The Road to Recovery
Through it all he knew there was something he needed, something vital. The sense was so strong, so powerful, but the answer was a tantalising carrot dangling just out of his mind's reach. It was as if he didn't function properly without it, an engine with a missing part. He was uneasy, but unable to express himself. Held in place by hypnopompic shackles, he could only endure.
By the time his bed was in motion again, he'd fallen into a restless sleep.
When Dean woke sometime later, the fuzziness remained, but it held more form and structure somehow. There were familiar shapes and sounds and sensations. He thought he knew where he was, but the word tingled on the tip of his tongue. He could see, hear, smell, touch; but everything was disjointed, nothing connected. There were people around him, spectral figures who flitted in and out of his surroundings at random, who busied about him and chattered encouragingly at him. He wanted to answer, but his brain was on a time lag, only comprehending the words too late to make a response.
One person remained constant, a stalwart presence at his bedside.
Sometimes he'd stay silent for indeterminate periods, other times he'd speak in soft tones, pleadingly looking at Dean with eyes that took up half of his face. There was something comforting and safe about him. Something reassuring and calming. And Dean no longer felt lopsided and wrong as long as he stayed.
The elder Winchester turned his head as another man entered the room. He wasn't sure if he'd seen him before, everyone seemed to look the same. The man was older, lined and grey. He wore a white coat and carried a sheet of paper and a pen. He pulled up another chair Dean hadn't noticed and leaned forward, piercing eyes boring into the hunter in a way that made him feel intensely uncomfortable.
He fidgeted, a frown darkening his eyes.
"My name is Doctor Hamilton," the incomer spoke with a brusque tone, enunciating each word as if chewing it several times over. "I've been looking after you over the past couple of days. You've certainly had a rough time of it."
Dean's frown deepened. He understood the words just fine on their own, like the component parts of a disassembled engine. Only he wasn't sure he knew what the working machine was supposed to look like. Or sound like. Glancing down at his chest, he saw the mountain of gauze taped there. Clearly he'd been hurt, but the how, the when and the why was beyond him. He wasn't in any pain, but his body felt unnatural, as if wrapped in cotton wool.
"It looks as though things are still a little confusing for you right now," the doctor continued. "That's normal. But I just need to ask you a few questions, so that we can get an idea of how you're doing."
Dean narrowed his eyes, suspicious. Without knowing why, he glanced at the room's other occupant, who met his gaze with calm confidence but otherwise said nothing. Reassured, he nodded back. "Okay," he rasped through a gritty, dry throat.
Hamilton glanced down at his piece of paper, his pen poised. "Can you tell me your full name?"
"Uh...Dean–" The elder Winchester began, and then faltered. Names of all shapes and sizes leapt to his lips, none of them feeling right. Sifting through them all took longer than it should have.
The doctor nodded, scribbling notes. "Okay, that's good. What about your surname?"
"Winchester." It was out before Dean had a chance to think it. He blinked. Was that right? There was a soft rush of breath to his right, where the other man, his guardian sat. It sounded right. So why did he feel like he'd just gotten it wrong?
"Uh huh, okay," the doctor murmured, somehow managing to make the encouraging response seem negative. He bit his lip as he scrawled something else. "And your date of birth?"
"January 24th 1979." The doctor's nod was deeper this time, and Dean tensed, uneasy. This was a test, and the answers seemed important.
Dean was suddenly aware of the other man's attention to his right, the palpable heat of his gaze and, inexplicably, it made him want to disappear.
"Where do you live?"
Dean froze. A thousand images scrolled through his mind, all so similar and yet so different in small, idiosyncratic ways. Rooms mostly. Rooms with drab décor, rooms with wacky wallpaper, rooms carpeted with dirt. Rooms with two beds. Always with two beds. His mouth opened and closed, lips trying to form words his brain hadn't yet processed. "Um...uh..." he stammered. He cast a helpless glance at the person who'd sat with him all these hours. Sam looked concerned.
The name was so obvious now that Dean was amazed he hadn't remembered. He stared hard at Sam, taking in the worry lines around his mouth, the riotous hair, the bloodshot eyes. Something instinctive stirred within him.
"Doctor...my brother and I, we kinda live on the road, you know? We travel around a lot." Sam stepped in, eyes pinging from Dean to the doctor, and back again.
His brother. Sam was his brother. Relief surged through his veins, a rush of warmth enveloping him. The thought grounded him, gave him purpose. Of course Sammy was his brother. Nothing else made sense.
Hamilton pinched his chin thoughtfully as he nodded at Sam. "Okay, I understand..." He swivelled back to Dean. "What about at the moment, then? Can you tell me where you are now?"
Dean's brows grappled with each other, his vision turning in on itself as he interrogated his memory. And came up with a frightening amount of nothing. His body began to vibrate. "Uh...I don't...I don't know." The words became constricted in his chest as his agitation increased, his breaths becoming laboured. What was happening to him?
"Dean, you okay?" Sam interjected, frowning. Both men ignored him.
"Mmm-hmm," Hamilton marked something down on the paper and then returned his attention to his patient. "What about this building? Do you know what kind of place this is?"
Dean puffed out a lungful of air. This one, at least, he could answer. "The hospital?"
"Do you know when you were admitted?"
What the hell kind of question was that? Dean swallowed, his throat feeling more arid with every passing second. Seeds of panic were beginning to take root. He could barely remember anything beyond a few seconds ago. "No!" He snapped, unable to stop a spark of irritation from flaring up.
The beeping next to him accelerated. Sam twitched on the edge of his chair, throwing his brother a questioning look. "Dean, what's going on with you?"
"Just a few more questions, Dean." Hamilton smiled. It wasn't reassuring.
"I dunno what the hell you want from me!" Dean growled, tension coiling around him, squeezing him tighter.
"Just do your best, Dean," the doctor continued, keeping his tone calm and level, his focus on the page as he scribbled ferociously. "Now, do you remember how you got here?"
"Goddammit, no!" The beeping intensified, Dean's lungs beginning to wheeze under the strain. "I can't answer your damn questions!"
Sam was out of his chair. The legs scraped against the floor with a high-pitched screech. "That's enough!" he thundered, pointing an accusatory finger at the doctor. The atmosphere in the room turned claustrophobic. "Can't you see this is upsetting him?"
Hamilton pushed to his feet, the two of them facing off across Dean's bed. Two sets of squared shoulders, steely glares and stern voices battling each other. "We need to establish Dean's mental state–"
"I understand that. I do. But it can wait." Sam's tone brooked no argument. His jaw was jutting, hands on hips, feet set apart. Dean found that he knew, from experience, that no one would go toe to toe with Sam when he looked like that. Hamilton was no different.
The doctor sighed and cast an examining eye over the monitors at Dean's bedside. "Alright," he nodded, reaching for the chart at the end of the bed. "We'll give him something to help him calm down and then we'll try again later."
The words were rapid fire, too quick for Dean to fully process. The doctor moved closer, adjusting something next to the hunter's free arm. "That should help," Hamilton announced, stepping back. There was a strange sensation in Dean's hand where the line was attached. "Sam?" he called out, a cloud of confusion muddying his features.
The younger man startled, his attention all at once on Dean; intent, searching. Everything stopped as Dean waited. Then Sam's brow smoothed, a smile devouring his face. "Hey, man! You back with me, huh?" The kid's tone was light, teasing, but his eyes had deepened, something indefinable connecting the two of them; hooking Dean and reeling him in. A tidal wave of emotion started to build, primed to break over them.
"S'mmy?" the elder hunter murmured this time, a heady sensation beginning to take over. The edges of his vision fraying like torn fabric.
And then his little brother was there, leaning over him, filling the entire room. He laid a hand on Dean's good arm, patting gently. "It's okay. You're gonna be okay. The doctor just gave you something to help you sleep. Get some rest, Dean."
"S'm?" It seemed to be the only thing he was capable of voicing. The only thing that mattered.
"I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
It was all he needed to hear.
The next time Dean awoke, the world felt different, lines and edges razor sharp and real. Eyes closed, his senses felt loud and vibrant, working overtime to make up for their enforced hiatus. He could feel a mattress beneath him; a pragmatic, firm affair that could only have been hospital issue. A thin, crisply starched blanket lay across his midriff with a light touch, while the familiar cotton of a hospital gown whispered over his skin. The rhythmic beeping coming from his left amplified in his ears as his awareness grew, along with the exaggerated bite of the pulse monitor on his left index finger and the pull of the IV line in the back of his left hand. His right was strapped up, he noted, a small frown puckering his brow. His chest felt heavy like a lump of unformed clay.
He scanned the room for signs of Sam. He didn't manage to quash the small pang of panic when he found it empty, even though he knew the kid had most likely been camped out with him for...however long he'd been here. The chair to his right was ringed by a meringue of abandoned blanket, and the younger man's cell phone sat atop the nightstand – along with a pitcher of water that Dean hadn't a hope of reaching. Evidently, wherever Sam had wandered off to, he wasn't planning to be gone long. The thought warmed Dean as he began the unpleasant, but well-practised task of sifting through his mental detritus.
He remembered a malaise of haziness, of disorientation and slow motion capture, but had no sense of time, of just how long he'd been out of it. He shifted in discomfort, undercurrents of pain chasing across his chest. His memory grew clearer with each passing moment, his unease intensifying as he recalled the unfolding events at the airfield. How he'd gotten that second wound. How he'd taken down his brother. How Bill had died.
Sam's cold eyes behind the mask.
He swallowed back a thick gulp, his throat sticking like velcro. He'd finished the spell and destroyed the mask's curse – at least, he thought he had, those last few moments before he'd passed out were distinctly blurry – and yet, it didn't feel like a win. So many people had died. He'd messed up, had trusted the wrong person and put his brother in danger. Oh yeah, and he'd taken another bullet.
Dismayed, he examined the bandages wrapping his shoulder. The extra padding made him look like the friggin' Michelin man. Recovery was going to be one hell of a bitch this time, he wrinkled his nose and let out a wry snort, not least because Sam was almost certainly going to be worse. The urgency of the hunt that first time had given Dean the excuse he'd needed to avoid the inevitability of physical therapy, but he didn't think he'd be able to persuade Sam to allow him that luxury this time. The likelihood of convincing his little brother to spring him early again was probably also out of the question. The kid had mother-henpecking down to an art form.
A scuffing sound at the door jolted his attention. His eyes brightened, crinkling at the corners when he caught sight of his brother shuffling into the room. Sam looked unfocussed and cross-eyed, hair framing his pale face in lank curtains. His shoulders were tense, hitched up at his ears. Grubby bruises smeared his cheeks, making him look like the casualty of a kindergarten finger-painting session, but he appeared otherwise unharmed. The kid drifted through the doorway, inspecting the label of a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, brows locked together, bottom lip caught between his teeth.
"Too many B-numbers?" Dean commiserated, unable to prevent a fond snort.
"E-numbers," Sam corrected automatically. Then he stopped dead. His head snapped up, his smile veering from a very raw relief to a more controlled exasperation as his shoulders dropped. "Dude, I swear, every time I leave the room you decide to make an appearance."
"Yeah, your timin' always sucked," Dean dead-panned, making sure Sam saw the twinkle in his eye.
"Shut up." Somehow it was an endearment. "So, you're really...back?" Sam looked tentatively up at him through his eyelashes. Hell of an achievement, Dean thought, considering the extent to which he towered over the bed. The elder Winchester cleared his throat, trying not to choke on the potent emo pheromones Sammy was giving off.
But as much as Dean might have wanted to push it aside, the little in his brother wasn't something he could brush off with ease. "I go somewhere or somethin'?" he asked, aiming for casual. Failing.
"Or something," Sam answered with deliberate vagueness, staring at him with a solemnity that squirmed muscles Dean didn't even know he had. "How you feelin'?"
"Fine," he tried to say, but his voice crackled and dried up like an old record.
Sam's features dissolved. "Dammit!" he hissed, skirting the bed with two swift steps and reaching for the pitcher. "Sorry man, you must be thirsty," he offered contritely, filling a glass and passing it across to Dean's free hand. The sandwich was tossed onto a free chair, already forgotten as Sam reclaimed his position at Dean's bedside.
Dean took a long draw, very aware of his brother's scrutiny. He swallowed gingerly, his throat still tender and raw. Once false gulp and Sam looked ready to snatch the glass away, and Dean wanted to avoid triggering a bitch-fit if he could help it.
"You okay? You in any pain?" Sam sounded as though he was attempting to make up for lost mothering time. He took the glass from Dean anyway, before the elder Winchester could even draw breath, placing it back on the nightstand and peering in closely at his big brother. With those hypnotic eyes. "Out of ten. Tell me the truth."
Dean stalled. There was the usual outright lie, there was the truth, and there was The Truth. Getting the balance right was tricky, otherwise Sammy would see straight through him. He gave himself an internal once over. A solid eight. If he'd been feeling brave, he'd have chanced the zero, but he knew he was off his game. Factoring in Sam's natural propensity to disbelieve him, Dean aimed for somewhere in the middle. "Four?"
When the kid's eyes turned to slits, Dean knew he should have made it sound less like a question. "I'm calling the nurse," Sam announced, lifting an arm with the span of an albatross wing and stretching across the bed for the call button.
"No, Sam!" Dean snatched it up, only just holding it out of his brother's considerable reach. "I'm okay." But his breathing was heavy and shuddering, and he knew it hadn't been missed by the kid's beady eye.
"Dean..." Sam dialled back the bitchface as worry rose to take its place. "I should get them to page the doc anyway. You've been a little out of it for the past twenty-four hours. You were...uh...they had to keep you under for a couple days."
Dean lowered his gaze. He knew it was an understatement. Sam tended to make more of a drama out of the little things. "What do you mean?"
"You lost a lot of blood, Dean," Sam exhaled sharply and looked away for a moment. "They had to bring you back a couple times in the OR. They were worried about brain damage."
Dean blinked twice. And again. He didn't know what to do with that, the words rebounding, repelled by a numb forcefield of denial. He didn't feel damaged. Not in a way that couldn't be fixed.
"Dean?" Sam's tone was all egg-shells and kid-gloves.
The younger man squinted at him in naked disbelief. "Dean...there were moments when you...when you didn't even know who I was." He sounded haunted, his obvious unease settling like a chill into Dean's bones. He couldn't even imagine...It wasn't an outcome he wanted to think about. "Doctor Hamilton is gonna want to come check you out–"
Dean caught a brief wisp of memory; a middle-aged man in a white lab coat bombarding him with impossible questions and taking notes. An inexplicable panic flared. "No!" he barked, with more vehemence than he'd intended.
Sam's ears visibly pricked and Dean cursed under his breath.
"I'm fine," the elder hunter scrambled to salvage the situation, battling against the desire for self-preservation and the need to chase away the scary monsters for his little brother. "Right? I'm me. I'm okay. I know where I am, I know who you are, who I am. I'm fine."
Sam raised his eyebrows, looking as if he wholeheartedly disagreed with that last assertion. "Yeah, you sound like you, alright," he muttered darkly, making it sound disastrous. "But Dean...you really scared the hell outta me, dude. Just...I need to make sure. I'm calling the doctor, okay?"
Dean closed his eyes, capitulating with deep reluctance. "Fine. But I still got one good fist, Sammy and I ain't afraid to use it. I remember what happened the last time that douchebag tried to give me a pop quiz." He shot his brother an obstinate glare.
Sam just shook his head.
Both doctor and patient had been on their best behaviour during the second clash. Hamilton didn't push and Dean, wanting the whole ordeal over with as quickly as possible, didn't push back. He answered all the questions directed at him as well as he could, even managing to hold onto a flash of rage as the doctor spoke of further testing and poking and prodding. Hamilton had seemed satisfied, or at least, he hadn't sent up a warning flare, and Dean was chalking it up as a victory.
Sam had sat by throughout, beaming with humiliating, parental pride. Dean had been thinking of the doctor when he'd threatened to start throwing punches, but Sam had just smiled his way to the front of the queue. Only the memory of the kid's traumatised expression just half an hour earlier had stayed his hand.
"Seriously, you sure you don't want any more pain meds?" Sam watched him with shrewd eyes.
The doctor had offered an increased dosage. Dean had politely refused. Hamilton had responded by frowning at the hunter as if he were an anomalous laboratory result. Dean had given him the stoic stare. Hamilton had held his gaze for several long seconds, but had eventually accepted his patient's decision. A nurse would look in on him later, the doctor had decreed with a curt nod. It hadn't escaped Dean's notice, though, that Hamilton had glanced at Sam with defeated solidarity before taking his leave. But the elder Winchester wasn't dwelling on that.
"Sam..." He tried not to whine.
"Dean, c'mon–" Sam tried not to whine.
They were both unsuccessful.
Tired, Dean decided to drop the façade, just for a moment. "Look Sammy..." he began, forcing out words that felt heavy and rusty with disuse. "It hurts like a bitch, alright?" Sam's lips took on a pinched expression, a frown ploughing a furrow on his forehead. "But," Dean went on, "things feel clear – I feel clear – for the first time in...however long I've been here. I don't need something foggin' me up right now."
Sam nodded, but his expression darkened with dissatisfaction, his posture all sharp edges and acute angles. "I get it," he conceded grudgingly, though his eyes lingered on the call button. He paused, visibly recalibrating. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Dean couldn't hide a guilty wince, eyes sliding away from his brother. It wasn't a surprise that Sam hadn't swallowed the response he'd fed Hamilton. "Takin' you down." His throat was painful when he cleared it. "After that...Nada. I finish the spell?"
A soft snort. "Yeah, dude, you finished the spell."
The elder hunter paused cautiously. "And...you're okay, right?"
Sam blinked, as if surprised by the question. He took a breath and puffed it back out again, scratching at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'm fine, man. Thanks to you."
Dean let out a disbelieving laugh, regretting it seconds later when everything pulled. "I cold-cocked you with your own gun, Sam." The self-reproach was out before Dean could make any attempt to cover it up.
"You didn't have a choice," Sam assured him, his knowing eyes seeing more than Dean would have liked. "How did you even manage that anyway? You were beat to hell!"
"I had help." It was a soft admission.
"What are you talking about?" Sam demanded, nonplussed.
Dean raised his brows and cocked his head, waiting. He could almost hear the cogs turning.
It took several beats.
"He...You...What?" the younger man stammered, eyes widening as it dawned on him. He leaned forward at his brother's stiff nod, jabbing a finger. "I-I remember killing him, Dean! How...?"
Dean stared resolutely at the foot of his bed. "He might be dead now, but he didn't die straight away. Somehow..." His voice was dull as he recounted the events. Emotions tangled around each other as he spoke, wrapping up tight like a ball of string. "He tripped you. You fell. I was there with the gun. Guess he came through in the end."
"Jesus..." Sam whispered, stunned. "I killed him..." He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment before they flew open again. "Damn near killed you too!"
"Hey," Dean turned back to his brother, catching his gaze and holding it with steady certainty. "Not your fault. Wasn't you."
"It might not have been me in the driving seat, Dean, but I'm the one who let that mask take the wheel. It is my fault."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. If we're gonna play 'mine's the biggest' here...I'm the one who brought Bill into this. I screwed up, Sam." Even admitting it now – when they'd destroyed the curse and were both, relatively, unharmed – was shaming. He felt his cheeks sizzle as he once again avoided looking at his brother. "You saw through him," he told the heart monitor to his left. It beeped on, unmoved. "You were right. We wouldn't even be in the crap we're in right now if it wasn't for me," he mumbled, feeling the weight of yet another failure. Sam should never have been put in that position; choosing between his big brother and the rest of the world. Dean turned back to Sam, needing the younger man to hear him. "The mask looked for an in, and it took it. Your defences were down." And that's on me.
"Dean...I shot you!" But Sam was determined not to be absolved. He stared at Dean half-meek, half-bold, like he wanted his big brother to tear him a new one but was afraid of the worms he might let loose from the can.
The elder Winchester wasn't about to oblige him. "Well, lucky for me you're a lousy shot!"
Sam's eyes popped. "That's not funny, Dean!"
"C'mon, it's a little funny," Dean coaxed, eyes twinkling.
"No, it's not." Sam's bottom lip was chewed raw, a vein ticked on his jawline. Barely keeping his composure. "I thought I'd lost you. Thought I'd...When I woke up in that hangar and saw you..."
Great, Dean rolled his eyes internally even as he felt himself cave. As much as he hated Sam's persistent determination to make him the star of soap opera hour, he was incapable of being indifferent when his little brother was upset about something. Being a big brother was hard-wired, a fixed, instinctive response. He couldn't have stopped it if he'd wanted to.
"C'mon, Sammy..." He eyeballed the kid until Sam stared back, listening. "You really think you wouldna been capable of puttin' a bullet between my eyes if the mask had full control over you? You didn't. It didn't." Sam gulped and Dean watched his Adam's apple bobble reflexively. "You musta been in there somewhere, Sammy. You gave me a fightin' chance."
"You think?" Sam sounded so young and unsure of himself, Dean felt his heart constrict.
"I know," Dean countered. "So..." He took a breath. "If we're done with the soul searchin'..."
"How did you resist it?" Sam blurted, then looked away, as if he regretted the question.
"Come again?" Dean played dumb. He hadn't planned on going anywhere near this conversation.
"The mask, Dean!" Sam worried at his bottom lip again. "You can't tell me you didn't feel it. You were...Hell, Dean, you were dying. How'd you throw it off?"
"Sam..." The older man grimaced, using what limited range of movement he had to twist away from his brother's questioning gaze. It was a mistake. "Gah!" he grunted as a bolt of pain shot across his shoulder. "Jesus," he panted, eyes squeezing shut. His free hand twitched helplessly against the mattress.
"Dean!" Sam was looming over him again. "Hey!" A giant paw on his bicep, steadying. "What's goin' on? You okay?"
Gritting his teeth, Dean rode the pain through the rapids, clinging on tight. "I'm fine!" he growled, angry at himself for losing his cool.
"Yeah, sure you are," Sam scoffed, his hand disappearing from Dean's arm. "I'm getting the nurse in here."
"The hell you are!"
The younger man bit back a retort with visible effort. "Alright, alright." He took a deliberate step back, though embers of concern glowed on in the depths of his gaze.
Dean ignored his brother for several seconds, hands full with wrestling his pain into submission.
Sam waited until Dean's breathing had slowed before venturing a question. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Dean nodded, the response almost lost in a rush of breath. "Yeah I'm good." He looked up at the younger man, his big brother radar picking up the classic defensive tells; jaw welded shut, fists clenching and unclenching, the way his weight had shifted forward so that he was bouncing on the balls of his feet. Then Dean remembered the other things he'd noticed, how exhausted his brother had looked, the injuries Sam had sustained. His little brother couldn't have gotten more than a few hours of sleep since the events at the airfield. "You, on the other hand..." he let the observation trail off.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sam took the bait, as expected.
"When was the last time you got some shut-eye?" Dean demanded, seeing an opportunity to direct the spotlight away from himself and on to Sam and pressing his advantage.
The younger Winchester paused, his stance shifting as he raised a hand to scrub through his hair. "I've slept..."
But he didn't sound sure, and all at once Dean recalled the mess they'd left behind at the hangar. Bodies and blood and fingerprints. The mess Sam would've had to clean up. By himself. Regret stabbed at him as a band of nausea tightened around his stomach. He'd never wanted that for Sam; disposing of corpses and mopping up after his big brother's mistakes. The kid shouldn't have had to deal with that alone.
"I've seen revenants that looked better," Dean pointed out bluntly, holding up his free hand before Sam could work himself into a hissy fit. "Look man, why don't you go back to the motel, get some sleep."
When Sam opened his mouth – a protest already forming – Dean held up his hand again. "I'm not goin' anywhere." He gestured to the equipment that wired him in place, at the sling and bandages that impeded his movement. He was stuck fast, and the younger man knew it. "And you look like a sneeze could take you out."
He'd expected a bitchface, but what he got instead was a laden sigh and slumped shoulders. It was like a scene from many a childhood night; Dean trying to convince a tired but wanting-to-stay-up-past-his-bedtime Sammy that it was lights out. The youngest Winchester had been so desperate to be part of the adult world his father and big brother lived in, but almost as soon as he'd been allowed to he'd wanted back out again. The same battle was being waged years later. Sam trying to step up but still wanting – needing – his brother to take the lead.
"You did good, Sammy," Dean said fondly, warming as he saw a small patch of colour spread across the kid's cheeks. "Now go get some rest."
Straightening, Sam seemed to come to a decision. "Okay," his head bobbled elastically, "but no turning up at the motel, Dean." His gaze sharpened, reminding his big brother of the epic lecture he'd delivered back in Nebraska after Dean had checked himself out of the hospital. "I mean it."
Dean snorted, but inclined his head all the same.
"And get some rest yourself. I'll be back in a few hours."
They stared at each other for a long, quiet beat before Sam took a deep, gathering breath and trudged from the room. Dean watched him leave, holding himself steady, tense and controlled. As soon as Sam's gigantor frame had disappeared from view, the elder Winchester fell back against his pillows, shaking and gasping; pain finally getting the upper hand as his energy evaporated. He slammed his eyes shut involuntarily, the agony cutting him off from the rest of the world. Bottom lip quivering, he endured it for several, interminable moments before forcing open an eye. Feeling around on the bed for the call button, he almost barked out a laugh of relief as his fingers closed around it.
It didn't take long for the nurses to answer Dean's call and it took even less time before morphine was flooding his veins and he was floating. A few hours, Sam had said. Sam would be back in a few hours. Dean would be fine by then, he was sure of it. He let his eyes flutter gently closed this time as the pain ebbed, receding like the tide, his consciousness drifting with it.
In the end, Dean didn't know how long it had been, only that by the time he opened his eyes again, his brother was there.
It hadn't been much of a homecoming, Dean's eventual discharge from the hospital and return to the no frills 'comfort' of their motel room. Sam had tried his best, ordering Chinese and ensuring there was a Clint Eastwood classic on television, but his big brother, exhausted after days of intensive physical therapy and mental testing, had moved through a spectrum of grumpy, grouchy moods and had ended up crashing out in the early evening. He'd accepted pain medication with minimal fuss, something which always gave Sam cause for concern, so the younger man had doped him up and put him straight to bed.
The younger Winchester knew his brother's rehabilitation had been gruelling. On more than one occasion he'd returned to Dean's room to find him sweaty and irritable, muttering dark curses under his breath. Another time, Dean had been dragged off for a cognitive assessment which he'd later likened to having his brain torn apart by a Wendigo. When Sam had charged off to give Hamilton a piece of his mind, the doctor had explained that they'd needed to check for any lingering after-effects from the hypoxia.
Most of Dean's test results had come back normal. Apart from one or two minor problems that were likely to improve over time – like Dean forgetting what he'd had for breakfast that morning, and being somewhat slower at taking in information – he'd been left remarkably unscathed. He'd also developed an odd liking for Air Supply that Sam intended to milk for all it was worth and had decided that while he still loved regular M&Ms, he could no longer stomach the peanut variety. Those last ones were unlikely to change, Sam had found out after a covert enquiry.
The younger Winchester could live with that, but was disappointed that his big brother hadn't miraculously developed a taste for tofu. No, that would have been far too healthy.
Sam had kept his ear to the ground throughout Dean's recovery, fretting over the possibility of their presence at the airfield being discovered, or worse, Bill's remains being found. He'd made every effort to cover his tracks, but the whole débâcle had left him jittery and with a grimy feeling no amount of water and shower gel could wash away. As far as he could tell, though, nothing had been unearthed. They remained undetected.
After Dean's uncharacteristic forthrightness at the hospital, they hadn't spoken of anything deeper than either their immediate circumstances, or poker – at which Dean was still capable of trouncing him even with persisting cognitive problems – and Sam had been growing more and more frustrated. And he could see his window of opportunity to obtain answers getting smaller and smaller as each passing day saw another piece of Dean's emotional armour being reassembled.
It wasn't until they were back on the road a couple of days later, Arkadelphia reduced to a scattering of blurry, rippling shapes through the dusty haze in their rearview mirror as the Impala devoured the asphalt, that Sam felt safe in broaching the topic.
He kept one hand on the steering wheel, perching his elbow on the searing hot rim of the open window and wincing at the burn. "So...uh, Emily Berger's death was officially classed as a suicide. Manning was cleared of any criminal activity. He reported being attacked at the airfield, but he apparently can't remember why he was there or how he got there."
"Huh," Dean grunted, his eyes on the roadside shrubbery that flew past the passenger window in sporadic clumps.
"Doesn't sound like there was much of an investigation," Sam continued, trying to maintain a casual tone in the face of his brother's obvious lack of enthusiasm. "Looks like we're in the clear."
"S'good..." Dean shifted awkwardly in his seat, looking uncomfortable in a way that suggested more than physical pain. He cleared his throat with a portentous air, but didn't turn to meet his little brother's gaze. "Listen Sam...uh...I never really thanked you for taking care of all that. You really saved my bacon, and dragged both our asses outta the fire."
Sam curled his lips in faint amusement at the mixed metaphors but wisely refrained from pointing it out. Dean was talking, and he wanted to keep it that way. "Don't mention it." The warmth in his voice seemed to thaw the frosty tension in Dean's posture and the older man finally turned towards him.
"Dean..." Sam began, diving head first through the opening that presented itself. "About Bill...I gave him a hunter's burial." He paused, unsure how his brother would react. "Figured that's what you would've done," he admitted.
Dean let out a chuckle, though his eyes were devoid of mirth. "Yeah, well, he mighta turned out to be a backstabbing douchebag, but he did right in the end."
There was a long silence, not adversarial, but not companionable either. Sam fretted in silence about how best to break it, how best to extract the information he wanted, but in the end it was Dean who made the first move.
"Sammy, I'm sorry."
"What for?" Sam spluttered, bewildered.
"You were right." Dean scratched at his stubble with his free hand, the way he always did when he was struggling with an uncomfortable truth.
"About what?" But Sam still had no idea where this was going.
"Bill was playin' us from the start on this one. But then, he always was."
"The Manticore...me bein' bait, lurin' it out...It was all Bill's idea. I thought I knew what I was doing..."
"Dean..." Sam started, but the elder hunter shook his head.
"You know he came and found me behind Dad's back, right? After Dad said no. Came and told me Dad was too soft, that I was the one who was man enough," Dean smiled, but it was derisive and bitter. "I was stupid. I let him talk me into it. 'Course, that time at least I had an excuse. I was old enough, and wise enough, to know better in New Mexico and I still fell for it." His voice was strained, brittle thin. "But dammit, Dad had taken off, you were in California..."
Sam felt sick at that, but he didn't want his brother to stop talking. "What happened?"
"We were pretty sure we'd found the bitch, but we couldn't be sure. We needed to see if she had the Mark."
"That's what you and Bill were talking about back at Jim-Bob's?"
Another caustic smile. "It was his idea. We were runnin' outta time and we needed to be certain before we took her out. He really had me. I was pissed at Dad and y–" he let out a clumsy cough, hastening to correct himself. "Well, I was angry, and Bill was buttering me up, sayin' all this crap about him bein' old and me bein' in my prime." He shook his head, shooting Sam a smirk the younger man didn't return. "Well that part was true."
"Dean..." Sam's protest was soft, sincere. Trying to stop his big brother from deflecting as he always did.
"I hooked up with her. And man, I gotta say, for a witch...she was–"
"Yeah, I don't think I need to know those details, Dean!"
"Yeah, well it went south pretty fast. Turns out she made me the second she laid eyes on me. I shoulda been prepared. I wasn't. Bill was waitin' outside. When I didn't show, he came lookin'." He chuckled again, but the sound was laced with regret. "It was a stupid plan. If Dad had ever found out..."
"How bad was it?" Sam really didn't need to hear this. But then again, he did.
"Bad. That's all you need to know." Just like that, the door was slammed shut.
"But–" And no amount of pushing and pulling and shouldering was going to get it open again.
"Ain't gonna do any good, goin' over old ground, Sammy. Just let it go."
But maybe, just maybe there was another pathway. "I will if you will."
"Come again?" Dean cocked his head.
"I'll let it go. If you stop beating yourself up about Bill." Sam hadn't been pre-law for nothing.
"Sam–" It was Dean's turn, now, to object.
"I'm serious, dude. I'm the driver. I'm the one who decides where and when we stop, I'm the one who chooses whether or not we have music. And I can keep this up for as long as it takes."
Dean gaped at him, apoplectic.
"So..." Sam went on, "you can either tell me what I want to know, or we both agree to let it go."
Dean worked his jaw as though chewing over his options.
"Well?" Sam wheedled his voice up a couple of notches, pitching it just right.
"Fine!" Dean shuffled around with a harrumph so that his back was to the younger man. "Last friggin' time I ever let you drive," he grumbled mutinously.
A self-satisfied grin threatened to spill over Sam's face but he tried to hold onto it. Check mate.
"Nobody likes a gloater, Sam!"
Too late. The laughter bubbled up before he could stop it. Dean raised a solitary middle finger without turning around. Still chuckling, Sam reached forward and flicked on the stereo in conciliation. Sultans of Swing burst from the speakers and he saw his brother relax into his seat, lips curving at one corner. He settled back into his own seat, satisfied that the worst of it was over, for now.
The younger Winchester checked the rearview mirror. Arkadelphia had melted into the horizon behind them. In front of them, the empty, endless highway awaited. The Impala roared.
Sam turned the volume up.
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