Second Time Around
See part one for summary and notes.
Sam walked in through the door of Dean's room and saw his father sitting at the far side of the bed. Dad looked up, his expression subdued. "Sam," he said gruffly.
Sam could sense he wanted to say more, but couldn't find the words. Dad had never been good at expressing his feelings, and Sam wasn't about to make it easy for him. He focused instead on what was important. "How is he?"
John looked at him hard for a long moment, and then glanced down at his eldest son. "He doesn't seem any better, but he's less restless than before."
Sam sat down and hesitantly reached out a hand to touch Dean's cheek. Still hot – dangerously hot. Sam could feel the heat radiating off his body. He was quiet now, uncharacteristically still, and Sam found himself wishing for the previous delirium – at least it was a sign that Dean was still alive.
"What did the doctor say?" he asked. "About… how long…"
John looked down at his hands, and his voice was rough when he answered. "They said that if there's no improvement by morning, they'll have to make a decision about…."
"About taking his leg?" Sam finished quietly.
John nodded. "But that's not gonna happen," he said firmly. "Dean's a Winchester, and Winchesters are fighters, right?"
"Right," Sam said automatically, knowing agreement was expected, but as he sat down in the other chair a stone of fear settled in his stomach.
This was going to be one of the longest nights of his life.
- - - - -
Sam woke abruptly with a sense of disorientation. His back and neck were stiff, and his head felt thick and stuffy. He opened itchy, gritty eyes and tried to focus.
Magnolia walls and an all-pervading clinical smell. The torture trap he found himself wedged into was pulled up close beside a bed where a figure lay, very still, a crisp white sheet pulled up to its neck. Memory returned in a rush at the same time as the sickening anxiety.
How could he have gone to sleep? He'd been out a while, he figured, as there was a blanket draped over him and sun shining in through the window.
His father sat on the other side of Dean's bed, hunched forward slightly, elbows resting on his knees and chin balanced on his clasped hands. Sam couldn't see his eyes and wasn't sure if his posture was one of despair or simple exhaustion.
"Dad?" he whispered. "How is he?"
His father looked up. He looked rough, his eyes red-rimmed, and Sam's heart lurched in fear. Then Dad smiled, and the fear melted into hope.
"Fever broke a little while ago," Dad said quietly. "The doctor just came in and took a look at him. Said the antibiotics have finally kicked in. His temperature's down to 102, and the infection's starting to clear. The doc said he's out of danger."
Thank God. Sam leaned forward, studying Dean closely. He was pale, but the red spots of fever had receded, and he seemed to be sleeping peacefully.
He looked up at his father, barely suppressed resentment returning. "You didn't wake me."
Dad's smile faded. "There was no need."
"You should have woken me."
Dad's lips thinned in a hard line, and he stood up abruptly. "I'm going for coffee."
Sam gritted his teeth. "Fine."
Left alone with his brother, Sam tried to swallow the lingering fear. If the doctor said Dean was out of danger, he must be right, but Dean still looked so ill, and Sam knew he wouldn't be sure until Dean woke up and talked to him.
As if he'd sensed Sam's anxiety, Dean's eyelids flickered.
Sam scooted closer. "Dean?" he said softly. "That's it bro, it's time to wake up."
Dean's eyelids opened slowly, and confused green eyes fixed on Sam, half-focused. "Sammy?"
The word was slurred and gruff, but it was the best thing Sam had ever heard. He smiled. "Yeah, it's me. I'm here."
"Where … here?"
"You're in the hospital, but you're gonna be fine."
"'Kay." Dean was clearly still out of it, but that was only to be expected. His eyes drifted shut, then opened again half-mast. "Were you here… before?"
Sam nodded. "I've been here all night. You've been pretty out of it, though."
"Why … here? Should be … school…"
"You're hurt, Dean. School can wait."
"Be … fine. Didn't need … come."
Sam felt a lump form in his throat. "Yeah, Dean, I did. You're my brother. I'll always come."
"You… You're still a such a girl."
Sam laughed softly. "Guess I am. Go back to sleep, okay?"
Dean's eyes had already shut again, and within seconds, he was asleep.
Sam stayed where he was, just watching Dean breathe, thinking back to Pastor Jim's words. You two need to get along, for Dean's sake. How's he going to feel when he wakes up and finds you guys bickering at his bedside?
It could so easily have happened. He and Dad couldn't seem to spend five minutes in the room together without rubbing each other the wrong way. If Dean had seen them going at it … He shook his head, lips pressed together. The last thing Dean needed right now was to be stuck in the middle, again. To play peacekeeper when he should be focusing on getting better. And he would get better, thank God.
It was a damned good thing, Sam knew, that Dean hadn't lost his leg. Because if he had, Sam had already decided that he'd leave school and come home. There was no way Dad would be able to cope with the situation, even with the best of intentions. And it would have been a disaster, for all of them. He and Dad would have wound up constantly bickering, and it would have worn Dean down, fast.
Now, though, knowing that Dean was going to be all right, Sam knew what to do. He'd stay for as long as it took for Dean to get well, and then he'd go back to school, to his new life. Pastor Jim was right. He had to follow his instincts.
It would be for the best.
He sat with his sleeping brother for a little while longer and when Dean showed no sign of waking again soon, he got up and wandered out into the corridor, wondering where Dad had got to. He found him in conversation with Dean's doctor.
The doctor glanced at him as he joined them, and Sam caught the end of the conversation. "So yes, I think I can safely say that your son's going to be fine, Mr. Waterman. We'll keep him in for a couple more days, just to be on the safe side and to get some more antibiotics and fluids into him. He's a very fortunate young man. If we hadn't started treating that infection when we did…" His expression turned grave. "A word of advice, Mr. Waterman. From what I've seen, this isn't the first time your boy's been hurt on a hunting trip. Accident prone, is he?" The doctor paused and, when there was no response, continued with a disapproving humph. "Well, next time something like this happens, you bring him in straight away, all right?"
Dad stiffened, and his jaw clenched. But then he simply nodded.
Sam looked at him, confused, as the doctor walked away. "Dad? What did he mean?"
Dad looked away. "What about?"
"When he said, 'Next time, bring him in straight away'?"
Dad cleared his throat. "You know how it is, Sam. For us, hospital's always the last resort – it has to be. I cleaned and dressed the wound myself, and I didn't think it was that serious. When it became obvious that there was a problem, I brought Dean in."
Sam frowned and his jaw clenched. What had Dad been thinking? "How long, Dad? How long did you wait before you took him to the emergency room?"
"What does it matter?"
Dad's expression hardened at the accusatory tone. "A couple of days."
"A couple of days! Dad, they said… they came this close to amputating his leg!" Sam cried, using his thumb and forefinger to illustrate his point. "And all because you waited two days! Why didn't you take him in right away?"
"I told you. I didn't think it was that serious."
Sam couldn't believe what he was hearing. It had never occurred to him to ask for the full story. He'd assumed that Dad had taken Dean straight to the hospital after the attack. But then with Dad, it didn't do to assume.
"It took you two days to work it out?" he asked heatedly.
Dad hesitated and Sam thought he saw a flicker of shame in his eyes before his features stiffened. "The wound wasn't that deep, just needed a couple of stitches. Dean kept telling me he felt fine, it didn't hurt that much, so I went out again, tracked the third chupa to its lair, and shot it to hell. When I came back… Dean was burning up, and his leg was…"
Sam snorted. "You know Dean; he'll never admit he's in pain, not to you. He sees it as failing you if he doesn't just suck it up, like you always tell him to do. And you left him – you just left him on his own with an infected wound!"
"It wasn't like that," John said tightly.
"Really? Then tell me what it i was /i like, Dad, because I really want to know."
John's eyes glinted, and his mouth tightened. "That's enough, Sam. You've had your say, but you're out of line now."
Sam shook his head. He was shaking with anger. "No, you're out of line, and you're out of control. Dean almost lost his leg – his leg, Dad! He could have lost his life – and all because you're so damned focused on the hunt you don't care about anything else."
"Are you trying to tell me I don't care about my own son?" John roared.
"Yeah, I guess I am!" Sam shouted.
Dad raised his hand, and Sam flinched back instinctively. But the threatened blow didn't land. Instead, Dad lowered his hand and spoke slowly, face white with anger, each word forced out between clenched teeth. "Sam, you made your choice. You're not part of this life any more. You have no right even to be here. Go back to school where you belong."
Sam set his jaw. "I'm not leaving Dean."
"Dean's gonna be fine. It'll be easier on him if you're not here when he wakes up."
Sam laughed bitterly. "You think you know what's best for Dean, what's best for me. You don't know anything. You never have."
"Just go, Sam. Get the hell out of here!" The words held a ring of finality.
Sam held his ground, but only for a moment, because it didn't take a genius to see what would happen if he stayed. No way could he and Dad be civil with each other right now, or anytime soon, for that matter, and Dean didn't deserve that.
Shaking with frustration and anger, Sam turned and strode down the corridor. He marched straight out of the hospital and onto the first bus that stopped outside the gate.
He didn't speak to his brother again for more than two years.
- - - - -
Illinois, April 2006
A bird landed on a branch of the maple, startling Sam out of his reverie.
He checked his watch and was surprised to find he'd sat here reminiscing for over an hour. He hadn't intended to stay for so long. Dean should be out of surgery any minute, and he wanted to be there when his brother woke up.
And this time, he had no intention of leaving.
- - - - -
One bullet had lodged between a couple of ribs, thankfully missing any vital organs, and the other had carved a deep furrow through the muscle of Dean's left calf. If shock and blood loss hadn't rendered Dean unconscious, Sam had no doubt that he'd have argued strongly against an immediate visit to the emergency room, ridiculous as that would have been. But he'd been in no position to complain, and Sam hadn't been about to take any chances, not with a bullet lodged in his brother's body.
He sat at Dean's bedside now, the doctor's reassurances ringing in his ears, waiting for Dean to wake up. They'd said that Dean would be fine. The surgeon had successfully removed the bullet from his side, and although the wound would be painful for some time, it should heal up quickly. The calf injury wasn't as bad as it had looked at the time, and should cause no future problems.
They'd told him Dean had been lucky. Sam knew they were right – a fraction to the right and the bullet could have killed him. But he couldn't help thinking that lucky would have been avoiding the bullet in the first place.
He was trying to forget the last time he'd sat like this at his brother's bedside, but it was difficult, with Dean looking as sick this time as he had then.
Sam straightened. "Dean?"
He waited patiently for a reply, which finally came in the faintest of whispers. "Sammy…"
Sam smiled in relief. "Hey. Welcome back. How're you feeling?"
Dean groaned in reply, his eyes still closed tightly.
Dean pressed his lips together for a few seconds, then rested a hand against his stomach. His eyes widened a little and he groaned again. "Think… think I'm gonna hurl."
Sam hit the nurse's call button and grabbed a kidney dish from the table beside him. He'd been ready for this – Dean didn't react well to anesthetic. He put a supporting arm around Dean's back, helping him lean forward a little, careful not to put pressure on the wound.
There was little in Dean's stomach to bring up but bile, and Sam winced in sympathy as Dean dry-heaved, the movement obviously jarring the wound in his side. One hand was tightly clutching a handful of bed sheet, the other clamped painfully around Sam's wrist.
When he'd finished, Dean let go of Sam's wrist and slumped back, eyes closed, face chalk white, features screwed up in pain. A nurse bustled in, checked his vitals and told Sam not to worry, sickness after anesthetic was normal. She hit a button to pump morphine into Dean's system through the IV and showed Sam how Dean could administer it himself whenever he needed it.
"Make sure he isn't shy about using it," she said briskly. "He'll be in a lot of pain, and now isn't the time to be macho."
The morphine seemed to kick in almost immediately, and Dean visibly relaxed. His eyes finally opened half-mast. "Sammy?"
Dean peered at him with unfocused eyes. "Sammy?"
"Dean, it's okay. I'm right here."
Sam leaned a little closer, tempted to reach out and grasp Dean's hand, but unsure if Dean was still out of it enough not to pull away. He was surprised when Dean reached out first and latched onto his wrist again.
"You … sure you… you're … here?"
"I'm here, Dean," he said soothingly. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Not… a dream?"
"Not a dream. Go back to sleep."
"Don't… don't go."
Startled by the naked fear in Dean's voice, Sam put his free hand over Dean's fingers and squeezed reassuringly. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here when you wake up, I promise."
Dean's grip tightened. "Thought you were there… but you were just a dream…" His eyes drifted shut, but his hand remained firmly clasped around Sam's wrist.
Sam frowned. Clearly, Dean was confused, but there had been something desperate in those whispered words.
He waited until Dean had drifted back into sleep before relaxing a little and slouching back in his chair. He didn't attempt to reclaim his arm. Dean seemed so vulnerable right now, and he sensed that it was important to keep the physical contact between them.
Later, he resisted the well-intentioned nurse's suggestion that he go and get something to eat, and stayed right where he was for another three hours, until Dean stirred again. This time, Dean was clearly more aware. When his eyes opened, they focused immediately on Sam.
"Hey, Dean," Sam said quietly. "You really back with me this time?"
Dean frowned. He took a few moments to answer and when he did, his voice was quiet, but much stronger than before. "I guess. What happ… oh, crap. Possessed hunter."
Sam nodded. "Little tip – next time, don't dance around in the open making yourself a freakin' target, all right?"
That earned him a faint smile. "Yeah. Not one of my best plans. You okay?"
Of course he was okay, because as usual, Dean had taken the fall for him. Some things never changed. "I'm fine. So's the hunter. I took him down without hurting him too much, did the ritual. One more demon back in Hell."
"That's my boy. Haven't 'pletely lost your touch." Then he frowned, eyes widening as he glanced down. "Dude! You wanna tell me why we're holding hands?"
Sam flushed and snatched his hand away. "Man, you started it," he said, feeling idiotically defensive. "You locked onto my wrist and wouldn't let go."
"Yeah, right." Dean snorted, then winced. "Maybe in your warped little mind, Samantha." He started to pull himself upright and fell back with a gasp, eyes screwed shut, jaw hardening against the pain.
Sam put a restraining hand on his shoulder. "Take it easy. You've got a big hole in your side; you don't want to be moving around too much."
"No kiddin'," Dean hissed through clenched teeth.
Sam watched him anxiously, feeling as helpless as he always did when witnessing his brother fighting pain. He reached out a hand toward the morphine drip. "Need something for the pain?"
Dean grunted, and Sam took that for a "Yes".
As before, the morphine kicked in quickly, and after a few moments Dean's featured relaxed. He sighed and opened his eyes again as he rolled his head towards Sam. "This sucks out loud."
"Yeah," Sam agreed.
"They got me on good stuff, though. Reckon it'll give me sweet dreams?"
"I hope not," Sam said dryly, knowing Dean's idea of a sweet dream. "Speaking of dreams – before, when you first woke up, you kept asking me if I was a dream."
Something flickered in Dean's eyes. "Yeah?" he said casually. "I don't remember."
"You seemed pretty upset."
"Dude, I was probably high on this stuff," Dean said casually. "You can't count that against me."
Dean studied Sam for a second, then looked away. "I think I'm gonna go back to sleep for a while."
While Sam could tell the statement was a diversionary tactic, Dean's eyes were already drooping. Best to let the dream thing go. For now.
"Get some rest," Sam said softly. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Dean grunted something incoherent and was fast asleep within minutes.
- - - - -
Dean was released from the hospital three days later, under strict instructions to rest, and Sam intended to make sure he did what he was told for once, even if that meant tying him to the bed.
They were holed up in a more expensive hotel than usual. Sam wanted Dean to be comfortable while he healed up. The room had a wide-screen TV, a small kitchen area and mattresses without the usual lumps.
So far, there had been no need for desperate tactics to keep Dean from overdoing it. It was only 8 p.m., but Dean was clearly wiped out. A trip to the bathroom and back left him exhausted and white-lipped in pain -- so much so that he barely protested when Sam helped him back into bed, plumping up the pillows behind him. He leaned back with a sigh of relief.
Sam sat on the edge of the bed, not even trying to hide his concern as he observed his brother's pinched features.
"Did you take your meds?"
"Yeah, Mom, I took my meds."
"Both the antibiotics and the painkillers?"
Dean raised an amused eyebrow. "I'm not an idiot, Sam. Now will you knock off the mother-hen routine?"
"Fine." Sam didn't care if Dean thought he was fussing. He was going to make sure his brother looked after himself. His eyes dropped to the large dressing covering Dean's left side, checking that it was still securely in place. Then he began to pull the sheet back to check the leg.
"Dude, what's wrong with you?" Dean smacked his arm away. "Could you be any more of a girl?"
Sam sat back and folded his arms defensively. "I just want to check your leg, make sure the wound isn't infected."
Dean looked at him strangely and then spoke slowly, as if addressing a child. "Sam, first, I've got a big hole in my side, but you don't seem too bothered about that. Second, I just got out of the hospital a few hours ago. Trust me, it isn't infected!"
"Well, excuse me for worrying, but the last time something took a chunk out of your leg, you almost lost it!" Sam snapped. So what if he was being paranoid? He had good reason.
Dean went still. "What did you say?"
"Look, I know it's irrational, but last time…" He paused, running a hand through his hair, frustrated that Dean didn't seem to get it. "It just… it scared the hell out of me, Dean."
Dean looked confused. "Dude, how do you know about that?"
It was Sam's turn to be confused. "How do I… What do you mean, how do I know? I was there!"
Dean shook his head. "You weren't there, Sammy. You were… you weren't there."
"I know, Dean," Sam said hesitantly. "And I'm sorry. I was wrong – I shouldn't have left. I should have stayed until you were well-- "
He paused. Dean was looking at him, wide-eyed. "Dean?"
"You should have stayed? You mean… you were really there?" A pause, then, "I thought you were a dream." The final words were barely a whisper, but they were enough to bring the truth crashing down on Sam. Dean's confused rambling three days ago suddenly made sense.
"You thought you'd just dreamed I was there?" He wanted to be very clear about this.
Dean looked away, but Sam could see his jaw working. Sam remembered the way Dean had latched onto his hand, holding on tightly as if afraid Sam would disappear. Thought you were there… but you were just a dream… Shit.
"You were out of it, delirious," he explained. "I sat with you through the night, and in the morning, your fever was down. You woke up for a few minutes; I talked to you, man. Don't you remember?"
Dean looked back at him and frowned. "I remember waking up and feeling like crap. And I thought I remembered you being there, before, but you were gone. When Dad came in, he didn't mention you, so I–"
"Wait. Dad didn't tell you I was there with you?"
Dean shook his head.
"Damn him, Dean!" Sam jumped up as the anger against his father, always just simmering below the surface, flared. "Why didn't he tell you?"
Dean leaned forward, winced, and bit back a groan.
"Hey, take it easy – no fast movements, remember?"
Dean scowled, but allowed Sam to adjust the pillow to support his weight in a more upright position. "Sam, Dad must have had his reasons…"
"Don't you defend him! You know he should have told you." He couldn't bear the thought that Dean hadn't known he'd been there with him; maybe even thought he hadn't bothered to come at all.
"And another thing. He should have told me you were sick in the first place."
Dean blinked. "Wait. You saying it wasn't Dad who told you I was sick?"
"Yeah. Nice, huh? You were so sick they were threatening to cut your freakin' leg off, and he didn't call."
"Then who did?"
"Pastor Jim. He came to Stanford to tell me. He knew you were very sick, thought I should be with you. He did the right thing." Sam's jaw clenched. "Dean, you could have died!"
Dean looked back at him steadily. "Yeah, but I didn't."
"That's not the point," Sam retorted. "Dad should have called me."
"I'm sure he would have, if Pastor Jim hadn't called first."
Sam snorted his disbelief.
Dean sighed. "Sam, sit down, you're giving me neck-ache."
Sam glared, but sat back down on the edge of the bed.
"Anyway," Dean went on after a pause, "Why did you leave?"
The mixed feelings of fear, anger and regret he'd felt at the time flooded back, and Sam's stomach clenched. He looked down at his hands. "Dad and I… we had one of our fights. I just… the doctor said you were going to be okay, so I… I left. I … I knew you'd be upset if you saw us going at it. I didn't know what else to do." What else was there to say? There was no excuse for what he'd done. He looked up then, needing to see how Dean was taking all this. "I'm sorry, Dean. I should have stayed."
He watched Dean trying to process this new information, saw a myriad of emotions pass across his face before his features settled into a neutral expression. Finally, Dean asked, "What did you fight about?"
Sam let out a long breath. "You. I blamed Dad for what happened."
Dean rolled his eyes. "I might have guessed. It wasn't his fault, Sam."
"Then whose was it? If you hadn't split up, if he hadn't broken the golden rule, you wouldn't have been on your own."
Dean looked surprised. "Sam, that rule was just for when we were kids."
That stopped Sam in his tracks. "What?"
"Dad wanted to be sure we were always watching each other's backs. After you left – come on, dude, I was twenty-two! There was no need for it any more."
As Sam silently digested Dean's words, Dean continued.
"Anyway, it was my idea to split up, not his."
Another illusion shattered. But Sam wasn't about to let his dad off the hook that easily. "It was still a mistake, and Dad was calling the shots, so it was his responsibility. And what about the ER? He should have taken you straight there after you got hurt."
Dean sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Cut him some slack, Sam. He couldn't have known the wound would get infected so quickly."
"He shouldn't have left you," Sam went on stubbornly.
"Someone had to take down the third chupacabra before it killed again."
Dean's mouth thinned in irritation. "Sam, just leave it. It was no one's fault. The job's dangerous, okay? Accidents happen."
"That's what Pastor Jim said at the time," Sam admitted. "Maybe he was right. But… I was scared, and angry, seeing you hurt… it seemed so unfair. I needed someone to blame, and Dad's always good for that, right?" He paused, smiled to take the sting out of the last statement, and after a moment got his reward in a wry grin.
"Anyway," he went on, "when I got back to school … I called you and left messages, but you never called back, and I thought …" Dean's shocked expression stopped him. "What?"
After a long moment, Dean said quietly, "I didn't get any messages. My phone broke when the chupacabra attacked me."
Sam's jaw dropped as the implications of that simple statement hit him. All this time he'd thought Dean had chosen not to return his calls when in fact, Dean had never even received them. He rubbed a hand across his face. "I… oh, hell. I thought you didn't call back because you were angry, and you had every right to be, because I should have been there for you."
"Sam, that's all kinds of stupid."
Suddenly Sam realized how stupid it was, too. Dean wasn't a man to bear grudges, especially against his little brother. "I wasn't thinking straight. I wanted to call again, but time went on and you didn't get in touch, and I thought… Why didn't you ever call me?"
Dean was silent.
Dean flashed him a quick glance and then looked down, fist clenching around the sheet. "You and me - we'd been drifting apart. I… I guess I thought you'd decided to cut your ties with both of us."
Sam swallowed. All this time. All this time Dean had thought he was deliberately keeping his distance, while he'd convinced himself that it was Dean who had made that choice.
"Dean, no, I…" He stopped, unsure how to go on.
Dean took a long, measuring look at Sam, and shook his head. "Dude, did you really think I was petty enough to be pissed because you didn't stay and hold my hand?"
Sam shifted uncomfortably, because really, there wasn't a good answer to that one.
Dean scoffed. "Nice." He jabbed a finger at Sam. "Don't you go pinning our problems on me, Sammy. You're the geek who chose to leave and make a life for yourself."
The anger in Dean's tone stung. "Like you made any attempt to stop me," he retorted.
Dean went still. "You think I wanted you to go?"
Sam stuck out his jaw defiantly. "You never said you wanted me to stay."
Dean looked away. "I thought it was the wrong decision, that you wouldn't be able to live a normal life… but you'd set your mind on school, and I didn't want to make it any harder." He looked back at Sam, this time steadily holding his gaze. "But I never wanted you to leave, Sam. How could you think that?"
Sam shrugged. "Well, life in the Winchester household wasn't a bed of roses back then, was it?"
Dean snorted. "And you think it's been a walk in the park these past four years? You of all people know that life on the road with Dad isn't exactly a bundle of laughs. I…"
"You what, Dean?"
"Look, I…" Dean paused, eyes darting around the room before finally coming back to settle on Sam. "I missed you, dude, okay?"
Sam's throat tightened, and he cleared it. "Every day, Dean, every day I picked up that phone and almost called."
Dean was silent for a long moment. Then his lip curled in a half smile. "We're crap at this family stuff."
"Yeah." Sam chuckled, then sobered, thinking back on the last few years. Two whole years lost because of heated accusations and a stupid misunderstanding. "Look, Dean. I can't say I'm happy with the way things have turned out, and I'd give anything to turn back time and save Jess…"
Dean was looking at him curiously, and Sam held his eyes firmly. "But I'm really glad to have my brother back."
Dean smiled. "Me, too."