#6 - Penance
It all comes down to this:
Blood spattered hands and split knuckles. Hard, unforgiving hazel eyes locked on him; the cold, reassuring metal of the Impala holding him up. Fear – for himself, and for his brother.
"Dean?" Sam whispers, four years old and still small enough that when he crawls into bed next his brother, the mattress barely dips under his weight. Dean blinks his eyes open groggily, fights to clear the sleep from his mind as the small figure wriggles closer and curls into him. His arms come up instinctively; pull Sam closer, shelter him in the same way he's been doing since that very first night that his father had placed his brother into his arms.
"What's wrong?" He mutters, eyes flitting around the room in search of any hidden dangers. Finding nothing, he turns back to the small boy. Sam buries his cold nose into his brother's collarbone and sniffles.
"I had a dream that you and Dad went away and never came back," The young boy admits quietly, tangles his fingers in the collar of Dean's sleep-rumpled shirt. He's trembling slightly. "I don't want to be alone."
Dean frowns, tucks his brother closer.
"You'll never be alone, Sammy," He tells his brother sternly. "I'll always be here. No matter what, I'll follow you wherever you go. It's always gonna be me and you, kid."
At age twelve, Sam is small for his age and skinnier than Dean would like. He's smart (scarily so, sometimes) and determined, stronger than he looks. He's also more than a little contrary.
His small frame is hunched up against the window in the backseat, body curled into itself as if he's trying to protect himself from the world. The car is tense and silent in the wake of yet another argument, and Dean wonders when they became a regular thing – can still remember the days when Sam's eyes would fill with tears at the mere thought of their father being angry at him.
The small stretch of open air and cool leather that separates between them feels like no-man's land, and Dean can't bring himself to climb over the back of the bench seat and risk being gunned down in his attempts to reach his brother. He can't think of anything worse than Sam refusing his comfort, can't bring himself to offer it for fear of rejection.
Years down the line, there'll be nothing that Dean regrets more than turning his face forward, settling his back against the seat and – inadvertently – turning it on Sammy.
There's an irony in the fact that Sam was the one who tried to warn them that the creature that they were hunting wasn't a Wendigo. John had rolled his eyes, muttered about Sam making things up so that they could stay in town for a few more days before they wrapped the hunt up and moved out.
They should have listened to him.
The creature that had emerged from the woods wasn't a Wendigo, wasn't even a black dog – it took precious seconds for Dean's brain to realise that the thing tearing towards them was a shifter, but only split-second longer to recall the exact position of his silver bullets, back in the Impala's trunk.
The shifter aims for Dean, and the flare gun doesn't so much as make it flinch. It's too close for him to do much els; there's not enough time for him to pull a blade, or even dodge out of the way – all he can do is hunch his shoulders and brace himself for the splintering pain that he's sure will come.
It never does.
Instead, he hears his father scream his brother's name, the sickening sound of bones snapping and grinding together. Sam doesn't make a noise of pain, not so much as a whimper, but Dean already knows what he's going to see when he opens his eyes.
The first thing he sees is the blood – what seems like an entire lake, far too much to be safe. Only then does his gaze fall on his brother. Sam's resting on his side, face obscured by the arm that's landed over his face; his ribcage seems somehow uneven and Dean can see glimpses of red and white through the tears in his brother's shirt
Feet away, lying still in the grass is the body of the shifter – Sam's knife sticking out of its chest. Dean doesn't need to check to know that the thing's dead. His brother's always had an uncanny knack with a throwing knife, and in close quarters the shifter hadn't stood a chance.
Neither had Sam.
John yells, drops to his knees next to his youngest son. Dean fumbles for his phone, eyes on his brother, and wonders why their father had ever made this their lives.
"I'm going to leave, someday." Sam whispers.
The words sound harsh in the silence of the room, and Dean flinches away from the simple statement, hearing the truth in his brother's voice.
"You're seventeen," Dean tells him sharply, hearing the bite in his words. "You don't know what you want. You'll be a great hunter, one day, Sammy."
Sam's casted arm shifts to lie on his stomach, and the kid's heads rolls towards him, breath fanning over Dean's neck, the sensation ghostly in the darkness of the room. The older Winchester keeps his eyes locked firmly on the ceiling, refuses to turn his head and meet the hazel eyes that are locked on him. Refuses to see that truth in his brother's face as well as hear it in his words.
"I know that I don't want to hunt," Sam tells him evenly. "That every time I think that this might be my life, I feel sick to my stomach."
Dean doesn't answer.
"I wasn't made for this, Dean." Sam mutters. "Not like you and Dad. You'll realise that, one day, Dean – I just hope it's before hunting kills me."
Sam waves the Stanford acceptance letter in the air, and he looks victorious.
Dean wishes that he didn't feel a rush of betrayal. Wishes even more that he didn't feel proud when he looks at the young man before him and sees somebody who's not afraid to go after what he wants. Who's not afraid to leave behind everything he knows in search of a better life for himself.
He watches Sam go, and half an hour later he catches him up in the Impala and drives him to the bus station. He leaves him there with three hundred dollars, the hunting knives that he'd gotten for his fourteenth birthday – left forgotten beneath his motel room pillow – and Dean's own handgun.
He doesn't look back.
The smell of smoke lingers for days after the fire.
Dean washes all of their clothes three times, buys new duffels and brings back bag after bag of fast food back to the motel room.
Sam lies in bed and doesn't eat and cries in his sleep. Dean thinks that pulling his baby brother out of that fire, making him live with the memory of Jess burning on the ceiling, was just about the most selfish thing he's ever done.
He doesn't regret it.
"I missed this." Sam mutters, as if worried that his voice might scare the stars into hiding.
The Impala's hood is warm beneath their backs, the beers cold and refreshing, and it's like living a flashback of countless nights when they were growing up, when they'd sneak out of their motel room and drive until they found a field – just Sam and Dean and a sky full of stars winking down at them.
"There were stars at Stanford." Dean grumbles, rolls his eyes.
"True." Sam acknowledges, voice quiet and breathy. "But there wasn't a you."
"I'm surprised at you, Sammy. Why didn't you kill it? I thought we saw eye-to-eye on this – killing this demon comes first. Before me… before everything."
"No, sir. Not before everything."
"You have to save your brother, Dean… or kill him."
Spilled coffee. Their father, lying pale and still on the floor – Sammy shouting for help, Sammy's face going almost as pale as their father's, a nurse easing both of them into chairs.
"We don't know how this happened. Your father was fine. The autopsy will tell us more."
A funeral pyre.
"That all you've got?"
Sam grinned, danced out of reach, body loose and ready for its cue to move. Dean almost didn't see it coming, and the blow aimed for his stomach clipped his side as he spun out of dodge… only to hit Sam's arm and go sailing to the floor, winded.
Laughter bubbled from Dean's chest even as Sam reached a hand down to help tug Dean off the floor.
"Well, that's been a long time coming." Dean laughed. "Let's see if we can make it two in a row, shall we?"
Cold mud seeping through his jeans. Rain falling on his head.
Sam, cold and lifeless in his arms, blood seeping between his fingers and the shift of a severed spine beneath clammy skin.
Dean doesn't understand how he's still alive, how it is that he's holding his dead brother and yet he's still breathing. It's just not possible.
Sam is his life.
Sam has always been his life.
"It was goddamn selfish of you to do this to me." Sam tells him, eyes filled but jaw clenched in a way that tells Dean that his brother's refusing to cry this time. "Do you remember how you felt when you found out that reaper had taken someone else in exchange for you? When Dad traded his soul for yours?"
Dean does. He remembers feeling sick to his stomach, wondering why in the world he'd been given a second chance that he didn't deserve. He remembers thinking that his brother and father were cruel for placing that burden on him, the knowledge that he was living on years that he'd stolen from somebody else.
He still can't bring himself to regret it, still wakes every night from memories of Cold Oak playing over and over and feels nothing but relief when he remembers that he's only got a year to live.
Hellhounds. Blood and pain and fear and relief, because the last sound he hears is Sammy, and that's the proof he needs that he's done one thing right.
Sammy's alive and, one day, he might even be okay.
Darkness. Terror. Hell.
Fighting his way out of his own grave, desperately searching for his brother. Finding him shacked up in a motel room with a brunette that he's never seen before, looking healthier than he has in years.
Sam, handing him the amulet. The knowledge that everything would be okay.
Ruby. Lilith. Demon blood and angels and Lucifer.
"This is what I deserve," Sam whispers across the divide between their beds. "This is my penance."
Dean wants to argue, to tell him that he's wrong and that nothing he's ever done could make him deserve this – that Dean forgives him.
In the end, he says nothing – too afraid that if he opens his mouth he'll beg his brother not to go through with it.
It all comes down to this: a sad, soft smile. The certainty of death.
Sorry about the 'x' line breaks, all of my other ones got erased so they're temporarily shoved in there until I can sort it out. In other news, this was #6 in my 100 Themes challenge that I'm doing on Livejournal. It was more of an experiment than most of the others, but I kind of liked it.
Reviews are love!