When It Counted Most
AN: I've been so blown away by the feedback for this. You guys are amazing. Hope you enjoy the ending.
They made it back to the motel in record time, even by Dean's standards. Sam found himself almost a little disappointed in this town's police force. This was an emergency circumstance which would might have been pardoned if they had been pulled over by any traffic cops, but the fact that they hadn't made Sam wonder if any old idiot could rip through the main avenue of this town at all hours of the night doing god-knows-how-many-miles over the speed limit. If it didn't hurt to talk, he probably would've informed Dean that getting them both arrested or killed by driving like a moron wasn't going to help the situation much. Not that it would've done any good. Sam was a little surprised that Dean, in his haste, was even able to brake in the parking space in time to keep the Impala from ramming straight through the wall of their motel room.
Oh, and he couldn't sit up anymore, either.
He could already tell it was going to be a great night.
And to think it was only ten or so. Often, even smooth and successful salt-and-burns could take until four or five in the morning. But because that this one had been in the middle of nowhere, they hadn't had to wait for the cover of night before the carrying out the not-so-socially-acceptable practice of grave desecration, as there wasn't anybody around to see. They had even done a good portion of the digging before the sun went down, despite the brevity of the fall daylight.
It was totally bizarre to Sam that they'd first left this same motel room only hours before, given all that had happened tonight. It literally felt like days ago, at least. It was as though his entire perception of time since McAllister had knocked him down had been weirdly warped. Yeah, it was clichéd, but that whole pain-turns-minutes-into-hours thing? Yeah, it was pretty accurate.
And the other funny thing was, regardless of how damned long it felt, the pain part of it was really the only thing that he would later remember clearly from this night. The rest of it, especially the events after their return to the motel, would be fuzzy. Of course, it helped that he'd be doped up on painkillers for a good part of the evening.
But the sensation of simultaneously having his back being torn wide open from behind and of being skewered through the middle? That was what he'd remember with cruel clarity.
He remembered opening the car door as soon as Dean parked it and falling heavily onto the asphalt. He remembered dragging himself across said pavement and throwing up in the half-wilted marigold bushes growing by the motel door, holding his stomach against the near blinding pain there. And he remembered Dean scrambling to hold him up so he didn't fall facefirst into the dying, puke-coated flowers.
At some point, when Sam had finished and Dean was attempting to help him stand, a middle-aged woman who was staying two doors down from them, and who'd apparently heard the sounds of retching, poked her head out of her room.
"Is he alright?" She looked over at Sam, her penciled eyebrows knit in confusion and concern.
"Uh, yeah," Dean lied effortlessly, patting Sam's shoulder in a patronizing manner. "He just did one too many shots, is all. Bad breakup, you know how it goes. He'll be fine."
Sam halfheartedly turned up to glare at him. As convincing and necessary a lie as that might be, Sam still didn't appreciate it.
The woman frowned. "Oh." Suddenly she looked a whole lot less sympathetic.
"But thanks anyway," Dean grunted as he hauled Sam up from under his armpits. "Have a good night."
"You do the same," she said dubiously, retreating into her room and shutting the door a little harder than necessary.
"Can you walk?" Dean asked Sam once he was finally on his feet.
"Uh…" Sam took a step forward, but his knees buckled.
"Whoa, okay, okay—" Dean caught him before his knees hit the ground and slung his arm around his own shoulders, standing him back up. "You coulda just said no, dude. You didn't need to demonstrate for me."
"Bite me…" Sam muttered.
"Yeah, you wish," Dean chuckled halfheartedly, dragging Sam toward the door and fishing the room's keycard out of his pocket. "Alright, champ, let's get you inside."
And the next thing Sam knew he was lying on his stomach on a bed, his face buried in a pillow that smelled like an ashtray, teeth gritted and eyes screwed shut against the sensation of being gutted. His hands found the sides of the headboard and he held on so hard his fingers ached and his arms trembled. Dean had gone back out to the car to grab something.
When he heard the door open and shut, he managed to turn his head to look. Dean had come back in, lugging their huge bag crammed full of random first aid stuff, sick supplies, and meds. He hefted it onto his own bed. "Hey," he said when he noticed Sam watching him. "How're you holdin' up?"
"Never better," he said with a shaky attempt at a grin.
"No, I mean it, Sammy." He frowned and sat down on his bed. "How bad is it?"
"Could be worse." Part of him knew that evasion was just going to dig him a deeper hole than he was already in. But he ignored that part.
Dean's eyes narrowed. "Just cut that out, okay? You're not foolin' anybody." He sat down on his own bed facing Sam, scrutinizing him. "You look like hell. And honestly, Sam, you haven't done one damn thing to convince me that I was wrong saying I should take you to the hospital."
Sam heaved a sigh, then winced when his body protested said sigh. Right. Shallow breaths. "So they can do what, Dean?" he asked tightly. "Treat a wound that doesn't exist?"
"No, but they can make sure it's not gonna come back!" Dean snapped, and then looked a bit startled, as though he hadn't meant to voice this fear at all.
More than a bit stunned, Sam said nothing. Not that he thought it was very likely, but somehow hearing Dean admit it made it sound like a very real, terrible possibility that he hadn't really considered.
Dean looked down and muttered, "Look, Sammy, I'm not saying that's gonna hap—"
"'S okay," Sam said quietly. Dean met his eyes again. He looked miserable.
Sam hated himself for the next words that came out of his mouth, but they were true. "But if it does come back," he said slowly, "what are they going to do about it?"
Dean blinked once. He looked as though Sam had just slapped him. A second later, he looked away, cleared his throat, and started rifling through the first aid bag. "Yeah, well…whatever, let's just get you situated here and then I'm gonna call Bobby, see what he thinks."
"Okay." Sam closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, Dean had managed to get Sam's coat and shoes off of him and had heated up the two heating pads they owned in the room's microwave for him. Best investment they'd ever made, buying an extra heating pad—they had long since realized that, after hunts where they both ended up getting their asses handed to them, taking turns with one heating pad wasn't going to cut it. Sam now had one tucked under his stomach and one sitting on his back, an ACE bandage wrapped loosely around him to keep them in place. Though the heat helped a bit, he was still biting his bottom lip hard, clutching at the headboard for dear life, and only vaguely aware of the hushed, panicked tones of Dean on the phone. He'd flat-out refused to give Sam any painkillers until he'd checked with Bobby first.
"So, good news," Dean announced some time later, tossing his phone down onto his bed. Sam looked up at him blearily, trying to make his eyes focus. "There's a—" but he trailed off once he got a good look at Sam. "Aw, Sammy…"
"What?" Sam asked, but that was when he noticed that his face was wet. "Oh…" he laughed weakly, embarrassed, and let go of the headboard with one hand to mop up tears. "…Fuck."
Dean smiled sadly, then reached over and patted his arm. "It's okay, dude. You get a free pass."
"So what's the good news then?" Sam asked quickly. "Do I get to take anything?" he added hopefully.
Dean grimaced. "Yeah, I guess. I'm still not crazy about the idea when we don't know what's up with you yet, but Bobby seemed to think that they'd just dope you up if we got you to the hospital anyway, so why not."
Relieved, Sam grinned. "Remind me to get Bobby a friggin' fruit basket. What do we have?"
"We got some stuff left over from when I had to get all those stitches back in Tuscaloosa. I was loopy for days on those… But you need to drink a ginger ale or something first, 'cause you got no food in your system. I think we got some in the bag here. Sound good?"
"Yeah, I bet. In other news, Bobby's getting in touch with somebody two states over from us. We're gonna sit tight a few days and he'll come to us, okay? This guy's pretty used to making house calls to hunters, and he charges, but the fee's nothing we can't handle. Bobby says he's a good guy."
"Must be, coming on such short notice," Sam agreed, but he wondered just what this guy was going to think when he found out that all this was caused by dealings with demons. But hey, an uncomfortable truth to somebody who might help was better than a flat out lie to somebody who was bound to be useless anyway. "Hey, couId I get some of those painkillers now?"
Dean frowned, obviously torn between his doubts about giving extremely strong drugs to someone with unexplained symptoms, and his desire to see Sam in less pain.
"Look, it's not gonna kill me. I've taken some strong stuff when this happened before, and it helped, and it worked. I'll be fine." He tried to prop himself up on an elbow.
Dean snorted. "Fine, huh? You know, it's freaking hilarious how many times you've used that word tonight…" He turned and fished around in the first aid bag for a few seconds, and then gave up, dumping its entire contents onto the bed. He grabbed a pill bottle and a sure-to-be-flat can of ginger ale, set them on the bedside table, and then sat down carefully next to Sam, helping him pivot onto his side and then sit up enough to drink the ginger ale. "Don't puke this up, okay?" he muttered, opening the can and pressing it into Sam's hand. Sam felt sort of faint from being propped up, even with a bunch of pillows stacked under him. All those rubber bands fired off sickeningly all at once as he tried to readjust himself into a sitting position, but he gulped and nodded. Fortunately, Dean apparently sensed this and didn't let go of the can, and helped him drink a bit from it.
Once he was apparently satisfied that Sam wasn't going to spew ginger ale all over the both of them, it seemed that Dean couldn't refrain from asking the question Sam knew had been on the tip of his tongue all night. Even worse, he was doing it when Sam was too busy trying to keep ginger ale down to properly defend his side of the argument.
"So…" Dean began. "This has been happening for…how long now?" Dean was feigning casualness, but Sam could hear the barely-contained anger behind the words.
"Since when do you think?" Sam muttered through a clenched jaw. Breathe…just breathe…in through your nose, out through your mouth, in through your nose…not gonna barf, not gonna barf…
"You wanna tell me why the fuck you never mentioned it?" Dean slammed the can down on the bedside table.
"Can I just have the pills, Dean?" Sam asked wearily.
"Tell me why, Sam."
"Do we have to do this now?"
"Yeah, we do. 'Cause you keeling over in the middle of a hunt like that? You could've easily gotten yourself killed tonight. Killed, Sam. You better have a damn good explanation as to why you let something like this go and didn't think it was important enough to mention to me." His voice was low and quiet, and if it weren't for the desperation in Dean's eyes, he'd have almost bought that the trembling in his voice was from rage.
"Because you'd react exactly like this," Sam said, exasperated. "And what good would it do? Hell, what good's it doing now? I figured if they're gonna screw with me every once in awhile, that's not your fault, so you shouldn't have to deal with it. Didn't see the point."
Dean shook his head. "And what about now? God, just look at yourself. If you'd told me earlier, we coulda looked into it, and maybe we coulda nipped this in the bud way before it got out of hand. It was stupid, Sam."
Sam wrapped an arm around his stomach as it gave a nasty throb. "Yeah, well, who's calling who stupid?" He hadn't meant to say it, but boy, did he mean it. Which one of us traded their soul to a demon here?
No elaboration was needed; Dean understood perfectly what he meant. He shook his head. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't even."
"Why?" Sam demanded, feeling belligerent in spite of himself. If Dean wanted to have this conversation, fine. Might as well make it one hell of a conversation.
"Sam, drop it."
"Yes." He popped open the pill bottle and slipped a few pills into Sam's hand. "Take your pills." Scowling, Sam nevertheless put them in his mouth, and let Dean help him take another drink of the ginger ale to swallow them. He let Dean lay him back down on the bed.
Dean sat down opposite him, arms crossed.
"Alright, Sam. You want me to stop bitching about you not telling me, then you better drop it about the deal. Got it?"
Sam glowered, but muttered a reluctant, "Got it."
For now, anyways.
It didn't take a ton of time after that for the pills to kick in, and Sam stopped being all that responsive after that. But even then, it took awhile for him to finally get to sleep. He drifted in and out of consciousness for awhile, restless, muttering to himself every now and then and staring into space in the general direction of Dean's knee. Dean himself was still seated on the opposite bed, feeling so damned helpless at the sight of those lines of pain that seemed a permanent fixture on Sam's face.
Dean was half tempted to take advantage of Sam's drugged state to haul him out of bed and into the car, and finally get his stupid, stubborn ass to the hospital. But every time he got up to do it, Sam's words from earlier always came back to bite him like an annoying little gnat and made him sit right back down: And tell them what? The truth?
It wasn't until Sam was finally, finally asleep, at maybe 1 or so, that a knot somewhere in Dean's chest that he hadn't even been aware of loosened. Well, at least now the hospital decision was made for him. And Sam wasn't awake to be hurting anymore, either, thank God.
But staring at the spot where the heating pad was affixed over the scar, another fear settled over him, like ice in the pit of his stomach. He stood up, walked around to the far side of Sam's bed, and sat down. Sam didn't stir. He carefully slid the rapidly cooling heating pad out from beneath the ACE bandage and lifted the bandage itself so he could look beneath it.
No blood. He let out a breath he didn't even realize he'd been holding.
Gingerly, he laid his hand over the bandage and shook his head. "You're a moron," he informed his unconscious brother. And you better wake up.
Dean got up and started pacing, suddenly restless. He thought wistfully of the pack of cigarettes he'd left in the glove compartment. Technically he didn't smoke, or didn't used to anyways, at least not since he was a teenager. But he'd kind-of-sort-of picked up the habit again over this past summer. And Sam, apparently still determined to let Dean do whatever the hell he wanted before he kicked the bucket, hadn't said anything about it, as long as he didn't do it in the car or motel, and kept all his opinions about coping mechanisms or whatever he'd called it as a know-it-all teenager to himself.
Wouldn't take him long to blow through a pack. He needed to get out of the room. The weight of the entire situation was stifling, and he needed a reprieve, however short. Because he couldn't shake the terrible feeling that somehow, this was his fault. After all, it wasn't like that demon had promised to keep Sam intact after bringing him back. Hell, that'd probably be her idea of a great joke, wouldn't it? Taking Dean's soul and then screwing him over in the process. But he wouldn't watch Sam die all over again, he couldn't. And if he had to, there was no two ways about it. He'd put a bullet through his own head, let the bastards have him a few months ahead of schedule.
And to cap it all off, to think that Sam hadn't said a word about any of this because he didn't want to upset him. At the very least, if there was anything to convince him that Sam hadn't come back "different" like Yellow Eyes had claimed, it was that.
Even if it didn't explain the coldness with which he now approached the hunt, the seeming loss of those shades of gray that, while annoying, had always kept Sam more human in the midst of a hunt than anybody Dean had ever known. He'd seen him shoot Jake. And Casey. And if it was anybody but Sam who'd shot them, he'd have used the term "in cold blood."
But then again, that could just fueled by desperation. Or by rage that God knew he was justified in feeling. He hadn't come back wrong. He hadn't.
God, he needed some air…
At any rate, he figured Sam was okay for right now, as long as he stood in the doorway. So without bothering to throw his coat on, he left the room, frowned at the smell of vomit that still hung in the air outside despite the chill, and retrieved the cigarettes, as well as a lighter from his pocket. Sitting on the hood of the car, he lit the first one up and was about to raise it to his lips when a voice from out of nowhere nearly made him drop it.
"Those are bad for you, you know."
He wheeled around.
"Who-" He stared at her for a second, then realized who it probably was based on Bobby's and Sam's descriptions-a petite blonde- though he hadn't seen her in person yet. His insides seethed at the realization. "Ruby."
"Pleasure." She was standing about ten feet from the car, hands in her pockets, watching him. She was staring pointedly at the cigarette.
"Yeah, well, not exactly thinking long term here," he said, tossing the cigarette down and snuffing it out with his shoe.
"Oh no, don't stop on my account," she said, throwing her hands up and taking a step closer. "The girl I'm wearing's a smoker. She likes it. Makes her feel all warm and fuzzy inside."
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Actually, you know what? Never mind. I don't care what you're doing here, as long as you get the hell out. Now."
"Make me." She smirked. "Not so tough when you left all your weapons in the room, are you, hotshot?"
"What do you want?" he growled.
"Look," she said, putting a hand on her hip. "You don't need to get snarky with me, okay? I'm here because I know what's wrong with Sam."
And there it was again, that eerie, paranoid feeling that trickled down his spine whenever Ruby indicated that she seemed to know exactly where they were and what they were up to, all the freaking time.
But still, if she knew something…
Not that he trusted her as a reliable source. That wasn't it at all.
"Oh, well then by all means," he drawled. "Please, share with the rest of the class."
She rolled her eyes, then gestured at the pack of cigarettes. "Here, gimme one of those."
"No," he said dryly.
She raised her eyebrows. "Fine."
She made a face. "Geez, wouldn't kill you to be polite. Alright, tell me," she said, planting a hand on her hip. "What town were you in for the hunt before this one?"
"You tell me," he muttered.
She frowned. "Alright, be that way. How long were you in Maple Springs, then?"
"What's it to you?"
She ignored that. "Did Sam disappear on you at all while you were up there?"
"Answer the question, dumbass."
"Oh yeah, I like you already." But Dean lit up another cigarette and thought, too drained to really argue with her anymore. "Uh…he took off by himself for awhile, the last night we were there. Came back with dinner for us. Figured he went off driving for a bit, I don't know. Cases with kids can get to you sometimes. Why?"
"Because this is insurance, that's why."
"What do you mean?"
She took a few steps closer. "You ever think that maybe this is Hell's sicko way of reminding Sam not try to welch out on the deal?"
"Oh." The second cigarette fell from his fingers.
But still, that meant… "So, they're not gonna kill him?"
"No, they're not."
"How do you know? Thought a bunch of 'em saw him as some big rival-antichrist-type, and would be dying for any excuse to pick him off. Seems like a contract with some shitty fine print would do the job for them."
"Well yeah, but they wouldn't do it. Not this way."
"How do you know?"
She sat up on the hood of the car. Dean was too distracted to protest. "Remember the terms? They gave you a year. One year, to spend with Sam. Right?"
"Right. So, sneaky bastards or no, demons can't renege on their own pacts."
"Says the rules, Einstein. We're all bound to them, whether we want to be or not."
Dean shook his head. "I don't buy that."
Ruby scoffed. "Have it your way, then. But keep this in mind. Demons? We're arrogant. All of us. Think of it as a fatal flaw. So if some demon with a superiority complex wants the great Sam Winchester's head on a plate, trust me, they're not gonna fall back on something as subtle and underhanded as a bad deal to get the job done. They'd rather rip his guts out with their bare hands, make themselves look all macho."
Yeah, that sounded like a demon all right. "I'm still not seeing what this has to do with Maple Springs, though."
"Did you consider that maybe he did something drastic, something that pissed people off in high places? Or, uh, low places, as the case may be, and now he's paying for it?"
"Drastic? Like what?" Drastic sure sounded like Sam alright. For better or worse, he never did anything halfway, did he…
Ruby crossed her arms. "Like, say, shooting your crossroads demon in the face?"
"What?" Dean spluttered. "No. When?"
"Back in Maple Springs," she said, pushing herself up off the car.
"No," he repeated, but a sinking feeling in his gut suggested otherwise. Sam would, wouldn't he.
"Checked the Colt recently?"
Dean said nothing.
Ruby shrugged. "Fine. Obviously we're not getting anywhere here, so I'll go." She started to walk away, but she turned on her heel and looked back at him. "Listen. You did the right thing, calling your friend Bobby. Get him a doctor, get him some meds. He'll be fine. Just make sure he doesn't do anything else this stupid, 'cause next time there'll be spinal fluid leaking out of his ears."
"Now if we're gonna get you out of this deal, we're gonna have to do it much more carefully than this. Tell him that. Got it? Good."
And then she was gone.
It was hours before he finally worked up the nerve to actually check the Colt—nearly dawn, right when Sam's medicine was just beginning to wear off.
He figured if he was gonna do it, he'd better do it before Sam actually woke. So, telling himself that he was just going to clean the weapons, and that he was not doing it because he believed a thing that skank had told him, he finally popped open the chamber of the Colt and dumped the bullets out into his hand. One…two…
Damn it, Sam.
Sure enough, one was gone.
He swore, set the Colt aside, and sat down on the edge of Sam's bed. Sam shifted slightly, forehead scrunching.
And the kicker? He couldn't even bring himself to be all that angry.
Feeling a headache coming on, Dean pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "Sam, you stupid idiot…"
He heard rustling and a soft moan.
Dean looked down. Sam was blinking up at him, eyes unfocused and glazed over by sleep and pain and drugs. "Dean?" he managed, but it came out sounding more like Dnnn? "Wha—"
"Nothing, Sammy." He sighed and reached down to ruffle Sam's hair. "Just go back to sleep, okay?"
There'd be plenty of time to talk later, chew him out for being stupid and reckless and obstinate...
And Sam. Not a killer, he reminded himself. Not changed. Not a killer, not by nature, but a desperate, fiercely loyal and scared-to-death little brother, who couldn't get it through his thick head that Dean's already damned soul wasn't worth the risks he was taking. And Dean couldn't say that he wouldn't have gone after the crossroads demon and put a bullet through her brain, innocent girl notwithstanding, a long time before now if he'd been in Sam's place. The terrifying extremities he himself knew that he would go to to protect somebody he loved had never surprised him-he'd accepted them a long time ago. What took him aback was seeing Sam willing to do the exact same for him.
Yeah, there'd be time to talk about this.
But not now.
Careful not to jostle Sam, Dean kicked his shoes off, leaned back against the headboard, and shut his eyes.