Whew, finished at last. Thanks for your patience waiting for this last chapter, hope it's worth it!
Thanks to everybody who left a review, your support was invaluable.
Sam's hands were shaking, bleeding, raw.
The rest of his body went ignored; his mind shut down, having abandoned him in the terrifying moments during which his family had vanished from his sight. His hands were the only things he felt, only things he saw, the only things that mattered.
He didn't know he knelt in water, running from the burst pipe, he didn't know the basement door opened and he didn't know a figure descended the stairs in the near dark.
He almost shouted out in fright when a familiar hand gripped his shoulder. He spun around, finding himself face to face with the Pastor.
"Jim!" he gasped, weakly gripping the older man's wrist.
The Pastor, his face pale with shock and despair, shook his arm out of Sam's grasp and set to clearing the rubble.
"I was already on my way to the hospital when you called," he explained as Sam fell in beside him. "Never did like sitting at home waiting while you boys worked."
John listened to his son's slow indrawn breath, holding his own, preying for an exhale.
Please. Please, I can't bury my son. I go first, that's the deal, breathe, Dean, breathe. Please baby, just keep breathing.
After an agonising half century Dean let go that awful breath, the sweetest sound of John's existence and the father blew out his own burst at his child's continued existence.
The painful process began again, the air bubbling, gurgling, dying in Dean's ruined lungs. Once more John went through his mantra, Please. Please, I can't bury my son … not realising this time he whispered the words aloud.
A sob escaped him as the exhale shakily followed.
"That's it Dean," he encouraged brokenly.
He waited for the next inhale.
"Do it again," John commanded. "Do it for me, Dean. Do it again."
They had been silent while they worked, for nearly half an hour.
It surprised Sam when a voice shattered the trance he operated in.
"It was easier when you were young," Jim murmured, hefting a large lump out of the way. Sam could see a tear freely making its way down his cheek. "Waiting for John to return, I could focus on you, on Dean. He could protect you from anything, Sammy."
Sam returned to the task at hand, couldn't look at the other man. While he knew the he was suffering, he couldn't focus on any more pain. "Jim," he began softly, never slowing his efforts.
"I liked to think I could protect him, while his attention was on you. When he wouldn't notice my help."
"Jim," Sam repeated, stronger this time.
"It was the only time he ever allowed me to look after him," the Pastor whispered brokenly.
"He's not dead!" Sam snapped loudly, turning sharply back to him.
The other man blinked at him in shock. "Sam, I-"
"Don't say it; don't talk about him like he's dead!"
Jim stared for half a heart beat before nodding. "No, he's not."
The men bent back to their work.
John's world consisted of the unbearable wait between the motions of Dean's breathing.
It was filled with his fervent encouragement, his terror that this was the last breath Dean could take, his shaken, grateful thanks when that fear was proven unfounded and the next movement came, it was filled with his commandment to just keep going.
Dean had been awake, if not wholly aware, during this time, his eyes fixed on his father's face, perhaps not hearing the words, nor seeing the emotions, but gaining comfort none the less.
Dean's eyes briefly flickered towards the wall of broken pipes and fallen rubble before he attempted one more breath. John allowed his world to widen, heard the sounds of movement.
"It's Sammy," he told Dean, needlessly. "Your brother's here. Keep breathing. Not long now."
Dean summoned his energy and drew in another torturous gasp.
Sam lifted his head.
There was something there, something else other than his and the Pastor's own gasps, the sound of cement scraping against metal.
"Wait! Wait," he commanded, holding out a hand to still the older man.
"Do you hear that?"
The Pastor froze, listening hard.
"John," he gulped. "I can hear him. He's speaking."
"Dad!" Sam's shout echoed strangely in the old room. "Dad! I'm coming! Hold on!"
Jim and the younger Winchester fell to with renewed energy, concentrating in a single spot, crying out with relief when a small opening formed.
Scrambling wildly, shoving, bruising, grazing and heaving, Sam forced a hold large enough to admit his frame.
"Sam!" his father barked. "Call an ambulance, quickly!"
Sam ducked out, threw the order at Jim, barrelled back in again.
"Dad? Is Dean okay? What is it?"
John looked terrible; he seemed to have aged ten years, whether from grief, pain or fear, Sam couldn't tell, didn't dwell on it. His eyes were drawn instead to the prone figure lying beyond John, the soft, awful sounds coming from a man who had never been happy drawing attention to weakness, diverting with a vibrancy that astounded.
"Pipe crushed his chest," John was replying, "bad airway sounds, broken ribs, possible pierced lung. On his way to pneumonia."
The elder brother's eyes rolled slowly over to the sound of his sibling's shaking voice, as always attuned to the subtle nuances.
"Sssss," he slurred, managing the sound as the air left his body once more, yet somehow Sam knew Dean was saying his name. Worried about him.
"Dad, get out," Sam said, not bothering to look at his father.
"I've got him," John replied gravely and it was then that Sam noticed his father's fingers were entwined with those of his brother's. It was a scene he hadn't witnessed for many a long year, brought a lump to his throat.
"Let Jim check you out," he suggested. "I'll stay with Dean."
"I'm fine," John growled, the pain twisting his expression belying his words.
"Dad –" Sam began to protest, halting when the dreaded presence of the Erlking brushed his mind, pushed past his body. "It's back, it's after Dean!" he all but screamed.
John lunged for his shotgun, as Dean shuddered beside him, fighting the lure of whispered promises, against the desire for the pain to stop. John's leg, swollen and sharp with excruciating pain, protested loudly.
John ignored it.
"Where is it? Sam!"
"I don't know!"
The youngest brother pushed desperately with his mind, but it proved fruitless. He knew it was there, with them, but he couldn't pinpoint its location.
He turned to Dean.
"Okay, big brother, down to you!"
Somehow Dean heard him; found the strength from deep within his shattered body twitched his right arm to the side in what could have been interpreted as a muscle spasm.
Long exposure to both his boy's reactions, movements and mindsets allowed John to interpret that convulsion into a direction and he let the creature have both barrels, rummaging in his pockets for more rounds.
Sam once again felt it push past him on its way out.
"Why isn't it dying?" he demanded. He could tell it was still in the room, torn between fleeing and the anticipation of Dean's wavering resolution.
Sam backed out again, turning to find the Pastor watching him anxiously, and Sam felt the chill of his sodden jeans travel to his heart.
"The water," he breathed, smiling triumphantly. "Jim, bless the water!"
The Pastor got to work, not hesitating, not asking for an explanation; simply knowing he wouldn't have been asked for just any reason.
"Dean?" John's voice carried out of the opening. "What is it?"
Sam went back in, reading his brother's face as easily as if he were speaking the words aloud.
"It's hurting, it can't go anywhere, the water's surrounding it," he guessed. "I think Dean can hear it screaming, remember what Emma said earlier?"
"Is it dying?" John snarled, pain, exhaustion and fear shortening his already formidable temper.
"I don't think so," Sam admitted. "But we've got it trapped; the water's holding it at bay."
"Holy water kills it," John hissed. "I know it, why isn't it working?"
Sam was silent a moment, his gaze travelling his brother's face, broken breaths issuing roughly between stained, parted lips.
"Belief makes it stronger," he murmured thoughtfully. "If a victim believes its promises, they're trapped. Perhaps," he suggested, speaking more to Dean than their father, "perhaps you need to believe it's going to die to defeat it."
A strangled groan brought John's attention back to his oldest. Dean had managed to grip John's re-armed gun and to his amazement, he was attempting to raise his shattered body in order to aim.
"No," Sam whispered, trying to reach around John to stop his stupid, stubborn, precious brother. "Don't you dare!"
John gently pushed Sam back. "Out of the way," he commanded softly.
"What! Are you crazy?"
"You're blocking his shot! Get out of the way, now, Sam."
At his youngest boy's mutinous look, John explained.
"I'll hold him; I won't let him do this alone."
Sam glanced at Dean, still valiantly trying to lift himself, moaning terribly in pain, determination etched onto his face in an all too familiar way.
John turned, awkwardly aligning himself with his boy's body in order to aid him as best he could. He shifted painfully around, lifting Dean by his armpits, allowing the younger man to slump against him, the pitiful mewling of before making an unwelcome comeback.
Sam reached forward, but John stared him down.
"I've got him," he insisted softly, fiercely.
Dean, eyes half closed with exhaustion and pain, attempted to lift the heavy gun, the object trembling violently.
John added his own steel strong hand to Dean's, lifting with him, supporting and steadying.
John locked his eyes with Sam's, who nodded in understanding. John was going to do all he could to aid Dean and it was time for Sam to sit back and watch the show.
Outside the opening, he could plainly hear his father speaking.
"We got this one last shot, Ace. You gotta make it count. This shot has to end this; you must believe it will die."
Sam waited, hoping, praying, relief sweeping through him when his patience and prayers were finally rewarded.
"I believe in you, Dean."
The last shot was almost deafening, so sudden, so anticipated it was.
In the thunderous silence, Sam listened as his brother uttered a cry of desolation and pain.
John watched as Sam sat beside Dean's bedside.
Tubes had been inserted in his battered, shocked body, hours of surgery had been spent waiting in silence, eyes not meeting and thoughts not shared and Sam had become a statue of grief until Dean had re-emerged, attached to a ventilator but with a fighting chance at survival.
More hours had past, the sun had risen and set without remark and Dean had been downgraded off the critical list. Still breathing through a machine, but apparently getting better.
Sam hadn't left his side, hadn't spoken, but hadn't needed. He lay his long fingered had over his brothers and waited.
Looking down the corridor, John watched as Jim spoke closely to the schools principal. John had done a favour regarding a dangerous spirit for the guy, brought to him through the Pastor, while Dean had been occupied elsewhere and Sam had been in Stanford. There was no chance John would have asked his son to go back into that school.
The Principal had offered them cover, making something up to answer the questions John had been too exhausted to register and allowed the father to focus on his son's recovery.
Now, though, he knew Dean on the mend, John's mind was moving on. He estimated he had spent a little over forty-eight hours with his boy's, longer than he had planned, too long to remain any further.
He turned back to the small window in the door to Dean's room. A doctor was leaning over him, Sam still resting his hand on Deans. He could hear the slightly panicked choking as Dean came round, remembering that he hadn't liked it the first time round all those years ago, remembering it was his voice for once, not Sammy's like now, that had slowed his movements, soothed his fear.
He closed his eyes when he heard the one thing he had truly been waiting for since Dean had shot and killed the Erlking. His firstborn's voice.
The words pained him more than he could imagine, following - haunting – him down the now empty corridor.
"Is Dad here?"