A/N: I borrowed parts of the lore in this and previous chapters from a retelling of Rawhead and Bloody Bones by S. E. Schlosser, which you can find with a very simple google search. Mr. or Mrs. Schlosser, your lore was used for recreational purposes only. No profit being made, no copyright infringement intended. DISCLAIMED!
Dad always used to use the expression what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
Sam assumed it was just part of his father's God complex, because normally he'd say it when Sam was crying over a deflated basketball or skinned knee, or when he sent one of them to bed without dinner, or occasionally right before he drove a steak through something's heart.
But sometimes Dad would use it in a way that didn't make sense. Like when they'd kill something that hoarded treasures, enough riches to keep them going for months. Dad would hold up their spoils and smile and say what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, boys.
Sam understands what it means now, though his father was probably using the wrong adage, maybe he meant when God shuts a door he opens a window or all's well that ends well or maybe he just meant what the Lord taketh away the Lord giveth but the point was this:
Sometimes shit that sucks? Sucks for a reason.
Dean falls limp in Sam's arms and begins to breathe, wet and wheezy on inhale and damp and crackling coughing on exhale, but he breathes, holy-god-in-heaven-christ he breathes.
His clothes are dust; burnt to a crisp that mixes with rain and forms a black paste that slides off his skin and into the puddle of creature beneath their knees. Sam wipes at Dean's arms, helps the clothes come free, and he looks at his brother's chest and there are no burns, no more black bruising. His skin is white and scarred and his ribs practically burst from the skin with each breath, but his heart is beating lethargically and the infection--the Rawhead-- appears to be gone.
Sam hefts his brother into the car and they drive off into the raining night and the water pours into the broken window and stings at Sam's face but he doesn't care because Rawhead slop and his very own tantrums might have been slowly killing his brother, but they also saved him from dying of electric shock. Twice. And if that wasn't a shining, senseless miracle smack dab in the middle of hell on earth, well, Sam doesn't know what else to call it.
Except maybe what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
But then there's the bigger question, which is whether or not Dean is still Dean. Whether or not Dean has been Dean.
Dean sleeps for three days and Sam doesn't sleep at all. Instead he drinks coffee and wonders if maybe he's been dragging around a monster these last few weeks. Helping the monster walk. Fluffing the monster's pillows. Slapping the monster on the wrist for trying to slurp ketchup straight out of the bottle.
Then he remembers the kid brushing his thumb over Dean's forehead and saying it's over, it's gone.
You are over. You are gone.
Dean sleeps for three days and Sam drinks coffee and stares out the window. He researches for a little while, but then his laptop sits open and untouched for hours and he doesn't read or sleep or eat. He sits at the window and drinks coffee and tries not to think about the word coma and asks God to please, please make the fact that Dean is somehow alive mean he's not sick anymore.
He drinks coffee and stares out the window and has wild and elaborate daydreams about what they'll do if Dean is well. In many of these daydreams Dean is running, shooting, kicking down doors, beating the shit out of monsters. Smacking Sam upside his head. Pointing his sawed-off and yelling Sammy, get down!
In his mind's eye, Sam just watches. And smiles.
On the third day Sam glances at his brother and his eyes are open. There is no movement, no change in breathing, no rustling. His eyes are just open.
Dean nods and his expression says yeah. It's me.
And then he sleeps for three more days.
Sam keeps moving. He can't bear the thought of driving back east so he goes west to a fishy-smelling ocean burg called Coos Bay, which he picks off a map because he thinks the dirty-sounding name might make Dean smile.
Along the way he robs every vending machine he can find and supplements the income by sneaking out to dive bars at night while Dean is sleeping. He's no good at pool without Dean's backup and can't play poker by himself because it was always his job to suck royally at all varieties of the game—to provide distraction through exaggerated drunkenness, conspicuous card counting, reckless ante-upping.
So instead he tells women how beautiful they are and recites poetry about sunset eyes and cups their asses in one hand while lifting their wallets with the other and he can't get the taste of cherry lipgloss out of his mouth no matter how long or how hard he brushes his teeth. But it's better than the sticky weight of blood on his hands.
The Oregon coast is cold and windy and smelly and it never stops raining but the waves are giant and uncompromising in a way that Sam finds comforting. Somehow.
He rents them a vacation shack that's separated from the beach by a massive dune that blocks the view of the water. It's a one-room building laid out exactly like a motel only decorated with driftwood mobiles and porcelain seagulls. He pulls up a chair next to Dean's bed and tells him everything that happened, though he's not sure how much Dean remembers or if he's even listening.
That night Dean develops a wet, relentless cough and can't lay down without choking. His mouth turns blue and he sleeps propped up against the wall, neck muscles straining every time he takes a breath.
Sam can't bring himself to ask Dean if he is dying.
The cough goes away as quickly as it comes, though, and Dean's eyes stay open more and more but no matter what Sam says his brother will only stare, his expression sometimes growing watery and apologetic but other than that? Nothing.
One night the sky is clear and the breeze is warm, so he wraps Dean in layers and layers and drags him out to the beach. Sam hopes maybe the salty bite of the ocean air will do something to revive them both.
He sits his brother down on a piece of driftwood. Dean stares at the water and shivers, his eyelashes bunched together with moisture. The black sand is striped with withering tentacles of dried kelp, some of it twenty feet long. Sam thinks about starting a fire but it's too wet and windy, so instead he sits close to his brother, knees and shoulders touching.
"I don't know why it told me all that stuff about the hospital," Sam says, looking out across the waves. "Maybe it was just reading my mind. Maybe it just… I don't know. But all the stuff it told me—it's weird, Dean. I think he might have been telling the truth."
He slides his shoe off and squishes his toes in the freezing sand.
"I can't find anything on the facility," he continues. "No website, no address, no phone numbers. Nothing on the doctors. Like we imagined the whole fucking thing."
Look for this place, the lowly GP had said. Just look.
Part of him hopes Dean will say something. Part of him hopes Dean won't.
"It's like they share a soul," Sam says, "Remember the story I told you about the witch who made the Rawhead out of animal remains?"
"Well, in some tellings, she sends the creature after a hunter who killed her pet hog. She reanimates the hog, and its skeleton makes itself into a new creature with stolen animal parts. A better creature. He steals the teeth of a panther. The claws of a bear. Then he goes after the hunter and scares him to death, uses fear and panic to eat him from the inside out. Then he steals the body for his own. Makes himself two. Rawhead and Bloody Bones. As long as one part is alive, the other part lives, too."
Maybe it's the brisk ocean air, or maybe it's the smell of dead fish, but Sam finds himself choking. Dean's eyes have left the ocean; now he's staring down at his own trembling hands.
"I think infecting people is like... insurance? If part of him is killed, he grows somewhere else. After I killed the kid, he moved on to you." He smirks sadly. "Maybe I was next. Who knows."
Sam tries to clear his throat. Tries to keep his voice from sounding so thin. "I found something. On Wikipedia, of all the stupid fucking places. 'In some tellings, he can take any form he chooses.' Whatever will make his victims fearful, Dean. That's how he grows stronger. You see what I'm saying? I'm the hunter. You're the teeth of the panther, the claws of the bear. Not the other way around. Not really."
Dean doesn't move. In the moonlight Sam can see the veins in his white face. The ocean roars endless and forever before them.
Sam tries again to clear his throat, but whatever's stuck there won't move.
"I don't know what to do, Dean," he says, and his voice is small and childlike.
Dean looks up from his hands. Up at Sam.
"Sam," he says, but it comes out as more of a gargle, so he clears his throat and says again, "Sam."
"You feeling... better?"
Dean coughs weakly, and Sam nods.
"Do you need…" he begins, but trails off. He has nothing to offer.
"Were you awake, Dean?"
Dean's mouth closes, opens again. "No. Yes. Sometimes."
"Did you mean the stuff you said? About wanting to die? About me wanting you to die?"
A beat goes by. "We didn't imagine it. The hospital."
"We should... we should check this out."
Now it's Sam's turn to stare into the sand.
Dean's eyes fill with understanding. He looks away, back out into the ocean. He looks so, so small. His muscles, fatigued and probably permanently destroyed, are trembling in a helpless, palsied sort of way that makes Sam's heart burn.
"Do you think it's dead now?" Dean says. "I mean, do you think the part of him that was in me—do you think we got them both?"
"I think so," Sam says. "I hope so."
Dean looks down at his feet and wrings his hands a little, like he wants to ask a question but is scared to death of the answer he's going to get. It's the same look he would give their father when he was a kid, right before he'd ask when are you gonna come back, Dad? or will you be home in time for Sammy's birthday?
The look he'd get right before Dad said something like what the lord giveth, the lord taketh away.
"What those doctors did to me…"
Sam can't hear that right now. He knows most of it but if he hears Dean say it out loud he'll break and spill and not even God himself will be able to repair it. "Dean, please—"
"I can't let this go."
"Yeah you can. You can."
"Stop saying that."
"Stop saying what?"
For a long time Dean is silent. He breathes, rubs his chest. "I don't have control over this. And neither do you."
"I know that."
"No," Dean says, "You don't. I know you don't want me to die. I know that. But you're still tearing yourself apart waiting for things to change."
"You want me to give up?"
"Well I won't."
"I might be like this forever, Sam,and you need to… we need to…"
He stops, shaking his head like there's no way that Sam could ever understand.
And then Sam says it, what he's been trying not to say, what he's been trying not to even think. "You might be dying, now. Now that he's dead. You might be dying."
"I'm not dying."
"How do you know?"
"I don't know. I just know."
"That's not good enough, Dean," Sam says, trying to sound reasonable.
"Maybe not. But this shit?" Dean gestures at the dune. Towards their one-room shack. "I might as well be dead."
"We can go somewhere else, Dean. We can go wherever the fuck you want, but how the hell are we gonna hunt, Dean? How?"
"The same way we always did."
Sam holds back his sigh. He doesn't want to be condescending. He really doesn't.
Dean stands up, chest out, chin tilted upward. The weariness—the resignation—falls off his face and is replaced with something new. Something cocky. Something that's been missing for a long time.
And then, faster than Sam's brain can process, Dean's just gone, running down the beach with all his old speed.
Sam bolts after him, and he expects to overtake Dean in a matter of seconds but it's not long before he realizes he's not catching up. Ahead of him Dean is getting smaller and smaller, disappearing into the night. There's no moon tonight, no nothing and for a minute Sam loses sight of his brother and the sand is mucky and he's still only wearing one shoe but he picks up speed because suddenly he's running nowhere towards nothing alone in the dark.
Dean stops very suddenly, pitching forward just short of the waterline. The tide is out, waves dancing so far away that the sound of them crashing is muted like an old recording.
Sam lands on his knees behind his crouched brother. Dean's gasping wet, asthmatic gasps, eyes open and blank. He can't pull in enough air.
Maybe this is it, Sam catches himself thinking.
But after a minute Dean coughs himself out and struggles up out of the sand, jeans dark with water. He draws up to his full height. He stands steady. And he waits.
And then Sam understands what his brother is trying to say.
"Okay," Sam says breathlessly, and he can't keep a smile off his face. "The mystery of the disappearing research hospital. Let's go. Let's do it."
"Sam I'm sorry. I know you deserve—"
"—I do not. I do not deserve more," Sam says, and for the first time in his life, he means it. "I don't want more."
Because what the Lord giveth the Lord taketh away and when a door shuts a window opens and tomorrow is another day and all's well that ends well and all that other horseshit.
Dean will live.
So... please don't kill me for leaving it so wide open for a sequel. This was originally going to be one big long monstrous fic but... no. Noooo!
Thank you to Chiiyo86 for being awesome. Thank you to PADavis for welcoming me so lovingly into the fandom. Thank you to JuliaAurelia for pointing out some things about this fic that I would have otherwise ignored. Thank you to fandom goddess roque clasique for reccing this fic and sending like, a ridiculous number of hits my way. Thank you JustMe for making me smile (and making me crazy!) with your anonymous comments (you seemed really agitated by the last couple of chapters, by the way--my deepest apologies). And most of all thank you to everyone who took the time to review and comment. Thank you for making my first experience in this fandom so awesome. I know I sucked bad at replying to reviews but trust me, in my head I wrote epic love letters to each and every one of you. LUVS LUVS LUVS
And, finally, now that we're all done here, I must appeal to all you lurkers out there: I used to be a lurker myself, so I understand that reviewing can be a pain in the ass. But please consider speaking up. Just this once. Throw this chick a bone, how bout it?
And if not, well— you know I love you anyway, baby. :D