Well, this is the final installment. I hope you like it!
As Sam expected, Dean was much better by morning. His fever had broken, and he hadn't developed an infection after all. Besides, exhaustion had knocked him out until midday, and that was the longest period of time he had managed to sleep in the last few weeks. All things considered, Sam was almost glad Dean had sustained an injury, because he had been forced to rest during the aftermath.
Dean woke up a bit disoriented, but Sam had been expecting that too. At least this time, Sam told himself, he had made sure to be awake before his brother. He doubted he could ever forget the frightened look an unguarded Dean had fixed him with when he shook him awake the night before. He definitely didn't want to see it ever again.
At first, Sam wasn't sure whether Dean would remember their little midnight crisis. In the end, he concluded that while Dean wasn't certain of what exactly he had said or done, he remembered part of it. At least it seemed that way, judging by how his brother took in that he wasn't lying in the bed he had fallen asleep in and the way he avoided Sam's gaze after. It took a good three hours until Sam's off-handed offers of food, drink, even cards had convinced him that whatever it was that had happened, his little brother wasn't going to try to push him to talk about it.
They stayed at the motel for a couple of days, but soon enough it was clear that, despite the exhaustion derived from the blood loss, Dean wouldn't be able to get anymore sleep now that surrendering to the Sandman was up to him and not to unconsciousness. Sam decided it was better to get back to the road, and Dean was eager to agree. The moment the Impala roared to life with Sam behind the wheel, Dean fell asleep in the passenger's seat.
Sam sighed, relieved. Determined to follow his plan, he hit the road. He was immensely grateful at the same time that Dean remained asleep most of the way. It was definitely better like that.
Sam drove for ten hours straight before reaching his destination. Dean woke up a couple of times, asked vaguely where they were, offered to drive and after being brushed off, dozed off. When they finally got to their destination, Sam stopped the car and sighed, bracing himself for what was coming. He was worn out, almost to the point of collapse, but if he had to be honest, at that moment nervousness overrode exhaustion. Almost as if he sensed the absence of the engine's purring, Dean stirred and started to rouse.
"Hey," Sam greeted, as soon as he noticed his brother blinking dazedly out of the front window.
Dean gulped and turned his head in the direction of Sam's voice. Their eyes locked for a few seconds, and Sam didn't miss the appraising once-over Dean gave him before relaxing.
"Hey," the older Winchester replied finally, with a rough, sleepy voice, "you look like crap."
"Thanks, Dean," Sam replied with a smile. "Nice."
Dean smiled back and scrubbed his face before sitting upright.
"I mean it, Sam. You look beat. Let me drive for a while."
"It's okay." Sam said, shaking his head. "We're here."
"And where's here?" Dean asked with a hint of curiosity, as he looked around.
Sam swallowed and got out of the car without answering, trying to buy some time for himself as Dean recognized his surroundings. Nervously, Sam took a deep, steadying breath as he went around the car and took the time to look around for himself. His eyes soon found the familiar well with the ancient bell, and his stomach curled slightly.
Cold Oak. He had died near that well.
"Sam!" Dean's deep growl made Sam turn to his brother.
Dean had gotten out of the car and was leaning on the door. It was obvious that he had also recognized the place, and he was confused, angry...and more than a little upset.
"What are we doing here?" he asked, his words strained.
Sam glanced at the ground before looking up at Dean again.
"Sam!" Dean yelled, unnerved by his brother's silence.
Sam jumped a little and swallowed again.
"I'm sorry," he sighed, stepping towards his brother. "If I had told you, you—"
"Why.Are.We.Here?" Dean growled.
Sam stopped, noticing the glint of fear in his brother's eyes and finally getting it.
"It's alright," Sam assured quickly, his palms raised. "It's me, okay? There's nothing wrong."
Dean observed him warily. He seemed about to blurt 'Christo', just to be safe, but in the last moment, he apparently accepted that his little brother wasn't possessed.
"Then why are we here?" Dean repeated his previous question cautiously.
Sam suspected that his brother had relented because he didn't want to go through the scenario of him being possessed again, not because he really understood what was going on.
Denial much, huh, big brother? Not anymore.
"Because I think you need to be here," Sam answered calmly.
Dean frowned, looking at Sam as if he had grown a second head. The younger sibling didn't miss the fact that Dean had stepped back, just a couple of inches, until his back was pressed against the car.
"Why would I need to come back here?" Dean asked incredulously.
Sam was unfazed by the heat in Dean's tone. He knew where it came from, and it only reassured him that they had to get past it. Dean needed to let go of the fear that had been eating him inside. It just hurt to feel that, as a projection of that fear, he was the one Dean was backing away from.
"I know it's hard to understand," he said, appeasingly. "I'm sorry, I can't explain better, Dean, it's just- Trust me, alright?" Sam pleaded. "Come with me?"
Dean ground his teeth. His eyes darted from Sam to the town behind him and back to Sam.
"No." Dean rasped, looking down.
Sam stared at his brother for a second, unsure of how to proceed. Obviously, Dean had denied him many things through the years ─after all, he had practically raised him, and he hadn't always been able to grant every single one of his childhood's wishes─, but he couldn't remember a time when Dean had simply said No.
I can't. I don't want to. Don't ask me to do that.
Sam sighed and gave a short nod, before changing tactics.
"Okay. But I need to do this." Sam said. "You can wait for me here. I won't be long."
Uncomfortable with the idea of letting Sam out of his sight in this place, Dean looked up and met his brother's gaze. They looked into each other's eyes for a long, agonizing moment during which Dean begged Sam to let it go and Sam steeled himself against his brother plea. Finally, the older sibling gave a reluctant shrug. Sam knew that Dean still didn't like it, probably didn't understand it either, but he would let Sam do his thing if that's what he needed. Only then, with Dean's permission, did Sam walk away towards the village.
Sam walked slowly, scanning the shapes of the old houses as a wave of bitter memories and sensations enveloped him. He controlled the impulse to look back at Dean. If he did so, it would be clear how much he needed his brother with him, and that wouldn't be fair. He was the one who wanted to be here; Dean wasn't. Sam wouldn't impose himself when it came to something so important. When he got to the last spot he remembered before everything faded, he stopped and drew in a long breath. Then, he sat down on the ground, picked distractedly at the yellowish blades of dry grass and waited.
It wasn't long before Dean joined him, coming silently from behind.
"You're really determined to do this, huh?" Dean grunted.
Without looking up, Sam smiled to himself. He was pleased that Dean had followed, even if he wasn't sitting next to him, choosing instead to stand tensely by his side with clenched fists.
"I don't remember much," Sam said softly.
Dean didn't say anything. Sam sighed and continued.
"I was fighting with Jake and he...God, he was kicking my ass, I swear. He had this freaking super strength, and each blow he landed was like...I dunno ten times harder than a normal one."
Sam rolled his shoulder involuntarily, as if experiencing some phantom pain. The gesture dragged Dean's attention to him, and Sam felt his brother shift and come a bit closer.
"Somehow," Sam continued, "I remembered what Dad always told us, you know? That we would be fighting things stronger than us more times than not. 'It's not strength that matters, but brains,' he said. I still don't know how I took him. I just know that all of a sudden I had him on the ground. I could have killed him then. He...he expected me to kill him. But after all we had been through during the last couple of days I couldn't do it. He was...he was just like me, you know? He had been forced to make a difficult decision under pressure and had made the wrong choice. But God knows I've made some bad decisions along the way too—"
Ducking his head sheepishly, Sam trailed off and swallowed hard.
"That's when you called my name," he said affectionately, while picking at the grass again. "I...I didn't know what had happened to you when I was taken. I wasn't sure whether you were alive or—" Sam inhaled and gave a soft chuckle. "I almost thought I was dreaming when I saw you coming towards me. I don't think I've ever been happier to hear your voice."
"I distracted you," Dean blurted out.
Sam frowned and tossed a bewildered look at Dean, whose voice had sounded rough and guilt-ridden. At the same time, Dean crouched down and sat next to him without meeting his gaze.
"You didn't distract me," Sam said, shaking his head. "I let my guard down, forgot about the knife and turned my back on an adversary who wasn't finished. I was sloppy, and I should have known better. It wasn't your fault."
Dean set his jaw and didn't say anything. He sat Indian style, with his fists clenched on his knees and looking everywhere but at Sam. The latter sighed.
"Last thing I remember clearly is you shouting at me to look out. You tried to warn me, but I was too slow. I didn't even hear him coming, and then I felt this sharp, white hot pain across my back, like a spark."
Dean clenched his fists tighter, and his Adam's apple wobbled inside his throat.
"Nothing much after that," Sam concluded. "I know you caught me, and I…I could hear you talking to me although I couldn't make out the words. Sometimes I remember bits, when you say something, but...it's all fuzzy. All I know is that...I wasn't scared."
Dean looked at him, perplexed.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. I guess…It didn't really hurt anymore, and I knew you were there, so…"
"You let go," Dean finished, his eyes flashing in anger. "Dammit, Sam, you knew I was there, and then you let the fuck go!"
Sam looked down, ashamed. He guessed that, in a way, he had. But having his spinal cord slashed did that to a person, right?
"I'm sorry," he muttered.
Dean bit his lip and shook his head weakly. He didn't want Sam to apologize for dying. But Sam wasn't apologizing for that. Not exactly. He was apologizing, because once again he had managed to leave his brother, despite himself.
"Well, I remember everything," Dean breathed, averting his eyes again. He gulped and tried to sound casual, but the tension radiating from his body betrayed the gesture. "I saw the guy coming behind you and yelled but—" He blinked back the wetness in his eyes. "I tried, Sammy. I really tried."
"I know you did. I heard you, remember?" Sam said softly.
Dean shook his head again, haunted eyes fixed on the ground, trapped in the events that had taken place in that exact spot not so long ago.
"I remember watching you fall to your knees," Dean continued in a thick voice. "I tried to keep you upright, but I couldn't get you to stay awake. When you stopped looking at me, I started to shake you. I remember the blood seeping from your back—" Dean's voice fell, trembling dangerously. "I remember the exact moment your heart stopped beating against mine."
Sam placed a gentle hand over Dean fisted one, not so much intending to hold his brother's hand as to pull him back from the dark place memories had dragged him to. He wanted to remind Dean he was still there ―thanks to him, after all― no matter how awful that night had been. Dean dragged his gaze back to Sam, eyes unguarded for a second, and acknowledged his brother's gesture with a faint smile. He loosened his clenched hand and let out a sigh before the younger brother let him go.
"I remember holding you. I don't know for how long," Dean continued in a slightly firmer tone, although it still maintained an edge of melancholy. He let out a soft laugh and added, "I remember punching Bobby when he tried to take you from me."
Sam smiled back at Dean, who was finally looking him in the eye.
"I remember carrying you to the car," Dean said, sighing. "You were limp, Sammy…and no matter how many times I put your head on my shoulder it…it kept rolling back." Sam looked down, overwhelmed by the pain retelling the events had brought into Dean's voice. "Bobby didn't even need to offer to drive. He just took the keys from my pocket and slipped behind the wheel without trying to help me carry you. He knew I wouldn't let him touch you. I put you into the back seat and climbed in with you. I kept saying your name—" Dean closed his eyes. "With your head in my lap, you looked like you were just asleep. I wanted to believe you were just asleep, but you wouldn't open your eyes—" Dean's voice broke, and he fell silent.
Sam dragged in a deep breath and then exhaled, feeling the weight of his brother's words rolling like a rock over his chest. The younger hunter realized now that all the time he had been too appalled by what had happened and especially by the deal Dean had made, he had almost forgotten what his brother had been through that night. He had just surrendered to the cold numbness of death, safely wrapped in his brother's arms. Dean had been the one left behind to deal with it.
"Dean?" Sam asked gently. "Wanna know a secret?"
The older hunter fixed him with a quizzical look.
"I wasn't asleep," Sam said gravely. "I was dead."
"Sammy, don't," Dean interrupted him. "Don't say that."
"I'm sorry, bro, but I died here, alright? It happened, and there's nothing I can do to change that. But I'm not dead anymore," Sam said sternly. "I'm not, because I've got a reckless ass of a brother who did the most stupid thing ever." Dean averted his eyes, but Sam grabbed him by the arm to make him keep his gaze. "And he shouldn't have done it. And sometimes I'm so pissed at him for doing it that I want to beat the hell out of him. But I can't change it either. I'm alive. Alive thanks to you."
Dean breathed in shakily and looked down. Sam didn't push him to meet his eyes again. He knew his brother was listening.
"You insist on reliving this…failure or whatever you think it was."
"Sam," Dean warned.
"But the thing is you didn't fail. You did save me, Dean. And I'm gonna save you too," he concluded softly. "But you gotta help me out. You gotta want to get past that day."
"I want to get past that day, Sam," Dean protested, somewhat aggravated.
"And yet, you've been coming back here every time I close my eyes."
Dean gulped and something similar to hurt shone in his eyes when he fixed them onto his brother's. Sam was referring to something he had learned thanks to Dean's delirium and to use that information was like taking advantage of him. However, it wasn't the time for Sam to feel guilty.
"Not anymore, Dean," Sam said firmly. "This place has haunted us both for too long, and it ceases to have that power today. We are both here, alive. And we're going to leave now, together, like we should have in the first place."
On that note, Sam got to his feet and offered his hand to Dean. Dean didn't react straightaway, since he was still puzzled by his brother's words and vehemence. When he finally took Sam's hand and let his brother haul him up, he somehow ended up pulled into an unexpected hug that, first, made him stiffen and then, brought fresh tears to his eyes.
"I'm sorry about last time," Sam whispered as soon as he felt Dean timidly returning the embrace, "but when you came in and hugged me all of a sudden, you...you freaked me out, man. I should have done this before."
Swallowing convulsively, Dean shook his head against his brother's shoulder and held him tighter. Sam closed his eyes.
"You've told me how it was back then. You've told be what you remembered. From now on, I want you to remember how it is now. I want you to remember this," he told his brother. He willed his breath to be even and his heart to beat steadily, because he was perfectly aware that Dean was sensing them. Gauging them. Keeping their measure.
"Just remember this."
The brothers lay silently on their beds, exhausted after the long day. A gentle breeze blew through the flimsy curtains, and there was something soothing about their lazy swinging. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Sam heard Dean sigh and shifted to look across the bed at his brother. Dean was on his back, blinking lazily at the ceiling.
"I'm alright, Sam," Dean muttered, without taking his eyes off the ceiling.
He seemed calm, almost peaceful, but apparently he was still refusing to sleep. Sam swallowed and chewed at his lower lip worriedly.
"But you're not sleeping."
Dean smiled softly.
"It's just…It's hard to let go."
Sam nodded against his pillow.
"Do you want me to stay awake?" Sam whispered.
"No." Dean let his eyes drop closed. "No, I'll be fine."
"But you said—"
"I said it's hard," Dean said, glancing at Sam, "but I'm working on it."
And that was a Thanks, Sammy; that much Sam knew. When he couldn't hold back the goofy grin from blossoming on his mouth, Dean rolled his eyes and looked back at the ceiling with a snort.
"You're such a girl," he huffed fondly. "Although I admit you were pretty bossy today."
"Learned from the best."
"Hell, yeah," Dean said, and chuckled.
"You sure you're okay with this?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. I've got something to remember now."
Sam's smile grew wider, and he relaxed into his pillow.
"Okay," he accepted sleepily. "Just wake me up if you need me to remind you."
"Thanks," Dean whispered back, although it was clear in his voice that he was already beginning to drift off too. "Goodnight, Sammy."
That was it, my friends. I hope it was worth your time. As usual, it's been a pleasure to share my ramblings.