Mask of Sanity, ch. 25
"Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.' Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'" James 4:13-15
When I posted the previous chapter and made the optimistic assertion that I would get the next chapter out quicker that the last, I actually did think about the verse above. And sure enough. :) So I'm sorry for the delay, though perhaps I should have anticipated it.
Here is the end of the story. Thanks to all of you who have stuck through this ridiculously long process. The reviews and PMs checking to make sure I was OK have been so sweet and encouraging. And kept me working on this story – even if that work was incredibly sporadic over the last (good heavens) almost 11 months.
Somehow word had spread about burning the car and quite a little crowd had gathered to watch the old Ford go up in flames.
Hotch could see the frustration on the sheriff's face as he herded a group of teenagers farther away from the burn site. He turned and sent a fierce scowl toward one of the younger volunteer firefighters, who ducked his head.
"I swear, Donny Joe, if you can't keep your mouth shut about these sorts of things, there's not going to be a place for you on the crew," Sweed snapped.
"I didn't know it was some big secret," the big, blonde young man responded defensively, though Hotch could see he was well aware he'd made a mistake. "And Bud was in the room when I answered the call. It's not like I posted it on Facebook," he muttered, with a dark glance at another large, blonde, but clearly younger kid.
Now the sheriff gave that kid a hard look.
"Sorry," the boy mumbled.
"Honestly," Sweed huffed. When he'd gotten the crowd where he wanted, the sheriff stationed Deputy Rodriguez to keep an eye on the milling group of kids. "Any of y'all move out of this spot, there's gonna be hell to pay." He pointed an admonitory finger at the crowd. "Y'all hear me?" he asked sternly.
There was a chorus of good-natured agreement and some eye-rolling in response before the sheriff moved off with a sigh.
"Is the car going to blow up?"
Hotch turned toward the muted, but excited voice of Tommy McCrae, standing with Sam.
"It might," answered Bobby Singer. He'd stuck close to Winchester after he'd taken care of preparing the car for burning, grumbling at Sam until the young man had retreated to his current position. "That's why your uncle's shooing everyone off. But burning cars don't always explode."
"Shoot," was the disappointed reply.
Hotch smiled slightly when he met Singer's eyes over Tommy's head.
"Well, we'll hope for the best," Singer said drily.
The McCrae kids – Tommy and Jake and an older boy Hotch hadn't met before – had shown up a few minutes earlier. The two teenagers had come over to check in with Winchester and say hello to Singer before joining their friends. Tommy lingered close to Sam.
Hotch saw Morgan's eyebrow raise at the nickname, glancing at Winchester before canting his face down to observe Tommy.
Sam, who had been leaning on the tow truck, buckled his knees and slid down to the ground next to the boy. "Yeah?"
Now that the two were closer to eye level, Tommy gave Winchester a serious once-over. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," Sam said, eyes closing as he put his forehead on drawn up knees.
Tommy nodded, though he didn't look convinced. "Do you want the car to explode?" He crouched down by Winchester. "That would be cool, huh?"
Sam opened his eyes on a laugh, turning his head to smile at Tommy. He rested his cheek on a knee. "Yeah. That would be really cool."
"Dean'll be bummed if he misses it," the boy noted somewhat sadly.
"I wouldn't worry too much about it, kid." Morgan inserted himself into the conversation to Hotch's surprise. The agent bent down slightly toward the boy and pointed at the knot of teenagers. Most had their phones out, aimed at the car. "He'll get to see it."
Morgan lowered himself to the dirt gingerly, taking his cue from Winchester. "How long you figure it'll be?" he asked. He looked like hell, but had refused to miss out on the final burning.
Sam shrugged. He raised his head and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "For the car to burn? This is a first for me, I gotta admit."
Morgan grunted and slitted his eyes almost closed, keeping vague attention on the scene in front of him.
Hotch leaned against the truck himself, but stayed on his feet.
Singer had managed to "salt" the Mustang—inside and out—before the fire department had gotten there and had removed himself from the process, letting the officials do their job. His own job, it was clear at this point, was to keep an eye on the younger of the Winchester brothers. For all his gruffness, Singer's care for the young man spoke of long practice and true feeling.
Hotch let his eyes wander over to the teenagers on his left. He searched out Jake McCrae among the throng and saw that the kid's face was noticeably pale. Hotch had just opened his mouth to point that out to the sheriff, when the slightly taller shadow of a brother next to the boy put a hand on his elbow and began to steer him away from the crowd, saying something quietly to the deputy as they passed.
Jake looked annoyed, lips tightening as he was shepherded toward the adults and pulling his arm away from his brother.
"Sit there," the older boy commanded as they approached, pointing at a spot next to Winchester.
"'m fine, Michael," Jake snapped with a frown, tugging to free the elbow his brother had taken repossession of.
"Whatever," his brother said, not letting go. "There." He jerked Jake slightly to position the boy where he wanted him. Jake dragged his feet mulishly toward Sam.
"I can always take you home," Michael added complacently, hand firmly in place on his brother's arm, "if you're going to be a brat about it."
Winchester raised an eyebrow at Michael, scooting over somewhat to make room.
Jake stopped the slide of his shoes and let Michael lower him to the ground next to Sam. Tommy tried to settle on the other side of Winchester, but was too small to lean comfortably against the truck like the men and his older brother. So he scooted over to Sam, worming his way between long legs to use the tall man as a backrest. Winchester's face contorted in discomfort.
"It's hot, Tommy," he complained.
The boy shifted slightly, but didn't abandon his spot. And Winchester sighed in resignation, letting his eyelids slip closed again.
On his other side, Jake tilted toward Sam and then withdrew, nose wrinkling. "Sammy, man, you kinda stink," he observed.
"Did I mention it's hot?" Sam asked. Without opening his eyes, he snaked an arm to the side so that his pit was over Jake's nose, pressing it into the boy's face. "How's that smell?" he wondered over Jake's affronted, then muffled yelp.
"Dude, I have a concussion," Jake whined after Sam had retracted his arm, rubbing disgustedly at his nose.
"Oh, yeah?" Sam said with seeming unconcern. "Me, too, maybe." He squinted at the boy.
Jake rolled his eyes, but still somehow ended up with his shoulder bumped against Sam's. "You alright?" he asked.
"I'll live," Sam said.
"Well, yeah," Jake duhed.
Hotch turned toward Michael. "You're the oldest of the Sweeds' boys," he said extending a hand.
"Yes, sir. Michael McCrae."
Michael nodded. "Nice to meet you." His attention slipped down to Jake.
"How's your aunt?" Hotch asked.
The kid's eyes came up to Hotch's. "She's fine. She's at the hospital with Dean." He shook his head. "She should probably be at home, but…." He shrugged. "When this is over, we'll…."
"We'll what?" Luke had joined them.
Michael met his uncle's amused smile with one of his own. "I don't know. Make Mom rest?"
"Good luck with that," Luke said.
The boy made remarkably life-like chicken-clucking noises.
Luke laughed, glancing down now at Sam and the two younger boys leaning up against the truck.
"Looks like it might be nap time for everyone when this is over."
"You can't make me," Winchester mumbled, cracking one eye open to stare at the sheriff.
Luke laughed again, dropping a hand briefly to the top of Sam's head.
Hotch shook his head at the play among the men. He felt an odd surge of protectiveness for the whole group. Hotch had had his perception of "normal" altered fundamentally over the last few days. He knew that without the Winchesters and their friends he and his team would not have known what they were up against or how to handle it.
It was humbling realization, which was an experience Hotch wasn't really familiar with and, frankly, didn't much care for. But he was an honest man, and there was no getting around the service the Winchesters and their "family" had provided their government, in spite of the danger to themselves.
He sighed, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes.
"Everything OK?" the sheriff asked.
"Yeah." Hotch gave the man a sliver of a smile. "Just looking forward to that nap."
All things considered, Sam thought the burning of the car was pretty anti-climactic.
The Mustang went up easily, but there was no flare of a departing spirit, or – much to Tommy's (and Sam's own) disappointment – an explosion. The gathered crowd had oohed and awed appreciatively as the car's paint curled in the heat, and the tires blew with muffled pops. But the lack of any real action had Sam twitchy to get gone and back to the hospital to check on his brother.
All indications were that Dean was markedly improved, though, in the cautioning words of the doctor, still seriously injured. Jo swore Dean was resting. But Sam needed to see it for himself.
"Now?" Sam wasn't trying to be annoying, but he saw the tic in Bobby's cheek and knew that he was anyway. Changing the question from "Can we go?" didn't seem to have made a difference.
"Boy." Bobby's low rumble carried a distinct threat, and Sam took a wary step back. "You're the one wanted to see this through. This look 'through' to you?"
The fire was mostly out, but the car was still smoldering, and Sam knew Bobby would want to run the EMF reader over the ashes before he'd be willing to pronounce the case over. But everyone was gone except a couple of bored fire-fighters and the Feds, who were milling around uncertainly. Sam wished he'd gone with Luke when he'd had a chance.
"No," he muttered. He cleared his throat around the sullen tone that leaked out. "No," he said again, forcing himself to take a deep breath, be a grown up.
Bobby's scowl softened immediately. "I know you want to get back to Dean, Sam. But we've gotta…."
"I know," Sam interrupted. "I know. I just." He rolled his head around on his neck, trying to work out the tension there. It was hot and his head ached like crazy and… "Sorry," he said.
"I can take Sam back into town." Spencer Reid stepped up somewhat awkwardly next to Bobby, his colleagues right behind him. "The others are staying, but Hotch wants Morgan back at the hospital. Sam could ride with me."
Bobby narrowed his eyes at Emily and Agent Hotchner. "You mind riding in the cab of the tow truck?" He scratched dirty fingers through his damp beard. "And it might be awhile out in this heat."
"I don't mind," Emily said easily. "Anything that keeps me from having to listen to Morgan lie about how 'fine' he is, is good by me."
Agent Hotchner nodded his agreement.
"Up to you, Sam."
"Yeah," Sam readily agreed. "That'd be great."
"Let us know if you feel the same way after your time in the car with Morgan," Emily called after him.
Sam didn't know what Agent Prentiss was talking about. Morgan's complaints barely registered on Sam's scale of "lies and threats I have endured while tending to the well-being of people I care about." But, then, Sam had been hearing similar defensive reassurances from Dean – and his father – as long as he could remember.
Sam still had nightmares of his 12-year-old self sitting in the back seat watching Dean drive, grim-faced and ashen, shoulders hunched against the force of their father's yelling that he was fine dammit and didn't need a hospital. John had had a rag pressed against a gash at his hairline while blood sluiced down his face from under it, pupils uneven, complexion matching Dean's. John had passed out almost five minutes before they'd reached an ER. The doctor had told Dean he'd saved Dad's life – internal bleeding that had gone undetected in the hurried triage conducted in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Dad had never mentioned it again. The scene had been played out in many variations over the years with Sam himself sometimes playing the role of his father. When Dean wasn't hogging the part.
Morgan's muted grumbling just kind of made Sam want to pat him on the head.
When they reached the hospital, Sam escorted Morgan into the ER while Reid found a place to park the Suburban. He paused long enough to point one of the nurses to Derek before ducking out and heading for Dean's room.
"Sam." It was Dr. Jones.
"Hey, Doc," Sam said, not slowing down. Though, admittedly, he wasn't moving all that fast.
"Where you headed?" The doctor's question was lightly mocking.
Sam kept going, putting one foot determinedly in front of the other.
"You're bleedin', son." A hand landed on Sam's shoulder, but it didn't force him to a halt.
"Yeah," Sam squinted at the room numbers he was passing. Jo had given him the room number, and he was pretty sure he was headed in the right direction.
There was a huff of breath as the hand let go. "I'll get a suture kit, just in case, and meet you there." A pause. "Turn left when you get to the end of the hall. Dean's in the second room on the right."
"'Thanks," Sam said.
When he made the turn into his brother's room, Sam put a hand on the door frame to steady himself, blinking heavily. Dean's bed swayed into view, and Sam headed in that general direction, trusting that he'd reach it if he could keep himself in motion.
He'd just planted his palms on the mattress, locking his elbows to keep from face-planting into his injured brother when he heard an exasperated voice behind him.
"Sam. Honestly." Jo's tone lacked the compassion Sam thought he really deserved all things considered.
"Told you," said the doctor, coming up behind them.
Jo again and Sam felt the edge of a chair bump—none too gently, frankly—against his calves, and he pushed off somewhat awkwardly from the bed, falling backward into the hard plastic.
"Ow," he complained when his head got jarred.
"I told you Dean was fine," Jo said. "Why did you not go home? I told you to go home."
"Ow," Sam muttered again when the doctor started trying to part his hair to get a look at the bump on the back of his head.
Now Jo gave a startled gasp. "Are you hurt? Is he hurt?" she demanded.
"He's fine. Maybe a couple of stitches. I'm going to need to shave this to…."
"Dean never has to cut my hair to put in stitches."
"'Dean never…'? How many times have you…?" Jo started at the same time Dr. Jones said, "Are you saying your brother's better at stitching up a head wound than I am?"
Sam didn't respond to either query. "No cutting my hair," he said.
The doctor sighed, and Sam grimaced while the man fiddled with the wound some more.
"Fine," he grumbled. "I think a butterfly will work. But it's going to pull on that hair you're so attached to."
Sam didn't respond to that either, satisfied with the capitulation.
The doctor had just stepped out of the room when Dean shifted in the bed. Sam and Jo leaned forward anxiously.
"Dean?" Sam prodded. "Can you hear me?"
Dean's face contorted unhappily.
"S'm," he mumbled.
Dean's eyes opened to slits, pupils moving toward the sound of his brother's voice. "K?"
"'m fine." Sam ignored the muffled sounds of disagreement behind him.
Dean's eyes slid closed, and his head moved slightly in acknowledgment. His eyes struggled open again and met Sam's.
"'m better S'm'y go."
Sam smiled. "Yeah, you're better," he admitted. "But…."
"Jo?" Dean's eyes had found her standing behind his brother.
"Hey, baby," she said.
"T'k S'm h'm." He slurred the order, but it was an order nonetheless.
"We're headed there next," she reassured him. As if Sam hadn't already said he was staying.
Sam frowned at Jo. She smiled at him.
"Come on, sweetie," she said, taking his arm and giving a tug.
Sam rose in spite of himself. "No. I…."
"Say good-bye to your brother, darlin',"
Sam blinked, turning to the hospital bed, "I'll be back in the morning," he said as if his mouth was not connected to his brain, which was still protesting his removal.
Dean raised a couple of fingers off the bed in response, and his eyes closed again.
"There," Jo said gently. "You know he's safe; he knows you're safe. Time to go home."
And Sam let himself be led out of the room.
Jo wrinkled her brow at the Amazon box addressed to her. She reached for a pair of scissors to slit the tape, trying to remember when she'd last ordered anything online. Dean had just gotten home from the hospital, and she hadn't had the time or the inclination over the last few days even to turn on the computer. She pulled the plastic bubble wrap out and laughed in surprise and delight at the cover of the DVD when she turned it over in her hand. At the bottom of the box she found the printed note – "For your recovery. May you – and all your boys – enjoy it for many years to come. Emily."
"How are you feelin', darlin'?" Jo asked solicitously. She ran a hand over Dean's head, smiling solicitously at him.
Dean shifted slightly in the recliner. He hated being flat on his back, but being that way in the family room, with the television (and the family) was infinitely better than being that way in his room by himself.
"OK," he allowed. "Are you going to sit down?" he frowned at her. Luke and Michael and Sam (and Dean when he was aware enough) had all be fussing at Jo, trying to make her rest herself.
Jo handed him a pillow and spread a quilt over his legs.
"Yes," she said, giving him an indulgent look. "I'm just going to put the movie in, then I promise I'll sit, too." She moved toward the DVD player. "Oh, Sam! Sweetie, come in and watch with us."
Sam had been wandering through the room, and he looked vaguely around, eyes sharpening when he noticed Dean out of his room. "Hey!"
Dean jerked his chin at his brother. "'sup?"
Sam sat on the corner of the couch nearest Dean's chair. "You OK to be up?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "You think Jo would let out here if I weren't?" he asked.
Sam grinned. "Guess not. You were dead to the world when I checked in earlier."
Dean shrugged, eyes going to the television.
Luke came into the room with a huge bowl full of popcorn. "Sit back, Sam," he said handing the bowl to the younger man. Reflexively Sam held his hands out to receive what was being offered.
"I don't know. I'm not in the mood for a movie. I think I'll…."
Jo sat down next to Sam, trapping him between herself and the arm of the couch as she reached into the bowl.
"Oh, come on, sweetheart," she said, pointing the remote at the TV as Luke joined her, reaching across and into the bowl. Sam eased back into the cushions when Luke's attempt to grab a handful of popcorn pushed the bowl more firmly into Sam's gut. "I won't have to worry about Dean getting restless if you're here." She paused, looking up at him. "And I'll be able to rest better, too."
Sam blinked down into her earnest face.
She gave him a blinding smile and pushed play.
"What're we watchin'?" Dean asked.
"Did you take your meds at lunch?" Luke asked and both Dean and Sam took their eyes off the screen to look at Luke.
"Yeah," Dean answered, eyes about to drift back to the television.
"Are you sure?" Luke asked. "Sam?" Sam's eyes shifted to Luke again, too. "Did your brother take his meds, I'm not…."
The melodious strains of the movie's soundtrack started to play.
Sam had just opened his mouth to reply when Tommy skidded into the room.
"Is this Anne of Green Gables?" he asked excitedly.
Sam and Dean turned their heads to the TV so quickly Sam actually yelped when his neck cricked.
"Are you kidding me?" Dean asked at the same time Tommy said, "We haven't seen this in forever!"
Sam moved to get up from the couch, and Jo leaned in hard against him, her hand in the popcorn bowl in his lap holding him in place.
"No," he said firmly.
"It's awesome!" Tommy said. "Jake!" he hollered. "Anne of Green Gables!"
"Yes," said Jo as firmly as Sam had. "Stop trying to get out of that chair, Dean Winchester; you'll pull your stitches. You're watching this with us. Both of you."
Jake's entrance to the family room was more studied than his brother's had been, and he looked warily from Sam to Dean before turning his eyes to the television screen. The slight smile on the kid's face surprised Dean.
"Huh," Jake said, face schooling quickly into unconcern, reaching for a handful of popcorn. He sat down in front of couch, leaning back and clearly getting comfortable for the duration.
Dean's eyes narrowed at Jo. "You were tricking us," he accused her, then turned his glare on Luke. "Both of you," he echoed Luke.
Luke winked at him, pointing the neck of his beer bottle at first Dean and then Sam. "Settle in, boys."
"This isn't fair," Dean protested. "You…"
"Shhh," Jo said, putting a handful of popcorn in her mouth. "It's starting."