The Payback for Freedom

Chapter 4

John went into the room where Dean and Sam were resting only to find that Sam was the only one asleep. He heard Dean's ragged breathing and moans. He knew Dean was exerting every ounce of self-control to stay as quiet as he could so that Sam could sleep. John had hoped that Dean would have also stayed asleep, but knew Dean's respite would be temporary. He walked over and bent close to Dean's ear so he wouldn't wake up Sam.

"How you feeling, son?"

"Shhh…don't wake Sammy. He needs…the rest," Dean said and John felt his heart clench. Sam was never far from Dean's thoughts or concerns.

"Paul's ready to start the ritual. I think the sooner we get this done, the better…" John said, as he paused to tell his son the harsh and honest truth. "Dean, I want you to hear it from me, but the ritual –"

"Might not work," Dean finished. "Yeh, I figured. It's okay, Dad. I get the risks, but I'll make it work if I have to."

John watched Dean's face and was amazed at seeing how determined he was at not shirking his responsibility to him and Sam. His son's courage was admirable. It made John feel ashamed at himself for relying on his son to keep his promise and yet so proud to have a son who loved so much.

"I know you will, but I want you to know, you won't be alone in this."

"I know that, Dad."

The certainty in Dean's voice, the faith there that John knew he didn't deserve, it gave him resolve to make sure that he didn't let his son down.

"I…" John started, wanting to say that he loved his son, but he was incapable of saying the words, fearing saying them would somehow doom Dean because he had never had the courage to say them before. Saying them now, with Dean so hurt, might be invoking some kind of payback for not acknowledging his feelings all those times when his sons were growing up.

"You don't have to say it, Dad…I know…" Dean finished again for John.

"Okay, then let's get started," John said as he tapped Sam on the shoulder to wake him. "Sammy?"

Sam stirred slowly.

"You might have to use C4, Dad…Sam was never an easy rise," Dean said as a wave of pain hit him and he groaned.

John turned with concern, but Dean just shook his head, telling him in his own way to concentrate on Sam.

Sam finally stirred.

"Hmmm?" Sam then startled awake. "What? What is it? Something happen to Dean?"

"No, no, Sam –"

"I'm right here, you spaz. No worries. Show time is all," Dean said, immediately calming Sam down.

John marveled at how easily Dean affected Sam. It warmed his heart, but chilled his soul if Dean were to ever be lost to Sam.

"Sam, help me with your brother. Paul needs him at the altar," John asked.

Sam nodded sleep leaving him quickly.

"Dean, hang on," John said.

"Okay," Dean replied.

Sam and John lifted Dean by the sheets again and then laid him slowly on the prepared altar. Dean groaned all the way, losing his ability to resist the pain anymore. He was running on empty. As much as he wanted to spare his family from worrying, the venom was invading his body, taking over every nerve and pore. He didn't think he had any control over it any more.

Paul Redmond came over and squeezed Dean's arm.

"Are we ready?" Paul asked, more as a formality.

"As ready as I'm ever going to get," Dean claimed, still trying to put on a brave face, only to have it clench with pain and Dean crying out.

"Okay, Dean, now, a few things you have to know. This isn't going to be easy and I wish I could tell you that I can knock you out for this, but the later stages of the venom are sadistic. Nothing can stop it now. You probably already noticed that you're having trouble fighting off the pain. It's only going to get worse from now on. It's got a firm hold of you now. It's tendrils are deep into your nerves, blood, bones, muscle, you name it. They are going to grasp tighter to keep from being pulled out of you. It will be a tug-o-war between you and it. Haven't lied to you thus far, not going to start now because you need to know. The pain, it's nothing you've ever felt before. You'll feel like you're being ripped to shreds on the inside. Now, you have to understand, it's pain that will make you question your sanity and your will. Many have given up to rid themselves of the pain and as strong as you are, you might consider it yourself."

"You can stop right there. I appreciate what you're saying, but I plan on coming out the other side of this." Dean said as he licked his dry lips and breathed raggedly. "You did, right?"

Dean surprised Paul with his sharp intuition. Dean knew that no one could tell him what he would be facing without having faced it themselves.

"Yeh, yeh, I did," Paul said in hushed surprise.

"Well, then guess I have something to prove, don't I?" Dean smiled through his pain. "Tell me one thing though…who saw you through to the other side?"

Paul's eyes began to fill. Dean's understanding and keen observations kept on surprising him. He was astonished at how Dean had come to conclude that he had survived it himself and it only raised his estimation of the young man even more.

"My son. He was there the entire time. I knew I had to live for him," Paul admitted.

Dean didn't act surprised.

"Well, I've got my family to live for so I'd say my odds are pretty good, don't you?" Dean joked lightly.

"I'd say so," Paul said smiling back. "Okay, then let's get to it."

John watched the exchange in awe. With everything Dean was going through, his instincts, they were just as sharp and it pleased him to see him stump an experienced man like Paul and yet to also move him to tears. Dean had always possessed that talent. His compassion for others came naturally. Sometimes, he felt so much he couldn't always find the right words to provide comfort. Dean may have always had trouble expressing his own feelings, but for others, he had empathy to spare and for Sam, there was no limit to his sacrifices.

Dean nodded his approval to go ahead then flashed a glance towards his father and brother. The two people he would live and die for.

"I'll make it," he told them.

And Dean had meant it.

Paul gave John's shoulder a pat as he walked by.

"Okay, John and Sam, stand on either side of Dean. He may need to remind himself that you're there. It will help anchor him to this world."

Sam couldn't help, but find himself trembling. He was as scared as he had ever been in his life. Dean's life was depending on him and he wasn't sure he was strong enough. He talked a good talk, but in the end, he'd never had to be there this way for Dean. What if he failed him? Dean spotted Sam's uncertainty and reached out to grab Sam's arm, as painful as the move was for him.

"Sammy, I'll find my way back. I promise."

Sam could only nod.

"Okay, here's what's going to happen. I'm going place these stones onto each wound on Dean's shoulders," Paul said as he placed black stones on Dean's wounds.

Dean winced from the contact and from the weight of the stones. Every nerve ending was enflamed so every touch was exquisite pain.

"I'll recite some incantations and the stones will begin to glow, even change colors as they begin to absorb the venom into them. The very last color we'll see that will tell us that the venom had been extracted will be blood red. It will be Dean's blood. Not enough to cause damage, but enough to remove any toxins in his blood."

"What if we don't see that?" Sam asked.

Dean rolled his eyes.

"You are such a buzzkill," Dean teased, trying to keep Sam from thinking the worst, but he should have known that Mr. Must-Have-All-Knowledge boy would never settle for simple acceptance or simple faith in an expert.

"We have to know, Dean…" Sam said. "I have to know."

"No, you're right, you both should know what to expect. If Dean's blood doesn't go into the stones, he'll bleed out internally instead. There won't be any saving him if that happens. He'll be dead before we can get him off the table."

Sam nodded and bit his lip. John remained stoic, but he felt his body run ice cold at the thought of his son bleeding to death.

"Okay, on that happy note, can we get started, please?" Dean tried to deflect. He turned to Sam. "Not going to happen, okay, Sam?"

Sam was like a deer staring into headlights, frozen with fear, both of losing Dean and of failing to save him.

Dean saw Sam, petrified with the idea of being responsible for his death and decided he had to snap him out of it. He needed Sam's focused commitment to saving him, not his uncertainty about "what if I fail?"

"I need you 100% with me on this, man. I know you can get me through this, but I need you to know it too."

Sam looked down at Dean's face, wrenched with pain and a resolve fell over him. He nodded and Dean knew he had him on board.

"Go head," Dean said to Paul.

Paul nodded back and began to recite words that neither John nor Sam had ever heard before. Paul placed his hands on the stones and closed his eyes. He trembled with pain and Dean arched with his own pain. No longer able to keep back the rushing tide of pain filling his body, Dean groaned in agony, low grunting and ragged breathing and as close to whimpering as Sam and John had ever heard Dean utter in all the times that he had been injured. Paul then removed his hands.

The stones glowed a fiery orange, pulsing and emulating flames though the smooth surfaces.

"G…god…" Dean uttered gutturallywhile he gulped in air.

Sam and John watched helplessly as Dean struggled to overcome or at least found some way within him to block out the pain, but to no avail. It was beyond awful to see Dean battle and fight against an unseen assault inside of his body and having no weapons to help him defeat it.

Dean then suddenly screamed, his hands grabbing onto both Sam and John's arms. The scream was long and excruciating, loud enough to seemingly break glass, but instead it just pierced invisible shards of pain into both Sam's and John's hearts.

The stones then turned blue, bright cobalt in their intensity, bringing waves of shivers through Dean, icy pain that instead of bringing relief to the fire, only added to it with its own bitingly cold bitterness. Dean's screams stopped, but they were replaced with teeth chattering moans.

Sam was on the edge of being distraught at seeing Dean so out of control, only a mantra he had kept repeating in his head prevented him from running away, escaping the sounds of Dean's suffering, "Dean needs me. Dean needs me".

Paul then stopped chanting and placed his hands back on the stones. He closed his eyes as if communicating with them. Dean's breathing became rapid, almost hyperventilating and once again, he whimpered with a cry that sounded so much like a little boy's only with the deep resonance of a grown young man fighting for his life.

"Dean? Can you hear me?" Paul asked.

"Mmm…y…yes," Dean said through labored breaths.

"Okay, now comes the hard part," Paul half-teased, knowing Dean would understand.

"Y…you mean that w…wasn't it? S..shocker…" Dean said as smiled back at Paul.

"Sorry to tell you, but it's just beginning. The stones, they've bonded with your wounds now. They will slowly work their magic into your system to pull the venom out. It will feel exactly like that, like something is being pulled from you. As the tendrils try to resist, the pain will get worse. I wish I could tell you how long it will take, but I can't. I honestly don't know. The battle is truly beginning, a fight for supremacy with your life as the prize."

"It's okay, I can take it. However long it takes," Dean said as his body stiffened with pain. "Thanks for being…straight with me…"

Paul nodded in admiration.

"Isn't there anything we can give him?" Sam practically pleaded.

"I wish I could tell you there was, but there isn't. Nothing works. You saw that at the hospital. Much as I hate to see Dean hurting, he has to get through it on his own," Paul turned to Dean, regret on his face that he couldn't do more and a glimmer of remembrance of what was to come flashed across it. "I'm sorry, son."

"It's okay. I'll be okay…" Dean tried to reassure as a wave of pain so strong hit him and he threw his head back and groaned. "Son of a…"

Two more hours had passed without any relief from Dean's unrelenting pain. John watched his son fight valiantly, admitting nothing with words, but his body spoke volumes about the assault being waged against him. Sometimes John would hear Dean talking out loud, swearing with defiance as if taunting the venom to try to take him down. John knew it was Dean's coping mechanism, his way of facing an unknown and faceless enemy. Spasms of pain riddled through Dean's body and he struggled to take deep and even breaths, only able to pant through each wave.

John watched the pain take its slow toll on his son, saw the evidence of lack of rest and nourishment in the haunting dark circles forming below his son's eyes, his skin pale, clammy, almost ashen. Every scream Dean failed to suppress, every moan, groan, whimper, and cry out told John how much Dean was hurting and he began to question if any of this was fair to Dean. Whether they were worth what he was going through because John knew Dean was fighting to live for them as much as for himself, hating to admit to himself that it may have been more the former than the latter. That thought made him realize how selfish he was.

As much as he didn't want Dean to die, to lose the son he so cherished, seeing him in agony as he was for what seemed to John all the wrong reasons, made him hate himself. Dean should be fighting to live for himself, not just so he can keep his family together. Hadn't he done enough of that in his young life? John grasped his son's arm lovingly. Sam was sitting in a chair, tired, but watchful. Dean faced his father and saw the exhaustion on his face.

"Dad, you look wrecked…get some sleep. Sammy too…I'll be okay…"

John's eyes began to fill with tears.

"Dad? What's wrong? You okay?" Dean said, concern on his face.

"Dean, I want you to know…" John started, unsure of what he was doing and yet trying to find the right words. "If it's too much, it's okay to let go…to rest."

Dean saw the guilt across his father's face. Sam heard John's words and jumped out of his chair.

"Dad! What are you saying?" Sam lashed out.

"I'm telling Dean that he doesn't have to suffer, that he's done enough. He's holding on for us and it's not fair to him."

"FAIR? What could you possibly know about being fair? How can you tell him that! You're giving him permission to die! What kind of father are you? You should be acting strong for him, giving him a reason to live, telling him that you love him and that you want him to live, that you don't want him to leave. He's your SON! But no, giving up, that's what you're telling Dean to do. Something you're an expert on!" Sam yelled, his rage unstoppable.

John detected something in Sam's words, something that told him, he wasn't just speaking for Dean, but for himself too, that Sam was lashing out at the fact that John hadn't asked him to stay, had just told him to leave and to never come back. In Sam eyes, it had been just as good as telling him that when he had left, he would have been dead to his father.

"G…guys…don't do this…" Dean struggled out, his voice barely a whisper and unable to rise above the shouts of his father and brother, unable to stand between them like he had always done.

"Sam, you have a right to be angry, but –"

"Angry? I haven't even begun to get angry, Dad."

"STOP IT! The both of you!" Paul's voice boomed. "Can't you see what you are doing to Dean? Look at him! Both of you look at him!"

Dean was moaning and sobbing, trembling with pain.

"He's fighting for his life and all the two of you can do is argue over him like he wasn't even in the room! Like he was an object. He's a man who needs you to fight with him, not to make him feel like he has to please you both by surviving."

John and Sam stopped. The only sound was Dean's continued labored breathing.

"If he doesn't make it, you'll have only yourselves to blame," Paul admonished.

He walked over to Dean and checked the stones. The color in them was dimming and that worried him.

John caught Paul's look.

"What? What's wrong?"

"The stones, they're dimming. They are connected to Dean and they are fading which means –"

"Dean is fading," John finished.

"Talk to him, you two. I don't know if the damage's already been done, but it's about time he hears what he needs, what he deserves to hear from the both of you."

"How can we? Dad's given him a reason to die…" Sam said then admitting, "We both have."

"Excuses like that are why he's losing the battle. John, you may have thought you were helping Dean, but you don't know your son at all. Living for you and Sam is what makes him who he is, he thrives on helping people, helping you two, much as it takes from him, it gives back too. And Sam, you don't want to lose Dean because you feel you've let him down. Instead of wanting him to live because you feel guilty, maybe you should see your brother for who he is instead of what you want him to be. I'll leave you both to think on that."

Paul then turned to Dean again, squeezed his shoulder. Dean looked up at him, his eyes, filmy and tired.

"Dean, your family needs you. Don't know what would happen to them if you left them, but what I do know is that it's not a weakness to love as you do, to love for no reward other than the loving, to live for them. Still, you need to live for yourself too. It can't be just all about them. If you can still believe that it's worth it, that they're worth it then fight and fight hard."

Dean nodded and smiled.

Dean then grabbed on to Paul's arm for purchase and grunted through another wave of pain. John and Sam joined them. Paul gave him anything he could, held onto to him as well, to give Dean a sense of anchor.

John bent over, his face filled with shame for his behavior, but pride for his son.

"I'm sorry, son. Paul's right. I had no right to tell you to let go. I've been ordering both you boys around for too long. Can't promise I can change, too old and too set in my ways, but you need to know that I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you both," John said as he turned to look at Sam. It was the truth.

Sam felt his father's honesty and believed him.

"I…I know, Dad," Dean said.

"Dean, I'm sorry too. You've always been there for me so now it's my turn," Sam said, but found the emotions rushing in. "I need you, man."

"W…Winchesters, we don't quit…right?"

Dean then clenched his eyes closed and screamed a low growl, panting hard and arching up from the altar. Paul watched him carefully and saw the stones radiate orange then they slowly began turning red, deepening as every minute passed.

"Not…going to get me…you bastard…" Dean groaned out.

Paul watched Dean and found himself remembering the pain he had gone through and his empathy allowed him to share the pain Dean was experiencing. If he could take away any of the pain, he would for this young man. It didn't take being an empath to realize that this young man was different, special, was needed and not just by his family.

John and Sam could only grasp Dean's hands as he squeezed the circulation from them.

The stones began to glow and fade, glow and fade as if alive and strobed to a rhythm of their own. Then it glowed bright, turning blood red. Dean's breathing became rapid and he was grunting as if something was being removed from him without the benefit of anesthesia.

Paul saw the terror in Sam's eyes and the dark worry in John's.

"This is good. The stones are pulling the venom out. Dean is reacting the way you'd expect. He's feeling the pull. I know it doesn't feel like it, but it's almost over."

Paul turned to Dean.

"Not far to the end now."

Dean could only nod and breathe. It was all he had energy for. Paul was right, he was feeling better or at least, he felt the venom leaving his body. He wasn't sure how his body would come out of the whole thing, but all he could think about at that moment was relief and sleep.

He took whatever energy he had left to turn and face his family.

"It's gonna be okay. I'm gonna be okay," Dean reassured.

"We know, son. We're here for you," John said, his voice gravelly.

As the stones stopped glowing, the blood red hue remained. Paul became relieved and seeing Dean's pain ease and his breathing calm just confirmed with physical evidence that Dean had come through the worst of it. Healing would be the next hurdle, but he felt that Dean's strength though a little depleted was not diminished.

Paul explained the situation and told John and Sam that they should get some rest now while they can, that he would watch Dean. Though they were reluctant, Paul reminded them that they wouldn't be any good to Dean as they were. They couldn't argue with their bodies cry for sleep and went into the other room and collapsed onto the bed. Sleep was instantaneous.

Paul looked over at Dean who was still fighting through the remaining pain and was still unable to fully sleep. Paul knew that it would come eventually.

"Where's Dad and Sam?" Dean asked.

"Sleeping," Paul answered.

"Good…they could use it…they looked like Hell," Dean joked.

Paul smiled. He marveled at Dean's ability to lighten any serious situation with a joke.

"How are you feeling?"

"I've been better, but I think the worst of it is over. You tell me."

"It is. The rest is healing, sleeping, eating."

"Well, then I must on the road to recovery because I'm starving…" Dean said, but a twinge of pain rippled through him and the thought of food quickly left. "Maybe later though."

Paul laughed then became pensive.

"Something on your mind?" Dean queried.

"You can leave, you know. Like Sam did," Paul said.

Dean became serious.

"Suppose I could, but don't want to. It's what I do."


"Yeh, I'm not good alone. Never have been…my family…they mean everything," Dean said without a note of regret in his voice.

"But you can't live just for them, son."

"I know. Sam's always wanted something else and he should get it or have a chance at it. This life, it's not for him. It is for me."

"How do you know?"

"I've always known. Don't ask me how, but as soon as Dad put a gun in my hand, I knew. Sam thinks Dad's holding me back. He isn't."

"Your brother and father –"

"Like oil and water. Yeh. Always have been, always will be," Dean heaved a sigh, feeling the exhaustion creep in. "I can't change them, but I can be there for them."

Paul was impressed at Dean's awareness of his family life.

"You must have resentments."

"Yeh, but not about this life, not about having Sam and Dad around. I could've lost them too when our mom died. Only resentment I carry is that she's not here, that Dad loved her so much that he can't let the vengeance for her killer go. I can't change that. Wish I could, but I can't."

"You miss your mom?"

"Every day," Dean said quickly and definitively. "Everyday I watched Sam grow up, I thought about how much he needed her. Everyday I watch my dad drink himself into numbness, I remember how he barely touched the bottle when she was alive. Call it a blessing or a curse, but remembering my mom, knowing the kind of woman she was, it stinks that she's not here for them. For me too, but at least I had her for awhile. Sam never got to have that time with her."

"Why don't you carry that vengeance?"

Dean thought for a minute.

"Because I see what it's doing to my dad…We both can't be on liquid diets…Sam needs someone. Besides, mom, she wouldn't want me to give in. She'd want me to take care of them."

Paul nodded in admiration. He stopped talking as he realized that Dean was finally falling asleep and let him drift. Dean had earned it.

A week had passed and Dean was healing well. The ritual and the stones had also repaired whatever other damage Dean had suffered in his fight with the monster. He wasn't 100%, but he was walking, if slowly and his appetite was back to normal, fueling his recovery. John feared that Dean would eat Paul out of house and home, but it pleased him to see Dean acting like his old self again.

Paul had insisted that they all stay until Dean was on his feet and they had gladly accepted his hospitality. John and Sam offered their muscle around the cabin to repay Paul for his help and for saving Dean's life. Paul accepted the help, but truth be told, he enjoyed the company.

Later that night, Sam sat drinking a beer with his father. Dean, still weak, tired easily and had cashed in early.

"I'm sorry, Dad. For what I said."

"No need. I deserved every word."

Sam fumbled with his bottle and looked over at his dad.

"I made a promise to Dean. He wants me to go back to school and I told him that I would, but I'm not so sure I should."

John understood.

"Dean wants more for you. I do too and I'm sorry it didn't sound that way back then. That night, I've replayed in my head over and over and wished I had done better. There are a lot of things I had wished I done better or differently, but Sam, keep your promise to Dean. If you stay, Dean will never forgive himself for dragging you back in."

"What if I want back in?" Sam said tentatively.

"Think on it, son. Make sure you do. Do that for yourself and for Dean. It's okay. Go back."

Sam smiled.

"Thanks, Dad."

John returned the smile.

Another week had gone by and Dean was firmly on his own two feet. He had nagged Sam to go back to school, but Sam had insisted staying until Dean was fully recovered. Now that he was, it was time for them to leave Paul.

"Thank you, Paul. For saving my son," John said as he shook his hand.

"It was a privilege, John. Take care of them boys of yours."

John nodded.

"Yeh, thanks, Paul. We owe you everything," Sam said as he, too, shook Paul's hand.

"Good to meet you, son. Listen to your heart. It will never steer you wrong. Take care of yourself," Paul advised in a grandfatherly way.

Dean came up to him and Paul took him into his arms with a bear hug, taking Dean by surprise. When they parted, Paul's eyes were rimmed with tears.

"Thank you," Paul said.

"For what? For emptying your fridge?" Dean joked, but he saw on Paul's face something else. Loss.

"For reminding me of my son," Paul said as Dean gave him a confused look. "You see, I lost my son shortly after I broke out of the venom's grip. He went after it for what it had done to me. I told him not to, but he had vengeance in his heart and I was too weak to stop him. The monster got him too before I finally killed it. He didn't make it though…like I did…like you did."

Dean stood speechless at Paul's admission.

"Take care of yourself, son. You're everything to that family of yours. Don't you ever forget that."

Dean could only nod and put a reassuring hand on Paul's shoulder.

The three of them then climbed into the van and drove off. Dean stared into the side view mirror as Paul's image got smaller and smaller. He took in a breath and remembered what Paul had told him earlier:

"Dean, your family needs you. Don't know what would happen to them if you left them, but what I do know is that it's not a weakness to love as you do, to love for no reward other than the loving, to live for them. Still, you need to live for yourself too. It can't be just all about them. If you can still believe that it's worth it, that they're worth it then fight and fight hard."

Dean had decided to keep those words of advice close. His family was worth it, but he also knew that payback was never far away, if you weren't careful what you wished for.

FIN. Whew! Finally finished it. Really am happy at how it turned out. Sorry if I may have gotten just a little heavy and heavy handed with the guilt and angst, but hey, I'm notorious! Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks again for your reviews and for sticking with it.