Title: Learning to Breathe
Summery: Sometimes saving a life is just the beginning of the story.
Disclaimer: So not mine that I've only just started Season 4.
Warnings: Some language in later chapters, but nothing major. Attempted suicide. It's an outsider POV but both Sam and Dean get their turn in the spotlight eventually.
A/N: This was supposed to be a one-shot but it developed a bit of a life of its own and just kept growing. It's ended up 8 chapters and an epilogue long, so please bear with me. Thanks to Sendintheclowns for the beta, and to her and gidgetgal9 for reassuring me I wasn't going completely off course with this.
Set some time early Season 2.
The night was so dark that it matched his mood. Made his purpose clearer. He could barely see a thing, but there was nothing left that he wanted to see. Without Thom there was no point any more.
He used to love this park. They used to love this park. They used to love. He knew it, but he wasn't sure he could feel it any more. Could remember what it was like. What it felt like to feel. There was just this gaping void inside him where those emotions used to live, and he couldn't help but wonder absently if he was better off that way. If the pain of not feeling, not understanding, was more tolerable by far than the pain of it all being real.
But it was real. He carried his lover's coffin today and the aches in his shoulders let him know that it was true, a mouth stiff from politely smiling, eyes too tired now to cry. Alone here in the dark he could find some comfort in his forgetting, but in the bright light and the bustle of tomorrow he would be able to hide no more. Life must go on, and he must find a way to go on with it.
And that was something he'd been finding it increasingly hard to do. Even before Thom. But now he was rudderless. Now he had lost even the basic will to survive.
The night was dark and the darkness hid its secrets. Kept them from him. Denied them the why. They'd been to this spot a thousand times before; alone, together; to think, to laugh, to love, to cry. And now that had been taken from him. The security this place once offered had been lost, but his connection to it, like their connection to each other, was as strong as ever.
Thom died here. Cal's dreams died here. It seemed only fitting that he die here too.
He'd never fired a gun before. He'd barely even held one, let alone thought he would come to own one, but that was another legacy that Thom had left him. It seemed only fitting really; he provided Cal with the means to follow, and it seemed only right that he do it here, where it all came crashing so violently to an end.
A mugging. Or an animal attack. No-one seemed willing to commit to an explanation, but Cal had been the one to identify the body and they'd had to hold a close casket service. The darkness was so complete, the night still with silence, that it seemed impossible to believe it could happen so close to here. Impossible if Cal didn't know he lacked the imagination to dream up that level of damage. That senseless violence.
He wasn't worried that whatever it was might come back. If he was really in any danger the authorities would have closed the park, and maybe he liked the element of uncertainty. The possible threat. Felt closer to Thom in it. Because Thom hadn't been expecting it either. And after the agony his lover had been forced to endure, just maybe a bullet to the brain felt like a coward's way out.
The gun was cool and solid in his hands, heavier than he'd expected, a weight he didn't know if he could carry. And he hated himself for his own uncertainty. It should be an easy choice to make. On paper, there was no decision, just fact. The blinding certainty that Cal could not live with that void.
But his shaking hand showed he didn't have the courage to die with it either.
He prayed for certainty. For guidance. For a way out, whether it was onwards or not. He just knew that after sharing his all for three years, he couldn't now do this alone. And yet there was no-one else to do it for him.
There was a rustling in the undergrowth on the rise above him, but he didn't let that distract him from finding his purpose. There might be someone out walking on the slope above him. They would hear the shot, find his body, but they would be too late to make that count. He wondered who would be the one to identify his remains. If there would be someone as lost as he was now come daybreak. But he already knew the answer. If there were, he wouldn't be here now.
He raised the gun to his temple as the rustling behind him grew louder and he closed his eyes, fingers squeezing lightly on the trigger. He cast his soul up with a prayer. It was out of his hands now, his fingers cramping past the point of no return. He would live or die according to God's will.
There was a thundering on the path behind him, a growl, and something solid collided with his shoulder. The gun went off but the impact had knocked his aim clear, the bullet firing harmlessly into the distance, the gun falling from his hand, lost in the darkness.
And he was falling, propelled onwards down the slope, rolled by an unknown weight. The first gunshot so close to his ear had been deafening but it was followed by another and another, which made no sense because the gun was no longer even in his hand, and there was no-one left to pull the trigger.
He came to a stop on his back with the wind knocked out of him, head pounding so hard on the packed earth that the world spun. There was a weight solid and firm across his chest, something hard and angular poking his stomach and side and he cried out, and his voice was not the only one he could hear. There were grunts of pain in his ear, warm breath in his neck, and a howling from behind him - part otherworldly and part human terror.
The ground shook beneath him with the passing of some mammoth heavy stride, and the form on top of him struggled for purchase.
"Stay down!" and gunfire, and the body pinning him dropped its dead weight against him so hard and fast Cal couldn't be sure it wasn't the thing being riddled with bullets. But there was a roaring and a growling overhead, a rushing wind above him, passing in swift motion, and an unearthly stench. Then there was a soft thud, and an impact with the ground that made the earth vibrate beneath him.
Then the world fell silent.
He could hear erratic footsteps in the distance, the whipping of leaves and undergrowth, heavy breathing and that same panicked cry.
The weight pinning him moved and let Cal know that he'd closed his eyes in the confusion and terror. He wasn't really sure he wanted to know what had collided with him, but the scent of decay was overwhelming and there was breath tickling his ear and the manic footsteps were getting nearer, and the irony wasn't lost on Cal that some form of self preservation was kicking in meaning he wanted to know. Wanted to be able to shift the dead weight crushing him, but his arms were pinned.
He opened his eyes to a mass of hair tickling his chin and he lifted his aching head off the ground to take in a pale furrowed brow, then two dark deep eyes flicking dazedly around him, widening in surprise and alarm when they came to rest on his own.
They stared at each other for several long seconds, practically nose to nose, and Cal felt the panic leave him and his breathing settle and he took in the apparition in front of him. Strong defiant jaw, worried expression, thick hair and soul filled eyes peering out beneath a mop of a fringe. There was a bruise forming on his right cheek that made him look vulnerable and young, but the weight still pressing down on him and the yards of limbs still tangled with his own told Cal that small and vulnerable would not be adjectives usually used to describe this man.
But it was his eyes that made Cal pause. Made his breath catch in the back of his throat with the stirrings of emotion he'd been longing for all day, but that had so far been absent. There was a deep rooted sorrow and longing in their depth. They seemed worried and trapped, but they looked at Cal with confusion and something close to recognition, causing something deep down within him to ach.
"God, sorry," the figure breathed, shaking his head, breaking eye contact and the spell Cal had been under. The crushing weight lifted and with it all the night's warmth. The world came rushing back, carrying the sound of running.
It was more of a relieved whisper than the primal scream it had been, and the remaining weight was wrenched from him leaving Cal feeling unaccountably empty and cold. The running figure dropped to his knees at Cal's side with an impact that made Cal wince but the newcomer didn't seem to notice the pain, eyes fixed firmly on Cal's attacker - darting, assessing - trembling hands pulling him away and upright, patting arms and torso, then swinging him around to check out his back as though searching for holes.
Sam, for his part, underwent the manhandling with silent patience, only mumbling that he was "okay Dean, okay" when the crouching man's tone started to lose its relief and border once again on hysteria.
The admission earned him a sharp swat on the shoulder and a "what the Hell" that even Cal could tell stemmed more from fear than anger.
Sammy was still looking groggy and gazing at Cal in confusion, and it was only when Dean realised he seemed to be competing for Sam's attention that he even turned his head to acknowledge the fallen man beside him.
"Who the Hell are you?"
His tone was hard and slightly incredulous, but Cal didn't believe for a second it had been a rhetorical question.
"C… Cal," he stammered, and by the way Dean's eyes narrowed he knew he hadn't come close to answering the other man's question.
"'s okay." Sam's hands were on Dean's jacket drawing the other mans attention back to himself, and Cal couldn't help but notice how his gaze softened as it shifted. "Help me up," Sam instructed, hands still tangled in the other man's clothes, and Cal watched as Dean griped his friend's biceps and hauled them both to their feet. He didn't release his grip when they both were standing and his eyes were still suspicious, but gently so this time, in a way that made Cal want to weep.
He couldn't help but notice that neither man had offered to pick him up from the ground. They towered above him, but he couldn't help but feel he'd be safer lying prone where he was than standing without the shorter man's permission.
Sam was watching him again, expression guarded but almost guilty, and then his eyes flicked away and past him to something on Cal's other side, something that he couldn't yet see.
"Is it dead?" he asked quietly, finally pulling away from Dean's hold and brushing himself down, cricking his neck and rolling his shoulders with an annoyed groan.
"Is it trying to eat you?" Dean asked, and Cal could just make out the raised eyebrows in the dim light. Sam scowled. "Then it's dead," Dean finished, sounding suspiciously satisfied. He'd moved around Cal and was prodding a large dark mass sprawled in a heap on the ground, nudging it with his boot, and Cal noticed for the first time the gun in Dean's hand, aimed at the centre of the mass with precision.
One hell of a big gun. He was almost glad to have lost his own to avoid the embarrassment of a comparison.
But then his brain caught up with his eyes and he realised he was alone in the dark with two huge guys with guns, and he started to think embarrassment wasn't the most useful emotion he could be having.
Sam retrieved another gun from the ground close to where they'd landed and approached the other man, weapon raised and also trained on the still form between them.
Dean stepped back and they both continued to watch the shadow suspiciously until Cal wondered if he should attempt to slink away, or stick around and find out what they were waiting to happen.
With a growl and a lurch the shadow sprung to life. Sam gave a brief yelp of surprise but his hands were steady and he didn't waver as the pair of them methodically emptied their rounds into its bulk. Cal flinched and covered his ears at the sudden intense noise, keeping them covered even as the sharp explosions gave way to mild clicking, and his eyes clenched tight shut against the sudden impression of glowing eyes and sharp teeth.
Silence descended and he opened his eyes to see Dean shrug.
"Now it's dead."
He could see almost nothing in the darkness, but he could hear the other man's semi amused snort, so casual it was almost the most shocking aspect of the whole scene, and Cal felt suddenly light-headed, glad that he was still on the ground and didn't have far to fall. He tried to take comfort in the knowledge that both weapons appeared to be empty, but then there was a rustling and a clicking from Dean's direction, and a flashlight flicked on just in time for him to see Dean pat his newly loaded gun affectionately and throw Cal a cocky grin that made the downed man wonder if he was going to wet himself.
Sam seemed to be determinedly keeping the flashlight beam away from the stinking mass of fur and teeth to Cal's right. Cal could barely see him, just a shadow haloed in the light he held, but Sam seemed to be shifting uncomfortably, and Cal could feel his eyes on him like a physical force. It made his skin tingle, and he felt as self conscious as a school girl.
"We should probably bury it," Sam muttered quietly, decidedly not looking in Cal's - or 'it's' - direction.
"Yeah. But I think we got other things to worry about right now." And Cal wondered for a fleeting moment if they were going to shoot him too. If they would be burying his body alongside that beast's.
He didn't quite know how to take the knowledge that thought actually scared him.
But then Dean's posture seemed to relax and he tucked the gun away. Cal couldn't help but glance at him in surprise as he did so; taking in the fact Dean seemed to be a completely different man without the weapon in his hand. Less taut and less unhinged.
"What?" Dean grinned at Cal's poorly disguised surprise. "Don't worry. They don't come in pairs. Not an overly social creature."
Sam moved again and Cal could feel his eyes following the taller man involuntarily, but not exclusively enough that he didn't see Dean's frown. Sam had gathered some fallen leaves and branches and was doing a hap-hazard job of covering the body of the… the body in front of him.
And Cal was finally starting to put it all together: the animal attacks, the violent deaths, the growling, the rustling steps and the gunfire. This mass of fur and teeth killed Thom. It came close to killing him; so close he had felt the air flow in its wake as it had pounced overhead. But Sam had knocked him down out of its path and Dean had fired.
They had saved his life.
He'd just been standing there. He'd been so close to ending it all, and Sam had knocked him down. Deliberately thrown himself in harm's way to save a life Cal wasn't sure he even wanted. At least, he had no idea what he was going to do with it now he had it back. He'd lost his gun, so that was out, but he wasn't sure if that was really his path any more. Had never truly been sure.
Sam had risked his life to save him - Dean's fear and his annoyance had made that much clear. Cal could not in good conscience throw away that gesture.
And this thing had killed Thom. Whatever it was, it was huge, and it didn't look or smell natural.
Dean was eyeing him with a calculating smile, as though proud of him for figuring it out. Sam was shifting again and avoiding looking in his direction, and Cal could feel the loss of eye contact like it was a hollow inside him. Like it was a painful reminder of the hollow that already existed. That thanks to this man he might now have to try and find a way to heal.
"Come on, you might want to get up. I'm not going to bite," Dean clarified when Cal initially flinched from the hand being held out towards him to help him to his feet. As he stood Cal could see Sam stoop behind Dean's back and tuck something silently into the waistband of his jeans, and Cal knew that he knew. Knew that Sam saw. That Sam knew what he'd walked in on. What Cal had been so close to pulling off. It made him feel sick inside; anxious to know what the other man was thinking. What he was thinking of Cal, and whether he now regretted his action. Regretted the danger and heroics that had not been asked for.
But Cal had asked for them. He'd asked for guidance, to be shown the way.
And he'd been given Sam.
"Well Cal. I'm Dean," Dean introduced himself at last. "And that there is Sam. And I'm guessing you could use a ride home, and a stiff drink or two right about now?"
Cal nodded absently, not really hearing his words. Not really sure of the logic behind getting into a car with these two strangers. But gun toting and menacing as they were, he couldn't believe they meant him harm. They would not have saved him if they meant for him to die.
He would go with them, because he had nowhere else to go. It wasn't like he had any other plans for the rest of the evening.
He followed them through the trees in silence, too numb to do anything other than be led. He could hear them whispering, bickering. Saw Dean give the other's shoulder another annoyed slap, then turn back to give Cal what he obviously intended to be a winning smile. They both turned and checked on him at intervals, as though watching to make sure he was still in tow, but neither volunteered any more information and Cal had left his voice somewhere beside Thom's graveside, and the silence was so thick he couldn't bring himself to break it anyway. But Sam would catch his eye and offer a reassuring smile and Cal could tell that it hurt them both, but it seemed to offer the platitude that everything would be okay.
And Cal had to believe that. He didn't have the strength to do anything else. He'd been under no illusions about this day; he'd known it would be hard, seen it coming with looming finality as the week had progressed. To formally say goodbye to Thom, the life they had shared, the future he'd thought he'd had. His foundations had been shaken.
Without Thom, he had no idea who he was and no longer understood his place in the world. But this…. Ten minutes with these men and they had stripped him of his basic perceptions about life. Called into question everything he had known to be true. He was even less equipped to form a new place in the world now than he had been clinging to Thom's ruined form in that morgue. Because back then his existence might have been in question, but the world around him had made some level of basic sense. He knew its rules. He knew the sun would rise, the earth would turn, there would be pain, and loneliness, and night, and day.
But if a creature like that could exist… everything Cal knew had been called into question. So if Sam could smile and suggest that everything would work out okay, Cal would cling to that; because Sam's pitying smile was the only thing that had happened to him all week that had made any sense.
Cal was stumbling by the time they exited the park and a black car gleamed into view, as though even the mechanics of walking had been called into doubt. They came to a halt and he found himself naturally gravitating towards Sam and the only hint of comfort left in his life, no longer caring about Dean's gruff exterior or the frown his actions caused. He needed to keep Sam close, have some kind of human comfort to keep the screaming terror in his mind at bay. If Sam was there, he would not feel the need to be looking over his shoulder or examining every shadow for the rest of time, because he trusted in the other man's instincts, and his light.
"I can drop Cal in town while you make a start on things here," Sam held out his hands for the key. "It won't take long."
Dean gave a humourless laugh and a "yeah right" and slid purposefully into the driver's seat. Sam sighed and rolled his eyes in Cal's direction, wrenching the passenger door open and dropping into the car with a creak.
Cal stood for a few seconds beside the door Sam had disappeared through, unsure. Neither was looking at him and he could see Dean tapping his fingers against the steering wheel in irritation. In the end he decided he was more afraid of remaining outside the car on his own than climbing in with them.
The drive back into town was almost in silence. Cal got the impression that neither was really sure what to say for the best. Besides reassuring him that it was dead and he would be safe now, Cal wasn't really sure what more they could say. How much he could expect. Dean was kind but blunt. He didn't know about Thom. He didn't know about why Cal had been alone out there in the dark. They didn't know just how badly Cal's illusions had been shattered.
Sam appeared to be more understanding, he offered the eye contact that Cal found he craved – so few people had been willing or comfortable looking him in the eye for so long now that Cal found he was suddenly starved of that connection, and fed of Sam's attention like a dying man. He could tell that on some level Sam understood his pain. He wanted to ask, wanted to acknowledge that, but he still couldn't find any words, and his grief was still too private to share. But Sam had given him a tomorrow, and Cal looked on the idea this man might know something of what he was feeling with a mixed anxiety and hope. He would have to find a way to go on now, but he couldn't help but think he'd been given a glimpse of the fact that might just be possible. That maybe living could be an achievable goal, even as it hurt.
They dropped him off at his apartment, extracting a promise from him that he would be more careful in future, and that he would make no mention of ever having seen them. They would go back to take care of the evidence, dispose of the body, and slink away into the night. He was not to worry; if all went well he would never see either of them again.
As the black car rumbled away from him into the night and Cal turned to face his dark, empty apartment, he couldn't hide the surprise at how much the prospect of that new loss hurt.