Title: What Comes After
Character's: Sam and Dean Winchester, Jessica Moore, Sam's Stanford friends (most OCs), and a brief appearance by Missouri Mosley.
Category: Hurt/Comfort, Horror, Angst, and AU
Rating: T (PG-13)
Spoilers: None beyond second season if any…it's pretty much AU.
Disclaimer: Supernatural and its characters are the property of Eric Kripke and the CW. This is solely written for fun…obviously no profit made.
Summary: Sam and Dean travel to Stanford to investigate recent deaths of college students after receiving a call from Rebecca Warren. Meanwhile, as Dean recovers from his injuries, his new and bizarre visions of Jessica continue to haunt him and Sam. Sequel to "The Wake-Up Call."
A/N: Since there is no amount of apologies to make the long wait okay, I'll just say that I feel really awful I dropped the ball like that and throw myself on your mercies. I won't even ask for reviews. For those interested in more detail about all the delays, I would point you toward my LiveJournal (but the posts are mostly f-locked, so you'd have to friend me to read all the entries).
The good news is, I've got the story pretty much completed (up through chapter 13 as of right now) except for maybe a couple of resolution chapters. The bad news is, I don't know how quick I will get them all posted because life hasn't gotten any easier and because it also kinda depends on how fast the beta reading turnaround is — and that can be understandably unpredictable for all of us involved with that.
At this juncture, I'd like to thank sodakey for the quick beta read and invaluable advice on this chapter. I've re-worked some things based on that advice and also made numerous edits with each read through-so there are probably many mistakes due to my subsequent tinkering. At one point, I felt pretty good about this chapter...but I think all my obsessing has probably broken it. Just like with watercolor, I didn't know when to stop and now the colors are muddy. Either way, it is far from perfect but I can't possibly look it over one more time. Plus, there are some funky format errors (dashes mostly) I couldn't get to work right. :(
Also, I want to thank all of you reading this or planning on reading this. I especially appreciate every PM and review that has encouraged me to keep going and that urged me on for more, more, more. You have no idea how much those words helped keep me going on when it seemed like an impossible feat! I hope the wait was worth it despite my misgivings.
Chapter 7: Gravity
Dean found himself parked where the latest victim, Julia, had died. He looked down at her black and white picture in the morning paper. Young and pretty, her whole life ahead of her. He touched the picture with his fingertip and wondered if there was a brother, a sister, or parents left heartbroken by her death. He hadn't meant to end up here, but when he'd seen the picture in the paper, he couldn't get it off his mind.
Dean glanced at the article to make sure he'd gotten it right. He wondered what business Julia had being in a place like this all alone and at night. Not even a hooker would be hanging around here. It was so strange. This location was closer to the university than the apartments and spirits usually stayed bound to a certain place. Mentally tracing the path of the deaths, Dean realized that each successive attack was a little farther away from the original location, but random. Which — weird. This, whatever this was, seemed to be attacking whoever happened to be around without any set pattern, and that opened the door to the possibility of something other than a simple spirit needing laid to rest.
Throwing the newspaper onto the seat, Dean rolled his shoulders and stepped out of the Impala. He'd promised Sam he wouldn't do anything stupid, and coming here without back up might not be the smartest move, but Sam was drunk and Dean was tired of waiting. Waiting meant more deaths. Waiting meant more dreams of Jessica and watching his brother fall further into a tailspin. Which was stupid all on its own.
Dean realized Sam had lost more than Jessica that night. He'd lost his place of belonging in a group that clearly not only accepted him for himself, but also looked up to him. Something Sam had never had growing up — neither of them had. They never stayed anywhere long enough to establish that kind of bond with other people. The longer they stayed here now, the harder that loss would hit his brother all over again.
Thinking over the last year and a half he'd spent with Sam, he began to question whether keeping Sam close was worth that. Maybe if he hadn't come to find Sam in the first place, maybe Jessica would still be alive? What he was doing to Sam — keeping him in this life — maybe Chris had been right about what he'd said at the hospital, maybe that was the worst and most selfish thing he could possibly do to his brother.
Dean kept telling himself he needed to keep Sam safe and, to keep him safe, he needed to keep him close… but perhaps keeping Sam in this life was playing right into the hands of the enemy. It was no secret the Yellow-Eyed Demon wanted Sam for something. Maybe Sam would actually be safer in this other life-far away from the Winchester journey of revenge. Here, Sam had a chance. A future far from the world of demons and monsters and death. How could he be so selfish as to condemn Sam to a life with no future? A life of hunting was a life of suffering and sadness and sacrifice. Just because Dean didn't have a choice didn't mean Sam had to be saddled to the same dead-end fate.
Squinting up at the sun, Dean sighed and pushed his dark thoughts away. Whatever happened, none of them could move forward until this case was solved. He owed Sam that much.
Dean swept the alley carefully, his sharp eye scanning for anything unusual. All he could see were remnants of police tape and blood. Then again, the lack of certain things told him what it wasn't. There was no sign of sulfur, no hair or anything that would indicate something strictly corporeal. Nothing much at all had been disturbed. Just as he turned to go, his eyes fell on a manhole cover. Walking closer to take a look, Dean could see a gooey, tar-like substance on the edges.
He flicked his knife open as he crouched to get a better look. Using the knife blade, he scraped some of the black slime off and held it in front of his face, sniffing at it. Ectoplasm — had to be. Despite the weird widening of the hunting grounds, this would mean something more of the spirit variety and definitely something seriously angry and old. Dean wiped the blade off, deciding to make a few more stops before heading back to Sam.
Sam blinked hard against the harsh, late-afternoon sun stabbing through the crack in the curtains. Sitting up, he automatically glanced at the other bed. It was empty. He looked around, finding the rest of the room, including the bathroom, empty as well. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he scooted to the edge of his bed and tried to remember what had happened. He remembered drinking with Nathan and then arguing with Dean. Lori had been here and then they had argued and his brother had left.
Looking at the clock beside him, his heart somersaulted when he realized Dean had been gone for hours. Grabbing his phone, he looked down to see he had two voice-mails. Hoping it was Dean, he dialed to listen and waited.
You have two new messages. First message:
Hey Sam, it's Becky. Do you think — can you come to the hospital? Please. Aaron — oh, Sam, the doctors don't know what happened, he was doing okay and then he wasn't. They say he's fallen into a coma. Please come.
Hey, it's Nathan. What's your brother doing at the apartments? I saw him pull up on my way out. Hope he doesn't run into Chris. Anyway, I guess if he's got the car, you might need a lift to the hospital, which is why I'm calling. I assume you heard about Aaron? Give me call, bro, and I'll swing by and pick you up.
End of messages.
"Dammit, Dean!" Sam exploded, throwing his phone and watching it bounce harmlessly on the bed. "Stupid jerk! Pig-headed, stubborn—"
He shook his head, regretted that instantly and settled for pinching his nose and breathing in and out. Big, deep breaths.
"I can't do this right now," he mumbled to himself. Picking up the phone, he punched the keys a little harder than necessary.
"Hey, it's Sam. I called to see if that offer still stands? Man, I really appreciate it — you have no idea. See you in ten."
The minute Dean stepped inside the apartment complex, he felt a jolt of unease ripple up his spine. He couldn't stop thinking Sam was probably right, it was stupid coming here alone. But, this is where he needed to be. Not just because it was the best chance at a real clue, but also because he felt drawn — compelled — to be here.
He jumped hard when a hand clamped down on his shoulder and whirled him around.
"What the hell—" he spluttered.
Chris's face was a thunderstorm. "What are you doing here, Winchester?"
Shoving Chris's arm off, Dean growled back, "Get off me. I don't answer to you, college boy. What I do is none of your damn business."
They glared at each other, chests heaving and eyes sparking.
"It is when you're poking your nose where it doesn't belong."
Drawing a deep breath through his nose, Dean took a step back. "Look, man, I get that you watch out for your friends — it's admirable, really — but I have a job to do. That's all. Now if you don't mind—"
"Not so fast—" Chris stopped him with a hand on the cuff of his jacket.
With a fierce jolt, anger snapped through Dean and, before he knew it, he had Chris held firmly against the wall, his forearm pressed tightly across Chris's throat. "Listen, I ain't got time for this. Every minute we waste, someone else could die. Now, I listened to what you had to say at the hospital and maybe you're right about some things. But Sam's my brother and it's my job to protect him, not yours. And the best thing for him right now? Is for me to go up to that apartment, figure this out and kill it so we can all get back to our lives. Are we clear?"
Chris visibly swallowed, then stiffly nodded his head. Dean searched his face, flexing his arm, then drew back and let him go with a pat to his chest. "Good." He gave a brief, fake smile.
Once again, as he stepped away, he felt a hand on his arm — hesitant this time.
"I'm going with you," Chris said. "Sam's my friend and if that apartment is the key to helping him, then I'm in."
Dean paused. Aaron had been hurt the last time he'd acquiesced and he really didn't need another thing piled on his guilt list. He really needed the backup, but was the risk worth it?
"Look man, either you let me go with you or I'm just going to make trouble for you. It's your choice."
The stubborn set to Chris's face told Dean he meant it. He had no doubt the guy could cause all kinds of trouble if he so chose. After another second of indecision, Dean shrugged. "Your funeral, dude. Just… stay behind me, do as I say and stay out of my way."
He didn't wait for an answer and this time when he turned, Chris followed.
By the time they had climbed the stairs halfway, Dean was feeling lightheaded and shaky. Each step closer had an undeniable effect on him — stronger than before. He rubbed his fingers against the thoughts chanting in his head — Sam's voice, Jessica, his own thoughts swirling around, urging him forward (help me, please) and pushing him back (don't do anything stupid). Chris had fallen into silence behind him, but Dean could feel his eyes on him, assessing and perceptive. Dean had a feeling the dude didn't miss much and he wondered if he was passing or failing whatever test Chris held him to.
They both jumped when Dean's phone began playing loudly in his pocket. Fishing it out, he saw it was Sam. He was still trying to decide whether or not to answer it when it went to voice-mail. A bad feeling crept over him and he shivered. Pressing buttons, he listened as Sam's voice blast through the earpiece.
"I know where you are and we'll be talking about it later." There was a long pause wherein Dean could hear Sam taking a shaky breath. "I got a call from Becky… Aaron's slipped into a coma. It doesn't look good. I'm on my way to the hospital right now. Meet me there or I swear to God, I'll come and get you myself."
Click. End of messages.
"Dammit." Dean grit his teeth, lips pulled back in a grimace. Flipping the phone shut, he clutched his fist around it, making his knuckles go white.
"What? What's going on?"
He turned to meet Chris's gaze. "That was Sam. Aaron's not doing well — he's unconscious, a-a coma they think."
"What?! He was fine last night. He was — he joked around with us." Suddenly Chris's features morphed from surprised grief to anger. Poking a finger at Dean, he yelled, "This is your fault! If he dies, it's on you. Do you curse everyone around you? Jess? Sam? And now Aaron?"
Chris's words slammed into Dean with a physical punch. He lifted a hand and pressed it against his stomach, staying the sickness that washed through him. Guilt curdled in his gut — deep down, these were things Dean always believed to be true. It wasn't the first time he'd had similar thoughts, but he couldn't seem to shake it off like he usually did. He wanted it to stay buried in the darkest, secret shadows of his mind where it belonged.
"Look," Dean growled, "we don't have time for this. I'm headed over to the hospital if you want a ride."
Looking at Dean with disgust, Chris snarled, "No thanks, I'd rather crawl on my hands and knees."
Chris turned his back on Dean and stormed down the stairs. When they reached the bottom floor, Dean caught Chris by the elbow.
"I can't let you drive like this." Chris tried to yank away, but Dean held tight, saying, "Dude, don't be stupid, take the offer. You don't have to like me, you just have to get there alive."
Dean stared pointedly at Chris's trembling hands. Scowling, Chris clenched them into fists. "Fine. But I don't owe you anything." He met Dean's eyes, resentment clear. Dean didn't bother to answer, just turned and led the way to the Impala.
The ride to the hospital was uncomfortable at best. Dean tried to ignore Chris's presence while Chris stared resolutely out the passenger window, his posture stiff and defensive. Once they found the right waiting room, Dean hung back, watching as Chris enveloped Becky in a tight hug while Sam and Nathan looked on with grim faces. Becky's sobs and Chris's soft attempts to comfort her left him feeling like the worst kind of curse and he longed to be anywhere but there. He could feel Sam's gaze on him, but he couldn't bring himself to meet it. His emotions too close to the surface, Dean was afraid his brother would see it all laid bare if he dared to look up.
"Hey, man." Sam bumped Dean's shoulder with his own, causing Dean to startle, head whipping up. He hadn't even realized Sam had moved. "You alright?" Sam squinted in the way that meant he was ferreting out cracks.
"Yeah, I'm fine." His voice chafed in his taut throat and he paused to clear it, glancing away. "Any news?"
Sam hesitated briefly before saying, "No, just that the doctors aren't sure what happened. They're running more tests and are supposed to update us when they get the results."
"How much longer?"
"Well, it's been a couple of hours now, but who knows." The last was said with the beginning of a face-splitting yawn. "I can't believe I'm still tired."
"Yeah, well, you're still hung over, you big girl. How 'bout some coffee?"
Sam threw Dean a grateful look. "Yeah, that'd be great. There's a coffee machine down by the elevators, I think."
Sam started forward, but Dean touched his forearm, glancing at the others as he said, "You stay here, I'll get it."
Uncertainty clouded Sam's eyes, questions forming on his lips. Just when Dean was certain Sam was going to ask questions he wouldn't — couldn't — answer, Chris approached them from behind, coming up to brush against Sam's arm. He shot a wary look at Dean before asking, "You okay, Sam?"
Dean didn't wait for Sam's response, glad for the reprieve and chance to escape the heavy pall in the air. He slipped quietly from the room while his brother's attention was diverted and breathed a little easier with each step that took him away. He didn't belong and he wasn't in full command of himself to keep his unease hidden. He bee-lined for the nearest bathrooms, needing a breather, just a minute to splash some water on his face and settle himself before searching out the coffee machines. Luckily, he didn't have to go far to find what he was looking for.
"How're you holding up?" Dean asked when he got back. He handed the muddy coffee to his brother and studied the way Sam leaned against the wall, hands dug deep in his pockets, shoulders rounded in a hunch. Misery at its finest.
Sam clenched his jaw, but nodded, letting his floppy hair fall across his face, obscuring his eyes as he stared into his cup. After a long silence, he murmured, "I just don't understand." His breath hitched making the next words dissolve into a whisper. "Why is this happening? Why now?"
Dean didn't know what to say. He would take this pain from his brother if he could — but, as he was learning, not everything was within his control to fix. Such was this and he hated it. It smacked of failure. He felt a thread of anger begin to form and he embraced it. Anger was something he knew, it was something he was comfortable expressing. Not like the squirm of feelings he'd beaten into submission within the walls of the hospital's over-sanitized bathrooms. Maybe he couldn't shield Sam from this, but there was something he could do to end it.
"He's gonna be okay, Sam. I promise you, he's gonna be fine." Dean met Sam's eyes meaningfully before turning toward the door.
Sam grabbed his arm. "Dean, wait. You are not going back there."
Dean let his arm hang in Sam's grasp. "Yes, Sam, I am. You stay here and watch them. I'll be fine."
"No." Sam's eyes bored into Dean's. "No, let's just talk about this, okay?"
"What's to talk about? Something is killing people, hurting your friends. I'm going to go kill it. End of story."
Sam scoffed. "We don't even know what it is, much less how to kill it. And, if it's Jess…"
Dean tugged, trying to loosen Sam's grip. "That hesitation right there? That's exactly why you need to stay out of this."
"Don't do that," Sam growled. "You don't get to use that against me."
"Code blue, room 284," the speaker over their heads blared. "Code blue, room 284."
Everyone in the room froze, their eyes glued to the personnel running past the door. Becky moved to stand next to Sam, her hand coming up to cover her mouth.
"We don't know it's him," Sam told her after a shocked minute, his arm falling away from Dean to encircle her shoulders. "Becky," he jostled her. We don't know it's him."
Becky blinked. Meeting Sam's eyes, she said, "We don't know it isn't."
With that she made a choking sound that turned into a stifled sob. Sam took her in his arms and began rubbing circles into her back. At first, she stood stiffly, then collapsed against him, her fingers clawing into his shirt as she hid her face in his shoulder.
Sorrow pressed into Dean's chest – the ache of it made his breath stutter. His vision blurred and pressure spiked sharply in his head. Everything around him faded into the background and time slowed, syrup thick. Lifting a hand to his head, he pressed against his temple with his palm, shaking his head as if that would loosen the sensation.
"Dean?" Sam's asked.
Dean looked up, found Sam's features blurring in and out of focus; the room spun dizzily. Clamoring for an anchor, he let his gaze drift first to Nathan, his puzzled eyes peering at him over Sam's shoulder, and then to Chris who glared daggers, as he always seemed to be doing. Chris's annoyance faded with eye contact and Dean didn't know what to make of that. Even Becky seemed to sense something was wrong as she turned in Sam's embrace, blinking red, wet eyes at him.
"I…" he began, his vision whiting out completely. He felt himself sway unsteadily before a solid grip caught him at the elbows.
"Hey, answer me!" he heard from afar, the words buried under a stark numbness settling over his senses. Cutting, bright pain seared through his head, a fiery lightning bolt blistering his synapses until he couldn't help the groan that escaped. Distantly, he could hear voices continuing to buzz around him; Sam's distinct above the rest, commanding, "No, I've got him. Someone close that door."
Dean blinked spots from his eyes as the light finally dimmed, gathering in on itself until it solidified into a hazy shape.
"…hear me? Dean, listen…" Her mouth continued to shape the plea, but her words were swept away as surely as if a swift gale had stolen them.
"Jessica," he began, bringing his other hand up to press into his skull. "Hurts, please…" he shook his head at her.
"…sorry, can't… must stop… please!" She advanced on him until his knees finally gave way; he felt himself falling and then he wasn't.
Suddenly, it was like being in two places at once. Jessica was still begging him to hear her as she stutter-shifted closer, her blonde hair and white dress whipping all around, but, superimposed on top of her image, was Sam's. It was Sam's concerned face that yelled something Dean couldn't quite catch, his fingers digging past Dean's sleeves into his flesh. He knew the instant their skin made contact. Sam stiffened and his attention abruptly veered to Jessica.
"Jess…" Sam whispered, and that came through loud and clear. She flickered then reappeared near enough to touch. All around her, thick smoke and angry flames came into acute focus, licking at her hair and clothes, but she didn't appear to be in any pain. This close, the rush of agony in his head flowed fast and furious… it occurred to him that maybe the harsh, awful noise in his ears was himself. He must've closed his eyes because now Sam was gone. He could only see her.
"Please," Sam begged, his voice floating down from somewhere above, "you're hurting him. Stop."
She reached out, fingers coming to rest where Sam's grip pulled up his sleeve, right where the skin was bare. Her touch was painfully, shockingly icy even though the heat from the flames blasted hot against his face. His body electrified beneath her touch. He shook, felt his muscles lock and tighten — but for one moment, her words were perfectly clear even though her lips did not move.
"Dean, they will all die," whispered through his mind. "Please see."
Then Dean did see. A dark shadow loomed behind her, almost out of eye-shot. Sickening apprehension roiled in Dean's stomach and he heard himself whimper. He recoiled from the wrong, wicked, perverse, tumbling through his mind.
"Jess, you're killing him. Please, baby, stop."
Sam's desperate voice filled his ears, the clench of his fingers painful against Dean's over-sensitized skin. Amazingly, Jess seemed to hear him this time.
"Sam?" she whispered, her surprised eyes bouncing away from Dean.
"Yes, it's me," Sam whispered back. "You can hear me?"
Her face broke into a brilliant smile, the edges of it wobbling and her eyes welling up.
Jessica reached out with her free hand and instantly Sam reappeared beneath her touch. Dean had just enough time to register it before an arc of energy seared through him — his body bowed and his eyes clamped tight against everything until there was nothing. He didn't know how long he drifted there, floating in a vacuum, but it didn't really seem to matter all that much.
After a while, the world slowly faded back in. Awareness sharpened — the cold floor seeped through his jeans and into his skin, bleeding away what little warmth was left in him and he shivered. A dull murmur clarified into words and then a voice. Hands shook him lightly, prompting him to open his eyes and look up into Sam's worried face. His brother was holding a tissue beneath his nose, catching the last trickle of blood. Behind Sam stood Nathan, looking utterly panicked, and, kneeling across from Sam, was Becky.
"Hey," she called softly when his eyes caught on hers, "you back with us?"
Dean's gaze shifted to Sam — the deep lines grooved between his brother's eyebrows made him want to reach up and smooth them away with a thumb. Dean tried to speak, wanting to reassure him, but all that came out was a ragged cough. He swallowed and almost gagged, finding his mouth cotton dry, his throat ragged and raw.
"He needs something to drink," Sam ordered over his shoulder as he pulled away the tissues and wadded them into a ball.
Dean didn't know who he spoke to, but a half-full water bottle appeared between them. Sam eased Dean up and helped him drink the tepid water. It tasted like heaven.
"You okay?" Sam finally asked, his own voice jagged on the edges.
Sam's grip gentled on his arm but stayed in place and Becky rubbed lightly up and down his leg. He'd scared them good. He nodded, acutely embarrassed and taken aback by the attention. His head still rang like a bell and he tried to blink away the dizziness, desperate to regain the lie of being in control.
"Yeah, I'm okay," he drawled out slowly, sounding a little drunk."Wh-what happened?" he asked, feeling unsure of his own senses.
Sam settled back on his legs and shook his head, a tiny movement. "You gave me a heart attack is what happened." He paused, then asked, "Are you sure you're okay?"
Dean didn't say anything about the cold biting into him, how his brain was addled and foggy — he certainly didn't mention the pulsing burn left by Jessica's touch or how his body felt heavy with gravity, like he was being dragged down with every breath.
Instead, he said, "Yeah. I'm sure. Help me up?"
He jiggled his arm still in Sam's grasp, motivating his brother into levering them both to their feet. He suppressed the urge to flatten his palm against the shifting sands in his head and looked around the room, thankfully still empty except for them. The door that had been propped open was now shut, giving them the illusion of privacy. Chris was standing uneasily next to it, soberly watching the group. Everyone looked unhinged and Dean worried maybe he'd misunderstood their earlier concern.
"What is it? Is it Aaron?" Dean asked as he sunk into the nearest chair, tolerating Sam's hovering with silence.
"Uh," Sam started, his gaze shifting worriedly between Becky and Dean. "We don't know — it's only been a few minutes and we kinda had our hands full."
Dean grimaced in confusion. "What? What do you mean?"
"It's only been a few minutes from the time we heard the code until now. Nobody has had time to check."
"Minutes?" Dean asked, mind replaying what he remembered. "Are you sure?"
Sam's face pinched into unease as he took the seat next to him. "How long do you think it's been?"
Dean scrubbed his face with his right hand, thinking it through. "I don't know exactly. But it felt like quite a while, maybe a half hour at least?"
This time Sam's eyebrows both shot up. "What? Okay, wait, what makes you think that?"
Dean gestured with his open hand. "I-I'm not sure." At the growing distress on Sam's face, he hastened to add, "It's probably nothing. I'm sure it's just a—"
"Look," Chris broke in, "I think the important thing right now is to find out about Aaron. Can we just do that first?"
"No, Becky — I know you're worried. Whatever that was," he flung his arm out toward Sam and Dean, "he seems okay right now. The rest can wait until we know Aaron's okay."
Sam looked at Dean and Dean nodded. "Yeah, go with 'em. I'll be here when you get back."
Sam looked skeptical, beacons of doubt clear in his eyes.
"Go on," Dean pushed, shoving at Sam's shoulder until he relented enough to stand. "I swear I'm okay, okay?"
"You'd better be here," Sam said curtly. "I mean, it, Dean. Don't move a muscle until I get back."
Dean shrugged as if to say, 'where am I gonna go?' But Sam continued to scowl until Dean threw up his hands and spat, "Fine, I get it."
As soon as Sam walked out of the room, Dean scrubbed a hand through his hair back and forth and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. I can do this, he repeated over and over to himself, I can do this, no problem. He could be still for a few minutes and be a good, dutiful brother. That's what he told himself, but soon his legs were doing a nervous dance without his permission. Thoughts and worries crowded into his mind like beetles crawling under his skin — scratching and gnawing away at his raw innards. He couldn't push them away fast or far enough.
Nothing made any sense anymore. The case, him and Sam, whatever was happening to him — nothing. He felt lost — he felt alone. The crushing, constant weariness ravaged his defenses and he could be honest with himself about that if no one else. This case was getting to him in new and fantastically hellish ways and sitting here doing nothing intensified the feeling if only because it gave him too much time to think. He tried to concentrate on positive thoughts, tried to keep himself distracted, but the quiet of the room took on a life of its own. It pressed into him until his chest felt heavy, constricted, and he couldn't get enough air into his lungs. The walls were closing in — his skin crawled, he was suffocating. He needed out. He needed fresh air. Now-now-now. Hoping Sam wouldn't eat him alive for disappearing, Dean sprinted for the nearest exit.
The sensation of time slowing down hit him again in the elevator, more potent this time — his distress must've shown because the lady with the rain slicker kept throwing him funny looks the entire ride down. Stumbling out the door into the lengthening evening, he closed his eyes and drew in deep, greedy breaths. He listened to the traffic on the street and let the thrum of the city fill his head. Every now and then, the hiss of the sliding glass door behind him would announce the presence of people leaving or entering the building — sometimes it was squeaking sneakers and sometimes it was clicking heels.
The air was thick with moisture that clung to his skin; the temperature eased with the deepening of oncoming night, a promise of cool rippling in currents. The cusp of twilight — his favorite time of day. The knot in his chest loosened ever so slightly and he exhaled his relief. Opening his eyes, he noticed the pavement sparkled with fading, scattered sunbeams and water droplets — puddles marked the dips and cracks in the cement. When had it rained? For that matter, why was he damp?
Looking himself over, he realized it must've been sprinkling when he came out and he hadn't even noticed. In his pocket, his cell phone beeped, letting him know he had a message waiting. Pulling it out of his pocket, he pressed the button and read Sam's angry text: "U said u'd wait. Where r u asshole?"
Dean thumbed a quick text back: "Outside — needed some air. Brb. Bitch."
A few seconds passed as he waited for the expected reply, but it never came. Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, he slid his eyes over the glistening cars and stared into the setting sun for a minute longer. At least, he hoped it was only a minute — he had the unnerving feeling that he couldn't be sure anymore. Shivering, he buried his hands into his pockets and made his way back to the waiting room.
All eyes found him the minute he walked in, but Dean blocked out all but one pair. Sam's jaw line was stiff and he didn't know if that meant bad news about Aaron or if his brother was just pissed at him for not being where he'd left him.
Dropping into the seat next to Sam, Dean knocked his elbow against his brother's arm.
"Well, what's the news?"
Sam breathed through his nose, his lips thinning out. "The code was Aaron…" He swallowed a couple of times, the frown curled between his brows deepening. Dean waited patiently for him to find his voice, his eyes glued to his face. "His heart had stopped, but they got him back. He's stable right now. His condition is about the same as it was when we got here –- no real change and no answers about what's going on with him. His doctors don't know what to make of it."
Dean bowed his head as he curled his lips in, valiantly trying to keep his emotions tamped down. He didn't want to say it, but to him it seemed awfully suspicious that Aaron would code the minute Jessica made her presence known. Maybe if he hadn't been here, it wouldn't have happened. Still didn't make sense, though. This wasn't how things worked. Nothing about this followed the rules. It was like shooting in the dark with a blind fold.
"They're going to let us visit him two at time as soon as the doctor has finished," Sam was saying.
"Well, that's good, right?" Dean asked. "They wouldn't let you in if he wasn't stable."
"Dean's right," Nathan said from Sam's other side. "They wouldn't let non-family members visit if he wasn't at least stable. Has anyone contacted his family?"
Becky nodded immediately. "Yeah, I called them, but even if they left immediately, they won't be able to get in before the weekend. I'm hoping he'll be better by then."
Everyone nodded, their faces set into the resolute masks of people who refused any other reality. Everyone, that is, but Sam who vibrated with a carefully controlled slow-burn of anger. Hot magma deep inside the volcanic chamber. Dean winced inwardly, knowing this was the worst facet of angry Sam.
"I'm gonna go get some coffee," Chris said after an uncomfortable silence dragged on too long. "Becky? Want me to get you something?"
She shook her head. "Not coffee, no. I'm too keyed up. Maybe some water?"
"Sure, I can do that. Be right back," he said, backing out the door.
"I'll come with," Nathan said, jumping up like a nervous frog. Chris didn't look too thrilled, but he didn't say anything as Nathan joined him.
As if just noticing, Sam unclenched long enough to frown at Dean's damp clothes and hair. "Why are you wet?"
"Uh…" Dean scratched behind his ear, screwing up his face. "It's been raining… well, misting by the time I got outside."
"You've been standing out in the rain all this time?" Sam's voice held disbelief and chastisement.
"Misting, Sam. Just a light mist — and it's warm out. It's not like I'm in danger of catching a cold or something."
"Yeah? Then why don't you explain why you're shivering like that?"
Sam was being entirely too smug. Dean rolled his eyes, his gaze falling on Becky across the room watching them. "My brother, the mother hen," Dean mocked with a shrug in her direction.
A tentative smile touched her lips. "Yeah, that seems to be a consistent Sam Winchester trait."
Beside him, Sam huffed and rolled his eyes at both of them. Becky pushed away from the wall she'd been leaning against and moved closer, her arms falling away from where they'd been crossed over her chest.
"But he's right, Dean. Even I can see you're shaking… and it's not cold in here. At all." She made a point of pulling her hair away from her neck to fan the damp skin there.
Sam snorted and narrowed a glare Dean's way.
Dean dropped his eyes, picking at a hangnail on his thumb. He really didn't need this kind of attention; he had no answers to give or re-directions up his sleeve — and he was far too smart to shoot himself in the foot by telling the truth.
Hesitant, she sat across from them. "What was that a while ago? I mean, I don't understand what that was—" She held up a hand before either of them could say anything. "And, don't tell me that was just some medical condition left over from the car accident. I know what I saw and that wasn't… normal. You were in pain, a lot of pain. And you both said Jessica's name… it was like you were talking to her." Becky took a breath before adding, "She was my friend. I cared about her, too, so I deserve to know."
Dean exchanged looks with Sam, then asked, "So all that really did happen, then? You saw her… and she saw you?"
Sam nodded, his demeanor thawing ever so slightly. "Yeah. But it all happened so fast — it was only a few minutes. What made you think otherwise?"
"Hey, guys," Becky snapped her fingers between them. "Still here… still waiting on an answer."
Sam raised his brows at Dean, asking permission, and Dean nodded, rubbing his hands across the top of his thighs — his body outwardly bracing for whatever reaction was forthcoming.
"Well, it's a long story, but the short of it is, Dean's been seeing Jess's spirit."
"What?! I mean, how… why? I thought you were the one with psychic powers?"
"Like I said, it's complicated. Very, very complicated."
"Yeah, I'm getting that," she muttered.
"The thing is," Sam said, sharing a glance with Dean, "we're not entirely sure what's going on. It's like Jess has latched on to Dean, but we don't know why. It doesn't make sense — she barely knew him. The only thing we know is since the accident, Dean's become… a lightning rod for the paranormal."
Becky's head tipped forward even as her eyebrows rose. "Is that the same as you?"
"No, not visions — it's more like he's able to pick up supernatural signals…like he's a magnet for them. And he doesn't just see ghosts, apparently he can connect to them on their plane of existence."
"Okay," she drew out. "But is it supposed to hurt like that — or is Jess doing it on purpose?"
Dean shook his head, intent on squashing that line of thought. "It's not on purpose." Hesitating, he glanced at Sam. "I think she's asking for help. Or she's trying to help us."
Sam's head jerked. "What?"
Shrugging, Dean said, "You saw her, Sam. She didn't look like she was trying to hurt me. She didn't look angry — she looked scared. The last thing she said to me was, 'they will all die,' but it didn't seem like a threat — felt more like a warning. I think she's just desperate."
"Okay, but what does that mean?" Sam asked, his eyes holding too much hope. Dean's heart thumped in his chest and he felt a blunt pang - how he prayed he wasn't encouraging misplaced hope.
"I don't know," he said. "What I do know is that this time, when she touched me, I could hear everything she said clearly… like the direct contact completed some kind of circuit between us. I think that's why she could see you. But she was definitely asking for help, I could feel it."
Dean could see Sam desperately wanting to believe, but struggling. "Maybe she knows she's out of control and she's asking us to stop her?"
Tipping his head in acknowledgment, Dean agreed, "Yeah, that's a possibility. But that doesn't explain what I saw."
"What you saw?" Sam repeated, eyebrows rising.
"She told me to 'see,'" Dean said, "before she noticed you — she said 'see' and I did. When I looked, I saw something hovering behind her. It was a dark shape, like a shadow. It could've been anything, but my gut tells me it's something important. Something not good. It made me feel..." Words didn't even begin to cover it, so he let the sentence hang. Shaking his head, he looked at Sam and continued, "I think we need to consider the possibility that Jessica is warning us about something else."
Sam and Becky stared wide-eyed at him, their faces completely gob-smacked.
Sam stuttered, "S-so you're thinking…what? That something is controlling her?"
"Is that possible?" Becky blurt. "How is that possible?"
Dean shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe its controlling her, maybe its not - I just know she wanted me to see it. And I think I should stay away from the hospital."
"What? Why would you…" Sam asked, leaning forward. Then, frowning, jumped to the right conclusions. "Wh—wait a minute, you think Aaron coded because of you?" When Dean didn't say anything, he went on, "That's crazy, Dean. Why would you think something like that?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because he was stable when I got here, but the minute Jessica entered the picture, he coded and when she left, he stabilized. As long as I'm here, we run the risk of drawing Jessica or whatever back… and if that's the reason for Aaron…" He shrugged again as if it made perfect sense.
"It's just coincidence." Sam's voice lowered. "You can't possibly know that it's anything more than that."
"All I'm saying is it's not worth risking. You can stay here as long as you need to, but I think I should go back to the motel — maybe do some more research."
Sam's face morphed into hard lines and cement corners. "You are not going back to the apartment — especially not alone. That would be beyond stupid."
Dean smiled what he hoped was something reassuring and, ignoring the physical repulsion of what he was about to do, said, "Yeah, you're right. That's why I'm just gonna cool it at the room. Really, I'll just take a nap and then poke around on the laptop. I have a few ideas I'd like to look up - see if I can get a lead on our mysterious shadow."
He kept the smile in place but felt guilt slide into his gut as he watched his brother agonize over wanting to believe him and knowing better. It was true that he felt his presence was a risk to Aaron, but he had no intention of napping or sitting on his thumbs. They stared at each other a long minute before Sam finally nodded.
"Okay. But keep your phone on and don't go anywhere without me."
"Sure thing, Sammy." Dean stood and stretched like maybe the only thing on his mind was a nice long meet and greet with the bed. Before he left, he gripped Becky's shoulder. "I'm really sorry about Aaron — but we're gonna figure this out and stop it. Okay?"
Becky smiled sadly and nodded. "Yeah, I know you will."
Dean didn't look back as he walked out the door, but he could feel Sam's piercing gaze the whole way. Turning the corner too quick, he nearly crashed into Chris who had obviously been standing there for a while, eavesdropping. Chris's eyes flickered over Dean knowingly.
"I'm coming with you," he said.
"Back to the motel? Kinky." Dean smirked as he tried to shuffle further from the door.
Chris moved in front of him and stared back coolly until Dean started to worry their stalemate would draw attention.
"Don't you think it'd be a little obvious us leaving at the same time? Together?" Dean asked. "They'll be expecting you to stay until you see Aaron."
Chris shrugged. "It could be hours before they get in… and this way, Becky can stay in the room and let Sam and Nathan take turns. I'll just tell 'em I'm having you give me a ride home to take care of some important business I forgot. I can always come back later."
Dean finally relented. Spreading his hands out palms up, he said, "Knock yourself out." Then, with a cheeky twitch lifting the corner of his mouth, he pointed a finger at the other man and said, "I'll be in the car with bells on. Don't make me wait." With that he brushed by Chris, making purposeful, solid contact with his shoulder.
Ten minutes later, Chris pulled the passenger door open and climbed in.
"Okay, Winchester, show me what you've got," he challenged, eyes glittering in the half-light.
Dean smiled sideways, gunned the Impala and peeled away from the curve, tires squealing loudly across the parking lot.
To be continued…