Summary: There are some conversations that can never be held again, some questions that remain forever unanswered. Unless the veil is lifted a little, allowing for that elusive glance behind. Fighting for his life, Dean finally gets answers to questions he didn't even know he had.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Supernatural. No copyright infringement is intended with this story and no money is being made as it was written for entertainment purposes only.
Spoilers: Everything up to "Heaven and Hell" is fair game.
Rated for some language.
This is another one that was sparked in an IM conversation with Isis, after watching "Heaven and Hell". She made me write it because we both figured that with experiences as similar as theirs, this conversation would be one way for Dean to start seeing things in perspective.
Everything was a bit fuzzy. And dark. Cold, too, and his position was anything but comfortable.
Oh, and his head hurt like bitch.
Not a good sign, and a definite reason for some self-inventory. Shouldn't take too long, either. After all, it wasn't the first time he had woken up to a pounding headache. It didn't leave that much room for interpretation. The way his head felt he guessed that something was refusing to die the easy and quick way.
Of course. Because it would be entirely too easy if any of that hell-spawn silently lined up to be exorcised or blasted full of silver bullets. And come on, where would be the fun in that? There was no challenge in killing things that didn't fight back, right? It would get boring after a while.
Time to get a grip on himself. In any other line of work, sleeping on the job got you into trouble. In Dean's line of work, it could get you killed quicker than you could say son of a bitch. And he had years of practice saying that.
Okay. Hunt. They had been on a hunt.
Dean's eyes snapped open as the memories came back with a sudden rush that only enhanced his pounding headache. He and Sam had been on a hunt. Campers had gone missing in a Minnesota forest, some of them never to be seen again, some of them showing up again as mauled human remains.
Could be a bear.
Could be a wendigo.
Could be any number of things really, but there had been enough strange sightings for them to check it out. And being the good hunters that they were, of curse Sam and he had found the thing. No bear. Not a wendigo, either. To be honest, Dean had no frigging clue what the thing was. All he had seen had been a flash of something big and furry, and then there had been pain and the ground had been pulled out from underneath his feet. Literally.
He needed to find Sam. His little brother could look after himself well enough, but damn, that thing had been fast. He needed to make sure that it hadn't gotten to Sammy, too.
The light when he opened his eyes was blinding, sending new stabs of agony through his head. He blinked furiously a few times, trying to blink through the pain to the point where his body was sliding back under his control. At first, all he saw were green, brown and blue spots dancing across his vision. Trees. Leaves. Sky. He was lying on the ground, he realized. He was lying on the forest floor, his legs twisted slightly to the side. And his whole body was hurting.
The pain in his head had only been the prelude to the symphony of different hurts that was coursing through his body now that he get more and more aware of his surroundings and himself. Dean took a few breaths and tried to focus on what was hurting most. His left leg was definitely ranking high on the list. And his side. Something was wrong with his left side, and breathing hurt, too.
But he needed to find Sam. And that was all the incentive he needed to push his own pain aside until later. Sam was more important now.
Jaw clenched tightly, Dean tried to push his upper body off the ground to get into a sitting position.
He had barely moved an inch when he realized it wasn't going to happen. The pain was so blinding that his vision blanked out. A bird was screeching, the sound of flapping wings announcing its abrupt departure, scared off by Dean's guttural scream of pain. Dean didn't hear it, he didn't even notice that he had screamed. All he noticed was the pain.
He sank back on the rocky forest floor, panting heavily against the pain, though each new breath sent a new spike of agony through him. Damn it, that hurt. It felt like his whole side was on fire, and with his eyes still screwed shut tightly against the pain, Dean raised a shaking hand and brought it down to his ribcage. He had broken ribs before, but somehow this felt different. Worse even, and that was not a comforting thought.
Fingers skimmed over the torn fabric of his shirt, exerting no pressure, just trying to find out what could possibly hurt so damn much. And then his hand brushed over something that wasn't supposed to be there. Something hard, and rough, slick with something and sticking out of…
Despite the pain, Dean blinked his eyes open again. It was so hard to focus, but with a lot of effort he finally managed to blink the cobwebs away. All right. He only needed to strain his neck muscles a little, then he should be able to see…
The bile rose up ins his throat and Dean panted flatly and harshly against the sudden urge to vomit. It was a branch. A branch was sticking out of his side, sharp and spiky and covered in blood. His blood. He had a frigging branch sticking out of him.
His hand was shaking badly, but carefully Dean felt around his side, as far underneath his body as he could reach, trying to find out where the branch came from.
His fingers encountered rough bark, moss, and more wood.
He was lying on a fallen tree. Of all the places to fall on, of course he had to land on a tree, and ram a branch through his side on top of it. He couldn't feel where the branch had entered, but it was sticking out at an angle, moving slightly when he moved, and the sight of it protruding so obscenely form his own body made him gag, black and white spots dancing over his vision. He was panting now, and every ragged breath seemed to move the branch inside of him. He swore he could feel the rough bark scratch over flesh and bone and muscle, tearing and ripping…
"You sure did a number on yourself there, Dean."
Abruptly, he stopped his contemplation of that frigging branch sticking inside of him. For one short-lived glorious moment he thought that Sam had found him already, that Sam was here to help him get that piece of wood out of him and patch him up. But it hadn't been Sam's voice. He immediately knew that. It hadn't been Sam's voice. It had been a voice that shouldn't be here, one that he should never be able to hear again…
Dean turned his head slightly into the direction the voice had come from. And felt the floor drop out from underneath him, rocks, tree, branch and all. His mouth was suddenly dry, and he seemed unable to draw air into his lungs. It couldn't be.
His voice was cracked, more than a loud breath than an actual word, but in the stillness of the forest, it sounded louder than a gunshot. Maybe he had hit his head a lot harder during his fall than he had initially thought, because there was no way, just no frigging way, that his father was here. His father was dead. Had been dead for over two years now. Dean had been there when he died, he had burned his father's body, he knew that John Winchester was dead. But no matter how hard Dean blinked, the image didn't change.
His father was leaning against a tree, just a few feet away from where Dean was lying, looking at him. He still looked the same as Dean remembered – scruffy beard, wearing jeans, flannel shirt and an old windbreaker along with a pair of scuffed boots. He looked just the same as he had done before he had died.
But he had died. So he couldn't be here.
"Dad?" Dean tried again, a little louder this time.
John had his hands stuffed in the pockets of his windbreaker, and hearing Dean's voice he pushed away from the tree he was leaning against and came a few steps closer. A slight smile was playing around his lips, the kind of smile that Dean had rarely ever seen there in life, but his eyes were looking sad, and not smiling along.
"You shouldn't try to move, son. That was one hell of a fall you took, you're only going to make your injuries worse if you move."
Dean shook his head slightly, trying to chase away the illusion. Because it could only be an illusion, and as much as he craved to see his father, to talk to him again, this wasn't real. It was just a figment of his imagination. And if it wasn't, then things were even worse, because then it was some evil son of a bitch pretending to be his father and he was lying here, defenceless.
Again, Dean pushed his hands into the ground, trying to find some leverage without dislodging the branch in his side. John took another step closer.
"Dean! I said don't move. Did you see the slope you tumbled down? You're lucky to still be alive, kid. You need to lie still until help arrives."
But Dad – or that thing – didn't understand. Either that, or it was trying to trick him. Dean needed to get to Sam, he needed to find his brother and the bastard beast that had thrown him down that damn slope in the first place. He needed to finish the job, and if it were really his Dad standing there, then he'd know that. It had been his lesson, after all. Always finish the job first.
John smiled again. "Sammy's got it covered, Dean. He got that thing right after it tossed you down here. It's dead."
Sammy had to be all right. He simply had to be alive and close, so that he could come here soon and tell Dean that he was just imagining having a conversation with his dead father. But most of all Sam had to come to get him out of here, and so that Dean could make sure that Sam was okay.
God, Dean needed his brother right now.
"He's coming, Dean. But he can hardly take the same way down here that you did. It'll take him a little longer to find a safe way down. He's called for help, and your job is to hold on until they get here. Understood?"
Great. Even if that wasn't his father standing there, it had the tone down perfectly. Giving orders, just like John Winchester. Even in death.
Breathing was a little easier now, and slowly the cobwebs were clearing. Well, he was still seeing his dead father, so probably not everything was exactly normal with his head, but at least he was getting a little more coherent.
"What are you?"
The look on his father's face at those words was hard to read. He was still smiling, but a strange mixture of surprise, pride and sadness crossed his face for a second.
"I'm not a threat, Dean. And yes, I know that you don't believe that. But it's the truth."
Dean shook his head. "Figment of my imagination."
John shrugged. "If you want to think so." He took another few steps closer, bridging the last few feet between them, and leaned over to get a look at the wound. He was close enough so that Dean could have touched him, and he would have, just to make sure that this wasn't a spirit, or an illusion, or something even worse. But just the thought of moving his hand cost too much strength, and he needed all of that for breathing right now.
John inspected the wound for a moment, just looking and not touching Dean, and his face pulled into a grim façade that Dean had learned years ago was his father's way of masking worry. So if this was some supernatural freak pretending to be his father, it was good. Really good. And if it wasn't…well, then Dean was pretty screwed because he was imagining the whole thing. He didn't want to contemplate which possibility was worse.
John looked at the wound for a few moments, then he shook his head and straightened.
"You tore something when you tried to sit up. The branch actually keeps the bleeding in check, but you shifted it."
He looked around, as if looking for someone in the distance. Ad if he was trying to see where Sam was and how long it was going to take him to get here, then he shook his head and turned back.
"You need to put pressure on it, son."
"Can't really move."
"You have to, Dean. You're bleeding badly, and you need to get it under control until Sam arrives."
Dean didn't feel any bleeding. True, so he had a branch sticking out of him, he knew that wasn't good, but he didn't feel any bleeding. So it couldn't be that bad, could it?
John seemed to think differently. Seeing that Dean's hand wasn't moving, he looked straight at him and narrowed his eyes.
"Put your hand on that wound and press down, Dean. Now. That's an order."
Pavlov would have been proud of the way Dean's hand started moving immediately after the words had been said. It wasn't even a conscious thing, but Dean's whole body, every cell had been trained and conditioned to react when given an order. His hand touched the branch that was sticking out of him again, jostling it slightly, sending another bolt of pain through his side. John quickly crouched down beside him.
"Careful! Right above where the branch come out, you need to press down there, as hard as you can."
Dean placed his hand on his side and pressed down.
"God!" he groaned out from behind clenched teeth as the pain level rose up another few notches.
"Just a little while longer, Dean. Sammy's on his way."
And Dean still didn't know if he should believe it. Maybe Sam was hurt, too. Maybe he was lying somewhere waiting for Dean to come, and this thing pretending to be his father was trying to keep him from his brother. If Sam was hurt, Dean needed to get to him.
"Sam. I need to…Sam."
"He's coming, Dean. He's all right, okay? I promise you that he's all right. For once, you have to wait for him, let him take care of you."
Dean sank back against the hard forest floor, exhausted. He didn't want to, he wanted to get to Sam, but slowly the message was sinking in that he wasn't going anywhere without help. And since the thing that looked like his father wasn't offering much in that department so far, he had to lie back and wait for someone to find him. Preferably his brother. And quickly.
John knelt down on the ground beside Dean, staying easily in his line of vision.
"You have to trust Sam. He'll take care of this. Just for once, let someone else take this watch. Sam's got it. I've got it."
It wasn't as if he had any other choice. Not really. And it was the only command that over the years of growing up had allowed him to relax the tension that was always coiled up inside of him. Only when his Dad took over could he step back and let his guard down for someone else to take the watch.
John still kept an eye out on the wound on Dean's side, making sure that he didn't ease up on the pressure. He leaned over Dean's prone body, close enough that his jacket was nearly touching Dean's right hand, but not close enough to bridge that very last inch that would have established physical contact and convinced Dean that this was real and not something his pain-befuddled mind had come up with.
Unable to do anything else, Dean searched his father's face as John was checking up on his wound. It was so surreal, yet at the same time a situation they had been through so often in their lives that Dean felt strangely comforted by it. He was injured, but his father was here to take care of it. There was comfort in that. Talk about a screwed up life.
John leaned back and caught Dean's gaze. It just looked so real, branch in his side and blood loss and possible concussion aside. His father looked so real. He wanted to believe that it was real. And since he was pinned here, unable to move, he could as well pretend that it was real. It wasn't as if he could get away from it, anyway.
John held the gaze for a moment, then he looked away again.
Dean laughed, just once though because the movement tore at his side and sent new spikes of agony through him.
"Now I know you're not real. You never apologized."
John sank back on his haunches and ran a hand through his hair. "Maybe I should have."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Should've, would've, could've. It's all in the past anyway."
"I never wanted for this to happen, Dean."
"What? Me falling down a mountain? My own fault, nothing you could have done."
He shouldn't talk too much. The more he talked, the dryer his throat got. There was no water in sight, and he had the distinct feeling that a coughing fit would not do much to help with his stake-through-the-side problem.
"I'm not talking about that." John ran a hand through his hair. "I never wanted for things to come this far."
Dean shook his head, unable to keep up with that particular train of thought. "What are you talking about?"
"What you did for your brother, Dean. That deal you made, that you went to hell. I never wanted for that to happen."
It felt like a blow to Dean's gut, and it made the breath catch in his throat. John wasn't supposed to know, wasn't ever supposed to know about the fact that Dean had made a deal for his soul to save Sam. Because if John knew that, he also knew that Dean had failed in his one task in life. His failure to protect Sam had been the reason why he had had to close that deal in the first place. Sam had died because Dean hadn't been able to watch out for him, and that was something their father was never supposed to know.
And it didn't matter that he still wasn't entirely convinced that this here with him was really his father. All he could see was something that looked so much like his father it hurt, and the pain in John's eyes when he mentioned hell was almost too much to bear.
But as quickly as that sinking feeling had appeared, as quickly was it replaced by anger. Because if anybody had no right, absolutely no right at all to talk to him about any of that, then it was his father. Not the man who had gone and sold his own soul for Dean, and who had left him with a legacy so hard to bear that it had nearly killed him from the inside out. John had no right to say he hadn't wanted any of this. And this might be the last chance he'd ever get to tell him.
"You told me I might have to kill Sam, and now you tell me that you didn't want it to come this far? You were the one who told me that I had kill my own brother, so don't give me any of that crap!"
John looked as if Dean had physically slapped him. But where that tone of voice against his father would have warranted a totally different reaction a few years ago, this time John only sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
"I said that because I knew it would make you do everything you could to save him."
"What?" Dean couldn't believe his ears. "You knew I'd do anything to save Sammy. I always did, always. You knew that. Why load this on me?"
John shook his head. "I…there wasn't enough time Dean. Not enough time to tell you all I knew, all you needed to know about Sam, the other children, and what the demon had planned for them. But I needed to make sure you understood what was at stake."
Dean would have laughed again, had previous experience not taught him that it was going to hurt like bitch.
"Believe me, I knew. Even without that crap about killing him. That only made things a hell of a lot harder."
"I know that now. And I'm sorry I burdened you with this. But I never wanted for you to sell your soul for Sam, Dean. I never wanted for that to happen."
Dean shook his head, and despite his resolve not to laugh he couldn't help the chuckle that escaped his lips. "Oh, don't let that weigh on your conscience. My deal…it had nothing to do with what you told me in the hospital. I made that decision all for myself, for my own selfish reasons."
He tried to shrug, but even that small movement caused pain. As did talking, but it seemed that once he started, he was unable to stop.
"Anyway, we're past that. I'm back, me an' Sammy are hunting again, and he'll rip me a new one for falling down that mountain. Which is funny." He chuckled and looked down at the branch impaling him. "Because I think I already tore myself a new one."
John only shook his head.
"You're not past it, Dean. You're nowhere near past it, and don't shit me by trying to tell me otherwise. Don't you think I know what you're going through right now?"
"Did you ever? Did you ever care?"
Dean might not be able to move, but he could for sure provoke his father to react as if he had been slapped. John ran a hand over his face, then bent over to look at Dean's wound again. He only spoke when he was no longer looking at his son.
"You've been to hell, Dean. And trust me, I know what that feels like."
In addition to the branch in his side, it felt as if a knife was twisted in his intestines now as well. Of course his father would know. His father had been to hell, after all. He had gone to hell because of him.
"I…don't…" He shook his head, even though the movement made everything spin in front of his eyes. "Just don't."
"Not talking about it won't make it go away, son. Won't make it undone, either."
"Since when are you all about talking?"
John made a show out of staring at the bleeding wound in Dean's side before he shook his head and turned to face his Dean again.
"It doesn't mean you're weak, Dean."
Dean gulped dryly, the scratching in his throat getting worse with every word he spoke. "Don't…"
John shook his head emphatically. "You need to hear this. What happened to you in hell, it doesn't mean that you're weak."
"No. I…you don't understand it. You can't understand it."
"But I do." John locked his gaze with Dean, not letting him look away. "I understand better than you think, son. I was in hell. I know what it's like."
Dean's throat was still dry, and there was a stinging sensation behind his eyes that didn't go away no matter how hard he blinked against it. He didn't want to talk about this, not now, not ever again. It had been bad enough telling Sam, and Dean wasn't sure that it had been a good idea. But he couldn't…he just couldn't talk about it with his father. Not now, not here, when he was lying on the forest floor, impaled by a frigging huge branch, and slowly bleeding out.
"Stop. Just…stop. Please."
"Dean, you've been bottling this up for far too long, telling yourself that you could have done something, you should have done different."
"That's exactly the point!"
The words died in his throat as the shout finally tore free the coughs that had been lurking in his dry throat for the past minutes. The coughs tore and jarred his already injured side, making him want to curl in on himself in an attempt to stop the pain, but every movement only hurt more.
"Easy. Take it easy, son. Deep breaths. And don't move."
Dean struggled to force breaths into his lungs, to stop his chest from contracting and his whole body from lurching. Who knew that something as simple as coughing moved so many muscles and parts of his body, all of which seemed to be in horrible agony right now. It took a few long moments until he was even sure he was breathing again, and there was a metallic taste in his mouth that scared him.
"That's exactly the point." He repeated, barely able to force the words out between panted breaths. "Not what happened to me. What I've done. Do you really know what happened to me down there? What I did?"
John looked at Dean for a long moment, and the soul-deep sadness in his eyes tore at something deep inside Dean. Finally, John nodded.
"Yes. I know everything that happened. Everything you did. And I know enough about hell to tell you that this is what hell does. To everybody, Dean. Hell takes the best in a person and twists it around, tears and claws at it until nothing is left of it anymore. All the pain, the torture, the torment, that's not the true punishment a soul goes through in hell. It's just the design to make you snap, to make you betray everything you ever believed in and turn you against it. That's when the real torment starts, Dean. Once hell broke you, that's when the suffering begins."
Dean was shaking his head again, but John didn't give him any chance to say something.
"No Dean, listen to me. For your entire life, you've been shouldering other people's pain. Mine, Sam's, you've even been loading the pain of complete strangers on your own shoulders to make it easier for them. I know that it was me, the way I raised you, that forced you to become like that, but it's such a huge part of what makes you the person you are. You'd rather suffer yourself than see somebody else, much less someone you care about, in pain. And that's what hell started to twist against you. And it brought you to the point where you could no longer take the pain and chose the only way that made it stop. There's no weakness in that, Dean."
Dean blinked, and felt two tears make their wet trail down his temples and into his hair. He couldn't think about that now, couldn't stand to think about it. But he had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and it was probably the cruellest thing his father had ever put him through. Emphatically he shook his head, as if that could somehow make it all vanish from his mind. He needed to make this stop, needed to get those thoughts out of his head. But he couldn't, just as little as he could stop the words from spilling out of his mouth.
"It broke me. I broke. That's all there is to it. I betrayed everything I ever believed in, everything I vowed never to do." He swallowed, tasting blood and bile. Forcing air into his lungs was getting harder and harder, but it seemed that he couldn't stop talking.
"Worse, I did the same thing that was done to me to all those souls down there, even though I knew what it felt like. I chose to make them suffer in…instead of suffering myself. How is that not weak?"
John smiled with so much sadness in his gaze that Dean had to look away.
"It's not weak because no matter how strong you are, eventually hell will break you. Nobody can withstand that forever."
John's voice was rough with underlying emotion and Dean screwed his eyes tightly shut. It was a useless gesture, it wouldn't stop him from hearing the words that were bound to follow. But with all the determination of someone unwilling to hear that their childhood hero had fallen, he clung to the hope that this wasn't what his father was going to tell him now.
"Everybody breaks in hell, Dean."
Not everybody. Only those who aren't strong enough, those who don't hold out long enough, those who are weak.
"Sooner or later, everybody breaks. It's not weakness. It's human nature."
Don't say it. Please don't say it.
But no matter how much he screwed his eyes shut and tried not to listen, he couldn't stop the words.
"You spent four months in hell Dean. I was there for over a year. And I broke much earlier than you did."
A sob tore free, and Dean was still shaking his head as if that could somehow make the words unsaid. It was all he had clung to for the past months, since the day Castiel had pulled him up from the pits. That there was something he could have done differently. Some way he could have held out for longer, could have stopped himself from breaking. That someone stronger than him would have held out for longer. Someone like his father.
Because it would have meant that it had been his fault, and his guilt. He could deal with being at fault, and he could deal with guilt. What he didn't think he could ever deal with was that what had happened had been unavoidable, and out of his hands. If things were unavoidable, there was no guilt. There was no redemption. And worst of all, there was no reason to keep on fighting.
More tears were trailing down the side of his head, got tangled in his hair and fell to the ground. Dean barely noticed, his mind at turmoil and circling around the same questions again and again, but still not getting the answers he'd like. It all stopped making sense, and he felt like he was drowning. His body was on fire, hurting worse than he remembered hurting ever since his return.
"Dean, look at me."
He was still shaking his head, and still he kept his eyes screwed shut tightly as if that would change anything.
"Look at me, son!"
Dean didn't think he could, but his body had different ideas and reacted automatically to the command. The world was getting fuzzy again, and it was getting so hard to focus around the pain in his body and soul.
John was leaning over him, looking straight into Dean's eyes and not giving him a chance to look away.
"Listen to me. You need to listen, and you need to understand what I'm telling you. You're a good man Dean. Despite everything that happened to you in your life, you're a good man, and one of the strongest people I've ever seen. And that is still there. That is something not even hell can take away from you now. Because unlike most of those souls down there, you've been given a second chance. You escaped hell, and the man you were before you went there is still there. If you start doubting that now, then you truly let this break you."
Dean wanted to shake his head again, but he couldn't even bring up the strength for that simple movement anymore. Keeping his eyes open was getting more and more of a daunting task, and everything was blurring in and out of focus.
"I just…can't do this anymore. The pain, the memories…I can't. Just…can't."
John smiled. "Yes, you can. Because you're stronger than that. And because you're not alone in this. It was a good thing that you started talking to Sam."
Dean made a sound that could have been a weak laugh, or a weak sob. "Yeah. Last thing Sammy needs…more crap t' deal with."
John reached out, as if to put a hand on Dean's head, or against his cheek, but stopped himself mid-movement.
"Have a little faith in your brother. He can deal with it. And you know why? Because he wants to deal with it. For your sake."
"Not his job. 's not Sammy's job to look out f'me."
John's smile widened. "Two-way street, kid. It's always been his job. You just have to let him do it occasionally, okay?"
Dean wanted to say something, but it was so hard to form words. It was already hard enough to keep his eyes open. John watched him for a few seconds, a frown forming on his face.
"Dean? Dean, you gotta hang on."
Dean nodded. "Yeah."
"Keep pressure on that wound, son. Sam will be here in a few moments, okay? You have to hang on until he does."
And Dean tried, but it was getting harder and harder to focus. He thought he was still pressing down on the wound as hard as he could, but he just…he just didn't know.
Yes. Right here.
"Damn it, keep your hand on the wound."
But it was too hard, too hard to move, too hard to think, too hard to even think about moving. John looked torn for a moment, warring internally with a decision that was way beyond Dean's understanding. Then he leaned forward and pressed down on Dean's hand, pushing it against the wound so hard that the pain in Dean's whole body flared up with a vengeance.
So this was real. His father was touching him, so that had to mean it was real, right? But John's hand wasn't warm against his, and neither was it cold. It felt…off, strange somehow. Dean felt the pressure, but it was as if his own hand was numb, not allowing him to feel the touch. It was cruel, knowing that his father was as close as he was never going to be again but not being able to feel him. Another cruelty life had to throw at him, as if he hadn't already had enough of those.
"Just hang in there, Dean. Sam will be here any moment now, okay? You just hang in there."
Dean thought he nodded, but it was hard to say. His vision was blurring again, and the pain made it hard to think straight.
"Just hang in there kiddo. Sammy's almost here now. Do you hear him?"
But all Dean heard was the sound of his blood pumping in his ears and his father's voice talking to him. And there was something else he had to say, he remembered that, or maybe it was something he needed to hear. It was so hard to focus. But it was important.
"Just hang on, Dean. I promise, you'll get through this."
And Dean had no idea if his father meant the stake through his side or the jagged tear in his soul, but he found himself desperate to believe those words. Urgently, he moved his dry lips in an attempt to form words.
"I promise Dean."
"Dad…" Barely a broken whisper because he didn't have the breath for more.
Sam's voice. Close.
Close, out of breath, and desperate. But close, that was the main thing. Dean could hear his brother running through the underbrush now, too, could hear the sound of snapping twigs and boots thumping against earth. No small wonder Dad had known that Sam was coming. He wondered what his brother was going to say when he saw their father here. And whether their father was going to give Sam a hard time because Sam was being that loud. You had to be silent on a hunt, another of John's most important lessons.
It was probably going to be awkward, especially since their father was actually dead.
Sam fell to his knees beside him, something Dean felt more than he saw it. But then his brother moved into his line of vision, flushed and panting and wide-eyed, calling his name again. Dean wanted to answer, but it seemed that his mouth wasn't plugged into his brain anymore.
Sam's hands went to frame his face, warm and gentle and real, wiping away tears and blood, and grounding Dean though he hadn't even known how badly he needed it. This wasn't like his father's touch earlier. This was real.
"Dean, talk to me man!"
And then he found his voice again.
Sam's eyes widened almost comically before they narrowed again in worry, and Sam leaned in closer. "No Dean, it's me. Sam."
Dean knew that, of course he did, and at that moment he also understood that their father had vanished. If he had ever been there. Sam hadn't seen him, and Sam didn't know what Dean had seen. Would never know what Dean had seen.
One hand still pressed against Dean's cheek, Sam turned his head towards Dean's side, and the branch that was still sticking out of him. Through the fuzzy haze that started to cover his vision, Dean saw his brother's Adam's apple bop up and down as he swallowed, and there was a quiver of fear in his voice as he spoke, even though Sam was doing his best to hide it.
"It's okay, I called help. They have a lot of practice dealing with hiking accidents in these woods. With the terrain they can't send an ambulance, but they got a fix on the GPS in the cell phone, and there is an area nearby where they can land a chopper. You'll be in the hospital in no time. It's going to be all right."
Sam was babbling, which meant that he was getting frantic, maybe even panicking. Dean wanted to say something to calm his brother, to reassure him, but it was just so damn hard to focus on anything. Only Sam's hands on him, those were easy to focus on. Sam's hands on him, no longer resting against his face but pressing down hard on the wound in his side. It hurt, and Dean couldn't stop the groan from escaping his lips. Sam flinched, but didn't let up on the pressure.
"Sorry, but I have to stop the bleeding. You've lost a lot of blood. Hang on Dean, okay? No checking out early, not again. You hear me? You've got to hang on."
Dean tried to nod, but couldn't.
"You hang in there. Just a few minutes longer, then they'll drug you up real good and fly you out of here. You won't even notice that you're in a helicopter, I promise."
That made Dean smile. Sammy. Always worrying about things.
But Sam kept talking, and even as darkness crept up on the edge of his vision Dean clung to his brother's voice. Sam's voice was his precious link to reality, and even as he was no longer able to make out the words, he clung to the steady up and down of Sam's voice as it kept him on this side of the darkness. After a while there were other sounds in the background, other voices talking to Sam and with Sam and over Sam's voice, and then there were other hands on him too – prodding and poking, lifting and shifting him around even though he had a frigging branch in his side and everybody should be able to see that.
One particular careless movement shifted the branch again, and Dean thought he was going to pass out from the pain that was flaring up again with renewed force. And then Sam's voice was back, loud and angry and protective, snapping and snarling at the ones who had caused the pain.
Sam was still there, and he was looking out for him. Sammy had this watch.
It was okay to give in to the darkness.
His head hurt.
His whole body hurt, and he had no idea where he was and what had happened.
Somehow, it all made sense. He knew that. He just didn't know how.
"Dean, can you hear me?"
He did, but he seemed to have forgotten how to respond.
More fearful now, and that wouldn't do. Sam shouldn't be afraid. Not for him. Lead seemed to weigh down Dean's lids, but he thought he managed to blink a few times. Light…dark. Light…dark. Light…Sam.
Tired and red eyed, rumpled and looking scared. But there. Sam was there.
His throat was raw, and that one croaked syllable made him wish he hadn't tried to speak just yet. But the smile that spread on Sam's face had been worth the effort. Something warm settled on the crown of his head.
"It's okay, you got through surgery okay. You need rest now, just sleep."
That made no sense.
But rest sounded good. He closed his eyes and drifted off again.
He must have woken up again a few times, though afterwards he didn't remember much of it. What he did remember were disjointed images that he couldn't put into context. Voices talking, a light shining in his eyes, hands poking and prodding him and causing pain. It was disconcerting, and he was too weak to do anything against it. Too weak to fight back, and too incoherent to even ask what was going on.
But every time he woke up, there was one thing that put everything else into perspective.
Sam sitting next to his bed, reading a newspaper. Sam talking to a man in blue shirt and pants. Sam slumped down beside his bed, dozing uncomfortably in a too-small chair, Sam's voice speaking unintelligible words of comfort when the hands caused him pain.
Whenever he opened his eyes, Sam seemed to be there. Scruffy, tired, gravel-voiced and red-eyed, but there. Keeping watch, so that Dean could rest.
But he wasn't there the first time Dean opened his eyes to something like coherency. The room was in a state of semi-darkness. The blinds were drawn halfway in front of the windows, but it didn't seem to be night outside just yet. Dean blinked a few times, trying to accustom his eyes to the dim light in the room.
He didn't remember much of what had happened, but it only took him a few seconds to realize that he was in a hospital room. It made sense, he guessed. Some distant part of his brain made a connection that it didn't immediately share with the small part of his brain that was doing the conscious thinking right now, but it relayed the information that a hospital was where by all rights he should be.
Hospital. Surgery. Something about a surgery. A mountain slope and something big and furry. Dad. Sam.
He remembered Sam being here. Sam had been here, he was sure of that. But he wasn't now. There was only some disconnected equipment and monitors to the left side of his bed, and an empty chair to the right. And for some reason, that empty chair made something inside of him clench and an unreasonable surge of panic shoot through him.
He needed to find Sam.
He needed Sam.
Only when he turned to the left did he realize that an IV was connected to a needle in the back of his left hand, and his left leg was feeling numb, not really following his brain's command to move. But he didn't have time to think about that now. Not until he found Sam.
There was a tight feeling to his left side and back, a feeling he knew and should be able to place, but it didn't matter right now. For as long as it didn't stop him from finding his brother, he could deal with it later. But the mere task of moving into a sitting position on the bed was harder than he had thought, harder than it should be, and it left him sweating and panting.
But he shook his head against the fuzzy haze that was stubbornly trying to settle over his vision. It couldn't be that hard to get out of this bed and find Sam. Not now. Not when Sam wasn't here even though he should be.
It was only getting up, after all. He could do that, had done it countless times before. But this time, when he pushed himself off the edge of the bed, it only took him a split-second to figure out that this wasn't going to work. His left leg was sticking out awkwardly, sliding away before he even had the chance to put any weight on it. His right leg crumbled without even putting up any resistance, and the flimsy hold he had on the IV-pole with his left hand wasn't going to stop him from falling flat on his face. It wasn't even going to slow him down much.
So much for the crappiest rescue plan in the long history of crappy and half-baked rescue plans.
As Dean saw the grey linoleum floor rush up to meet him and tried to brace himself for a painful, not to mention embarrassing, impact, an arm suddenly wrapped around him and stopped his fall abruptly. While Dean was still wondering what had just happened and how he had managed to defy gravity, he felt himself bodily lifted back onto the bed.
"Damn it Dean, what do you think you're doing? You're in no condition to be up and about!"
Sam's voice. It was Sam's voice, and the tight coil of fear and panic in his stomach slowly started to dissolve. Sam was here. That was all that mattered.
Dean found himself moved back onto the bed, first into a sitting position, then his legs were lifted up after him, forcing him to lie back against the pillows.
"Dean, answer me. What were you doing trying to get out of bed?"
Dean struggled against the sudden sense of nausea and vertigo from the repeated change in position, and focused on Sam. It was a lot harder than it should be, but after a few seconds of frantic blinking Sam's face came into clear view. The last of the panic gave up its hold on him and retreated back into the dark pit it had crawled out from. Sam was here.
He was standing next to the bed, pulling the blanket back up over Dean's waist. He still looked rugged, clothes rumpled, too-long hair all over the place and a scruffy stubble covering the lower half of his face. Dean didn't know if it was that, or a combination of the onset of a beard with the red and swollen eyes that were currently glaring daggers at him, but whatever it was Dean got the impression that his brother wasn't going to settle on any evasive answer right now. And he wanted an answer, that much was obvious. If only Dean's mind wasn't so hazy, then he'd know what to say right now. Answer meant there had been a question. Oh, right. What had he been doing getting out of bed, that had been his brother's question.
So he settled for the easiest, most obvious explanation he could think of.
"'s looking for you."
Sam looked at Dean for a moment as if he couldn't believe his ears, then he gave an eye-roll of monumental proportions and started pulling at Dean's hospital gown. Which led Dean to the sickening conclusion that for one, he was wearing a hospital gown, one of those awful things that didn't even close in the back; and that in addition to that, he had been about to walk around the hospital in that revealing gown. He didn't even want to think about that, or about the fact that his brother had caught him as he had been about to bend double wearing that thing.
Besides, Sam was about to pull up that already far too revealing piece of fabric, at which point Dean stopped caring about what his brother might have seen upon coming into the room, because Sam was about to see far more than Dean was comfortable with any second now. Weakly, Dean tried to bat his brother's hands away and pulled the hem of the gown down.
Sam stilled his movements, but Dean got another glare for his effort that clearly said he was not yet finished.
"You're lucky you didn't tear out your IV with that stunt you just pulled. I need to make sure that you didn't pull your stitches, and if you start putting up a fight now, I'll call in a nurse to do it."
Dean still held the hem of his gown in a dead grip, contemplating the choice of his brother playing Florence Nightingale versus a real nurse doing it. Maybe a really hot real nurse…
"The nurse on duty is called Geraldo. He's 6'3'' and weights well over 200 pounds."
Dean let go of the thin fabric immediately, and sank back into his pillows with a resigned sigh while Sam continued his inspection with a slight smile on his face.
"You're just too easy." He said with a small shake of his head as he carefully inspected the square of gauze that covered Dean's side for any signs of fresh blood. Seemingly satisfied with what he found, he dropped the poor excuse of a gown and allowed Dean to pull the blanket up over his chest again.
Sam wearily ran a hand through his hair and walked around the bed, where he sank into the chair with a sigh.
"I was just out to get a coffee. There was no need to call for a search and rescue mission."
It was said off-handed, with a slight smile on Sam's face, but it told Dean everything he need to know about how much Sam had been aware of his earlier degree of panic, and how much he had revealed without actually wanting to. Just great. They probably had him on enough pain medication and other drugs to totally screw with his normal defence mechanisms. He only hoped that his brother didn't notice as well, or Sam was going to try and force one of those big emo-moments upon him that he was so fond of.
"Do you remember what happened?"
That sounded like safer waters, at least for now. And Dean did remember. Not everything, but he guessed the most important fragments. Big'n'Furry coming out of nowhere. Waking up to find that branch sticking out of him. Pain. Panic. Dad. Talking about hell. Sam. Then nothing, for which he was grateful, because he distinctly remembered that it had involved a helicopter. And he was pretty sure that the part about Dad being there had been…not so real. Because it just couldn't be. But the rest he was pretty sure about.
"I fell down a mountain slope. Something pushed me."
Sam huffed. "Yeah, that's one way of putting it. I swear, that thing came out of nowhere. One moment it pounced you, and before I could even bring my gun around you were already tumbling down that mountain. I…damn it Dean, I didn't even see where you had fallen. You didn't answer me, your phone got all smashed to hell, and it took ages to get down to where you were. And when I found you…" He shook his head and tiredly pinched the bridge of his nose. "You had a frigging branch sticking out of you, and you were bleeding like a stuck pig."
Yeah, he did remember that part, and unconsciously Dean brought a hand up to his side as if to reassure himself that the branch was truly gone. But Sam had that shell-shocked tone of voice that he always got when something had upset him, and that just wouldn't do. Dean shook his head.
"Wasn't as bad as it looked."
Sam laughed again, a dry laugh without any real humour behind it. "Of course not. Do you want the laundry list of your injuries? Because maybe I should call in your doctor for that, just to make sure that I don't forget anything."
Sam shook his head. "No Dean, this wasn't just nothing, okay? Your injuries are serious. Broken left tibia, which by the way is the reason for that cast on your left leg. You know, the cast that should keep you from walking around like you tried earlier. Dislocated right shoulder. Severe concussion. Severe blood loss. Oh, and of course the real kicker of the whole story – you rammed what was probably the oldest and most rotten branch in the entire western hemisphere through your left side. And because that wasn't enough, you just had to ram that thing through your body in a way that it nicked two major blood vessels. You tried to move, dislodged the thing a little and started bleeding out. The paramedics said that if you hadn't kept constant pressure on the wound, you'd have bled out before they even arrived. You were in surgery for five hours as it was, while they tried to get all the splinters out of you and stop the bleeding. You've been through three units of blood, you're fighting off an infection and have been out of it for over four days, three of them with a fever. So don't start telling me that it wasn't as bad, Dean. You nearly died."
Dean had to admit that it was quite an impressive list Sam had rambled off. Also, it confirmed his suspicion about the amount of pain killers currently floating through his blood stream, because Sam's words made him doubt that he should be able to move around without being in a lot more pain than he felt. The worst thing probably was that he didn't remember much of those injuries. He remembered the branch that had impaled him, of course. And he remembered the bleeding. And that he hadn't been able to keep the bleeding under control, not towards the end, right before Sam had shown up.
That had been Dad.
But of course that couldn't be true, because there was no way Dad could have been there. Dad was dead. And so it made absolutely no sense that he hadn't bled out, and that he was still alive. And thinking about the implications of that only made his head hurt.
Besides, he understood that his injuries had been serious, and that Sam was worried about him. Hell, he knew he'd have been frantic if it had been the other way around. But it wasn't as if he had fallen down that mountain slope on purpose, and he wasn't going to take his brother's accusing tone. This one time, it had really just been bad luck.
"I didn't get myself impaled on purpose, all right? Just FYI, it hurt like bitch."
Sam sighed tiredly and ran a hand through his hair. "I know. I know that, Dean. But man, it all went so fast. The moment I saw the thing jump you, I tried to get a clear short at it. If I had tried to get to you instead, maybe none of this would have happened."
Dean shook his head. "Come on Sammy, don't start this crap. You did the right thing shooting the son of a bitch before it got to you, too. Damn critter was fast. Besides, not even your freakishly long legs would have been enough to get there in time to stop me from falling down that hill."
It sounded less than convinced, and to be honest, Dean understood the feeling. He hated nothing more than knowing he had been helpless in stopping Sam from getting hurt, too. But his brother was well on his way to getting into that morose mood again, the mood where he tried to talk about feelings and inner thoughts, and that simply wouldn't do.
"So what happened to Big'N'Furry?"
Sam looked up, confused. "Huh?"
"The thing that got to me. You shot it, right?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah. It's dead, and if nobody found it, it's still right where I left it." Seeing the incredulous lift of Dean's eyebrows, Sam shook his head. "They didn't let me fly in the helicopter with you, and one of the rangers gave me a lift to the car. I could hardly track back into the forest and burn the thing with him playing my guide. I figure it's deep enough in to just rot in peace."
In Dean's experience things hardly ever did, but he agreed that for now it had been the best solution.
"Wait, what rangers?"
Sam shrugged. "They sent two rangers and two paramedics in with a jeep after I placed the 911 call, in case there was no place for the chopper to land. I guess you were too out of it by the time to notice."
He folded his hands in his lap and stared at his thumbs for a few long seconds, as if they were two particularly interesting specimen. After a moment, he drew a deep breath and looked up.
"Can I ask you something?"
Dean stopped himself from pointing out that Sam just had. Normally, his brother loved to argue semantics, but right now Dean got the feeling that Sam wasn't in the mood. So instead he simply shrugged. Seemingly, that was enough agreement for Sam to continue.
"When I found you…I mean, I know that you were only halfway coherent, so I don't know if you remember. But you called out for Dad."
So Sam had heard, and he remembered. Worse, he wanted to talk about it. Of course he wanted to talk about it. This was Sam, and he was latching onto this because Dean hardly ever mentioned their father. He never did, because Dean was still unwilling to feel or share the pain that thoughts of his father caused. Or caused again, now that Dean knew from firsthand experience just what his father had loaded upon himself to save Dean's life.
So his first instinct was to deny it. He wanted to deny that he had called for their father, wanted to brush it off as an illusion, a hallucination at worst. Nothing Sam ever needed to know about. It wasn't something he needed to share with Sam, because he didn't need to burden his brother with his musings about his own guilt, and what hell had done to him.
It wasn't as if telling Sam was going to make anything better. It wasn't going to help anybody. Telling Sam about what hell had made him become had been a mistake. It hadn't eased any of the pain, hadn't changed a single thing except for the way his brother looked at him now, from the corner of his eyes when he thought Dean wasn't looking. As if he was seeing Dean differently now. Weak and fallible as he was, as if he was about to break any moment.
If he told Sam that he had held a philosophical discourse with their dead father while he had been bleeding out onto the forest floor was only going to make things worse. Sam would probably think he had finally snapped, that it all had driven him over the edge. No, if he told Sam about it, he was probably going to end up in a straightjacket by the end of the conversation.
So he was all set on denying everything. Saying that he didn't remember anything was probably the best way to go in this situation.
But Sam seemed to take Dean's prolonged silence as refusal to speak. He shook his head and rubbed at his eyes.
"Forget it. Just forget that I said anything."
There was a resigned undertone to Sam's voice, and while Dean wasn't too glad about that, he was glad about the fact that Sam wasn't going to force him to have this conversation. Because it wasn't going to do any good. So denying it had ever happened was the best way to go, definitely.
Except for the fact that Dean was getting tired of keeping things from Sam, and of downright lying to him. It was just too hard to keep track of what Sam already knew, and what Dean had to keep from him no matter how hard Sam kept prodding him. He didn't have the strength left for it. He was too tired of it all, too weary to keep on weighing every word he said for its degree of revelation. It couldn't possibly get any worse, anyway.
He bit his lip and stared down at the crumpled blanket, looking anywhere but at Sam.
"For a while there…before you got down to where I was, I…I thought I saw him."
Dean nodded, still not looking at his brother. "Yeah. As if he was there. You know, talking to me. Telling me that you were coming. I know I was imagining things, but still. I thought it was real. It felt real."
Sam didn't answer, and as the silence stretched on for a few endless seconds, Dean raised his head and looked at his brother, worried what he might see. Sam was looking at him with that typical Sam-expression on his face. Emphatic, and just on the verge of some soul-bearing. And that was something Dean couldn't stand right now. Telling Sam the truth, not lying to his brother, was one thing. Turning this into a sharing and caring session was a whole different league, one that Dean wasn't going to play in any time soon. So he quickly shrugged it all off with a crooked grin.
"I guess I banged my head pretty hard on the way down the mountain. It's no big deal, Sammy. I was hallucinating, but with a branch sticking out of me I think I was entitled."
Sam reacted the moment Dean's emotional shutters went down, swallowing reflexively and nodding. It was obvious that he had wanted to talk about this, but whatever was going through his head, he didn't share.
"Yeah. I guess you were entitled." He forced a smile onto his face. "I'm just glad you didn't confuse me with Dad. I was worried about your vision getting screwed up in the fall, you know? We don't look that much alike."
Dean bit back a laugh. If Sam only knew how much he looked like their father, and how much he was like John Winchester. Between the two of them, the majority of the similarities definitely lay with his younger brother. But that was another sore point in their screwed up family history, one that Dean wasn't going to touch right now. Or anytime soon.
Better to steer this whole conversation into really safe waters.
"So, who do I have to kill to get something to eat in here?"
Sam laughed. "I'll see what I can do. But first I'll get someone to check you through."
"Oh joy." More poking and prodding hands. Dean could barely contain his excitement. But if it helped Sam to assure himself that he wasn't about to drop dead any second, it was worth it. Because to be honest, his little brother looked like shit.
"And once that is done, how about you go back to the motel and get some sleep? I might have fallen down that mountain, but you look as if you had been left in the wilderness for a week."
Sam unconsciously raised his hand and ran it over the stubble on his face, a small smile on his face. "What, the scruffy look not working for you?"
"Go shave, Sammy. With a beard, you'll look like Bigfoot."
Sam turned towards the door of the hospital room, smiling slightly and shaking his head.
"You're such a jerk."
Dean leaned back into his pillow, oddly comforted by the insult.
"And you're a whiny bitch, and not even growing a beard will change that. So go get me something to eat now."
Sam gave his healthy leg a gentle smack in passing, then he left the room to fetch the doctor. Dean leaned back in his pillows and tiredly ran a hand over his face. Knowing his brother, Sam wasn't going to come back with something to eat, but bring a doctor first to check him through. Just as well, then he could start pressing for a quick release. Because one thing he was sure of, and that was that he wasn't going to stay here for any longer than absolutely necessary.
Maybe another night, because other than being hungry, he was also really tired. But then he was out of here.
It was the most beautiful thing Dean had seen in a very long time.
He would never say so out loud, but sitting here, just looking at the endless sky around him took his breath away. There was nobody else in sight, just him and Sam and infinite skies and rocky gorges as far as the eye could see. There wasn't a single cloud in sight in the sky above them, and the ravine beneath went so deep that no matter how he strained his eyes, Dean couldn't make out the river below. But instead of feeling small and insignificant in the face of nature's enormity, he felt better than he remembered feeling for the past months.
He felt free for the first time in a long, long time.
He had to hand it to Sam. His brother could be sneaky when he set his mind to it, and he knew how to play Dean. Well, just for the record – if he hadn't been on pain meds, pills which Sam took great care that Dean swallowed, just as if he was a frigging child – Dean would probably have figured it all out a lot earlier. As it was, he had simply been glad to escape the hospital three days after waking up.
The only problem was that with a broken leg, Dean couldn't hunt. He could barely walk as it was, especially since he refused to use the crutches whenever Sam wasn't looking. But no hunting meant downtime. And while Sam had been positively excited about the idea, the mere thought of sitting around with nothing left to do had been driving Dean crazy. So he had been positively ecstatic when after two more days of recuperating in the motel room, Sam had suggested they get on the road again.
Maybe downtime wasn't that bad if they weren't stuck in one place.
Dean had been so glad to get back on the road that he barely even protested his brother's insistence that his broken leg should keep him from driving. And it must have been the pills his brother regularly fed him that had kept him from figuring Sam's plan out earlier. The clues had been there, after all.
Sam putting in one of Dean's mix tapes for the drive, for once not enforcing the "driver picks the music"-rule should have been a big clue. Sam's insistence that no, they weren't driving anywhere in particular despite the fact that he never once checked a map, or asked for Dean's opinion on where to go should have been a flashing neon sign.
But there had been the constant intake of sense-dulling pain medication, and strategically placed distractions in the form of roadside diners and the first beer since Dean's release from the hospital, that had kept him from questioning his brother's motives.
Truth be told, he had only figured it out about half an hour before Sam had parked the car, grabbed a bag from the trunk and had told Dean that they had to go the last bit on foot. Or on crutches, rather. It had been slow going, and struggling to get up onto the rocky outcrop they were currently sitting on had been a bitch despite Sam's helping hand, but it had been worth the effort.
Dean took a long sip from the bottle of beer that Sam had pulled out of his bag. He leaned back onto one hand, bottle in the other, and let his eyes roam over the huge rocky gorge in front of him.
He should have known that Sam would remember an off-handed remark like the one that he had never seen the Grand Canyon before. Of course Sam would, even after more than two years. And he had brought them here, to this secluded spot somewhere off the beaten tourist paths, for which Dean was even more grateful than for their trip here in the first place.
Dean wasn't so sure that he would have been able to enjoy this if he had been pushed through a throng of tourists just to get a glimpse at the Grand Canyon from behind secure railings. No, it was the Winchester way or nothing. Their car was parked illegally off the road, and the park rangers would probably have a series of ulcers if they knew that he and Sam were sitting here on this unsecured outcropping overlooking the canyon, but Dean didn't care.
It was hard to worry about anything when he had a sight like this before him.
Maybe he wouldn't even have appreciated it as much as he did now if they had come here earlier. Dean wasn't so sure whether he'd have been able to see the beauty of it all. Not before hell. It was funny, how having seen, felt and lived the worst place imaginable could change your perception of things. Especially now, when his head was constantly abuzz with questions of guilt, destiny, and the future.
Telling Sam what had happened in hell hadn't been the great relief that he might have been secretly hoping for. It hadn't made a damn thing just a damn bit easier. It hadn't stopped the nightmares. More and more often, Dean found himself asking why he kept doing this to himself, why he couldn't stop doing what he did. Why should he keep on fighting a war when he wasn't even sure anymore that it was fought for the right reasons, or what it was fought for.
But here it was easy to just lean back and let all that fall away. Here, it wasn't about heaven, or hell, or a war against demons that seemed impossible to win. Here it was just him and Sam, two bottles of beer and a silence between them that was relaxed and comfortable.
And that was what he had been missing, Dean realized with a sudden painful stab in his chest. Ever since he had been raised from hell, those moments between Sam and him had been few and far in between. Trust and this blind, wordless comfortableness around each other had been sparse, and instead that space had been filled with secrets, lies and half-truths. And that was one thing this whole series of confessions had changed. It hadn't made Dean's own fate easier to bear, but it had stopped the lies and the secrets. Dean knew what Sam had tried to keep from him, and now Sam knew what was causing Dean's nightmares, as well.
It wasn't much, but it had brought back the trust, and the ease around one another. And truth be told, when faced with the choice, Dean would pick that over the end of his nightmares anytime.
He took another long sip of his beer and crossed his legs, trying to get his broken leg and the cast into a comfortable position. Beside him, Sam shifted slightly as if ready to come to his brother's aid. Dean finished his beer and put the empty bottle on the ground beside him.
"Stop hovering. I'm a grown man, I can deal."
His only answer was a non-too gentle cuff against his upper arm, then Sam returned to nursing his own beer.
"We could go check out that skywalk thing later." Sam said after a few moments.
Dean shook his head. "Nah, too many people. This here is good, Sammy. Really good." He looked over the wide expanse of the canyon before them. "I still can't believe that we spent all these years driving up and down and all across the country and never saw the Grand Canyon. The thing is frigging huge!"
Sam laughed. "Yeah, but seemingly not a very haunted place. Otherwise Dad would have dragged us here at the first sign of something supernatural going on."
Dean smiled wistfully as he turned his head away from Sam, blinking against the sunlight.
"Pity though. He'd have liked it."
Dean could feel his brother's surprise without the need to see him. They hadn't spoken about their father since that afternoon in the hospital. And even before, it had never been Dean who had brought that topic up. But ever since that imagined conversation with his father, John Winchester had been on Dean's mind constantly. He knew that he had only imagined talking to his father, deep down he knew, but it had simply felt too real to just put it off as a hallucination. And something John had said that afternoon had stayed with him.
It was a question he needed answered, even though he dreaded the answer as much as he craved to hear it. And it wasn't a question Sam would be able to answer for him. Only one person knew the answer, and that person was dead. Dean would never get the chance to ask his father about it. He only had Sam. And of all the people Dean knew, Sam was the only one who had known their father well enough to maybe guess the answer.
"You know what I've been asking myself?"
Sam made a questioning sound in the back of his throat and turned towards Dean, but Dean kept his face turned away from his brother.
"What?" Sam asked after a moment.
"Dad. He was in hell for nearly a year. I just keep wondering, you know. I…I didn't even make it for four months, and he was going through this for so much longer. And I keep asking myself if when the Devil's Gate opened – if we were fast enough. You know, if he managed to get out before it broke him."
Sam didn't immediately respond, and after a moment Dean turned his head slightly to the side. Sam was watching him, but with none of his usual empathy that he got when he sensed the trace of an emotionally laden conversation. Instead he seemed very focused, thinking hard about his answer before he spoke. Finally he reached down into the bag he had brought and retrieved two more beer bottles, one of which he handed to Dean.
"You think hell broke you?"
Dean snorted, twisting off the cap from the bottle and taking a long swig. "You think it didn't? I told you what happened, Sam. I told you what I did."
Sam nodded. "Yes, you did. And instead of just taking that as the fact it is, you're trying to find something else to measure it against."
Sam had been sitting in a similar pose as Dean, legs stretched out in front of him and leaning back on one hand, but now he moved into an upright sitting position, crossing his legs in front of him. He rolled the beer bottle between his hands a few times, then he shook his head with a sad smile.
"I don't know Dean. It's the honest truth. I don't know if hell is the same for everybody, if Dad went through the same things that you went through. I don't even think I'll ever fully understand what exactly you went through. But I know that this pedestal you always insist to keep Dad on, it's not doing you any good."
Dean drew a breath to interrupt, but Sam shook his head.
"No Dean. I know what you're going to say, but it's not that. Dad and me, we didn't see eye to eye in many things, but that's not what I'm talking about. I loved the man, despite everything between us that might have made it look otherwise. But the way you're always trying to measure yourself against him, it's not doing you any good. It's not right."
Dean shook his head. "Why ever not? Dad was one of the best people I've ever known…"
"Yes. But the way you're doing this, you always come up short. Because you assume that what ever happens, whatever you do, Dad would have handled it differently, Dad would have found a better way. And it's simply not right, Dean."
Dean shook his head. "Forget it."
"No Dean. I won't. You have to stop this. We'll never know what happened to Dad in hell. There's nobody trustworthy who could ever tell us. We'll simply never know what he went through, and whether it broke him and if it did, how long it took. So you can assume for all you want that Dad was stronger than you, that he held out longer, but truth is you'll never know. So would you just stop assuming that there was something else you could have done, something Dad would have known to do better than you did?"
Dean sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He desperately wished that he hadn't started this conversation. Now Sam was well beyond the point when a simple 'forget it' was going to stop him.
"I'm serious about this, Dean. Your whole sense of self-worth is so screwed up, it scares me sometimes. You're a good person Dean, and nothing Dad did or didn't do in hell is ever going to make that better or worse. He's not the one you have to morally measure yourself against. You're your own person Dean."
Dean swallowed and shook his head. "I know that, Sam."
"Then make sure you keep it in mind. Because no matter what Dad would or wouldn't have done, or thought about things, he's gone now. No matter how much it hurts, or how much we wish it weren't so, he's dead. He's no longer around to tell you what to think or do. It's just you and me now, and unlike yourself, I don't doubt you."
"No Dean, you obviously need to hear this. You're a good person, okay? And what happened to you in hell, what it forced you to do or become, it hasn't taken that away. I still trust you implicitly, and that doesn't depend on whether or not hell broke you, or whether or not Dad would have and could have lasted longer than you did. I know you Dean, and that's why I trust you. You just need to trust yourself."
Dean tiredly ran a hand over his face. "Make it sound easy, will ya?"
Sam laughed. "Nobody said anything about easy, Dean. Come on, as if things had ever been easy for a Winchester. Where would be the fun in that?"
That managed to make Dean smile, and he moved to the side with the movement of Sam gently cuffing his arm. That at least was true. Hardly anything had ever been easy for them. But on the upside, at least life not being easy was something they knew how to deal with.
And sitting here, just him and Sam and the endless canyon around them, for once not disturbed by demons or spirits, Dean could nearly believe that they could make it. He took another sip of his beer. At least it was definitely worth a try.
Thanks for reading, and as always, please let me know what you think. Thanks a lot.