Chapter 13. Grief
Chapter 13. Grief
The last time Sam saw his father was over two years ago. That day, a succession of angered accusations was tossed back and forth between John and him for hours. Words, yells and fuming glares flew as daggers, every one sharper than the previous one and all of them accurately aimed at the other's heart in the way that only two people who had known and loved each other all their lives knew how to do. That night Sam left and didn't come back. During a long —too long— while, the relationship between his father and him was nonexistent. No letters or calls were exchanged, and while Sam had tried to convince himself he was okay with it, the memory of the day he left for Palo Alto had been chasing him for months whether he liked to admit it or not.
The younger Winchester had often wondered what he would do once he was finally face to face with his father. He wanted to tell John so many things, like he regretted the way he had left, or how much he had missed him and hated that pride and only pride had kept them apart. He wanted to tell him that he understood him better now, that deep down they were quite alike.
Months of good intentions were crushed, and all his conciliatory words got stuck in his throat the second he found himself in his father's presence. The senior hunter's harshness made him cringe, and a quick look at John's glowering eyes was enough to take Sam straight back to that time when fighting was a daily occurrence. Swallowing hard and suddenly as scared of his father's wrath as he had been as a child, Sam squirmed. He searched Dean's eyes instinctively, but Dean stood frozen just like he, himself, was. And while Dean was so close to Sam that his back was practically brushing his little brother's shoulder, he was staring fixedly at his father in front of him.
"Tell me you didn't do it. That she's not…" John hissed.
His voice fell quiet. Apparently, he was unable to say what was on his mind. But he didn't have to do it. The accusation hung between them crystal clear, although his confused sons weren't able to answer to it.
Their silence seemed to end John's patience.
"TELL ME YOU DIDN'T KILL HER!" John yelled.
Dean flinched, and his body leaned into Sam's involuntarily. The contact made Sam snap out of the shock that finding his father had provoked in him, and he realized that Dean was shaking ever so slightly under the layer of rigidness that kept his muscles taut. Sam tensed immediately in response. Tempted to wrap an arm around Dean's back, he ended up only ghosting a hand over his waist, all the while unsure of how Dean would react. As much as Sam yearned for it, the older sibling still refused to make eye contact with him. John's presence was too overwhelming for the two of them.
Dean's voice came out hoarse, apologetic. Sam was astonished. Dean wasn't supposed to sound so disheartened. At least Sam hadn't heard that tone of voice in years. Not since Dean had been…what? Eight? Nine? Not since that time, a night almost forgotten in a five-year old's mind, when nobody had known he was eavesdropping behind the door, and he had heard Dean's words to his father.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"For being alive."
"Dad," Sam warned John once he finally found his voice. The words came out raspy as he stepped forward next to his brother, but they also held a lash of protectiveness. The events in their old house were still too recent, and Sam felt fiercely possessive of his brother, to an extent he didn't believe to be possible.
He vaguely wondered if this was how Dean had felt about him during his whole life.
John glared at him, but ignored Sam after a second and focused entirely on Dean. Both dejected by his father's lack of attention and worried about John's fixation on Dean, Sam wet his lips.
"You're sorry? Sorry?" John said, his voice escalating. "How does that change anything? How could you do that?"
"I had to," Dean muttered. Sam noticed he was speaking in singular. "She…She was going to k-"
Before Dean could finish or Sam could react, John grabbed his eldest by the shirt collar and shoved him hard against the wall. Dean groaned, but other than that, his father's attack elicited no response.
"Don't you dare say that," John growled, shaking Dean against the wall.
"Dad!" Sam exclaimed.
The youngest Winchester's heart sank in his chest when Dean didn't defend himself. He didn't even instinctively bring his hands to John's wrists to try and alleviate the choking grasp. Even being the hunter he was, having his father at the other end of the confrontation was enough not only to subjugate his will to put up a fight but also his most automatic instincts to survive the abuse. And that was too much for Sam to watch without intervening.
"Are you out of your mind?" Sam bellowed at John and grabbed his father's arms to force him away from Dean. "Get off him!"
John's fuming gaze flickered from Dean to Sam. He let go of one hand only for the instant that it took him to push Sam away harshly.
"Dad," Dean gasped, finally bringing his hand to his father's arm and sliding a couple of inches away from the wall in an effort to tear his back from it and turn. Or rather, as Sam suspected, trying to move and stand between his father and his little brother. His attempt to shift, however, seemed to infuriate John even more, because when the senior hunter pinned him back against the wall, he did so with unrestrained force.
"You of all people," John hissed dangerously. "You had no right! You owed her your life! I was going to get her back! I was so damn close!"
Dean's head bumped against the hard surface of the wall with a hollow thud, and Sam could swear his own body seemed to reverberate painfully with it.
"I said let him go!" Sam roared.
This time John didn't see him coming, and Sam was able to pry his father's hands from his brother's neck. Before John could force him to back off, Sam pushed him away with more strength that he had planned to use. As his father stumbled backwards, Sam felt himself staggering.
"You bastard!" Sam's accusing yell broke in the end, his voice shaking as badly as his body. "You have no right to talk. Where the hell were you? We've been looking for you for months! Dean called you when we were coming here! Where.were.you?"
How could John blame them? How, when all he had done for the last half-year was run from them? Sam's young heart was in flames, adrenaline rushed over his body in blazes of fire, and his eyes stung with unshed tears. John grunted something unintelligible as he got back to his feet. Sam felt the bile rising and was a heartbeat from launching himself at John, when he felt Dean's hand holding him by the elbow.
"Sam, don't," his older brother breathed.
Sam turned around to face Dean, and his upset hazel-brown eyes locked with the warning hazel-green of his brother's. Sam averted his gaze first, hurt that even now Dean was going to take his father's side. All he was trying to do was defend him. But then, Dean had always hated whenever Sam stepped between his father and him. He seemed to think Sam didn't do it to defend him ─let alone the fact that for his brother, "Dean" and "being defended" were two irreconcilable concepts─, but only to have an excuse to jump at his father's throat.
As if he had ever needed any.
While many times, Sam hated to admit Dean had been right about the real reasons he intervened between his brother and father, this time was different. This time Dean wasn't right, because for once it wasn't about Sam and John getting carried away by the zillionth round of their endless record of arguments. It was really about his brother, and if he wasn't willing to stand up to John for himself, Sam, without a second thought would be the one fighting for him.
"No!" Sam protested and shrugged Dean off. "For once he's gonna listen to us!"
Yeah, Sam would be the one fighting. Whether Dean liked it or not.
"We…" Sam started, stressing the plural form. He wasn't oblivious to how Dean's glare had turned from warning to pleading in the split second during which their eyes were still fixed on each other before Sam turned around to look daggers at their father. However, he chose to ignore it. "We did what we had to do to save those people's lives! We did what you taught us to do! You know that! We did what you should have done two years ago!"
"SAM!" Dean exclaimed.
Sam jerked when Dean's arm hooked around his, and he stopped his heated tirade. By then he was panting as hard as if he had run a marathon. John's eyes had taken on a dangerous glint, and his face had gone livid with anger. Sam swallowed heavily and clenched and unclenched his fists, but Dean, who was still holding him, tightened the grip on his arm and pulled Sam closer. Sam didn't fight him; actually, he was feeling light-headed after his outburst, and he leaned into his brother a couple of inches more until his back was almost resting on Dean's chest.
"You don't know what you're talking about," John snarled.
Sam scowled at his father. Damn the man, who always had to have the last word. Straightening up, he disentangled himself from his brother and made a step towards John.
"I'm talking about Marcia Johnson," Sam retorted unflinchingly.
"I'm talking about your mother!"
"Mom is dead, Dad! And I don't care what you thought you could do about it, she wasn't coming ba-…"
Sam knew he should have seen it coming. After all, he was supposed to be pretty smart. On top of that, he had already seen —and suffered— the effect those same words had had on Dean back in Jericho. Therefore, he should have been clever enough to foresee what John's reaction would be.
Maybe he did, just a second too late, but John's fist was already flying to his face.
"Dad!" Dean shouted.
Sam heard Dean's voice somewhere next to him, but the blow was so brutal that it made his ears buzz. He landed on his back stunned and half on the floor, half slumped against the wall. Immediately, he felt his eyes filling up with tears of pain and frustration.
His father had never hit him before.
Amidst the blur his sight had turned into, Sam saw John approaching, and for the first time in his life Sam was genuinely afraid of him. However, he was unable to get up, because along with that punch, the emotions of the night had been released, and now pain, exhaustion and raw sadness were finally taking its toll on the young hunter. He just stared, waiting for John to finish him off. But the next thing he knew was that Dean was standing between them and had thrown a punch at John. The senior Winchester fell to the floor.
"Dean…" Sam wanted to cry out for his brother, but the too familiar call, as automatic and natural for him as breathing, got caught in his throat. He couldn't believe what was happening.
Dean had never hit John before.
As Sam struggled to stand up, Dean kept his strategic position between John and his little brother. Still in shock, Sam used Dean's shoulder for support to straighten up. Under his hand, he could feel Dean trembling, worse this time. And John…
John was crying.
Speaking of first times.
"Dad," Sam stammered.
His previous anger faded at the sight of John's tears. To see his father, the strong, hardened warrior, the cold, undaunted hunter shedding tears was wrong. The whole situation was completely wrong, like a terrible nightmare. And Sam just wanted to wake up.
Please, let me wake up.
John wiped the tears out of his eyes quickly with the back of his hand and scrambled to his feet with a huff. Neither of the brothers advanced to lend him a hand but remained glued to each other in their corner where they shook giddily at the insurmountable gap that had opened between their father and them. Back to his feet, John appraised his sons with a hurt look.
"You shouldn't be here."
Sam cringed at the unveiled accusation: You walked away.
"Neither of you. This is not your place," John continued.
Both siblings understood John wasn't referring only to Lawrence and blinked in disbelief. Was John really saying what they thought he was saying?
Was he…dismissing them from the hunt?
"Stop looking for me. I don't want your help. We don't belong together. Not since Mary was taken."
Sam heard Dean swallow hard.
"C'mon, Dad…You don't mean that," Dean tried with a shaky smile.
Sam remained right by his side, but he found himself at a loss for words. John looked at them one last time.
"I should have seen it before," he sentenced.
His lips quivered, as if he was about to say something else. However, he remained quiet and after a couple of excruciatingly long seconds, he headed to the entrance, exited the room and slammed the door closed.
The reverberation of the slam clung onto the air and become the only sound in the room —the only sound in the whole fucking universe— as Sam and Dean stood paralyzed in their places, holding their breaths. Slowly, very slowly, Dean's knees started to give way, and before Sam realized it his brother was out of his grasp and slumped wretchedly on one of the beds with his eyes wide and fixed on the door, his expression shattered.
"Dean," Sam muttered.
Dean didn't respond. Overwhelmed with the sudden urge to make sure that Dean was still mentally in the room and not spinning out of control down a road where he couldn't follow him, Sam had to work hard to resist the temptation to shake him.
"Dean?" he called with a note of desperation.
Dean dragged his gaze from the door to Sam, but didn't look at him in the eye. The younger Winchester noticed that Dean was clenching the hand he had used to punch his father tightly on his knee, and that his knuckles were scratched and starting to become dyed in crimson red. Sam swallowed and reached to take his brother's hand, but Dean's breath hitched, and he slapped Sam's hand away with his raw one. The movement obviously hurt him, because he winced, raised his hand shakily to his eye-level, and stared dazedly at the blood that tainted his fingers. He looked about to pass out, and his Adam's apple wobbled up and down as if he was a second from hurling or bursting into tears.
"Oh, God," Dean whispered.
Sam pursed his lips to keep them from trembling and crouched in front of his brother so that he could search his gaze.
"Sammy…" Dean mumbled brokenly when their eyes finally met.
In that moment, the sound of a truck reached them from the parking lot outside the room, and Dean's attention darted to the window. Sam gasped inwardly at the sheer devastation that took over his brother the second he realized his father was indeed leaving, and that he intended to stay gone for good.
No…No. No. No.
Their father couldn't leave like this. Not after what had felt like losing their mother all over again. It would destroy Dean. It would be the end for them all.
I won't let that happen, Dean. Hold on.
Setting his jaw, Sam stood up so fast that his knees cracked as he bolted towards the door and went out after his father.
Sam crossed the parking lot as fast as his legs allowed him. John's was already manoeuvering the truck's way towards the exit. Despite his son's call, he didn't stop.
"Dad, wait!" Sam tried again.
The young man couldn't quite see his father's face from his position and sped up, childishly thinking that if he got to make eye contact with John and the latter realized how badly Sam needed him not to go, he would simply pull over and step out of the car.
Yeah, and wait to give me a hug.
But if anything, John accelerated. Sam felt bile rising through his throat then turn into a bitter ball of lead that sank into his stomach and bounced painfully against his guts. Adrenaline supplied what oxygen couldn't, and Sam sprinted with all he had left until he was able to block John's way by suddenly jumping in front of the car. A part of his mind registered that the odds were that John —or anyone else, for that matter— wouldn't be able to stop the truck before running over him. Another part of his mind tingled with the thought of how ugly the scene was about to become.
None of those sensations got him moving, though. Not even enough to try to move. He just stood, literally caught in the headlights, unable to react. His eyes locked with John's only for a second before Sam closed his eyelids and clenched his fist awaiting the blow. However, it never came. The only thing he sensed was a terrible screech of brakes. And then nothing.
Until his father's distressed voice reached him.
"For Christ's sake! Are you okay?"
When Sam dared to open his eyes, he saw the truck bumper barely a couple of inches away from his knees. His stomach flip-flopped, and the sight of how close it had been made his knees buckle. He would have fallen over the hood, if John, who had gotten out of the car and had walked hastily up to his son, hadn't grabbed him by the arm.
"Sam!" the senior hunter shook his son, concern tainting his voice. "Answer me. Are you alright?"
Sam let out a shaky breath and leaned on the hood with one hand while he grasped John's jacket with the other, both to keep himself steady against John's nervous shoving and to make sure that his father remained in place, at least until he was able to get himself together and regain his voice.
Sam swallowed a couple of times and met his father's frantic gaze ruefully. All anger had vanished from John's eyes now to be replaced with worry and a hint of tears. Still unused to finding such strong emotion on his father's face, the younger Winchester felt all his self-control slip away once more, and he held onto John with both hands. He was desperate and too over the edge to care about hiding it anymore.
"Dad…" he croaked.
John's concern increased a few notches as he mistook the reason for Sam's shaky clinginess.
"Son, tell me where you're hurt."
"Dad," Sam repeated, swallowing again to bring some moisture to his throat. "Dad, don't go."
"Sam, what the…"
"Goddammit, Sam!" John roared.
Just as it was with his youngest, the line between concern and rage was particularly thin in John Winchester, and as soon as he came to realize Sam wasn't physically injured, relief favoured the passage from the former to the latter at an incredible speed.
"Are you nuts?! What were you thinking jumping in front of the car like that! I could have killed you!"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Sam repeated, tugging at John's jacket. "You can't go."
John huffed and stepped back, liberating himself from Sam's pull.
"Jesus, Sammy," he said, sighing as he ran both hands through his hair and then scrubbed his face. The whole time he averted his son's eyes.
"Dad, listen to me," Sam begged. "It wasn't Dean's fault, okay? He never wanted any of this to happen. I dragged him here. I made him go into the house. I…"
"Sam, stop it."
"No, you don't understand! It was my fault! He didn't want to vanquish her! Jennifer and her kids were already safe. And he was ready to let himself die!"
I fucking saw him letting himself die.
John lifted his gaze, his eyes full of pain as he fixed them on Sam.
"But, I came back inside…and Mom…she was going to…" Sam said but then stopped himself. "Dean only did it to save me, Dad. If you want to blame someone blame me, but please…don't you go like this."
John remained silent for some long seconds, just staring blankly at his son. However, the emotion building inside him was visible and Sam bit his lip, fearing the worst. The most unsettling thing was yet to come. All of a sudden, without further notice, John reached out and pulled Sam into an unexpected hug.
"Jesus, Sammy," John muttered once more, holding his youngest son tight against him.
Unprepared in any possible way for this father's embrace, Sam stiffened but at the same time felt the urge to melt into his dad's arms and just let go into the warmness and safeness he had stopped searching for in John too long ago. He loved his father dearly, always had. If only he could trust him too. If he could count on him, just this once…
"It's you who doesn't understand," John whispered thickly. "I loved her."
Sam choked back a sob and shook his head against his father's shoulder. Unconsciously, he grabbed John tighter as if to prevent him from leaving.
"I understand," he protested.
I understand it too well.
"I can't be around you boys, not right now. We would just hurt each other more," John continued, without trying to detach himself from Sam. "I wouldn't be able to stand it. Every time I'd look into your eyes I'd see her, I'd see what…"
"I know it's not fair…I-I know that. And I know you just did what I couldn't do. What had to be done. But still…"
"Please, don't," Sam croaked, pulling his father closer, terrified when he realized that John was starting to break the hug. "Dean needs you. We need you."
Why? Why isn't that enough for you?
"Let me go, Sam," John said calmly.
"Dad, you can't go now, after all this time we've spent looking for you! We've been apart for too long, dammit!" the young hunter hissed.
John disentangled himself from Sam and looked him straight in the eye.
"I told you to stop looking for me. That's an order."
"An order my ass!"
"Sam!" John's voice turned into a growl, and his eyes sparkled.
Sam set his jaw and swallowed hard against a bitter gulp of disappointment. It was really happening. John blamed them for Mary's death. He was going to walk away, and Sam was helpless to stop him. Nothing he could say, nothing he could do was going to make John change his mind.
"At least go talk to him," Sam said, his voice suddenly colder. "Tell him that you forgive him. I don't care if you lie, but he needs to hear that."
"I can't, Sam."
"Dean will get over it," John affirmed with a tense shrug. "So will you."
But you won't, is that what you mean?
Sam clenched his teeth so hard that his jaw started to hurt, but he was helpless to act in any other way. If he loosened his muscles, even just a little, he would break down, right there. He refused to say good-bye to John, because by doing so he could at least pretend that he was still fighting his father's leaving. Instead, Sam glued his eyes to the soil like a stubborn child, while his trained ear registered the soft sigh his father gave before he made his way back into the car, opened the door with a crack and turned the engine on.
Before he could realize it, Sam was alone in the empty parking lot, and his father was driving away. When he finally looked up, the truck was too far for him to make out in the darkness. Only the headlights where visible, and even they quickly got smaller and smaller until they disappeared in the distance.
Sam gulped and took a deep breath that tasted too much of defeat. For a while, he stayed there, staring numbly at the road where John had last disappeared until a gust of wind made him shiver. The breeze suddenly reminded him that he was standing outside his motel room in the middle of the night, waiting for something that would never come.
Sam turned back and headed up to the room. At first, he walked slowly, his movements dazed. But as he approached the door, he unconsciously quickened his pace. He opened the door of the room to find Dean exactly as he had left him, sitting on the edge of his bed with a haunted expression. As soon as Sam entered, Dean raised his eyes and the brothers exchanged a brief look. Sam's throat constricted with the knowledge of what Dean was silently asking, and he averted his eyes regretfully. He didn't need to say a word since the answer to Dean's question was written all over his face and also in the empty space at his back when he had come back into the room alone.
"I'm sorry," Sam mustered.
Even as he said it, Sam cringed at how useless his words were. He had apologized so many times over the last couple of days that it sounded hollow even to his own ears. It was just that he didn't know what else he could say. Dean's face had turned into an inscrutable mask. A slight shake of his head —clearly intended to make Sam shut up— was the only evidence that Dean had heard his words. Sam wet his lips and closed the door behind him. After the soft click of the door, a strained silence hung heavily over their heads, and Sam chewed his inner cheek nervously.
"Hey," Sam said, trying to get Dean's attention.
When Dean didn't respond, Sam fidgeted, made a hesitant step forwards and started to reach out for him. Dean just jerked away brusquely and stood.
"Man…C'mon," Sam said, swallowing back bitter grief.
In two strides, Dean was facing the wall, and giving his back to Sam. The younger brother inhaled and exhaled, forcing some air to get past the lump in his throat and into his lungs. Suddenly, Dean threw a punch at the wall and Sam jumped. The thin walls of the motel room creaked, and the blow reverberated in the air. Sam bit his lip so hard that he tasted iron in his mouth. The weight on his chest increased, and his heart pounded impossibly hard against his ribcage.
"Dean?" Sam muttered.
"Go, Sam," Dean ordered, without looking at his brother.
"Go," the older hunter repeated.
Sam felt a shiver running across his spine. Dean's voice was shaking dangerously, although what the danger was exactly, Sam wasn't sure. The tremble could either be indicative of Dean being a heartbeat away from breaking down, or that Sam was about to end up with a broken face if he insisted on pushing. Both options were scary as hell, especially the first one.
"No," Sam heard himself saying.
His eyes glistening menacingly, Dean tilted his head and glared at him hard. His aggressive stance was tempered by the pallor of his skin, though, and the way his breath was coming in short, ragged gasps. Sam gathered all his courage and made another step towards him.
"Listen, Dean, I…"
His movement was halted abruptly when Dean turned around and swept away the contents of the small table that was next to him. The shattering noise of the vase and the couple of glasses that got acquainted with the floor was overshadowed by Dean's roar.
"I said go away, Sam!"
"No," Sam said, abjectly refusing. His voice sounded small compared to his brother's outburst and the echo of the objects crashing.
A groan rose from deep inside Dean's throat, and the older hunter kicked the table so hard that it landed a couple of inches from Sam.
"LEAVE, SAM! LEAVE.ME.ALONE!" Dean yelled.
When a stubborn Sam stayed in place, Dean seemed to lose it and charged against the room with unleashed rage. Fighting the tears that burned his eyes, Sam steeled himself against his brother's wrath, and flinched inside every time a lamp flew against a wall or a chair leg gave way after being crashed against the floor. Other than the first table, none of the furniture came anywhere near him again, and not for a single second did Sam fear for his safety. But Dean's pain did reach him anyway, solid and sharp as a knife, rolling out of his big brother in waves and hanging onto the air just as thick and suffocating as the smoke Sam had pulled him from just a while ago.
"DAMMIT," Dean cried over and over. "DAMMIT, DAMMIT DAMMIT!"
His expression was really scary, but the little brother in Sam could also see what lay underneath. Shielded behind his heated explosion, Dean was terrified and clutching at an impulsive attack on the furniture to keep it together, all the while pleading in a desperate and raw way for Sam not to stay to witness his inexorable fall.
His fear made Sam's determination waver. Dean didn't plead, ever. He didn't do desperate either. It was obvious that trashing the room wasn't a good enough outlet, and Sam thought that maybe his insistence on staying was only making it all even harder for Dean because it obliged him to try keeping his crumbling walls up. But Sam couldn't leave. Not now, when he belonged with his brother more than ever. Dean was the only person who had really been there for him all his life, and nothing in the world was going to make Sam bail on him in this moment.
John has already given them too much of that treatment.
And so Sam did the only thing he could do. He stood in the middle of the room and waited for Dean to either calm down or break down. Maybe even to storm into the safe bubble he had unconsciously erected around his little brother to protect him from the flying furniture, and once inside beat the crap out of him for being an ass. Either way, Sam was ready to take it. He yearned to take it.
Please Dean, let me take it.
A hard knocking on the door interrupted Sam's thoughts, and the younger hunter turned around quickly towards the entrance, thanking all possible gods that he had left it closed.
"Hey!" the nervous voice of Michael Tyler, the motel owner, came from the other side. "Are you okay? What's going on in there?!"
Sam cursed under his breath and launched himself against the door, grabbing the knob just as it started to turn open. Damn master keys!
"We're fine!" Sam yelled back, his voice incredibly firm considering the way his hands were trembling. "It's okay, everything's fine!"
"Sir?" Michael pushed, noticing that Sam was keeping the door closed from the inside.
"Sorry about the noise, we'll turn down the volume of the TV…"
"Sir, are you sure you're alright? We heard yelling and…"
"I said we're just fine!" Sam said, pounding back at the door before he could stop himself. Dammit, he immediately thought, clenching his jaw hard. Apparently all his years of trained self-control were spiraling down along with Dean's. It wouldn't be the best idea to have good old Mike calling the police now, would it? "Listen, it's alright, really. Sorry about the noise. I know it's late, it won't happen again."
Behind the door, the manager took a reflective pause before grumbling.
"Alright. But I warn you, if I get any other complaints about you, I'll be calling the cops."
The pressure of the knob eased as Michael let go of it and went away. Sam let out a deep sigh of relief, rested his forehead against the wooden surface, and closed his eyes to regain some sense of balance. He felt as if he was high, and something about the tingling on his arms told him that if the motel manager had kept on attempting to break into the room in that very moment, he would have killed the man the second he dared to lay his judgmental eyes on Dean.
When the dizziness subsided Sam realized the trashing had stopped at his back and, with his stomach in knots, he turned around slowly. Dean had sat down on the edge of Sam's bed, the one further away from the door and his brother right now, and once again was giving Sam his back. His brother's shoulders were slumped down, his elbows on his knees and his face buried on them. Sam swallowed and described a cautious circle to get closer to him, until he was towering over Dean's slouched form.
"Please," Dean muttered without looking up. "Sammy, go."
Sam blinked away the fresh tears pooling in his eyes. It was his turn to be strong. Dean needed him to be strong.
"I'm sorry, man," Sam's voice came out raspy, and he had to clear his throat before continuing. "But I'm not going anywhere."
Dean gave a dejected snort and clasped the sides of his head, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes so strongly that Sam winced. He didn't dare touch him though, since the next thing Dean did was curl into a tight ball with his face buried on his knees and his arms wrapped over his head. Dean's body language showed an obvious attempt to shut the world out, to bolt and bar it away. Sam included.
Aching for some way to offer comfort, the younger brother crouched awkwardly in front of Dean to be at eye level with him, but other than that, he remained silent and at a complete loss. Dean's shoulders had started rocking very slightly, and the older hunter's hands had turned into fists. Sam knew that Dean was still fighting; fighting tooth and nail to swallow back the sobs that caught in his throat and made his whole body tremble like a leaf in the wind. He was trying to keep it together by any means, and the struggle was painful to watch. Because on the one hand, Sam wished Dean could simply open up, at least this once. But on the other hand, he couldn't help hoping that his hero would pull through it, because… that was what Dean always did.
If he had to be honest with himself, Sam wasn't sure anymore about what would be best for his brother. Nobody knew better than Sam how hurtful keeping things bottled inside was and how much it helped letting them out. But he also knew his brother may not be able to take what he would certainly see as a defeat. Torn by the situation, Sam cursed his own helplessness to make it right for Dean as he had so vehemently promised to himself. Dean deserved better. Dean should have had their father by his side; he needed John…
Dean's voice came out as a whisper, so low that Sam would have missed if he wasn't so close. There was a shade of fear held in his call that made Sam's insides churn, but also spurred him to snap out of his staring spell.
"Shhh," Sam hushed, as he grabbed Dean's biceps and gave them a light squeeze. "I know."
And he did, weirdly enough. When he leaned over and wrapped his arms around Dean's back, he understood. It was clear, in the way Dean's body shuddered quietly, how his breath hitched after every sob he had tried not to release, how he held it after every little failure in an anxious attempt to prevent the next sob from coming.
Sam had never been so close to his brother, and yet, at the same time he felt so far away from him. Sam had never thought that after all his pricking and pushing for Dean to just allow himself to show weakness, that he would be so willing to help his older brother keep the walls up, for both their sakes. But the decision had been made for the younger brother as soon as his name shakily left Dean's lips.
Dean was losing the battle, right in front of him and was so desperate to hold it together at any cost that he was even ready to ask for Sam's help. He wasn't giving in yet, nor letting Sam really in. The most the younger brother could do was to wait outside and do his best to hold together the cracking armour Dean had withdrawn into. And that's what he did; he held onto his brother, whispered encouraging sounds, squeezed his broad shoulders when he felt another sob was coming, and wished that their combined strengths were enough to suffocate them.
"C'mon, big brother," Sam chanted softly. "C'mon…"
Dean was making a hell of an effort, that much Sam knew. It was crystal clear in the way the unspoken counting Sam was able to retrieve from his brother's mind determined Dean's rhythm of clenching and unclenching his fists. But the drill didn't work either, judging by the marks that Dean's nails left in his palms after every teary exhalation. The older brother's whole body shuddered after a particularly shallow intake, and he was unable to keep to himself the little cry of pain that escaped his lips when his lungs failed to get air.
"Sammy…" Dean rasped.
Sam pursed his lips and found that he was barely keeping his own tears at bay. Dean was hurting in a way Sam had never witnessed and trying to overcome the suffering was hurting him even more. His brother was falling apart far faster than he was able to pull himself together. It was a cadence that was doomed to ruin.
"Dean, stop it," Sam whispered in the smallest of voices.
Even as he said it, he couldn't believe his own ears. Asking Dean to stop fighting was unnatural, even if it was for his own sake. Sam sensed Dean tensing in his arms, his incredulity and what he was sure was a wave of disappointment rolling out of him like a punch. But he couldn't stand his brother's pain anymore. Bracing himself against those emotions, Sam shifted so that he could cup his brother's neck gently with one hand and speak softly in his ear.
"You're hurting yourself more. Please, stop."
Still holding his breath, Dean shook his head weakly as one of his hands found Sam's arm and fisted his shirt blindly. He gave the fabric a pleading tug, as is saying "you cannot possibly be asking that from me, now can you?" and Sam would have laughed at that if the situation wasn't so absolutely fucked up, or if he hadn't been sure the chuckle wouldn't break into a sob. Dean was hanging by the edge of a cliff, holding onto Sam as a lifeline and…and here was Sam, proving himself unable to pull Dean up and instead asking him to…jump.
It wasn't about pride. It wasn't about courage or even about control anymore. For a person like Dean it was about the pure and simple fear of flying. Sam kicked himself for not realizing before that his brother wasn't disappointed, nor was he mad at him. When asked to let go, Dean didn't even know how to do it. When asked to let go, Dean was downright scared.
"It'll be okay," Sam's voice turned thick, hushed next to his brother's ear. He had to swallow a couple of times to hold back his own inner turmoil.
"You know what hurts the most? That you insist on trusting anyone but me!"
"Why not me, Dean, why not me?"
"You…huh…you gotta trust me now, okay?"
"I hate when you do that."
"Shut me out."
We're in this together.
"It'll get better."
I'll catch you, Dean.
"I promise," Sam assured him, tightening his grasp on his brother, as if to prove his point.
Dean tensed in Sam's hold even more, and Sam stopped breathing. Literally. Until he felt his brother's shuddering, and then heard a sob escape Dean's throat. A heartbreaking, painfully real sob that was unrestrained and raw. Sam's chest tightened in an automatic response, but he struggled to keep some similarity of coolness. At least until a second sob from his brother tore him to the core, and Dean moved. Slowly, Dean uncurled, unburied his face from his knees, and leaned into Sam's chest.
Sam felt Dean's arms around his back as Dean pressed himself against him, and his heart rate spiked. Knowing that Dean would search the darkest, safest place to break, Sam tilted his head and allowed Dean's to rest against the crook of his neck. Another sob shook the older hunter as soon as he buried his face into his brother's warmth. He slipped over the edge of the bed and slumped down to the floor in Sam's arms. Another sob came, and then another one. Both brothers then ended up pulling each other closer until they were curled in a tight ball again. Only this time, Sam wasn't hovering over the surface but was accepted fully inside.
"Okay," Sam muttered, no longer caring that he was crying openly along with his brother. "Okay," he repeated as he gently rocked Dean's body.
For the first time since he was a child, Dean cried. Actually, it was the first time that Sam could remember Dean ever crying. He hadn't expected to feel so thrown out of balance by Dean's acceptance, but then, he had never experienced such an overwhelming intimacy with anybody, not even with Jess. And he knew for sure that Dean had never let anybody get this close to him either. Sam felt giddy, like he was drunk; intoxicated by Dean's absolute abandonment and trust.
"It's okay. I got you now."
Time stopped mattering; the world ceased to exist outside of them. For a while, the only thing important in the universe was that they were finally grieving, and that they were finally holding.
And that they were finally safe.
Sunrise found them sitting on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, with their backs against the bed. They had been silent for a while now, tears long spent. Sam's arm was still loosely around his brother's waist and rubbing his side gently, almost absently with his thumb. And while Dean wasn't trying to stop the coddling, he wasn't looking at Sam either. Sam knew Dean felt embarrassed, and that a part of him wanted Sam to let go of him, which in a way was good, since it meant that his brother was slowly getting a grip on himself. But he also knew that Dean wasn't ready to bounce back just yet.
That was okay, Sam decided, slipping his eyes closed and resting his head back on the bed. Sam knew his brother well enough by now to know that his awkwardness at being comforted was nothing personal, but a part of who he was. And that was the reason why it meant so much that Dean had allowed himself to cry on his brother's shoulder, if only for a while. For the time being, Sam was willing to give Dean anything he needed, whether it was staying close or backing off.
He couldn't help musing, though about how weird it was that they had so easily gotten stuck back in their Winchester dynamics. Sam loved Dean more than anything; he wouldn't tell him, but wouldn't deny it to himself either. And he knew Dean felt more or less the same way about him. Their past history had proven that they didn't do very well when they were apart, yet when they were together they kept their distances, hiding their affection behind their brotherly banter and their hunters' tough guy masks. God, they were really screwed up, Sam thought with a soft chuckle, if their middle ground consisted of bickering as the only possible way to convey love.
Dean looked up at the sound of his brother's short laugh and fixed Sam with a curious gaze.
His voice still sounded a little husky. Sam glanced in his direction, took in his brother's reddened eyes and pallid features, but also the small, tentative smile that tugged up the corner of his lips. Sam smiled back and shook his head.
"Nothing," he replied with a sigh.
He started to remove his arm from Dean's waist. The latter stiffened almost imperceptibly; his eyes flickered over Sam's with a hint of panic, even as he moved forwards a little to make it easier for his brother to take his arm away. Sam smiled at him reassuringly and as soon as he recovered his upper limb, he pulled his knees to his chest and sat with his arms crossed over them, using his right hand to nudge at Dean's left arm. After tugging at his sleeve, Sam left his hand brushing his brother's elbow, and by doing so he was able to keep the physical contact between them in a casual way.
"I was just thinking about what a pair of freaks we are," the younger hunter said matter-of-factly.
Dean's lips pulled up again as his body visibly relaxed.
Dean took a deep breath and leaned his head back, mimicking Sam's position from a minute earlier.
"You should have gone with Dad," the older man said out of the blue.
Sam cocked an eyebrow and glanced sideways at Dean.
"What?" he asked, forcing a nervous smile. "Why? You tired of me already?"
Dean snorted shallowly.
"I mean it, Sam. You've spent months looking for him. I know how bad you wanted to find the man and join him…especially after what that son of a bitch did to Jess."
"Dean," Sam interrupted with a soft firm voice. "We both wanted to find him, alright? And I'm glad he's fine, really. I still want to find what killed Jess too. But there'll be time for that."
"I still think you should have gone with him. If anything else, you'd have had a better chance."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because…Sam, look at me," Dean said, averting his eyes, "I-I'm a mess."
"Hey," the younger man said, squeezing his brother's arm with the hand that rested over his elbow. "Give yourself a break here. The whole thing's been pretty messy, from beginning to end."
Dean laughed mirthlessly at that.
"No shit, man," he breathed.
Sam smiled weakly at Dean's remark and then fixed his eyes on the wall in front of him.
"You did the right thing, Dean," Sam said.
Even without looking at his brother, he felt Dean's wary eyes on him.
"I mean, with Mom and all."
"No, listen to me. You need to know it. Dad's not right, okay? You know why?"
The pause that followed put Sam's nerves on edge, and he was a second from starting to fidget.
"Why, Sam?" Dean finally asked.
"Because," Sam said, sighing and turning to face Dean. "All those times when we were kids, when we asked about Mom…and Dad said she was in Heaven…well, it was a lie."
It was Dean's turn to frown, but Sam knew he was listening.
"She wasn't in Heaven, Dean. She was in the house. Trapped. She was scared, and alone, and suffering in there," Sam's voice wavered. Dean was clenching his jaw so hard that it was a miracle he didn't pull anything, "Until…until you saved her. You set her free."
Dean's gaze faltered, and his chin trembled slightly.
"It's true, Dean. That's what happened in there. That's what you did. You set her free. And I know that if there's a Heaven, that's where she is now, watching us. Thanks to you."
More moved than he was willing to admit, Dean swallowed and looked away. Sam took the chance to wipe at his eyes and steady his breath and his voice.
"And sooner or later," he concluded. "Dad would have realized that too. I'm sure he already knows it on some level, but he's just hurting too much to accept it. You know him. Stubborn as hell."
Dean smiled sadly and just nodded, as if he didn't trust his voice to speak.
"And what if I lied?" the older hunter muttered shakily after a while.
"Lied when?" Sam asked.
"I told her I didn't need her," Dean explained. "What if that was a lie, Sammy? She's gone…again, and I don't…I can't take it back."
Again, Sam's hand on his harm took Dean's nervous ramble to a halt.
"She's our mother, Dean," Sam said, shaking his head. "If you had been lying, she would have known," he offered.
Simple as they were, Sam's words seemed to appease Dean.
"I'm sure of it."
"And…You really believe she's watching us?"
"Yeah, I believe so. You know what that means, right?"
Dean just looked at him.
"That you're gonna have to behave from now on, man. And that includes no more room trashing."
Dean let out a heartfelt chuckle and looked around with tired eyes.
"Yeah, I guess," he said lowly.
Actually, not only his eyes, but his whole body spoke volumes of a deep to the bones exhaustion on all levels. Sam felt drained too and was tempted to just rest his head on Dean's shoulder and sleep…for months. However, he was prevented from doing so when Dean shifted, then scrambled to his feet after brushing Sam's hand over his arm for a second. Sam released his hold as he had been tacitly requested to do, been thanked for doing, and then Dean straightened. Sam's side grew cold after losing his brother's proximity, but he said nothing, watching intently Dean's movements instead.
His brother stood stiffly —that much was understandable, having spent the last few hours sitting crumbled on the floor— tossed a look around the room, and scrubbed his face with a grunt. He made a couple of hesitant steps, one forwards and one to the side, as if he simply wasn't sure which way to turn. After a beat, he crouched and picked up the discarded lamp still on the floor, and next proceeded to tidy up the room with calm, pensive motions.
"You don't have to do that now," Sam intervened, as he stood up himself, letting out nothing but a little grimace at the cramped feeling in his legs. Dean seemed dead on his feet; he should be in bed and not taking care of the disorder. Sam hadn't meant to make him feel bad or anything bringing up Mary's watch over them…
Dean shook his head, with his back to his brother.
"I don't know what else to do," he said with a hint of sheepishness.
Sam licked his lips and took a deep breath.
"What do you want to do?"
Somehow bewildered by the question, Dean turned to look into his brother's eyes. Sam understood Dean's confusion. Dean had been asked a simple question, but it wasn't one that he was often seriously asked. Actually the question barely ever was asked, because in John's Winchester's world nothing was about what they wanted, but what they should or shouldn't do to get the badass of the week. Sam had become so frustrated by this particular condition that consistently hung over their lives, that it had become the underlying reason for most of the arguments that John and he had had over the years. Eventually it had driven him to leave home.
But Dean had accepted it. He knew that John always tried to do the right thing, and he sure wanted to do the right thing if that helped to get rid of evil in the world. Now, he was so adapted to the off-kilter way of life that thinking about wanting something outside of the hunt, or the procedures of the hunt, made him feel weak, selfish, off-center. Sam was about the only person who kept asking that question of him, probably because he was the only one that cared about the answer. Dean still couldn't get used to it.
"I want to go, Sammy," Dean said, finding that, despite himself and prompted by his brother's warm eyes he was answering the question. "Hell, I want out of this fucking town."
"Okay," the younger Winchester said with a shrug. He examined the room too, scanning the wreck and fishing in his pocket. "Leave it like that," he added, as he tossed a couple of twenties on the bedside table, to pay for the damage. "Get your stuff," he said, smiling mildly. "We're out of here."