While I Was Gone
K Hanna Korossy
"S'in the trunk." Dean turned on his side and struggled to swing his legs off the bed.
That was as far as he got before Sam was carefully pushing him back down. "What's in the trunk? I'll get it for you."
"Shotgun an'…" Dean's eyes lost what focus they had. "What?"
Sam sighed as he lifted Dean's feet back up onto the mattress. "Dude, you've got a concussion. Stay down, all right, or we're gonna have a repeat of lunch. Again."
"Yeah, just…" Dean braced a palm against the bed. "Gotta put th'salt…"
"I've got it, man." Sam deftly buckled the arm before Dean could push up on it. "Room's done, I promise."
"Good, s'good." Dean breathed out, then started to sit up. "Need my… Needa keep watch."
"Dean." Sam spoke with exaggerated patience and clarity. "I've got watch, all right? I've got the guns—we're safe, we're good."
Dean squinted. "S'mmy?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
Dean looked uncertain. When Sam put a preemptive hand on his chest, however, relief filtered into his eyes. Maybe he thought Sam was as insubstantial as all the threats he feared?
"Go to sleep, Dean—I've got watch."
"Doors an'…windows need…" Dean's eyes were fluttering, losing the battle even against his strong will. "Guns're… Knife…"
"I know. I've got it covered, man," Sam promised. He patted Dean's ribs lightly, grateful when his brother's eyes closed completely and stayed that way.
It was another half-minute before Dean's frown finally smoothed out and the tension in his body let go, fists loosening and shoulders sinking into the bedding. Only then did Sam remove his hand.
"God, Dean, what happened to you while I was gone?" he whispered.
Dean had always been protective and guarded. It had often been just the two of them when they were growing up, and Sam knew their dad had always tasked Dean with looking after his brother, a job Dean had taken on willingly and with utter devotion.
Still, Sam didn't remember him ever being this wary, the unconscious struggling to remain on guard even when the body was failing, an instinct so engrained that it superceded Sam's presence. How much had Dean been alone to make him this way while Sam was at school, and what had he faced then?
"I've got your back, I promise," Sam murmured to the sleeping form.
And tried not to think about what would happen when he returned to school.
The sound of the shower had grown distant, senses fading into the twilight of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. If Sam didn't get out of the bathroom soon, Dean wouldn't be awake to care. He wasn't really already, drifting, comfortable. Dreams would bring Dad and death, but right now sleep sounded so good, so enticing. The bed was soft and he was…
The bathroom door opened. Hadn't even heard the shower cut off. He should probably get up, but his eyelids felt glued in place and his body was really heavy. Maybe just lie here a little longer, just rest a few minutes 'fore a shower…
Sam's voice was so soft when it came, Dean wasn't sure he wasn't dreaming already. Just a whisper, feathery and weak.
That's all. His name. And while he dreamed of Sam screaming it, calling it, babbling it in baby tones and grumbling it in bursts of annoyance, he didn't usually conjure it in such a despairing, wrecked tone.
Before he could force his eyes open, however, hands were already ghosting over him, lifting his head enough to slide a pillow underneath, slipping his knife free, his shoes off. The blanket was soft and warm and immediately fuzzed over his already wandering thoughts.
But…Sam was tucking him in, and he'd sounded…
A creak of bedsprings and then a shaky exhale was what finally cracked the seal on Dean's crusty eyes, just enough so he could peer through his lashes at the other bed, and the figure sitting hunched on it.
Sam had been crying. His eyes were puffy and bloodshot, and there was such exhaustion in the simple motion of raising a hand to rub his face. It hit Dean like an electrical shock: Sam looked drained, old, like…like someone who'd been suffering in silence for months.
How had he missed this?
Well, that was easy to answer, at least. Dean had been so caught up in his grief for their dad, he hadn't given much thought to Sam's. He'd shut Sam down every time the kid wanted to talk about it, not able to do so himself, but consequently he'd left his brother, the only other person who had suffered the same loss, alone.
What happened to you while I was gone? He'd been aware of Sam looking after him, of taking the lead more in hunts and making sure they ate, did the laundry, got rest. During all that time, though, who'd been doing the same for Sam?
Sam gave a soft sound of resignation. He turned the light off and lay down, his back to Dean as he curled up under the covers.
I'm here. Dean couldn't say it now, knew Sam wouldn't even want him to. But Sam needed to know it. I'm here, Sammy.
It was time Dean started acting like it.
Something was going on.
Bobby had asked for Dean's help getting books out of his truck, but even Sam had seen the ruse for what it was. Watching through the window, he saw the two hadn't even made it to the truck, standing and arguing in the junkyard.
Something had happened back in Cold Oak. Something bad.
There was the memory of Jake's knife sliding into his back, and then a cold and numbness Sam had never felt before. Dean's voice, desperate and scared, fading into a black hole.
And then he'd woken up. Only a day later—Sam had checked—and he was okay except for a nasty scar on his back that looked like it was right over his spine. And Dean hadn't been sitting pale and worried by his bed. No, his brother had burst in soon after and…hugged him. Fiercely.
Then there was the way Dean kept staring at him since then. Even more so, the way Bobby had stared when they'd shown up at Singer Salvage. Like Sam had come back from the…
He shook his head, eyes burning at the very thought. No. No way. They'd seen a lot of things, skirted that edge more than once, but to actually return from the other side?
He couldn't hear what Bobby and Dean were saying, but the argument was emotional, both men looking close to tears. Bobby seemed poised between punching Dean or hugging him. When he instead gently cupped Dean's jaw, Sam looked away.
He'd been gone for a while, and he was pretty sure he knew where. But what had happened meanwhile?
Dean hadn't made that crossroads deal for their dad, even though Sam knew how much he'd wanted to. It wasn't vanity that made him think his brother would do it for him, however. Dean didn't handle alone well, and if the alone was permanent, his little brother, his mission in life, dying on him…
It was the first time Sam had let himself actually think the word, but…yeah, he was pretty sure. He had died.
And Dean hadn't carried on well without him. What did you do? What happened to you while I was gone?
Sam was absolutely certain he wouldn't like the answer. And that he'd have to do something about it.
Sam had been walking a little drunkenly, never a good sign after a head injury. But Jack the rugaru had left Dean with a nice concussion, too, so he'd been concentrating on his own two feet, trying to make sure he didn't trip on his way to the door, and let Sam worry about himself.
Sam stopped so suddenly, Dean almost ran into him. "Think I'm gonna—"
Dean didn't have to ask what, as Sam's knees cracked against the blacktop and he lurched over the planter by their room's door. The retching sounds were unmistakable.
Dean had to take a moment to steady his own head and stomach before, grimacing, he eased down next to Sam. Vomit-hair was always a problem when you were as shaggy as Sam, and it was purely for practical reasons that Dean tucked the hanging hair locks back out of Sam's face. "Got you pretty good, too, huh?"
Sam turned his head a little, moaning miserably. The kid looked like a man now, aged years in the last few months, lines and signs of wear where there hadn't been before. Tears glistened on pale cheeks.
Dean was pretty sure it wasn't just from the pain and discomfort. God, he thought numbly. What did I do to you?
Sam had tried to save Jack in part because the incipient rugaru reminded him of himself. He really thought he was a monster. And nothing Dean had done those last few months had helped him believe any differently.
Yeah, okay, bringing Sam back from the dead had been selfish; Dean got that now, could admit it and everything. Dr. Phil would be so proud. He hadn't been able to even think about another option at the time, and he certainly hadn't been thinking about a year later when he'd be gone and Sam would be alone.
But he should have. He really should have. Because besides the fact Dean had spent four months in Hell—time he couldn't remember but that haunted him in horrifying flashes and glimpses—Sam had spent four months in a world where demons and hunters alike were gunning for him, where he had abilities and a destiny he didn't understand and that terrified him, and where he had no family left to help him deal. Bobby had tried hard, Dean gave him that much, but he would never be a brother.
It had been too much to put on Sam. Would've been for anybody.
Sam choked and spit, groaning as a spasm twisted his stomach so hard, Dean could feel it through his back. He hadn't even realized he'd rested his hand on Sam. "Easy, dude. Breathe slow," he coached.
Dean rubbed gingerly along the heaving spine, rambling quietly just so Sam would hear his voice, mind running in hamster-wheel circles around his brother's despairing admissions: You were gone. I was here. I had to keep on fighting without you. Around Sam with his hand raised as he manipulated a demon, a representative of Hell imbued with Hell's powers, in a way no human should've been able to do. Around Sam's miserable, frightened, I'm a whole new level of freak! And I'm just trying to take this-this curse…and make something good out of it.
Sam coughed a few times, then raised a hand to rub shakily at his mouth. Dean dug a tissue out and handed it to him, then slipped that hand under Sam's chest to help keep him upright as he sagged. "You think you're done?" he asked carefully.
Sam gave a little moan but nodded, hand clutching on to Dean's arm as they tried to get him to his feet. For a moment, the past years were erased and he was Sammy again, the kid brother Dean had raised and loved. The one he'd promised nothing bad would ever happen to as long as he was around.
"What happened to you while I was gone, huh?" he breathed.
Sam was still coughing and hadn't heard him. But Dean already knew the answer: nothing good. They'd always been each other's conscience, each other's fail-safe. But in Dean's absence, Sam had fallen with no safety net to catch him.
"I've got you," Dean said quietly as he guided Sam up the stairs and into the room. "I'm here now."
He just hoped that would be enough.
So he'd sorta been there the last few months with Dean, but it had been him without a soul. Not that Sam remembered more than a few fragments from that time. The year before that, Dean had lived with Lisa and Ben, thinking Sam was gone for good. And during the whole time, Sam's soul had been stuck inside a cage with Lucifer and Michael and Adam, undergoing God-knew-what torture, also something Sam couldn't remember. Does a soul even have memories? Or just the remembrance of pain?
Whatever. The point was that Dean had been bounced into a grieving, surreal life of normalcy for a year, then hit the road with a pale imitation of his brother. And even though for Sam it was like Stull had just happened, that was a lot of water under the bridge for his brother. Lonely, dark and cold, painful water.
"So…tell me about the last year and a half," he finally ventured in the car. They were on their way to Rhode Island and a rash of disappearances there. It was a long trip, and Dean wasn't blasting his music like he used to. Just one of the many changes in his brother that Sam had observed.
Dean's head whipped around, an angry argument on his lips.
"No, no," Sam quickly amended, "I mean…not about me, all right? About what you were up to."
Dean unruffled a little at that, but not as much as Sam had expected. There was still wariness in his shrug, guardedness in his answer. "Not much to tell."
"C'mon, Dean," Sam smiled, "you going to barbeques and little league games and PTA meetings? That had to be freakin' weird, man."
Dean chewed over his words before he spoke them. "It was. I mean, I was dosing everybody's drinks with holy water and lined the windows with salt and kept the shotgun under the bed. But…it was kinda nice, too, you know? Settling down for a while? But still, freaky." The wistfulness was squelched as quickly as it cropped up.
Sam's playfulness vanished under the reality of what Dean had had, even if a tainted version, and what he'd lost. "Were you happy?" he asked after a moment, knowing he shouldn't but unable to shut up.
Dean gave him a surprisingly bitter look. "My brother was being tortured in Hell—what do you think?"
Sam nodded silently, turning away. He knew. A few years before, when Dean had been in Hell, not even Jess's return would've eased the horror. But to suffer that agony for a year? Trying to live as if a chunk of you wasn't dead? What happened to you while I was gone? he wondered yet again. He doubted he'd ever fully know.
"So what do we know about this case again?" Dean blurted, lamely changing the subject.
Sam let him. He would tread gently with his brother.
But they weren't done with this yet.
The case, as it turned out, was part two of a hunt his soulless self had run with "Grandpa Samuel." A revisit of the past that cracked the wall just enough for Sam to glimpse his time in Hell.
He was still pale, Dean thought as he drove like a bat out of… Whatever, Dean had desperately wanted to put Bristol in his rear view and had chivvied Sam out of there as soon as the guy could stand. Maybe he should've let Sam take a nap first. But he was just…there were too many reminders there and Dean was half afraid if Sam checked out again, he wouldn't be back.
There'd been fire in his eyes when he woke. Dean had seen it, and the stark horror and despair. He knew too well from the mirror what memories of Hell looked like on a person, and what Sam remembered had been…bad. So Dean had grabbed his brother and fled.
Trouble is, your baggage and nightmares always came with you.
Sam slept like he'd been drugged. He hadn't had any nightmares since his return as far as Dean could tell—his real return, as real, souled-up Sam—and Dean didn't know if that was Death's wall or the exhaustion of a body and mind that had gone for over a year without sleep. Whatever it was, Dean was grateful for it. He still hoped and prayed Hell wouldn't screw up Sam like it continued to do Dean.
The flame in his eyes, though… What happened to you while I was gone and you were down there? Not that he really wanted to know, but…his mind couldn't help anguished guesses. He had those nightmares for Sam.
You're here now, though. And so am I. We can beat this together. Nothing bad would happen to his little brother while Dean was around.
Sam stirred, hair smearing against the window. "What'd you say?" he mumbled, eyes still closed.
"Nothing," Dean quickly answered, wondering if he'd spoken aloud or if Sam just heard him thinking like he sometimes seemed to. "Go back to sleep—I'm here."
Sam's mouth twitched in an almost smile and he was asleep again.
Dean had no idea what they'd face next, how well the wall would hold or if he'd ever see Lisa and Ben again. But the two of them were together again, and that…that was half the fight right there.
Dean stuck a Zeppelin tape in—quietly—and kept driving west, into the sunset, Sam at his side.