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Breathing Lessons

Copyright 2007, Bardicvoice

Two hundred thirty-seven. Two hundred thirty-eight.

Dean's soft, steady breathing was the only sound in the motel room since the noisy window heating fan had finally cut off. Lying awake in the second double bed, eyes on the shadow patterns cast on the ceiling by the parking lot lights filtering in through the chintzy drapes, Sam counted those breaths, listening to his brother sleep.

Two hundred forty-one.

The worst thing in the world would be when they stopped.

Two hundred forty-two.

Sam had counted them before, both of the times Dean had nearly died. Two years ago, the sentence had been heart failure after his accidental electrocution. Despite having checked himself out of the hospital, Dean had been paper-white, exhausted, and weak as a kitten, and Sam had been terrified through the whole drive to Nebraska that he would die before they even got close to faith healer Roy LeGrange. Dean had spent the entire ride slumped against the passenger door, mostly either unconscious or asleep, and Sam had driven in total silence just to be able to hear his labored, uneven breathing and know he was still alive. A year ago, it had been even worse: a respirator had been breathing for him after the crash, and that mechanical wheeze and the horror of the moments when it stopped were still the backdrop of Sam's nightmares.

Two hundred fifty.

And now he was dying again. Just not as soon.

Sam had somehow thought that it would be easier to deal with the knowledge once Dean had admitted it, but he'd been wrong. Oh, Dean's impromptu auto shop class had definitely worked, and Sam was grateful for it; those ninety minutes spent learning how to tune the Impala's carburetor counted as the best and longest time they'd spent just being brothers since the day over two years ago that Dean had shown up at Stanford. After one gentle reference to Sam needing to know how to fix the car in the future – meaning, when Dean wouldn't be alive to do it – Dean had simply been the big brother Sam had always remembered, light and teasing and a good teacher, pointing out what he had to do and offering tips on how to do it better. And after they'd put the tools away and taken their usual places in the car, Dean had closed his eyes, cocked his head to listen, and revved the engine, then grinned at him with satisfaction at the sound. It was the same approving grin that he'd given when Sam had first bulls-eyed a target, and the first time Sam had succeeded in getting the drop on him during a sparring session.

Two hundred fifty-eight.

And all Sam could think about was that, one of these days, he wouldn't see that grin any more.

Two hundred fifty-nine.

Sam rolled over to look at his brother. Dean sprawled comfortably on his stomach with his face turned toward Sam, perfectly relaxed and utterly peaceful. He'd fallen asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow. No soul-searching for him, no agonizing over fate: just acceptance, and rest, and sleep.

Two hundred sixty-one.

This was driving Sam insane. He clearly wasn't going to get to sleep, not counting his brother's breaths for sheep. Moving as slowly and silently as he could to avoid triggering Dean's combat instincts and waking him up, Sam eased out of bed and pulled on his clothes, pocketing his wallet and a room key, and collecting the Impala's keys from Dean's jacket. He scrawled a quick note on the room notepad – Couldn't sleep. Coffee – and left it on the bedside table before silently letting himself out of the room, carefully turning the knob to engage the lock without letting it click.

The night air was chilly but not uncomfortably cold, and two deep breaths cleared away the echo of a headache that he hadn't even noticed until it left. The Impala gleamed under the few parking lot lights that were actually working, the glossy black paint somehow brighter than the night sky, glistening even as it swallowed light. He unlocked the driver's side door and swung it open, hearing the distinctive squeak that even a wreck and rebuild hadn't taken away. A smile quirked at the thought of Dean deliberately working in Bobby's yard to get the squeak back just exactly right even though the door and the frame were both new. Being so particular about his car, it was something Dean might well have done, but Sam didn't know. He couldn't know. Dean had been so distant then, with Dad dead and secrets eating at him, and Sam hadn't known how to ask and didn't dare try to help where his presence hadn't seemed wanted. Sam's smile faded. Dean had been too hurt back then to have indulged in a joke. The squeak had to be a coincidence.

The squeak seemed even louder when he closed the door, even though he took pains not to slam it.

Pushing back the seat to accommodate his longer legs exposed the box of cassette tapes Dean kept stashed beneath the passenger side, but Sam didn't bother sorting through them. 'Driver picks the music' might have been the rule, but it didn't really matter when all of the music was Dean's anyway. He'd ribbed Dean about his music collection, but he'd never tried to add to it. He could just imagine Dean's pained reaction to anything he might have suggested. The car's soundtrack had been rock and metal even when Dad had owned it, and he wasn't entirely certain that even the radio would pull in anything else.

He put the key in the ignition, and stopped without turning it. The car was parked pretty close to the room, and if there was one thing other than danger that could wake Dean in a hurry, it was the Impala's engine. Dean had always slept hard – Dad had joked more than once that he could sleep through the Second Coming – but the car's signature throaty voice would get to him every time. He'd wake up and he'd know that Sam was gone, with his car – and knowing Dean, he'd be on the phone a few seconds later wanting to know what was wrong, and wouldn't go back to sleep until the car and his brother were both back where they belonged. The note wouldn't be enough to put him at ease, not after all they'd been through lately.

And of course, their dump of a motel was so far off the civilized beaten path that there wasn't a coffee shop anywhere around in decent walking distance.

Sam let his head fall back against the Impala's seat and closed his eyes as he exhaled. There was nothing for it; he'd just sit for a while and think tired thoughts, and then go back and try the bed again. The Impala wouldn't mind. She'd always been Dean's refuge, after all; she wouldn't mind being his, just for a bit.

She.

The thought ambushed him, and his eyes flew open. He'd never done that before. Dean was the only one who humanized the car, who called it "she" and petted it, and talked to it as if it could understand. Even Dad had treated it only as a tool, a valuable tool to be cared for and well maintained, but still – just a thing. Only Dean made it more than that. Only Dean loved it, and that love gave her soul.

Sam ran a hand over the dashboard and stroked the wheel, things he'd seen Dean do a thousand times. He'd grown up in the car the same as Dean, but he'd never felt the way Dean did about it, and for the first time, he wondered why. Some of it may have been that he just had no affinity for mechanical things. Today's ninety-minute auto shop was the longest time he'd ever spent under the hood, and marked the first time he'd ever felt even moderately comfortable tinkering with an engine. Dean, on the other hand, had always shared Dad's taste and talent for auto mechanics, learning every system on the Impala long before he got his license to drive it.

That familiarity doubtless bred affection, but it still didn't explain everything. The Impala had always meant more to Dean than it had meant to Dad, even though Dad was the one who'd taught Dean everything there was to know about it. Sam knew its importance to Dean without even thinking about it. That was why he'd been so insistent that Bobby tow the wreck rather than junking it. Somehow, the car held a piece of Dean's soul.

The leather of the seat warmed under his hand.

The car had been part of the Winchester family since before he was born; he knew that much. Dean had told him that they'd sat on the car's hood the night the house burned, the night Mom died, and that Dad had packed them into the car only a few weeks later to begin their journey. That might be enough; that Dean remembered the car from before all the evil, from back when life was normal. For Dean, the car could even be a link to Mom, a symbol of the Winchester family all happy and together.

His early memories of the car were different, and nothing worth remembering: long, boring drives mostly, and waiting for Dad and Dean, and sometimes fast retreats from scary things. He had vague recollections of playing games in the back seat with Dean, things like who could spot cows and silos and trains first, or who could guess better from the map how long it would take them to get somewhere. He had sharper memories of feeling alone and neglected once Dean had graduated to riding shotgun in the front seat with Dad. To him, the car meant leaving schools and friends. Like the guns in the trunk, the car itself was a symbol of how different their lives had been from everyone around them, how far they were from normal.

He'd resented it.

Funny how he'd never really thought about it before, but as much as Dean had loved the Impala, he had hated it. He abruptly remembered the only other time he'd ever worked on the car, back when he was in high school. He'd had another spat with Dad, and Dean, doing his usual peacemaking thing, had intervened and asked if he wanted to help with the car – replacing the timing belt, that was it. He'd been so angry that he hadn't paid attention, and he'd broken something else. Dean had blown up and told him to get lost, and that had just been the last straw that crystallized his determination to escape, to do something different with his life. From that moment, the car was just a symbol of Dad and Dean and the hunting life, all colored in resentment and anger.

And it would be all he had left when Dean died.

He didn't want it. And yet – his throat closed at the thought of being without it. He didn't hate it any more. He could look back and realize what he'd used to feel, but the last couple of years had changed him, changed all of them. However much he'd like to forget some of those memories, he couldn't bear to part with others, and the car was a part of them all. It was Dad, and especially Dean, and it was a bit of him, too, the part that had rediscovered how much he had missed having family, being family.

He still didn't want to think about being alone in the car. That would almost be worse than simply being alone altogether, because in the car, he could still feel Dean and Dad, he could feel what it was like not to be alone, and God, it hurt even to think about being so bereft. The very comfort of sensing them brought home afresh the knowledge of their loss. As the embodiment of memory, the car was a two-edged sword straight to the heart. Loneliness smothered him, and for the first time, he could understand Dean's choice. Anything would be preferable to such emptiness, such bleakness. And if this was how he felt just thinking while Dean was still alive, what must it have been like for Dean, sitting with him dead?

The car had warmed up around him, not drawing away his body heat, but reflecting it comfortingly back. The warmth woke familiar scents that had soaked into the upholstery and the carpeting: leather, coffee, hamburgers, gun oil, and the complex mix of sweat and soap that spelled Dean. Sam closed his eyes and inhaled home, one breath, two, three, and inexplicably felt the tightness in his chest begin to ease.

Dean wasn't dead yet. He wasn't alone, yet. And the car, thank God, wasn't his. Yet.

And if he got his way, it wouldn't ever be.

There had to be a way to break Dean free of his deal. A loophole in the contract. A counter offer. Something. He and Bobby hadn't found it yet, but they would. They had to. What was that NASA line? Failure is not an option. He suddenly understood how Dean had changed, months back, once he'd said, If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to save you. Conviction like that wasn't the same as denial; it was just the absolute refusal to surrender. The refusal to concede.

The resolve to fight.

Sam opened his eyes, resting a hand on the dash. The Impala embodied Dean's resolve to fight. He'd rebuilt her from a total ruin in defiance of reason, when even Bobby believed there was nothing there to salvage. Now he'd resolved to die and leave her to Sam, because he believed that's what it would take to keep his brother alive.

Well, the Impala embodied Sam's resolve as well. After all, he'd been the one to insist that Bobby tow her home and give Dean the chance to save her, right? And now he was resolved that Dean would be the one to keep her, and that meant finding a way to keep him alive despite himself. A way to keep them both alive, because anything less wasn't an option; he could admit now that neither one of them would survive alone, not in any meaningful way.

He slid the seat back up to Dean's preferred setting and locked it in place. He pulled the key out of the ignition and patted the dash.

The car door squeaked agreement as he opened it, set the lock, and quietly closed it. He held his breath as he worked the room key in the motel lock, striving to be silent, and slipped inside. A quick glance showed Dean still sleeping undisturbed.

Sam pulled off his shoes and socks, skinned out of his jacket, jeans, and shirt, and crawled back under the covers. Spurred on by the cold air that had come in with him, the window heater cranked into noisy life, prompting Dean to mumble incoherently and burrow his head further into the pillow without ever waking up. Sam smiled and punched his own pillow into submission, then snuggled in and closed his eyes.

He couldn't hear Dean breathing any more, but it didn't matter. He could count bullets in their arsenal instead.

He fell asleep before making it through the current tally for the Colt.