Chapter 7. Priorities.
Chapter 7. Priorities.
Sam parked the Impala in front of the motel at around noontime and hurriedly went to their room. He wondered if his worry over Dean was truly rational, but he couldn't get out of his head the vision of his brother's broken expression as he sat half clothed in the shower.
I'm being stupid.
He'd probably find Dean recovered from his drunken brawl of the previous night and complaining about how Sam hadn't brought back anything for lunch.
As he continued the moderate trek from the parking lot to the hotel room, the thought of lunch made Sam aware that he should be hungry because it had been at least 24 hours since he and Dean had eaten anything. Yet he couldn't say he had any sort of appetite and figured that this was due to stress and worry.
"I'm being really stupid," Sam echoed his previous thought, but out loud this time.
His self-recriminating words did nothing to slow his pace.
He sighed with relief once he made it to the room and rushed to take the key out of his pocket so that he could open the door. He cursed silently when he fumbled the key and dropped it to the floor. His cursing only increased in fervor when he bent down to pick up the key and was alarmed to feel the burning prick of tears assault the corners of his eyes. Swearing once more as he straightened up, Sam forced himself to calm down and managed to unlock the door this time with only slightly shaking hands.
He found Dean sitting on his bed with his back against the headboard, flipping absently through some papers Sam had been working on the day before. He had changed his clothes, and his hair was wet from a recent shower. Sam shivered unwillingly as he again envisioned the image of Dean sitting dejectedly inside the shower, as he had seen him during his trance at Missouri's. The recollection of how intense Dean's emotions had been as Sam had felt them running through his own mind threatened to throw the younger out of balance. Nevertheless, he managed to swallow the reminiscences deep down his throat by trying to focus on other aspects of the scene in front of him.
Sam assessed his brother's appearance. All things considered, Dean didn't look too bad, if one didn't focus on the bruises discolouring his face. At least he looked better than when Sam had left him earlier in the morning. Then he had been still and haggard beneath the covers almost as if he were dead. Probably the few hours of sleep he had caught after a restless first half of the night had done him some good.
Dean stiffened as soon as his brother entered the room, and fixed him with a circumspect look that Sam couldn't hold for long. Finally back in the room, part of his previous sense of anxiety to get back to Dean, had turned into a sudden nervousness about facing him. And so, Sam avoided Dean's gaze and busied himself with locking the door behind him. Both of them were aware of the awkward tension between them, and their sudden loss for words wasn't helping much. Sam walked to his own bed and sat on the edge. All the while, Dean followed Sam's every movement like a hawk, frowned at Sam's sigh of exhaustion when he stretched his lanky legs, and averted his eyes only when his little brother finally looked up to meet his gaze.
"You okay?" Dean asked offhandedly, without looking directly at Sam. The latter, though, could look past the casual tone and see that his big brother seemed genuinely anxious to get a response. More than that, Dean was ashamed. And it wasn't like Dean to be ashamed. "You look like…"
"Crap, yeah," Sam finished for him, rubbing the pitch of his nose. "So I've been told. But I'm fine. You?"
"I'm fine too," Dean answered quickly, and then added with a hint of aggravation, "I called you."
Sam looked down sheepishly. He had seen the missed call from Dean after he had left Missouri's house, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to call his brother's back. At the time, he had told himself it was simply because he was going to be back to the motel in a matter of minutes. But the truth was that Sam had noticed that the call had been made right after their "connection," and he wasn't ready to admit that it might have worked both ways. It was hard enough to admit it worked at all just yet, and the last thing he needed was for his big brother to know without a shadow of a doubt that Sam was a freak and had been psychically spying on him. Dean would never forgive him for that. Besides, even if Dean had really felt the connection, he probably wouldn't want to discuss it anyway.
"Yeah, sorry I missed it," Sam said, and then cleared his throat. "How's your head?"
"Good. But, uh…thanks, for the pills, and the water, and…." Dean let his voice fall.
Sam shook his head to play down the importance of it all.
"Are you hungry?" Sam asked, suddenly aware that Dean had neglected to grouch about the absence of food. The lack of complaint for something that would typically cause Dean to be relentless in his criticism caused Sam's worry to spike. "I could go get us some food."
Dean swallowed and tried his best not to grimace at the idea of eating, but his attempts failed when his own body betrayed him by draining his face of color.
"Not really," Dean replied.
"Me neither," Sam said, snorting.
Visibly uncomfortable with what he was trying to say, Dean smiled weakly and stared at his feet for a moment. When the older brother finally looked up, his attention was drawn to Sam's bruised lip. At the sight of the injury, Dean's expression broke a little. Sam noticed and looked away, wishing Dean had punched him in the stomach instead of square in the face. At least that way people would stop looking at him and feeling bad about the bruise. For Christ sake, it was just a split lip and was the least of his worries right now.
"Dude, I'm…" Dean said hoarsely. "That…That must hurt."
Sam rolled his eyes mentally. He appreciated that Dean was trying to apologize —well, in his own way— but there were more pressing issues to talk about.
"Really, it's nothing," Sam said, shrugging it off.
He then took a deep breath and shifted in the bed to face his brother. Feeling tense due to Sam's serious expression, Dean clenched his jaw and made sure he did not come close to making eye contact with his little brother. Not even he was cynical enough to deny they needed to talk, but that didn't mean he was going to plunge willingly into it.
"So where did you go?" Dean asked casually, trying to win some time.
"I went to see Missouri," Sam said, bluntly.
Dean held his breath a second and glanced pointedly at his leather jacket, which was draped over the table. He realized that Sam must have taken Missouri's card from his jacket pocket while he was sleeping and dragged an aggravated gaze back to his brother.
Up against Dean's menacing expression, Sam fidgeted and bit his lip, but he was prepared to take the consequences of his unilateral decision. To his surprise; however, his brother just let out a grunt and seemed to find a loose thread on his jeans suddenly interesting.
Well, that was unexpected, the younger hunter thought. Dean must have really been convinced he had seriously screwed up the previous night if he now felt obliged to keep himself in check. Sam felt a bit guilty for taking advantage of the situation, but he thought a docile Dean would make the conversation easier for a while.
"So?" Dean grunted when Sam didn't go on. "How did it go?"
"I told her what you told me," Sam started, wondering how much further he could push his luck without arousing his brother's rage.
Dean nodded stiffly and maintained a collected expression even though his muscles were taut beneath the cold surface.
"And she said you were right," Sam said softly. "I'm sorry, man. It's Mom."
Dean lowered his head and frowned. To Sam he looked as if he were trying to find the solution to a very complicated problem he couldn't understand and only the pattern of the carpet held all the answers.
"W-what?" Sam stammered.
"Don't be sorry. You've done nothing wrong."
As he remembered Missouri's words from just a while ago, Sam shook his head and chuckled sadly. Missouri had tried telling him that he shouldn't blame himself, but she hadn't been able to convince Sam. And despite the fact that his brother's words of forgiveness made him feel a little warmer, Sam knew that Dean would also fail to persuade him of his freedom from fault.
"What else did she say?" Dean asked, clearing his throat as he tried to force an even tone.
Sam told Dean what Missouri had explained to him about Mary's ghost, and how she planned to steal Jennifer's body. He also told him about Marcia's death, and the possible meaning of Dean's visions as a strategy to get the hunter into taking her side. He also made a point of saying that all of Missouri's explanations corroborated what they already knew about spirits and their patterns of behavior.
While he spoke, Sam watched Dean's reactions carefully to gauge how the revelations were affecting his brother. Sam wouldn't be able to spare him much, and he certainly wouldn't lie to him, but at least by talking to Missouri first, Sam had the chance to drop the news on Dean with his own words and at his own pace. At some point, Sam thought that if Dean had tried to act in a similarly patronizing way with him, he would be very pissed. But at the same time, Sam felt a sudden pang of understanding towards his big brother, and towards his reasons for often ignoring Sam's opinions for what was best for him.
He's arrogant. But I guess I am too.
And so Sam kept to himself what the psychic had revealed about John since the news about Mary was already hurting Dean enough.
Dean listened without interrupting, and despite Sam's efforts to protect him, the older hunter grew paler and paler by the minute. It was as if every word that left Sam's mouth was a dagger directed at Dean's heart, and his blood was escaping his body through the cuts. He didn't react when Sam resumed his explanation but remained silent, lips pursed so tightly that they were turning white. His eyes hadn't left the floor since Sam started his story, and not being able to read his gaze was the most worrying thing for his little brother.
C'mon, man. Don't do this. Look at me. Talk to me, Dean.
God, he was so still that for a terrible moment Sam wasn't sure if he was even breathing. The younger hunter started to panic and made a move to stand up when Dean suddenly gave out a rough laugh. Sam froze and released his own breath gradually in cautious expectation.
"Well, I'm happy to know nothing was wrong with my head after all. All that girly Proust crap was starting to spook me."
At a loss, Sam stared at Dean and internally cringed at his brother's hollow voice. Although Sam would have sworn he knew every single inflection of his big brother's tone, it was barely recognizable to him now.
"Ah, c'mon, Sam. Don't look at me like that," Dean said, glaring at him. Dean forced a tiny edge of irritation into his tone at the end of his request, but it was only a feeble attempt to mask the trembling in his voice.
Sam couldn't be 100 sure what "look" Dean was referring to, but he guessed the "Jesus, my big brother is breaking into pieces right in front of me, and it's my entire fault" look had a good chance of being plastered on his face at that very moment. Unfortunately, Sam wasn't too good at concealing his emotions from Dean, and this time he couldn't even manage to look away. Consequently, it was his older brother who averted his eyes first with an annoyed snort. Dean stood up abruptly, but he apparently had forgotten about the bruises on his torso because the motion made him groan in pain. Sam winced and stood up too, but Dean quickly gave him his back and walked away.
"Dean," Sam called again. This time, the younger man's voice was small and carried full-fledged anxiety.
Dean didn't answer or turn around to face Sam. He had one arm wrapped around his chest and his breath was coming out in short, pained gasps. Swaying slightly, Dean walked to the opposite wall and stopped next to the door in a way that made Sam think that maybe his older brother would go out. Instead, Dean leaned against the wall with one hand for support and struggled to catch his breath. Sam wanted to approach him, but Dean raised the hand he kept around his midsection to stop him.
"Just...give me a minute, Sammy," Dean's whisper was distant, and Sam heard him swallowing. "Just a minute."
Obeying him went against Sam's instincts, but he complied anyway and sat at the end of Dean's bed to keep a distance between himself and his brother that wasn't intrusive. However, Sam couldn't help noticing that the older hunter was shaking; he couldn't ignore that, little by little, Dean's head had come to lean on the wall, and he was pressing his bruised forehead against it so hard that it had to be painful.
Unconsciously mimicking the way his brother was clenching his fists, Sam clasped the edge of the bed tightly and witnessed his big brother's struggle with baited breath. He waited tensely for Dean to get a grip on himself and turn towards him with a smirk saying, "It's okay, Sammy. Everything is going to be alright." But long seconds passed and nothing came other than the deafening quietness of Dean's walls crumbling on Sam. Finally, Sam realized he couldn't bear the anxiety anymore, and it gave him the strength to force his voice into saying what needed to be said.
"You don't have to do this," Sam said quietly.
Dean shivered and fixed Sam with a look full of confusion but devoid of tears.
After all, this was Dean.
"What?" the older hunter asked.
"You don't have to go back there," Sam repeated firmly, holding his brother's gaze. "I can do it alone."
Dean stared at Sam in shock and stepped away from the wall in a slow, dangerous fashion. Sam didn't recoil, although he sensed he was bordering on the point where no remorse for the previous night would stop Dean from getting seriously furious with him.
"You're going no-fucking-where alone, Sam."
"Why n-...? Are you NUTS?" Dean yelled. "BECAUSE IT'S DANGEROUS!"
"I told you what Missouri said. The spirit can't affect me like..."
"What? Now the damn woman speaks and her word's fact? Yesterday you were close to asking for a restraining order!"
"That was yesterday."
"AND WHAT THE HELL HAS CHANGED SINCE THEN!"
Sam clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes. Dean wasn't really expecting Sam to say it, was he? Apparently not, because Dean snorted and looked away too.
"You've hunted alone before Dean. I can do it," Sam said in a conciliatory way.
"I never said you couldn't. I said it's not going to happen. End of discussion."
"You can't order me around!"
"Dean. I'm not a kid anymore!"
"Then stop acting like one!"
"You're my kid. MY kid, Sammy, and I'm not gonna fucking risk you!"
Unable to tell if those words had been spoken aloud or if Dean had just thought them, Sam's heart sank. He supposed that the words had been thought, because Dean would never say something like that out loud...
Well, I'm not risking you either, big brother.
"Dean," Sam said with a sigh. He tried to regain his brother's attention, but Dean had walked to the far end of the room and wouldn't tear his eyes from the floor. "Look, I'm going to ask you something, and for once, I need you to be absolutely up front with me."
The older hunter knitted his brow and glared suspiciously at Sam.
"You were right, okay?" Sam confessed. "When you said I didn't understand, you were right. I didn't. I don't. And I won't have any idea what you're going through unless you tell me."
"And since you won't tell me, I'm going to make it easy for you by boiling it down into a simple yes or no question," Sam said, cutting him off. "Can you do this? Yes or no, Dean? Can you honestly tell me that you can go in there and kill Mom's ghost? That you want to do that? That you..."
That you'll still be yourself once you've done it?
Dean's stony expression faltered, and his lower lip trembled a bit.
"Don't do this," the older brother breathed.
"Sorry, man. I'm doing it," Sam said, looking at Dean intensely. "One word, yes or no, and I swear I won't ask anymore questions. Not now, not ever. You tell me what you want, and we'll just do it."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"You say yes, we go into that house tonight and finish this. You say no, we…we walk away."
Dean had never looked more perplexed.
"Don't be an asshole, Sam," Dean offered shakily, wishing that this was all a bad joke. "I know you. You want me to believe you'd walk away from Jennifer? That you'd let her die?"
"Yes I would," Sam assured.
And Sam hadn't realized how certain he was of those words until they found their way through his lips.
"If it's a choice between you and her, you're goddamn right I would."
Dean's livid face shifted from anger to disbelief, then to shame and back to anger at an incredible speed. At the end, devastation was all that was left.
"How can you do this to me, Sammy?" he asked. He felt dangerously close to a complete breakdown. "How can you put that on me?"
"You brought us here…You woke up yesterday and told me we had to come here…"
"We went to the house! We met her. For Christ's sake, we met her children!"
"I know, Dean. I'm sorry."
"STOP SAYING THAT ALREADY, YOU LITTLE PRICK!" Dean cried. "HOW DARE YOU PUT THAT ON ME!"
"I-I'm s-sorry!" Sam stammered as he finally failed to fight the tears back.
Dean ran both hands through his hair, slumped to the floor, and then buried his face in his arms and knees.
"Shut up, Sam. God, I…I hate you so much right now."
Sam's entire universe collapsed with those last seven words.
"I deserve that," the younger brother said, sniffling.
Dean's Adam's apple wobbled inside a tightened throat.
"And you know what?" Sam went on. "I think I can live with it. So put it on me if that's what you want. It's okay. If it's my decision, I say we walk away."
Dean raised his gaze slowly to make eye contact with Sam, who hastily wiped his tears away.
"You think that I would walk away? That I would let her die?" Dean mumbled. "You think I can't finish the job, Sammy?"
"I'm saying that I don't care, Dean," Sam said, as he tilted his head and shook it lightly while intensely looking his brother in the eye. "And that I'm not going to take the chance."
Dean held Sam's look with one just as intense. After a minute, he sighed and rubbed his forehead, grimacing briefly when his fingers reached a tender gash.
"I think I…I need to take a walk," he said feebly.
Sam nodded, swallowing down the hard lump in his throat. Dean exhaled, stood up and walked past Sam without tearing his eyes from the door until he grabbed the knob. Sam was relieved when Dean didn't take the Impala keys, but before he had time to dig in with the comforting knowledge that he wouldn't be getting any calls in the near future informing him that his brother had crashed into a tree, Dean slammed the door behind him.
Dean stayed away for almost four hours. When he got back to the motel room he found Sam lying on his own bed with his eyes closed. He was sprawled in a funny position, with the laptop opened on his lap and his back halfway slumping against the headboard. Apparently his little brother hadn't planned on falling asleep. He must have dozed off while he was working, which Dean took as an indication of how much Sam needed the rest.
After a moment of hesitation, Dean approached his sleeping brother and reached to put the laptop away. He froze midway when Sam shook and mumbled something incoherent. Dean held his breath for a second, until Sam relaxed again. Then, he sat down on the bed and contemplated his brother in silence, all the while feeling helpless and downhearted at how distraught Sam sounded, even when he was dreaming. As the younger man started to shudder and grow increasingly agitated, Dean shook his head and grabbed Sam's wrist.
"No..." Sam muttered, stirring. "No...Jennifer."
"I know you. You want me to believe you'd walk away from Jennifer? That you'd let her die?"
"Yes I would."
"Ah, shit, Sammy," Dean murmured.
Dean hated those damn nightmares, visions or whatever the hell they were that wouldn't leave his little brother alone. And Dean hated even more that he couldn't fight the nightmares for Sam or take them away for him like he could a bullet or a blow.
"Dude, wake up."
Sam woke up with a jolt, and a startled Dean backed off to the point where he almost fell over the bed. Dean stood up and gave Sam a bit of space to regain his bearings but couldn't help feeling instantly bad for waking him up when he noticed the effort it took Sam to focus. Sam seemed slightly disoriented as he straightened up and blinked drowsily. His gaze darted from the laptop to the man towering over him on the side of the bed.
"Hey," Sam croaked.
"Hey yourself" Dean said quietly. "Let me guess. Dreaming of lollipops and candy canes again?"
Sam was about to retort, but in the last moment he pursed his lips and said nothing. Dean sighed. Obviously Sam wasn't willing to tell him what his vision was about, but talking in one's sleep wasn't the best way to keep a secret. Sitting there shaking and panting wasn't the best way to conceal distress either. Dean didn't comment further and waited quietly until Sam was able to even out his breathing and had gotten a bit of his colour back. Then, the younger man looked up at Dean, and frowned in confusion.
"You're back..." Sam muttered.
Dean wasn't sure if Sam was doubting it or just pointing the fact out.
"Yeah. Catch some sleep there? I mean, before the trip to Candy Land?"
"I-I think so," Sam replied, stealing a glance at his watch.
His attention never leaving Dean, Sam gave a soft snort and nodded tensely in response.
"So you didn't start packing yet, huh?" Dean commented, as he kicked his duffle bag out of the way and slumped on the bed closest to the door.
Sam shot him a cautious look but didn't reply. Dean rolled his eyes at his kid brother's bewilderment and took a deep breath before squeezing his eyelids shut. He heard Sam shifting position, and the sound of the laptop being turned off, just before hearing the brush of sheets when Sam swung his legs over the edge of the bed to sit with his feet on the floor.
"That woman, Marcia…" Dean asked out of the blue. "Dad knew about her, right? He's known about all of this the whole time?"
Not really surprised that Dean had jumped to the same conclusions he had, Sam stared at the floor. His big brother had always been smart, and both of them knew their father pretty well. Maybe it would be for the best, Sam thought. Maybe, if Dean didn't feel obliged to impress John, he'd answer Sam's question in a way that was true to his heart. And so, Sam nodded.
"Yeah…" Dean sighed. "I thought so."
"I know. You've said that like a million times, dude!" Dean said with a huff.
Sam gave a light smile, because he recognized Dean's trademarked "big brother's irritation about little brother being a pain" tone, and it was nothing like the angered inflexion Dean had used during their previous discussion of a few hours before. In a weird, Winchester way, it was Dean's attempt at fixing things between them.
"Listen, about earlier. I was out of line," Dean murmured. "I don't want you to think I don't…I mean, I…uh," Dean wet his lips. "I understand what you were trying to do, and I appreciate it, okay? But I can't answer your question."
"Dean, c'mon," Sam pleaded.
"Just let me finish!" Dean exclaimed.
Sam clenched his jaw in response to his older brother's reprimand. Dean, in turn, sat straight up in the bed and took a moment to recover the thread.
"I can't answer you, because I don't know the damn answer, Sam," he said, sounding defeated. "I don't know if I can go there and…and kill her. But I do know something," Dean added, locking eyes with Sam. "I know I can't turn my back on Jennifer and those kids without even trying to save her. I won't do that."
Sam held his brother's gaze with a serious expression.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Dean said with a gulp that contradicted his answer. Then, after a pause, he added nervously, "And I...I don't, you know, hate you or anything...alright?"
Sam gave him a hint of a smile and softly concluded the conversation.
Dean let out a deep sigh, grateful that his brother hadn't tried to make the moment even more uncomfortable than it already had been. With a groan, the older hunter stretched himself out on his bed and closed his eyes.
"Then it's set… Get your psychic ass in gear. We've got a job to do."