SUMMARY: As Sam recovers from knee surgery, he's hit with violent visions that will, ultimately, put both Winchester brothers' lives in jeopardy.
RATED: T for some cursing, including the occasional f-bomb.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own Supernatural or its characters. They belong to the dastardly Eric Kripke. Once again, I am encamped in his most awesome sandbox, playing with the incredible characters he created.
A/N: This is the oft-promised, much delayed follow-up to Bridging Two Solitudes and Grave Consequences. The story picks up on the knee injury Sam suffered in Bridging Two Solitudes, and aggravated in Grave Consequences, but stands independently of both. If you haven't read those stories, the only thing you really need to know is that the O/C 'Doc,' who makes an extended cameo appearance here, is a surgeon based out of Stanford Medical Centre whom the brothers have known since Sam was 12. She lost her own family to a supernatural tragedy and, after that, became part of the support network for hunters. The story is set mid-to-late Season 2 – with much whumpage ahead on both sides of the Winchester fence. Really, I can't help myself. :)
Great big hugs and thanks to Amy and Ann, my most awesome betas – who also provided gentle encouragement and kicks in the butt to finish this story – and to Heather for the medical info that launched this little adventure. As a chronic tweaker, any mistakes that remain are mine alone. Enjoy.
"You send me to Hell, I'm taking your brother with me."
The spirit's smile was icy as he wrapped his arm tightly around Dean's neck. His captive pawed desperately at the spectral arm across his throat, gasps breaking and cracking as he fought to breathe, heels scraping the ground as he tried frantically to regain his footing.
Sam, eyes locked on Dean, swallowed against building panic as Patrick Corrigan dragged his brother toward the open grave where the killer's earthly remains were salted and soaked in gasoline. Standing at the edge of the grave, Sam's gaze slid to the spirit as he lit a book of matches and held it over the open casket. "Let. Him. Go."
"No." Corrigan's eyes glinted coldly as he tightened his hold. Starved of oxygen, Dean's body sagged, his hands falling limply to his sides, his eyes glazing over.
The spirit's smile widened, his gold tooth glinting in the harsh light of the camping lantern that illuminated the gravesite. As Sam lowered the matches, Corrigan's free hand grabbed the back of Dean's head. "Don't test me, whelp. I can snap his neck far quicker than that flame can reach my remains. Now, back away."
Sam's heart was slamming against his ribs as his eyes jumped back to his brother. Dean's gaze slid sluggishly toward Sam, his eyes losing focus but their message clear: "Do it. Torch the bastard."
The lit matches were burning low, searing Sam's fingers but in danger of going out. He was out of time and out of options; Corrigan wasn't about to back down. Sam dropped the book of matches into the grave.
The spirit's face hardened as the matches fell, the burst of flame as the gasoline ignited reflected in cruel eyes.
For Sam, all sound disappeared and everything around him moved in slow motion. Corrigan lifted his head, his cold smile returning as his eyes met his adversary's. The edges of his face and the arm around Dean's neck began to blacken as the flames consumed his remains, but the fire wasn't fast enough. Corrigan's fingers tightened in Dean's hair, snapping his head to the side, effortlessly breaking his neck.
"NO!" Sam screamed soundlessly as his brother's broken body, eyes wide in a vacant stare, toppled backwards into the open grave and the still hungry fire. It was Corrigan's laugh, low and menacing, that broke the silence, echoing long after his spirit form turned ash. Sam lunged forward, falling as he reached desperately for his brother but his hand closed on nothing but air as Dean tumbled beyond his reach and disappeared beneath the angry flames.
Heat scorched Sam's face, singed the hairs on his arm and seared his throat as he screamed his brother's name. "DEAN!"
"Sammy…hey, hey…I'm right here…I'm right here."
Sam started at the sound of Dean's voice. His eyes snapped open and he blinked rapidly against the suddenly bright light. He looked up to see his brother staring worriedly down at him.
Dean forced a smile. "Relax. You're safe. Everything went by the book."
Sam's chest was heaving as he struggled to draw in a deep breath. His hand shot out, grabbing hold of Dean's shirt. "You're okay…"
Dean's face twisted into a puzzled frown at his brother's obvious distress. "I'm fine. You're the one who just had surgery." He patted Sam's hand, which was still clinging to his shirt. "Now chill. Come on, take a deep breath."
"But …" Sam's face crumpled in confusion, "… he broke your neck."
"What?" Dean's frown deepened as he reached behind his brother and pressed a button on the wall. "Who did?"
Sam's breathing was still too fast. "Corrigan."
Dean snorted. "That bastard? He's toast. His ass is roasting in hell where it belongs."
Sam stared hard at his brother, trying to reconcile Dean's words with the images in his head. "But..."
"It was a nightmare, Sammy." Dean shook his head slowly as he touched the back of his hand to Sam's forehead. "No fever…must be the anesthesia screwing with your head."
"Anes…" Sam quickly scanned his surroundings. He was lying in a hospital bed, a door to his right, Dean to his left, standing beside a bank of medical equipment. The safety rails of his bed were raised and his right leg was slightly elevated beneath the crisp sheets and blue blanket. An IV was taped to the back of his left hand, the hand still holding tightly to his brother's shirt. He looked up at Dean, sheepishly releasing his hold as facts suddenly replaced fears.
Sam swallowed. "My knee…they fixed my knee."
Dean nodded. "And since Corrigan gets most of the credit for your knee being screwed in the first place, I guess it makes sense he'd have a starring role in your nightmare. What'd he do?"
Sam scrubbed a hand over his face. "We were salting and burning his remains. He showed up and, um, got the drop on you…"
Dean's eyebrow peaked. "Well that should have been your first clue something was off."
Sam's voice was quiet. "He threw you in the fire…I…I couldn't stop him."
Dean's smirk faded. "It was a nightmare, Sammy. That's all." He opened his arms wide. "Look. I'm fine. Not a scratch or a singe."
Sam's eyes stayed on Dean as the real version of the salt and burn played out in his head. Corrigan's spirit had shown up and attacked Dean but, unlike in his nightmare, Dean had been armed. As Corrigan grabbed Dean, the brothers had reacted simultaneously; Dean had shoved his shotgun into the spirit's spectral gut and blasted him with rock salt while Sam dropped the matches into the grave and lit up the remains. Dean had smiled widely as the killer dissipated for good with a scream of impotent rage. "Rot in hell, compadre. Couldn't happen to a nicer spook."
Sam's hand slid down the blanket, feeling the heavy surgical dressing and stabilizing brace under the covers. The surgery had repaired torn ligaments in his knee, an injury suffered in his first battle with Corrigan, then aggravated in the fight to save Dean's life after the angry spirit of Ezra Crandall buried his brother alive.
Sam stared at his knee. "How'd it go?"
Dean smiled, his worry retreating as Sam's breathing evened out. "Like I said, by the book. Well, our book, anyway." He studied Sam intently. "How you feeling? Any pain?"
Sam frowned, punching himself lightly in the thigh. "Dunno. Can't feel anything. Leg's still numb." He licked his lips. "But I'm thirsty."
Dean moved around the bed toward the pitcher of water on the metal nightstand to Sam's right. "You wanna sit up?"
Sam nodded and Dean pressed the button to raise the head of the bed, dropped a straw into a cup of water and passed it to his brother.
"Hey. How's my favorite patient?"
The brothers both turned toward the sound of the female voice. Dr. Kelly Caine, a long-time friend the Winchesters affectionately called Doc, was standing in the doorway.
Sam smiled tiredly. "Good, I guess. Dean says everything went okay."
"It did." Doc walked into the room and around to the far side of the bed, studying the monitors before leaning forward to turn off the call button. She tilted her head inquisitively as she smiled at Sam. "But what just happened, huh? Why did your monitors spike?"
"Nightmare." Dean shook his head at his brother, then turned to look up at Doc. "They fixed his knee but there's no cure for that freaky head of his."
"Nice." Sam's scowl turned into a grimace as pressure began to build behind his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose and screwed his eyes closed.
"Sammy?" Dean quickly took the cup of water from Sam's now visibly shaking hand.
Sam opened his eyes to find both Dean and Doc staring at him intently. "Relax – both of you. It's just a headache." He sighed as he took in Dean's disbelieving look. "A regular headache."
Doc pulled a penlight from her pocket and checked Sam's pupil reaction. After a few more simple tests and an examination of his knee, each conducted under a barrage of questions from Dean, Doc smiled reassuringly. "Everything looks as it should be. I'll order up a painkiller for your headache but, since we made you fast before surgery, I think hunger may be the culprit here. I know it would be with your brother." She smiled at Dean's scowl. "How 'bout we try breakfast first?"
Sam nodded, his head dropping back onto the pillow as Doc walked around the bed to pick up the phone from the nightstand and order him a meal. He closed his eyes, letting out a long, slow breath, forcing himself to relax.
He'd been on edge ever since he found out the surgery was necessary. The procedure itself didn't scare him, but what might happen if surgeons couldn't fix the damage did. He worried that he couldn't back up Dean on a hunt; he worried about how they would pay for the operation and the lengthy rehabilitation; he worried about their fake insurance, knowing it wouldn't hold up if they dealt with the same hospital for more than a couple of days at a time; and, with Victor Henriksen now on their tail, he worried about how they'd stay off the grid if they were stuck in one place while he recovered.
"Don't sweat the small stuff," Dean had said a week earlier when, after relentless prodding, Sam had finally voiced his concerns."
"Small stuff?" Sam's eyebrows arched incredulously. "We stay in one place too long we either get busted for insurance fraud or the FBI tracks us down. That's pretty big stuff in my book."
Dean, for once, had no smart ass reply. "We're talking about your leg, Sammy, your ability to walk. We're not screwing around with that. We're gonna do whatever it takes to get you better."
"But nothing." Dean sat down on the side of his motel bed, facing Sam, who was sitting on his own bed, his injured leg propped up on pillows. "I got a call while you were sleeping. Doc came through. You're all set to have the surgery at Stanford." He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. "In the morning, you're gonna stretch out in the backseat and we'll drive down to Palo Alto. By the time we get there, everything should be good to go. Doc says this friend of hers who's doing your surgery, Dr. Tylenol, is one of the best in the country." He grinned. "I told her he'd better be."
Sam had to smile at Dean's protective streak. "It's Tynan?"
"The surgeon – his name is Tynan."
"Whatever." Dean pushed himself up. "Don't care what his name is – only that he knows what he's doing."
Sam shook his head slowly. "I don't like dragging Doc into this. If the FBI finds out she's helping us, if-"
Dean snorted. "Nobody drags Doc into anything. She's had a soft spot for you since you were 12 and doesn't want just any schmoe digging around in your knee any more than I do."
Sam sighed. "I know but-"
"Sam, relax." Dean grabbed his duffel, threw it on his bed and unzipped it. "This really is the best option. If Dr. Tylenol is as good as his PR, you should be up and around in no time. As for everything else, it's covered. While you're in the hospital, we'll have Doc keeping an eye on things behind the scenes, warning us if the paperwork raises any red flags. The bill's being covered by that foundation she helped Pastor Jim set up, so no insurance fraud. On top of that, staying with her while you rehab means we're off the radar – no motel room registration, no fake credit cards to trip us up. Win-win-win, Sammy."
Sam looked over at Dean, his smile returning. "And Doc set all this up without any prompting from you, right?"
"Absolutely." Dean looked up from rolling his clothes and packing them expertly into his duffel, fighting hard to keep his expression serious. "You know how pushy she can be."
"Right." Sam shook his head. "And you're a complete pushover."
A light smack on the arm pulled Sam from his reverie. "Heads up. Food's here."
His eyes snapped open in time to see Dean turn and walk toward the pretty brunette nurse standing in the doorway of his hospital room, holding a tray.
"Hey, Sam." The nurse's smile was warm and friendly. "I hear you're ready for some breakfast."
Dean reached for the tray, returning her smile in kind. "Yeah. Let me take that. Thanks, Mindy." He winked at her. "I didn't know you worked on this floor."
The nurse's smile faded quickly, her eyes flashing angrily at Dean. She turned abruptly toward Doc. "You need anything else, Dr. Caine?"
Doc bit back a smile. "No. We're good. Thanks."
With a heated glare at Dean, the nurse spun on her heels and left the room.
Sam canted his head as he stared at his brother. "What did you do?"
Dean's eyes widened innocently as he crossed the room, placed the breakfast tray on a rolling table, then moved the table toward Sam's bed. "Nothing – I swear."
A smile tugged at the corners of Sam's mouth as Doc lowered the safety rails and Dean slid the tray table in front of him. "'Nothing' doesn't earn you the look she just gave you."
Dean looked from Doc to Sam and raised his right hand. "On a stack of Playboys, Sammy – not a clue." His eyes darted back and forth as he sorted through memories, trying to think what he could have done to piss off the nurse. "We've run into each a few times since I've been hanging around here. Then, the other day, while you were going through your pre-op exam, I bumped into her in the cafeteria. She sat down next to me…we talked." A lazy smile slid across Dean's face.
Sam knew that smile. "Talked, huh?"
Busted, Dean scowled. "Yes, Sammy. Talked – mostly 'bout you, if you must know. She asked why I was here so I told her. She said not to worry, that your surgery was a pretty straightforward procedure, that your surgeon was one of the best in his field and that the rehab program here at Stanford is first rate."
Sam nodded. "All of which you knew because you grilled Dr. Tynan about the surgery at every single pre-op appointment I had."
Dean grinned. "But she didn't know that. If a pretty nurse wants to lend me a sympathetic ear, I'm not gonna shut her down." His eyes drifted off. "And what a pretty ear it was, which led to a long neck, which led-"
Sam snorted. "You didn't?"
"I did." Dean's grin widened. "In the elevator, on the way back, we…" He looked up at Doc, who was taking in the exchange bemusedly, and held up his hands. "Everything Rated G, I swear." His mouth twisted slightly. "Okay, maybe PG. But she was definitely a willing participant so I don't get why she's all pissed-off now."
Doc again bit back a smile. "I think I might know what the problem is."
Dean turned to Doc, looking genuinely puzzled. "What? Honest to God, I'm in the dark here."
Doc fought to keep a straight face. "Well, for a start, her name's Alicia."
"Oh, crap." Dean scowled at Sam's snort of amusement and jabbed a finger at his brother. "You – eat your breakfast." He shook his head, turning back to Doc. "Really? I could've sworn it was Mindy."
Sam massaged his temple distractedly. "Dude, they're not even close."
"She looks like a Mindy," Dean offered lamely.
Sam frowned over his building headache. "Weak, Dean."
Dean pulled a face. "I should have stuck with 'sweetheart.' You -" The retort faded quickly when he saw his brother squinting like the light hurt his eyes. "…need to eat." Dean moved the tray table closer to Sam, lifting the lid on the plate of food and failing miserably in his attempt to hide his disgust. "Scrambled egg whites and dry wheat toast. Looks…awesome." He picked up the fork and offered it to Sam. "Dig in."
Sam's expression as he looked down at his breakfast wasn't much better than Dean's.
Doc smiled sympathetically. "Don't worry. I've already told Dean where the best coffee shop is so he can smuggle in some good stuff later."
Sam looked hopefully at Doc. "He wouldn't have to if you'd just spring me. It's gotta count for something that when I go home there will, literally, be a doctor in the house."
Doc shook her head. "Sorry. You know Cole - Dr. Tynan - has some tests scheduled for later today and that a therapist is coming by to make sure you can handle the crutches properly."
Sam rolled his eyes. "What? The past six weeks haven't been enough practise?"
Doc smiled. "She'll also have a list of do's and don'ts for you – and please pay attention to the don'ts."
"Don't worry. He will." Dean cut off Sam before he could interrupt. "Look. You know what the deal is. It's just an overnight stay while they make sure everything's kosher, then you're outta here. Doc's even stocked the fridge with that Canadian beer you like so we can celebrate properly as soon as the meds are out of your system."
"I'm sick of hospitals." Sam sounded liked the cranky 12-year-old he'd been when the brothers first met Doc.
"Right with you on that, dude," Dean muttered as he again looked distastefully at the food Sam was pushing around his plate but making no attempt to eat. He turned to Doc. "Well, the crap this place tries to pass off as breakfast isn't going to improve his mood – which means I'm off on a food run. What'll it be, Sammy? Bacon and Eggs? Burger? Burrito?"
Sam dropped his fork, looking slightly green. "Dean, please."
Dean grinned. "Fine. How 'bout one of those smoothies you like – the one with all the fruits I can't pronounce?"
That raised a small smile. "Sounds good."
"Maybe a muffin, too?" Doc suggested. "You really should eat something solid."
"Smoothie and a muffin. Got it." Dean shook his head at Doc as he turned to walk out of the room. "See what California has done to my brother?" He paused in the doorway to look back at Sam. "Sure you don't want steak and eggs?"
Sam dropped his head back on the pillow. "Positive."
Dean shrugged. "Your loss."
He turned to Doc. "Yeah."
"Um, you might want to take the stairs." Doc again bit back a smile at Dean's puzzled expression. "Alicia's working the nurses' station by the elevators. She's a wonderful woman – but she does have a temper."
Dean's eyes widened. "Damn – and damn. Thanks." He stuck his head into the hallway, glancing cautiously to the right before moving quickly to the left.
Sam's smile disappeared with Dean. "Is he okay?"
Doc nodded slowly. "Yeah, he's fine. Just worried as hell about you, as usual."
"And about all the FBI crap we're in the middle of." Sam frowned. "Did he talk to you at all?"
Doc shook her head. "You know your brother. He just plasters on that bright smile, flashes those pretty green eyes of his and tells you everything's fine." She sighed. "I think you're the only one these days with the key code to get past his defenses."
Sam snorted, pinching the bridge of his nose. "This is Dean we're talking about; he changes that code daily." He stared over at the open doorway. "He looks, I dunno, tired."
Worry creased Doc's forehead. "I wish, more than anything, this injury had never happened but, I have to say, the forced break from hunting while you go through rehab may do you both some good." She smiled. "Think about it; lots of fresh air and exercise, but no blood to wash out of your clothes at the end of the day. For a Winchester, that almost qualifies as a vacation."
"As long as Henriksen doesn't track us down." Sam pressed his fingers into his temple as his headache spiked again. "If the offer's still good, I think I'd like that painkiller you promised."
Doc's frown returned. "Okay." She glanced at Sam's untouched breakfast, pushing the glass of apple juice closer to him. "Look, at least drink the juice. That might help until Dean gets back with something edible." She smiled encouragingly. "I'll be right back."
Sam watched her leave and frowned, again massaging his temples in an attempt to ease the building pressure behind his eyes. The surgery had gone well, he'd be out of the hospital in the morning and, for the first week, he had nothing but kicking back at Doc's house to look forward to. His jaw clenched; so why then did something feel really, really off?
Dean sat on the low stone wall that separated the patio from the garden behind Doc's house. He took a long drink from his bottle of beer as he watched Sam chat with Doc. His brother was stretched out in a garden chaise, his injured leg encased in a heavy brace, his crutches propped against the fence beside him.
Sam laughed easily at something Doc said and winced only slightly as he twisted to his left to pick up the beer he'd set on the ground beside his chair.
His brother now had almost a month of therapy behind him, and he'd pushed himself to the limit each and every session in an effort to speed up his recovery.
"Always the overachiever, huh?" Dean mumbled, smiling softly. More than once the therapist had had to reel Sam in, stop him from pushing too hard, too fast and undoing all his hard-earned progress.
"It's not a race, Sammy," Dean had said one night on the way home from a therapy session when Sam had vented his frustrations over his perceived lack of progress. "You're off your pain meds, there's no swelling in your knee, you've already doubled the repetitions for each exercise and that's all in less than a month. According to your docs, that's pretty damn good."
"It's still taking too long," Sam muttered leaning his head against the passenger-side window. "I know you're worried, that we've been here too long."
He sighed. Sam was right. At Doc's place they could relax, whether inside or in the big backyard where mature trees on all sides shielded them from potentially prying eyes. But when they left the house, it was another story. Their daily trips to the hospital and the gym were too regimented, too easy to track. Palo Alto was a small city but there were traffic and security cameras everywhere; the longer they maintained the pattern, the greater the odds they'd be spotted.
They'd taken precautions – Dean varying his route each day, Doc renting them a car, the black SUV blending into the suburban landscape far more seamlessly than his beloved Impala – but the instinct he relied so heavily upon told him they were still pushing their luck.
But as long as Sam was making progress, getting stronger, he wasn't willing to hit the road. "Just chill," he'd told his brother. "Concentrate on getting better. I'm watching your back – trust me, no one's sneaking up on us."
Sam didn't look convinced but he'd let it slide. Dean suspected it was partly because, beyond the FBI worries, Sam liked being in Palo Alto. He liked having academic discussions with Doc; he liked watching baseball games with Dean, arguing over who had the best starting line-up rather than what incantation or weapon would most effectively get rid of the monster of the week. He liked waking up in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.
Their time in the city was also healing more than physical injuries for his brother. At first, Sam had struggled with his memories of Jess, of their time together at Stanford, but, with each day, he seemed to rediscover happy moments to help balance the horrific ones that still haunted him.
There was so much about his brother's relationship with Jessica that Dean didn't know. The nightmares about her death that left his brother shaky and withdrawn were less frequent now but easily stoked by a run-in with a demon or even something as innocent as a chance encounter with a tall blonde. But in Palo Alto, familiar sights had spurred more pleasant memories that Sam both relished reliving and shared readily with Dean.
He pointed out the Italian restaurant where he and Jess spent their first date, a disaster, in Sam's eyes, thanks to an uncooperative bowl of spaghetti. Dean had just laughed. "Dude, I don't think your table manners were what she fell for. She moved in with you, didn't she?"
Then there was the theater where Jess had taken him to see Our Town. Sam had forgotten he'd told her about being in the play in high school but Jess hadn't. As they left the theater following the performance, she'd produced a paperback version of the script, pulled him into a nearby park and talked him into re-enacting the homework scene between George and Emily.
Dean had shaken his head at that one. "So the smokin' hot bod hid the heart of a geek, huh?"
Sam's smile was bittersweet. "Yeah. You would've liked her."
Dean returned his smile in kind. "I know I would, Sammy. I have a soft spot for geeks."
Dean loved seeing Sam with his guard down and wished for only the thousandth time that circumstances had been different – that his brother had gotten a chance to build a life with Jessica, and that he had gotten a chance to know the woman Sam wanted to marry.
But that wasn't the hand they'd been dealt. It only took a police siren or even someone accidentally bumping into them on a street to put them both on edge again, guards up full force.
Bobby had been in regular contact, checking on Sam's progress and issuing a standing offer to use his place to hole up in while Sam recovered. There was no question that Bobby's house was a better hideout but it was also halfway across the country. His brother still needed crutches to move around and the bulky leg brace he wore made long trips in the car uncomfortable on a good day, unbearable on a bad one.
Sam's therapy regimen also required access to a pool and a gym – amenities rarely, if ever, offered by the type of motels the Winchesters would frequent on the cross-country trek, and not readily available near Singer Salvage.
Dean snapped out of his thoughts to find Sam and Doc staring at him.
Sam frowned. "You've got that 'we should be moving on' look on your face."
Dean took another drink of his beer and shook his head. "I told you, Sammy. Not 'til you're done your therapy."
Sam rubbed the brace on his leg self-consciously. "Look, we've been jury-rigging workouts and first-aid our whole lives; this is no different. We'll figure somethin' out."
Dean stood up, stretching to unkink his back. "I said no. Until you can handle a 10-hour stretch in the car, or can cut and run if we're in trouble, we're not goin' anywhere."
Seeing a potential argument brewing, Doc cut off Sam. "What if there's another solution?" She smiled at the identical frowns on the brothers' faces. "Look, as much as I've enjoyed your company, and you're welcome to stay as long as you like, I know you're both worried, and that's doing Sam's recovery no favors. So …" She reached into her pocket, pulled out a set of keys and tossed them to Dean. "Here, I'm prescribing a vacation."
Dean caught the keys easily then raised his eyebrows at Doc. "What are these for?'
"A cabin in the Sierra Nevada foothills, west of Lake Tahoe. Belongs to a friend of mine, Jake Ellison. It's secluded, the nearest neighbor is five miles away, and it has no traceable ties to anything Winchester or the hunting world."
Dean's frown deepened. "Sounds like it would solve our FBI problem, but how is that good for Sam?"
Doc smiled. "Jake's a surgeon but a pretty serious triathlete. He had a lap pool and home gym installed in the cabin a few years back so he could keep up his training when he takes his boys up there for ski weekends. The family doesn't use the cabin much in the summer though, so it's yours if you want it."
Dean rolled the keys in his fingers. "Sammy?"
Sam glanced from Dean to Doc. "This Jake – he's cool with two strangers moving into his place?"
Doc nodded. "He's good friends with Cole Tynan so he knows about your case. He's more than happy to give my cousin a quiet place to rehab." She grinned. "Besides, the number of on-call weekends I've covered for him so he could head up to that cabin with his boys, he considers this getting off easy. He figured he owed me at least part ownership."
Dean's eyes narrowed, a sly smile spreading across his face. "So, you and this Dr. Jake – you two got a thing going?"
Doc laughed. "No – Jake and his wife Linda are both friends of mine. This is just one friend helping out another – nothing more." Her smile softened. "Look, the two of you deserve a break. I know it runs against instinct, but look at this as a chance to relax and enjoy yourselves. Trust me; there'll still be plenty of bad guys, real and otherwise, when you're ready to go back to work."
Dean glanced at Sam before turning to face Doc. "Thanks – really. But Tahoe's what – three, four hours from here?" He gestured with his head toward Sam. "Is he gonna be okay in the car that long?"
Sam scowled, huffing in annoyance. "Right here, Dean. And I'll be fine."
Seeing Dean about to protest, Doc cut in. "He's right, Dean. He'll be fine." She turned to Sam. "Although I would highly recommend, for the first trip anyway, you stretch out in the back seat rather than trying to fold all nine feet of you into the front."
Sam shook his head. "No way. I-
The threatening tone in Dean's voice told Sam his brother was prepared to argue the point until dawn if necessary. He rolled his eyes. "Whatever. If playing chauffeur makes you happy, knock yourself out."
Dean glared, which only encouraged his brother.
Sam's smile widened to a grin. "Think maybe you could wear one of those caps, you know with the peak. Open the door for me…"
Dean's only response was a middle finger hoisted in the air as he stalked across the patio and into the house, ignoring the laughter behind him.
The brothers' first view of the cabin the next day had abruptly ended a good-natured argument over Dave Mustaine's role in the Metallica legacy. The Ellisons' place was set well back from the gravel road, up a long, curving driveway. The rough-hewn logs of the chalet-style structure framed large windows that looked out over the surrounding Sierra Nevada foothills.
Pulling up in front of the cabin, gravel crunching under the tires, Dean turned off the engine, climbed out of the car and scanned the property. A garage to the side of the main building would keep the Impala tucked safely out of sight. The rough, hilly terrain at the back made any approach through the woods difficult - if not impossible - and the house also offered a clear view down the drive to the road below. He nodded approvingly. No one would be sneaking up on them.
He walked to the back of the car, popped open the trunk and pulled out all three duffel bags. Sam, now balanced on his crutches, raised an eyebrow at the weapons bag. "Business as usual, huh?"
Dean shrugged as he slung the weapons bag over his shoulder and picked up both Sam's duffel and his own after slamming the trunk shut. "We may be safe from the FBI here but our usual playmates have better informants."
"Can't argue that." Sam moved off toward the house. "I'll salt the windows as soon as we get inside."
Walking through the front door for the first time, Dean let out a low whistle. The open-concept great room held a living area, kitchen and dining room and was dominated by a stone fireplace that climbed 14 feet to the apex of the peaked ceiling. The floors were wide-plank weathered oak, the walls the same rough timber as the exterior of the cabin. The furniture was overstuffed and oversized in deep reds and blues, giving the house a comfortable, masculine feel, but the coordinated furnishings and decorative touches said Linda Ellison had had plenty of input.
Sam's eyebrows disappeared under his bangs as he glanced around the room. "Whoa. A step up from our usual backwoods hideouts."
Dean shot Sam a look as he dropped the duffels on the floor. "A step? It's got an indoor pool. We're usually lucky if we get indoor plumbing."
A staircase tucked behind the fireplace led to a second-story loft that overlooked the great room. Dean took the stairs two at a time, then reappeared a few moments later behind the railing that fronted the loft, grinning down at Sam. "Good thing you're climbing stairs again – there's a freaking pool table up here."
A small hallway to the right of the fireplace led to three bedrooms; the master suite with its own bathroom and two smaller bedrooms which shared a second bathroom. A hallway to the left of the kitchen led to the pool house.
Dean came down the stairs, crossed into the living room and flopped onto one of the big couches. He twisted around, pulled his feet up and, lying down, there was still room to spare. He grinned. "Dude, check it out – this sofa's Sammy-sized."
Sam shook his head as he glanced around. "I dunno, Dean. I'm not sure I can handle this luxury. Might have to punch a hole in the ceiling or make the pipes leak just so I feel at home."
Dean's grin widened. "Suck it up, soldier. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And if getting you better means living in style, we'll just have to suffer through it." He sat up and checked his watch. "Looks like you're overdue for a workout. Get yourself changed while I unload the groceries from the car, then we'll hit the pool."
Sam rolled his eyes. "You gonna be this bossy every day?"
Dean pursed his lips. "Pretty much. Get used to it." He offered an exaggerated grin, before carrying Sam's duffel into one of the bedrooms, tossing it on the bed, then heading out to the car.
Sam smiled as he made his way slowly toward the bedroom. The two of them could butt heads at the best of times but Dean had been nothing but supportive over the past month, knowing instinctively whether Sam needed a pat on the back or the kick in the ass to get through a therapy session.
Reaching the bedroom, he balanced himself on his good leg, leaned the crutches against the side of the bed and unzipped his duffel. He reached for his workout clothes, hesitated, then dug in the corner of his bag instead. He pulled out the bottle of painkillers, dumped out three pills and dry swallowed them, hoping they'd chase away the now all-too-familiar headache.
"Push it, Sam. Push it."
Sam was pushing it, but it was still nowhere near as fast as he wanted, or needed, to go.
"Move it, Sam. You're almost out of time."
There was urgency in Dean's voice, driving Sam to dig deep, move faster. With one last burst of energy he lunged forward and his hand hit the wall.
Dean's voice softened immediately. "Not bad, Sammy; shaved another two seconds off your best time."
Breathing heavily, Sam grabbed the side of the pool and looked up at his brother. Dean, dressed uncharacteristically in swim shorts and a t-shirt, stood above him on the pool deck, stopwatch in hand, feet bare, his towel slung round his neck. He grinned as he waggled the stopwatch at Sam. "You're down almost 20 seconds since we started timing you."
While swimming was part of Sam's prescribed rehab program, racing the clock was a wrinkle the brothers had come up with to liven up the daily routine.
Sam tucked his feet under him and stood up, scrubbing a hand across his face to clear the water from his eyes before raking both hands through his wet hair. His bare chest still heaving from the exertion of his sprint down the pool, he squinted against the late afternoon sun that backlit his brother. "You're lovin' this, aren't you? Me doin' all the work while you're up there supervising."
"It's called coaching, Sam." Dean tossed the stopwatch on a poolside chaise, and then grinned down at his brother. "And don't kid yourself. It's tough work whipping your ass in shape. But it's working; your knee's getting stronger." He grinned. "And you're turning into a half-way decent swimmer."
Sam snorted. "Half-way decent? Get your ass in here and I'll race you. I'll be half-way down the pool before you even hit the water."
"Dream on, Sammy." Dean's expression grew serious when Sam grimaced as he reached under the water to rub his injured knee. "What?"
Sam sounded annoyed more than in pain but worry was always in easy reach for Dean. "What is it?" His raised eyebrow was a demand for more information.
Sam sighed. "I'm just frustrated. When I'm going full out, I'm still relying too much on upper body strength. There's no power when I kick."
"Give it time." Dean's frown relaxed slightly. "It's only been three months since your surgery. The doctors told you it could take up to nine months to get you back to 100 per cent." He grinned, pulling the towel from around his neck and tossing it on the chaise next to the stopwatch. "Shows what they know; you're way ahead of schedule. And that, as we've just established, is no small thanks to Coach Dean."
Rolling his eyes, Sam reached up toward his brother. "Think you can stop patting yourself on the back long enough to give me a hand outta here?"
Dean reached down to grab Sam's hand. He caught the grin on Sam's face a fraction too late; Sam latched on to Dean's wrist and, with a quick tug, pulled his brother off his feet and head first into the pool.
Dean instinctively rolled as he hit the water, surfacing quickly to the sound of Sam's high-pitched laughter. He fought to maintain his mask of annoyance as he stood up, scrubbing the water from his face. He was an idiot for falling for such an obvious ploy but, damn, it was good to hear Sam laugh. Their screwed-up life offered far too few chances to goof around and just be brothers.
Dean gave his head an exaggerated shake, sending water droplets flying. He was still biting back a smile as he smacked the surface, throwing a shower of water over Sam. "That's it, Winchester! Two extra laps for disrespecting the coach. Move it."
"Yes, sir." Sam was grinning widely as he dropped down into the water, rolled onto his back and pushed off the wall. Hands trailing at his sides, he used his legs alone to power his way down the pool, the rhythmic kicking stretching and strengthening the ligaments in his injured knee.
Dean returned his grin then swam to the side, easily pulling himself out of the pool. Dripping water as he crossed the stone deck toward the chaise, he reached behind his neck, hauled his soggy t-shirt over his head, scrunched it into a ball and threw it at his brother. "Hey, and by two laps I mean to the other end of the pool and back – twice."
Sam turned his head in time to see the t-shirt come flying at him, dodged it then scowled at his brother in mock annoyance. "Slave driver."
Dean smiled as he grabbed his towel to dry himself off. "Sticks and stones, Sammy. You'll thank me later."
After almost two months, the cabin now felt strangely comfortable. Dean shook his head when he realized that it was the only time in their adult lives the brothers had shared the same place for that long.
He squinted against the late afternoon sun spilling in through the skylights as he watched Sam work his way down the pool. Over the past eight weeks, they'd spent a big part of each day in the pool house, either swimming or working out in the small but well-equipped gym tucked in the corner.
As much as he teased his brother, Dean was damn proud of Sam, of the doggedly determined way he'd applied himself to his therapy. Even now, he could tell Sam was pushing himself, forcing himself to use his injured knee as much as possible, willing it to work as it had before the surgery.
Sam no longer needed crutches or the hated cane that had replaced them, and the bulky immobilizing brace had recently been ditched in favor of a simple knee support. Even his limp was growing less noticeable each day.
It was their last week at the cabin. The plan now was to make their way toward Bobby's, kick back there for another month then take on a few simple gigs to ease their way back into hunting.
Dean called out to Sam who was almost at the far end of the pool. "Get the lead out. You've still got half an hour on the bike before you call it quits for the day."
Sam grinned as he turned his head to look back at Dean. "You're a real tyrant, you know that?"
Dean returned his grin. "Me? I'm a teddy bear." He closed his eyes, listening to Dazed and Confused playing out over the sound system wired throughout the house. He sighed. "Dude, I am gonna miss this place – especially Doc Ellison's music collection. I mean, the guy installs a state-of-the-art sound system just so to he can listen to Zeppelin on vinyl. Original vinyl. You gotta respect that."
Sam dropped his head back in the water, his grin widening as he listened to his brother wax poetically about the doctor's taste in music. Dean had been like a kid in a candy store when he'd discovered that Jake Ellison was a classic rock fan and that his college-era record collection was now housed at the cabin.
And that told Sam his brother was relaxing. He wasn't naïve; with Dean, worry was never far below the surface and, like at Doc's house, it reappeared quickly any time they left the safety of the cabin. But here at least he was able to relax, the two of them enjoying a kind of simple, brotherly camaraderie that hunting had made next to impossible most of their lives.
Once a week the brothers made the three-hour trek into Palo Alto for Sam's check-ups and to replenish supplies. While Dean loved the drive, loved to be back behind the wheel, he hated the risk inherent to those trips, varying his route each time, always on the look out for anyone or anything that posed a threat.
If Sam questioned him on it, he'd brush it off quickly. But Sam knew his brother too well; the white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, the tense way Dean held himself, the furrow in his forehead as his eyes darted across the roads, or scanned the crowds for any sign of potential danger, all told him Dean was back in hunter mode.
But once they were back at the cabin, Dean was able to let down his guard a little, join Sam in his daily workouts, relentlessly teasing his brother when things were going well, gently pushing him on days when he grew frustrated.
This was the brother Sam had idolized growing up, the brother he had seen far too little of since their dad had died.
When they first settled into the cabin, Sam was sure his brother would go stir crazy inside of a week, chomping at the bit to get back on the road and back to hunting. But Dean seemed to welcome the break.
He thought back to Dean's confession in River Grove, Oregon when they believed Sam had been infected with the demonic virus. "I'm tired, Sam. I'm tired of this job, this life. . .this weight on my shoulders, man. I'm tired of it."
Sam knew that admission was for his benefit, an excuse to stick by his side as Dean had done their whole lives, but the truth behind the lie was a shock. Dean had always been more complicated than most people gave him credit for, but Sam knew him better than anyone and had always thought of him as a natural hunter. To hear Dean admit he was tired of hunting, a life he'd been groomed for since the age of four and once seemed to accept as his father's legacy, had rattled him.
It made him relish even more this chance, however brief, to experience what life might be like for them if hunting wasn't part of the equation.
But, still, hunting was never far out of reach. They cleaned their weapons on a regular basis and restocked ammunition, spreading newspaper and cardboard across the Ellisons' granite counters as they cast silver bullets and packed rock-salt cartridges. They routinely scanned the cabin with the EMF meter and faithfully maintained the salt lines on the doors and windows and protective symbols chalked around each entrance.
They played pool and poker, honing their hustling skills by trying to outplay and out bluff each other for the right to pick that night's movie from the Ellisons' eclectic DVD library. Dean had been especially motivated one afternoon after a lost shoe had led to the discovery of Porky's: The Ultimate Collection stashed under the bed in the Ellisons' eldest son's room.
The memory made Sam smile as he approached the end of the pool. He twisted around in the water, pushed off the wall, and began working his way back toward Dean.
"I've waited long enough."
Sam stopped swimming and looked up at his brother. "You're the one who gave me the extra laps."
Dean, sitting on the end of the chaise, using his towel to rub his hair dry, frowned at Sam. "What?"
Sam exhaled loudly. "If you're bitching about waiting for me, you shouldn't have given me the extra laps, coach."
Dean's eyebrows peaked. "What the hell are you talking about? I didn't say anything."
Sam tilted his head, puzzled. "Huh. Could have sworn ..." He shook his head. "Must have water in my ears."
Dean stood up, stretching. "Either that or cabin fever's setting in. How about going into Tahoe City tonight? Since we're leaving in a couple of days, I think we can risk another night out. Three in two months isn't exactly pushing it."
Sam nodded. "Sure. Sounds good."
"Okay." Dean smiled. "Now move your ass and we might still be able to make happy hour at Joe's Pool Hall."
Sam returned the smile. "Thinking about putting all that practise on the pool table upstairs to good use?"
Dean shrugged. "Wouldn't hurt to build up our cash reserves." He grinned. "But I had a different kind of entertainment in mind."
Sam dropped down into the water, using the breast stroke to complete the return leg of the first lap. "So it's the happy hour that's the attraction. What was the bartender's name? Jenna?"
Dean's eyes flashed. "Yeah. As much as I enjoy your company, Sammy, there are some comforts you can't provide, and let's just say an hour with Jenna would make me very happy. Want me to ask if she has a friend?"
Sam snorted. "No. I still have nightmares from the last time you fixed me up."
Dean grimaced. "Yeah, that was…unfortunate." He held up his hands in mock surrender. "But don't say I didn't offer. I'll hook up with Jenna; you can hit the pool table and hustle the locals." He grinned. "Play up the bum knee. They'll feel sorry for you - at least till you start taking all their hard-earned cash."
Sam grinned as he touched the wall before rolling over, switching to the crawl and speeding down the pool on the first leg of his second lap.
Dean's voice, once again talking about Zeppelin, faded behind the quiet splashing of Sam's rhythmic kicks as he moved toward the far end of the pool. His arms cut through the water in a smooth, efficient stroke, his face staying underwater until his head turned to his right to breathe on every fourth stroke in disciplined racing style.
He frowned as a headache started to form, his frown deepening as the pressure behind his eyes suddenly filled his head with a loud buzzing that quickly morphed into angry whispers. He stopped swimming, pressing his fingers to his temples as the whispers built in intensity, the multiple voices seemingly fighting to be heard but their words unintelligible.
Sam tucked his feet under him and stood up slowly, water rippling away from him as he turned quickly, scanning the pool house for the source of the voices. There was no one but Dean, who was now crossing the pool deck toward the door that led into the house.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, the building intensity of the voices making him dizzy.
"It's their turn to pay."
The single deep voice behind him silenced the whispers. Sam's eyes snapped open and he whirled around but, again, there was no one there. He turned back toward Dean. "Did you hear that?"
Dean stopped and turned to face Sam. "Hear what?"
Sam shivered as goosebumps danced up his arms. "The voice."
Dean frowned, taking a few steps toward the pool. "'Scuze me?"
Sam wiped the water from his face. "I heard a man's voice say, 'He'll never see it coming.'"
Dean's eyes darted around the pool warily. "You're hearing voices? Since when?"
"Since now," Sam turned slowly but the only sounds were the ripple of water as he moved through it and the strains of Zeppelin over the speaker system. He frowned at Dean, suddenly racked by doubt. "What about the whispers? You didn't hear them either?"
Dean's body tensed, quickly slipping into hunter mode at even the suggestion of a threat. "What's going on, Sammy?"
Sam swallowed uncomfortably. "Whispering. A bunch of voices. It sounded like an argument, but I couldn't tell what they were saying."
Dean's eyes narrowed worriedly. "Vision?"
Sam' shook his head hesitantly. "No. At least I don't think so. I didn't see anything. I just heard…" He sighed. "I'm not sure what I heard."
He listened again but the music was the only thing cutting through the silence. Sam raked his fingers through his hair, puzzled. "It's gone. Whatever it was…I…I dunno…"
Dean quickly scanned the windows of the poolhouse, making sure the humidity hadn't broken the salt lines along each sill. They were intact. Still, his worry weakened his attempt at a reassuring smile. "Like I said before, Sammy, we've been cooped up here too long. We're goin' stir crazy. But I'll give the place another once-over with the EMF – just to be sure."
Sam nodded as his brother turned to head back to the house. He had almost convinced himself he had been hearing things when the whispered voices again echoed through his head.
He spun around at the sound of deep, cold laughter behind him. At first there was nothing there. Then his chest tightened as, for a brief moment, he caught a glimpse of a man standing on the deck at the far end of the pool. The apparition blinked in and out of sight quickly but Sam saw him clearly. He was tall and thin, his lank dark hair featuring a single, wide streak of gray just above his right eye. He wore a dark shirt with a string tie at the neck, dark pants and a long, black duster coat that rustled around his ankles, moved by a non-existent breeze. Intense eyes burned into Sam as his mouth twisted into a dangerous smile.
Another voice, distinct from the first, echoed through his head as the apparition vanished. "Stop him."
Sam spun around to call his brother then flinched as a sudden, sharp pain flared behind his eyes. The pain stole his breath, causing him to stagger drunkenly before regaining his balance.
Dean, reaching for the door knob, his back to the pool, turned quickly at the sharp splash. He was in time to see Sam stumble and almost fall. "Sammy?"
"Did…you…" Sam took an unsteady step, pointing to where the apparition had been, when the pain in his head flared again, this time sharper and more intense. "Gah…"
Dean's eyes widened as his brother cried out in pain, clutched his head and toppled over, disappearing below the water.
Dean charged back toward the pool as Sam surfaced, coughing and choking on the water he'd inhaled, his hand pressed to his temple, his face contorted in pain. Dean could only look on in horror as his brother fell again, unconscious, and slid beneath the surface.
Dean dived into the pool without breaking stride. Opening his eyes under water as he kicked out toward his brother, his chest tightened at the sight in front of him. Fifteen feet away, Sam lay convulsing on the bottom of the pool.
To Be Continued…
A/N: Hope you're enjoying. Cheers, and thanks for reading.