6.16 …And Then There Were None tag – Safe Haven Challenge #2
Four little Soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three Little Soldier Boys
The broad shoulders tensed and even though Dean had his back to him Sam could imagine the scrunch of his brother's face, familiarity taking him back over previous roads. Resolutely, Dean turned to face him and there was no attempt to mask his feelings, no façade that needed chipped away. His eyes revealed all his guilt and pain, the weight of doing what had to be done still pulling on him. He didn't say a word, just stood there, slowly rising up to his full height, braced and ready for whatever was coming.
Nervously shifting, his own regrets hounding him, Sam took a step closer, hoping to bridge the gap. "You all right?"
Twisting his mouth as he contemplated his answer, Dean finally sighed and then his dimples twitched, his lips valiantly trying to form a confident grin. His effort was noble but misplaced. Both brothers were feeling the anxiety, the fear and the horror of what they'd done. Dean's words when they came were familiar, no thought behind them, no truth within them. "I'm good."
But the words rang hollow, his eyes betraying that he so obviously wasn't.
Bobby had barely survived. Once the thing dropped from his ear, deserting a host body that had gone limp and lifeless, they'd sprung into action, frantically untying the man who was like a father to them before shoving him to the floor and administering CPR. Pounding and praying. Breathing life back into his lungs as death stood ready to take him. The scene was like all the other moments of terror behind them, and yet unlike any other, the state he was in a direct result of their actions. Dean being the one to hold that live wire against his neck while he'd convulsed, thrashing against his bindings until his heart finally stopped beating. Sam culpable by a silent nod.
Flinching at the memory, Sam ran the back of his hand across his mouth, the taste of Bobby's sweat still lingering on his lips. The sounds of Dean pounding and cursing as he coaxed the older man's chest to accept the air being forced into his lungs still echoing in his ears. Then finally the welcome sputter as Bobby spit out a gasp and all action stopped as they waited for him to suck in another breath, free of their help, safe from the reaper.
"Dean, you had no choice," he soothed, soft and gentle, thankful that Dean had the strength to do it, strength that had taken everything they both had to follow through. Knowing Dean was right when he said that Bobby would have expected this from them didn't make it any easier. Sam was thankful, and a large part of him relieved, that Dean had saved his kid brother from making the decision or carrying out the act. Big brother assuming the responsibility of another unsavory job. "Dean?" he pleaded.
He was rewarded with the first honest words since Bobby came to. Dean finally finding his voice, the timbre tense, fracturing away in a bitter whisper as he responded. "Yeah, Sam…I know."
No choice, the only choice… A choice fraught with sacrifice. The story of their lives.
Knowing and doing are two separate things. Dean's eyes emphasized that silent truth. His eyes were distant, trapped in the harshness of what had gone down, lost in the fear of what might have been the end result. Sam wanted to look away…run away. Forget or deny, but he couldn't. Another memory was intruding, another moment when a hundred thousand volts laid claim to a Winchester. A harbinger of this tragedy, another instance where he pounded and prayed, breathing life into his brother's stilled chest.
The damage this time seemed minimal. Bobby was winded and worn down, but able to walk and talk. He didn't even require a trip to the hospital to proclaim him fit. Best of all, there was no prognosis of a few weeks to a month, no directive to get your affairs in order. No talk of burial or cremation.
Sam hated the power of electricity. Hated the harshness of their job that constantly threatened to turn the lights out on the people he loved. Hated the danger and the sacrifice and the uncertainty of when their time would be up. Hated the thought of being the last man standing, the one to dig that final grave. He'd already dug too many graves, buried too many friends. Seeing Bobby preparing to bury Rufus felt like a glimpse into his future, the solemn moment silently promising more loss to come. Inevitable…preordained. Their lives demanding it.
They had narrowly beaten the reaper this time. One heartbeat away from burying Bobby.
Just like Dean before, Bobby would have stoically nodded in agreement if his death meant stopping some unholy evil or saving some innocent. Just like Sam… But somehow it's harder to be the one left behind, worse being the one causing a loved one's demise.
"Sam?" Concern filled Dean's voice, care for his brother wrenching him out of his funk and focusing all thought on another.
Sam looked up and their eyes met, both of them reaching out, both of them taking in, both of them just needing to move past their guilt. Their bond allowing Sam to move beyond his feelings, united in one more fight. One deep inhale and he settled his thoughts. "Yeah, Dean." The silent question screamed out and Sam had no desire to make Dean wait any longer. "I'm okay." He quickly added, "Bobby's okay." All the compassion Dean possessed was there on the surface, locked in sensitive eyes, awaiting his own release. "It was close, but he's fine," Sam insisted, half to convince his brother, half to convince himself.
"Yeah…yeah…" Dean still seemed lost, searching, his mind wandering. Sam knew as much as Dean professed to being a guns-blazing, 'rush in and take no prisoners' kind of guy, he felt deeply. Felt pain, guilt, regret. Emotions capable of destroying a hunter if not controlled or contained. Dean always needed time to sort it all out, bury the pain and focus on the meager victory.
The toll was heavy, unbearable for most men, but not Winchesters. That was their job…their lives, to make the hard decisions and act on the impossible choices. What they couldn't rationalize or forgive, they shoved down deep, hoping the inevitable eruption somewhere down the line wouldn't eventually destroy them.
The weight of their lives normally didn't show. Dean being the champ at hiding his pain, with levity and that rare ability to grab hold of anything good he could find to mute the turmoil. Sam leaned on his brother, finding whatever joy he could in seeing Dean enjoying life as best he could. Without Dean, Sam had a tendency to wallow in his pain, to allow it to soak through his life, saturating his thoughts with gloom and doom.
It had occurred to him more than once that Dean's casual breeze through disaster was a direct result of his need to protect his kid brother. To convince him they were safe in their youth and to assure him they would persevere as they grew older and the threat grew more imminent.
As a general rule, Dean was the cheerleader and Sam was the one needing cheering up. At least that's how it had seemed until Dad died and big brother's wall finally showed the first signs of age. A noticeable turn and then the telling crack in his defenses that allowed Sam to see for the first time the pressure Dean functioned under. Since those first devastating tears the axis had subtly shifted to where they each took turns caring for the other. Each brother bearing the pain and each applying the balm as needed. As partners in the struggle, they watched each other's backs and were there in support when the toll threatened to undo them.
This time they both needed the comfort and they both tried their best to put aside their own pain and soothe their brother. It was just…this was Bobby, the last of their family beyond themselves. Sam looked up with softly glazing eyes and wondered if either of them would be able to move past this and pull their brother through. This time it felt like it was too much, that maybe neither could do more than simply bury it for another day.
Just hearing his gravelly voice seemed to perk up the brothers. They both turned and hesitant smiles breached their faces, their pain cast aside for a moment as they rejoiced in the figure standing before them.
Neither said a word, instead silently gaping.
"You done good," was what he next said. Words desperately sought out in other times, but somehow seeming hollow now, after what they'd actually done.
Dean squared his shoulders and moved forward, directly into the fray with the intent of taking the first bullet. "Bobby, we almost killed you," he rasped out, disgust undisguised within his condemnation, his piercing green eyes punctuating the point.
Ready for battle, Bobby spat back his retort, "This is war, son. You done what you had to do." He took three steps toward Dean, close enough to reach out and touch him if he wanted to. His gaze was intense, his words firm. "I was awake, you know. I heard when you said it was what I'd expect of you." He paused, letting that revelation sink in before he continued, his tone demanding attention, if not obedience. "That was the truth. You knew it then, in the heat of battle… Don't you go second-guessing yourselves now."
Stepping forward, aligned beside his brother, Sam tried to navigate the minefield they appeared trapped within. "Bobby, there's a difference between knowing the right thing and doing it... Seeing you stop breathing…" He choked up, the panic revisiting him, the image of both Bobby and Dean lying still stealing all focus. His mind relived the warmth of their skin beneath his lips as the cold gripped his guts, the sudden flashback to breathing life into each of them overwhelming him for an instant.
"I know, Sam…I know." Bobby raked his hand down his face, scratching at the beard on his chin.
Sam found himself fixating on his mustache, on the lingering image of black residue that had been there as the thing seeped from his pores. Bobby was all cleaned up now, looking as good as he could after a near-death experience and yet the picture still rattled about in Sam's head. "I just wish…"
Bobby and Dean both turned to stare at him, both curious, both waiting.
Time seemed to still, the weight bearing down until Bobby finally spoke. "You wish what, Sam?"
"Nothin'," he softly released. The eyes upon him never strayed, the intense concern beating him down and pushing him to reveal more. He staggered from the impact, from the need to let it all out. As the silence grew heavier he found he not only needed but wanted to expel some of his doubts, lay them out in the open and hope that his family could pull together and get past this. "It's just…"
"What, Sam?" Dean was standing firm beside him, the same lost look on his face, the same weight bearing down.
"This job…losing Rufus…watching Gwen die." He looked to Dean, tender now as he circled around the next comment. "And Samuel… Dean, I know he betrayed us, but he was still family…still Mom's dad. And I killed him."
"Sammy, he was possessed. He would have killed us all."
"I know…It's not like I don't know I had to do it." He gazed with sensitive eyes upon his brother, relieved that it had been him instead of Dean, thankful that the kill was in defense instead of vengeance. That small difference making it palatable. Making it something they could live with.
Bobby eased forward, his gruff features softening as his voice turned mellow. "It's a hard job, but you boys know that." He stood before them, his presence a reminder of how closely they had tread, how narrowly they'd managed to keep the score even between the monsters and the hunters. Three dead, with three alive to do battle another day. Referring to the carnage, all the dead killed by their own hands, each of them responsible for another hunter dying, although none could place blame except upon themselves, Bobby plainly stated, "Sam, you're not responsible for what this monster did, or for killing it and taking Samuel down with it. It had to be done." The weariness of his tone was evident, the weight of his life clear. He sucked in another breath, taking the time to slowly exhale before continuing. "This was some F'd up crap and we're lucky we made it out. Eve and her Khan worm played a hell of a game on us. Hell, even Samuel wasn't responsible for what he did while it was up in him….just like Dean and I aren't for Rufus and Gwen."
Looking to the ground Dean flinched ever so slightly when Bobby referred to Gwen. He was smart enough to know it wasn't him that pulled the trigger, wasn't him that killed a fellow hunter. That doesn't mean it doesn't leave a mark on you, a tender spot beneath the hardened exterior.
Bobby voiced what they all knew. "This is war and sometimes you gotta do things you don't want to do." He sucked down another deep breath, expelling further truth. "Things that gotta be done."
Looking pensive for a minute, like he was truly considering the esoteric implications, Dean turned back to the fundamentals, the raw truth of what they'd done. He addressed Bobby, firm voice demanding a response. "So, you'dve done the same to me? To Sam?" His brows arched in doubt, his mouth twisted in repulsion for what he'd done to his friend.
Bobby hesitated, his inability to respond his answer. And maybe that's where the greater hurt came in, the doubt that he'd have been so ruthless with them. The fear that he'd have sacrificed all to try and save them.
Dean's smirk was off-angle and sad. "Yeah, I thought so." He sunk back, back into himself and his recriminations, closing his eyes to the images constantly playing out in his mind.
"You're wrong, Dean." He waited, waited for Dean to open his eyes and gaze on him, waited for his full attention before proceeding. "It's just…"
"What?" Both brothers responded simultaneously, a side glance noting the dynamic.
Bobby's voice was soft and mournful, weary from the ages. "I've done it. You forget, I killed my wife not just once, but twice."
"Bobby, I'm sorry…" The words came out broken, the stricken look on Dean's face mirroring the hurt, the regret, the constant unrelenting weight.
"No. Don't you go apologizing to me…for that or this." Tender eyes misted, the truth revealed within. That fatherly pride and care shimmering as he gazed upon his family, all he had left in this world. "Let's just move on. Can you boys do that?"
There was a pause as the wall went up, that fortress strong enough to withstand the pressures brought to bear locking back into place. "Yeah…it's what we've always done." Dean again rose up, the set of his jaw showing his determination and strength...his glistening eyes tenderly showing all his love and the hurt still trapped within.
It didn't take long to bury Rufus. The brothers dug the grave in silence. The ritual simple and fitting. Those who cared already there, the shared moment bringing a certain peace, all a soldier dare ask for. The finality of it only deepened their feelings, still on edge but easing into the groove of what had become commonplace.
Another loss, another challenge to find the means to go on.
Dean's words brought comfort. He was good at that, offering forgiveness whether warranted or not. Saying that they'd all made mistakes and when all was said and done, none of it mattered. Nothing mattered except forgiveness. That was Dean, that's what family meant.
Sam again felt safe standing there beside his brother.
They left Bobby at the grave to say his final goodbyes, the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue in hand.
Their wait for his return to their motel room was brief. The bottle was still more than three-quarters full, clutched in his hand as Bobby entered the room. Wordlessly he retrieved three plastic wrapped disposable cups out of the bathroom before motioning the boys over to the table by the door. He unwrapped the cups, lining them up on the table and solemnly filling them full before setting the bottle down on the table with a dull thud.
"The good stuff?" Dean asked, his brows quirking over attentive eyes, watching and waiting.
Bobby pulled out a chair and sat down, nodding to the two other chairs, empty and waiting at the small table. He wrapped his fingers around one of the cups and raised it, the solemn toast silent. His eyes rose to the Winchester brothers and a dozen emotions were reflected there. The one he settled on was love. He pulled in a breath and smiled. "Better to share it with the living."
All standard disclaimers apply.
I was surprised the boys walked away and left Bobby to drink alone with Rufus. My mind kept going back to the M*A*S*H episode where Colonel Potter gets delivery of the bottle of liquor after his last war buddy dies. He was the last survivor in their tontine pact. War is constant lost, but it is also shared experiences and camaraderie. And saying good-bye while treasuring those you still have.
Here's to Rufus. We'll miss you, you ornery cuss.
Thanks for reading, take care, B.J.