Dean's research hit a brick wall about an hour in. There wasn't enough to go on, too many possibilities and no way to narrow them down. The only thing left was to look for leads at the other sites—or, more likely, back at the apartment itself. Sam probably wouldn't be too keen on that idea, but Dean's gut told him that's where he needed to be if they were ever going to figure this out.
Stretching rearwards in the straight-backed chair, Dean's vertebrae cracked and popped. He found something satisfying in the pull and burn of his muscles, the shifting of his bones—it felt good to feel his body move and respond. This sitting around and waiting was making him feel a little stir crazy. A jumbled ball of energy coiled within him, winding tighter as each minute ticked by, making his skin crawl and itch. Under all that, the low-level hum of something else chilled him, despite the fact that he'd long ago turned off the air conditioning.
Checking his watch, Dean sighed and began to slowly push himself to his feet just as someone rapped lightly on the door. He steadied himself a brief second before walking over and pulling the door open. His words were stolen by the surprise he felt at finding Lori standing in front of him.
Her eyes fell to Dean's mouth as he opened it, closed it, then twisted it up into a sheepish grin. She blushed a little before jerking her eyes back up to his.
Giving a little wave, she chirped, "Hi. Just thought I'd drop by and see how you were doing. I didn't see your car, so I really didn't think anyone would be here. But, I was already here, so…is this a good time?"
"Uh, yeah, yeah," Dean finally stuttered out and then stepped to the side, allowing her entrance to the room. "Sam went out for a little bit and I was just taking a break, so your timing's actually pretty good."
Lori nodded and moved into the center of the room, nervously squeezing her hands together. Dean gestured for her to have a seat in the chair he'd just vacated, then eased himself down on the end of the bed.
"Wow, it's really hot in here. Is your air conditioning broke?" she asked as she eyed the long sleeved shirt he was wearing. He'd taken his coat off to free up his arms while working on the laptop. "Aren't you burning up?"
Dean quickly covered when he saw her wince at her own words. "I guess I got busy and didn't notice. Lemme just… ." He gestured toward the window unit as he rose.
Despite the shivers dancing just beneath his skin, he walked over and turned the knob, kicking the air conditioning on. He grit his teeth against the icy air blasting right through his over-shirt. Pasting on a smile, he turned back to Lori and sat back on the bed.
Lori rubbed the tops of her legs as she spoke. "So, I thought maybe I could take a look at your hands and see how they're doing."
"House call," said Dean, giving her a wide, winning grin. "Nice."
Nodding absently, she murmured, "It's no trouble…I was a little curious anyway. Do you have anything I can remove the bandages with? Scissors, knife…?"
Dean nodded and stood. "Yeah, sure, we've got a med kit in the—"
"Oh," she interrupted, "and if you've got extra bandages, go ahead and bring those."
"Okay, be right ba—" Dean stumbled over the floor strip as he entered the bathroom and cursed as he almost went down. "Damn it!"
"You okay?" Lori asked, half rising from her chair.
Dean felt his ears burn, but he yelled back, "Yeah, all good!"
Fumbling for the med kid under the sink, he cursed again as he swayed and his vision faded into bright floaters. Okay, he said to himself as he kneeled on the floor, slow down and breathe. Inhaling, he closed his eyes, squeezed his fists into tight balls, and tried to still the trembling in his fingers. They'd been doing that off and on for the last hour, making tapping at the laptop even more of a pain then the gauze alone was being. Now he felt his nerves ratchet up, increasing the uncontrollable twitching.
Lori's presence made him feel nervous in a way he hadn't felt around a woman in a long, long time. Realistically, he knew it couldn't go anywhere, but the knowing didn't seem to phase his heart's desire.
"Come on, Dean, get it together," he whispered to himself.
His jaw clenched briefly. He released a slow, deep breath and shook his fists out. The dizziness had eased with the stillness and he picked up the med kit more surely this time. He pulled himself to his feet carefully and strode back out to the main room, pushing his nerves deep, deep down where they became a ghostly itch under a layer of numb.
Sitting on the edge of the bed again, Dean placed the kit next to him and popped it open, rummaging around a minute then holding out a pair of straight Kelly forceps. Lifting his gaze, he stopped at the look on her face.
Her eyes were wide and she swallowed a nervous laugh. "Uh, wow. You boys are really well stocked." Her eyes flicked down to the med kit and back to his.
"Uh, yeah, I guess we are." Dean chuckled, feeling her warm fingers brush lightly against his as she took the scissors into her own. His eyes flashed to hers, but she looked quickly away.
"Do you," she cleared her throat and scooted closer, "need all that? Or are you just over prepared?"
Dean placed his right hand palm up on his knee, giving her a place to work. "Definitely not over prepared. Hazards of the job."
Lori nodded like it wasn't a huge surprise and began cutting away the gauze on his left hand. "Well, kinda figured you were no stranger to pain. Most people don't handle having their burns cleaned so well. It's actually a pretty painful process."
Dean didn't know what to say to that so he just nodded and kept his eyes on her hands. Once she'd cut down the middle, she carefully began pulling the wrapping away.
Using a gentle touch, Lori turned his hand in different angles, examining the flesh. "Looks like all the swelling is gone, skin is smooth and it looks dry. Not nearly as red, either. How's it feel?"
Dean squeezed his hand into a fist and released it a few times rapidly. "Honestly?"
She nodded, face lit up with wonder.
"Tender when the skin pulls, but not bad. I can use them again, anyway."
"That's pretty amazing, Dean," she said. "Nothing short of a miracle. I can't understand how—it looks nothing like it did last night. Have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"Actually, no," he said. "I have a theory, though."
"Care to share your theory while I unwrap the other one?" Lori asked, taking his other hand and turning it over, snipping carefully into the gauze.
"Well, there was no actual fire—I mean, I saw the fire and felt it, experienced what Jessica experienced, right? But the actual damage seems to be fading much quicker than a normal injury. It only makes sense that, if it's a residual effect of Jessica's experience, it would reverse with distance from the apartment and with time."
Lori nodded. "Yeah, I guess. It's just, well," she shrugged one shoulder, "it's hard to wrap my head around it because the condition you were in last night was real—your body didn't know the difference. I mean, if you had sustained fatal injuries—what then?"
Dean shrugged. "I guess if you die before the damage has time to reverse, you're screwed."
The frown on Lori's face told Dean she didn't like that answer one bit. Before she could say anything, he held both hands up and said, "So, doc, what's the prognosis?"
Slowly, her eyes tracked from his wide smile to the flesh waving in front of her. Catching the newly uncovered left hand, she pulled it into her lap, turning it in different directions, peering at it closely like she had with the right one. Her warm hands seemed so tiny and delicate next to his. Her touch was reverent and it warmed him from the inside out even as the room's temperature continued to chill his bones.
"Amazingly enough, I don't think you need the bandages anymore," she said. "They look really good. Looks like really bad sunburn and nothing more. Still, I'd keep applying the cream. It'll help ease the pain of the skin pulling."
Dean felt his heart rate speed up at the way she looked at him—innocence and caring. How long had it been since he'd felt like someone was actually interested in his wellbeing? He felt himself returning her grip, drawing a shy smile from her as she looked down at their joined hands. His stomach gave a little flip and he felt his nerves come rushing back. This girl was getting under his skin and that was not something he knew how to handle. It wasn't even something he knew how to allow. Someone like him could never be with a girl like her.
He gave a small shake of his head, trying to regain his equilibrium. He hated this feeling of being laid bare. It was steadily getting worse, as if being in this place was wearing away his defenses. Maybe he was just working too hard at keeping everything in—keeping Sam safe from the bleed-over and keeping his professional façade intact.
"Dean, you okay?" Lori was peering at him with concern, her grip tightening.
Forcing his body to relax, he nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"Where'd you go? You left me there for a minute—your hands are shaking."
Before he could finish, the doorknob jiggled, then twisted, letting Sam into the room. Dean hadn't even heard the Impala pull up.
"Hey, who's car—" Sam stopped mid-sentence when his eyes fell upon Lori and Dean, hands still clasped.
Lori quickly pulled back. "Hey, Sam," she tossed out.
Her fingers rose in half a wave, but Sam turned and shut the door, ignoring her friendly attempt. Dean frowned. That wasn't like Sam.
Sam's eyes narrowed on Dean when he turned and he got that pinched look that told Dean his little brother was jumping to conclusions.
Voice Kansas-flat, Sam asked, "Hey, Lori. What brings you here?" He tossed the keys on the table and brought his hands to rest on his hips, giving Dean another hard look over her head.
"I stopped by to see how Dean was feeling. A little house call before I'm off to the hospital to visit Aaron." She smiled, but Dean could see the awkwardness was making her hands flutter about nervously.
"Oh, so this was your idea—" Sam began as his eyes fell on the med kit and the discarded gauze. "Well, that was…really nice. You really seem to care about your patients."
"Sam," Dean warned, something about Sam's tone not sitting right.
"What?" Sam looked at Dean, fake innocence. "It's nice that she went out of her way to check on you."
Dean picked up on the slight slur to Sam's words and cocked his head as he looked his brother over more closely. "You been drinking?"
Lori jumped up, gathering her things. "I'm sorry, guys, I've gotta get going. Places to be and all that." She squeezed Dean's shoulder as she hurried by. "Finish our talk later?"
Dean watched Sam's eyes zero in on Lori's hand on his shoulder and the scowl that followed. He ignored his brother as he stood, gently loosening her grip and walking around Sam to open the door for her.
"Yeah, sure. Later." He smiled his reassurance and watched as she hurried out the door.
Seeing her safely pulling away, he shut the door with considered care not to slam it. Holding the door knob in a tight grip to steady the suddenly tipping room, he drew in a deep breath before he turned toward Sam, still fidgeting at the end of the beds.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Dean's voice lowered, a storm cloud brewing in his chest.
Shrugging, Sam muttered, "Nothing's wrong with me. I'm actually really good."
"Yeah?" Dean moved to lean against the table. "Then what's up with the jealous chick act? It's not like you to be rude."
Sam scoffed. "Rude? I'm rude. You hit on anything within a hundred mile radius, including that girl who put her career on the line to help you and I'm rude? She's not one of your bar flies. She's a nice girl."
Clenching his jaw, Dean shut his eyes for just a second, shook his head and blew out a breath to circumvent all the wrong things he wanted to say, steady his suddenly rapid heartbeat. "You're drunk. You always were a piss-poor drunk and that's why I'm gonna let this slide."
"Yeah, you do that, Dean," Sam said wearily, flopping down on the bed, closing the med kit and scooting it farther away with Dean's discarded dressings. "And I'm not that drunk."
Dean watched Sam's face cloud over with misery.
Dean sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair and over his face. "What's going on? Is it your friend?"
"No, Nathan's fine. Actually, it's you." Sam's eyes lifted and Dean saw the worry swimming there.
"Me? What about me?"
Sam hesitated, then pushed himself up to sit, resolve settling in the earnest lines around his mouth in a way that made Dean feel uneasy.
"I don't think you should work this case." Sam held up a hand before Dean could interrupt. "But since I know you won't go back to Missouri's or to Bobby's…I think you should keep your distance from the apartment."
"What? Sam, I'm fine."
Sam's eyebrows climbed. "Oh really? Then why are your hands shaking?" He nodded toward Dean's hands.
Dean didn't need to look. He could feel the trembling, not just through his hands, but his whole body. Steeling his voice in defiance of it, he repeated, "I'm. Fine."
Walking past Sam, he leaned to pick up the bandages and the med kit. As he pulled upright, Sam's hand shot out and grabbed his upper arm. It was nearly enough to pull him off his feet, but he dug in and held steady.
"No. You're not. You could've died." Sam's eyes beseeched Dean to listen.
Dean tamped down his rising irritation as he jerked loose. "Our research has hit a dead end, Sam. We've got nothing. Our best hope of figuring this out is at that apartment."
Sam shrugged and shook his head. "I don't care. I don't care if it's the only good lead we've got, I don't want you anywhere near that place."
Dean's face screwed up, lips twisting the words as he said, "Even if that's the only way to fix this?"
"There's got to be another way. We've still got the other locations to check. Maybe—"
"And what if the same thing happens there, huh? You gonna forbid me from going there, too?" Dean walked over to the trash, dumped the gauze and stood with his back to the room.
"It won't. It won't because Jess has no direct connection to those places like the apartment."
Dean could feel Sam's eyes boring into his shoulders. "You're grasping at straws. You know whatever 'this' is…it's not limited to the apartment." He turned and stepped over to the table, setting the med kit down before his increasingly numb fingers dropped it.
"Don't be stupid, Dean. Nothing like your hands has happened anywhere but at the apartment and we both know why that is. She's strongest there because she died there."
"Exactly! That is why I need to go back there. Maybe she can help—"
"Help get you killed? No, just—no."
Fear, sharp and cold, sliced through Dean. Sam would never find peace until this was solved—he'd never find peace until this was solved. "Sam." He lifted a hand toward his brother, one last ditch attempt at reason.
"No, man, I won't let you risk it."
Fear morphed into anger, sudden and fierce, like an animal backed into a corner. "Oh, yeah? You gonna stop me?"
Tension cracked between them as Sam stood, drawing himself up to his full height. "Don't do this, Dean. Please."
Dean smiled coldly, stepping into Sam's space. Exchanging glares, they stood, toe to toe. Dean could smell the cloud of alcohol surrounding his brother and, this close, could see the doubt and fear wavering in Sam's eyes. As quick as it had come, his anger dissipated.
Taking a step back, he broke eye contact and turned toward the table, shoulders slumped. His chest felt tight and heavy. Drawing a breath was an effort. "Look, man, I don't wanna fight," he said, closing his eyes.
"Then don't," said Sam, belligerence black and heavy in his tone.
Dean's head came up sharply. Brow furrowed, he asked, "Are you okay, Sam? I mean, really, what's going on?"
Jutting his chin out, Sam muttered stubbornly, "This isn't about me."
Dean bit his lip and smirked. "Right, right. Of course it isn't." He snagged the keys off the table in front of him and was at the door before Sam could process it.
Moving off the bed, voice heavy with suspicion and fear, Sam said, "Where are you going?"
Pausing outside the door, Dean clipped, "Out. I need some air."
Dean smirked as he threw a deadly look at Sam. "Don't worry," he said, voice gruff with emotion, brows set low over his eyes, "I won't do anything stupid withoutyour permission."
He slammed the door, leaving Sam with one shaking hand stuck in his lanky hair to sink helplessly down on the bed.
Hope to see you all again much sooner next time--I'll do my best. In the meantime, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I appreciate you all so much!