Master of None
Summary: Sam had been pretty sure his day couldn't get any worse. He'd figured wrong.
A/N – Faye: We apologize for the delay in this third part – especially to Authoressnebula. I have to take full responsibility for it – it's been kind of an exciting week at my house and not in a good way. But here's part three for Nebula and the rest of you who are reading. Thanks! And enjoy the ending.
There was this memory Sam had, from when he was very young. He didn't know how young because Dean didn't remember this memory and their father would never answer when Sam asked about it. But Sam remembered it regardless, always had and always would, no matter how much everyone else wanted to forget.
Though maybe it was less a memory and more of an impression. A vague sensation, but clear enough to be distinctive. He had a friend name Joey once when they lived someplace out east and Joey insisted that the memory was nothing more than an odd conglomeration of thoughts and feelings, nothing specific, all converging to form something that was almost real but not quite.
Sam didn't care. He had so few memories of his childhood that he would cling to what he had.
But this memory, this impression--whatever it was, it was a time when he was helpless. Trapped, even. Like he knew he needed to be someplace else, anyplace else, but there was nowhere to go. He had no means to move. Sam could even remember crying, desperate and long, but that there was no one there.
It was cold in his memory, cold and hot, like ice and fire, dancing on his skin and running through his blood. Sometimes he could even feel his stomach turn but not enough to change it. Never enough to change it.
No one could stop it in his memory. Not even that shrouded sense of movement, of getting out, because the terror wasn't about what was on the outside, but what was within.
The memory is his, but the moment it represented almost didn't feel that way. Like he was disconnected from his own life, which is about as disconcerting as the memory itself.
It was like that now. Disconnected, cold and hot, desperate and futile. As though Sam knew he needed to do something, but instead found himself incapable of anything.
There was movement, though, Sam knew that much. Movement and sound--voices, lots of voices. So many he didn't recognize. Hushed and professional, cool in tone and brusque in delivery, accompanied by sure, quick touch and bouts of pain and nothingness.
Doctors and nurses, the thought came to him distantly.
And then other voices, two he knew. Dean. Dad. They didn't say much, but Sam knew that was pretty normal. They never said much, and if they didn't want to talk about wayward memories, Sam was pretty sure they wouldn't want to talk about this.
Sam just couldn't quite remember what this was.
Sam tried to, though, he did. A good Winchester in the end. He sort of wished his dad would just tell him for once, lay it all out on the table so Sam could know what he was dealing with, but that just wasn't his dad's style.
And maybe for once Sam didn't want to know. Dean always told him there were some answers not worth figuring out and Sam wondered if his brother may be right. Because it hurt--somewhere, beneath the gauzy nothingness, there was pain, and lots of it. There was pain and weakness and Winchesters weren't weak, they just weren't, and Sam couldn't admit anything to the contrary because he wasn't feeling up to running laps right then.
And his eyes were open sometimes. Flashes of light, not quite dream, and his awareness was almost within his grasp. The ceiling was dark and paneled and the shadows that danced across it made him as dizzy as the unsettling sense of disconnection that encompassed everything.
His dad was there, Dean, too, and they almost smiled, but not quite and they were trying to tell him something. Orders, maybe. About shooting to kill and falling in line and other things, important things, things Sam should remember but didn't want to.
Sam had Chemistry homework in his backpack. Something about balancing chemical equations but that was useless information, useless against a Spring Heeled Jack that just wanted a good scare.
Maybe it worked. Sam was scared.
He blinked, slow and it was like a curtain falling over the world and opening them again was harder than it should be.
Dean, then. Smiling.
And Sam couldn't help it. He wanted to ask. Why they were here. What he'd done wrong again. Why it hadn't worked. Why he'd tried and trained and studied and stood his ground and the Jack had tried to kill him anyway.
He licked his lips, and almost couldn't feel it, and he opened his mouth and it was all wrong. His father was touching him then, holding him gently, shaking his head and giving orders, always more orders, and he had that look in his eyes, that look like Sam screwed up again.
And he did. He did screw up. Because his neck was on fire and it felt wrong, it felt weird. There was something wrong with it, and the lightning hot scald of pain was enough to bring his world into focus.
"You can't talk," his father was saying. "You can't talk just yet."
But Sam didn't understand. Wanted to, but couldn't. He'd been right about the Jack, right about the trees, right about its lair. So why was he still getting sent back to the car?
There was a tickle in his throat and as he tried to swallow it became a full blown gag.
He was choking. The Jack had choked him. The Jack had choked him and he couldn't talk and he couldn't breathe.
"You've got a tube in your neck," his father said next, his words cutting through Sam's awareness. "Sam, do you hear me?"
It was a voice that brokered no argument. Left no room for interpretation. He turned watery eyes to his father and begged an answer.
His father seemed defeated, Sam realized. Broken. "The Jack--it hurt you pretty bad. Your neck--the doctors are a little worried still. It's not going to be easy, but you're going okay. You're doing okay."
Okay was a tube in his neck and the paralyzing realization that he was helpless. It was all being taken from him. Every opportunity he ever had. The promise of school, of achieving something else, was squelched out by the endless hunt. The dreams of happiness and freedom and safety were lost between sparring sessions and stretches. His chance to prove himself once and for all was choked out of him by a Jack who didn't play by the rules. This was a game he was rigged to lose and it just wasn't fair.
He didn't want to be sent to the car. He didn't want to wake up to training and go to sleep with research every night. He didn't want to travel from state to state and wake up not knowing what time zone he was in. He didn't want a tube down his throat, taking his voice, taking his autonomy.
He just wanted to live.
His dad was stroking his hair, soft and gentle, and Sam tried to remember again, remember the last time he felt safe.
A tear trailed from his eye down his cheek as his father spoke quietly. "You're okay, Sammy. You're okay."
But Sam wondered if his father knew what that meant at all. Just like he wondered if his dad knew exactly what that memory was, knew far better than Sam, but just didn't want to tell him. Just like he wondered how orders were a part of love, how so much danger was a part of safety, how feeling so alone could be a part of family.
Still, Sam couldn't speak. He couldn't move or breathe or research or disappoint. He could only close his eyes and wonder his way to sleep.
Dean liked to have an optimistic view on life. He really did. After all, he saw what good the strong and silent lifestyle did for their dad. Sure, his dad was pretty kick-ass, and he knew how to use more weapons and kill more things than Dean could even imagine, but there was so little joy in it. Just in and out, do the job. Necessary roughness and all that kind of crap. It was effective and it was damn impressive, but it was a far cry from happy.
And he saw what good brooding did Sammy. Sam always wanted what he didn't have, always asked questions he didn't need to know the answers to and it just made him more unhappy. Sure, Sam was freaky smart and Dean was pretty sure the kid was capable at excelling anything he put that little geeky brain to doing, but Sam chose all the wrong things to focus on in some warped sense of self exploration. It was kind of funny to watch, a lot annoying, and in the end it just made all of them miserable.
So Dean took what he had and did what he could. There was always a silver lining.
Well, almost always.
Sitting in Sam's hospital room, watching some damn tube stick out of his brother's throat, he was finding it hard to find the bright side. Because those were some pretty bad lemons he had in front of him.
He supposed he should be grateful that Sam's life was mostly out of danger. The doctors had cleared his kid brother from the critical list about a day ago, but that didn't really change things too much. The tube was still obscenely stuck in his brother's throat--a precaution the nurses assured him, just to make sure that Sam's throat was stable and that he warded off infection before they took it out.
And infection there was. Burning bright in his baby brother's cheeks. They kept Sam loaded on painkillers and antibiotics and supposedly Sam was beating it, which was more good news, Dean supposed, but it didn't change much.
Because, even with all that, there were still a lot of questions. Questions like would Sam ever talk again? Would Sam ever be able to eat normally again? Would Sam still be Sam when they finally stopped all those drugs enough to let his kid brother come to?
No way to know, the doctors said. But they had every reason to be hopeful.
It was doctor BS and Dean could spot it a mile away. Cautiously optimistic and loaded with a whole hell of a lot of unknowns. Worse because in that long list of things to go wrong, Dean wasn't sure the Winchester luck would hold out and check off every one.
And there was no bright side to that. What, was he supposed to be happy that Sam could never talk again as long as he still had all that big brain intact? Or maybe he was supposed to be satisfied to hear Sam whine even if he had some kind of reduced mental capacity?
And how the hell was he supposed to feel good about the whole idea of hunting, of his family being together, when hunting and family togetherness had gotten them there in the first place?
That was the crux of it. After three days cramped up at Sam's bedside watching as nurses poked and prodded and doctors checked out the freakin' hole in Sam's neck, Dean didn't know how to feel about how they got here.
A simple hunt. In and out, straightforward. A chance for Sam to practice. For Sam to relearn the basics.
Well, Sam was relearning the basics, all right. Starting with learning to breathe all over again.
Their dad, for his part, hadn't moved from Sam's side. Dean had barely seen the man pee in the last three days, which maybe made sense since he'd barely seen him drink anything either. It was sort of weird, really. His father's vigil. There were soft touches and gentle words and it was all so unlike John Winchester, that Dean wondered what rabbit hole he'd fallen into and how he could get the hell back out.
Because he was more than willing to pass up the sympathetic side of John Winchester if it took Sammy lying there, looking like that to bring it out.
Then suddenly, Sam was moving.
The kid had twitched some over the last three days, but moved? Not so much.
Dean saw it first, and was sitting up in his chair to get a better look, when Sam opened his eyes.
Swearing, Dean rushed to stand, but his dad beat him to it. Straightening in his chair, their father loomed over Sam, looking intently in Sam's face. "Sam?" his father asked. "Sammy?"
Sam's eyes were barely slits, and his kid brother's gaze was muddied and confused.
Their dad leaned closer, putting one hand on Sam's head with a foreign tenderness. "Sam?"
And Sam blinked, his eyes clearing a little, just enough and something akin to panic passed through them.
As Sam licked his lips, his mouth working slowly, Dean realized why.
There was a tube sticking out of Sam's throat, after all. While Dean was acutely aware of that, he had spent the last three days staring at it. This was probably all news to Sam. And rather unnerving news at that.
Their father hushed him, stern but soft. "You can't talk right now," he soothed.
It didn't seem like Sam was really listening, which Dean supposed was about the only normal part of this situation. Instead Sam tried to lick his dry lips again, his pale features trembling a little bit as tears filled his eyes.
"You've got a tube in your neck," their dad said. "Sam, do you hear me?"
And there his father went, asking questions he knew the answer to, as if he hoped that asking them would give him a different answer. When it came to Sam, they never did.
Sam's eyes begged with questions, demanding answers that would never do them justice.
This time, however, their dad answered. His voice was different, though. Broken. Maybe a little defeated. A tone Dean hadn't heard in sixteen years. "The Jack--it hurt you pretty bad. Your neck--the doctors are a little worried still. It's not going to be easy, but you're going to be okay. You're doing okay."
It wasn't quite a lie, but it certainly wasn't quite the truth. It was a hope. His father didn't know. They all depended on their father to know, to be sure, and all their dad had to offer was a damn stupid optimistic hope.
It suddenly seemed so naive. So obvious. And Dean couldn't help but wonder how much of their lives were based on the same damn hopes and well-intended lies. Like they could believe it enough, they could train hard enough, kill enough evil to make it true.
Dean felt his own throat constrict as a lone tear dripped down Sam's cheek and his father said, "You're okay, Sammy. You're okay."
And Dean wanted to believe. Needed to believe. Just like always.
Because there was something he was forgetting. Something sixteen years in the making. That life sucked. That the real world, despite all its allure for Sam, had as much good as bad. Had as much pain as pleasure. Dean didn't make lemonade for the kicks.
He made it to survive.
Sam's eyes fluttered shut and his brother shifted, settling back into sleep. Dean watched as his father stayed near his brother, hand still on the unruly mop for a long moment. Then, the tension seemed to leave his father's body, and he sank back, looking so much older than Dean had ever seen him.
Dean couldn't help it. He couldn't help it. Seeing Sam like that, seeing his father like that, maybe it wasn't the time for truth. Maybe it wasn't the time for reality or fears or anything else.
Dean couldn't fix the hunt. He couldn't go back and stop the Jack from hurting his brother. He couldn't go back and make his dad listen to Sam. He couldn't even go back and make Sam get his mind on the hunt where it belonged. He probably couldn't even change their father's blind focus on the hunt or Sam's incessant need to question.
But he could do the one thing he'd always done. He could be there. He could believe, no matter how ostentatious or beautiful the lie.
With a sigh, he cleared his throat, his eyes lingering on Sam once again. "It's true, you know," he said.
His father didn't blink, didn't move. Stayed as still and pale as Sam. "What?"
Dean turned his eyes to his father, resolving himself to this. "Sam's going to be okay."
There was a flicker of doubt in his father's eyes. "And how can you be so sure?"
Dean laughed, short and humorless, and just shook his head. "He's too damn stubborn not to be," he said. "And you're too damn stubborn to let him be anything else."
At that, his father smiled, tired and weary and relieved, and for a second, even Dean believed his own words.
It was a slow week.
Transience defined his existence in the best and worst of times, so the idea of being still and confined was damn foreign to John Winchester. It wasn't that he missed the road, not with that yearning of desire, but it was more than he just didn't know what to do with himself when he had so much time to think.
And, given the setting, the thoughts weren't pleasant ones.
After all, not even John Winchester could ignore the fact that Dean had taken up permanence residence in a hospital chair and Sam was still laid out on a bed with a hole in his neck.
A hole John had put there.
It had saved his son's life, but the question still remained. Just what life had he saved? The doubts were ebbing, thankfully, as each day the doctor reported that his son was improving. His breathing was strengthening and his reflexes were returning to normal. These were good signs, hints that Sam would soon be well enough to come off the ventilator and that Sam's neck would heal enough for him to regain some kind of semblance of normal living.
They weren't sure, however, if Sam would be able to speak or swallow, and there was even some lingering doubt as to the possibility of brain damage. As if John needed the possibility to feel even worse about it.
So it was impossible not to think about it. Not to think about how this was his fault.
Mistakes always fell back on bad leadership. Sam's sloppiness was as much his fault as was his blind insistence that made him send his son back to the car. If he had just been more vigilant, Sam's skills would have never gotten lax. If he had just paid more attention and not babied his son, Sam would be much further along in his training.
The answer was, of course, to forge ahead. To push harder. Never admit defeat.
Sam was still pale in the bed, his hair disheveled on his head. His young features were drawn and sunken, the days of being on the ventilator taking its toll. Sam had been almost awake on and off, vague awareness that was just enough to terrify his son and make John ache.
Sam wasn't a soldier. John knew that was the problem. But maybe Sam wasn't supposed to be a soldier.
His youngest had never fit the mold, though John had to admit, he'd never wanted to think about it. Sammy had been so young when Mary died, so innocent. Sam didn't know about the evil that had touched him. Sam didn't have to know.
It was why he'd kept it from Sam. Keeping it from Dean was damn near impossible--John's early days had been too messy to hide from Dean's wondering eyes, and his oldest was too aware of the shift from normal to off the grid to hide it from him.
He'd kept Sam innocent because John wanted to believe that it could all be over before Sam would ever have to know. As if keeping him a baby would mean that Mary would never miss out on him growing up.
It wasn't about Sam. It was never about Sam. Not even the decision to train Sam had much to do with Sam. It was a necessity. The way it had to be. John had forced himself to believe it for sixteen years and he wasn't about to stop now. He couldn't afford to.
But could he afford seeing his son here like this? Could he afford it if Sam was never the same? Could he afford it if the light was squelched forever from his baby boy's eyes?
It was so damn hard.
He looked at his sons again, Dean sprawled awkwardly in the chair, mouth half open, fast asleep. Sam on the hospital bed, tubes stringing off him, still and weak.
There was always a price to pay. He just had to figure out how much he was willing to sacrifice. Give up the hunt, let the boys have normal lives, and run the risk of being blind sided again. Prepare the boys, chase down the evil that did this to them, and risk his sons' every happiness.
It wasn't a fair choice. It just wasn't. Not to him, not to Dean, not to Sam.
There was a rustling, a slight shifting, and John broke himself from his reverie. It was Sam, moving slightly on the bed. His long fingers were twitching, curling a little, and his head was moving restless.
He leaned forward, readying himself. This wasn't too uncommon; when the sedatives began to wear down, Sam would venture toward consciousness, sometimes surfacing for brief, hazy periods. There wasn't much to those times, and at first they'd been reassuring, but the empty panic in Sam's features had done little to assuage John's anxieties or to quell his doubts.
Then, a cough, or something like it, rippling from Sam's chest and shaking its way up Sam's heavily bandaged throat.
John's brow creased.
The cough rattled Sam again, and John leaned forward, reaching out tentatively to touch his son when an alarm sounded.
He was used to the beeps and blips of the machinery by Sam's bed. He was even used to the doctors' tests and the nurses' prodding. He was used to the small talk and the ache in his back and that willowy look of exhaustion in Dean's eyes.
But this--something was different.
As John was trying to figure out which monitor had sounded, everything started happening.
Sam's eyes popped open, wide and frantic and searching, and before John could even react to that, there was a nurse hovering over both of them and Dean was grunting to awareness behind him.
Between all of it, the nurse's quick motions, Sam's panicked look, Dean's demanding voice, John felt his heart thudding loudly against his chest.
Something was wrong. Something was wrong and Sam couldn't breathe or Sam wasn't breathing or his throat was collapsing or he was bleeding and it was just wrong.
John felt light-headed, and his vision was graying around the edges.
Sixteen years to fight so hard and it happened like this. He was going to lose one of his boys, and if he lost one, he lost both, and it was all his fault.
And he could see Sam missing a punch while sparring, he could feel the gentle shake of Dean's head as he tried to figure out what was up with Sam, and he could hear his own voice saying how stupid it was that the Jack would have a launching pad--
It couldn't happen like this.
Fumbling, he tried to stand, to back away. There was a doctor now, and someone talking to him and Dean looking pretty freaked out and John didn't know what to do, couldn't even stop himself as his knees buckled and he hit the floor.
When he opened his eyes, Dean was grinning at him. The kid looked tired, weary, but nearly damn giddy.
"You okay?" Dean asked.
John blinked, his body tense. He was in a bed now, he realized. Flat on his back with an IV coming out of his hand.
"You nearly took out one of the nurses with that nosedive you did," Dean said, sounding far too cocky for a kid making fun of his old man.
Then John realized what Dean was saying. He'd passed out. He'd went out cold on the floor of Sam's hospital room--
He bolted upward, eyes roving the room.
"Whoa," Dean said. "Take it easy."
But John couldn't take it easy. He remembered Sam's cough and the monitor and--
He was halfway out of bed and to Sam's side when he saw it.
The tube. The tube was gone.
No wonder Dean was grinning.
"He was fighting the tube," Dean said, his voice hushed. "So the docs took it out. They've left the port in there just for awhile longer in case they need it again, but they think if Sam can hold his own over the next day, they'll stitch it up."
Good news. This was good news.
Still, the IV tugged at John's hand, and he pulled it out. He needed to see Sam, needed to check him over, needed to know for himself. "Was he okay?" he asked, his eyes never leaving Sam.
"He was awake and alert," Dean said. "Couldn't talk yet but he was nodding yes and no like a champ. They think he's all there and better yet, they think once the swelling goes down and it's not so sore that Sam'll be able to talk again."
It was too good to be true. Standing over his youngest, his hand fell softly on Sam's hair. His son was sleeping, face turned away. The heavy bandages still wrapped his neck, but Sam looked different now. More comfortable.
"They gave him a little something to help him sleep," Dean said. "I wanted to wake you up but they said you probably needed your rest as much as Sam did."
Rest didn't matter. There would be time for that, John would be sure of it. He just needed one thing right now. He just needed to know.
Carefully he leaned down. "Sam," he called, moving a hand to his son's shoulder. With a gentle shake, he called again. "Sammy."
Sam's body shifted, resettling itself, and John tried again.
"Sammy," he said. "I know you're tired, but I just wanted to talk to you, just for a moment."
Sam moved again, his head rolling this time, face turning toward John's voice.
"That's it," John encouraged.
And then Sam opened his eyes.
This time, however, even under the muddiness of drugs and exhaustion, John could see his son. He could see the boy who had trained for a week, who had researched, who had tried so hard to defy the Jack.
John smiled. "Good to see you awake," he said, feeling the inexplicable swell of tears behind his eyes.
Sam's brow creased a little, his lips turning down in a frown. He wet his lips and opened his mouth.
John shook his head. "Don't try to talk," he said. "Not yet."
But Sam's eyes watered as he shook his head. He opened his mouth again, purposeful and wide. Slowly, carefully he formed two words: I'm sorry.
And John felt his heart threaten to shatter. Sam was lying in a hospital bed because of John's own failed decisions, apologizing to his father.
"It's okay," John cooed softly, a hand stroking Sam's hair again. "We'll talk about it later, okay?"
Later when John knew what to say, when John knew how to fix it. When John had figured out how to reconcile his son's shortcomings with his own twisted expectations.
Sam's eyes were drooping, slipping shut, but even as his son disappeared back into sleep, John could see that Sam didn't believe him.
It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last and it was cold comfort for John as he stood there a moment longer, hand on Sam's head, watching the steady rise and fall of Sam's chest and wishing that this could be all that mattered.
Two weeks of IVs and bandages, of tests and questions. Two weeks for them to tell Sam that he was doing exceptionally well. Two weeks where exceptionally well meant barely managing to swallow without croaking and squeaking out strained noises.
Two weeks of his dad's hovering, of his brother's wise-cracking. Two weeks of everyone pretending like Sam hadn't screwed up so bad to end up in here in the first place. Two weeks of delaying the inevitable critique, of not talking about the Jack, of not thinking about the fact that Sam's shortcomings had resulted in a hole in the neck that was putting them more behind schedule with every breath that grated through Sam's healing throat.
Two weeks, and Sam was finally out of the hospital. Fresh air and freedom.
Sam took a deep breath of the crisp air and it irritated his throat. A dry cough racked his body and he bent forward in the wheelchair, straining to ease the pain.
So much for freedom.
The nurse pushing his wheelchair halted their forward progress, kneeling in front of him, tipping his head up so she could assess his condition. Dean was standing over her shoulder, worry creasing his face.
He tried to talk, to assure them he was okay, but only a grating wheeze left his mouth. He resorted to mouthing the words I'm fine, I'm sorry.
Fine. Sam didn't know if he was fine but maybe if he said it to himself enough, his body would follow suit. Cooperate. He did know he was tired of lying on that damn hospital bed, the nurses and doctors poking and prodding. And waking him up. His body craved sleep but apparently that went against hospital policy.
The Impala, gleaming in the sunshine, pulled up to curb. His dad was slamming out of the driver's seat, vaulting around the hood of the car, his hand soon resting on Dean's shoulder.
His father's expression shifted from concern to impatience as the nurse explained Sam's coughing jag. Even without the ability to speak Sam managed to piss off his dad.
The nurse coaxed him out of the wheelchair and settled him into the back seat. Dean smoothly slid in next to him and Sam wanted to protest; Dean lived for riding shotgun, sitting next to their dad, bull-shitting with him. And Sam just wanted a little space. He appreciated how attentive his family had been to him while he was stuck in the hospital but he really craved a moment's peace. The mother-henning was making him feel like more of a loser than he already did.
Dean was cocooning him in a blanket and Sam tried to shake it off, he wasn't an invalid. Only his energy had drained away and it took everything he had to remain upright. His dad and Dean were speaking but rest beckoned and the gentle buzz of their words lulled him to sleep.
The Jack kicked him in the side of the head and Sam found himself on his back, as helpless as an overturned turtle. "Boy, you are incompetent. No wonder your family attempted to banish you. If you were my offspring, I would have taken you to the river and drowned you long ago."
The Jack's red eyes morphed into John Winchester's dark brown, the hand around his neck squeezing. "You're a failure, Sam. Your mother would be so disappointed in you. I know Dean is. What am I supposed to do with you? The family would be better off without you…"
Sam startled, his body tensing.
A dream. It was just a dream.
The Impala had rocked to a stop and his brother and dad were talking again.
"I don't know, Dad. He doesn't do anything except sleep. And wheeze. Maybe the hospital should have kept him."
Dean's voice was tinged with impatience. Sam was not only letting down his dad but his brother, too.
"See if you can wake him up. We'll get him inside, make sure he's comfortable."
His dad's low voice was gruff. Weary. Sam had done this to his family, worn them down. His stupid suggestions. His pathetic shortcomings. Dean wouldn't need to be coddled like this. Dean wouldn't have screwed up so bad in the first place. Dean never would have been given an easy hunt for training. Dean never would have been sent back to the car.
But Sam had. Sam was that kid. And now they were all paying the price because of it.
He wanted to apologize but he was disconnected from his body. His brain sent the order to his mouth to open, to his vocal cords to work, but nothing happened. Tears of frustration leaked down his face.
"Come on, Sam, we're home. Time to wake up." A hand tangled in his hair and the surface he'd been leaning against shifted. "Shit, Dad, he's crying. And he won't open his eyes."
Do something was the implied message in his brother's voice. Do something right, do something brave. Man up, take the punches and roll with them. They didn't have time for this kind of crap. They never did. Sam shouldn't even be here. He didn't deserve to be here. Even when he tried, made his best efforts, it ended up like this. He was a fuck-up. Hadn't the fiasco with the Jack proven it?
Strong arms hauled him out of the car and when his legs refused to hold him up, he found himself airborne, held aloft. Everything hurt. His head, his neck, his heart.
He was being carried and the motion made him dizzy. He found himself deposited on a lumpy surface. "Sam, damn it, open your eyes. You're worrying your brother."
That sent his eyelids to blinking, first slowly and then furiously as he tried to clear his vision. He knew that voice, and he had to obey it or else.
Dean's face, twisted with some emotion Sam couldn't read, swam into view. "Sammy, you okay?"
Sam managed to nod, his neck protesting the motion.
Dean was trying to grin, but it was a far cry from his usual cocky smile. His father was even putting out some effort, keeping his voice soft and easy, but it was all wrong. Sam had wanted to prove his independence, to gain a little freedom, and instead had been reduced to a needy little kid again and all Sam could think was that his dad had been right all along.
They were talking, to him, about him, over his head, whatever. It was like a typical family discussion. Dean and his dad, making the decisions, figuring out the hard stuff, and Sam was just along for the ride.
He'd always just be along for the ride.
After more discussion swirled around him, he was finally allowed to drift off again.
Somehow sleeping forever didn't seem like such a bad idea. At least maybe in his dreams he wouldn't disappoint his family.
Dean had known that Sam's first few days home would be hard. He just hadn't expected them to be so damn traumatic. For everyone.
All his little brother seemed capable of was sleep. Sure, he'd known Sammy had a lot of healing to do but this--his brother's inability to keep his eyes open and clear for more than five minutes at a time--was driving Dean out of his mind with worry.
His little brother was always in motion, always thinking, always questioning. That was before. Now he lounged passively wherever Dean plunked him down. Bed, couch, once even the front step. But that exciting foray had been short-lived when coughs consumed Sam's slight frame. Dean had felt so guilty about it that he'd scooped the kid up and taken him back inside where they had stayed cooped up ever since.
On top of Sam's newfound sleepiness, his younger brother's voice had gone silent despite the staff's assurances that he was physically able to talk.
Was it willful disobedience or was Sam still sick? Dean couldn't tell, but he was tired of coaxing, baiting and pushing his brother to wake up, talk, do something.
Dean was worried, yes, but more than that, he was bored. He'd thought having Sam home meant things were back to normal. Not that normal was all that great these days. His dad and Sam locked in some heated contest of wills, Dean playing peacemaker on the sidelines. Being the middle-man wasn't Dean's idea of a good time, but right now, he would have taken it gladly. Because now Sam refused to engage on any level, and for all of the times he'd wished Sam would just shut up, go with the flow, this was the worst time ever for him to clam up.
Because Sam's silence only made their father's silence that much more on edge. Like they were all waiting for someone to say something first, to break the stalemate between them. Someone had to. They had to talk about what had happened--about the hunt, the training, the Jack--or they'd be stuck in this endless loop of silence and anger and pain until Dean freakin' lost his mind.
After all, he'd already reread every skin mag in his stash and with their dad around 24/7, he wasn't exactly getting a lot of chances to go replenish.
"Dean," his dad's voice came from the doorway.
Dean jumped, fumbling awkward to bury his magazine discreetly from his father's view, wondering briefly if he could pass it off as Sam's, even though the kid was zonked out on the couch next to Dean.
His father took pity on him and ignored the magazine, putting a steaming bowl on the coffee table. "Wake him up. I've got soup, it's tomato, you said that's his favorite. Make sure he eats it all. The kid is nothing but skin and bones."
Jumping to do his dad's bidding, Dean put a hand on his reclining brother's shoulder and exerted slow, steady pressure. "Sammy, dinner time. You have to eat."
Clouded eyes peaked at Dean through barely slitted eyelids as their father retreated back to the kitchen.
Dean leaned closer, trying to meet Sam's glazed eyes. "Come on, you've slept long enough. Get up."
He'd used his best imitation Marine voice and it seemed to work, although Dean felt mean watching his brother climb to wakefulness, awkwardly pushing himself to a sitting position. But he'd quickly learned that being nice meant Sam continued to sleep and if he didn't get some food down his brother soon, he was afraid they'd have to take him back to the hospital. Although right now, with the way Sam squinted up at him, eyes dazed, his skin pale, the hospital might not be such a bad idea. At least they knew how to take care of Sam there. Between his crappy nursemaid skills and their dad's gruff bedside manner, they didn't seem to be doing such a hot job.
Picking up the bowl, Dean ladled a spoon full and held it in the air, waiting for it to cool sufficiently. Sorry that things had come to this, seeing Sam so weak and defenseless, Dean nevertheless shoved the spoon to his brother's lips, willing him to eat.
Sam tentatively accepted the offering but his look of gratitude twisted into one of revulsion as he backpedaled away from Dean, clutching at his bandaged neck.
Dean reached out, trying to protect the precarious bowl of soup. "Dude, chill," he said. "You have to eat this. Even if I have to sit on you and force feed you, you're going to finish this bowl."
Dean ruthlessly jabbed a spoon full of the red concoction at Sam's mouth, the back of the kid's head trapped against the couch. Tears trickled from those large, doe-like eyes but Dean hardened his heart; if Sam didn't get some sustenance he was never going to recover.
The most pathetic choking and wheezing noises escaped from Sam and they were loud enough to bring his dad sprinting back into the living room from the kitchen. "What the hell is wrong with him now?"
Dean caught the underlying worry in his dad's strident tone but Sam cowered against the cushion. "I don't think he wants the soup. And I tried, but I just can't make him, not when he's like this."
His dad kneeled down in front of Sam, capturing his face between his two large hands, locking it in place. "Sam, you need to knock this shit off. Eat the damn soup."
The wheezing noises Dean had written off as Sam trying to manipulate him, avoid eating, penetrated his brain. Sam was talking--or trying to, anyway. "Please…no…acid."
Sam's voice grated despite its lack of volume. Dean shook his head; he didn't understand what Sam was trying to communicate. This was worse than when Sam was toddler and Dean chanted nothing but 'use your words' when his brother had meltdown after meltdown, unable to convey what he wanted in his limited toddler mentality. Needless to say, it had been more than slightly frustrating for both of them, and Dean couldn't say that this attempt at communication was working too much better for them.
Apparently it wasn't so mysterious to their dad, however. "Shit, I'm sor…Dean, go get his pain killer. The tomato is too acidic for Sam's throat, probably felt like lava pouring past that wound."
His dad rarely barked at him and he rose swiftly to his feet, eager to appease him. And then it hit him – the tomato soup, much beloved by his brother, was like acid on that poor abused throat.
And Dean had forced it on his brother. Even when Sam had clearly tried to refuse.
His brain shut down, unable to process that he'd actually hurt his brother. It was like choking Sam out accidentally although this time Sam wasn't bounding to his feet, proclaiming that he was fine. No, this time Sam was scrunched into the corner of the couch, trying to evade their comforting touches.
On autopilot, Dean retrieved the small bottle of liquid codeine from the kitchen. When he returned to the living room it was to find Sam curled on his dad's lap, quivering, while the usually stern and stoic man ran a comforting hand up and down Sammy's back, whispering softly.
Apologizing. His dad never apologized.
Dean promptly unscrewed the cap and filled the dropper, squeezing out the excess until he had the correct dose. "More, Dean."
Without argument, Dean refilled the dropper until one and a half of the recommended dose remained. He handed it over to his dad who adjusted the pliant Sam until he could easily put the drops of codeine into Sam's mouth. Only his dad's hand shook so much, he was in danger of missing the intended target.
Seeing his dad like this, shaking, hit Dean hard. John Winchester always knew what to do, always remained strong. He'd passed out in the hospital but that was probably just as much from dehydration as it was from worry.
The medicine finally made it to Sam's lips. His little brother turned his head aside, mutely declining the liquid, straining away from the arms holding him.
This time no one scolded him.
His dad's eyes lifted and made contact with Dean's, filled with remorse.
Sam may have been the one with a crushed larynx and a hole in his neck, but this was an injury they were all struggling to recover from and Dean wasn't sure they'd ever get there.
John looked in the living to find Sam awake, staring blankly at the TV, the volume turned all the way down. It had been a week since he and Dean had ravaged Sam's tender throat with tomato soup and although no one was truly to blame, he still felt like crap.
He'd always prided himself on knowing what was best for both sons but looking at his youngest now, limbs lax, face expressionless, he was left with an intense feeling of ineptitude.
John had tried enticing Sam out of his shell by decreeing he would get Sam's homework or books from the library. Sam had merely stared at John, a solemn look in his eyes that made John feel worse just for asking. Getting his son to eat enough was a constant struggle but vanilla shakes, oatmeal and chicken broth had been delicately consumed in at least enough quantity to assure John that his baby wasn't going to waste away. Eliciting a smile from the kid wasn't happening, at least not on his watch. And Sam's voice had seemingly disappeared; the only time he made noise was when he was deep in the throes of a nightmare, and the mewls of pain were enough to drive John to drink.
In short, Sam was behaving in a very unSam-like manner. And to think he would ever miss Sam's constant barrage of questions, his incessantly impractical desire to do homework, or even Sam's somewhat off-kilter insights to the hunt. Truth was, this strange behavior had both Dean and John at wit's end. He'd even resorted to finding errands for Dean to run to give him a break. Right now he was at the store, restocking on the things Sam would swallow down.
Something was wrong with Sam. Something John didn't know how to even begin to identify, much less fix. He needed help, but there was no help to be had. Somewhere in his bedroom he had the hospital discharge instructions on Sam. Maybe they held a clue. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten about them but he'd pretty much been in a daze the day they'd left, relieved that at least Sam was well enough to leave. And he'd been so certain that since Sam was being cleared, that he'd bounce right back. That soon John could up his training regimen and whip him into shape in a much safer and perhaps gentler manner.
He shuffled through the drawer in the particle board nightstand next to his bed – if it wasn't there, then he'd thrown it out. Or left it at the pharmacy when he'd dashed in to get Sammy's liquid codeine. He didn't know where it was, he only knew it wasn't here. And losing it felt like just one more failure in a long list he'd made since the whole Spring Heeled Jack hunt had come up.
And then he remembered; he'd stuffed the instructions deep into the inside pocket of his jacket. Within seconds, he had it in his grasp, smoothing out the crinkles, and was frantically scanning it. Keep the wound on his neck dry and covered and apply…yeah, John knew that stuff. Here: symptoms of post concussive syndrome include headache, inability to focus, memory problems, noise sensitivity, irritation, anxiety and depression. Huh. He read the list of symptoms again.
John had been so rattled by the injury to Sam's throat that he'd somehow forgotten about the concussion. And his young son certainly had shown problems in most of the areas listed. So Sam was coming along fine, he and Dean had just been trying to rush the kid along on his recovery.
He'd been thinking he needed to find a way to snap Sam out of this funk before he managed to completely derail the family unit when in fact the family needed to cut Sam some slack.
He'd gone so far as to announce that Sam was no longer allowed to nap, thinking he was just trying escape his responsibilities. If he'd thought about it, he'd have known that was wrong; Sam was all about responsibility – his homework, his classes, his research, even his family. Just not the hunt.
Even now, Sam was doing his best to live up dutifully to the requests John was putting before him. Eating when he was required to do so, sitting up when John suggested it, even keeping his eyelids peeled as per his father's orders. Sam was trying, maybe even harder than before, and John just didn't know how to see it.
That seemed to be a common problem when it came to his youngest. He and Sam simply didn't speak the same language. So alike in their determination at times, equally bull-headed, but it was like sometimes they were coming at life from totally different angles. John wanted Sam to get his head in the game, but Sam was just finding a different game entirely to get his head into.
Patience, then. He'd sent Sam to the car prematurely with the Jack, and that was a mistake he couldn't afford to make again.
Crossing over to the couch, John picked up the remote and turned the TV off. It took a moment but Sam blinked and then turned a questioning look John's way. "You're looking a little pale there, kiddo." John said with a fair approximation of a grin. "I think you need more rest. Couch or bed?"
Stunned was the best description for the expression on Sam's face and John felt an inch high. Neither he, nor Dean who followed his lead, asked Sam what he wanted; they just posed his body where they wanted it and barked instructions at him.
Sam awkwardly pushed himself to his feet, a tentative smile on his face. "Bed's fine," he said. Then, after a moment, he added. "Thanks, Dad."
The words were so softly spoken that for a moment John thought he'd imagined them. Sam had talked to him. Slightly garbled and full of grit but he'd made himself heard.
John squeezed Sam's shoulder as he shuffled past, earning himself another shocked look from his son.
And if that didn't make John feel sorry, then nothing would.
But what was he supposed to say? How was he supposed to apologize for not getting it? For not knowing how to help? There was still a hunt, and there was still a need for Sam to readjust his priorities, but John didn't know how to open himself up to the possibility that Sam would get there in his own way.
And he certainly didn't know how to accept the possibility that Sam had been trying the entire week. The endless sparring had to be hard on any kid in the flux of growth spurts and who spent most of his time cramped in the back seat of a car. The endless research may have seemed old hat to John, but Sam was making those connections for the first time. And as out of nowhere as Sam's observations were, they'd been right in the end.
More than that, he couldn't forget the Jack's taunting voice, daring Sam to give in, practically giving his son every opportunity to cave. Sam had shown no fear. Just like John had ordered.
But John Winchester didn't do apologies. He couldn't do apologies. Because if he started with one, he might just have to admit them all, and after sixteen years, he wasn't sure he could do that just yet.
Lying on his back, he could feel the dull throb of blood pulsing in his temples. He cracked his eyes open to find Dean, mossy green eyes wide and panicky, hovering over him with deep concern.
Déjà vu. Maybe Dean had tried out one of his submission holds again and Sam had grayed out.
The calmness of the moment shattered as crimson sparks shot out of Dean's eyes.
His brother's lips parted, a mockery of a smile, and blue flames leapt into the air inches from Sam's face. Sam's eyes closed involuntarily as the intense heat swept over his head. The smell of singed hair permeated the air.
Sharp nails clutched at his arms, shaking him so hard he could feel his brain shift.
Strength wrapped around his neck, suffocating.
Sam clawed at the pressure around his throat as it squeezed relentlessly.
"Jesus, Sam, wake up!"
The words, spoken right in his ear, startled Sam. His body jerked once, twice, in response.
His pulse thundered in his ears, his eyes snapping open.
Dean was hovering over him, his face inches from his own.
Sam gasped even as his brother scrambled back, shock on his face. His brother was still speaking but Sam couldn't hear him; he was too busy trying to figure out if he was still dreaming or what was going on.
"…gave me a heart attack…I'll get you some water…"
Only a dream. Sleep, the one thing he could count on in his life at the moment, was turning against him.
Since his dad had lifted the ban on naps, sleep was about the only thing that could make his day better.
Not that it was always like that, or that it normally was. Sam had never been as fond of sleep as his brother had. For him, there was always something to do, something to learn, something to figure out. His dreams had been plagued with nightmares as long as he could remember, and even his brother's best doting could only handle so many nights of comfort.
So Sam had resorted to reading when it got too bad, drawn up under the covers with a flashlight to keep him company and a book to fill his mind.
That was how he'd read his father's journals. And it was how he managed to still read novels despite the constant books of supernatural lore his dad threw his way these days.
But these days, his body was tired. Worn out and old. Besides, the books he so loved, the ones he enjoyed and coveted and hide under his bed and in the bottom of his duffle, they seemed sort of pointless now. Just like his homework, his school, his desire to prove himself.
Not that he still didn't want those things, because he did. He just didn't know how to get them.
It had been Mr. Wyatt who told him he could do anything he wanted. That the family business wasn't all there was. Sam had clung to that for the last two years and it had been the only thing to make him happy. That possibility, that hope for something more. It gave his life a new meaning.
Not that Dean had understood. He hadn't even tried to tell his dad.
He had thought he could do both. Pursue his dreams, keep reading under the covers, and still be part of his father's army.
He was wrong.
He couldn't do both. The hunt demanded too much. His father demanded too much. With his attentions divided, he didn't do either thing well. While he could afford a bad grade in a class, nearly getting killed on a hunt was not quite as easy to get past.
Snuggling deeper beneath his covers, he waited for Dean to return with the family's panacea, a glass of water. It was the remedy for upset stomachs, headaches and apparently nightmares. It was as much of a steady presence in the household as avoidance. The way his dad danced around the fact Sam had ended up injured because he wasn't up to snuff. The way Dean hovered, the unspoken thought that Sam couldn't take care of himself. But for all the negatives he could easily tick off, chief among them how crappy he felt at the moment and that he only had himself to blame for it, maybe this wasn't so bad.
Maybe training wasn't as mind-numbing as he thought. Maybe the hunt didn't have to be quite as soul-sucking as he'd let himself believe. Maybe if he tried harder, maybe if he took a page from Dean's book and played the good son, it would be better. Maybe he wouldn't screw up. Maybe he wouldn't get himself hurt so badly. Maybe he wouldn't feel so scared of it all the time.
Maybe his father would give sometimes if Sam obeyed more. Maybe he'd get to take a nap, maybe his father would start asking what he wanted.
Maybe it could make him happy.
His body was coming down from its adrenaline high, relaxing, and he tried not to think about the school he was missing or the half finished copy of Beowulf still tucked under his mattress. He tried not to think about the look of disappointment in his father's eyes or the easy way Dean could beat him in every sparring match they'd ever had. And he really tried not to think about the fiery eyes of the Jack and the feel of blue fire on his skin and the claws scratching around his neck.
No, instead he tried to think about the chicken broth his father made just the way he liked it and the way Dean let them watch the Discovery Channel even if he joked it was just for the animals getting jiggy with it. He tried to think about his father asking him what he wanted, the couch or the bed, and tried not to think about how maybe he didn't want either after all.
And sleep came to Sam, warm and cold all at once, as he tried to be okay with the fact the day probably wasn't going to get any worse, but it certainly wasn't going to get any better, either.
A/N – Sendintheclowns: Hopefully you, and Nebula, enjoyed the Spring Heeled Jack show. Thank you for reading if you stuck with this through to the bitter end. I want to thank our fabulous beta crew one more time – Gidgetgal9, BlueEyedDemonLiz and Floralia…you guys make the writing process enjoyable. And thanks to Faye Dartmouth for putting up with me – you're one in a million!