Gower's Blessing – A Paragoric Challenge By DeansBabyBird
This was written in response to a challenge by Muffy Morrigan to include paregoric in a story set in the Stanford years and involving a phone call. It became an homage to one of my fav films...'It's a Wonderful Life' too. Thanks Kripke for the loan of your lovely boys.
Dean's breathing was shallow, deliberately so, as the end of each breath delivered a short, but frighteningly sharp, pain to his rapidly pumping chest. He felt distinctly dizzy and nausea threatened to knock him off his already shaky legs and dump him on his ass in the late season snow. He hugged his arms around his ribs looking for some relief; but even that small pressure hurt, and a tight groan slipped past his full lips. He stepped closer and leaned back against the comforting chrome and steel of the Impala; as sprinkles of snow highlighted his dirty blond hair with a halo of soft white, and his curling lashes grew heavy with crystalline moisture.
He dragged his cell clumsily from his pocket; shivering with the fever he was denying, and stared for the 20th time at the speed dial programmed numbers. He felt like absolute hell and to make matters worse he had no idea where John had gone and it had been 4 days now. Four days of a heavy cold, progressing to stubborn flu which in turn became a fever. And to top it all? This god-awful coughing, that tore through him shredding his lungs, leaving him doubled over, spitting up rusty goop with tears pouring down his face.
He wanted to hear a sympathetic voice; to hear someone ask him if he was OK and genuinely care what his answer was.
He wanted Sam.
He hit the speed dial and then shook his head angrily as he realised he had no idea how to have a conversation with his baby brother at this point without it sounding like "Sam, leave Stanford and come back home!". That was the last thing he was prepared to have come from his crusted lips. Dammit he was a Winchester! And he was the one who had given John hell for castigating Sam's decision to go to college. He snapped the phone shut angrily before the connection was made and crawled back into the old Chevy, a stinging self rebuke on his blueing lips.
Sam was laughing, his exam successes written on his alcohol flushed face as he glanced at the failed call alert on his cell. His brow creased in surprise and Jess touched his arm as she watched his long body unconsciously tense as he read the small illuminated screen.
"What is it, Sam?"
He conjured a reassuring smile for her, but it was one that didn't quite reach his deep brown eyes and Jess recognised the difference immediately.
"You Ok? Something wrong?"
The soft touch on his arm tightened, its familiarity giving immediate comfort and allowing the smile to flood his dilated eyes.
"It's OK, Jess..."
He paused, unsure what to say next. Her compelling eyes teased a response from him.
It had been at least 6 months since he'd spoken to his brother and that had been a tense, guilt laden discussion on his part that left the air prickling with unease. He didn't want to have another fake, superficial conversation, whilst 'Why did you leave me hung pregnantly in the air between them. However, neither could he ignore one of his brother's oh so infrequent calls. He nodded apologetically at Jess.
"I need to take this..."
He held the cell phone up, his alcohol-fuelled warmth fading, and slipped away from Jess and her compassionate smile, heading for the door.
The interior of the Impala was familiar and comforting to Dean and he settled wearily into the crazed black leather of the bench seating gratefully. All the same, it was no place to be residing in sub zero temperatures with a raging fever and a cough like a barking walrus. However, beggars are not choosers; and seeing as he had been too sick to go hustle bed and board money in the local pool hall for the last few days, his baby's less than tropical interior would have to suffice. He daren't even turn the heating on any more, as the battery was close to flat. He rummaged awkwardly over the back of the seat looking for his discarded blanket, keen to fend off the icy cold temperatures, and the hot sweats, that his fever was bestowing.
The cell rang as Dean was struggling to wrap the moth-eaten motel blanket around his shivering shoulders; and he fumbled with the buzzing contraption, wheezing with the exertion of multi tasking.
The little screen warned him that his brother was returning his recent, hasty call and he cursed under his breath; unconsciously pasting his best effort at a game face over his increasing pallor, as if Sam could actually see him.
He forced an almost believable lightness into his husky voice and prayed hard for a brief respite in his lung bruising coughing as he answered.
"Hey, Sam. How is everything in the hallowed halls of academic geek-dom then?"
Sam smiled despite himself at Dean's familiar insult, almost thrown off course by his brother's casual distraction techniques. Almost, but not entirely.
"What's up, Dean? Why did you ring me? Dad OK? Is he there? Wherever 'there' is this week?"
Sam paused and listened to Dean's laboured breath for the few seconds waiting for him to respond.
"S'fine...Dad's fine, Sam...He's in...shower ...just now..."
The younger Winchester frowned hearing the breathlessness of his sibling's response and his eyebrows pulled together beneath his unruly chocolate brown bangs. Dean sounded like he used to when he had an asthma attack as a child and Sam was immediately back experiencing the anxiety of seeing his brother desperately struggle for each gasp of air. He could hear, in his memory, his father's calm but concerned voice saying 'Breathe slowly, son' as he rubbed his hand up and down Dean's heaving back.
"Dean, are you OK? Are you hurt? You sound..."
He didn't have time to finish the sentence before impatience smothered him, urgently pushing away the enquiry.
"I'm fine, Sammy...I was just in the shower when you rang and I had to run for the phone..."
He tailed off holding the phone from his mouth, and thus Sam's ear, as he tried desperately to wheeze silently. He wanted to hold back his barking cough but the effort of forcing out a whole sentence on such little oxygen was making his head swim.
If he'd had enough air to keep from seeing little red fire flashes of approaching hypoxia in the periphery of his vision he would have laughed at the irony of the situation. Here he was persuading Sam that he was fine when he really wanted to say 'I feel terrible. I hurt, and I'm worried about Dad. I don't wanna be on my own, Sam.'
He cursed himself quietly for his own stubborn perversity but he couldn't change it. It was so ingrained in him, such an automatic response. He was a protector, and a Winchester, and in his book that absolutely negated his right to ask for help.
"I thought you said Dad was in the shower?"
Sam's question was reasoned, measured and icy cold and Dean cringed. His light-headedness had tripped him up in his lie and he counted the ominous seconds as he sought for a logical answer. His head was fuzzy though and nothing that had any element of plausible deniability emerged.
Sam could hear the tumblers of Dean's 'lie generator' whirring and see the betraying widening of his emerald eyes that always accompanied his brother's misplaced protective 'fantasies'.
The seconds of silence stretched into millennia.
Sam's voice was a soft but irritated growl and, without realising, Dean hugged his arms more tightly about his aching body.
"You showering together now, Dean? Cheaper on motel costs if you do that?"
Dean tried for humour in response to Sam's snark but knew as soon as he got the words out that they had crashed and burned.
"Now, Dude...that'd just be wrong and anyway..."
Dean was broken off when a spasm closed off his trachea and his hurricane force coughing threatened to bring up what remaining lung tissue he had. He could hear Sam calling his name but for the life of him couldn't get enough breath to reply. There was nothing he could do but give in to the paroxysm and hope that he survived through it.
Sam listened to his brother's increasingly breathless and implausible conversation with growing trepidation. He could hear the hitch in Dean's breathing from the get-go and wasn't fooled by his autonomic denials that Dad, himself, the hunt and life in general were fine. He wasn't however prepared for the fit of coughing that sounded like it was providing Dean with an up close view of organs that should clearly stay on the inside of him. He listened to his brother gasp and splutter with an impending sense of dread as his chest tightened in painful sympathy.
"Sa...Sammy? You...still there?"
Dean's voice was a hoarse whisper and Sam knew that he was much more poorly than he was ever going to admit.
"Dean. How long you been like that? Do you have a fever? Have you seen a doctor?"
The questions tumbled from Sam each one of them, he knew, fated to be met with evasion and indifference.
"M'OK, Sam. Got...cold...that's all..."
Those few words stole Dean's entire diminished lung volume and he was forced to halt his rebuttal.
"Dammit, Dean. Why do you do this? You call me and hang up. And then when you do speak, when you have enough oxygen to form a coherent word that is, you talk crap! Do you have any idea how irritating you can be?"
"Well... excuse me for ...breathing..."
Dean was abruptly cut off by Sam's biting retort.
"Or not it would seem, Dean. You sound like a regular at a TB clinic. Now put Dad on. Maybe I can get some sense out of him."
Sam's angry and self righteous manner got right up Dean's very runny nose and he found himself sitting a little straighter in his seat, annoyance and the adrenaline of his anger waking him up from the wearying aftermath of the coughing fit. His words growled out, husky from both sore throat and temper.
"I told...ya, Sam...Dad's not here right now..."
Sam's anger bubbled over.
"No you didn't, Dean. You said he was in the shower. Now which is it? And where the hell are you anyway?"
Dean didn't get to complete his pissy retort as Sam leapt straight back in and the ether transmitted emerald eyed anger hiked up to match Sam's hazel/ green.
"Oh yeah, whatever? So mature a response, Dean..."
Silence, then a buzzing dial tone greeted Sam's annoyed enquiry.
Sam looked furiously at the little illuminated screen and it's call terminated message. He slammed the cell into his jeans pocket, all his frustration and concern seeping into one word.
Sam started from his uneasy sleep; a frown on his face and a knot of tension the size of Mount Rushmore churning in his gut. Jess stirred beside him and he felt her warm skin press against his back as she spooned against him.
Her sleepy voice whispered against his neck, rustling his long hair so it tickled at the sensitive skin below his ear.
"S'OK, Jess. Go back to sleep."
Her arms looped around his chest and he wriggled round to face her, her blue eyes huge in the dim light.
"Still mad about that phone call?"
She raised her hand and stroked soft chestnut bangs from his troubled eyes.
"No, it's not that..."
He lied and she nodded, pretending she believed him.
"I thought I heard a noise downstairs. It woke me."
Jess wriggled up to his chest, yawning.
"I didn't hear anything. Go to sleep."
Sam brushed his hand through her tumbling blond curls as she yawned again. He extracted himself carefully from her warn embrace and quietly rose, padding silently from the bed room to investigate the possibly nonexistent noise.
There was a faint, vaguely medicinal smell of anise and something else as Sam cleared the bottom step and moved fluidly towards the kitchen, knowing now that his instinct had been correct and someone was in the house. He moved with a powerful grace, years of training instinctively, if reluctantly, re-emerging as he closed down the intruder. He stalked to the kitchen door and halted in his startled tracks at what he found.
The man sat quietly at the kitchen table and made no moves that could be construed as threatening, as Sam flicked on the light. They regarded each other, the older man as interested in what he saw as was the younger. Sam's tight grey T-shirt and dark sweats were a modern contrast to the older man's formal tweed pants, collarless shirt and waistcoat. His arms were covered from wrist to elbow with black cotton sleeve protectors and a watch-guard and chain spanned the front of his dark vest. His sparse grey hair was dishevelled, and his eyes red rimmed and rheumy, as he chewed gently at the short butt of a long dormant stogie.
"Name of Winchester?"
His voice was a little slurred and Sam found himself drawn nearer to the old man and nodding. He sat down carefully across the table from the pale older man, the smell of anise and possibly camphor, much stronger in his presence.
The man's eyes took on a brighter hue as Sam looked into them. They were a particularly pale grey/blue and Sam found himself fascinated by them, as he nodded again vacantly.
"I said...you sure, boy?"
His voice was soft and not at all unkind as he spoke around the dry butt of the old cigar that protruded from pale lips.
Sam shook himself a little and found his voice.
"Yes...name of Winchester. Sam Winchester. And you?"
The older name smiled a little, a soft, sad smile that made Sam wonder what had happened to make this man who he was.
"Gower, name's Gower. You can call me Emil if you like."
Sam nodded, knowing somehow that the man had bestowed a kindness on him.
The old man reached down beside him and Sam tensed briefly only to relax again as the man placed a small brown paper bag on the table, its top neatly folded over. He pushed it towards Sam.
"Then this is for you."
Sam reached for the bag, his eyes on the sharp dove grey gaze of the man before him and as he opened the top the previously mild smell of camphor and anise flooded the room. He peeped into the bag and lifted out an old fashioned medicine bottle sealed with a cork.
Sam held the bottle in his hands and read the label, "Gower's Pharmacy. Bedford Falls." There was a strange familiarity about the name but Sam couldn't place it. He looked back at the patiently waiting old man.
"What is it?"
"Camphorated tincture of opium."
Emil saw Sam's lack of recognition and withdrew the stogie, placing it on the table edge as carefully as if it were lit.
"It's for coughs, Sam. Bad coughs. It'll settle ya right down and let ya sleep."
Gower tutted under his breath. Still no recognition! Maybe the boy was slow? Heaven knows his hair was long enough to be sapping his strength. Emil tried again.
"It's paregoric, Sam. I was all out of laudanum so this was the best I could do at short notice."
Sam nodded vacantly, turning the heavy glass bottle over and over in his hands, confusion on his still sleepy face.
"But I don't have a cough."
Gower nodded then and smiled in a knowing way.
"No, but your brother does, and you have a choice whether you do something about it or sit by and let him suffer. Sounds like an easy choice doesn't it, Sam? But then I think being a Winchester is not always as easy as it might be? And maybe Dean's not always the easiest man to be a brother to? Maybe sometimes you wish you could just be yourself? That he was not there to remind you of what you are?"
The old man reached forward and gently patted the back of Sam's folded hand as he spoke and Sam started as his skin was icy cold and had the feel of dry parchment about it. He looked back at those eyes of palest blue and questions of who and what this man before him was swirled in his head. Sam felt like he should be concerned, disturbed even by this man's presence, but somehow he wasn't.
"I bring you a great gift, Sam. A chance to understand what life would be like without your brother, without Dean Winchester."
Dean was freezing cold despite the fetching orange blanket he was clutching around his sweating body, and his head ached like a bitch. He shifted for the 100th time but it did nothing to find him any ease from the exquisite tenderness every time his back contacted the leather of the seat. He tried leaning forward and resting his throbbing forehead on the steering wheel but that made his head spin all the more, so he settled for sitting bolt upright and, as no one else was about, moaning softly.
Well. That conversation with Sam had gone real well. And he could sure plan on a big old hug from his ginormous baby brother any time now. Not!
His stomach rumbled, and Dean pondered on when he had last eaten. Pool hustling was a fairly lucrative source of income for the Winchesters but it did require him to be able to stand unaided from more than 5 minutes and it was also preferable if he didn't hack blood-foamed body parts onto the baize. Just now there was no way he could do either of those things, and therefore burger money had been in very short supply. He reached over to the nearly empty yellow sack on the seat and rummaged his hand down inside to retrieve the last of the peanut M&M's. His staple diet for the last 4 days.
Five left. Three yellows and a blue...umm that'd maybe get him through a few hours. And one majestic, sugary superior red. That'd give him enough of a kick to get him through till morning and then...? Maybe the Easter Bunny would come and bring him more candy, or steak and eggs, or hell he'd even settle for whole wheat toast and that Granola crap that Sam liked so much. He popped the candy pacifiers in his mouth and sucked the crispy shells till they burst on his tongue like chocolate caviar, releasing their carb rich blast of life.
That done, he leaned uncomfortably back against the leather and, closing his eyes, let his chattering teeth serenade him into icy, fitful unconsciousness.
Mr Gower smiled kindly at Sam and accepted the paregoric bottle back from the younger Winchester's open hand. He had the sort of face that was compelling and Sam found himself drawn to the soft melancholy in his dove grey gaze.
"What did you argue about?"
The elderly pharmacist's question was non-judgemental and Sam found himself colour with a reticent embarrassment as he replayed the recent conversation with his brother in his head. The anger, annoyance, rage even that he felt towards Dean still bubbled within him but it was mellowed with a tang of shame and regret, and he found himself reluctant to meet the knowing gaze of his companion.
"It was stupid really..."
"These things usually are, Sam."
Young hazel eyes met older blue in a wealth of understanding and compassion and Sam seized the easy permission that the look bestowed.
"He's irritating, Emil! He waits months to call me, and I have to sit here not knowing whether he'll ever speak to me again and then when he does he rings off without a word. What am I supposed to make of that?"
The older man nodded slowly, understanding that he had no need to prompt Sam's words any further. They were there waiting to spill forth and all he had to do was martial them as they flowed.
"And then when I finally find him all I get from him is smokescreens and half truths and outright lies!"
Sam paused, aware that his voice had risen at least an octave as he ranted. He raised his large hands, spreading them in apology. The older man waved them away graciously.
"He's guarded in what he tells you?"
Sam laughed, a sarcastic little snap of a laugh containing little humour and much regret.
"You could say that, Emil. My brother is often a totally closed book. He thinks he's protecting me. If you asked him he'd say it's his job."
He glanced at the old man knowing he sounded juvenile but unable to do anything about it.
"And it's not?"
Gower's face was carefully neutral. This was a key question, maybe the question, he had to have Sam answer for himself if he were ever to really understand and appreciate his brother. He waited, using the silence and stillness of the night to focus the simmer of rage before him.
Sam opened his mouth; an immediate, certainly flippant answer ready to drip from his lips, but he took pause as Gower's steadily patient curiosity eased his ire. He considered for a moment as knowing eyes watched his contemplations.
"Maybe it is. At least maybe it is to Dean."
He glanced up suddenly unsure what he was saying.
"It's a terrible job though, Emil. He's been hurt so many times and I feel that he shouldn't have to..."
Gower's thin hand rose a little from its rest atop its companion and Sam halted immediately; such was the power of the small man's presence.
"Maybe that's not yours to determine, Sam. Maybe you have just to accept that this is your role and that's Dean's."
The old man paused, waiting nervously for Sam to consider his words. He used the seconds to study the boy and the urgent expectancy of his youth pulled at Gower's brittle heart. He saw before him another young strong boy, so full of piss and vinegar, proud in his Country's uniform and so ready to fight any enemy before him. Then he saw the telegram that had torn his heart; his father's heart, from his grieving body, and he knew he would do all he could to help this man.
"Sometimes I think it'd be easier..."
"Easier what, Sam? Easier on Dean if he wasn't your brother?"
Sam nodded slowly, his voice almost inaudible.
Gower cut him off.
"Or easier if you didn't have the guilt of knowing that it is his job to be there for you, to look out for and protect you? Easier if you didn't have a big brother?"
Sam's head shot up then, his voice full of denial and his eyes full of guilt at Gower's nailing of his shameful unvoiced secret.
"Very well then, Sam. I see we need to do this so let me show you what life without Dean would have been like!"
Dean woke suddenly as another huge coughing fit wracked his feverish body. He crawled one arm defensively around his aching ribs and gripped the steering wheel with the other, unworried anymore for covering his mouth as shudders of volcanic proportion shook his spasming body. Tears ran unchecked from his wide green eyes and he was only vaguely aware of the snow falling beyond the windscreen as he hung in there waiting for the paroxysm to fade.
In time the fit lessened to a wheezy serenade and he raised a shaky hand to his chin wiping away distinctly unattractive, sticky goop, as his heart pounded in his heaving chest.
The curse was gravelly and rich with the wretchedness he was feeling and the observer knew there was no way that Dean would have uttered it had he known anyone was there to hear. The boy was in a state and he had work to do. He brushed the gathering drift of snow off the Impala's rear door handle and, bracing himself, opened the squeaky door and slipped into the backseat.
The sudden in rush of cold air as the door opened sucked Dean's already insufficient breath from his struggling lungs and the painful-to-hear wheezing threatened to ramp back into another wholesale coughing fit. He could see little sparkles of light marking his way to unconsciousness and he had to fight to keep from pitching over in a dead faint as the lack of rich oxygen fuzzied his brain. All the same he tightened the grip he had on the colt where it rested on the seat beside his thigh, and turned to his unexpected guest suspiciously.
The words were gasped out to the accompaniment of coughs, plumes of spit of dubious colour and looks of distinct, pale jade suspicion. All of which the observer ignored, preferring instead to busy himself with the contents of the small black Gladstone bag he lay on the seat next to him.
Impossibly green eyes widened and the observer chuckled inwardly, whilst keeping his outward demeanour carefully calm and still. He could sense contained menace oozing in clouds from the struggling man before him and had no wish to move him to demonstrate all that he was clearly capable of.
"It is Dean, isn't it?"
The older Winchester nodded, bemusement on his pale face, as his vision faded in and out as encroaching hypoxia threatened him with unconsciousness.
"Good, then this is for you."
The slight man lifted an old-fashioned medicine bottle from the bag beside him and the interior of the cold Chevy was instantly fragranced with camphor and anise.
Dean gasped the words around hastily snatched breaths, his chest pumping fiercely, hoping that the shallow rapid breathing he dare allow would pull in enough oxygen to keep him lucid for a while longer.
"It's just paregoric, son. It'll calm down that coughing and help you sleep."
The observer watched as suspicion remained in the pale, somewhat unfocussed eyes. Time for another approach.
"Sam sent it for you."
The eyes changed instantly. There was an acceptance. No, it was more than that even. There was an instant comfort in the name that softened the man's face from hardened hunter to caring protector to, if you looked really hard, vulnerable child. Not that this man ever really allowed himself the luxury of the latter. But still the observer saw wary reserve in the verdant green. He raised the bottle to his mouth, its narcotic sweetness caressing his own lips and sipped the viscous liquor.
He lowered the bottle.
"It won't harm you and you'll feel better if you still your coughing and sleep a little."
He held the bottle towards the wavering man's trembling hand, kind eyes urging him to allow himself relief.
Dean grasped the bottle at second attempt, the first missing as he grabbed at the ghost image his blurred vision shared with him. He raised it to his nose and sniffed the pungent medicine. It reminded him of the aniseed candy that Bobby had always had stashed in the den when they had visited him as children.
The coughing fit came out of nowhere, or perhaps a product of the potency of the paregoric fumes, but the violence of the attack was severe. Were it not for the observers steadying hand the precious medicine would have decorated the interior of the Impala, along with Dean's hacked up, bloody froth.
He felt the bottle pulled from his fingers and then a firm hand on his chin gently tilting back his head as he shook and shuddered. The paregoric was thick and sticky as it coated his throat, burning warmly down into his belly and the narcotic effect of the camphorated opium on his empty stomach and fevered brain was instant.
His coughing lessened quickly to a rattly wheeze and his eye lashes fluttered on a lake of velvet green as he drifted into a much needed sleep.
Sam blinked his eyes in disbelief and watched as the small casket was lowered into the grave; one of two graves cut side by side into the cold earth of an unremarkable cemetery, and he looked to Emil for explanation of how they came to be in this changed landscape.
"We are observers only, Sam. We have no real place here and therefore cannot affect the events we see directly. That is why we see only elements of the whole picture before us. We are shown only that which we need to see."
The old man seemed suddenly stronger, less fragile as Sam nodded his understanding.
"Who are they?"
He twitched his head toward the forlorn matched caskets and Emil's expressive eyes clouded with grief.
He paused briefly allowing Sam to gather himself, watching the young man's eyes tear for the 'never-had' memories of his mother's touch.
"She died in a ..."
Sam's soft voice paused the older man's.
"In a house fire."
He completed as a whisper of grief, and Gower nodded, the young man's pain of loss as raw as that etched on his own shattered heart.
"And the other?"
Sam's voice was quiet with trepidation. He remembered Emil's words and he knew what the gentle, sorrowful man beside him was going to say, but still it tore the breath from his body as he heard the name.
"The other belongs to Dean Winchester, Sam...Mary's older boy. Your brother."
The older man heard the start of air as Sam's dark eyes flew to the casket. He watched the blood drain from the hunter's face and he remembered the cacophony of loss and pain that was his own grief because he saw it again written all over his companion.
Sam's fingers gripped the older man's bony forearm, disbelief and denial in his glistening eyes.
"It can't be Dean. He survived the fire, Emil. He carried me from the flames. I survived because of him."
Sam's earnest face was tense with distress and the old man almost hesitated in his task. Hating the cruelty of his disclosures.
"No, Sam. Not in this place. Here, Dean died with your mother. Your father carried you to safety, but they died and that was the beginning of a somewhat different life for you."
Sam's eyes rounded with confusion and Emil patted his hand.
"Come. Don't be afraid. It is something you must face. Come see your life without Dean."
The pillow was soft and smelled of the heady mixture of gun oil and leather and dry powder that were the scent of peace for Dean. His chest still hurt but it was a lesser, background pain that allowed him to breathe a little easier. He wriggled, comfortable in the warmth of the blankets and a gentle hand touched his arm stilling him. He opened huge, opium-dilated eyes onto a vista of fuzzy unfamiliarity.
The voice was kind as it checked the cannula nestled beneath the bandages wrapping his left hand, and tapped the fluid filled bag suspended from the bed head. He looked quizzically at the old man who smiled reassuringly at him.
"Medicine, Dean. Do you feel a little better?"
Dean nodded, the stubble of his cheek grazing the cotton of the pillow case, his head way too heavy to rise. He watched the man lean in and slide his arm around his shoulders, lifting him a little way from the bed. He was surprisingly strong.
"Drink this, Dean."
The little bottle touched Dean's lips and the smell of anise joined the smells of home as more of the pungent syrup soothed his chest. He closed his eyes as safe arms lowered him back to the bed and sleep washed over him like a gentle blanket.
Sam had no idea how long he and Emil walked through the world in which Dean had died. It was only with each mounting image that he came to realise that his brother had silently and willingly given up so much to protect, guide and love him as he had grown up.
In this world, he watched a quiet and nervous child who had no one there to defend him when the class bully called him geek-boy, or drifter. He saw the lonely hours of waiting this 'Sam' endured as John forgot to come to walk him home, and he remembered how Dean had always been there for him after class. Even when he must have wanted to hang with kids his own age, or meet a pretty girl, he had been there to laughingly snatch Sam's books and tease and joke him back to whatever fleabag motel they were calling home that week.
He cringed as the 'Sam' who lived in this unkind world sweated as time and time again he faced the terror of being shy and gauche but without the benefit of a cocky, fierce older brother to protect and love him.
He saw this 'Sam' struggle alone with homework and he smiled as he remembered the hours that he and Dean had spent curled up on musty motel sofas pondering some dastardly assignment or other. He thought, with embarrassment, about the number of times he had started by petulantly saying 'I can't do this...' only to end with an A on his report card, whilst Dean would scrape through with grades that didn't reflect his quick wit and sharp brain. But this 'Sam' had no selfless older brother to see he didn't fall behind with classes as his oblivious father dragged him from terrifying hunt to dingy motel and back again, and this 'Sam' suffered as a result of that unintended neglect.
Emil showed him this child's nightmares as he sat in faceless but terrifying hospital corridors all alone, as creature after creature beat the crap outta John because he had no warrior Dean to back him up. And Sam contrasted that with memories of Dean protecting him whenever he could from the terror of his father's frequent injuries. He remembered journeys to Bobby's or Pastor Jim's with his father passed out in the back of the Impala and a way too young Dean driving them steadily through the night to safety. Of those times Sam remembered not the adrenaline fuelled panic that his brother must have felt, but the adventure that Dean made for him in an illicit night time road trip.
Emil showed him, too, the myriad times that this reality's 'Sam' had been bruised and broken by things that no child should have to understand, let alone fight. He saw the child whose eyes were way too old with the burden of knowledge and whose body was scarred with the rents of the underworld. Sam thought then of all the times that Dean had run and fought to ensure he stood before him in the line of fire. He had heard again Dean's pain filled voice comforting him, saying 'M'fine, Sammy. Don't cry. It's Ok...chicks dig scars!"
So it was that the unlikely pair made their journey through 'what might have been.' And with each insightful and heart rending step Sam walked silently beside Emil, as his heart screamed to have his brother back before it was too late and this soft nightmare became a malignant reality.
Emil's soft eyes held Sam's, as the deep hazel brimmed with tears.
"A very good friend of mine, Clarence, once said to me...'Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole doesn't he?' I guess you need to go make sure that your life doesn't have an unnecessary hole in it?"
Sam nodded, too choked to speak.
"I guess maybe you have somewhere to be then?"
Sam smiled then and the old man rose from Sam's kitchen table and turned for the door, where he stopped.
"Damn! Forget my head if it wasn't nailed on, Sam."
He extended his arm towards the young hunter and Sam took from him the small paper sack with the paregoric bottle inside.
"Dean's cough medicine. The very thing I came to bring you."
Sam took the package and also Gower's hand.
"Thank you for this, Emil. I think you came to bring more than a bottle of medicine."
The old man smiled and patted Sam's arm.
"Now go find your brother, Sam."
Dean opened his eyes, squinting in the soft morning light and stretched gingerly, his hand guarding his chest as he did. He was relieved to find that the simple pressure of his own hand was no longer enough to make his head spin. He screwed up his courage and tested a slightly deeper breath to see if his lungs could expand beyond the size of a walnut without flinging him into walrus mating call territory.
Sam jerked awake as Dean groaned softly and lifted his head from the cold puddle of drool he had left on his laptop lid. He had to stop using it as an impromptu pillow as one of these days he'd freaking well fry himself. Wiping dribble from his long hair he was at Dean's bedside in two long strides, bending to place his large hand on his brother's forehead.
Dean's eyes re-opened at the familiar feel of a huge hand covering his brow and found himself staring up into a concerned hazel gaze.
His voice was an over exercised croak, the result of days of walrus love noises, and Sam smiled at the gravel.
"You sound as rough as you look!"
Dean reached up and swatted away his baby brother's giant paw, wriggling in his nest of blankets as he coughed gently.
Still breathless but at least now each word didn't feel like someone was sawing through his lungs with a cheese wire.
"At least...I don't have drool all...over me, dribble-boy. Help me up here!"
Sam nestled Dean back against the headboard and sat down on the second bed, the one furthest from the door.
"Umm, sorry to tell you gorgeous...but you're not exactly a sputum free zone."
Sam waved a hand at Dean's chin and he dragged a hand over the crusty stubble smearing a healthy coating of walrus song dampness onto the back of his hand.
They looked at each other then, puzzlement in both green and hazel regard.
"How did you know where I was?"
Dean's voice was quiet as he held Sam's eyes.
"Emil told me."
Dean shook his head in confusion, and then stopped quickly as the floor bucked and span.
"Who's Emil? And by the way...where are we?"
He coughed a little and Sam reached a bottle of water from the night stand and, cracking the top, handed it to his brother.
"Your motel room..?"
Sam looked curiously as Dean lowered the now half empty bottle from his once again pink lips.
"I have a motel room..?"
Dean's wide green eyes flashed around the ugly decor of the western themed bedroom, obviously seeing it for the first time.
Sam's smile became a little more confused.
Dean wriggled, moving his aching chest into a more comfortable place and jiggling the nearly empty drip bag from its perch on the headboard as he did. Sam leaned in and retrieved the bag from Dean's shoulder and placed it on the bed beside his brother's cannulated hand.
"Sam, I've been sleeping in the car for the last week I think. I don't remember checking in here...wherever here is."
"Do you remember ringing me?"
He watched as shiny emerald eyes fled his gaze.
Sam waited till Dean's eyes darted guiltily back to his.
"Were you sleeping in the Impala then?"
Dean nodded, sucking in a breath that made him cough. Sam waited till it subsided.
Dean's eyes darkened, becoming the colour of oak leaves in the spring.
"Been gone 4 maybe 5 days now."
Sam nodded, his lips pursed into a tight line.
"Were you this ill when he left you?"
Sam saw Dean wince involuntarily and his automatic defence of John kicked into overdrive.
"He hadda go hunt a poltergeist, couldn't take me like I was so he..."
"So he took off and left ya. And you too sick to hustle enough money for a bed I assume?"
Dean didn't answer and Sam felt the air prickle between them. He felt Emil's parchment hand on his arm and remembered his words 'When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" That was what John's absence did to Dean and, Sam realised suddenly, was also what Dean's absence did to him.
Sam smiled, and was rewarded with Dean's 1000 kilowatt glare.
Dean shifted again on the narrow bed.
"We're not having a chick flick moment here are we?"
Sam laughed and rose to his full height.
"Nah, dude...You hungry?"
Dean's last 5 M&M's were suddenly a distant memory and his stomach growled as if on cue.
His voice was stronger now food had been mentioned. Sam smiled.
"Feel up to going and getting something?"
Dean flung back the covers and swung his bare feet experimentally to the floor. Ok it span a bit but nothing he couldn't deal with! He glanced at his jean clad legs as Sam hustled a shirt from his duffle.
"Sam, did you put me to bed?"
This was said through the cover of significant wheezing and a T-shirt over the head.
"No, Dean. You were all tucked up when I got here."
Dean shoved his sockless feet into his old boots; socks were an irrelevance when there was 4 day overdue breakfast to be had.
"So the room and the drip..?"
He held his hand up and Sam expertly removed the cannula.
"Here when I got to you, Dean..."
Dean nodded, pulling on the outer shirt that Sam handed to him.
"Must have been that old guy...didn't get his name..."
Sam smiled an odd smile and Dean looked quizzically at his brother.
Sam's voice was soft as he helped Dean to his slightly wobbly feet.
"Did he have dove grey eyes?"
Dean leaned back against Sam's shoulder as his brother led him by the elbow towards the door of the room he didn't recognise.
"Yeah...and he smelled of..."
Sam's voice was full of warmth.
"Camphor and anise?"
Dean's eyes were wide and Sam laughed.
"You know him?"
They exited the room and walked across the parking lot towards the lights of the diner.
"So who was he?"
Dean looked into his brother's eyes.
"He was a friend, Dean. Emil Gower was his name and I suspect he was an AS2!"
Dean's face was softly puzzled.
The noise of the diner washed away Sam's voice as he murmured.
"AS2...Angel second class!"
Hey a review would be real nice. Thanks for reading.