The Payback for Freedom
A couple of weeks had gone by with Dean's vitals remaining stable so the doctors had decided to slowly wean him off the medication to lighten his coma in the hopes that Dean would wake up, but he had stayed unconscious. The ventilator had remained so the decision had been cold comfort for Sam. Dean still wasn't surviving on his own, he still needed help to live and it made Sam ache.
As Sam sat by Dean's bed while their dad slept fitfully in a chair on the other side, he swallowed a lump in his throat. Dean had been on his own all his life. He had been on his own when he had taken care of their dad and him, no one to rescue him, no one to take over his shift as brother, son, provider of emotional stability, and peacemaker yet he never uttered a word of complaint. He just gave whatever they had needed. In thinking back, Dean had tried to be all things to him and their dad, whatever their need and he had succeeded most of the time to comfort, to provide healing, protection, and for Sam, a much needed constant presence anchoring Sam to their nomadic life. It pained Sam to remember that all he and their dad had ever done was disappoint Dean. They took plenty from Dean, but barely gave anything back. Forget about gratitude. Dean had always been there and they had never questioned a time when he wouldn't be…until now.
Dean had been alone fighting whatever monster had been in Palo Alto, determined to kill it then leave without a word, not just to protect Sam, but because it was his job to save people, to keep them safe. Sam knew that it wouldn't have entered Dean's mind to call him, to ask him for help because, for Dean, it would have pulled Sam back into a life Sam had abandoned and Dean wouldn't ask him to re-enter it on the simple pretext of just killing yet another monster. Dean hadn't wanted their dad to even call Sam when he had gotten hurt. Even that wasn't a good enough reason to draw Sam back in Dean's eyes. Sam hated the thought that Dean had felt that he couldn't, no, shouldn't call Sam to help him. Who could blame him after Sam hadn't called him back when he had left that one and only message? Sam had kept it though. The thought of erasing it was unthinkable. What a hypocrite, Sam thought to himself.
Sam had gone back to Stanford briefly to take care of the details of his classes. He knew that he would never be able to study knowing Dean was so critical and not knowing if Dean would come out of it. Jess had been supportive and understood that Sam needed time with his family. She had told him that she would be there anytime he needed her and he had told her that he loved her. He felt guilty that suddenly, all he had wanted was to hear Dean's voice, to talk to his brother again. All he could do was stare at Dean's chest rising and falling, knowing it wasn't Dean doing it himself.
Suddenly, while lost in the hypnosis of watching Dean artificially breathe, Sam heard choking. He looked over at Dean and was shocked to see Dean's eyes open, looking afraid.
Sam ran out of the ICU and called out for help. John was jarred awake by Sam's sharp movements then looked over at Dean. He leaned over Dean and looked into his eldest's eyes.
"Dean?" John said in a hush.
"SOMEBODY? PLEASE HELP! It's my brother! He's choking."
A nurse came into Dean's room and shooed everyone out. She yelled to another nurse to call Dean's doctor. Sam and John could only look on helplessly as Dean struggled to fight every urge to pull the ventilator tube out himself as he choked and struggled to breathe on his own.
Minutes that felt more like hours later, a doctor finally came over and asked Dean if he could hear him. Dean nodded. Sam let out a sigh he'd been holding for what seemed like days. The doctor asked Dean if he was in pain. Dean nodded. More relief washed over Sam. Dean was understanding the questions being asked of him.
"Okay, Dean, we're going to take out the tube slowly, but you have to trust us and not struggle because you could hurt yourself. Do you understand?" The doctor asked.
Dean nodded then stilled his struggle even though Sam could see the discomfort in Dean's eyes. The nurses told John and Sam that they had to step out of the room in order for them to do their job. Sam resisted, but John put a weighty hand on his shoulder, telling him that it would be okay. They backed out of the room, Sam, unable to break his eye contact with Dean. He just felt himself being led out of the room by his father until the door closed in front of him.
"He's gonna be okay, right, Dad? He's breathing, he was understanding the doctor, that has to be good, right?" Sam babbled.
"It's a good sign, son," John reassured.
John patted his youngest's shoulder in comfort and found tears in his eyes. He had looked into Dean's eyes and had found fear there and it nearly cracked his heart in two to see Dean so afraid. Dean had never shown fear. John knew that Dean had felt it many times, but Dean had developed a finely tuned ability to hide his fear, his pain, and his uncertainty. But today, John had taken the time to look deep into his son's eyes and saw it raw and bared without any of Dean's characteristic barriers. It scared John to see Dean so vulnerable.
After a few more minutes that felt like a few more hours later, the doctor and nurses came out. Sam practically lunged at them.
"Is he all right?" Sam asked anxiously.
"Yes, yes, he's fine. We removed the ventilator tube. He was a little agitated so we've sedated him to give him some rest."
Sam knew that it hadn't been the removal of the intubation tube that had bothered Dean. It was not seeing his family in his line of sight. Dean needed to always know they were near and safe. It made Sam's distance from him for the last year and a half all the more cruel, knowing that about Dean.
"Is he really awake? I mean, out of the coma?" Sam asked realizing he wasn't making any sense.
"Yes, he's come out of the coma and his vitals seem strong. I think we can be cautiously optimistic. He has a long way to go, but it's a good start," the doctor comforted.
"Can we go back in?" John asked.
"Yes. He's going to be unconscious for awhile, but when he wakes up, he might be confused because of the sedation and his throat might be sore. All of that is normal so there's no need to be alarmed. He can have ice chips if he needs them."
"Okay, thanks, doctor," John said, seeing that all Sam wanted to do was to go back to Dean.
The doctor nodded and left. Sam rushed back into the room.
He stood over Dean and suddenly, the lack of sound, the swoosh of the ventilator now gone, gave Sam a shiver. Dean looked…dead lying there on the bed and for a split second Sam felt his legs tremble beneath him. He then felt his father's hand on his shoulder and it shook him back.
"He's going to be all right, Sammy. He just needs time to rest," John said.
"Yeh, Dad. Dean's going to be okay," Sam responded, uncertainty in his voice.
His mind couldn't help, but think about how they could still lose him. A part of him felt that he and their father hadn't deserved Dean back so easily, that neither of them had learned their lesson to appreciate Dean's presence in their lives.
Sam sat back down in his chair and his father went back to his.
"You know, I knew something was wrong. I didn't know what, but just before you called…I felt cold, sick…I just figured I was coming down with something, but now…"
John looked over at his son and didn't act surprised.
"You and Dean, you're connected. It wouldn't surprise me at all that you might have sensed something."
"Maybe, but it felt like more than that, like there was something inside of me…warning me…" Sam then shook his head. "Never mind. I must really be tired."
John stayed stoic, revealing nothing, but he knew that he couldn't dismiss Sam's words.
Once again, both Sam and John had fallen asleep in their chairs, Sam opting to lay his head on the bed. All they could now was wait. Dean's recovery would take time, but Sam was willing to wait and help him along the way. Sam's mind was filled with the memories of all the times Dean had nursed him, mended him, and stayed with him whether it was because he had chicken pox, the flu, or a gash from an angry spirit tossing him across a room. Dean had always been there. Sam knew that he had to be there for Dean this time. It wasn't lost on him how worried their dad was about Dean and more importantly, how genuinely glad he was to have Sam there.
Dean had played peacekeeper all their lives, able to see both sides and always found ways to keep them together or if he couldn't do that, be the constant that both he and their dad had needed. Sam had marveled then and still did at how Dean had done all that and had never regretted or missed any lost moments of his own. Everything had been about stabilizing him and their father. Deep in his heart though, Sam knew that Dean had just packed his needs away.
His arm had been folded near Dean's hand. He had been so tired that at first he hadn't noticed. It was more of a twitch than a touch so Sam had ignored it, but then there were the strokes of fingers brushing against his elbow and he drowsily turned and lifted his head, not knowing where the sensation was coming from at first. He looked over and saw Dean's eyelids flutter open. Sam turned around slowly, coming to full wakefulness and yet still a little groggy. He also didn't want to jar Dean or their dad if it had all been a dream or worse, a phantom feeling, like the kind people who had lost limbs felt and Sam knew that without Dean, he might as well have lost a limb.
Sam kept on looking at Dean, staring at him to be more exact, and waited, waited until full wakefulness or anything like it hit Dean. Sam would take anything at that point. It was almost silly and if Dean weren't so badly injured, awakening from having just been in a coma, Dean might have given him a puzzled look and said something snide like, "What the? Care to explain why you are staring at me like that? Am I drooling or something?" Instead, Sam felt like he couldn't stop himself from staring, watching every move Dean made towards waking up because every sign of consciousness that Dean showed was evidence that Dean was going to be all right.
Finally, Dean turned his head and looked towards Sam. At first he wasn't sure where he was, he was aware of a far away pain that throbbed, but it wasn't excruciating. Confusion crinkled his face as he blinked to clear and focus his vision. Sam's face came into view, a soft, goofy smile on it.
"Sammy?" Dean croaked, his voice more of a rasp. "Why are you staring at me like that? Am I drooling or something?"
Sam could help, but let a relieved snicker sneak out and hearing Dean joke brought tears to his eyes.
"No, you jerk," Sam said quietly back.
"You okay?" Dean asked, his concern for Sam always first and foremost. He had to know that Sam was okay about being there, about being around their father.
"Yeh, yeh, I'm fine, Dean," Sam said, again marveling that Dean would have anything else on his mind when he was so injured. "Do remember anything?"
"I think I hit a brick wall and it was made of monster flesh…next thing I know I'm here. Am I close?" Dean asked, consciousness almost fully with him now.
"Pretty near," John said as he joined in. "How are you feeling, son?"
"About the way I look," Dean joked tiredly.
"Rest, son. We'll still be here when you wake up," John said, his own voice so full of emotion, it took every ounce of self-control to keep them suppressed.
"Dad? Can I talk with Sam for a minute?" Dean asked.
"Sure. I needed to get some coffee anyway," John said, understanding and knowing what Dean was going to say then wondered how he had been so lucky to have two fine sons.
After John left, Sam became concerned. Why did Dean want to talk to him alone?
"What is it, Dean?"
"I need to know that you're really okay, you know, about being here with Dad."
Sam looked at his ailing brother and found himself hating that he had left Dean behind along with their father, that he had lumped Dean with the rationale of leaving and staying gone. It had been their father's declaration and Sam had remembered now in the shining light of hindsight how Dean had kept silent, biting his lip in anguish at the destruction of everything he had known because Dean had felt he had to let go of his dream of family in order for Sam to have his chance at a normal life. Sam had been so angry at their father and he had taken Dean's silence as alliance so when he left, he had wiped them both out of the new life he was carving at Stanford. Even after Dean had reached out with his voicemail message, Sam's pride wouldn't let him give an inch, not even to Dean. And this was cosmic payback for that choice.
"Yeh, I am, Dean. Dad told me you didn't want him to call, but I'm glad he did. Why would you tell him that, you butthead?" Sam teased.
"Because I didn't want you to have to choose between me and Dad and your life at college," Dean said as he flinched in pain and tried to hide it.
"Dean? You okay? I'll get the nurse –"
Dean grabbed Sam's arm weakly to stop him and shook his head.
"I'm good, Sam. Don't go," Dean said and Sam watched Dean allow his walls to drop a little.
"Okay," Sam said. "And as for Dad and me, we're good. For now anyway."
Sam smiled, letting Dean know he was teasing.
"Sam, promise me something," Dean asked.
Sam stiffened a bit at the serious look on Dean's face and liked even less the tone in his voice.
"That when I'm better, you go back to school. Don't let Dad or me keep you here," Dean explained as he closed in eyes in pain.
Sam noticed Dean's growing discomfort as Dean fisted the sheets with his other hand and his body began to tremble.
"You're hurting, man. I'm getting the nurse –"
"Promise…first," Dean groaned out.
"Pro…mise…" Dean blurted out before letting Sam go and turning away moaning, arching his head and neck into this pillow.
Sam rushed out of Dean's room and called out that his brother was in severe pain. A nurse then ran in. John had come back with his coffee just when everyone was entering Dean's room. He saw Sam staring helplessly at everyone working on Dean. As John slowly approached, he heard Sam reciting over and over again in a whisper, "no, no, no".
"Sam, what is it? What happened?"
"I…I don't know…we were talking then Dean was in a lot of pain…I called in a nurse to help…"
John could discern the rest.
"Dad, something's wrong."
"I'm sure the doctors will help Dean," John said, trying to stay calm himself.
All John and Sam could do was stand back and let the doctors and nurses work on Dean. Sam felt his panic rising the longer he couldn't see Dean. John did his best to contain his need to pull apart the veil of medical personnel that surrounded his son too. His instincts were warring with the understanding that neither he nor Sam could do anything to help Dean. Only the doctors and nurses could do that. After the minutes ticked by, the doctor finally emerged from Dean's room, his face grim and uncertain. Sam went frigid with fright. It wasn't good. He felt it. A pain deep in his gut clawed at him and he just knew that the doctor wasn't going to tell them good news.
"Doctor, what is it? What's wrong with Dean," Sam piped up unable to stand not knowing.
The doctor looked into Sam's eyes and Sam thought he saw death there.
"I don't know," the doctor finally said.
Sam was struck speechless. For all of his college education, those three words left him completely addled. How do you ask a question that you knew no one had an answer to?
"What do you mean you don't know?" John asked, his frustration elevating with each moment.
"Here's what we do know. Dean is in severe pain and he has a fever. We've given him intravenous pain medication, but it's not alleviating his discomfort. His fever is spiking dangerously high and he's developed a rash that wasn't there before."
"A rash? Where?" John questioned.
"On his left shoulder. We didn't detect it before and it seems to be getting worse at an accelerated rate."
John took in a breath after taking in all of the doctor's information to them and a voice told him that Dean was suffering something supernatural. He couldn't express it to Sam until they were all alone.
"What can we do?" Sam asked finally finding his voice again.
"For now, I want to wait and see what develops and then try other medications to gain control of the fever."
"Can we see him?"
"Yes, but not for long. He needs to get as much rest as possible."
Sam just nodded and went into Dean's room, John following behind.
Dean's moans were heartbreaking to John. He was berating himself for letting Dean go alone on the hunt, but he also knew that nothing could have stopped him. He should have known that Dean wouldn't have called Sam. He had hoped that Dean's need to see Sam would override his protectiveness, but as always, Dean had put Sam's safety first.
Once in the room, John closed the door behind him.
"W..what…what is it, Dad?" Dean struggled through his pain, his senses still detecting something was wrong.
"Boys, I think Dean's suffering from something that the monster gave him. Maybe venom. I don't know yet. Dean? Do you remember it attacking you?"
"Y..you mean other than…" Dean struggled as he swallowed the pain down, "being…thrown like a rag doll?"
John couldn't help, but smile. Dean was doing his best to play down his pain so that he and Sam wouldn't worry, but he wasn't succeeding.
"Yes, son. Did it bite you? Scratch you?"
Dean clenched his eyes closed and John couldn't tell if Dean was trying to remember or fighting off more pain.
"By the sh..shoulders."
"What's it, Dad?" Sam asked.
"I think your brother was infected by that monster he was hunting. I'm going to call Bobby and talk to him just to make sure."
"And if it did infect Dean?" Sam asked.
"Then we have to get him out of here. Nothing the doctors can do will help him."
"But Dad, we can't, Dean's really hurt bad, if we move him, he could die. No, I say we wait until he stabilizes –"
"Trust me, son, he'll be dead before anything the doctors can give him can help him –"
"Trust you. It's always about trusting you, isn't it? Because you always know best, right?" Sam said defensively.
"Sammy, s…stop…" Dean pleaded through his pain.
"When it comes to this, yes," John asserted firmly.
"What about Dean? Don't you think you should be thinking about him?"
"I am thinking about him, Sam. If what he has is supernatural then he's on borrowed time. These things, they work quickly so we can't wait and see if what the doctors are doing will work."
Dean watched his family fraying at the seams, slowly inching towards breaking apart and the pain he felt was more than just physical. He had to stop them from derailing so with everything he had, he called out to them.
"Hey! Guys? In the room, you know?" Dean joked as best as he could, but moving caused ripples of pain to rack his body and he groaned.
John and Sam immediately stopped arguing when they heard Dean and turned towards him. Dean's face was white, almost ashen, his skin was clammy from sweat from the fever and he was breathless from the effort it took to get their attention.
"Dean, I'm sorry –" Sam said, realizing too late and hating that he hadn't controlled his emotions like he had promised himself he would.
"Look, th…this is about me…so I get final say…it's my decision…okay?" Dean grunted out.
John and Sam silently listened if not fully accepting guilt written across their faces.
Dean nodded tiredly and slowly relaxed back down onto the bed.
"Dad, talk to Bobby if this could be…supernatural…if he thinks it is…then we go…"
"Dean!" Sam protested.
"This isn't…about taking sides…Sammy…if this is supernatural, you know…there's nothing the doctors can do…"
Sam reluctantly nodded.
"If I'm gonna die…I'd rather it not be in a hospital with no chance…"
"Dean…" Sam said, trying to protest again, but saw that Dean had made up his mind.
"Okay, son," John said, no tone of vindication in his voice for winning the argument. Time was running out for Dean and both he and Sam had to set aside their differences for his sake.
Sam looked over at his father and saw only pain. He felt guilty for what he had said, for challenging his father. It seemed he was always trying to prove himself and he didn't know why.
"Y..you okay with this, Sammy?" Dean asked.
"I'm okay, Dean," Sam said though he knew he was far from okay. He wouldn't be okay until Dean was.
TBC. Thanks for reading as always. Hope you enjoyed it. Your reviews have been wonderful and much appreciated. I have a plan for Chapter 3, which will be the last one so I hope to not leave you hanging for long. I just have to write it.