The beer is warm and bitter but he takes another sip, grimacing as it hits his stomach. His system is still shredded raw from the pills and the doc’s resuscitation efforts. Nurse Ratchet reminded him as he checked out of the clinic that he should only drink broth or bland crap for a few days. And of course, absolutely no alcohol, unless he wanted to end up back in the hospital, or worse.
He’d rolled his eyes at that, because what could be worse than being dead? Then he’d hustled Sam out to the car and out of town as fast as he could.
Now that they’re settled in a motel room for the night and Sam is finally asleep, there’s no way Dean is leaving to make a run for chicken soup and saltines. Instead, he sits at the dinette set and drinks their remaining beers, his feet up on the green cooler. As the minutes tick by on the cheap wall clock, he can hear the big rigs roar past on nearby Highway 184, crossing through Boise without a second thought. He’ll take all the late-night road noise and bad motel rooms as long as he never has to set foot in a national forest again.
A snuffle from the far bed gets his attention. Sam is stretched out long on the mattress, one foot half dangling off the side, his mouth slightly open in a snore. And snoring is good. It’s great, even. It means Sam is sleeping. It means he is alive and breathing.
Dean waits, listening for that next exhale. When it happens, he can finally breathe too.
His stomach knots up at the sight of Sam’s head fallen to the side on his pillow, his face turned towards the small lamp on the nightstand. The play of light and shadow across Sam’s face is a terrible reminder of what happened on that cabin floor.
I fucked up twice. Left him alone, gathering wood, when I shoulda been right beside him. Shoulda shot that bastard Corbin when he first said to leave Sam behind. Taken our chances with the werewolves. Then none of this would have happened.
A few minutes pass as Dean sits in the dark with nothing but his beer and his guilt. He waits for the syncopated sound of Sam’s snores in opposition to the ticking of that damn clock. When the sound doesn’t come, when silence fills the room, he stops the bottle halfway to his lips and his eyes watch for the rise and fall of Sam’s chest or the flutter of his eyelashes. Any signs of life.
Dean lurches to his feet, head spinning unexpectedly from the beer, and stumbles across the room.
“Sam,” he says, placing his palm flat against his brother’s chest and giving it a little shake. Sam doesn’t respond but under his palm, Dean can feel the shallow movements of his brother’s ribcage. He doesn’t trust it though—don’t walk away this time, don’t leave—and rubs his knuckles hard along Sam’s sternum. An old trick Dad learned in the Marines and taught to his boys. Painful enough to wake the dead, he would say.
His brother starts to stir, to move away from the pain, and a small moan escapes his lips, despite the oxycodone Dean had given him earlier. He swats at Dean’s hand and mumbles in his half-sleep. Dean steps back, clapping a hand on the top of his head, fingers tangled in his short hair. The relief is overwhelming, threatening to bring him to his knees, and he really needs to be over this.
They’d rolled into town at half past ten last night. He had wanted to stop earlier, give his brother a rest, but the dark press of the forest on both sides of the two-lane road bothered him. Each curve of the road murmured low and urgent, dark tree limbs that threatened to pull them in and hold them down, and so he just kept driving. While Dean white-knuckled the wheel for two hundred miles, Sam struggled to get comfortable on the passenger seat, arm resting across his gut, his face going pale with every bump or twist in the road. It was four long hours before the lights of Boise appeared on the horizon.
Once he got Sam settled on the motel bed, propped up with extra pillows and doped up on meds, Dean should have stepped out. They were running low on food and supplies. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get past the Impala in the parking lot. Just grabbing the cooler from the backseat of the car, his throat closed up and his heart pounded. Two minutes of anxiety to get a beer... he couldn’t imagine driving down the street, away from Sam.
Now, bleary-eyed and mostly drunk, Dean grabs the dinette chair and drags it next to Sam’s bed, undecided as to how close is close enough to hear the gentle in and out, in and out of Sam’s breath.
He rests his hand on the mattress next to his brother’s hand, touching pinky to pinky, like when they were little. Sam sucked his thumb until he was two, and would make this soft gurgling noise, breathing around it in his sleep. Dean would pull the thumb out, like Dad told him to, but the stupid thing would work its way back into Sam’s mouth every night. Dean would snuggle him close, close enough to smell the milk on his baby breath, afraid Sam would roll off the side of the bed. No matter how Dean slept, he would have one hand on Sam, in tune with any move or sigh or bad dream. As the kid got older and didn’t want to be treated like a baby, Dean would still find some way to sneak his hand nearby, whether it was flat on the mattress to feel the vibrations or touching pinky to pinky.
If Sam saw Dean hovering close by in the dark like this, he would tease him, call him Mom, and tell him to get some sleep.
Instead of sleeping, Dean listens and drinks. As the clock on the wall ticks past 3:30, he pulls a silver slug out of his jacket pocket. The bullet’s been sitting in there the past two days, and he can’t seem to get rid of it. It’s small as bullets go, not much different than the ammo they use at the firing range in the Bunker.
“Just an inch more to the left,” the ER doc said, talking in the hallway with Dean after stitching Sam up. “He’s lucky to be alive. You’re both lucky.”
Of all the ways to go, a gut shot was not how Sam should have gone down. Not after Azazel, not after Lucifer, not after the trials. Sam survived the worst Heaven or Hell had to offer, only to die on a dirty cabin floor while Dean was outside gathering wood.
Dean rolls the bullet back and forth between his thumb and finger, remembering a tattoo shop in Nashville. It’s hunter-friendly, and one of the artists makes jewelry as well. Through the years, she’s crafted a number of possession charms for Bobby, mostly necklaces or bracelets with protection charms for other hunters to carry. Dean liked jewelry well enough but figured the best protection when hunting was good training and common sense.
But Sam loved that shop, always fascinated to hear about the sigils and spells she used, asking a ton of questions and cataloging the information in that big brain of his until Dean had to drag him out. Maybe he should take this bullet in and see what she could do. Maybe a little extra protection wasn’t a bad thing. About time Sam had an amulet of his own anyway.
He startles at the voice and tucks the slug back in his pocket, picking his beer back up for something to do with his hands.
“It’s okay, Sammy. Go back to sleep.”
Sam struggles up onto his elbows with a hiss of pain. “Why are you still up?”
“Can’t sleep,” Dean admits. He shifts in the chair and changes the subject. “I’m thinking we should be able to make it back to the Bunker by late tomorrow night. We’ll set you up in the backseat on the drive and you can get some rest. Pillow, blanket, the whole nine yards, just like when you were little. Maybe even get you those little apple juice boxes for the ride.”
Sam raises his eyebrows, but Dean is thinking ahead and already reconsidering his idea. No way to pay attention to his brother’s breathing or pain levels while he drives, and sixteen hours in the passenger seat won’t do much good for Sam.
“Sounds good to me,” Sam slowly agrees, eyeballing the position of the chair next to the bed and wrinkling his brow. “You okay?”
Dean makes a noncommittal grunt. He starts to raise the bottle again, but realizes his mistake by the way Sam’s eyes track it.
“Is drinking such a good idea?”
Dean smiles. “I’ve had worse ideas.”
“Think I still have a protein bar in my bag if you want it.” Sam waves his hand at the laptop bag, his voice thick and slow from the meds. “Or why don’t you take a shower? That always helps you sleep.”
Dean glances behind him towards the bathroom. His ribs hurt from the beating he took from Corbin, his stomach is bitter and stripped bare, and the drive out of the forest was murder on his shoulders. “Nah. I’m fine right here.”
The moment stretches out between them in the dark before Sam decides to settle back on the pillow. Dean closes his eyes and mentally calculates out various routes back to Lebanon in his head. He’d normally take Highway 30 down to Green River: it’s less traffic but the road has more twists and turns, so maybe 84 down to Ogden would be a smoother ride for Sam. In this part of the world, there’s no avoiding some of the winding routes through the mountains. Maybe they could cut the drive short in Rock Springs, stay the night at that little motel right off the train tracks. The mattresses were clean and the diner delivered food right to the rooms—
“Dean, what did you do?”
Dean cracks his eyes open. “What?”
It’s quiet again except for the ticking of the clock as Sam second-guesses his question. “When you thought I was dead, what did you do?”
The sigh Dean gives is one of infinite patience. Sam can’t let it rest, never could. Dean thought they left this topic two hundred miles behind them in Grangeville. Sam was suspicious that there was something more than the fight with Corbin and kept questioning the ER doc, who wouldn’t spill the details. There was no one else around to confirm except Michelle, and she wasn’t really talking to anyone.
“Told you. I knew you weren’t dead.”
“Dean, I thought we agreed no secrets—”
Dean holds up his hand. “Sam, stop. We got a long drive ahead of us tomorrow. Promise I’ll share all the gory details—” Or not. How do you tell your brother that I’m sorry I left you for dead? That I almost made another bad choice that you wouldn’t agree with? “Just not tonight... okay? Get some sleep.”
Sam looks as if he wants to argue. But then he smiles, his face pale and resigned, his dark hair spread out on the white of the pillowcase. “Okay, Mom.” He rolls over on his side, curling up to face his brother’s chair as he closes his eyes and murmurs, “No more secrets. Promise?”
“I promise, Sam.” Dean shakes his head affectionately, thinking that he will stick to it. After all this, his brother deserves that much. He takes off his work boots, kicking his socked feet up on the mattress edge next to Sam. He jiggles his foot to touch Sam’s arm, getting a small smile out of Sam, who is already half asleep.
Once again, he closes his eyes and listens again to the comforting roar of the big rigs, the tick of the wall clock, and his brother’s slow and steady breaths.