A/N: Many, many thanks for sticking by me with this one. Never WIPing again. I can't hack it. I like a regular posting schedule, and the guilt has been eating me alive. Thanks to all the reviews, alerts and favs. Also thanks to LdyAnne, who is responsible for all of the good stuff in this fic, and none of the bad.
Deja Vu All Over Again
"I like the water. The sound of it is very soothing." The man half-turned, spread his right arm out. "Don't you like water?"
"You know, I really do," Tony said, and his voice rang hollow in his own ears.
"I'll bet it's nice in there. Why don't you go on in?"
Tony wasn't sure how they'd gotten under the pier. He wasn't sure of anything but the lapping of water against the rough shoreline and the overwhelming urge to walk into the sea. So, that was exactly what he did. The water was icy, bit into his ankles, then his calves. At knee level, he gasped and took a step back instead of forward, confused to find himself in the water.
"Let it wash over you," someone told him. "Let it numb you."
His legs moved, even as his brain fumbled for clarity. Numb was good, easy. Tony wanted that. He sloshed forward, hands falling to his sides. Something clattered, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered except submerging into the cool, dark water, breathing it in. It was ice in his lungs. Everything was gloomy, dim and he couldn't see right. He felt pressure all around, then nothing.
Tony came awake, coughing and groaning. Intense weight in his chest, the ozone tang of pure oxygen snaking into his lungs, warmed but still somehow foreign, difficult to take. Strident ringing, shouts. Hands everywhere, voices telling him to breathe through it. Keep breathing, DiNozzo, keep breathing. He had to, so he did. Blue light, antiseptic smell. Kate's voice. He wasn't where he had been, and he was so confused. He didn't remember being moved. He didn't remember where he'd been and he didn't know where he was now. Here was years ago, and that wasn't possible. Kate was dead and he did not have the plague. He closed his eyes.
"Tony, listen to me," Gibbs whispered in his ear, sounding awfully real. "You listening? You will not die."
"I got you, Boss," Tony choked out.
Deep in his throat, Tony tasted blood and mucus and he was sure he was going to die despite the promise. He instinctively turned to his side as he coughed weakly, his body preparing to expel unwanted substances.
"No, you don't," someone told him.
It was Gibbs again. It was real and Gibbs was there. Gibbs was always there, like the security blanket he'd had until he was the embarrassing age of ten. When he was ten and his father was around for an extended stay (for him, that was two weeks), the blanket had disappeared. Even then, he'd known he was too old for it, but he missed it anyway and the comfort he got from it he didn't get from anywhere else. His father never mentioned it, but Tony knew he'd taken it. Probably burned it.
"I'm not going to disappear on you, DiNozzo. I can't guarantee I'll always be here. Not even I can live forever, but now that we do believe in spooks, well, maybe forever isn't out of the question…"
Tony cracked an eye to check if his boss had cracked. He understood the words, but they made little sense. Nothing did. He didn't know what happened, the dreams lingering in his head, one too real and one … he hadn't gone into the water recently, it was oh, oh, he had, of course he had. The lines around Gibbs' eyes were deep, ravines of concern. For him. Okay, that was kind of nice, a positive to combat the memories trickling into his sluggish brain about supposedly dead, mostly evil or something Winchesters and monsters that looked like Average Joes, hiding a sick hunger for human flesh. He shivered, though his skin was overly warm and tight.
"Don't joke about that," Tony croaked. "You're scary enough in the flesh and blood."
Gibbs relaxed a little bit, the concern not leaving his eyes completely, but he did smile in that way that was both amused and shark-like. He'd probably enjoy the hell out of incorporeally headslapping Tony for being a smartass.
"You with us for good this time, DiNozzo?"
Déjà vu, again.
"Sure, Boss. With you." Tony sounded like he wasn't with anything, but there wasn't much to do about that. His lungs ached. He could tell he was still pretty sick, which meant he'd been really, very sick not that long ago. "How long?"
"Almost a full week. You took in a lot of filthy water, and apparently you skipped your flu shot this year. That's a recipe for disaster, right there."
Tony closed his eyes again, tight. Bits and pieces, more fragmented than the dream that pulled him awake had been, came to him. It was a mix of hospital delirium, swirled faces and medicalese, and there. The cave. The monster. Winchester keeling face first, having no choice but to leave him. Finding his weapons, killing the monster. A terrified little girl with hair that smelled like honey and seaweed as he carried her to freedom. He knew now why it felt like an anvil sat on his chest, but for a second he swore he could feel her little legs wrapped around him, her arms pulled tight around his neck.
He only realized he was hyperventilating when steady hands affixed a mask to his face, straps tugging at his hair. Tony opened his eyes and saw blurry faces above, none of them Gibbs. Hospital staff. Okay, okay, he was okay. He knew the drill, took shallow breaths (all he could manage) and waited for them to be done poking, prodding and prognosticating his prognosis. It seemed to take forever, but then, it was also over fast. They left him weak as a kitten and barely holding onto consciousness, with orders to keep talking to a minimum for the next day or two.
That went promptly out the window when Gibbs resumed his seat on the chair next to Tony's bed.
"Why does that shit always happen to me?" Tony moaned and looked at Gibbs. "Tired of waking up in a hospital."
"That was … you remember it all."
Tony stared at Gibbs, unblinking. The mask obscured his view a bit, but he wasn't going to move it. No need to piss off the nurses; been there, done that, got the sponge bath with a nurse who'd surely dunked her hands in ice water first.
Gibbs pursed his lips. Somehow, Gibbs knew everything. That was what that look was. Tony didn't know how Gibbs knew. He decided now wasn't the time to bother asking. He himself didn't remember a whole lot beyond stumbling through dark tunnels, having chosen a direction opposite to where the Nix had consistently entered. It had seemed prudent to not go that way. The last time, it had come in with a mostly dead little girl.
"Safe, healthy and at home," Gibbs said.
"Good. 's good," Tony said. He thought about adjusting the mask, which was digging into his cheeks, but couldn't raise a hand. "Winchester?"
"Don't know for sure." Gibbs stood, massaged the back of his neck. "By the time we got you and the girl help, there wasn't a trace of them. All that was left was the one poor bastard that didn't make it, trophies of thirty other victims and the dead … serial killer. "
If Gibbs found that disturbing, his expression didn't reveal it.
"Jesus." Thirty? He didn't understand how something could have killed so many, unchecked. Tony did, however, understand what Gibbs was telling him. The image of the Nix with a hole in the middle of its forehead flashed in Technicolor, the scent of gunpowder sharp. No regret there, only satisfaction. "That's some … serial killer."
"Yep. You did the only thing you could. Heroic, they're saying in the papers."
Flattery would normally trip all his triggers, but Tony knew he hadn't done much; he'd shot a man…thing when it was already down. He also knew he'd be deader than dead right now if not for Sam Winchester, the mentally brokedown pseudomonster who had terrorized his dreams for over a year and made him paranoid about things most people did not lose sleep over after they hit puberty. He didn't know why he cared if the kid had survived. Not having closure set him on edge, made him nervous, but not in the way it would have before. The threat was never going to go away, but the worry was worrying. He shouldn't worry about Winchester.
"I have a good feeling they got away," Gibbs said.
"The Winchesters." Gibbs frowned at him. "I doubt we'll ever see them again."
"Thank Christ," Tony said.
"Won't argue that." Gibbs smiled, briefly. "I had to rein Ziva in pretty hard, though. Of course, she has no idea that both of 'em saved your ass more than once. She wanted to lead a manhunt to find them."
"How'd you manage that?"
"Reminded her about what the second B in my name stands for."
Tony laughed, fogged up the mask and the condensation dripped onto his face. That wasn't all he got for it, either, a ragged cough rumbled up. It didn't last too long, but by the time he'd regained partial use of his lungs, he was wiped.
"You should get some rest, DiNozzo. You look like yesterday's shit."
Great idea. Disgusting way of saying it.
"Feel the love," Tony mumbled, already well on his way out.
Tony almost didn't feel the strong hand grip his shoulder as he gave into exhaustion, but he did and from that alone knew one way or another it was going to be just fine.
The drip was the first thing Sam consciously registered, that wet, familiar sound. His brain felt liquefied, like it might be leaking through his nose onto the cold floor. But, no, the drip was from a greater distance. Water from the ceiling, bodily fluids from the corpse. Maybe his brain wasn't making any sound and maybe it wasn't oozing from his left nostril. Something was, at any rate, a slight trickle tickled his nostrils and made him want to jerk upright, brush it clear. More blood, more … the Nix. Not even a burst of adrenaline at the thought of the monster got him moving. He wasn't entirely sure he was fully awake.
"Someone cooked your goose," Lucifer whispered. "Someone scrambled your eggs. It's beautiful."
Sam moaned, but he didn't. No sound, his mouth didn't open. He was … stuck. He'd been there before, brain alert but body uncooperative. He imagined that from the outside, he looked catatonic. He wasn't. He was. He didn't know anything except when he was like this he was at the mercy of memories too strong to be memories only.
"Isn't it great?" Lucifer's rotting face popped in front of Sam, wearing a conical, brightly colored hat. He blew into a noisemaker, then grinned. "It'll be just like old times."
No, oh no, no, no. Sam could not backslide. The threat of Lucifer being more than a thematic movie score to his life was motivation. He would not linger in this limbo. He managed to turn his head, pressed his face into the floor. A jolt of discomfort, maybe he'd broken his nose. The pain was sharp enough to clear Lucifer's voice, at least for a moment. He squeezed his eyes tighter, so all he could see was faint starbursts instead of the horrors of Hell. It didn't work completely, but then nothing did. Life was about small victories. Life was about Dean and having his brother close in case, in case, because they were all they had, making things as close to right as he could.
"Take that," Sam said, and that he did vocalize. He sounded drunk, slurred the words. Tongue was thick. He spat, or let bloody saliva dribble from his lips. That was temporary. He was not ending up a drooling mess in a padded room. "You bastard."
Somehow or another, Sam got his hands flat on the ground and pushed up with meager strength. Aside from Lucifer's taunts and the dripdripdrip, it was quiet. He couldn't avoid it forever, so he opened his eyes. He was the only living boy in the cavern. No girl. No DiNozzo. Dead Nix. He'd whacked the thing in the head, but he could take no responsibility for the kill shot. He understood why he was alone, had some sort of strange pride in DiNozzo for getting the girl out. Sam didn't want to stay there. He didn't know which way was out. He knew where the Nix had entered, and assumed it led to water.
He picked the opposite direction, a slight opening he hadn't noticed before. Sam got to his feet, stuck close to the wall and started moving. He nearly lost it inching by the hanging, rotting corpse, too Hell-like. Lucifer laughed, faintly, though, as if from far away. Locked away, good, good.
"Sam, Sam." Lucifer chortled. "Sammmm."
Sam leaned heavily against the wall, clamped his hands over his ears. It was stupid, an impulse he fought nearly every single minute of the day. His defenses were worn too thin, and no one was here to see him go out of his gourd. He hunched over, prepared to just give in, give up, if only for a little while, though he knew a little while could turn into forever without him knowing it. The reprieve he had earlier was fast dissolving into his own special brand of insane.
That voice. That wasn't Lucifer, but it might actually be Lucifer. Sam never knew until he did. He pressed the butts of his hands into his skull. A minute, that was all he needed. He didn't get it. A cold hand on the back of his neck had him surging on legs that had no interest in carrying him.
"Hey, hey, I gotcha."
Hands, hands grabbing his own, squeezing and then shifting as a shoulder to his armpit braced him up. Dean, it was really Dean. Sam sagged, allowed his brother to catch most of his weight. He was just so damned glad to see Dean, nothing else mattered. He scrabbled his hands against the very solid arms, shoulders, torso. He was freaking out and couldn't stop.
"Jesus," Dean muttered. "I can't … not this. Sam. Sammy."
Sammy. It was okay. They were okay. Dean.
"Dean," Sam whispered. "The Nix. Fucked. Head. Setback."
Dean sounded angry and heartsick all at the same time, in that one little word. It was strange, knowing things and knowing nothing at all.
"It's not your fault, damnit."
Sam smelled … chocolate, sickening sweet in contrast to decay and dirty water. He didn't know what that was all about, choked a little.
"It looks as dead as dead can get now," Dean said. "and we have got to go. Feds'll swarm this place in less than an hour. I need you to walk, Sam. I cannot carry your heavy ass."
He could do it. Dean was here. Sam nodded again, but he couldn't take all of his weight. It'd have to do, it did. Dean held him firm, like the old times both of them wanted but couldn't quite remember clearly enough to recreate.
"Okay, okay, okay," he said.
Sam drifted as they went slightly above a snail's pace. To him, the trek took hours and it was only seconds until Dean propped him up against the old junker that was not the Impala. He missed the car, a lot more than he ever thought he would. They had nothing to call a home now. Bobby's was gone. The car was gone. Gone, gone, his brain was gone.
"Hey, your brain is fine. I won't let it be anything else," Dean said, strident and directly in his ear. "And we've got Bobby. We've got each other. That is all the home we need. You hear me?"
Sam's face was pressed against glass, somehow already in the passenger seat. Buckled in. Buckled, when they never usually bothered. He nodded, tried to agree though he wasn't sure he did, and the dark, smoky curls edging his vision turned into complete darkness.
The ping of the car's engine startled him awake. Other than the car showing its age and pissy demeanor, it was silent, absolutely still. Sam jerked upright, more suspicious of every fleeting moment of peace as they came. They didn't happen often, these times when Lucifer let it rest, that he let himself rest, and afterward the hallucinations always seemed more intense. He couldn't even enjoy peace anymore.
It was night, that was all he knew. Bright, fluorescent lights from a regional fast food restaurant beamed through the windshield, the smell of grease nauseating as it wafted through the car vents and the hole in the floor. He spotted Dean, grabbing straws and napkins from the condiment bar, wrestled with what looked like enough food to feed an army. Sam didn't move. His limbs still felt like rubber. He watched Dean, though, almost smiled. It was almost all right, this life of theirs.
"You're awake," Dean said after he'd wrestled with the stubborn, rusted door and tossed a bag of burgers and fries at Sam's lap. "Good. It's been over twelve fucking hours."
"Twelve hours," Sam said.
That had to have been shitty for Dean.
"Not really. You know. But it's not too bad." Sam had learned that the truth was almost always the best option. "Where are we?"
"Pennsylvania. Bobby's got something. Figure I can lend him an assist while you get your feet back under you."
Sam nodded. He wasn't going to argue against recuperation time. If things got bad on a hunt, he did not want to be more of a liability than he already was. Like he'd been in this one.
"Dean," he said.
"We're good, Sam. All of it. We're good."
"Of course." Sam furrowed his eyebrows, uncertain what Dean was talking about. "Want to tell me what happened?"
"Eat something first."
Sam glanced down. The fast food bags were decorated with Halloween images. Stupid jack o' lanterns and ghosts and pink tulle, a girl, a little… His stomach couldn't take the food being that close. He shoved the bag back at Dean, who said nothing and started the car, scowled at the way the vehicle bucked and shimmied.
"The girl." Sam swallowed. "The guy."
"Okay, if this is how you want to play it. It's a long story and it can wait, but they're both okay." Dean clenched his jaw. "Just like you're going to be okay, and you'll be okay faster if you eat something. You look like a fucking character from a Tim Burton movie."
Sam smiled, turned toward the window and saw his reflection. Dean's assessment was not far off. Worse, behind him, almost like his head was springing out of Sam's, was a shadow of Lucifer. His peace was over. He took a deep breath. Dean needed him to be okay, and that was what he had to hold on to. Dean and Bobby and him, that was what he would focus on, just like Dean had said. That, at least, was always going to be solid, real.
Lucifer chuckled, tapped his own imaginary temple, shook his own imaginary head, and mouthed something Sam pretended not to understand.