For Phx - happy birthday!
K Hanna Korossy
"…if the soul was forfeit. Antagonestes wrote that—"
Dean's chortle snagged Sam's concentration away from the webpage he was scanning. He looked up at his brother, sitting across the table. Mouth full of breakfast burrito, Dean was grinning over something in the paper.
Sam found himself smiling in response, a rare thing since Dean had made his deal and sentenced them both to only one more year together. The weight of impending loss was crushing, and Sam usually found himself fighting tears and anger more than anything. But sometimes, briefly, Dean's joy in simple things let his little brother forget and enjoy, too. "Peanuts?" Sam asked wryly.
Dean snorted. "Garfield, dude. That cat is awesome."
"All he thinks about is eating and sleeping, Dean."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what Jon says, too." Dean cocked his head. "Although, you kinda remind me more of Odie…"
Sam rolled his eyes. Odie was a moron, as well as a total innocent. Which Sam couldn't even remember being anymore. "Whatever," he said, taking a bite of his cold bagel sandwich. He dusted a few crumbs off the laptop keyboard. "You have any plans for today?"
Dean shrugged. "Case closed, ghoul dusted, and we're in Florida. One word, Sam: bikinis."
"No, seriously, dude. Water, sun, and sand? You can rest that bad back of yours, soak up some rays, maybe go float for a while… C'mon, man, it'll be fun."
Sam's back twitched in reminder, and he grimaced as he shifted. The witch-demon they'd gone up against recently had done a number on him, grinding him into the wall. His back looked like a late sunset, all purples and reds and indigo blues. Even if he did hit the beach, it would be in a t-shirt for fear of scaring the locals.
But he wasn't about to go sunbathing, not when he had work to do and a ticking clock to race. "Dean…" Sam muttered helplessly, rubbing at the back of his head while his eyes strayed back to the screen. Forfeit seemed to jump out at him from the text.
Dean's animated, hopeful expression clouded over. "Sam, c'mon, you can't do that all the time. What's the point of having a year if you're gonna spend it buried in moldy research, huh?"
Resentment, dulled by months of pain, skewered through Sam. "Maybe so we'll have more than a year—you ever think of that? I swear, man, it's almost like you want this! You're not even trying to fight it—"
Dean was on his feet, face flushing. "Yeah, because if I fight it, you're dead. You die, part of that isn't getting through to you?"
Sam also jumped up, ignoring the flare of pain up his spine. "The part where my life is worth more than yours, Dean! Why is my living worth your dying?"
"You already made your deal, dude. Reaper, Marshall Hall, Nebraska—any of this ringing a bell? You already traded a life for me. Now it's my turn, only, I picked me to trade. And I'm sorry if that doesn't fit the Sam Winchester Plan, but that was my choice, Sammy, and you weren't exactly there to complain, were you?"
Sam felt the blood drain from his face, leaving him lightheaded. He groped behind him for the chair and clung to the wooden back, back twinging in protest. Oh, God, was that how Dean saw it? That he'd been unwilling to give his own life for his brother, trading another's instead? "I didn't know," he whispered numbly. "Dean, I didn't…"
Dean's whole body flinched. He already regretted the words, Sam could see that stamped all over his face. But they'd been said and nothing would erase them, they both knew it. And for all Dean accused Sam of being the one who ran, he wasn't so great at standing and fighting when it was for himself. Sam wasn't even surprised when Dean abruptly turned and headed for the door.
Sam bowed his head, despair like a solid mass in his gut.
At the threshold, Dean stopped, folded in on himself, a mirror of his brother. "I'll be back later," he said so softly, Sam barely heard him. A side glance that almost skimmed over Sam, and then he was out the door.
And Sam sank into his chair, well and truly alone.
"Excuse me. I was wondering where the Carlisle Collection is kept."
The plump librarian behind the counter turned to Sam, smiling at him regretfully. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear, but we only show the collection by appointment. You can request one any time next week, though."
Sam let his disappointment show, turning the charm up. Dean wasn't the only Winchester who could beguile a woman. He just usually used his powers for good instead of, well, one-night stands. "I'm afraid I'll only be in town this week, and I could really use the material for the book I'm working on. Is there anything you could do?"
She was softening; he could see it. "Well…maybe we could make an appointment later this week."
He smiled persuasively. "I'm free today?"
"I'm sorry." She sincerely looked it. "Mr. Russo is in charge of the collection and he's not here today. Perhaps tomorrow…"
One less day of 365 precious few. Sam schooled his features and nodded. "The collection, it's kept here, though, right?"
"Yes, downstairs. We have a special room for it. Maybe I could make you an appointment for tomorrow…"
Sam's mouth twisted. "Thank you, I'll…uh, call." He moved away, leaving her frowning after him.
Well, he hadn't really wanted someone to be there when he did his research, anyway. Sam's areas of interest, even in a renowned occult collection, might have raised some eyebrows. Better to do this on his own.
He found the door to the basement quickly enough, and didn't have to wait long until no one was looking before he slipped downstairs.
The library, like much of the town, was over a century old, which meant thick stone foundations and walls, and cellar-like basements. A narrow, rock-hewn staircase trailed down to a painted metal door, and the small library's idea of security was a simple key-lock. It barely slowed Sam. Inside, he found more modern accoutrements to protect the old collection: plastered walls and archival cases and a dehumidifier humming in one corner. Glass-enclosed shelves lined one wall, and three large filing cabinets another, a simple table between them. Still no security camera. Sam locked the door behind him, making sure no light escaped along the edges, then pulled his notebook out and got to work.
It was his kind of place: quiet, bright, full of information just waiting to be mined. More importantly, perhaps it held the key to breaking Dean's deal. Which meant it was where Sam needed to be.
But he found his attention wandering over and over, nonetheless. Always returning to the same place.
He'd waited in the room for nearly an hour after Dean had left, hope waning with every minute. Not that he thought Dean had seriously taken off on him. Besides the whispered promise, Sam knew that Dean wouldn't waste the time they had left by going separate ways, not for long. But still, some part of Sam had hoped his brother would come back with a pizza and a sheepish smile, shrugging off their argument and, if not taking back the words, at least mitigating them with an unspoken apology. He had to have known how much what he said had hurt. How unfair it was. How badly Sam wanted—needed—to save him. "Damn it, Dean," Sam sighed at his notes. Since when did Dean leaving him become any easier than the other way around?
Sam got it now; he really did. Dean had been out of his mind with grief, unable to think of anything but getting Sam back. It hadn't been a trade so much as a choice between saving Sam or losing them both, because Dean was gone either way. He even understood why Dean didn't want to risk looking for a way out of his contract. But why was it so hard for him to accept Sam's need to do so, the utter impossibility of Sam just letting it go and not trying everything he could? Why dig up the ugly past and rub Sam's face in it when all he was trying to do was save his brother in turn?
Because he's scared. He's terrified of losing you again, and of going to Hell. Dean had always preferred anger to fear. And living for the day, with Sam, instead of worrying about tomorrow.
Sun, water, and sand… C'mon, man, it'll be fun.
Suddenly, the books piled around him seemed terribly dry.
Sam closed his eyes, remembering the way Dean's face had fallen as Sam had rebuffed his efforts to spend a day off together. There was life, and then there was living, and he'd never meant to trade one for the other. They could take the time to go on hunts, but he couldn't take a day to enjoy Dean's company and just be brothers for a little while? If…if this was all the time they had left, was that how Sam wanted to spend it?
Face crumpling, he shut the open book and capped his pen. This could wait a day. Dean couldn't.
Sam rose to his feet and twisted to replace the book on the shelf he'd gotten it from.
Bad idea. His back locked up at the awkward movement, folding Sam in half with a grunt. He threw out a hand for support, grabbing onto the edge of one of the filing cabinets.
His back spasmed again, jackknifing him. He groaned, arm reflexively jerking inward.
He didn't even realize he'd yanked the cabinet forward until he was falling to the floor, the heavy cabinet rushing down after him.
Sam fell hard, back seizing up as it hit the ground. But it was nothing compared to the rib-crushing burst of agony of the filing cabinet slamming into him.
A flush of heat washed over his skin, then prickling, perspiring cold, and he was pretty sure he cried out. Something ground together inside his chest, and he tasted blood in his mouth.
And then nothing.
Dean watched a couple of kids, brothers, build a sand castle with great concentration, and sighed. This wasn't exactly how he'd pictured spending the day.
Frankly, it wasn't how he'd imagined the whole year. After, you know, getting past the part where Sam was alive again, because Dean hadn't been able to see anything beyond that for a while.
But he definitely hadn't even dreamed this would be so hard for Sam. Dean hadn't thought he'd be bringing his brother back to pain and loss. Never considered that maybe he was being selfish, shifting the weight of grief from himself to Sam. Hadn't been able to think past the utter need of having Sam back, because Dean would die without him.
He couldn't regret his choice. Not even seeing Sam's pain. If that made him a selfish bastard, so be it.
But Dean still hurt for him, and sometimes…he did regret the cost.
Dean dug his heels into the sand, trying to put his brother's face out of his mind as he tipped his head back against the sun and closed his eyes. It was a perfect Florida day: light breeze, warm sunshine, waves rolling in not twenty feet away. Add to that pretty much all the college girls in tiny bathing suits he could have asked for, and it was as near to Heaven as Dean was likely to get.
And he was miserable.
What was done, was done. There was no going back on the contract even if he wanted to, which Dean didn't, not even when Hell's flames felt like they were licking at his feet. He'd made his choice, and they both had to live with it. Why not make the best of it? Twelve months was a lot of time to hunt and party.
Sam, though, had other plans. Big surprise.
He got that Sammy had to do his research thing and exhaust every possibility. It was a little close to violating the deal for Dean's liking, but he trusted his brother's belief that the contract allowed for someone else to try to save him. If Sam was going to live with the aftermath, he had to believe he'd tried everything to save Dean.
Dean just hadn't pictured him taking the whole year, every free moment, to do it.
So, awesome final days they were turning out to be. Sam tense and pale and buried in books half his size, and Dean seizing the day…alone. Yeah, buckets of fun.
A soft feminine voice made Dean open his eyes and squint up toward the sun. The curves outlined in silhouette against the light were all he needed to see, though.
"Could you…help me with my sunscreen? I can't reach my back."
Dean blinked at her. Sun, surf, and a bikini-clad brunette who needed help with her sunscreen. It was pretty much one of his favorite fantasies.
And it suddenly seemed terribly empty.
"Sorry, sweetheart," Dean said regretfully, climbing to his feet and dusting sand off. "I gotta go."
He had to be crazy. And no way, Dean decided firmly on the drive back to the motel, was Sam going to find out that Dean had picked his company that day over a willing, half-naked college girl. But even if it was with stacks of books and soy lattes and Sam's utter lack of any sense of fun, there wasn't any place Dean wanted to be more than with his geeky little brother. Especially after the way said little brother had looked at him when Dean had walked out earlier that day.
He wasn't sure what he was going to say, but it became a moot point when Dean walked into the room. Sam wasn't there. The laptop was still on the table, and his duffel sat neatly packed at the foot of his bed, but the room was empty and silent.
"Sam?" Dean called out anyway, peering into the bathroom. Once upon a time, he'd have guessed Sam had just gone for a walk to clear his head and cool down, but that had been before. Now, even when he was upset, Sam didn't slack on the research, just buried himself even deeper in it like a gopher in his hole. Dean wondered sometimes if that was his escape as much as Dean's was denial. Whatever got you through the day, right?
He blew out a sigh of frustration as he turned in place in the center of the empty room…and his eyes fell on the half-sheet of notebook paper resting on his pillow. Dean reached out and grabbed it, a little surprised that Sam hadn't been too ticked off to leave him a note, although the terse message, Gone to Library, betrayed his lingering anger. But even mad, Sam didn't want to worry him.
Yeah, Dean was kinda feeling like a heel, thank you very much.
"Great, Sammy, only about a half-dozen libraries around here." Plus the local universities and any special collections Sam had dug up. Dean detoured halfheartedly to the laptop, hoping for a clue, but the only window open was a translated text Dean didn't even glance at. Terrific.
With a huff of breath, he grabbed the nightstand phone book, finding the page of libraries and tearing it out. Guess he had some driving to do.
The beach-bunny brunette was looking more appealing by the minute than Dean's own brooding, bitchy one.
Sam wasn't at any of the county libraries. Or the two area college ones. Or the one a friend of Bobby's had amassed secretly in his basement. Or even at the friggin' local bookmobile. And of course, he wasn't answering his phone.
Twilight was settling in by the time Dean pulled back into the motel parking lot, making a face at the dark windows of their room. Crap. He'd hoped Sam would be back by now. It was totally like him to get immersed in research and forget all about the time, but Dean had pretty much checked every collection of books in a forty-mile radius, and no Sam. What was the point of leaving a stupid note if it didn't say anything useful?
Dean cursed and flung himself out of the car.
Okay, so, Sam was fine, just buried in some books. He'd come back when he was done, or at worst, even Einstein there would notice when they started turning the lights off around him. The libraries closed in another hour; Dean just had to wait.
He went out and got them dinner from the local place Sam seemed to like. Poked at his food and took a few halfhearted bites. Threw it away, then Sam's when the meatloaf turned into a congealed mess. Chewed on his thumbnail and watched the clock.
Sam should've been back by then. No matter what, even stuck with public transportation and not looking at his watch, he should've been kicked out.
Dean went through Sam's duffel, looking for a clue. His journal was missing, which just confirmed that he had indeed gone to a library. "Okay, fine. So where would you go if you were Geekboy?" Someplace special. Someplace that had something none of the other county libraries they came across in their travels had.
Dean slid into the chair in front of the laptop and started typing.
The local U had a collection of books on the history of the region, some presidential papers, and an impressive first editions room. But unless Teddy Roosevelt was a closet occultist, that probably wasn't it.
"Historical societies?" Dean ran a check and found a few, but nothing that seemed useful for their needs. Ditto with the area museums.
And then…there it was.
"Smart, Dean," he muttered to himself, disgusted. It had been there all along, one of the very county libraries he'd visited. But not the circulating books or the reference section where he'd checked. No, they had a special collection named after some old collector, housed…in the library basement. Where, of course, Dean hadn't gone.
The library had been closed over an hour now. Even if Sam had been downstairs, he should've been sent home a while ago. It didn't make sense, but Dean had no other place to look.
"Gonna put a tracker on you next time, bro. 'Gone to Library'—you've gotta be kidding me…"
The library wasn't far; Sam had probably walked. Dean circled the block once, looking at the dim overnight lights that shone from within. There were no other signs of life in the building, no reason to think Sam was still inside, except that he wasn't anywhere else. Dean finally shook his head and got out of the car, looking both ways as he headed toward the back door.
It was a small town, an old building, and a library, not a bank. Security was a joke, and Dean was inside within seconds. No reason to be reckless, though; he closed the door behind him and flicked a flashlight on. "Sam?" His voice was a whispered call.
Dean made a quick circuit of the main floor, unsurprised not to find a ginormous shadow huddled in a corner. The librarians had surely cleared the place before they'd locked up, and Dean had been through here once already. Didn't take long to find the door that led downstairs, and he slipped through it without a sound.
There were no windows in the dark stone staircase, so Dean finally took a chance and snapped the light on. The simple stairs led down to what had once probably been a cellar and cold pantry, ending in a modern-looking door. There was no sound or light coming from beyond it, and Dean felt his hopes sink a little, but he tried the knob carefully. Locked. Well, might as well go all the way if he'd come this far. He bent to pick the lock.
Sam was the first thing he saw when he stepped inside.
Or rather, Sam's long legs, bent and motionless as they sprawled out from under a large, tipped filing cabinet.
"Sam!" Dean barked, lunging forward.
The cabinet was resting against Sam's chest and left side, head thankfully free. But his face was pale, dark hair fanned around it as it lay to one side, his eyes closed. There was a trail of dried blood from the corner of his mouth, along his chin and down his neck, and one arm was outflung, hand lax and open. He looked…
"Sam," Dean repeated frantically as he scrambled around the table, more terrified in that moment than he could remember being in a long time. Since Sam had cried out behind him at the Christmas gods' home, since the door had rolled down between them and trapped Sam with Gordon, since Bela had taken aim on Sam in the graveyard. Since Dean saw Jake close on Sam, and Sam slide down into the mud. I can't lose him again. Not after I traded everything to get him. To give up his soul and then lose Sam anyway…
No way. Sam was the only good in all this. The only thing he'd gotten right. Sam was—
Groaning. Head rolling at the sound of Dean's voice, eyes pinching together.
Dean sucked in a ragged breath and went down on his knees beside his brother. "Sammy? Hey. You hear me?" He skimmed the dark head and peered under the filing cabinet. How the he—?
"Dean…" Sam blinked at him, foggy and in pain. And smiling. "S'not the beach, man…"
"Yeah, well, I got lost on the way." He felt Sam's pulse, satisfied it didn't seem on the verge of stopping, and rubbed the blood from his mouth, hooking it open just long enough to find with relief the bitten tongue. Dean rested a palm on the crown of his brother's head as he circled around him to check things from another angle. The square bulk of the cabinet wouldn't have been so bad, but several drawers had slid out partway, pinning Sam at several points. "You wanna tell me how you managed to get into trouble in a freaking library?"
"Back spasm." Sam sounded lucid, just hurting and very tired, and his face kept twitching as he fought the pain. "Pulled it down on me. Stupid…"
"Hey, you know those filing cabinets, they can be vicious." Dean was pretty sure he could lift it, even though the drawers would slide out all the way if he tried. But— Dean duckwalked back around to Sam's other side, looking him in the eye. "Sam, listen to me, this is important. You feel any burning or tearing inside, pressure, like your gut's on fire, anything?"
Sam's voice was weary irritation. "Pressure? Dude, I've got a…cabinet sitting on me."
He took Sam's chin in one hand, staring hard into the hazel eyes. "I'm serious, Sam—I need to know if we need help on this. I'm not cutting you loose if you're gonna bleed out on me." He'd seen it before, crush victims who were fine until the pressure was released, then collapsed when they started hemorrhaging inside.
Sam blinked. "Should've asked that…eight months ago," he breathed.
Dean's eyes stung: no, no, no, so not the time for this. "Sam!" he snapped. "Self-assessment, now!"
Sam actually shivered from the force of the command, which probably hurt like a mother considering the way he blanched and chewed on his lip. But he finally whispered, "'M okay, Dean. Think the…ribs got the worst 'f it."
"Is it hard to breathe? Ribs poking holes in anything."
Sam went faintly green at the thought. "My composure?"
Dean breathed out. "Well, if you're still using three-syllable words, you can't be that bad off. Ready to get out of here?"
"Okay, brace yourself, dude." Dean briefly cupped his neck, then stood. A moment's consideration as to best angle and leverage, and he crowded up against Sam's trapped side just below his waist. "On three. One, two—"
Dean heaved up, one arm snaking under to shove the top two drawers in hard as they tried to slide out onto Sam.
The thing was heavy, and that was with Dean's shoulder under it. He fought gravity and balancing points for a moment, aware of nothing else but the need to make sure the cabinet didn't crash down upon Sam again. Then finally, finally it was tipping back against the wall, slamming into place with a thud.
Lungs heaving, Dean straightened and rubbed his hands on his jeans, and looked down.
Sam had rolled onto his side and was curled stiffly inward around his ribs. His hands were pressed hard and flat against the floor, his body trembling either with shock or pain. His eyes had squeezed shut again as he panted through his teeth.
"Sammy," Dean muttered. He skimmed back the sweaty hair and checked his brother's pulse. Fast, his skin was a little cool, but he wasn't bringing up blood, his abdomen wasn't distended, and his breathing seemed unimpaired. Dean pulled his overshirt off and tucked it around the trembling frame. Sam was just reacting to being trapped under a massive piece of furniture for hours on end, hurt and alone, and it sucked beyond belief that that was the best-case scenario.
There were a few fat books on the table and the floor, and Dean wrangled two of them under his brother's legs, propping them up. Would've been counterproductive to do the same with his head, but Dean knelt and slid his palm at least under the damp head to cushion it.
Sam pressed his face hard into the contact as his throat worked against the pain, and Dean rubbed along his neck up into his hair, trying to distract him. "No cabinet's gonna take a Winchester down—you'll be okay." Skimming Sam's ribs made him arch away with a curse, but Dean didn't feel any shift of bone under his fingertips. They might've just been lucky on this one. Well, as lucky as you could be getting trapped by office furniture in a library basement. "Easy, Sammy," he soothed as Sam tightened up, rubbing the heaving chest. "'S all good, just breathe nice and slow."
Sam did, each rough inhalation a little smoother, color creeping back into his cheeks. Dean hadn't even noticed that Sam had grabbed onto his belt to hang on until his hand slowly retreated.
"Attaboy," he encouraged. "Hey, c'mon, talk to me."
Sam blinked up at Dean, dazed and exhausted and eyes too bright. "Ow."
Dean grinned. "Ow, really? Whiner," he said fondly. He palmed Sam's forehead, then tucked an arm under him. "Gonna take you home and bury you in ice packs." Without giving Sam a chance to tense, he sat him up.
Sam groaned, curling into him. "C-can't. Can't do this, Dean."
Crap, he'd forgotten Sam's bad back on top of everything. "No problem, I'll help. C'mon—"
"No." Sam grabbed his arm and held on tight, eyes burning and teeth gritted. "I can't do this."
Dean stared at him. "It's okay," he said quietly at last.
"No." Sam shook his head, then let it drop forward, hair sliding in to hide his eyes. "No…"
Dean pushed it back again, bent down to meet Sam's gaze. "It'll be okay, Sammy. You figured it out once, right?"
Sam's expression twisted. "I didn't know."
"Yeah, I know." Dean nodded, biting his lip. Damn his big mouth, anyway. The last thing Sam needed on his plate right now was the whole Roy LaGrange mess. "I know you didn't. I didn't, either, Sam, I swear." He'd had no idea at all how much he meant to Sam, what a price this would claim from his brother. "But we've still got a few months—we'll work something out. It'll be okay."
Maybe Sam needed to believe him, or maybe the guy was just at the end of his rope, because he sagged against Dean, nodding into his collarbone.
"Okay. Let's get you back. Unless you wanna check out any books first?"
Sam snorted against Dean's neck.
"Yeah, all right." Dean lifted him by careful degrees, and fistfuls of Sam's shirt front and back. He readjusted his own shirt over the sloped shoulders and tried a few holds until he found one that didn't press against Sam's ribs. "You ready?"
"Good." Dean nudged them toward the door, moving at a great-grandfatherly pace.
Sam's breath caught with every step, but he held onto Dean with stoic determination. That was his Sam, full of hidden strengths. How could Dean be sorry to have gotten him back?
He shook his head as they reached the door. "Never realized what deathtraps libraries are. Next time you should come to the beach with me, Sammy."
Sam muttered something that sounded vaguely nasty.
Dean breathed a laugh and carefully tightened his hold as they started up the stairs and back home. "But…maybe you can bring your books with you."