as a new threat came through the door.
"I swear, you've got the thickest skull, and I've patched up my share of 'em."
It doesn't feel thick. In fact, it feels like an egg shell and someone's stuck a syringe in through his forehead and is pushing water hard; everything's pressing against it, and pretty soon, it's going to crack and leak sticky yolk all over the place.
And having someone touch it just isn't helping.
A growl starts low in his throat and stays there; any louder, and, well, that'd just be speeding up the inevitable. But it's enough to chase Rums and his battered toy from the room, screen door smacking against the frame as he leaps into the junkyard. He's the only who moves; the others look up from whatever they are doing to distract themselves from the hundred or so demons lurking about and try to win a staring contest with a glassy-eyed Dean Winchester.
The only serious contender is Sam, and he's still wincing from the car ride. He can't help but sigh as he watches his brother stand up from the couch, legs wobbly – he takes a moment to balance – and disappear through the same door as Rums. Smack. The sounds reverberates through the house, fills the silence of non-movement.
Ellen glances from the door to Sam, then settles her gaze on Bobby. "What's goin' on?"
It feels natural, right, when they slide into the Impala and listen to the deep rumble of the old engine turning over. Dean leans back, head tilting heaven-ward as his eyes slide closed and a held sigh escapes his lips. Sam watches for any slip of weakness, an opening through which he can slide behind the wheel and take care for once. He opens his mouth; the air is thick and dense with the smell and taste of sulfur.
"Shut it, Sam," Dean comments, eyes still closed. He takes a moment, then groans as he leans forward and shifts the car into drive. Bobby's truck stands down the road, bright red brake lights hazy through the remaining smoke of escaping evil, waiting, wondering.
"Maybe I should -- "
"Shut your trap. I've got a headache the size of Texas."
The car lurches forward, fast then slow – unsteady feet trying to find a happy medium. Sam shakes his head and straps on the lap belt, wishing for a full seatbelt and cursing the lax safety of older cars. He figures someone – Dean, Dad – would have laid down the extra cash for an added measure of safety, but then they've never expected to get out of this thing alive anyway, have they?
Summer's here. Even this early in the morning, the sun bakes all it can see, dormant husks of cars collecting what they can, warm their empty insides and radiate heat into the yard. Even the dirt sizzles here and there, swirling up into the summer air as Sam wanders the maze Bobby calls a salvage yard, thankful for his uncharacteristic height.
It isn't helping much; Sam swivels his head left and right as he makes his way from the house to the far fence marking the edges of Bobby's kingdom. He feels a twitch in his back, a reminder of his less-than-natural existence, and lays a palm on a faded blue truck, fingers easily falling into the grooves of the 50's hood. He leans a bit, a swaying tree, and closes his eyes. His head's swimming, but that could be from the heat – he convinces himself of that much and pushes off the hood.
"Dean," he calls into the quiet yard. Somewhere to his right, he hears the lazy bark of a dog and starts off in that direction. Calls out his brother's name again, hears the bark, and wishes he were playing this messed up game of Marco Polo in a nice pool somewhere instead of using it to find his bonehead of a brother in a maze of dead cars.
The dog lays on the ground, muzzle pointed at Dean's left foot, paws extended so that one touches the sitting man's leg. One hand pets the dog, little pats every once and awhile, but Dean's gaze is directed elsewhere – off into the distance, slightly out of focus. He pulls it back when Sam approaches and stands a bit defensively, arms crossed.
"Oh, look," Dean says down to the dog, then squints up at his brother. "Hey, man, I'm not gonna check out on you early, okay?"
Sam snorts. "Sure, Dean. You should come back into the house, let Ellen patch that up."
"Naw, I'm good. Just hanging out with my new pal here."
He should have known. Dean likes to deal with things on his own terms, on his own turf, to say, so Sam shuffles over to the car Dean's leaned up against and slides down next to him. In the bright late-morning sunlight, the gash in his brother's forehead looks horrible – the thing's swollen and raised and has to be hurting like hell; he'll be lucky if he didn't crack his skull open.
They sit in silence, Dean petting the dog, Sam trying to get a good look at his brother's head with the sun shining in his eyes. Deciding to take the lead, Sam reaches up and squeezes the gash, praying no puss comes out – though a fever would explain Dean's odd behavior.
"Dammit, Sam!" Dean curses, turning away. He brings a shaky hand up to his head and leans his forehead into his palm, eyes clenched shut as he breathes through the pain. "Said I was fine, dude."
"Sure you are. You've got a five inch gash in your forehead. Nothing a Band-Aid can't fix."
"Don't need your sarcasm right now," says Dean softly.
"Then what do you need?"
Dean turns to him, hazel eyes still watering, and gives a lopsided smile.
His words betray his face. "I don't know."
"Thanks," Sam says into the darkness. They've been following the soft glow of Bobby's truck for ages now, no roads or navigation, just blind faith. The car slows a bit; Dean turns to Sam and gives him a grin.
"You still mad at Dad?" ventures Sam. He gets a one-sided shrug.
Twisting in his seat, Sam takes a good, hard look at his brother, at the squared jaw and the tight grip on the wheel – complete control, and he's not giving it up anytime soon. "How?"
"How what, Sam? He should be with you here, not me."
"You must have hit your head harder than I thought. What are you talking about?"
Dean sighs. "He should be here, not me. He knew all this stuff; could've probably picked up on this whole thing faster and made sure nothing got out." A breath. "He deserved to live."
"And what, you don't?"
A shake of the head – the car wiggles a bit on the highway. "Later, man. Hard enough to concentrate on the road without all your existential questions."
Sam laughs a little. It relaxes Dean, but Sam's only faking, the laugh nervous.
But he doesn't take his eyes off the driver.
Dean turns to him, hazel eyes still watering, and gives a lopsided smile.
His words betray his face. "I don't know."
Hmf. That isn't the answer he's looking for and it throws Sam for a loop. Befuddled, and perhaps a bit scared, he leans back against the car, shifts so his shoulder's touching his brother's, and thinks. Thinks of all the things that have happened, all the things that should but might not, all they've done and what lies ahead. He's done it before, so the violently pissed-off reaction's nothing new, is something he should be used to.
But things have changed. Drastically. The world's no longer the container of a challenge extended over his crib all those years ago – that threat, that reason is gone. Completed. Finished. He should be happy and ready to return to school, because isn't that what he's wanted all along? Kill the demon, go back to the life he had for a time and pretend it's all as rosy as it was when he first stepped off the plane in California.
It isn't the escaped demons he's sticking around for – morality aside, he's tired and resents all the hunt represents – it's his brother who's given up everything he had for him to stay alive, and to ditch him now would, well, be such an asshole move.
Crazy, messed up world.
Sam glances at Dean, hoping the momentary crack in his defenses will give him some clue as to what he's thinking, but he's met with closed eyes. Like Dean would do anything else. Waving a hand in front of Dean's face gets no response, so Sam shifts a bit to his left and pokes a shoulder.
"I'm not passed out, dude, just tired," comes Dean's reply. He cracks open his eyes, slivers really, then closes them again.
"No sleeping. You know the rules," Sam reminds as he stands. Stooping, he pets Rums on the head before slipping an arm under Dean's and hoists him to his feet.
"Yeah, yeah," says Dean, pushing away from Sam's hold. He wavers a bit, hand flying to his head as if that could stop everything from spinning, and lets his shoulder fall against the car's frame. Before Sam makes a move, he holds up a hand and says, "I can make it on my own."
"You shouldn't have to," Sam tells him.
Dim red lights flash on, signal from far ahead that Bobby's stopping. The Impala lurches, metal interpreting Dean's hesitation, but smoothly rolls to a stop a foot from the truck's tailgate. Inside remains as quiet and immobile as the parked car, and it takes a few knocks on the window before Dean snaps out of whatever trance he was in to roll it down.
Even hunched over, Bobby's imposing. One hand sits on the roof, the other on the frame of the door, fingers and the bill of his weathered hat the only intruders. He takes a breath, looks over the brothers, and settles his eyes on Dean.
"Don't think you should be driving, son."
He doesn't jump, not exactly, but the word son causes Dean to shiver just a bit, and later on, he blames it on blood loss and exhaustion and that gust of chilly air that came through at just that moment. But right then, the word gets to Dean, crawls under his skin and takes up residence. The reaction isn't missed by Bobby, but he's got an unbeatable poker face.
Then again, so does Dean. "Naw, I'm fine."
"It isn't a suggestion. I said we'd take a look at y'all back at my place, but we can always stop at an ER on the way instead. Your call."
There's a tense moment when they all wait for the snappy comeback and declaration of fitness, held breath as Bobby and Sam formulate their own separate yet even counter arguments. Bundled, screaming nerves ready –
Dean inclines his head ever so slightly that to most it wouldn't look so, but he's agreeing and that's what bothers all involved oh so much.
But there's no time to be macho or hard, no future to protect or Sam to shelter. They're done, finished, and all the strength and unshed tears didn't help one fucking bit when it came down to it. Death is the ultimate failure, at least for him, and he's running 0-3 with another strike waiting in the wings.
With scrambled thoughts, Dean complies, lets his hands fall from the wheel into his lap, engine still rumbling as spring rain begins to fall.
Too shocked – that was way too easy – Bobby can do nothing else but open the door and stand ready if rounding the car proves to be too much.
The rain feels good; Dean lingers just a bit, letting it do what it can to rid his clothes of the scent of sulfur – he's never truly rid of such a mark, but tries, tries again since they've won, finished what was started all those years ago.
And all he feels is tired.
Tired and sore and dizzy and empty, like his soul's already been taken, placed inside a glass jar, and he's running on some demented probation plan that keeps his mind awake and heart going, but there's nothing inside.
Which doesn't matter. What drove him before will no longer be able to get him up in the morning. At this point, he's just going through the motions until his time comes and he won't be able to look at his brother's face.
Words spoken hours before, several states to the west, come back to him now. For some reason, the idea of him being someone's responsibility, someone's task as Sam's been for him, doesn't sit right in his stomach – then again, all this talking and moving hasn't been the best experience. Sweat dots his forehead, leaking salty water into the hastily treated wound, a stinging reminder that, in this instance, Sam's right and he should get inside and let someone sew it up before it gets worse.
"We can't do this," he says, squinting up at his brother. "Not now."
"This," Dean reiterates, sweeping a hand between them. "You can't change sides in the middle of a game, Sam. I can't just," – he shakes his head, searching for the right words – "sit back and stop looking out for you."
"I'm not saying you have to," replies Sam. "Just that maybe you can accept that I want to do as much for you."
"You shouldn't have to."
"That has nothing to do with it, Dean!" comes the exasperated reply. "I'm your brother; I'd die for you – "
He stops, mid-sentence; Dean winces at those words, takes a step back, shoulder sliding along the car's top.
"Don't you dare…" warns Sam.
"Dare what? Die for you? Hell, Sam, I'm just doing what I said I'd do all along."
"Said to who? Dad? Me? You're so full of bullshit, Dean. You can't go around and do all this and then get pissed off when Dad or I do the same for you."
"If I'm doing my job, you wouldn't have to," growls Dean loudly. The volume of his voice rattles within his head; he squeezes his eyes shut and slouches. Head injuries are never pleasant, and arguing under the heat of a rising sun is surely in the list of things not to do.
"By that logic, I'm the one who's let you down," Sam breathes.
"Sam," Dean says, word staccato as pressure builds in his head. "It was never – "
Too much pressure. His life's always been a pressure cooker, so many demands put on shoulders too small to carry them, tasks to complete, secrets to keep, a brother to protect, family to salvage, all together and now it's all gone and the lid slips off and there's no quest to glue it back in place.
Just arms to catch him as he falls.
Dean's always been a messy sleeper, arms and legs hanging haphazardly over the sides of beds and chairs, even at tables when the hunts ran too long and they worked through to breakfast. It's something Sam's gotten used to; sharing a queen sized hotel bed with the human octopus required a certain degree of patience and flexibility, not to mention being able to fall back asleep after being kicked in the side—repeatedly. Waking Dean in the middle of the night with his nightmares seems ironic but satisfying after all these years.
In the Impala, it's different; at least it has been since it's been Sam in the driver's seat and not their Dad. Wedged between the door and seat, Dean slumbers conservatively, arms tucked across his chest, legs straight under the dash. Each bump of the old, back country roads knocks Dean's head against the window, and after ten minutes, he grumbles and sits up, eyes wide but bleary.
"Dude," he says, rubbing his hands together. "Pull over."
"Other than getting my head bashed in, yeah. Pull over." Another bump has Dean closing his eyes, frustration practically seeping from him and it's that face that Sam listens to.
He eases the Impala onto the shoulder. Before the weary tires can squeak to a stop, Dean throws open his door, steps outside, and is halfway in the back seat. Car stopped, Sam looks over his shoulder at his brother, eyebrows raised.
"Shut up and drive," Dean tells him.
Sam returns his eyes to the road, glancing every so often in the rear-view mirror, where Dean lays as best he can in the small space, head pillowed on his jacket.
Is this something he'll need to get used to? Watching his brother through a mirror, hurt, and there's little he can do about it?
His eyes linger a bit longer than normal. He's got 364 days left, and isn't going to waste one of them.
"Whoah, Sam, what happened?"
Bobby stands and moves to help Sam carry his heavy load to the couch, Ellen trailing behind with just as much worry etched on her weathered face. Sam takes care placing his brother on the couch, arms and legs contained and not at all Dean-like in his unconscious state. He steps back, giving Ellen some room to place the dishtowel she grabbed over the red head wound, but doesn't take his eyes off his brother as he explains what happened outside.
"Damn Winchester; we shouldn't have let it go this long," Ellen fumes. She turns up to Sam and Bobby. "I told you we should have taken him to a hospital."
"You know these boys don't like going there," Bobby reminds her. "But he should have never gone outside on his own. It's a good thing you brought him back, Sam. Who knows how long he could've been out there."
"Yeah, I'm hero of the year," quips Sam, words dripping with sarcasm.
Bobby lays a heavy hand on Sam's shoulder and turns from the unconscious Winchester on the couch to the recently risen one standing. "None of this is your fault, you hear me up there?" A smirk. "Your brother's a grown man and made his own choice – a dumb headed choice – but," – he glances at Ellen. She's crouched at Dean's side with the small first aid kit Bobby pulled out the moment they got back, expert fingers probing at the wound.
"Let's take a walk," Bobby finally suggests.
Sam shrugs – what else is there to do?
Dean sleeps the entire way back to Bobby's, sleeps so deeply, Sam's having flashes of Dean being dead, of the hammer coming down when they're driving somewhere, to another job, another motel, another somewhere. Just falls asleep and never wakes up and Sam's left with a corpse as a passenger and no place to go. It sends shivers up his spine and when he eases off the road for a pit stop, he pushes on Dean's shoulder until eyes roll under shut lids and he gets a mumbled indication that it isn't time yet.
Not yet, but soon.
When he turns to the pump, he catches Bobby's eyes on him, sad, from across the lot.
Usually, that would both him. Now, he just nods in agreement.
"You didn't see him when you were," – Bobby's steps scuff in the loose dirt of the junk yard, and he looks up from the ground and motions with a hand before tucking it back in his pocket – "you know."
Bobby winces. "Yeah. He was lost, Sam. Didn't sleep, didn't eat, just drank and, well, I never seen him do it, but…"
He knows what Bobby's saying, and the thought of his brother crying, of letting someone other than his family see the evidence – who's he kidding? If the tables had been turned, would Sam have run to the crossroads after days of grief, or gone right away? Wasn't he just as lost without Dean?
So Sam nods. They haven't talked, him and Dean, really talked, and he's never been one to rehearse.
That would require processing, and he's still in shock over being alive, if the tingle in his back's any indication.
"That's not all, Sam." Here, Bobby stops and squints up at the sun. "He doesn't think he's worth, well, he's got no self-worth, Sam. Said saving you gives his life meaning, that he wasn't worth your dad dying."
Sam stops, now, eyes hard as they look at Bobby. "That's insane. Crazy. Of course his life's worth something!"
"I can't tell him that, Sam. You've gotta. And you've gotta convince him of it, or he might do something stupid enough to get himself killed early. Or not even try to figure out a way out of this mess."
A chilly breeze slithers through the yard. In the middle of burnt out husks of once great machines, Sam can only hug himself against the wind and close his eyes. Maybe, just maybe, this is all a dream.
The bitter taste in his mouth tells him it isn't.
A squeak sounds from the couch.
Dean groans, shifts a bit, and pulls a toy from under him. "Damn dog," he curses under his breath. "Can't you put your shit somewhere other than under my ass?" Holding the worn toy between two fingers, he wrinkles his face in disgust and drops it to the wood floor with a thunk.
"With all the stuff we've hunted, and you think that's gross?" Sam wonders.
"Dude, it's dog slobber. You know what they lick?" And he shudders just a bit.
Sam leans into him, knocks shoulders, and Dean absorbs the movement, sways out then back to knock in return. The brothers share a smile.
"We're going to do something about this," Sam tells him. No room for a question, for discussion. Dean looks at him, face white like the bandage taped on his forehead by Ellen's gentle hands, and his eyes are open. Wide open, no wall or barriers, and Sam knows he's the one who tore those down from a mattress in a bare room.
"Yeah," Dean says. We'd better, he says with his eyes.
Sam fingers the bandage, poking at the wound like he was seven years old again and annoying his big brother was his favorite activity. Dean ducks away, swatting at his hand.
"The hell, Sam?"
"Ellen did a good job," says Sam.
"Has a better bedside manner than you," comes the retort. "And easier on the eyes."
"Hey, now," Sam starts, but he's interrupted by the bang of the screen door slamming into the frame. A moment later, Bobby rounds the corner and stops short when faced with the Winchester brothers hanging around on his couch.
Hands on his hips, he says, "What, you two gonna sit around all day or are you going to get out here and help us?"
The boys look at each other. Help. Us. For so long, the words have meant only them, the two of them, working alone with only each other for back up. Support. Now, for the first time, they've got someone else to share the worry with.
Dean knocks into Sam. "Yeah, Sam, lazy ass."
Sam rolls his eyes. When it comes down to it, he has to help Dean to his feet anyway.