This story first appeared in Chinook 5 (2006), from Black Fly Press

Waking Up Alone
K Hanna Korossy

It's less a waking up than a slow clearing of his head. There's a gauze over everything he can't think clearly enough to analyze, but the words bob up from somewhere: drugs, hospital, hurt. And then, because he's a born hunter and even drugs can't dull his sensesthat much, alone.

Dean turns his head, pretending the blur of his vision is from movement and fatigue, not the pain that pushes through him. It's not a sharp, aggressive attack he could fight, but rather slow and heavy and passive, inexorable. He's hurt badly and he knows it, but there's no one in the chair beside him to tell him how or if it's permanent or even who he is this time. Just a single hunter after a failed hunt, and how pathetic is that?

His heart knows whom it longs for, even before his mind can summon images or names: Dad, sitting bowed but fierce, eyes pained but reassuring, presence solid. No harm can come to him when Dad is there. But he isn't, and Dean feels more than vulnerable. He feels frightened, even though he knows Dad isn't with him because he's out hunting whatever it is that put Dean here. Even though he knows Dad would die before he'd let it get Dean again. But that's part of the reason he's afraid.

And then there's the one Dean expects to find beside him. A flop of dark, sleep-tousled hair, limbs too long for hospital chairs, and eyes that can cut with their sorrow and softness. His brother learned defiance of his father at Dean's bedside, refusing to leave when Dean was hurt, to leave him alone. He would stay to defend while John went on offense, and the first step in healing has always been the sight of his little brother waiting for, with him. Dean's strong when John is there because he borrows strength, and he's strong for Sammy because he lends it. Alone, there's not much to him, and no one to pretend otherwise for.

This time, he is alone.

He doesn't even try to remember why he's there, what combination of teeth and claws and horns and bulk and powers put him in the hospital. Dean concentrates instead on why his family isn't there, straining to remember if Dad had gotten hurt too, or, oh, God, Sammy.

But no, because memory returns unkindly. John yelling his name before Dean passed out, rushing too late to the rescue. And Sam…Sam safe and on his own, across the country in school. He wouldn't be sitting in hospital chairs anymore. He'd left Dean with Dad, not knowing or caring that, practically, that meant he'd left Dean alone.

Dean curls clumsily, painfully on his side. There's nothing to stay awake for, nobody to be strong for, and his heart is as drained as his body. Crushing his eyes shut, he wills himself to go to sleep and escape this suffocating solitude.

It takes him a week before he's well enough to leave, even though John shows up after two days and Dean tries harder for his dad. Two weeks, and he's recovered enough that they're back on the road, or at least Dad has no qualms about giving him an assignment and taking off on a job of his own. Dean's left with a car and an address on a piece of paper and a weary, bruised body. He stares at the piece of paper until it blurs, then gets in the car and drives to Stanford.

He finds Sam like a needle seeking out true north, shadowing his brother through a day of normalcy: classes, lunch, library time, dinner at home with his new girl, dancing. Sam looks up a few times, like he feels Dean's eyes on him, but then lets it go. After Sam and the girl go to bed, Dean finds a bar and gets drunk, sleeping it off in the car's backseat a block down from his brother's home.

He only finds out two years later, accidentally, that Sam had come to see him twice at the hospital and stayed in town until Dean was out of danger. It eases the buried hurt but doesn't fix it completely. There's only so much you can do for old scars.

And nothing quite erases the memory of being left alone like that.

00000

He wakes suddenly, like a hunter, only groaning after, when the pain hits. Okay, not a good idea, and Dean sags back, not quite into sleep but not awake, either. Searching.

It's sad when you can tell the difference instantly between a motel and the hospital by the feel of the bed and the smell in the air. And know without looking just from the sinking of your heart that you're alone.

Dean's eyes snap open. Alone?

A quick glance around shows a standard ER cubicle, including the ubiquitous family member/concerned friend chair that sits uninhabited by concerned family members. If he were on a heart monitor, it would be beeping an alarm by now, but there's nothing, which means not badly hurt, right? A quick check reveals only an IV in the crook of his elbow, and fresh bandages around his chest and one upper arm. Judging from the coldness and nausea, he's in there for blood loss and shock. Judging by the shakiness and rising panic in his throat, he should still be worried. Dean casts around for the button, and not finding one—duh, ER, not a normal room—he starts yelling, fumbling with the IV drip.

A nurse comes to calm him down, but it doesn't work. She takes out the IV before he does, glaring at him as if she'd like to reinsert it somewhere else, and he can't find the words to tell her just how much he doesn't care. Sam would have, but he's not there, and that's the point. Dean is alone, and he hadn't been. Not for months now, and that's something even a little blood loss can't make him forget.

The doctor arrives, his explanation a lot of noise in Dean's ear until he gets to the important part: found on the side of the road, alone, apparent animal attack, car towed by police. And then no power on Earth could keep Dean in that cubicle anymore because he remembers, and is already running. Well, limping quickly, anyway.

Wendigo. This one in Minnesota where they belonged, but no less expected when they'd gone in looking for a werecat or maybe a shadow cat. It attacked, clawing Dean before he could even raise his gun, Sam's yell disappearing into the darkness by the time he unsteadily regained his feet. There was already no trail to follow, and he wasn't armed for wendigos, so Dean had staggered out of the woods to change weapons and go in again. Apparently, he'd succumbed to blood loss first, and been picked up a good Samaritan. Terrific.

It doesn't take long to locate the impound or retrieve his car, even less to go out to where his patchy memory seems to remember they went in. The blood on the road is a promising sign. Grimly armed with flare guns, a Molotov cocktail, and a flamethrower, Dean stomps back into the trees after his brother.

No mine this time like in Blackwater Ridge, but wendigos hunt close to home and the best candidate for residence is a cave looming up out of the ground. Dean doesn't hesitate to go in, flashlight guiding the way. Its beam almost passes over the dark heap that is Sam, dirt- and blood-smeared face blending into the brown hair and walls.

"Sammy," he breathes, and Dean's frantically cutting him free when he hears the shuffle and breathing that announces the wendigo's return. He shifts his brother behind him, Sam's dead but warm weight against his calves, and stands ready, tight with fury. The flamethrower doesn't reach far enough as the wendigo backpedals with blurring speed, but the flare gun's faster. The creature burns to death as nicely as the one in Colorado, and Dean doesn't even wait to see it collapse into ash, already turning back to Sam.

Who's started shifting with moaning lurches, hand curling into Dean's when he untangles the long limbs. Eyes and teeth white in his filthy face, and his murmur is like coming home. Like waking up in a strange place and finding you're not alone.

"I'm here, Sammy," Dean says, drawing him close, and no longer feels his own injuries, strong again. Ready to be there for Sam, because Dean's not alone anymore, either.

00000

He wakes up in what he eventually realizes is little pieces scattered over hours, maybe days. There is a deadness to his body that is unfamiliar even to the clear part of his mind and his vast Winchester experience, and it scares him. But nothing like when he finally regains control at least of his eyelids and sees the room is empty. Because if he is hurt as badly as he thinks and he is alone, then one way or another, the family he knew is gone.

It takes more dozing and waking and struggling to clear his thoughts before a kind nurse takes pity on him and tells him what happened. A fall in an old house, through floors and furniture, impaling himself neatly in the basement. He can't even remember what they were hunting. No one expected him to ever wake up, and that had been weeks ago. She doesn't know about family, but she'll inquire.

It's a very long time before she comes back, even though he suspects he drifted off during the wait. Dean can't seem to control anything, including the tears that pool in his eyes when she tells him cheerfully that his brother is fine, he just decided to go back to school when it seemed Dean wouldn't revive. But, she adds, faltering as she looks at him, and Dean's mortified by the weakness she's witnessing, they can call Sam as soon as Dean's strong enough for it.

He manages to wait until she leaves before he begins to sob in earnest.

The fear always lingered in the back of his thoughts, like a shadow, the one thing in which he doesn't completely trust Sam, that his brother would walk out on him again. He's said as much, and Dean believed him. He just didn't think it would be while his life hung in the balance.

It makes sense, the logical part of his mind argues, the same one that tried to make him believe Sam's going off to school was a good thing. The doctors had given up hope, and Sam had lingered there a month praying they were wrong. He couldn't put his life on hold forever.

It still hurts like nothing else.

He can barely hold a phone when they finally agree to let him talk to Sam, but Dean cajoles the nurse into giving him some privacy. Ignoring the fact this is the second time that week the hospital would be calling Sam, and his brother is still at Stanford. And then the softly dimpled voice comes on, and Dean forgets everything but love and longing.

"Dean? Thank God. How're you doing?"

He tries to tell Sam without really telling him, but his voice is no stronger than his body, and there's a lot of whispering and silence. Which would have told Sam enough in other days, but his brother doesn't seem to be hearing that well.

"I've got exams coming up next week, then I'll go out to see you, okay? You'll probably be back on your feet by then."

And he grows cold at the words. Because even though the tone and the amount of caring is exactly right, he knows now it's not Sam he's talking to. Even with all the baggage between them, even at the cost of his precious grades, the Sam he knew would have dropped everything to come back, to Dean if not to the hunt. The Sam he knew and loved—and Dean sees it clearly now—would never have left in the first place.

"Nice try, Samuel," and rage gives his voice strength. "So, where's my brother?"

The voice denies, protests, asks for a nurse. Dean hangs up on him and starts to move.

It hurts, hurts,hurts, and he's cursing and sweating by the time he's on his feet. But he shouldn't have been able to do even that much, not after six weeks of unconsciousness, and it just feeds his certainty that something is very wrong here. Even with the gap of years, even though he's feared this, he knows his brother better.

He shoves away the protesting nurse at the door, then the belligerent doctor, pulling out of hands that want to hold him back. The hallway is long, and his shuffling baby steps barely make progress, but it's not long before the white walls start going grey, then change to something dank and earthy. Somehow he's not surprised when the illusion fades away: the hospital, his injuries, and that mockery of his brother. Dean presses on, presses against the wall, finding strength slowly returning and urgency growing.

He breaks into light blinking and shivering and dizzy. And then anxious hazel eyes duck down to meet his and those indecently long arms are wrapped around him, holding him up and warming him, because he can't seem to stop shivering. He closes his eyes and buries his face in flannel and tries to forget waking up alone.

Sam can hear him just fine now, because he doesn't let go until long after Dean's stopped shaking.

When he can stand on his own, they go back inside, together, Sam's hand clutching Dean's jacket, although he's pretty sure that's for his sake. When halfway inside Sam whispers a horrified "Jess?", Dean drags him back out and they set fire to the nest. Whatever it is inside that played with their heads and tried to keep Dean, dies screaming. Dean smiles grimly at the sound.

He wakes twice during the night to make sure he's not alone, and when Sam is still there, asleep and drooling, in the other bed the next morning, Dean finally feels the knot inside him start to give. But it is three motels later before he can wake without instantly checking to make sure the other bed's occupied, even though he is careful to hide it from Sam.

Sam has never woken up alone, and Dean never wants him to know what it's like.

00000

He wakes from a nightmare.

One minute he's trapped in a darkness so thick, it doesn't let him move, feel, scream. The next, he's awake and gasping, chest aching and thoughts scattered into a thousand pieces. It takes him a long time to gather them, to be able to think.

That's when he realizes he's alone again.

Dean can't talk at first, tongue succumbing to the spasming out-of-controlness of the rest of his body. Clinically deceased, he hears in snatches. Six minutes. Repeated shocks. Declared dead. By the time he can ask about Sam, he doesn't need to. A different nurse comes on duty, and he finally hears all about how the young man who brought him in turned and ran when they declared Dean dead. About fifteen seconds before he emerged, choking, back into life. They couldn't find the man after, and Dean swallows down bile, knowing.

There are three more days before he can stand long enough to sign himself out AMA and he starts looking for Sam. Dean knows what he'd be doing if tables were turned, and none of the possibilities are good, and all of them make him hurt inside as if the tables had been turned. It takes frighteningly little imagination, but he doesn't dwell on that. He has a brother to find.

But three days has made for cold tracks. And Sam is as good at hiding as he is at following a trail.

Dean leaves a blatant one, letting every contact know, Dad know, that he isn't dead, leaving signs of his presence wherever he goes: symbols carved in railings and bathroom walls, waitresses swooning over the picture in his wallet, an APB they put out on the Impala in one small town. Sam even left the car behind. But there's nothing from Sam, and Dean fears for Sam's state of mind if his brother is being that blind.

The funny thing is, Dean knows he'd stop hunting if Sam died. Even if it were all he had left, even if revenge choked his veins, hunting would mean being faced every day with what his brother had given his life for, and it would drive him insane. He would leave so he could forget and try to survive.

Not Sam. The rumors turn into stories, then an article in a newspaper. For Sam, hunting has always been about revenge, and he's fighting the forces of Hell now like there's no tomorrow. The way he's throwing himself into it, there probably won't be. Dean coaxes a few more mph's from his baby and rushes to get there before Sam can commit suicide by monster.

He almost doesn't make it.

It's a ghoul that Sam's stalking, that's stalking Sam, when Dean finally catches up to him, and there's no one watching his brother's back anymore. Dean treats the crossbow quarrels with sanctified oil before he ventures inside the dark house and finds the ghoul leaning over his beaten but still defiant little brother. He knows the rage simmering in Sam's face isn't for the monster that's about to slay him. Dean shoots and kills it almost casually, then extends a hand down to Sam.

Who turns white and, for the first time, looks truly afraid.

His eyes go out of focus like he might pass out, and there's a deadness to them that scares Dean right back. No hope, not even at the sight of him, and for the first time since that night in Stanford, he thinks maybe, possibly, Sam needs him as much as the other way around. But the big picture doesn't really matter when in this one small moment Sam is falling apart, and Dean keeps him together the only way he knows how.

"Next time, take the car."

Then he hugs Sam, hard.

It takes Sam almost three minutes to wind down from a rambling explanation into Dean's shoulder of how Dean can't be alive and real, first the ideas breaking apart, then eventually the words. It takes him another minute to return the embrace—Dean counts—hands scrabbling across Dean's back as if seeking better purchase or to hold on to even more of him, but by then Sam's sobbing so hard, his grip is weak at best. Which is fine because Dean's not going anywhere. He hasn't had the greatest week, either, and is more than content to settle on the floor of an abandoned house and let his brother cling. He won't even tease Sam about it later. Much.

And if it takes two days before Sam can fall asleep without being in physical contact and another nine after that when he stops looking panicked when Dean is out of sight, well, he convinces himself that's normal after being sure for a week that his brother was dead.

But deep inside, he knows Sam hates waking up alone as much as he does, and is silently grateful for it.

00000

He wakes to the pain and fear he passed out in, a jolt of remembered adrenalin clearing his head. His throat is almost too swollen to breathe through, especially as it tightens in panic, and his body feels heavy, leaden. Dean's eyes dart to the side, looking for relief and finding only an empty chair, and his pounding heart demands oxygen his body isn't getting. Oily black spots dance in his vision, and he clutches a handful of sheets.

Fingers warmer and stronger than his own gently disentangle them.

"Hey, hey. You're okay. Try to calm down, Dean, okay? Everything's all right."

The voice is so rational and caring and Sam that it eases his body's struggle before he even processes it. They run deep in each other's instincts, and if he'd had a moment more of clarity, Dean would have felt Sam there. As it is, Dean turns to his other side, and hazel eyes, tired and crinkled with worry, actually grin at him.

"You know where you are?"

No, but then, he doesn't know half the time when he wakes up in motel rooms, perfectly fine. The question makes him think he should, though, and he tries, but it's all raw emotion, too jumbled to sort out yet except for thank God you're here and don't leave.

Sam reaches back for a chair, which puts them at eye-level to each other, and Dean can't stare enough at him, the only thing that makes sense in his world right now. When he has to close his eyes again, he turns his hand over and Sam slides his own into it, palm to palm. He doesn't talk while Dean works on breathing, but eventually Dean realizes there's a thumb rubbing the inside of his wrist, a steady back-and-forth that's almost hypnotic and, huh, he can actually draw some air in again and, man, his brother is sneaky.

"You can go back to sleep, Dean. They're not kicking you out until tonight, and don't take this the wrong way, man, but you look terrible. That redhead at the convenience store wouldn't even give you a second look."

He musters the strength and saliva to say something because, well, this is important. "Would too. Chicks like…playing nurse."

The rubbing has turned to a gentle scratching, and it shouldn't be soothing but it is. "It's going to be a little time before you're playing 'nurse' again, Dean. That revenant almost crushed your windpipe. You're lucky you're still alive."

"Mmm." It's about all he cares to say to that, and besides, the limited air is making his head light and his thoughts vague. Sam with that damnable scratching isn't helping, especially when he starts working his way down Dean's fingers. Which is when he realizes his arm is also swathed in gauze and there's probably a reason Sam dragged him to the hospital instead of back to their room and it's not so much scratching as massaging blood and feeling back into his hand, but the net result is the same. He'll feel awful tomorrow, but right now Dean is happy and sleepy and relieved not to be alone.

And when Sam whispers a final coaxing, "I'll be here, go to sleep," and he leans forward to do the same, arm against Dean's and dark hair tickling his wrist, the lump that settles into Dean's throat isn't purely due to injury and swelling. Sam is there and Dean can be strong for him, or not. It won't make a difference because Sam is staying regardless, and Dean knows it as deep as he knows anything.

So Dean lets Sam hold his hand this one time and lets his guard down like every time, and falls asleep knowing he won't be alone when he wakes up.

The End