Well here's the final chapter, and I want to thank all those who've stuck with this story, you've made it worth it!
Two weeks of convalescence had passed, until Sam was going completely insane at being cooped up. Miraculously, his fever had quite suddenly abated after his father had returned, and after that they had kept him in the hospital for a few more days, and even he had not been able to contest the wisdom of this, since he had been in a great deal of pain and too weak to stand up unaided. No longer in danger, just healing slowly. Even when they had finally let him go Dean had had to help him dress and then half-carried him out to the Impala, where he had almost immediately fallen asleep.
They had driven out to Bobby's house, a journey of many hours, most of which Sam had spent asleep in the backseat. They had remained there for over a week-Dean had watched him like a mother, forbidding him to do almost anything except sit in the warmth and read books. But it had not been that simple-ever since arriving Sam had felt the darkness of depression crushing him down-every night he was tormented by intensely real nightmares of the Commander and the Guard, but most of all of Niki and her horrific death. He stopped eating, stopped doing anything, feeling useless and tainted. Dean noticed and tried to make him talk about it, but it was a hopeless venture, because Sam just refused to open up. At that moment he was struggling just to believe that there was anything worth living for, for one such as he who had hurt so many, who had caused the death of someone as brave and beautiful as Niki.
Dean found him now, sitting up in the darkness of the attic of the house, staring out of the window at the rain hammering down. He paused just inside the door, running a hand through his close-cropped hair-he knew that his brother was hurting, and he knew that it was only to be expected. He just did not know what he could do about it. The teenager's slight, untidy-haired figure hugging his knees silhouetted against the window seemed so far away, so hopeless.
"Hey, Sam," he said softly. Sam turned.
Dean crossed the room and dropped down beside him, looking out at the rain. "Crap weather, huh?" he commented, then reached to the side and held up the napkin containing a sandwich he had brought up from downstairs.
"I think this was what you didn't eat at lunchtime," he told Sam, who looked at it blankly.
"You can have it if you want, I'm not hungry."
"Of course not," Dean muttered. "Look, Sammy, you're barely eating anything and you need to get your strength back. If you get sick again now you'll be in really bad trouble."
"Dean, I'm just not hungry," Sam replied earnestly. "I'm okay."
"Sure you are," Dean said. "That's why you don't eat, you don't talk, and you scream in your sleep every night. You need to talk to me." He hesitated. "Sam, if this is about Niki-"
"It's my fault," Sam said quietly, firmly. "I promised her I was going to save her. I promised. And now…now she's gone-"
Dean did not ask why he had said that he would save her. The issue of Niki's humanity was one he and his father had tacitly decided to just steer clear of, with Sam's delicate state of mind. "It's not your fault at all," he said instead. "How could it be? Don't you remember what Dad said?"
Sam shrugged. "It's how I feel, Dean." He turned back to the rain and the grey sky that seemed a reflection of his soul right now. Fragmenting. Dean looked out with him, feeling hopeless, desolate. Sam seemed so unreachable, so deep-fallen into his despair.
"It's over now," he said almost desperately. "Soon you'll be able to go back to school, that's what you want, right?"
Sam did not move. "Go back to school, and then leave again, and again, and always be the new kid, and never be normal. What's the point?" He gave a sort of mirthless smile. "You know what my English teacher said before we left? She said I should apply to one of the Ivy League colleges this year. It's a frickin' joke, right?" He flicked a lock of hair out of his eyes. "I'm serious, what's the point?"
And Dean had nothing to say to that. The brothers sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the rain, each lost in private pain. Then at last Dean raised his head. "You know where we're going tomorrow?" he asked impulsively. Sam looked over at him with a faint frown.
"We're going back to Maine," Dean answered. "Just to see what's left. I'm thinking you need to be doing something."
The compound was empty, desolate, when Sam and Dean stepped out into it the next evening, as if it had been for years, weeds sprouting between the stones, the buildings fallen into charred disrepair; Bobby and John were outside in Bobby's truck, having agreed to wait for them and let them go in alone. The place looked as if it had been ravaged by a fire-maybe when the other kids had left they'd tried to destroy it all, Sam thought. He stood there, feeling the weight of memories buffet him, the wind sifting through his overlong hair. This place where he had lost so much, where he had met and kissed Niki, where he had been tortured almost beyond repair.
Dean, watching him, wondered if he had done the right thing, bringing his brother here. Certainly Sam's depression seemed less heavy out of the house, and doing something, anything, was always a good idea, but this place was the legacy of so much pain and guilt. It could wound Sam worse than anything. His little brother seemed so vulnerable and slight in his overlarge hoodie, his hair ruffled in the wind, his battered body having faced so much more than anyone so young should ever have had to.
"They're all gone," Sam murmured. "All of them. Maybe they're out there killing people right now."
"The alternative was letting the Commander win," Dean pointed out. "And that's what we're hunters for, to stop things like that. We can go after them. You saved a lot more people than you hurt, Sammy."
"But it's still on me." He turned his face away but Dean still heard the whispered words that blew back in the cold wind: "Niki, I'm so sorry…" Inside his mind Sam was replaying everything-Niki standing there defending him from Richard Banner, her swordhand rock-steady. Niki's fierce eyes telling him she would stand by him. The way her dark hair had moved in the wind when she had turned her head. Her true, darkness-defying laughter. The tears on her face when she had related her grim destiny…
He realised that suddenly he was hunched over, crying hard, and that Dean's arms were around him, hugging him tightly, so that he felt his older brother's heartbeat against his own, smelled the leather of his jacket, while he wept uncontrollably there in the middle of the empty compound, and Dean was speaking, whispering: "Shh, Sammy, it's okay, it's okay, I'm here…" As if he were a child again, bewildered by the harshness of the world, when only Dean had been able to comfort him and make him feel like everything would be all right. He was older now, he knew that life was never that simple. But somehow deep down inside Dean could still make him feel that way, against all rationality.
Finally he pulled away, wiping his eyes awkwardly on his sleeve. "Sorry," he muttered and Dean gave a lopsided grin. "Just don't tell anyone."
Sam looked up, his hazel eyes wide and wet and intense. "Thanks, Dean," he whispered, and Dean shrugged a little stiffly, understanding. "Anytime," he returned.
At that moment there was a sound from behind and Dean's hand went to his gun-Sam whirled round, scraping the evidence of his crying from his face. His eyes popped wide open.
Jake Talley's lean dark figure was walking towards him across the compound, a slightly uneasy smile of welcome spreading across his face. "Sam," he said in greeting, drawing close. "How are you?"
"I'm okay now," Sam replied, with half a glance at Dean. "But what are you doing here? I thought you'd gone home…"
"I did," Jake agreed. "But I had to come back, just to see…" He shrugged. "Well, I guess you had the same idea, huh?"
Sam nodded. "Jake, the Commander's dead."
Jake's face showed no surprise. "I figured he would be, when he didn't come after me." He hesitated. "That was one hell of a fight, Sam. If you beat him then…wow." Sam shrugged. "So what are you going to do now?" he asked, trying to change the subject. Jake gave a wry smile.
"I'm going to join the army," he said. "I guess once you start playing with weapons it doesn't leave you, huh?"
"You serious?" Sam said in surprise. "I mean…" Dangerous, stupid, even immoral, the words thudded through his mind. But who was he to put down Jake's dream, Jake's decision? This had surely not been a light choice, and his friend had already faced horrors enough to realise what he was getting himself into. "I mean, take care of yourself."
Jake nodded, unsmiling. "Yeah. You too, Sam." He turned to walk away, then briefly looked back. "Nice knowing you," he said. Sam smiled tightly, reading in the casual parting countless unspoken words of thanks and shared dangers commemorated.
"You too. Hopefully someday we'll meet again."
"Huh. If you ever fancy a trip to Afghanistan or somewhere…" And he turned and strode quickly out of the compound, soon disappearing into the surrounding trees as Sam watched. Dean cleared his throat.
"Uh, Sammy? Now you've had your little bonding moment with soldier boy, I think we better hit the road, huh?"
Sam turned and managed to summon a smile. "Okay, Dean," he agreed, and led the way out of the compound, getting into the passenger seat of the Impala without looking back at his erstwhile prison. Dean slid in beside him and jammed the keys in the ignition. "You okay now?" he asked intently. Sam returned his hard look and thought about it carefully.
"I will be," he said determinedly. Then he caught Dean's hand reaching for the box of cassette tapes on the floor and he blocked him with his own arm. "Unless you play your crappy music, in which case I will have a seizure right now, trust me on that."
Dean rolled his eyes. "You, faking a seizure? Now that I'd like to see." The Impala pulled away from the side of the road and began to roll off along the forest track, bumping and shuddering over the potholes behind the truck. Inside it, John looked back at the sleek black car and he smiled.
"Looks like we're all coming out of this in one piece," Bobby commented, reading his expression. John nodded. "It does…"
There was a darkness in his youngest son, something terrible that he would never understand. But he was here, and Dean was here, and if they couldn't save Sam from whatever it was then no-one could. They had time to fight it and Sam was stronger than he himself gave him credit for a lot of the time. He saw no reason to lose hope, not if even Mary was still believing from beyond the grave.
And if the worst came to the worst and Sam was beyond salvation when the time came…
If I can't save him, John realised with a thrill of horror, I'm gonna have to kill him. With the hunter's precision and ruthlessness he accepted the repellent thought, stored it away. In his life he knew that no course of action could be ruled out, and he could not tell what the future would bring. But for now Sam was all right, he was himself, and he was so far from what John had feared he could become that it did not bear thinking about. They had saved him this time, and surely they could do it again.
And there was always Dean, John reflected. Dean who would give his own life to save Sammy. There was always that to believe in-while Dean was alive, he knew, there would always be hope for Sam.
Well there it is, finished! Thank you so much all those who stuck with this story and reviewed it, it means so much and you're the reason I finished it, since it's the longest I've written and in places I did get very stuck with it. So thank you all!
I have a few other ideas for stories and I'll post something new in a little while, though I'm not yet sure what…hopefully before the end of the hiatus though! (And why would they do that again, just for the record-why? Anyway…)
Thanks again and take care!