Title: Privilege of Choice
Prompt/Summary: This is my long-overdue help_pakistan fic, for the very very patient inyron. She wanted a scenario in which John was forced to choose between his children.
Characters: John, Sam, Dean
Disclaimer: I tried to negotiate them away from Sera, but she had this death-grip on Sam and she kind of snarled at me, so I backed off.
Warnings: No major warnings, no spoilers. Pre-series, teen!chesters.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: This one was a beast to write. I've never really understood John to my satisfaction, and I'm not sure I did him justice. I think he was a man caught in an impossible situation who was forced to compromise so many of his principles that, in the end, he no longer recognized himself. I may try to write him more, if only to try again to wrap my head around him. inyron, I am so sorry this was late!
Neurotic Author's Note #2: Because this was so late, I decided to post it unbeta'd. Please be forgiving if you find any massive errors, 'kay?
Sam is flipping a coin over his knuckles. Slowly, painstakingly. It's one of those fake two-sided coins, a little bigger than the real thing, and it looks overly big and a little ridiculous on his slender fingers. Flip-flip-flip. Practice makes perfect. John's youngest has been obsessing about this fad for going on two months now, even has books on it. Wants to become a goddamned prestidigitator, of all things. John feels a rush of irritation, takes a moment to breathe.
"Sammy, I told you fifteen minutes ago to get ready."
Sam doesn't look up. "I am ready," he says quietly, his concentration never wavering. Flip-flip-flip.
"Fiddling with that magic kit isn't ready. I want you kitted up and at the car. Five minutes ago, Sam," he snaps.
Flip-flip-flip... stop. The coin balances on a knuckle, and John reaches out and snatches it. "Dad!" It's the petulant whine which is becoming all too familiar. "I was coming!"
John makes a show of tucking the coin in his pocket, points at the door. "You'll get it back when the hunt is over, and just be grateful I'm not tossing the whole useless kit in the trash. I need you focused, not screwing around with toys you're too old for anyway. In the car. Now, Sam!"
Sam heaves a long-suffering sigh, grabs his duffel from the floor at his feet, trudges toward the car. That's the trouble with Sam these days. He doesn't talk back, but he will argue until he's blue in the face, and he did exactly that last night when it became clear that he was going to have to forgo his place in the science fair in favour of the latest hunt. He pulled out every argument and counter-argument in his arsenal, complete with negotiating tactics that would have made most corporate lawyers proud, until finally John simply put his foot down and declared the discussion over. Dean had wisely stayed out of the line of fire, but that didn't prevent Sam from declaring the whole process unfair and spending the rest of the evening sulking in his room. This morning there's no back talk at all. Nothing but put-upon silence, pointed sighs, and the kind of behaviour John would expect out of a prepubescent girl rather than the adolescent son he's trying to raise to be able to defend himself against all comers. The son who seems to attract evil the way carrion attracts flies.
And that's the problem, isn't it? Sammy's a good kid, no two ways about it. For all that two psychics and one demon expert have agreed that there's a shadow dogging his son's footsteps, might even be a part of him, it's hard to reconcile the notion with his thirteen-year-old. With his son who wants to play soccer and brings home stray kittens and worries about getting a B on his algebra tests. When they're hunting is when it's easiest to see that part of his son. The part that goes quiet and so intense it's a little frightening. He tries to tell himself that Sam just inherited his single-minded focus on the job, but there's no denying that there's a darkness to his boy at those times, a chilling quality to the careful, methodical way he applies himself to destroying the creatures they come across. It's at those times when John can almost bring himself to believe that, one day, he might have to… He quashes the thought half a second too late.
Sam is already settled in the back seat by the time Dean comes bouncing out the front door, grinning, his hair still damp from the shower. "So how long until we get there?" he slides in the front seat, settles happily with his bag at his feet.
"Sometime tonight," John turns the key in the ignition. "Before sunset, if there's no traffic." He waits for the inevitable groan of protest from the back seat, and is surprised and not a little pleased when it doesn't come.
"I hope there's pie where we stop for lunch," Dean leans forward, pulls out a box full of tapes from under the seat, and shoves a Van Halen cassette into the tape player.
John bites back a smile. There's no sense encouraging the boy, even if his attitude is preferable to his brother's. It's moments like these when he can almost forget that Dean's a man now, almost fully-grown and filling out with muscle. It's hard to think of him as anything other than a freckle-faced kid with a goofy grin and an aptitude for handling firearms, the good son who wants nothing more than to be his daddy's soldier. He's still a good soldier, even if the rest of the time he behaves more like an alley cat, when push comes to shove Dean is a good hunter. A great hunter, even. One day he'll be better even than John, and John finds he's surprisingly okay with that. If anyone can keep the darkness away from Sam, it'll be Dean.
They drive in silence for most of the way. Dean isn't all that talkative when they're on a hunt, and Sam tends to lapse into mutinous silence whenever he thinks he should be getting his way but isn't. It's actually something of a relief not to listen to his constant chatter about school or the latest interesting thing he's read, but it's unsettling as well, and John finds himself revisiting his earlier, more troubling thoughts. It's hard to reconcile the small boy in the back seat of his car going on about the various orbits of the planets in the solar system with the child of prophecy that everyone told him about, he thinks. He keeps trying to tell himself that it's not true, that old Jude McAffrey was full of shit when he started talking about demons and long-term plans, because, well, it's Sammy. Sammy who declared when he was eleven years old that he was going to be a pacifist and that meant he wouldn't hunt anymore. John had spanked the pacifism right out of him, only to be met with a vegetarian phase out of retaliation two months later. Raising Dean had been like slicing through butter with a hot knife. Raising Sam, what little he did of it when he was around, was like pushing a boulder up a hill with no crest. Dean's easy to love, all smiles and enthusiasm, and Sam... well, Sam takes work. The very thought feels like treason. What kind of father even thinks like that?
He pulls up outside an abandoned cabin at the edge of the woods just as the sun is beginning to dip closer to the horizon. They still have about an hour of daylight, then maybe another hour and a half of twilight before the forest will go dark.
"All right, we'll use this as a base camp. Leave your bags inside, set up the bed rolls now. We've got a couple of hours of light left, but best case scenario we'll be coming back in the dark. Take your flashlights. Sam, did you change the batteries in yours?"
"Yes, Dad," Sam manages to convey just how insulting he finds the question in a two syllables. It's a talent, though John doesn't know where he picked it up. Maybe he inherited it naturally from his mother. She was good at saying a book's worth of things with only a few words.
It's a run-of-the-mill hunt. That's the only reason he's bringing Sam along, in spite of his youngest son's insistence that it's akin to a prison sentence. Sam is good for his age, definitely as good as Dean was, though he lacks Dean's natural aptitude for firearms. Every gain he's made in that area has been the result of hours of practice drills and endless complaints. Blades are Sam's weapon of choice, and funnily enough he's a crack shot with a slingshot. John remembers Dean joking about how it was too bad David already offed Goliath a few thousand years ago.
"You'd have been the perfect stand-in, runt," Dean had ruffled Sam's hair and been rewarded with a punch to the kidneys. John had waited a few minutes before breaking up the scuffle, on general principle.
Dean has an unmistakable affinity for hunting, a natural grace that's impossible to deny, but Sam… he can't put his finger on it. He works twice as hard to obtain the same results as Dean, but his instincts for what they're hunting have been unerring to date. It's part of the reason John insists he take part in the research, because Sam will inevitably turn up something as a result of his dogged perseverance and inexplicable intuitions that would never have occurred to either John or Dean to even look for.
Now Sam is standing by the edge of the woods, hands shoved into the front pocket of the grey hoodie he seems to live in these days. He's rebelling quietly, refusing to take part in the prep for the hunt after the few minutes spent prepping the cabin, but John can tell he's listening as he lays out the plan for Dean, map spread over the hood of the car. He glances at Sam, only to find him staring back in that disconcerting way he sometimes has, the way that gives John the creeps, and reminds him all too much that Sammy isn't like the other boys, no matter what he'd like to believe about his son. It's a look that's half-knowing, half-hurt, as though Sam can't quite figure out why his father won't love him the same way he loves Dean, and one day John's pretty sure his heart is going to break over it. He shoves the thoughts aside, turns back to the case. It's a simple haunting, one of the old mine shafts up in the woods, long since abandoned. The main danger is from cave-ins rather than the spook itself.
"Any idea where the body is?"
That's Dean, always cutting to the chase. He's practically vibrating with excitement, but he knows the important parts of the job, and John can see he's got one eye on his brother the entire time. Good boy, he thinks, and starts marking off the cave-in points on the map. Part of him is a little uneasy about going in on other hunters' intel, because John Winchester is nothing if not thorough, but what little digging he was able to do corroborated what he was told.
"We sure about the intel on this?" Sam has edged closer, and his voice is quiet, but there's no mistaking the tone. Ever his father's son, it seems.
"McAffrey's good. The whole family's been hunting together for years. I trust their legwork, but I double-checked it, and it looks good." He doesn't bother mentioning how surprised he was to have the old man contact him, not after the way their last hunt together ended. Still, if the McAffreys are willing to put it behind them, then he can definitely be man enough to do the same. He's not the one who lost a son, after all.
Sam scrunches up his face, but he nods. "Okay. Are they going to be there?"
"No, the old man said they were onto a Black Dog in the next county, which is why they kicked this one over to us, like I asked. It'll be good practice for you. Why?" he should know better than to ask Sam any open-ended questions, but the question caught him off-guard.
Sam just shrugs, face still screwed up in an expression John can't interpret. Then again, that's not altogether surprising these days. His son is an enigma. "No reason. Just had some questions." He's hiding something, John can tell, but it's not the time to press it.
His big brother settles the matter by grabbing Sam in a headlock and rubbing his knuckles briskly across the boy's scalp, eliciting a shrill yelp of "Deeeeeaaan! Quit it!"
Dean cackles. "Don't worry, Sammy-boy. You can quiz them about their research techniques once we've toasted the corpse. Come on, I'll even let you carry the Zippo this time."
Sam stomps on the instep of Dean's foot, thereby gaining his freedom. "Shut up, jerk," he pants, glaring, and smooths his clothing back into place, hair tousled beyond hope. John figures they can have yet another argument about getting it cut tomorrow.
"All right you two, fall in."
He pretends not to see Sam roll his eyes as he and Dean do exactly as they're told. Sam has never been one to appreciate the military approach to hunting (or anything else for that matter), though he obeys well enough when it's required of him. John is pretty sure it won't last, but he'll take what he can get. Dean has his shotgun in a ready carry, and even though Sam isn't carrying a gun he's already alert, keeping careful watch on their surroundings. They're graceful, his boys, he thinks with a surge of pride, then snaps at Sam to keep up and quit dragging his ass. Sam snorts, because they both know he was keeping up just fine, but he obediently puts on a small burst of speed. Dean looks at John like he's maybe temporarily lost his mind, before schooling his features back into an expression of neutrality, and John feels a small pang of guilt at taking out his anxiety on his youngest. Sammy's good, very good even at thirteen, but if he's going to survive the darkness that's constantly on their heels, then he'll have to be better than good.
Sometimes, the ugly thought that maybe it would be better if Sammy didn't survive manages to worm its way into his head, and it makes him feel sick to his stomach.
They head toward the mine at double-quick time, and by the time the sun is setting he's pretty sure they're within spitting distance. He nods to Dean, who hefts the shotgun, and they leave Sam about twenty yards behind so they can scout the path ahead. No sense dragging Sammy into unnecessary danger, even if this was meant to be routine. A careful hunter is a live hunter, he reminds himself, and even if both his kids have been hunting since they were twelve years old, that makes it only a bit over a year for Sam, and he's such a scrawny thing, it wouldn't take much... he banishes the thought. Letting himself get distracted on a hunt is the last thing he should be doing. Head back in the game, Winchester, he tells himself, and that's when everything goes to hell.
Dean goes down first. There's a surprised yelp over to John's left, and he whirls in time to see Dean clap a hand to his neck, eyes wide with shock. He staggers, goes to one knee, shotgun slipping to the ground.
John starts forward, but a stinging pain in the meat of his shoulder near his neck stops him in his tracks. A moment later he feels his knees buckle, the world spinning drunkenly. He reaches up, comes away with a plastic dart, artificial red feathers brushing lightly against his palm. He tries to get back to his feet, but his legs have turned to water, won't hold him up, and he slumps to the ground, the trees swinging in circles above his head in the pale twilit sky. He can hear Dean yelling, the sounds of a brief but violent struggle. Then there's a sharp crack, and silence for a moment.
"Where's the kid?" a male voice, familiar-sounding, but John's too muddled to identify it. He was expecting a spirit, but spirits don't use tranquillizer darts.
"I don't know. He was a ways back but he's gone now."
Sammy, John thinks, scrabbling desperately in the dirt and pine needles, but strong arms grab him from behind, and the next thing he knows a cloth bag has been yanked over his head, his wrists bound tightly at the small of his back, and he can only grunt in protest. They haven't got Sammy yet, though, he can tell by the yells and curses.
"Come on, already! Just get him and let's go!"
He recognizes the distinctive crack of a pistol shot, then another, and more confused yells.
"Damned kid's got a gun!"
John grins, even though he feels sick at the thought of his baby boy out there by himself. The pistol barks out twice more, and then he feels the press of cold steel to the nape of his neck.
"All right, son," a voice calls out, loud and authoritative. "You come on out, now, or your brother and your daddy here each get a skull full of lead."
That's my boy, John chuckles to himself, even as the barrel of the rifle digs harder into his neck.
"Come on, boy, don't be stupid. We won't hurt them if you come, nice and easy now."
"Sammy, no!" he tries to shout, but it comes out muffled by the drugs and the bag, and the next thing he knows something heavy collides with the back of his head, and the world slips away.
There's something digging into the small of Sam's back when he comes to. For a moment he thinks he's gone blind, but when he blinks his eyes start adjusting to the darkness, and he's able to struggle upright with a small groan. Whoever those men were, they cracked his skull solidly. They're not around now, either, as far as he can tell. He wriggles further upright, testing the rope that's got his wrists and ankles bound, and winces at a sharp pain in his side. His mouth is dry, the air around him musty and stale with a metallic tang that fills his nostrils. He's in the mine shaft, he realizes a moment later, lying on a pile of debris, mostly rocks and bits of broken wood, unidentifiable pieces of twisted and rusted metal. Above him he can see the beams holding up the loose rock, the dry rot long since having taken hold, and he's pretty sure that he can feel the remains of the tracks used to excavate the mine at his feet. There's no sign of his captors, but he can hear someone breathing painfully off to the side.
"Dean?" his voice cracks, and he clears his throat, swallows, and tries again. "Dad?"
There's a low moan, then a soft scrabbling sound. "S'mmy?" Dean's voice is soft, his words slurred. "S'mmy 's that you? Y'okay?"
"It's me, Dean. I'm right over here. I'm fine. What about you?"
Okay, that means Dean isn't okay. "I'm gonna try to get free. How bad are you hurt?"
Dean isn't given time to answer, though, before a light flashes further down the shaft, casting weird shadows that flicker and dance on the walls of the shaft. Or maybe the light is further up the shaft, Sam isn't sure yet. A moment later three men appear, their faces plunged in shadows, and he recognizes the bulky form of his father held up between two of them. They drop him simultaneously, and while the oldest of the three sets up a lantern designed for camping trips on a large piece of roughly-hewn rock, another drives a foot into his father's stomach, eliciting a grunt of pain. In spite of himself, Sam yelps, horrified. Vengeful spirits and creatures with claws are one thing, but these are people.
The older guy turns to look at him. "Well, I guess the runt's awake, anyhow. You with us, kid?" he comes over, making his way carefully over the rubble, then grabs Sam by his hair and hauls him all the way upright to check his bonds. Apparently satisfied, he drops him again. "Get Winchester up."
The third guy switches on another lantern and sets it down, illuminating the shaft and revealing a nasty scar along his jaw and neck. It looks recently healed, still bright pink and puckered, the kind of keloid scar that's going to stay for the rest of his life. The old guy is busy checking Dean's bindings, yanking him up by his shirtfront. There's blood smeared all over Dean's face and leaking into his hair from what looks like a nasty cut near his temple, and his eyes are glassy and unfocused, his head lolling back.
"Shut up, kid," the old man snaps.
Sam twists on himself, trying to figure out which way leads out of the mine. "Dad?"
His father struggles to his knees, head bowed, breathing hard. When he looks up, though, his eyes are clear, alert, and Sam finds himself breathing a sigh of relief. Dad will get them out of this. He blinks painfully in even the dim light, head throbbing. He doesn't remember much after surrendering his gun except for the blow to his head, but his whole body aches as though he's been beaten, and he wonders if these people maybe took a few shots at him while he was unconscious. They're hunters. Even if he hadn't figured it out before, it's pretty obvious by the way they're dressed, by the weapons they're carrying.
"Sammy?" his father's voice is rough. "You all right? Dean?"
Dean groans, but rouses at the words. "'m okay, Dad. Just banged up some."
"Shut up, all of you!"
Sam barely manages to dodge a vicious kick aimed at his ribs, falls over to land hard on his shoulder, tucks his chin against his chest so as not to smack his head against the rocks. He sees his father look up, sees the recognition in his eyes, the sudden flare of anger.
"McAffrey, what the hell is this?"
Sam recognizes the name instantly. These are the guys who sent them on this hunt to begin with, which means it was a set-up, a trap from the get-go. A good trap, too, if Dad fell for it. He must have trusted these guys, hunted with them before, and that makes it all just that much worse.
The old man grins, but there's no mirth there, and Sam shivers on the damp ground, even though the night is still relatively warm. "Why, it's a hunt, Winchester. Thought I'd told you that when we spoke."
"Lying bastard," Dad spits at him. "There never was a spirit at all!"
The old guy, McAffrey it seems, chuckles drily. "Oh, there was a spirit. Never lied about that, I can assure you. Salted and burned, good and proper. I ain't never been a fan of loose ends, you know."
"What do you want?" Sam pipes up from where he's lying.
"Quiet," McAffrey snarl at him. "That's three times you've made me say it, boy, and that's twice more'n I usually have to ask. Guess your Daddy there did a piss-poor job of raising you to respect your elders."
"You let him alone, McAffrey, or so help me—" Dad growls, only to have one of the younger guys drive a knee into his spine, cutting off whatever he has to say.
"Or you'll what, Winchester? You ain't in a position to make threats, in case you haven't noticed. Now, you and I got some unfinished business to do. Tom, you can go ahead and loose his hands, but you make sure that shotgun is pointed where it counts, you hear?"
The guy holding Sam's father nods once, more of a jerk of the head than anything else. McAffrey's attention is all focused on Dad, so Sam tries to wriggle closer to Dean, who hasn't so much as moved from where he's lying. Normally Dean would have been the first one mouthing off, distracting the bad guys from Sam and Dad, so Sam figures he's got to be pretty badly off, and once he gets a better look at him, his suspicions are confirmed. There's a lot of blood, more than he saw at first. It's caking Dean's hair and soaking through the arm of his denim jacket, too. His arms are tied behind him, but there's an unnatural lump just below his elbow, and the skin Sam can see peeking from beneath his sleeve is turning purple. Probably broken. Sam's stomach churns, and for a horrifying moment he thinks he's going to throw up. He swallows a mouthful of bile, manages to keep himself under control.
"Whatever beef you have with me, McAffrey," Dad is saying, "it's with me, not my boys. You let them go, and we can deal with it, just you and me."
"Oh, no," the old man's voice is quiet, sends a chill up Sam's spine. "Your boys, they're very much a part of this. You think we haven't been keeping an eye on you since Menahga?"
Sam blinks. They haven't been near Minnesota in well over two years, not since Dad left on that three-week hunt he hasn't ever told them about. He remembers it well enough, because Dad swore it would take less than a week, and they ran out of money long before he got back no matter how much Dean had tried to make the money stretch out, and in the end had gotten detention for playing poker with a bunch of the other students at school when it looked like there was going to be too much month left at the end of the money.
"I'm sorry about what happened to your son," Dad raises his head, but he doesn't look sorry at all, Sam thinks. He looks a little sad, maybe a little worried, and a whole lot mad, and Sam maybe feels a little bad for the old guy, because Dad's about to lay a world of hurting on him, once he gets free. Then again, the old guy ambushed them and broke Dean's arm, so maybe he doesn't actually feel bad for the nasty son of a bitch. "But you know what went down as well as I do. There wasn't time... I am sorry, and if I could have done anything different..."
"You don't get to be sorry!" McAffrey bellows, startling Sam. "Not yet, you don't. Not until you've suffered the way I have."
Sam doesn't like the sound of that. He wriggles even closer to Dean, ignoring the pain in his side, and risks a whisper. "Dean."
Dean's head jerks a bit, and he twists around to look at Sam with glassy eyes, but he doesn't say anything, his breathing shallow. He's pale, sweating, and Sam tries to remember all the things he's read about people going into shock. They should be elevating Dean's feet, he thinks, and maybe wrapping him up in a blanket, but it's not like any of that is an option right now. The ropes are tied too tightly for Sam to wriggle free. He casts about for anything with a sharp edge, but it's all too far away, and there's no way he can move that far without attracting attention. After a moment, though, he finds himself riveted by the scene unfolding before him.
"You're going to pay," McAffrey says, apparently oblivious to Sam's movements behind him. "Since it was so damned easy to choose only one of my boys to save from that skinwalker, well, I can only assume the choice will be just as easy for you now, won't it, Johnny-boy?"
"What?" Dad's voice comes out strangled, and when Sam looks over at him he sees his face has gone white.
"You heard me. You get to live. Tom and Buddy here are going to let you go. You, and one of your sons, but not both. Make your choice count."
"You're insane, McAffrey. You can't ask me to choose!"
"Choose, or they both die!" McAffrey snarls. "Choose, or I'll personally put a bullet to the back of their heads while you watch."
"You sadistic son of a—" Dad gets cut off by another blow to the back. "I had no choice, and you know it! There wasn't time to save them both!"
"Well, then, consider it a privilege I'm grantin' you, then. I didn't get a say in whether or not my Billy got to live. Besides, Johnny, you and I both know there's a right choice and a wrong choice, here."
Sam blinks at Dad's tone. He's never heard him sound like that before. He sounds weary, beaten, and when Sam cranes his neck to look, he can see Dad's shoulders slumped, arms at his sides, fists clenched. When Dad looks up, their eyes meet for just a split-second, and Sam feels something cold and slimy slither down his spine.
"Dad?" he whispers, but he's not sure he wants to hear the answer to his unspoken question.
"Tell you what," McAffrey's tone has gone back to the sardonic, mocking one he adopted earlier. "Tom here found a coin in your pocket. How about we give you an out? You pick the side of the coin, and that way the decision's made for you."
Dad makes a pained sound, but the guy without the scar, Buddy, racks his shotgun and presses the barrel to Dean's cheek. Dean doesn't flinch, but Sam sees his throat working. "Dad, just take Sammy," Dean chokes out. "It's okay."
"Quiet!" McAffrey pivots smoothly and drives his foot into Sam's stomach, and he curls up on himself like a snail, tears stinging his eyes. "Come on, Winchester. Call it. Who's heads? Call it now, or I shoot them both!"
"Dean," the name tears itself from Dad's throat.
McAffrey chortles. "Good choice, there, John. Let's see which way the coin falls, shall we?"
For a moment it feels as if the whole world is holding its breath. There's just the faint sound of skin flicking against metal, followed by the loud clink of the coin against the rocky ground. Sam squeezes his eyes shut as tightly as he can.
"That settles it, then," McAffrey sounds suddenly subdued. "Get 'em out of here. And John, here's your coin back. I figure you'll want a keepsake to remind you of today. Not that you'll be forgetting anytime soon."
Sam hears scuffling sounds, and somehow isn't surprised when no one comes near him. He hears Dad grunt in pain, then Dean's voice raised in desperation.
"No. Sammy, No! Dad, please! You're not supposed to… you can't –Dad! Dad!"
Dean's yells cut off just as abruptly as they started, and Sam just curls up tighter, eyes still closed. He can't bring himself to watch as they leave him. Dean must be unconscious, there's no way he'd let himself be dragged away without fighting otherwise, injured or no. Sam holds himself very still, trying not to shiver with cold and fear, and swears to himself that, no matter what else happens, he's not going to cry. He's not going to give them the satisfaction of knowing just how afraid he is, not even when the whole place goes dark and still.
After a few minutes he cracks open an eye, to find that old man McAffrey is still there, sitting on an overturned crate, shotgun across his knees, his face illuminated by the sickly yellow beam of a flashlight. McAffrey tilts his head, and to Sam's surprise he smiles a little sadly at him.
"Don't look at me like that, kid. I ain't a monster. You think I wanted this? I ain't got a choice. But you did damn good out there, better than any of my boys would have done at your age. In a way, that makes it easier. But I'm at least going to pay you the respect due to a hunter, and make it quick." Sam breaks all his promises and sniffles, trying to swallow a hiccup. "Don't take it so hard, son. The choice had to be made."
With that he rises stiffly to his feet, and pulls a pistol from its holster on his hip, cocking the gun with a loud click in the ensuing silence.
"You're a brave kid, I'll give you that."
Sam isn't sure what happens next. All he knows is that instead of the gunshot he's expecting, there's a blast of cold air, and suddenly McAffrey is screaming as though the devil himself is clawing at his insides. Instinctively Sam wedges himself as close to the mine wall as he can manage, shaking, not daring to open his eyes. The mine shaft is filled with the sound of howling, the crashing of debris, and a terrible stench of rotten eggs and burning, of decay and other things Sam can't even begin to describe to himself. The ground trembles slightly under him, and he feels dust and gravel begin to rain down from the unstable walls and roof. There's no way to escape, not with his hands and feet bound, and so he wriggles until most of his face and head are protected from the falling rocks, and prays as hard as he can to a God he isn't sure exists that, if the mine does collapse, that it doesn't crush him in the process.
The cave-in feels like it lasts forever. By the time it seems as though the worst is over he's choking on the dust and his back and shoulders are on fire from being pummelled by falling debris. He coughs convulsively, and reminds himself that it could be worse: he's still alive, and as far as he can tell he's not trapped. The mine is completely silent, not a single hint that McAffrey is still around, nor whatever it is that attacked the old man while Sam couldn't see, but he doesn't really want to stay to find out. He struggles to a sitting position, spitting out a gob of dusty saliva, then cries out as something digs into his arm, and warm wetness starts seeping slowly past his wrist. It's a good thing, he tells himself, blinking back tears. Whatever it is, it's sharp, and that means he can cut himself free. It's a messy, painful process, and by the end he's cut himself as many times as he's managed to cut at the ropes binding him, but he manages to slip free, scrubs the tears from his eyes with a grubby wrist, then applies himself with blood-slick fingers to loosing the rope around his ankles.
When he's completely free Sam reaches out tentatively with one hand, feeling his way across the rubble. He's almost entirely sure of the direction from which he saw McAffrey and his boys come in with his father, and logic dictates that that's most likely the way out. He crawls forward on hands and knees, the debris catching and tearing at the knees of his jeans, and yelps and nearly vomits when his hands come into contact with the soft and still-warm form of what can only be McAffrey's remains. He swallows several times as his gorge threatens to rise, forces himself to crawl over the corpse, not to think about what he's touching, and keeps going, although he's not sure what he'll do even if he does make it outside.
Dad left him. Somehow the knowledge that he had no choice in the matter doesn't make it any easier. Dad left him, and even if he can make it out of this mine and back through the forest, Sam's got nowhere to go. Dad and Dean probably think he's dead, anyway, because that's what McAffrey said was going to happen: Dad and Dean go free, and Sam gets a bullet to the back of the head. There's no point coming back for someone who's dead, and Dean was hurt. Logic would dictate to Dad that he should take Dean to a hospital, to get him fixed up. Sam's a lost asset. That's what Dad would call it, he thinks.
He's almost surprised when he sees the darkness give way. He staggers to his feet, catches himself on the rough stone wall of the mine when his knees threaten to give way beneath him. The scent of pine reaches him a moment later, ridding his nostrils of the stench of sulfur and decay. Sam takes a deep breath, steeling himself –against what he isn't even really sure– and steps out into the moonlight.
It takes Dean a moment or so to remember that he's no longer in the mine when he wakes up. Someone is tugging his arm up and across his body, and the pain serves to distract him from the dull ache in his head and his roiling stomach.
His eyes fly open and it's only because his father has the reflexes of a goddamned panther that Dean doesn't roll right off the low-slung cot on which he's been lying. Dad catches him by the shoulders, forces him to lie back down.
"Easy, son. Let me finish strapping your arm."
He ignores the admonishment, struggles to sit up. "No, Dad –Sammy's..."
"I know," Dad holds him down with one arm. "I know, Dean. But we can't rush in blind and with you walking wounded. Let me take care of this, and we'll go back for him, I promise."
The world is spinning, and Dean finally has to let himself fall back, trusting Dad to take care of it. "Wh're are we?" He looks around, sees nothing but rough wooden walls, a bare floor made of pressed wood, a tiny window that hasn't been washed in far too long. The only source of light is a small oil lamp, flickering in one corner.
"The cabin. McAffrey's a man of his word," Dad says, and there's no mistaking the bitterness in his tone. "Drugged you to hell and gone to make sure I cooperated, then left us here."
"We've been back about an hour. Just enough time for them to get a good head start on us. They hedged their bets. Even if we don't go after Sammy–"
"We will," Dad says sternly, and Dean subsides, abashed. "But they couldn't count on that. Even if we don't go after him, we won't catch them tonight. Okay, can you sit up?" he hauls Dean upright, finishes strapping his arm securely to his chest with a sling from the first aid kit. "It's broken, but it's a clean break, and it should hold. I figure there's nothing I can say that'll keep you from trying to come with me, is there?"
Dean shakes his head, even though the movement makes the whole room tilt on its axis.
"I didn't think so. Drink," he fits a bottle of water into Dean's good hand. "I need you as alert as possible, if we're going to do this."
"We should go. You heard what he said... what if he... I mean, what if Sammy's–"
"One thing at a time, kiddo," his father smooths a hand over his head, and for a moment he just lets himself lean into the touch, lets himself feel that much safer because Dad can fix this. "Drink all of it. I want all that crap out of your system as soon as possible."
"You should have taken Sammy," he murmurs, heart thumping at his own audacity. He's never questioned Dad's decisions before, but it makes no sense. They've always taken care of Sam before. "You should have left me."
His father sighs. "You honestly think I could have voluntarily chosen one of you over the other?"
Dean desperately wants to say yes, but it's obviously not true. He saw the coin toss with his own two eyes, saw the anguish on Dad's face. He knows he'll never really get it, not unless he maybe has kids of his own, but he understands well enough the impossible position in which that asshole McAffrey put Dad. But still...
"Next time, promise me you'll take Sammy."
"There won't be a next time. Now come on, we have a lot of ground to cover without any light, and you're going to be slower than before."
Dad makes him drink the entire bottle of water and eat a protein bar before he'll even consider letting them go. Even then, the whole world reels when he gets up, and he has to lean on Dad with his good arm, let Dad wrap an arm around his waist and prop him up until everything stands still again. It's easier once they set out, the cool night air helping to clear his head of the tranquillizer-induced fog. As his thoughts become clearer, his anger at the douchebags who ambushed them increases.
"I'm going to feed him his liver," he mutters under his breath, concentrating on keeping up with Dad without tripping over the rocks and roots on the abandoned trails leading up to the mine. Every step sends pain rippling through him. Dad wouldn't give him anything in case it reacted badly with the tranquillizers, and he's only now beginning to realize just how much he uses his arms even for walking. Another reason to hate McAffrey. He doesn't know which one of the two younger men broke his arm, but it hardly matters. "I'm going to rip that old bastard's heart out through his ribcage and ram it right back up his–"
"Dean, enough!" Dad snaps. "Save your breath for walking."
They press on in grim silence, the only sounds those of the woods at night. The rustle of small creatures in the leaves, the distant hooting of an owl. The pine needles whisper under their feet, and their boots scuff against protruding roots, unnaturally loud in the stillness of the night. Maybe it's because Dad is busy scouting out their trail, but it's Dean who hears the sound of approaching footsteps first. He signals urgently to Dad, who immediately switches off his flashlight, and they both stop, standing stock-still where they are, trusting to the cover of darkness to conceal them,. At first he can't even be sure that it's a person, but after a few moments the sound becomes clear enough, the light footfalls hesitant and halting in the pitch darkness. His heart speeds up in his chest, because he's almost sure that the footsteps are far too light for a grown man, which means–
"Sammy?" His father whirls to silence him, but it's too late. The name escapes him, unbidden, and the sounds stop.
Dean comes close to crying with relief for the first time in his life. Sam's voice is hoarse, almost completely faded, but it's definitely his. "Sammy, it's us! Where are you, kiddo?"
"I–I'm here," Sam quavers, and then the footsteps are back, and Sam hurtles headlong toward them, heedless of anything except for the fact that they're so close.
Dean pulls away from the restraining hand his father put on his arm, heads to meet Sam halfway even if he can't make his trembling legs go any faster than at a walk. A moment later he catches sight of Sam in a tiny clearing, and his brother throws himself at him, wrapping both arms tightly around Dean's waist. Pain jolts through Dean's arm as the contact jars him, but he's never cared less about anything in his life. He folds his good arm around Sam's neck, hangs onto him as tightly as he can, and very seriously considers never letting go ever again.
"Jesus, Sammy, I was so goddamned scared. Are you okay?"
Sam nods, but he's shaking from head to foot, clinging to him for all he's worth. He's filthy, covered in dust and grime, tear-stained, and he reeks of whatever nasty chemicals must have still been lingering in that godforsaken mine. Dean hears Dad come up behind them, boots crunching on the pine needles.
Dean feels his brother flinch, and he pats his head roughly. "It's okay, Sammy, it's just Dad. It's just us, okay? You're safe now, I promise."
Dad is hanging a step back, as though he doesn't quite dare come close. "Sammy, what happened? How did you get away?"
Sam shakes his head, and the pain makes Dean finally pull away a fraction. He bends his head as Sam mumbles something unintelligible.
"I can't understand you, buddy," Dad says, and though his voice is quiet, it carries as clear as a bell in the small clearing.
Sam straightens up, then, and wipes his nose on his sleeve, as though marshalling what's left of his resolve. "There was something in the mine. It, uh, it killed him."
"McAffrey?" Dad sounds surprised, and Dean can't blame him. He clearly remembers the old son of a bitch saying that they salted and burned the corpse of whoever was haunting the mine. Probably botched the job, he thinks uncharitably. Sam just nods, staring at the ground, visibly trying to stop shivering and stand still. "Sam, what is it?"
Sam doesn't raise his head, and his already hoarse voice comes close to breaking. "C-can I come back with you?"
"What? Of course, don't be stupid, Sammy. What did you think? That we'd leave you behind?" Dean is horrified.
That, it appears, is exactly what Sammy thought. Dad steps forward and gathers the boy into his arms. For a split second Sam resists, then lets himself slump against Dad's chest. "Aw, Sammy," Dad breathes, cradling the back of Sam's head in a large hand. "I'm so sorry."
Sam either can't or won't tell them anything else that happened, and Dad doesn't press him. He carries Sam all the way back to the cabin, for all that he's thirteen years old and has been too big to carry for years, stepping surefooted in the dark while Dean makes his way as best he can in their wake, the flashlight clutched in his good hand. By the time they get back Dean's whole body feels as though it's one throbbing nerve ending, and all he wants to do is collapse somewhere and pass out. Sam is wiped out too, and a cursory examination by the light of the gas lamp reveals him to be battered and bruised, his forearms sliced to ribbons where he cut himself free from his bindings. He can't seem to stop shivering, but he stays silent as Dad disinfects and bandages his arms, doesn't utter so much as a word when Dad has to stitch up a nasty laceration just below his left kidney, but he leans against Dean's good side when he can get away with it, chewing on his lip, gaze never leaving the floor. Dad looks about done in, but he turns a worried look on Dean.
"You think your arm'll be all right until the morning?"
The nearest hospital is forty miles away. Dean knows, because they scouted the area beforehand. It's further than they'd normally allow for, in case something went wrong, but Dad had taken the risk because it was meant to be just a simple salt and burn. They're all exhausted now, though, and to drive that far in the dark is a risk Dean isn't willing to take. He forces himself to smile.
"Sure, Dad. You just break out the good stuff I know you keep hidden away somewhere we can't find it, and I'll be good to go. I don't know about you, but I don't really relish the idea of spending the night sitting in one of those really uncomfortable waiting room chairs just so they can poke and prod and put another cast on."
Dad nods. "Take the cot. Sam and I'll take the floor."
It's impossible to miss the small tremor that runs through Sam at that. "No, Dad, it's... the bedrolls are way wider than that thing," he covers as best as he can, but he doesn't think it's all that convincing. "I'll take the floor with Sammy, okay? I'm freezing anyway, and he's like a living furnace, isn't that right, Sammy?"
Sam shrugs, but he looks up and manages to quirk a small, grateful smile, and Dad just nods, spreads out all the bedrolls on the floor along with every blanket they own, and tucks one of the only pillows in the place under Dean's broken arm once he's lying down, to keep it stable. Wriggling in a futile attempt to get comfortable, Dean looks over to find Dad staring at the coin McAffrey used to torment him before, his expression unreadable. Then Dad tucks the coin back into his pocket, reaches over and extinguishes the lamp, plunging them all into darkness.
Without so much as waiting for an invitation Sam tucks himself along Dean's good side, still trembling, and Dean pulls him in close, trying to make him stop shivering by sheer strength of will. It doesn't work, and when they've been lying in the dark for what seems an eternity, his arm throbbing dully, he can hear tiny catches in Sam's breathing, knows he's trying really hard not to let Dean know he's crying.
"It's okay, Sammy," he whispers, but Sam doesn't give any indication he's heard.
He spends the rest of the night staring into the darkness, listening to his baby brother cry.
In the morning Sam is pale and sunken-eyed, quiet, but the tears have long since dried up. Dean grumbles about not being allowed to help with anything, but the truth is that his arm is killing him, and he's only too grateful to be allowed to sit out the packing process, cradling his arm against his chest. Sam carefully hauls their bags out the door, and it's when the cabin is almost empty that Dean notices the small cloth bundle left in a corner. He grins at Sam and ruffles his hair with his good hand.
"Don't forget your little magic kit, there, Sammy. How else are you going to get yourself a girlfriend?" he teases, but Sam shakes his head, lets Dean lean on him as they head out to the car, where Dad is already in the driver's seat. "C'mon, Sammy, don't take it like that. I thought you wanted to be David Copperfield?"
"Nah, I'm done with it," Sam smiles, but it looks more like a grimace anyway. "I'll just stick with cards, like you and Dad. The rest of it is all tricks and lies, anyway. It makes people think they have a choice, when they really don't."
"Sam," Dad says, tone sharp, and Sam flinches, ducks his head. "Dean, let's go."
The back seat is the customary place if you're injured, unless it's Dad, so Dean eases himself down, leaning on Sam for balance, and somehow isn't surprised when Sam crawls in after him, forgoing the rare privilege of sitting shotgun. Dad doesn't say another word, just switches on the ignition, and takes them back down the road.