Inspired by jadelennox
From the Darkness
K Hanna Korossy
He was terrified. It was hard to miss that.
I want to make something clear right off: I didn't go into nursing because I'm a saint. I grew up in a small town with small-town values, but I had no one left in this cold world, so I'd traded sentiment for practicality some years back. Nursing was a field where I knew I'd find work and be able to quickly pay off my school loans, and that counted more than helping people and doing good. But I still gave it my best and was pretty darn great at it. If I could help others as well as myself, why not?
So when the job offer came from "The Center" with its six-figure salary, I jumped at it. Had to fill out a ton of non-disclosures and "don't ask, don't tell" forms, but I ended up mostly taking blood and doing basic check-ups, so it wasn't like there was much to tell. My patients never chatted with me and I never knew what the bloodwork was for, but so what? I did what was expected of me, did it well, and then went home.
And then he showed up. And suddenly, this wasn't what I'd signed up for anymore.
"What's on the schedule today?" I picked up the clipboard and flipped through it.
"The usual," Tseloni answered, sipping coffee as he wrote. "And an overnight in Room 2."
I raised an eyebrow at my boss. We usually had one or two overnights at any given time, but Room 2 was an exam room, not a regular bed. "Two?" I repeated.
He glanced at me as if he were noticing me for the first time. He did that on occasion, and it always made me uncomfortable somehow. "Two. He'll be in there a few days—we're running a full spectrum on him."
I nodded. Right, two. Well, why not?
Turns out there were a lot of reasons why not.
There were only three of us RNs in our wing of the Center, one to cover each shift. Veronica, Amy, and I rotated, so we only saw each other in passing, and when I was on duty, everyone was my responsibility. And Tseloni was the only daytime-shift doctor. So it took me a few hours before I ended up in 2, ready to assist with the new patient. I stepped inside the door with my head buried in the file on the previous case, 326—they only had numbers here—so I was halfway to the table before I looked up. And stopped.
The guy was tall. Good-looking, I could already tell by his profile, with chestnut hair curling against his ear and broad shoulders disappearing under the sheet that was pulled up to his clavicle. Underneath which, he was clearly in restraints.
Tseloni glanced my way from where he was adjusting the drip on the saline IV. "Waiting for something?" he asked, tone clipped.
An explanation, but I knew better than to expect one. I shook my head and quickly switched out folders. Number 455. Right, that told me so much. I moved closer, studying the guy who looked to be about my age.
He was shaking, I realized as I approached. Not seizing, just trembling, like he was cold. Or afraid. His eyes were screwed shut, but as I stepped up to the table, they shot open, and I immediately noticed the dilated pupils and glassy expression. There was nothing in the chart, unsurprisingly, but he was obviously partially sedated, some kind of benzodiazepine cocktail from the looks of him.
And yet he was terrified. There were no two ways about it.
I chewed my lip. My patients were usually quiet, serious, maybe even resigned. But I was pretty sure they came and went of their own free will, and they never seemed…frightened. This guy, 455, was turning out to be all kinds of an anomaly.
He looked me over, and despite the fear and the drugs, something else shone from his eyes: defiance. He shut his eyes again and turned his head away. I thought I heard him murmur, "No."
Something was really, really wrong here. I looked up at Tseloni. "Doctor—"
"We'll start with the standard work-up: MRI, EKG, EEG…." The tests rolled off his tongue. I caught on spinal tap and pain stimuli and drug reactions. Painful stuff at the best of times, and not to be performed without patient consent. Somehow, though, I was doubtful they'd gotten 455's permission.
Tseloni had stopped talking while I was thinking, and he was looking at me now with narrowed eyes.
"Will this be a problem, Nurse?"
I couldn't help notice 455 flinched at the bark. I shook my head. "No, Doctor."
"Good. Let's get started—we're already behind schedule."
The patient never said a word during any of the scans or all the blood I took. But even after he slipped into a drugged sleep, his tension remained.
And for the first time, I had some serious doubts about my job.
The spinal tap was set up for first thing the next morning, and 455 was already on his side, restraints rearranged to lock him in the new position. He was freshly shaved, but had the gaunt-eyed look of a sick person even though, as far as I could tell, there wasn't anything wrong with him. His eyes barely fluttered when I walked in, taking me in impassively, then closed again.
I didn't know why his dismissal bugged me so much.
Tseloni performed the tap, which left me to just check vitals and keep the patient as still as possible. He—455—flinched from my touch as he always did, but I tried to be gentle, curling my hand around his shoulder instead of just taking his arm. He was panting with the pain; whatever sedative he was being given, and, strangely, I wasn't privy to that information, it wasn't primarily an analgesic.
Before I realized it, I found myself doing something I'd never done before. Out of Tseloni's line of sight, I reached down and massaged one of the fists that were tightly clenched in the leather restraints.
His eyes struggled open, staring at me with emotions I didn't know how to read.
I kept rubbing the rigid fingers until his grip loosened, then I slipped my hand into his. "It'll be over soon," I soothed.
Tseloni looked up at me disapprovingly. We weren't supposed to talk to the patients any more than necessary.
I just shrugged back. If pushed, I could say that calming the patient made the procedure easier.
The dark eyes—brown?—watching me from the table suddenly softened, and the hand around mine clamped down hard.
My mouth went dry. Was he in that much pain? Or just that hard up for any show of kindness? What the heck was going on here, anyway?
I didn't say another word, but I let him hang on to me and kept the eye contact, and slowly, slowly, he relaxed. By the time the procedure was done, the glazed look had returned and he was dozing.
My hand hurt by the time I could ease it free. And something inside me twisted painfully, too.
I busied myself with my other patients the rest of the day and tried not to think about 455…but not with a lot of success.
What had I gotten myself into?
Drug reaction tests started the following day.
By the time I got there in the morning, there was already a new drip in place, and I flinched as I checked the medication. Atropine was great for heart trouble, but not so much for a healthy person, let alone in these quantities. Were they trying to induce delirium?
He was already pulling at the restraints, skin dry—that was the drug, otherwise I had no doubt he would've been bathed in sweat—neck taut with effort. He was rambling, sharp barks of words that were garbled and might even have been another language. The EEG was hooked up, electrodes trailing off his face and scalp, and the monitor was going wild. Whatever Hell he was in, I didn't envy him.
I bit my tongue while Tseloni calmly checked readings and settings and dosage, completely ignoring the patient's obvious discomfort. But when he walked out the door, I quickly uncovered 455's hand, wincing at the sight of blood around the fingernails digging into his palm. I tried to coax his fist loose again, giving up when it was clear he wouldn't be relaxing anytime soon.
Instead, I moved up to his head and, with a moment's hesitation, put a hand on his forehead. "Hey. Try to take it easy," I said.
His eyes flickered, not quite opening, but he turned his head toward me. Falling silent to listen. No, straining to listen.
I didn't realize I was such a pushover, but the desperate longing of his response prodded at something deep down in me. I couldn't not respond. "You'll be all right," I faltered. "It'll be done soon."
His voice was hoarse from all the muttering. "De—"
Was he married? I hadn't seen a ring on his left hand, not that they couldn't have easily removed it. "I'm sorry, I'm not Dee," I said, surprised to find I meant it. "But I'll stay with you for a while, okay? The worst will be over soon."
His eyes half-opened at that, and I was concerned to see how sluggish they were, pupils blown wide, fear and pain naked inside. This wasn't right. This wasn't what we were supposed to do.
He shivered under my touch. "Please." He sounded raw, and this was more than just talking himself dry. It almost sounded like he'd been screaming, but surely that couldn't be right. "P-please. Call De— Oh, God!" His head snapped back, mouth open in a silent cry at some new onslaught, and then his vitals went haywire.
I flew into motion. Tseloni darted into the room a moment later to help.
It took a while to stabilize him, and then the guy slipped into unconsciousness. At least he'd find a little peace now. I was stupidly relieved.
And more shaken than I was willing to admit. Especially when Tseloni questioned me at length about what had happened and if the patient had said anything and what I thought. I gave all the right answers—he didn't make any sense, and I hoped we could help him—but, honestly? I was pretty sure I didn't believe it anymore.
That was the night I came home to a visitor in my apartment.
I'd taken these classes at the Y, women's self-defense basics. I knew how to stomp on a guy's instep, jab an elbow into his gut, and go for his throat or eyes. I felt ready to take on somebody who took me on.
I had no plan of attack for someone waiting for me in my apartment, sitting across the room in my easy chair with a gun.
Even as I caught sight of him in the shadows, my hand still on the door knob and my brain starting to scream at me to run, he rose. Casual and sinewy and so awfully sure of himself, I knew I wouldn't get very far. I should've been terrified, but I think I was too numb.
And then he spoke, and not what I expected. "We need to talk."
"Right," I said weakly. "Talk. With a gun."
One eyebrow went up, and he lifted the gun. But even as my knees shook, he turned it sideways, showing me as he pulled his finger out of the trigger guard with exaggerated movements, and laid it down on my coffee table. "I won't hurt you," he promised.
I tracked every move, not quite believing him. "Who are—?"
"No, see, I ask the questions. You answer. Got it?"
I nodded stiffly, my hand slick on the door knob.
"I'm looking for someone. Someone I think you might know." He came closer, and I shrank back a little, but he just held his hands up, palms out. Calm down. Right, like that was going to happen while he was in my home. One of the hands twisted, and he was suddenly holding a picture. "Him."
It took me a moment to focus on it…and I wasn't too surprised by what I saw when I did: 455. In better days, smiling and bright-eyed. He had dimples.
I swallowed, looking from the picture to the guy. Who, come to think of it, had eyes an awful lot like 455, although anger burned in his instead of my patient's rebellion and fear. I swallowed again, slid my hand off the knob to clutch my purse strap instead. "You're related."
The same eyebrow rose again. "He's my brother."
I closed my eyes. "I need to sit down."
Which was how I ended up on the sofa across from the guy who'd broken into my apartment. Apparently, 455's brother.
His very angry and, I could quickly see, worried brother. Who told me a story I found hard to believe, except, it sort of made sense.
Sam—that was 455's name—was psychic. Not the woo-woo kind, but honest-to-God, visions-from-Hell kind of psychic. And five days before, he'd disappeared outside their motel room after a late-night soda run. My guest had finally tracked him to the Center, I wasn't even asking how. And then he'd found me.
"So…he's not in there voluntarily," I said slowly. Which, all right, was maybe obvious, except sometimes patients checked themselves into treatment centers and then changed their minds, requiring involuntary care. Psychiatric hospitals would be nearly empty if that weren't the case.
But the Center wasn't a psych ward, at least not my wing. I still don't know exactly what they all did, and research into psychic abilities would have actually explained a lot, but I'd never seen restraints used before. I guess I'd thought—I guess I'd told myself—455 was a danger to himself, or he just needed restraining for the tests. But really? I was starting to realize I'd gotten pretty good at looking the other way.
It wasn't a pleasant truth. That wasn't what I'd gotten into nursing for, either.
Gunman-guy's jaw had flexed the same way as his brother's at my question. "No," he scoffed. "What kind of research do you think your bosses do, lady?"
I colored at that a little. "That's need-to-know." The company line.
"Right." He dragged it out. "And as long as they're paying you, you don't need to know. So, how's that working out for you?"
I glared at him, but…he was right. I hated to admit it, but he was right. I still glared a moment more, then asked suddenly, "What's your name?"
His turn to be surprised. "Dean," he said after a moment's pause.
I almost laughed. "Huh. I thought you were a girl."
His eyebrows made for his hairline.
"Your brother—Sam—he was asking for a Dee," I clarified.
The smugness, the self-confidence unexpectedly faltered, a raw plea creeping into their place. "I need to get him out of there. You think you can help me with that? Please?"
And slowly, despite my better judgment, I found myself nodding.
Overnight, 455—Sam's—drug trials had turned from hallucinogens to paralytics. When I came into the room the next morning, only Sam's eyes turned to me.
The anguish in them twisted something in me. I looked up at that uncaring jerk Tseloni. "Maybe," I offered carefully. "Maybe we could remove the restraints, as long as he's medicinally immobilized."
Tseloni met my stare from the other side of the table where he'd been taking notes, and glared. How had I not noticed before how the man had no humanity in his eyes? "The subject will remain as he is."
"But we haven't been turning or exercising him—bed sores—"
"He won't be here long enough for bed sores or muscle atrophy. And this isn't up for discussion, Nurse."
My heart beat a little faster. I didn't realize we were that much on a timetable. "How much longer do you think for all the tests?"
Another sharp look, but I stayed cool. The question was purely professional, right? "Probably another four days before he's transferred," Tseloni finally answered. Of course, I would never be told to where. That was need-to-know.
I nodded and got to work. Avoiding those desperate eyes.
I figured the room was being monitored somehow even though there were no obvious cameras. I'd lost a lot of my naivety in the last few days. Still, after Tseloni left, as I leaned over to check the saline drip, I bent my head down next to the dark curls and dared murmur, "It's okay, Sam."
His eyes widened, first in surprise, then gratitude.
I smiled a little at him, patting his hand before I continued my work.
The next time my rounds took me in to check on him, the succylcholine had worn off and he was flushed and hazy again. The soft mumbles rolling out of his mouth were almost intelligible, but now I could make out "Dean," as well as "no" and "please."
"Hang in there, honey," I said softly, pressing on his arm, but I didn't think he'd heard me.
I'd rarely been so reluctant in my life to go home at the end of the day.
"Pain stimuli tests start tomorrow," I said quietly into my coffee mug.
It was late in our second evening together. I was almost used to the anger that burned in Dean's eyes now, knowing it wasn't directed at me, but the occasional softly vehement curse still took me aback. "What'll they do to him?"
I told him. Watched him go ashen from the details and almost reached to check his pulse.
The next moment, he was up and out of my dining room chair, his back to me, hands braced against the wall. I barely flinched when he banged his fist against the wallpaper. Pretended not to hear the whisper of his brother's name.
I gave him a minute, then cleared my throat. "It's only for a few more days, right? If he's half as strong as he seems, he'll be all right."
Dean's head dropped, and there was silence for several seconds. Then his back stiffened, chin rising. By the time he turned back to me, nothing was visible but the banked fury. "All right," he said. "All right, let's go over it again, every room and employee and schedule."
I sighed and refilled my coffee cup from the pot on the table. It was going to be a long night.
"And tomorrow," he added, more muted, "I want you to give him a message for me."
Pain studies were more hands-on, so I had few other patients scheduled. Two phlebotomies and a quick physical later, I hurried to what I now thought of as Sam's room.
Veronica had told me as she'd signed out that he'd had a hard night, and something about her tone made me think she was having second thoughts about her job, too. But I didn't know her well enough to dare exchange more than a look—this stinks—and so her vague warning was all I had to go on as I slipped inside.
It took him obvious effort to turn his head toward me, and I swallowed something bitter at the sight. Geez, he looked terrible. Sweat plastered those dark locks to his head around the ever-present EEG pads, and his skin was almost the color of those white circles. The sheet was down to his waist, his chest dotted with electrical leads above and below the wide leather restraint, and under the sheen of perspiration, he was shivering. Worst of all, his movements, his pupil response, was lethargic. He was drugged again, probably aware of little but pain and helpless to fight it on any level.
I'd seen electro-muscle stimulation units used before to therapeutically exercise atrophied muscles. For a moment, that was what I thought I was looking at beside the table, but the box's real nature quickly became clear. As I moved closer, it made a soft zapping noise, and Sam's long body jolted, chest muscles spasming. He groaned low in his throat in response, neck working to keep the reaction in.
I felt my own face pale. Oh, God. This wasn't medicine; there was nothing wrong with his musculature. This was torture, plain and simple. I turned around…and almost walked right into Tseloni.
"What's going on?" I found my tongue, trying not to let it drip with acid.
"Pain-stimulus test, as you're well aware. Is there a problem?"
Another soft groan behind me raised my hackles even more. "How about that?" I pointed back at him.
Tseloni cocked his head, studying me like a bug. "It wouldn't be a pain study without discomfort."
I think I gaped at him a moment. He'd pretty much just renounced his Hippocratic oath right there, and there wasn't a darn thing I could do about it. I cast around for another argument. "Then there's no reason he can't be sedated for this—you can still check for physiological reactions without the psychological."
"We're testing for everything," Tseloni snapped. "Not that I need to explain anything to you."
And he was right. Push too hard, and I'd ruin everything. I had to rein myself in, back off the thin ice. "Of course, Doctor." I forced my eyes down. Good girl. "I just meant, there's no reason the…subject needs to be awake for this. Surely it would be easier and more effective—"
"This conversation's finished." Tseloni shut the file. "Do your job, Nurse, or we'll have to review your position here."
I nodded jerkily, counting to ten as I did. There wasn't anything else I could do. Not right now.
I trailed after Tseloni as he went over to the table and checked connections, readings. He dispassionately shone a light into Sam's eyes, not reacting to the garbled plea that slipped out of the cracked lips, then made some notes. Lastly, he adjusted something on the box by the bed. Increasing the current, I guessed, because the next time it zapped, Sam's back arched weakly with it, a guttural sound torn from his throat.
I bit my lip until I tasted blood. "Could we…" I started feebly. At Tseloni's cold look, I plunged on. "Perhaps we could decrease the sedation so at least he's a little more aware?"
Thin lips tightened even more, but he finally gave a terse nod. "Good idea. Cut the dosage by half."
I nodded, hurrying to obey. On the one hand, Sam would actually feel the pain a little more, which was probably what Tseloni wanted, sadist that he was. But on the other, Sam might be able to follow what was going on a little more, too, to brace himself better against it and know he just had to hold out a while longer and it would be over. To be trapped in nothing but confusion and pain… I cringed.
The door finally shut behind Tseloni.
I went back to the other side of the table, the side Sam's face was turned as he wheezed in air. I didn't dare adjust the setting on the box, but I blotted the sweat off his chest as much as I could, got him a cup of water. The next shock hit while he was drinking, and he nearly bit through the paper cup, but I petted his damp hair, kneaded his doubtless aching chest and shoulder muscles.
When his eyes finally cleared enough to see me, I smiled at him. "You'll be all right," I said. "It'll be over soon, um…" I hesitated, unsure about what I was about to say. "…bitch," I finally finished.
The word was unfamiliar in my mouth, not to mention not exactly the most reassuring thing I could think to say to a person. But its effect was immediate and dramatic, even on my drugged and suffering patient. He blinked at me. And then tears suddenly pooled in his eyes, rolling down his already wet cheeks, disappearing into his hair.
Five days he'd been there, put through all manner of painful and intrusive tests, and that one word was what finally broke him.
"Shh, it's okay, just hang in there," I coaxed, adding meaningfully, "Just a little longer."
He nodded clumsily, seemingly as aware as I that we were probably being watched. I didn't expect anything more than that acknowledgement, certainly wasn't expecting it when he licked his lips and husked out, "Thank you."
So…who cared about a six-figure job, anyway, right?
I didn't know where he spent the day, and he disappeared when I went to bed. But Dean had been there both times I'd gotten home, and I darn well hoped he'd be there today, too. I flew through the door already calling for him, tossing my purse aside as I went.
"What's wrong?" He was standing frozen in the kitchen doorway, a beer in his hand. Between us was my paper-strewn dining room table, and I wondered for a crazy moment when my home had become a base of operations.
"I just found out when I was about to leave. Dean, they have Sam scheduled for surgery tomorrow. Brain surgery."
He went white. For a moment, I thought he'd drop the bottle he was holding. Then that maybe he'd break it, as he flushed and his eyes went dark. Not pain-dark like his brother's. Homicidal dark.
And then it vanished. Hidden God only knows how, because his hand barely trembled as he sat down at the table and set the bottle aside. His eyes were carefully empty when Dean looked up at me, and that was the moment it sank in: this was going to happen. No more ideas and planning and hope. Dean was getting his brother back, and God help anyone who stood in the way.
"We need to get him out tonight," he said, and his voice was as carefully neutral as his face. Who were these two? This wasn't just a determined brother; I felt like I was looking at a soldier. A soldier who'd reached the end of his limits. "You have to go back."
I nodded mutely.
"Good." His nod was sharp, hard like everything else about him now. "I've got a plan."
I sat down and started listening.
Amy worked the evening shift, and while I knew her even less well than Veronica, there was something about her I trusted. Of the three of us, she was the only one I wondered about sometimes, why someone as quiet and obviously a people-person as she had ended up someplace like this. There had been dread in her voice as she'd asked the day before about Sam—it was hard to think of him as 455 now—and when she saw me walk in that evening, surprise quickly turned to hopeful relief. And, maybe, a glimmer of something more. Approval?
Which was good, because I needed her help. As much as I'd worked out with Dean, I knew the plan still hinged on Amy not being suspicious, on her cooperation. It was a big if, and one Dean had struggled with. I was the one who'd vouched for my fellow nurse. And I really hoped I was right.
"I lost my earring someplace in here." It was lame, but security, the bosses, everyone but the nurses were men, and they expected weak feminine excuses. "Family heirloom." I shrugged lamely. "I'm just gonna look around for it, okay?"
Amy blinked. Then smiled. "Sure. You wanna check the exam rooms while I look around here?"
Thank God, thank God, thank God… "Thanks," I said warmly. "I'll just be a minute."
The only concession to the late hour in Room 2 was that the leads had been removed from Sam's chest, the sheet back up almost to his shoulders. He wasn't asleep, his head slumped sideways as he breathed carefully through his mouth. Still obviously in pain, and with a frown I searched for the source. Nothing obvious.
I reached into my pocket and pressed the button on my cell phone. After a five count, I took a breath; if it was going to happen, it already had. Another breath, then I pulled back the sheet…and just stared for a moment in horrified disbelief.
Apparently, the "pain-stimuli studies" hadn't been completed. Several clamps were strategically attached to thin-tissue areas—the more painful ones—tightened just enough to no doubt be excruciating while not causing permanent damage. Sam grunted with the release of each one, sobbing once on the last, and after I was sure there really wasn't any damage, I took a moment to stroke his hair, shush him.
Then I coaxed his fist open. When it loosened, I slipped something into his hand and saw him blink slowly as he felt it and tried to figure out what it was. Comprehension dawned, then joy, and finally determination. His hand curled shut around the thick silver ring, and I could almost see him drawing strength from it.
I rubbed his arm and got to work.
The catheter had to come out, and no less than three IVs. One wasn't even labeled, and I scowled as I worked, wondering again how I'd ended up here. All the leads detached, I started in on the restraints next.
I quickly realized they probably hadn't been moved since the spinal tap days before. The skin was red underneath, bruised across his wrists and ankles and hipbones, blistered in a few spots from chafing. Worse, his body was practically unresponsive. Muscles spasmed and twitched, but all his limbs were deadened from poor circulation. He flopped like a rag doll, and pretty soon he'd be in agony as blood flow and sensation returned.
There was no helping that now, though. I trusted Dean had taken care of the cameras and was working on the guards, but we didn't have forever, or another chance. I'd be out of a job after tonight. Heck, I'd probably be in a lot more trouble than that, but one thing at a time.
I got some scrubs out of the cabinet in the corner and dressed Sam briskly and professionally. He tried to help support himself, but there just wasn't enough strength there, and I didn't have time to coddle him. Finally, he just hung on to the ring and watched me as I worked, dark eyes following my every move. I wondered absently what they looked like when they were normal size and not full of suffering and confusion.
There wasn't anything to put on his feet, but we were out of time anyway. I bent over him and stared him in the eye. "Sam? I need you to try to hold yourself up for me, okay? I'll do the rest, but try to keep your knees locked if you can."
He nodded a little. "Okay," he whispered.
"Good. We'd better go." Then I grinned at him. "Dean doesn't exactly strike me as the patient kind."
And darned if he didn't smile a little then, too.
I heaved him to his feet and got my five-seven frame under his shoulder. He easily had a half-foot on me, even taller upright than he'd looked on the table, but he was already sagging. I could feel him put effort into keeping his legs solid under him, however. I just needed a few minutes, although the more we walked, the more I knew it would hurt. No point in telling him, though. I propped a hand on his chest. "Ready?"
He nodded, or at least his head tipped forward.
We started walking.
Or shuffling. Moving somehow, I'm still not sure how because he was even heavier than he looked and his contribution to the effort was minimal at best. As we struggled out the door, I could hear his respirations speeding up, feel his heart hammering against my hand. His teeth clenched, but small sounds of pain still made their escape as his sleeping body came back to life and abused tissue filled with blood. It had to be like the prick of a thousand needles and I winced in sympathy, but there was no time for it. "Come on, keep going," I coached instead. "Dean's waiting."
That spurred him on, his head determinedly lifting even though it bobbed with every step.
The guard at the end of the hall was gone without a trace. Amy was sitting at the desk, her arms tied behind her, her face pale but composed. When she saw us, her eyes went round, and then, slowly, she nodded. I nodded back.
Sam just gasped and grew heavier.
We weren't going out the front door, with its several other guards between us and freedom. If Dean had done his jobs, the alarms were off on the back stairwell, and that was the way we headed now.
Stairs and a nearly-deadweight six-foot-four guy. I still don't know how I did it. I guess two lives in your hands—three if you counted desperate-Dean out there—was a good motivator.
There was only one guard left, the one at the back entrance. He was still there, but the moment he saw us, he was hurrying us to a waiting car. He slid in the front seat, while I shoved Sam in the back and climbed in after him.
"Go," I said tersely as soon as we were safely in, and the car peeled out of the lot.
I'd just turned to start checking Sam over, when there was a rumble of sound behind us. Startled, I looked back over my shoulder to see flames shooting out one of the windows in my wing. My mouth gaped; Dean hadn't told me about that part of his plan. Amy, I thought belatedly, momentarily panicking, but realized just as quickly that I hadn't actually seen her tied to the chair, just her hands restrained. And Dean had promised she wouldn't get hurt.
Seeing as I was in a car with a security guard from the place I'd just broken out of, the guy I'd just broken out with was slumped next to me, and my job was going up in flames behind us, trusting Dean was kind of a moot point by now.
Sam groaned against my shoulder.
There wasn't much I could do for him, but I started rubbing his arms and legs, trying to speed up the return of circulation. It meant more pain, too, but there was no way that could be avoided. I just tried to ignore the moans as I worked, occasionally offering an encouraging word but otherwise intent on getting it over with as soon as possible. Undoing some of the damage I'd been a part of.
We drove a long time. Sam's pain peaked with nail-scrabbling intensity, his back bowed as he gritted his teeth through the worst. Then finally, finally, it began to recede, leaving him even more drained than before, limp and heavy-lidded and not fully aware. My reassurances of "we'll reach Dean soon," were met with increasingly little reaction.
But he was still clutching the ring.
Finally, the car turned into an unlit, empty parking lot. I had no idea where we were and saw nothing in the darkness. I wondered nervously for a moment if we were even in the right place and started to ask the driver, when suddenly bright headlights cut through the black. There was a car not fifty feet away, waiting for us.
I opened my door and slid out, heaving Sam with me. He fumbled a little but otherwise didn't help much, although when I finally got him on his feet, he stood there swaying on his own power. He looked shaky and confused, blinking blindly into the light, face shying away from it and one arm defensively half-raised.
Then a figure cut in front of the light and pulled Sam to him, enfolding him completely in its arms. "Sammy," I heard Dean murmur, voice full of satisfaction and relief.
Sam just stood there for a moment, frozen with shock. And then with a small sound, he melted against Dean, surrendering himself completely like he never had to Tseloni's cruelty.
Something caught in my throat at the sight. Even though I stepped back to give them some privacy, I couldn't help continue to watch. They stood there a long moment, Dean talking quietly to his brother, Sam wearily nodding into his shoulder. He was wrapped too tightly in Dean's embrace to move, but I saw his shaking hands fumble and finally hook onto some part of his brother's clothing, three fingers remaining clenched around the ring.
Then Dean was turning and guiding him away, arm around him, toward the headlights. Which, to my surprise, rumbled closer. It was an SUV, driven by an older man in a baseball cap. He gave me a gruff, assessing look, eyes never softening until they slid over to follow the brothers' progress.
I trailed after them because I wasn't quite done, watching silently as Dean maneuvered Sam up onto the tailgate of the car, then moved inside with him. He settled on the floor against the front of the rear compartment, gathered up some waiting blankets, and started wrapping Sam in them. Once his sleepily-blinking brother was cocooned to Dean's satisfaction, he drew the chestnut head down into his lap, tucked Sam's bare feet in, and dropped an arm around him. Sam's eyes immediately closed, the lines in his face finally relaxing.
Dean looked up at me then. "There's some money in the car, should be enough to tide you over until you can find another job."
I nodded. "That shouldn't be too hard. Although, getting a recommendation from my previous employer'll be a little tricky."
Even in the dim light, I could see the glint of his grin. "Yeah, sorry about that. If it helps any, don't think you'll be getting any grief from them, either."
"That's a lot," I said, totally seriously. "Listen, he's still got a lot of drugs in his system, half of which I don't even know, so no medications for forty-eight hours, not even aspirin, okay? And make sure he drinks lots of fluids and stays warm. I think he's past shock, but you can't be too careful. Also, try to get him to move around a little every once in a while to keep the circulation going. Massaging his limbs will help, too. But he's gonna be really sore and tired for a few days."
"I know—it's not the first time…" Dean blinked, shook his head with a humorless laugh, rubbing his free hand over his mouth as his eyes pulled to his brother, as if he couldn't help himself. "It's okay, I know what to do for him. I've taken care of him before."
I really, really hoped he didn't mean after being kidnapped and drugged and experimented on, because… Well, let's just say I was starting to think the world needed help more than I'd imagined.
"Hey," he said, and I looked up to see his gaze slide from me to Sam and back again. I could feel its intensity even in the dim light. Dean shook his head. "I don't know how to…"
"We helped out each other," I said, then shrugged. "Not exactly how I'd have expected it, but…"
Dean breathed a laugh, hand moving up and down Sam's chest without even looking when his brother stirred. "M'sorry."
"Don't be. Just…no more breaking into my place again, okay? Phones work really well, too."
Dean nodded. "Deal." He winked, smiled a little. "Thank you, Ellie."
I smiled back. "You're welcome."
He reached back and knocked on the seatback behind him as I shut the door and stepped back, then watched the SUV pull away.
A few seconds went by. Then I turned to the guard—Tim, I thought I remembered his name was—and sighed. "So…you want to go get a cup of coffee?"
I didn't expect to see them again, but then, Dean was nothing if not surprising.
I was sitting in the café down the street from my apartment, indulging in a latté and sorting through job offers. Yeah, I'd actually gotten several, and while none paid quite as well as my old job, they weren't asking for a piece of my soul, either, so it seemed a fair trade. No matter what my issues with the Center, at least they'd let me pay off my debts, so I could afford to be picky with my next job. And the standard hospital position was starting to sound pretty good.
As for the Center, they'd disappeared. Almost literally. The building was still there, or what was left of it, but it looked completely deserted as I'd driven by it. I hadn't seen nor heard any sign of Tseloni, Veronica, even Tom—not Tim—after that day. Amy had gotten out; there was a simple thanks and goodbye waiting for me on my answering machine when I got home. So she wasn't one of the two casualties of the fire the paper had mentioned. I wondered if one was Tseloni, a little disturbed by how much I wasn't disturbed at the thought. As for the other—"Sam"? I wouldn't have put it past Dean to arrange the subterfuge somehow to make sure they left his brother alone. All I knew was that I'd gotten a tersely worded letter from the Center that I wasn't needed any longer, and that was it. No severance pay, but Dean had taken care of that.
Speaking of which… My phone rang.
No caller ID, but I picked up anyway, sipping at my drink. "Hello."
And I knew. Almost choked on my drink, too. "Dean!" I couldn't believe it. It'd been almost a month, and I'd just assumed they were both long gone. I smiled. "You called this time."
"Yeah, well, sort of. Look around."
My head snapped up.
Two good-looking men in the back booth of the café waved.
My chin probably dropped.
Sam slid into the chair across from me, and it was hard to keep from staring. I was right about his eyes: when he wasn't strapped down to a table and full of drugs, they were more green than brown and smiled quietly. Like he did, shy and sincere and all boy-next-door. Well, not next door to me, but considering I'd had a hand in saving him, I thought I was entitled to be a little possessive.
And Dean. He looked completely different, too, as he settled backwards on the chair between Sam and me, and that surprised me more than it should've. Just because he hadn't been tortured didn't mean he hadn't been suffering before. He was actually pretty charming and, unbelievably, even innocent-looking with his face lightened like that. When he grinned this time, I shivered for a whole different reason.
"Well, you two look good," I said a little shyly. It wasn't often I had the undivided attention of one handsome guy, let alone two.
"Thanks to you," Sam said, and his voice was warm and as soft as his eyes. I almost blushed.
"You're not looking too bad, yourself," Dean put in, already poking through the papers on the table. I'd have stopped him except I couldn't deny he had some vested interest here. "Looking for work?" he asked, eyes flicking back up to me.
The question wasn't as idle as it seemed, not the way he asked it. He was concerned about me. "Trying to decide on work," I answered. I held up my cup. "Don't worry, if I can still afford lattés, I'm not doing too bad."
Dean nudged his brother, his mouth twisted up into a teasing grin. "See? Told you that was a chick drink."
Sam rolled his eyes with what looked like long practice, but I saw him rotate his own cup to a little more behind his hands. "Right, because drinking coffee with no milk or sugar makes you a man."
"Hey, just means I don't need a lot of extras. Straight up, that's the way I like it." Dean turned his grin on me.
"Uh-huh," I said dryly. "Except when you break into a girl's apartment and hide in the shadows."
The grin fell. Sam snorted a laugh, and got another sharp elbow for that. I noted clinically there was no hesitation in his movements and the only time he winced was when he received a brotherly jab. His color was good, and he didn't look underfed or unusually tired. I felt a little bit pleased by that.
"I was just trying to get you to talk to me."
"With a gun," I reminded him.
"Hey, you think I would've gotten farther if I'd knocked first? 'Hey, I need your help breaking m'brother out of a mad scientist's lab and, oh, yeah, it might cost you your job but, s'okay, you're just working for soulless vampires, anyway.'"
My mouth twitched. "Might've been interesting to try and see."
Sam's eyes were moving amusedly between the two of us. "So…you two want some privacy or something? 'Cause if I'm in the way here…"
"No," I said, shaking my head and smiling at him. "I'm really glad to see you, Sam." And that the image of him lying clammy and pale in his brother's lap wasn't the last one I had of him.
A large hand slid across the table and covered my much smaller one. "Me, too. I, uh, just wanted to thank you, Ellie, for being with me in there, and for helping Dean get me out. You probably kept him from doing something really stupid—"
"—and, well, you risked a lot to do it. So I know it's not much, but…thank you."
It was the first time he held on to my hand without a hint of desperation. But this time it made me feel better. I nodded, and was pretty sure I did blush this time.
He smiled, withdrew his hand, and glanced at his brother. They agreed on something in that silence, and stood as one. "We have to be going, but if you ever need anything…" Sam slid a piece of paper toward me, a phone number circled on it.
I folded it carefully into fourths, not looking at either of them.
Dean leaned over next to my ear. I thought he was going to break down and say something mushy and grateful, too, or maybe flirt some more, but he didn't. He just chastely kissed my cheek. And smiled at me when he pulled back, even his eyes lighting up with it.
For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing I had a brother.
Sam dragged him away, looking like he was trying hard not to roll his eyes again. I could hear them bickering all the way to the door, never more than a foot away from each other. Dean dodged his brother's slap to the back of his head with practiced grace, then just as casually snagged Sam's jacket and pulled him out of the way of the doorpost he was about to walk into.
I giggled. Slipped the phone number into my purse. Went back to my latté and job search and life.
And knew without a doubt this time what I was meant to do.