This is, sadly, the last chapter of this story. I'm a bit sad to see it go, it was a lot of fun to write. Thanks a lot for sticking with me through this tale, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it.
It was dark.
And warm. It was too warm in here, and the air was stale and stuffy. Too stuffy to breathe. Not enough oxygen. It was suffocating him, slowly but steadily.
He wanted to move, but there wasn't enough space. Something was restricting him, holding him in the darkness, suffocating him…
He was in a casket!
With that sudden memory, his heart started beating fast in his chest and his breaths were coming in short gasps that didn't give his body as much oxygen as it needed.
He was in a casket. Buried. Dug in under six feet of packed earth and nobody was going to come and rescue him. Nobody was ever going to find him. He was going to die here.
That realization set his body moving frantically against the restraints, trying to bust out of the confined space he was being held in even though he knew it was fruitless.
Metal casket. There was no way he was going to get out of this one. His brain knew that, but his body didn't care. He bucked and strained against the walls that were holding him in, trying to break them down by sheer force of will, before he had breathed up the last of his precious oxygen. There was no plan to what he was doing, no finesse, nothing. Nothing but desperation and the sheer will to survive. And he knew he wasn't going to make it, not with his breaths so rapid that his air was going to run out any second now, but that didn't mean he could stop trying and just accept…
The walls were closing in around him, pushing him down, holding him down until he was dead but he couldn't just let that happen. He had to fight. It was all he had ever learned to do, so he pushed back against it, trying to rise, trying to bust himself free.
"Open your eyes. Hey! Dean! Open your eyes, damn it! You're safe, you're free, but you need to relax man."
Sam's voice. He'd know it anywhere. It was Sam's voice, and that meant Sam was here. That was good, right? Sam wouldn't let him suffocate. Sam would get all worked up and complain, he'd yell at him, punch him maybe. But never let him die. Sam would never do that. But then why couldn't he breathe?
"Dean, you have to relax!"
He wanted to, desperately so. But then something was pressed over his nose and mouth, cutting off even more of the precious little air he had. He could breathe even worse now, how was he supposed to relax? Why wasn't Sam helping him? Why was his brother watching him as he suffocated?
Frantically, he moved his head, trying to dislodge whatever it was that had closed over his nose and mouth and was cutting off his air, but something held him firmly in place.
"Dean. Dean, you're hyperventilating. You have to relax."
Again, Dean tried to jerk his head away form the obstruction over his face. He heard Sam's voice, but the words didn't register. Nothing penetrated through the haze in his head but the thought that he couldn't breathe.
"You have to trust me. It'll help you breathe, man. Just trust me. Please."
That he could do.
Every part of him screamed that he needed to get rid of that thing that was firmly lodged over his nose and mouth, that it was the only thing that kept him from taking a deep breath and finally getting some air, but Sam had asked him to trust him. And Dean did. If there was anybody in this world that he trusted, it was Sam. And Sam said he was going to help. Sam wouldn't let him choke.
Dean took deep gulping breaths, breathing in air that was stale and smelled and tasted slightly of cold fries. He had no idea what was happening, the only thing he was aware of was a strange sound like crumpling paper every time he drew a breath. That, and a warm pressure on the back of his neck that held him firmly in place.
"That's it. Just breathe. It'll be better in a moment, just take deep and slow breaths."
It was difficult at first, exchanging shallow panted breaths for long and deep ones. But after a few tries, Dean noticed that breathing became a little easier. His heart was still beating a mile a minute in his chest, but he was getting there, he felt it. Sam had been right. It was getting better.
As if to confirm his thoughts, Sam's voice sounded in his ear again. "That's it. Deep and slow breaths. You're doing good. Think you can open your eyes for me now?"
Dean wasn't entirely sure he could draw any of his focus away from breathing in and out, deeply and regularly. But there was that worried undertone in his brother's voice that he knew only too well, the one that said Sam was scared and not really willing to admit it. Sam had helped him breathe again, the least he could do was to do something for his brother, as well.
So he opened his eyes.
The room wasn't dark at all. Definitely not as dark as he had thought earlier. It was bright enough so that Dean had to blink a couple of times before everything started to swim into focus.
Not a casket.
He was in a motel room. A dimly lit motel room, but the lamp above the table on the far side of the room provided plenty of light for him to see with absolute clarity that he wasn't in a casket. Not anymore. He was in a motel room, it was night if he went by the lack of natural light, he was sitting up in one of the two beds in the room, and a large hand was pressing a brown paper bag over his nose and mouth.
With a frown he jerked back, and this time the hand against his face let him move away. Dean took a deep, slow breath, feeling the fresh air work its way down his windpipe and into his lungs. It burned a little, but it also was the best thing he had ever felt.
"Slow breaths, Dean. Just keep breathing like that, your head should clear up again in no time."
Dean seriously doubted that. Right now, his head was one confused mess of thoughts, impressions and memories, and he had no idea which were which. Impossible that this could ever get clear again. But he was breathing again. That at least was something. The seduction to just suck in as much air as he could was big, but Dean resisted. Hyperventilating. Sam said he had been hyperventilating. Gulping down air wasn't going to help him then. Instead he took slow, deliberate breaths, until he felt his body slowly slide back under his control again. Once breathing worked again, he could try speaking. But it was going to be a little while until he managed that.
"What happened?" He finally brought out, his voice raspy and hoarse even though he had no idea why.
The mattress shifted, the warm pressure on the back of his neck vanished, and Sam moved into his line of vision, settling down on the edge of the bed so that he was looking at him.
"You tangled yourself up in the blanket, that's what happened." As if to demonstrate his point, Sam started pulling at said blanket, and only now Dean noticed that he had managed to wrap it around himself in an elaborate knot that would have made any sailor proud. With a few strong tugs, Sam pulled the blanket free, and Dean felt relieved and a little embarrassed at the thought that something as simple as a bunched up blanket could cause such a violent reaction in him.
Sam straightened the blanket, not looking up to meet Dean's eyes. "When you couldn't move, you…well, I guess you must have had a nightmare, forgot where you were…" Sam shrugged uncomfortably and finally looked up to meet his brother's eyes. "You were hyperventilating. It's no big deal."
Dean didn't share that particular point of view. He couldn't remember the last time he had hyperventilated, wasn't even sure he had ever hyperventilated before. Certainly not from a panic attack. He faced down ghosts and demons on a regular basis, but a bad dream gave him trouble breathing? He couldn't believe it. Didn't want to believe it.
At least Sam didn't take that as his cue to try and initiate a round of emotional sharing between brothers like he did far too often as far as Dean was concerned. Dean appreciated that Sam kept his distance, but that didn't mean that those thoughts weren't running through his little brother's head. Better safe than sorry, so Dean quickly reached out and picked up the discarded paper bag that Sam had thrown on the bed earlier. It was a bag from a local fast food joint, the one where they had gotten their last takeout meal before this whole nightmare had begun.
"I'm glad I didn't imagine smelling fries, at least."
A small smile stole across Sam's face. "Count yourself lucky I still found it lying around. It was either that or smothering you with a pillow."
Dean crumpled the bag up and tossed it off the bed. "Well, I'm glad you didn't go for door B then. How long was I out?"
"Uhm…" Sam quickly checked his watch. "About six hours since I brought you back here, a bit less maybe. I woke you up twice for concussion checks, and you seemed pretty coherent both times."
Dean frowned. "I don't remember that."
Sam shrugged. "Well, you answered all the questions I asked you. And you were grumpy, which I took as a good sign since it's your normal state when you get knocked over the head. Your normal state most of the time when you don't get knocked over the head, too."
Sam shook his head and scooted a little closer. Not too close, and Dean was glad that he was keeping a little distance. If there was one thing Dean needed right now, it was a little space.
"What do you remember?"
And despite the physical distance, the emphatic undertone was right there in Sam's voice. Sam wanted to know what he remembered, and next thing he knew Sam was going to ask him how he was feeling. It was only going to go downhill from there.
But he also wasn't going to let up anytime soon, so Dean decided to give Sam what he wanted to hear. At least for now, while his questions remained as easy to answer as this one. He shrugged.
"I did some research while you were gone, figured there was a chance that we're dealing with a zombie or something similar. It was the one thing we didn't consider before, the living dead, and I figured while you were at the library I could check and see if that idea went somewhere. So I went to check out the cemetery. There was this one half-dug grave, and I went to take a look at it."
Dean ran a hand through his hair and winced as his hand brushed against a sizeable lump on the right side of his head.
"I must have let my guard down. It was a rookie mistake. I mean, if there's a half-dug grave, it's a sure bet that someone's around who didn't finish the digging yet, right? But I didn't pay enough attention. He hit me over the head with something and everything turned dark. Next thing I know, I woke up in a frigging casket. I couldn't get myself out, and that's about all I remember. It's a bit fuzzy after that, but I guess you dug me up before I ran out of air."
"Barely." Sam sighed and tiredly rubbed his eyes with one hand. When he looked up, Dean noticed for the first time that Sam's eyes were bloodshot, and that his brother looked beyond tired.
"What do you mean?"
Sam gave a humorless laugh. "Dean, you weren't breathing when I dragged you out of that grave."
That of course was a new piece of information. And one that bore a whole lot of possible implications, none of which Dean wanted to contemplate in depth.
"Dude, please tell me you didn't do any CPR on me."
Sam's head snapped up and his eyes widened almost comically at Dean's question.
"What? I tell you that you stopped breathing and that's what you're worried about?"
Dean shrugged. "Yeah. No offence man, but if it isn't one of those Baywatch chicks, I don't want anyone breathing in my mouth."
Sam stared at his brother for a moment, then he shook his head. "If it helps your peace of mind, you were stubborn enough to start breathing again on your own. But for the record, if it had taken CPR, I would have done it without thinking twice about it."
Dean shrugged and looked away uncomfortably, desperate to change the topic. "Yeah well. How did you find me, anyway?"
Sam shrugged. "I pieced together your research on the computer when I got home. I couldn't reach you on the phone, and then I met our friend the grave digger. He didn't want to tell me why your phone was ringing in the back of his van, but once I saw the body in it, it wasn't that hard to find out what he had done with you. So I started digging." He shrugged again. "You know the rest."
That wasn't entirely true. Sam had left out one important detail in his tale, and that was an answer Dean very much wanted to know.
"What happened to the guy? The grave digger?"
Something flashed across Sam's face at the question, and for a moment Dean was worried what his brother's answer was going to be.
Dean knew what he would have done. If it had been Sam who had vanished, Dean would have stopped at nothing to find out where his brother was. But Sam was different. Of course Sam would have done everything to find Dean, too. Dean had no doubt about that. But if he had had to resort to dramatic means to find him, it was going to weigh heavily on Sam. Dean didn't want to be the reason for that kind of weight on his brother's conscience.
Sam shrugged awkwardly, running a hand over his face. "Police custody. When he didn't want to tell me where you were, I knocked him out and tied him up in the back of his van. I called the police once we were back here."
"An anonymous tip?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah. They searched his house, and from what they found there he's going to stay in custody for a while longer."
Sam nodded towards the other side of the room, and for the first time Dean noticed their police scanner standing on the small table beside the door. That of course explained how Sam could have known what had happened after he had placed his anonymous tip.
"What did they find?"
"Bodies, in his basement. Today definitely wasn't the first time he dug up a body on the cemetery. The police have no clue about what's going on, I'd say once you're up on your feet again we go over there and take a look at it ourselves. We need to figure out what exactly he did with those bodies, and why those other people ended up dead. But for now it should be over."
Dean sighed and leaned back more comfortably back against the headboard. "The job is done, that's the most important thing."
"No, it isn't."
Sam had spoken softly, but in the silence of the room the words rang loudly in Dean's ears. "What?"
"It's not the most important thing that the damn job is done!" Sam looked up, and suddenly his eyes were no longer tired and dejected, but instead were glaring angrily. "I don't care about the job, Dean. You nearly died today, are you even aware of that? If I had stayed in the library for just a bit longer, if I hadn't looked at the computer to see what you had been researching, if I hadn't called you and heard your phone ring in that van, damn it if I had been a little slower in digging up that grave, then you'd be dead now! So sorry, but compared to that I don't give a damn about the job!"
Dean was stunned for a second at that unexpected outbreak. "It's a dangerous job, Sam. But you knew that before."
"Yes, and that's exactly the point!" Sam threw his hands in the air, but a second later seemed to slump in on himself. Dean's attention perked up at the sudden shift in his brother's mood. Angry Sam he could deal with. But angry Sam had roared once and had then retreated back into whatever corner of his mind his brother normally kept him locked up in. No, what Dean was facing right now was his brother in emotional upheaval, and that was something he had never been good at dealing with.
"Don't Sammy me!" Apparently, angry Sam had broken free for a final appearance before it made way for dejected Sam again. With a shake of his head, Sam slumped in on himself as far as that was possible with a body as tall as his. But Dean was probably the only person on earth who had no problem seeing the sad and confused six year old that was perpetually hiding in his brother, no matter how old he got. But back when his brother had still been six years old, at least Dean had known how to make things better for his brother. Right now, he didn't even know what Sam's problem was.
"It's not the first time something like this has happened, Dean. By far not the first time. Every time we go on a hunt, something like this can happen."
"Yes. And it's always been like this Sam. As I said, it's not really a new development."
Sam shook his head with a tired sigh.
"I know. It's just…Dean, I dug you out of a grave. And all the while I was digging, I was asking myself if I was too late. I didn't know if you were alive, if you were dying right now, if that guy had killed you before he had buried you. And I can't do that anymore. How can we go on all these hunts, not knowing when our luck is finally going to run out?"
Dean raised his eyebrows, even though Sam didn't look at him to see it, and shuffled uncomfortable on the mattress. Of all the things he had been prepared for, an existential crisis was not one of them.
"I don't know Sam. We just keep doing what we're doing. It's a crappy job, but somebody has to do it."
Sam laughed mirthlessly and shook his head.
"And that somebody has to be us?"
Dean shrugged. "Don't know if it has to be us. But right now it is us."
"But that's just it, Dean. Just because it has always been that way, doesn't mean it has to stay that way. I mean, why do we have to take these risks?"
"Sam, what's going on with you? We do this job because if we don't, people get hurt. Or worse. And yeah, it's a crappy job, the payment sucks and it's dangerous, but it's what we do. What about all the people we save? Without us, they'd get hurt or die and wouldn't even know from what."
Sam nodded now, even though the expression in his eyes was anything but agreeing.
"Yeah. But…damn it Dean, it's all so screwed up. Ever since Dad…" He shook his head again and stared down at his nervously twisting hands. "Dad is dead. And I know you don't want to talk about it, but I can't just pretend that it didn't happen, all right? Dad is dead, and we're still doing this screwed up job, and I just can't…" He shook his head and ran a hand over his face. "I can't lose you, too, all right? I just can't. And yesterday I nearly did. I can't deal with that."
Dean pushed himself up even further on the bed. He was still feeling tired, and his head was slowly starting to hurt again. The last thing he needed right now was for his brother to have a breakdown. He couldn't deal with that.
"Listen Sam, what do you want me to say? Yes, every time we go on a hunt, one of us can die. One of us. Because while it was me in that casket last night, you're not the only one who's worried about losing somebody else, okay? But that doesn't mean we have to quit the job, Sam. All those things don't go away just because we turn our backs on them."
Sam shook his head again and finally turned to look at his brother form red-rimmed eyes. "So that's it? It sucks, but we just have to take that risk?"
Dean leaned forward, ignoring the pain from his abused muscles. He hadn't even dug that grave. All he had done was lie in the casket, but for some reason his body felt as if he had done all the previous night's work. But the pain wasn't bad enough to stop him from moving, and right now that was all that mattered. He leaned forward, arms leaning loosely on his legs.
"What do you want me to say, Sam? Do you want us to quit hunting, settle down somewhere and get a regular day-job? It wouldn't change anything."
"No? A normal life, a safe life wouldn't change anything? No longer chasing after things and people that want to kill us wouldn't change anything?"
Dean shrugged. "It would change things, sure. But it wouldn't be the guarantee you're looking for. There is no guarantee that we both stay alive, even if we quite the job right here and now. You have to understand that, Sam. There is no guarantee. Not in this job, not in normal life. And yeah, this was a close call. I get that. But you got me out in time. That's what counts."
Sam kept shaking his head. "And what if I'm not in time the next time something like this happens?"
Dean sighed. This was exactly the kind of conversation he had wanted to avoid, but of course Sam had managed to steer them right towards an emo-moment of monumental proportions. That's what the captain of the Titanic must have felt the moment he realized they were going straight for the iceberg and no amount of steering was going to stop them from colliding. So all he could do was face this head on.
"Remember what I told you when I came to get you at Stanford?"
Sam frowned, surprised, and for a moment that haunted look vanished from his face. "What?"
"When I came to get you at Stanford, I told you that I couldn't do this alone."
"No, you said you didn't want to do this alone, Dean."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Semantics. Anyway, my point is that that's the thing. This job, it can get you killed pretty damn quick if you don't watch out. Hunting alone, you don't get very old. Or you become like Gordon, or those loners at the Roadhouse. What we do is dangerous, but it's what Dad trained us to do. What he prepared us for. We're better equipped to handle all this crap than most others are, and we got one thing that they don't."
Sam rolled his eyes as if he already knew what Dean was going for, but he shook his head.
"Us. And don't roll your eyes on me Sam, you're the one who started this whole sharing and caring, so now you're going to listen. The reason why we can do this is that we're not stuck doing this alone. We got each other's backs. You dug me out of that grave, which, if I haven't said before, is something I'm pretty grateful for by the way. Doesn't matter if it was a close call or not, all that matters is that you did find me. Just like I would have found you if it had been the other way around. In this crap choice of a job, knowing that you've got my back is all the guarantee I need."
Sam just looked at Dean for a moment, then he shook his head.
"Do I need to go get the holy water?"
"Ha, ha. You're a riot, Sam."
"I'm sorry, but if you start making emotional confessions all of a sudden, I think I have a right to suspect demonic possession. Not to mention that you are concussed."
"Speaking of which. My head feels like a marching band is practicing, we got a wannabe zombie tamer to deal with tomorrow, and seeing that it's still the middle of the frigging night, I'd say we try to catch some more shuteye."
Sam nodded. "All right. You want a Tylenol for your head?"
Dean shook his head as he slowly moved back into a lying position, taking care not to entangle himself in the blankets again. One embarrassment per night was enough.
"Nah, I'm good. Now stop fussing and get some sleep."
Sam got up from Dean's bed, kicked off his shoes and pulled back the covers of his own bed.
"All right. I'll wake you in two hours."
"Dude, I've been up, coherent and talking for nearly half an hour now. I think you can stop worrying about my head. Besides, you had your shot at playing Twenty Questions. Lord knows what answers you tricked out of me in my weak and vulnerable state."
Sam stretched out on the bed and turned off the light on the table between the two beds. However, he made no move to get up and turn off the small table light on the other side of the room, and Dean couldn't help but think that it was a deliberate oversight on Sam's part, so that the room wouldn't turn entirely dark. In the dim light, Dean could see the tired smile playing around his brother's mouth.
"You know the drill Dean. Just the usual questions to check your coherency. Name, age, state, that kind of stuff."
"If you say so."
"Good night, Dean."
Dean pulled the covers up to his chin and shifted into a more comfortable position on the bed. He had just closed his eyes when Sam spoke again.
"But seriously Dean, Susan Peters? In ninth grade? How did that happen?"
He should have known. "Isn't there a rule about not asking a concussed person for private information?"
Dean had his eyes closed, but he knew Sam's smile had just widened. "I asked, you answered. Fair game."
"Jerk. And now get some sleep."
Dean felt a smile of his own creep on his face. Sleep sounded good. After all, Sam had his back.
Thanks for reading. As always, please let me know what you think. Thanks a lot!