I honestly meant to get this up days ago, but the last week has been insane... I'm sorry to have kept everyone waiting! Thank you to everyone who reviewed, or favourited or put this on alert. I specially want to thank Yunnaz, hotshow, dcp8, a, Nancy, Becci and charl who reviewed "anonymously"... I couldn't send a review reply, but thanks, guys!
If there's anyone who's actually wondering: I'm sad to announce that the show isn't mine... nor its wonderful characters *sigh*...
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Three Weeks Later
The oven door creaked, releasing a wash of succulent odours into the kitchen. Deftly the tall gray-haired man extracted the roasting pan, nodding to himself at the sight of the sizzling juices, and set it on top of the stove.
"Smells good, Jim."
Pastor Jim Murphy acknowledged the compliment with a satisfied smile and lifted the lid of one steaming pot to check on the vegetables. Under cover of slicing a loaf of bread he cast a critical glance at his friend.
Sitting at the kitchen table, staring vaguely into his cooling mug of coffee, John Winchester looked exhausted. Fine lines creased his face, furrowing into the forehead which never appeared without a frown these days. His fingers flexed restlessly around the coffee mug, the only movement about the otherwise motionless figure.
Pastor Jim's mouth tightened, and the knife slid with firmer deliberation through the bread. From this angle he couldn't see John's eyes, but he knew their appearance. He knew he wouldn't soon forget his first glimpse of them when the Winchesters had arrived three days previously. The last time he'd seen that look had been sixteen years ago, and it had taken months – perhaps years – to fade.
John was an intensely private person. He hid his thoughts, his emotions, behind an unbreachable wall. Jim didn't know all of what he was thinking or feeling, and he guessed he never would. But he'd observed enough, in his years of interaction with broken and hurting people, to know now that his friend was in turmoil.
Dean wasn't one to lay out his emotions either, but he was too drained to have his defences up and Pastor Jim had learned a considerable amount from him of what had happened. Dean was still angry with his father, although he had seen enough of the oldest Winchester's anguish for some of that rage to have abated. Jim had felt a measure of the same anger. But he was older than Dean, and wiser. He saw the devastation that John didn't even realise he was showing, and he knew that John was more angry with himself than Dean could ever be.
He put the plate down on the table and looked at his friend.
Bloodshot green eyes lifted from their perusal of the now-cold coffee. John blinked, breathed heavily, and finally met the pastor's gaze.
"You need to talk to him." He sighed inwardly as his friend looked away, his mouth tightening. John didn't want to discuss it. For a moment Jim had a decidedly un-pastor-like desire to knock some sense into him.
You can't avoid it forever, John. This stalemate can't just go on indefinitely.
"John – "
"I'll call Dean for lunch." The finality with which John stood up told Jim the conversation was over. Not that it had ever really started. Jim stood in silence and watched as his friend left the kitchen.
The shabby leather couch stood angled away from the door, facing the television. Canned laughter erupted as John entered the living room, but the face of his son on the couch didn't change. John paused for a moment, studying him.
Dean looked worn out. Weeks of being indoors, sitting in a hospital room, had leached away his healthy tan and he slouched against the worn leather, staring vaguely at the television without really paying attention to the antics of the on-screen characters. He looked almost asleep.
"Dean? It's time for lunch."
Dean looked up quickly as his father approached. He had obviously not noticed his presence until then.
"Mmm. Okay. I'm coming." He pressed his thumb and forefinger to his temples and then slid his palm down to cover a wide yawn.
Dean blinked, evidently surprised at the question, but didn't comment. He nodded.
"Yeah. Didn't sleep so well last night. Or the night before, if it comes to that."
Dean's mouth tightened in assent.
"Mmm. Not just mine, though." He glanced down, and John followed his gaze.
The couch was sizeable, but not really designed for stretching out full length. Bare feet pressed against one leather arm and legs curled up towards his chest, Sam had somehow managed to fit himself next to Dean. He was fast asleep, the side of his face mashed against worn denim where his head rested on his brother's leg.
"What's he doing out of bed?" John's voice was quieter.
"He came down about an hour ago. Said he didn't feel like sleeping, but he was out five minutes after he sat down." Dean looked a little self-conscious. "There's... uh... not really that much space on this couch."
John didn't press the issue. But he hadn't missed the flash of emotion in Dean's eyes as he looked at Sam, or the way his hand rested against his brother's chest, as if to reassure himself that Sam's heart was still beating.
John understood, better than Dean could know. He himself was sleeping badly these days, waking in a rush of cold sweat after reliving those moments in the hospital. Time after time he saw the flat finality of the unbroken line on the cardiac monitor. He saw Sam's chest fall, without a subsequent rise. He felt the heat of fever fade from the limp hand in his, to be replaced by the unnatural chill of death.
Sam hadn't died. John hadn't seen that flat line, or the cessation of breathing, because they hadn't been there to see. But still he found himself, again and again, climbing out of bed and slipping into his sons' room, to stand over Sam's bed and listen to the steady cadence of sleep.
He knew the desire to hold his son, just to make absolutely sure that he was really there, really alive and recovering. There was something inside him which irrationally felt that having Sam in his arms would erase the horrible fear that had been his companion for the last weeks, that the physical contact would somehow compensate for his helplessness to prevent Sam's death.
He knew that Dean felt the same. Often, while in the dark room at night, he would hear Dean tossing, muttering in his sleep. From the little he could catch he knew that his older son also dreamt of losing Sam, also replayed the terror of the times when they were sure that he was gone.
But at least when he was awake Dean could console himself in contact with his brother. Even in full health Sam was something of a touchy-feely person; frail and convalescent, he craved his big brother's presence, and Dean was still too shaken to pretend to dislike it.
John didn't have that. It was always to Dean that Sam turned, always his brother's comfort that he wanted and never his father's. John had never been much for hugging and touching, and now he found he didn't know how to do it. He wanted to hold his son, but something held him back. So he hid behind a gruff voice and matter-of fact words, and tried to forget the desolation he'd seen in defenceless blue-green eyes.
Sam might have been embarrassed if he'd been awake and aware of how he was lying on the couch. But he'd looked so uncomfortable, legs crammed beneath him and head lolling on the worn leather of the chair back, that Dean had shifted him down to lie on the seat. Sam was barely able to stay awake for ten minutes at a time; he could far more comfortably have settled on the other couch in the room, and been able to stretch out full length, but that option had obviously not even occurred to him.
Dean hadn't argued when he'd chosen the smaller, already occupied couch. And when his little brother had slowly sagged against him with deepening breaths, it hadn't occurred to him to move him to the other one.
He wanted Sam close. He wanted to be able to check that he was alright. That he was still breathing without difficulty, that his heart still kept a steady pace. Dean would never admit it to anyone, but he frequently leant across in the night to hold his hand in front of Sam's face and feel the soft puff of breath, or to rest his fingers lightly against his brother's pulse.
Two months ago he would have laughed in disbelief at any suggestion that he could be so obsessive, so hovering. Sam was his little brother, whom he'd practically raised, whom he'd die for, but he wasn't Sam's doting nanny.
That Dean, though, that two-months-ago Dean, hadn't watched his Sammy slipping away from him. He hadn't seen his little brother in respiratory failure, on a ventilator. That Dean hadn't fought against strangling sobs as he clutched his brother's limp hand and begged him to fight.
They'd thought they'd lost him. When Sam had closed his eyes after trying to speak to them both, they'd thought it was goodbye. The doctor had stood beside the bed for a long time, and his face had told them, even before his compassionate words, that he held out no hope.
But Sam hadn't died. Not then. Not in the next days, even while it seemed he could go at any time. Somehow breath had succeeded shallow breath, and the little green squiggles had continued to chase each other across the screen of the cardiac monitor without flattening into a straight line. Dean woke gasping, several times a night, from nightmares in which a continuous shrill tone formed the background to the doctor's "I'm sorry...", but it hadn't happened. Somehow, Sam had fought.
Five days after his eyes had closed with such apparent finality, Sam woke.
After the nightmares, after Dean leant across just to make sure that Sam was fine, he would lie back and remember the first sight of those drowsy blue-green eyes. Drugged and unfocused and the most beautiful thing in the world. They'd gazed vaguely at the ceiling, shifted sluggishly until Sam found the face he was searching for. Nurses had bustled, Dr. Webber and colleagues whose names Dean never caught had checked and examined and talked quietly in undeniable surprise, and Sam had just looked at his big brother before drifting into sleep with a feeble hint of a smile curling his mouth under the oxygen mask.
Dr. Webber had been cautious then, obviously not wanting to give false hope. But Dean could see the sudden optimism that replaced the gravity in his eyes. He saw the way the man walked just a little straighter, as if some invisible weight had slipped from his shoulders. The day that the doctor turned from examining Sam with a smile on his face, Dean knew his little brother would recover.
Dean looked down at the dark head leaning against him. Sam hadn't really been ready to leave the hospital. He'd been out of Intensive Care for less than a week when the administration came asking questions about John's insurance, though. Dean knew they'd had little choice, but the anger which had been buried beneath the weight of fear now surfaced again at the memory of the ease with which his father had removed his younger son from medical care. Sam was still half-sick, pale and lethargic, but Dean had seen no hesitation in the way their father bundled him out of the hospital. He'd slept on the backseat of the Impala for the entire journey to Pastor Jim's.
Dean knew he couldn't expect his brother to be vibrant with good health three days after leaving hospital. Sam spent most of his time sleeping and had no appetite, but that was par for the course after such a serious illness.
What concerned Dean was the emotional tension that kept his brother as taut as a violin string. He'd hoped that the nightmares were a by-product of the fever. He'd hoped Sam's muddled distress over his father, his flawed perspective of what his father wanted of him, would clear as the illness loosened its grip. But several times a night he was woken by Sam's soft whimpers as the nightmares tormented him. Sam didn't tell him what he saw in those dreams. "No, please, Dad" and "I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." stuttered out between broken sobs gave him a fairly good idea.
Dean had seen the desperation in his father's eyes, the wetness of fear as he watched his younger son dying. He knew that losing Sam would have crushed his father. But since Sam's unexpected recovery the oldest Winchester had repressed those emotions again. John was gruff and morose, even more than usual, and Dean could see the effect it was having on Sam.
He looked up at his father now, anger smouldering in his eyes, but his voice was polite.
"I'm not that hungry right now, Dad. I think I'll just stay here."
John didn't miss the anger. He didn't miss the way Dean's arm tightened around his sleeping brother.
"Sam'll be more comfortable in bed, Dean."
Dean couldn't argue with that, although his father saw the struggle in his eyes.
"Okay," he said grudgingly. "But I'll –"
"No, I'll take him to his room. You need to eat."
The habits of years were hard to break. That tone had always garnered unquestioning obedience before, and Dean backed down now, although his mouth was set in a tight resentful line.
It was a good couple of years since John had carried Sam like this, cradled against his chest. His younger son's head was tucked against his shoulder, and soft, regular breaths were warm on his neck. Sam was alarmingly light, fragile almost, a frightening reminder of how close they'd come to losing him. John's arms tightened a little as he turned sideways through the bedroom door, and for a moment he was carrying a tiny Sammy again, warm and soft and baby-fragrant.
Sam muttered something as John deposited him carefully on the bed, and his face turned into the pillow, legs pulling up a little under the blankets. His father tucked the bedclothes more securely around him.
Sam looked so small. His white face was all planes and angles, dark hair drooping untidily over his forehead and emphasising the shadows that bruised the soft skin under his eyes. John stood over him for a moment, just looking down at him, and then he sat heavily on Dean's bed and ground the heels of his hands into tightly shut eyes.
He was expected in the kitchen. The roast chicken would be cooling and the gravy congealing, but right now the last thing he could face was dinner, with Dean brooding across the table and the concern of Jim Murphy that blurred into disapproval. He was where he needed to be, with Sam, even if it felt like the coward's option that the only time he sat with his youngest was when he was asleep.
The light was deceptive. It flickered between shifting leaves, dappled on the damp unhealthy ground. It was confusing, constantly startling him into imagining their prey was upon them. He peered through the dimness, turning his head this way and that, not wanting to miss her.
That was... Dad wasn't supposed to be here.
"What the hell have you been doing? Where were you?"
"What's wrong... Dad, what is it?"
Then Dean was there, sprawled on his back, eyes staring emptily upwards. And there was blood, everywhere there was blood, spilling and streaming and pooling around limply outflung arms and legs. So much blood...
"NO! No... Dean!" He was sobbing, and scrambling, and hurling himself towards his brother, because Dean couldn't be dead, Sam had been watching for the harpy and there was no way she could have got to him, but when he tried to reach for Dean, solid legs were in the way and no matter how much he fought he couldn't get past.
"You let him die, Sam. Your own brother. You killed him with your carelessness."
"No... no, Dad... Dean..."
"Dean is dead because of you."
"Dad, no... I was watching... I tried..."
"You try, but it's never enough. You could never match up to Dean."
"You're useless, Sam... you've always been a liability, and now my son is dead because of you."
"I'm sorry, Dad... I'm sorry..."
"Just get out of my sight... go, Sam. I don't want you."
"No! Dad, no......"
"I don't love you and I don't want you. You should have died, not Dean." The green eyes were granite-hard.
"Dad, no... please... I'm sorry..."
"No... no... I'm sorry, Dad..."
He didn't notice it at first.
His shoulders were hunched, forehead resting heavily on fisted hands, eyes staring blankly at the ground. He was tired. He was so tired. The nightmares which made a mockery of his sleep, the endless replaying of the death of his son, enervated him until it was suddenly too much effort even to hold up his head.
Bedsprings creaked dully as his sleeping son shifted. Sam's soft whimper was almost inaudible, and his father didn't hear it.
I don't know what to do, Sammy. I've screwed up big time but I don't know how to change things. I don't know how to help you.
You didn't die but I feel as if I'm losing you anyway.
"Sam?" He lifted his head. "Sam!"
Sam was squirming restlessly under the bedclothes. His eyes were shut, but a faint sheen of sweat lined his face.
"It's okay, Sam, I'm here." John leant forward, one hand reaching tentatively for his son.
"No... Dad... please..."
"No... no.... Dean!" Sam's breath hitched in a sob. "Dean!"
John froze, shaken by the fear in his son's voice. For a moment he thought that Sam was scared of him, that he was calling for his brother for protection, and the hurt was almost as great as the shock.
But Sam's eyes were still shut, and much of what he said was an incoherent mumble.
"Sam. Sam, wake up. It's just a dream. Just a nightmare." His hand hovered, uncertain, and then came down lightly on his son's head. "Wake up, Sam!"
Sam's breath quivered.
"No. No, it's me, Sam. It's Dad."
The uneasy writhing stilled. Thick dark eyelashes fluttered, and lifted, revealing damp blue-green eyes. Sam blinked at him, confusion and distress evident on his face.
"'m sorry... 'm sorry, Dad..."
"What?" John recoiled, completely taken aback, and saw too late that Sam had misinterpreted his withdrawal. Sam's lower lip trembled.
"I didn't mean to, Dad... I'll try harder... I'm sorry..."
Sam seemed to shrink from him, turning his head away, and John stared helplessly.
"I know I'm useless... l-liability... d-don' wanna be a b-burden..."
"No, Sam –"
Then he heard the words which disintegrated into shaking sobs.
"P-please Dad...don' h-hate me...."
"Sammy!" The name seemed to stick in John's throat as he gaped at his son.
Is that what Sam thinks... that I hate him?
He wasn't conscious of moving, but somehow he was sitting on the bed beside his son. His arms went round him, and he held Sam in a grip that was tight with emotions he couldn't begin to define.
He almost died. I almost lost one of the two most precious things in the world to me, and he thinks I don't love him.
"Dad..." Sam was tense, trying to pull away. "Dad, I d-don't –"
"How could you think that, Sammy? How could I possibly hate you?"
Sam stared at his father in wretched bewilderment. Tears tracked unheeded down his face.
"You said I was a b-burden... you said I was useless and... and c-careless... a-and you're r-right, because Dean almost d-died, and it's all my f-fault, I know... b-but I didn't mean to, Dad – I really didn't mean to... a-and I know I'm not like D-Dean... a-and I don't b-blame you, Dad, but I know you l-love him m-more – "
"The hell I do! Sam –"
"You were scared w-when he was hurt... y-you were worried... b-but you were j-just angry with me... even when I w-was sick." As if the words had drained his resistance, the tension abruptly left him and he sagged against his father, sobbing brokenly.
A little piece of crust had fallen from its slice. Dean glanced at Pastor Jim, and sneaked the bread into his mouth.
"We haven't said grace." Pastor Jim's voice was grave, but his lips twitched. Dean swallowed the morsel.
"I know, but..." He looked at his watch. "Where the he... uh... on earth is Dad?"
"He took Sam back to bed, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but that shouldn't take him over ten minutes." He pushed his chair back and got up. "I'll just go and see where he is." His voice was casual, but Pastor Jim's steady look told him the older man wasn't fooled.
Dean knew it was ridiculous to be concerned. It was his father – Sam's father. Not some monster, or ghost. To feel the need to protect his brother right now was beyond crazy.
"You said I mustn't complain... mustn't whine if I got hurt..."
Huge wet blue-green eyes and a shaking hand that gripped his jacket...
"My f-fault... deserve this..."
Dean turned abruptly and headed out of the kitchen.
The bedroom door was open, pushed back as John must have left it when he carried Sam through. Dean could see the heavy old wardrobe as he approached along the passage, and the edge of the scarred desk, and the faded stain on the carpet where Sam had dropped the mercurochrome when he was eleven –
Sam was crying.
It wasn't the normal post-nightmare tears, soft and sniffly and half-asleep.
These were wrenching, strangling sobs. These were cries as he hadn't heard from his brother in years, sounds that froze him for a second and then sent him running the last few feet to the open door. He could hear the sounds of someone talking. His father.
If Dad's made Sam cry, so help me, I'll –
His hand groped for the doorframe, white-knuckle tight, and one breath jerked in quick and hard. Neither of the two in the room noticed him where he stood on the threshold, completely taken aback.
Dean would never forget the incident with the shtriga. The events, the details of that night were indelibly tattooed on his brain. Now, for an instant, it was as if he was back in that room, after the thing had burst through the window and made its escape. That night was the last time he could remember seeing his father like this, seated on the edge of the bed, arms wrapped around his younger son. One hand cupped the back of Sam's head, holding it against his chest.
"Shhh...shhh, Sammy... it's okay. It's okay." John's voice was gravelly, and his jaw worked as if he was swallowing. "I'm sorry, son... I'm so sorry..."
Dad is apologising?
"I should have checked, Sammy. I should have made sure you were okay."
Sam choked out something that Dean didn't catch.
"Yeah. You should have been paying attention... but I should have noticed that you were hurt. I was just too busy being angry and worried about Dean. I'm sorry, Sammy... I was... I was wrong."
Sam was still shaking, but the sobs were quieter. One hand came up to rest on his father's arm.
"You did good, killing that harpy by yourself, and then looking after Dean. I know I don't say it much, but you're a good hunter, son, and you work hard, with the research especially. There're many times when the information you've found us has saved our asses on a hunt."
John was silent for a moment. His hand moved idly on Sam's back.
"It seems like all we do nowadays is argue, and fight... I'm not very good at this, Sam. There's so many things I wish... were different... I wish I could be a better father... but.. but there in the hospital... I almost lost you, Sammy. I don't know... I don't know what I would have done if... if you... You and Dean... you're all I have. I get sc... I worry that something will happen to one of you, that one day you won't be ready... and it makes me angry... but Sam, don't think that... that I don't love you. Don't ever think that."
His arms tightened, and this time Sam went willingly, relaxing in his grip as he buried his face in his father's shirt. John turned his head, his chin lowering to rest on the dark hair.
"I love you, Sammy... I love you so much..." The words were choked. His eyes met Dean's across the room and there was no surprise in them, only emotion that might have been fatigue or relief or something else that John Winchester very seldom displayed so openly. They looked at each other for a moment. Then Dean crossed to the bed and sat down beside his father, listening to the soft shudder of Sam's breath as he lay half-asleep in his father's arms, and saying nothing, because right then nothing needed to be said.
"I wish we could have stayed longer." Sam turned reluctantly from the window where he was trying to catch the last glimpse of Pastor Jim's house.
"You just wanted more time with that puppy of his."
"So, I'm glad I'm not gonna be sharing a room anymore with someone who smells like dog breath. And wet dog hair. I swear, Sam, you were beginning to turn into a dog yourself... not that you don't already look a bit like one, with that hair –" Dean sniggered as Sam swatted the back of his head.
"Seriously, though, couldn't we have... I mean, just a few more days..."
"We need to get on with this hunt, Sam." John's voice was mild. Sam's gaze turned to his father.
"I know, Dad, but..."
"The thing is, I wanted to get there by Sunday. School term starts Monday and I figured you'd rather be there for the beginning than arrive after everyone else." John's gaze was focused on the road, but he didn't miss the quick glance from Dean beside him.
There was dead silence in the back seat. When at last he looked in the rear view mirror, Sam's eyes were wide.
"B-but... I thought –"
"Yeah. I... uh.... I changed my mind." His voice was gruff. He frowned through the windshield, and then flicked a glance in the mirror again.
Sam's eyes were still enormous, but a slow grin was spreading over his face. Dimples that hadn't made an appearance in weeks now grooved deeply in too-thin cheeks.
"Dad, I... uh... thanks."
A brief nod was the only answer, but John's mouth twitched as he turned his attention back to the road, and the Impala leapt forward with an accelerated burst of enthusiasm.
So, there you go... let me know what you think...