The Payback for Freedom

Chapter 1:

Sam had been staring at the same page of his legal ethics textbook for 15 minutes and had absorbed nothing. His concentration had been off. He rubbed his eyes and had decided to stop faking that he was studying. Maybe he was coming down with something. He was feeling a little anxious, a little achy and a lot headachy. Jess was sitting on his bed, studying herself, but she seemed better immersed in her Jane Austen book for her English class. She looked up at him, as if sensing Sam was looking at her and smiled.

"You okay?" She asked sweetly.

"Yeh, yeh, I'm just feeling like I'm coming down with something."

"You need some aspirin?"

"Don't have any," Sam said, feeling stupid for whining about what was probably just a cold.

"I've got some in my room. I'll get it."

"No, it's okay, you don't have to."

"Who's going to look after you if I don't, huh? You just ignore these things then act like a baby when you really do get sick. I can spare some aspirin to save myself that," Jess teased.

Sam laughed and couldn't argue with her. He made a bad patient. He knew it. Then a flash of memory rushed in from when he had been sick as a kid. Dean would have been the one taking care of him then. He would say something similar to tease him, but would also make sure that Sam got better under Dean's careful attention. Jess spotted the mood shift.

"Sam?"

Sam looked up, "Yeh?"

"Where'd you go there? For a minute I thought I'd lost you," Jess teased again.

"Nah, it's nothing. Just thinking about what you said. I do suck as a patient."

Jess just shook her head, kissed Sam's forehead affectionately then left to get the aspirin. He was startled from his straying concentration by his phone vibrating on a nearby table. He grabbed it and saw the ID. Dean. He felt his hand tremble a little. He hadn't heard from Dean since he had left. Dean had left one message shortly after he had started at Stanford. Like a coward, Sam had ignored it and Dean hadn't left another one since.

That had been a year and a half ago. He had kept the message though. He would listen to it when an unexpected rush of loneliness would have him yearning to hear Dean's voice. Dean had told him not to worry, that he'd take care of Dad and that if Sam needed anything, to not let pride get in the way of calling him. Sometimes hearing that message had rescued him from the aching isolation that he had felt during those first few months. He'd then met Jess and she had filled the void. Still, he hadn't erased the message.

Sam hesitated. What would Dean be calling about? Couldn't be anything good. Maybe it was about their dad. "Answer it, you dumbass and find out", Sam heard a voice in his head say, sounding awfully like Dean's.

He flipped the phone open and put it to his ear.

"Dean?"

"Hey, Sammy, it's me, Dad," said a deep husky voice.

The hairs at the back of Sam's head prickled when he heard his father's voice on the line, but there was something about the tone though that had made Sam temper his immediate reaction.

"Dad? What are you doing calling on Dean's phone?" Sam said.

"Because I was afraid you wouldn't answer if you saw that it was me."

Sam's defenses completely fell away at the honest answer his father gave him, but a cold feeling of dread then began to creep into his body.

"Dad? What's wrong? Why do you have Dean's phone? Where's Dean?" The flood of questions spilled out.

"Sammy, Dean's been hurt. Real bad. He's in the hospital."

Sam's body became jello. Blood just rushed away from his face and chest, pooling somewhere where he couldn't re-circulate it back to warm him. He shivered and then felt his knees buckle from under him. He sat back into his chair. His breathing quickened, his heart raced, but all he could feel was cold. "No, no," his mind kept repeating, but he couldn't utter a sound.

"Sam? Sam? You still there? I need you to come to the hospital. The doctors…they're not sure…" John's voice fell away like an echo and Sam heard the pain and strain in it.

"Okay, okay, I'll be there. Where is he? I'll find a way to get there as soon as I can –" Sam's voice was reaching a panicky squeak.

"Sam, I'm right outside. Just pack some stuff –"

"You drove to get me? You left Dean alone when he could –" Sam's voice switched to anger at his father's complete lack of responsibility for his oldest son.

"Sam, he's in a hospital here. Close by," John said. "I'll explain when you get in the car. Trust me."

Sam stiffened at the assurance. Their dad had always pulled the trust card on them when either of them dared to question an order, but Sam knew that he had to put aside his petty grievances toward his father and focus on Dean. Each minute away could mean that Dean could…no, no, Dean was not going to die.

Sam blindly shoved a bunch of stuff into a duffle, not even knowing what he was throwing into it or whether it was clean then he scribbled a note that he left on Jess's English book. His hand shook so hard, he could barely write the words:

Jess,

My brother. He's in the hospital. I'll call as soon as I can.

Love you,

Sam

Sam bolted out of the dorm building and saw the familiar black Impala parked out front. He rushed toward it, climbed into the passenger seat, tossed the duffel to the back seat, but with a quick glance he had spotted the towels. They were soaked through with drying blood. Dean's blood.

John gunned the engine and took off.

"He's at Palo Alto Memorial. It's not far."

"Dad, what happened?" Sam asked, his voice shaky and scared.

"Dean read that there was something supernatural happening here and had insisted on coming here to make sure you were okay and to protect you. I told him that you could take care of yourself, but Dean, he wouldn't take no for an answer. He never could when it came to you," John said, a small smile crept on his face, but Sam could see the raw pain there.

John took in a breath.

"Anyway, I had a hunt to finish down south so I told him that if he wanted to check things out, I'd join him later. He agreed. He jacked a car and took off for here."

"Dad, you shouldn't have –"

"Let him go alone? I know that, Sam, but I couldn't leave the other hunt unfinished. There were lives there too. Dean knew that and understood. Besides he'd already done a lot of solo hunts and I just figured he'd touch base with you and the both of you would watch each other's backs."

Sam hung his head in shame.

"He didn't call."

"I figured that. That boy can be stubborn sometimes and before you say it, I know he probably gets that from me. The both of you do," John lightly joked. "He probably thought he could handle it on his own and he did, but the monster, it got its licks in too."

Sam watched his father's hands clench the steering wheel and then saw the guilt written all over his face.

"I found him, almost bleeding to death…"

Flashback

John had just arrived into Palo Alto when he had gotten the call from Dean and what he heard could have stopped his heart right then.

"D…dad?" Dean gasped, his breathing shallow.

Dean's hand shook with the pain as he tried to hold the phone steady. When the monster had tossed him, the phone had popped out of his hand and had landed a few feet away from him. The effort of crawling towards his phone then pressing the speed dial to call his father had exhausted him.

"Dean? Dean? Where are you, son?"

"Hurts…Dad…got me good…but got him though…" Dean struggled out. "Hurts to…move…so

cold…D…dad…"

John's own blood then ran cold. Dean could be bleeding out.

Dean shivered and every ripple brought fresh pain.

"Dean, listen to me, tell me where you are."

"Don't know…Dad…I…" Dean uttered, waiting for a wave of pain to pass through his muscle and bone.

"Dean? Dean!"

But there was no response, just the sounds of quick and pain filled breathing. John put his GPS locator on and tried to zero in on Dean's position. A dot appeared after a few tense moments and John inwardly rejoiced at his son's preparedness by turning the GPS on his phone on.

"Good job, son," John said more to himself. "I'm coming for you, Dean. Hang on, you hear me? Hang on."

All he got back was a moan.

John had never been so scared in all his life.

Dean knew he had to stay awake to help his dad find him. Truth was he didn't want to die alone. The way he was feeling he wasn't sure he was going to make it, but he would do his best not to let his dad down. Winchesters don't quit.

He tried to focus his thoughts away from the pain, but he also knew that the pain would keep him conscious, so he tried to keep it at a distance as best as he could. Then Sam came to mind.

He had missed him over the last year or more. After leaving that message for him right after Sam had left for Stanford then hearing nothing back, he had immersed himself in the hunts. They had kept his mind and body busy, but the long silence between them couldn't quell how much he wondered how Sam was doing.

When he could, he would visit, staying concealed so Sam wouldn't see him. He just needed to make sure that Sam was safe. It was a habit he would never learn to break. When he had read that a monster had been reported in Palo Alto, he couldn't ignore it or let it go. If it was nothing, fine, but if it wasn't, he had to make sure it wouldn't hurt anyone, especially Sam.

John had probably broken a land speed record getting to Dean and he was hoping the entire time that he wouldn't get stopped by police. All the while, John kept talking to Dean, hoping to keep his son conscious.

"Dean? Can you hear me?"

"D..dad?" Dean breathed out.

"You with me there? Talk to me, son."

"Tired…really hurting…"

"I know, but try hard to keep awake, Dean. It's important."

"Concussion…can't sleep…"

"That's right. We can't take any chances, can we?"

Dean moved his left hand over his side to check his wound and it came back covered in blood. Just as he figured, he was bleeding badly, maybe bleeding out. Shifting his body brought more waves of pain.

"N…no, sir," Dean croaked out then groaned loudly.

"What happened, Dean? What's wrong?"

"Tried to move…big mistake," Dean said breathing heavily.

John couldn't help, but smile with pride over his son's resilience. His eldest was strong. He had been the anchor that had kept them together all these years until John had broken the one thing, the only thing that Dean had ever wanted, his family, together and whole. Now, John felt that this was his payback for ignoring the needs of a son who had never asked for anything for himself. He couldn't let him die. He wouldn't leave him behind. No man left behind, that was the credo John had lived by in the war. He had taught his sons the very same credo and Dean had embraced it with his heart and soul.

"Don't move. Just keep talking to me, okay? Keep strong for me, son," John said, not realizing how close to breaking down he was. It was selfish to ask his son to hang on, to refuse him rest or relief from his pain just so that he could be reassured. He had asked so much of Dean, but if he were to let his guard down just once, he knew that he needed Dean. Not as a soldier, but as his son.

"It's okay, Dad…I'll be here," Dean said to reassure his father.

Then with his usual sarcastic style, which was in itself reassuring to John, Dean said, "Like I've got…anywhere else…to go."

John could only smile as he raced to his son. Dean had been telling John that things would be okay since Dean was young enough to understand their life. It pained John more that Dean had to say those words to him when, as his father, he should have been the one comforting his son, both his sons.

John had finally reached where Dean was. He had spotted the car Dean had jacked. John practically ejected himself from the Impala like a man possessed, leaving the door open, running, holding his phone tightly in his hands.

John followed the path that Dean had taken, the crushed vegetation like a road map leading him to his son.

"I'm almost there, Dean. Don't let go. I'm coming for you."

No response. John ran faster, panic throbbing through his veins as much as blood was from not hearing anything from Dean. It was then he spotted Dean, sprawled on the ground, face down, phone loosely in his hand, the grip gone. Dean must have used all his waning strength just to get to his phone and dial John. More pride swelled within John, but concern and worry soon drove it out of him to deal with Dean's still, but not yet lifeless body.

John bent down slowly, placed a gentle hand on Dean's back then spoke softly so as to not startle him.

"Dean? It's Dad. I'm here, son. You still with me?"

Dean moaned and nodded his head.

"Dean, I have to get you to a hospital, but I have to move you. It's gonna hurt something fierce, but I'll try to make it quick as I can, okay?"

Dean nodded again.

John slowly turned his injured son over and sucked in a sharp breath at the pool of blood beneath Dean. The soil had absorbed some of it, but John knew Dean was on borrowed time. He had to hurry.

Dean hissed, groaned deep, and bit his lip to keep from screaming.

"It's okay, Dean. You let it out if you need to. It helps sometimes. You're safe with me. It's not a sign of weakness, son."

"No…you taught us…never give position away…can't let anything find us…I can…take it."

John almost let his emotions finally break when he had heard his son repeat back lessons he had taught him, but his son needed him, instead, he lifted his bleeding son into his arms as swiftly as he could and anchored them underneath him. He felt Dean's body stiffen. Dean's head curled into John's chest, desperately trying to muffle the moan of agony as pain electrified his body. Dean fisted John's shirt with his bloodied hand and breathed through the pain.

"Okay, son, here we go. Stay with me now."

As John quickly walked Dean to the Impala, Dean's breathing started to become labored and ragged. He had to hurry. He couldn't let Dean down. He had done enough of that to both his sons. Once at the car, he opened the back seat door and slowly laid Dean in. Dean initially resisted.

"No…blood will ruin the seats…" Dean said.

John couldn't help the chuckle that escaped. How could his son care about such a thing when he was probably bleeding to death?

"Don't worry. I'll take care of it."

Then suddenly, Dean fisted John's jacket and the look in his eyes was a mix of pain and determination.

"Don't..tell Sammy…"

John stared at his son incredulous.

"Can't…know…can't worry him…he's got another life now…let him have it, Dad…"

"He's your brother, Dean. He needs to know. He'd want to know," John insisted.

"No…if he does…won't go back…to school…can't keep him that way, Dad…not right…"

Thankfully for John, Dean had used up any reserves he had left and fell unconscious and he didn't have to make a promise he knew he couldn't keep. John quickly covered Dean with a blanket and drove to the hospital. He hated that he would betray his son yet again, but he knew deep in his heart that if anyone could keep Dean here, it would be Sam.

By the time John had reached the hospital, he had finished relating what had happened to Sam.

Sam was shaking with fear. He turned to his father and his eyes were red and tears streaked his face.

"I…should have been there…" Sam said as he wiped his face.

John watched the guilt cross Sam's face and couldn't let Sam go on thinking that.

"Sammy, I have to tell you. Dean didn't want me to call you. He didn't want to worry you."

"But why? He's my brother."

"I know that, but Dean…he didn't want you to feel guilty and stay. I don't want that either, son."

Sam looked at his father who seemed to have aged since he last saw him, but Sam saw regret and recrimination all over his face. His father hadn't even had the forethought to change his clothes. His shirt was covered in Dean's blood and it made Sam shiver. So much blood.

"Thanks, Dad, but how can I leave with Dean so hurt?"

"You don't have to, not now. Dean will be angry with me for telling you, but I can handle that. I knew that he'd need you," John hesitated. "I need you, son."

Sam was both surprised and moved by his father's admission, an admission that would never have been expressed if it hadn't been for the situation and though Sam would have wished that it had never had happened, he realized that it would have been the only way he and his father would have made peace. Leave it to Dean to put himself at risk, yet again, to bring his pigheaded family together.

Sam nodded and John understood.

They walked in together and to Dean's room in the ICU. Sam had to brace himself as he watched Dean let machines do all the work for him. Again, an image so unlike the Dean who would fight tooth and nail and resist any help.

"What do the doctors say?" Sam asked, hushed.

"That it's a miracle Dean's still alive, but you and I know how strong your brother is. He had a lot of internal injuries and nearly bled to death out there. It's another miracle he survived the surgery. His vitals are strong, but they're leaving him in an induced coma for now to give his body time to heal. They were being honest with me. Dean's chances aren't good and that's when I called you. There's a part of me that won't accept any other result than Dean coming out of this, but…"

"I know, Dad. We won't give up on him. He wouldn't if it were us."

John nodded in acknowledgement.

Sam slipped away while John sat vigil over Dean. He called Jess and told her about Dean, just not the truth about how Dean had really gotten hurt. He wanted to tell her everything, but once again, cowardice at losing her prevented him from being completely honest with her. A garden-variety car accident would have to do. She offered to come by and be supportive, but Sam told her that he'd be okay, that his dad was there and that she should study for her exams. He told her that he'd let her know if things change and that he loved her. Her soft calming voice soothed some of the anxiety he was feeling, but he knew that despite loving her deeply, the only voice that could truly ease his worries was Dean's.

After his call, he went back and pulled up a chair beside Dean's bed. Their dad had gone to get coffee even though Sam had told him to get some rest. The Winchester men were all pigheaded.

Sam looked at his brother's helplessness and hated seeing it. He also couldn't shake the guilt he felt at not having been there for him. He couldn't blame their father. Dean loved saving people. Sam had known that since he was a kid. He had wanted to help people too, but not by hunting evil.

"Dean, can you hear me? It's Sam," Sam said as he took Dean's hand. Yeh, Dean would yank it away if he knew, but Sam needed the brotherly contact. He hadn't seen or talked with Dean for over a year.

The ventilator was swooshing up and down as it pumped air into Dean's lungs because, for now, Dean needed the help. It was the most awful noise Sam could imagine. It signaled Dean's inability to breathe on his own.

Dean had never been this badly hurt. He'd been in hospitals at one time or another. They all had, but it had never been this bad for any of them. And Dean was here because he hadn't had any backup, because like always, Sam and their dad weren't there for him.

"Hey, you gotta come through this, man. You're scaring me. You're scaring Dad. I'm serious," Sam tried to joke, but it was a feeble attempt at best. "Dean, I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. I should have been there, covering your back like you always did for me."

John watched silently in the doorway of Dean's room and felt his own heart break at seeing both his sons in such pain.

"You got nothing to be sorry for, son," John said.

Sam turned around.

"Yeh, I do. I left him."

"To get a new life."

"Yeh, and look what it did?" Sam said as he looked over at Dean. "Dean's paying the price."

"Sam, this is the life. Dean knows that. He knows the risks. He'd tell you himself that he chose this life."

"Did he really?" Sam said, his voice filling with resentment. He knew it wasn't the time, but he couldn't control his frustration.

John bowed his head.

"Sam –"

Sam stood up to his full height to face his father.

"No, Dad, he shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be lying there fighting to live. He should be doing anything, ANYTHING, but what brought him here."

Sam's face then began to collapse.

"He shouldn't have been out there alone, Dad," Sam said plaintively. "I did this to him. I left him alone."

A combination of emotions and exhaustion hit Sam and he fell into his father's arms and John welcomed him.

"Sammy, you didn't do this."

John sat Sam down back in his chair and let Sam cry. He wanted to himself, but he didn't have the luxury. One son needed his comfort and the other, he didn't know what he could do for, except to be there, if he woke up. No, WHEN he woke up, John corrected in his thoughts.

After a while, Sam fell asleep and John just watched his sons sleeping. It was something he hadn't done much of when they were growing up.

TBC. I was expecting to finish this then publish it, but it's taking longer to get to the ending because of real life and I have to make some decisions about how I want to end this so for now, I hope you enjoy this chapter. I hope not to keep you waiting too long. Thanks for reading and for reviewing!