"Done," she said, jarring him out of his hard-earned stupor.
Dean caught her arm as she stood, needing to say the words out loud. "Thank you. Really."
Every word was heartfelt and he hoped she knew how much this meant to him. Trust was a hard thing to give, but once won, came with a deep, lasting gratitude.
Lori smiled. "Of course. Couldn't let you bleed all over the place." She turned her arm in his grip and squeezed his hand, her expression becoming serious. "I know we don't know each other well, but I mean it—you need anything, you let me know."
Dean pulled his lips against his teeth and nodded. It wasn't often people were so accepting and generous. In his experience, it rarely happened. He had nothing to offer Lori but his friendship and his loyalty. "It goes both ways," he told her. "You ever need anything…"
Patting his arm, she grinned. "I know it does."
Her earnestness reflected in her eyes and he felt their bond solidify into something lasting.
"Since you're awake, we need to change the bedding."
Realizing the sheets beneath him felt damp, he apologized. "Yeah, m'sorry about that. Didn't mean to ruin your bed."
"Don't worry about it. These were pretty ratty anyway. Gives me an excuse to buy something new."
She rolled down the blankets. "Think you can stand up with a little help? We can move you to the chair while I change everything." She indicated a Palladian blue, stuffed chair next to the bedroom window.
"Yeah, I'm good," Dean said, but his whole body jerked against sharp spasms the minute he struggled to sit up.
"Easy, don't make things worse by rushing." Lori's hand pushed him to be still.
Chris, who had been quietly watching, placed himself at Dean's shoulder.
"Support his back and help me ease him up." She waited until Chris nodded, then said, "Okay, let's go slow."
They took Dean's weight and helped him sit upright in the bed. Even with the help, he hissed through his teeth, surprised by the acuteness of the pain.
"Oh, damn," Chris breathed.
Tensing, Dean looked up at him. Disbelief lined his face as he gawked at Dean's back.
"What—?" Dean asked at the same time as Lori.
Lori shifted to see what Chris was eyeballing. "Oh, wow."
"What!?" Dean tried again.
"Dude, your back—" Chris let the sentence hang unfinished as he motioned toward Dean's back.
"It's covered in bruising and welts," Lori provided. "How did this happen?"
Dean twisted his neck to see, but a biting twinge stopped him short.
"No, don't try to look at it." Lori moved around Chris to sit behind him, one hand resting on his shoulder, fingers smoothing across the skin. "What happened?" she repeated.
"That can't be from Jessica throwing you into the wall—it wasn't there earlier," Chris said.
Dean shook his head. "No, not from that."
"Then, what?" Lori pressed.
"The dream. It's like with the burns. Didn't really happen, but somehow, it's manifesting physically anyway."
"Dude, that's-that's science fiction." Chris stared at him, fear bleeding through despite his denial.
Dean really hoped this wasn't the part where the dude completely freaked out. His patience was in short supply right about then.
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Lori asked. "There's not a lot I can do for it, but I can give you some pain meds at least."
Dean shrugged, but his shoulders protested. He grunted and closed his eyes. "I gotta stop doing that," he muttered.
"Yeah, you should definitely try to keep still. Are you sure you can stand?"
"Yeah, I'm good," Dean insisted.
"Right," she said, brows quirked in doubt. "Okay, then."
Lori freed his legs from the covers and helped him ease them to the floor one at a time, settling him on the edge of the bed. Chris bent and fixed a hand under Dean's bicep and waited.
"You might get dizzy, so let us help you. Okay?"
Dean nodded and braced himself.
"Okay," Lori signaled Chris, "now."
Together, they took most of his weight, keeping him upright when his knees quaked and the room spun in loops and circles. Weak didn't begin to cover it. He felt newly born, with akimbo legs and head too big. His whole body shook with the effort of standing. He hoped time and sleep would take the edge off by morning—before he'd have to face Sam.
Sam. He had to get back before his emo little brother realized Dean was missing. He didn't want Sammy to worry about him. He still had a little time, though, and really needed a short nap to gather himself for what he knew would be another big blow up between them.
"No hurry," Lori said, interrupting his thoughts. Her brows pulled together over a frown and he wondered what his face telegraphed to cause that reaction. "When you're ready, we'll go together."
The room swam before his blurry eyes, but he nodded and stepped, urging them to move with him. Slowly, step by step, they made it the few feet to the chair. Dean failed to keep his facade getting into it if the worried looks flying between Chris and Lori were any indication, but he made it all the same and nodded that he was okay.
In quick time, Lori stripped the sweat-soaked, blood-marred bedding away, tucking and smoothing fresh linens in its place. Nearby, she threw down a large, fluffy comforter.
Throughout the process, Chris kept close, ready to catch Dean should he nose-dive out of the chair—a distinct possibility. Dean caught him staring at his back, fascination and aversion playing in his expression. Clearly not envious of Dean's Technicolor dreams, but awestruck by the possibilities.
Finally, they got him settled back in bed with the same care they had gotten him out of it. He yearned to be wrapped in the downy duvet Lori had abandoned next to the bed, hoping it'd help ward off the chill burrowing into his bones. Antarctica would be warmer than his insides.
"Okay, about your back," Lori was saying, flipping the covers over his legs. "I have a few Norcos left over from having my wisdom teeth removed—I'll bring you one. Your throat sounds terrible too—I'm not even gonna ask—but I'm not taking no for an answer. Chris, grab a water bottle from the fridge, I'll get the meds."
"I'm fine, I don't need—" Lori pressed a finger to his mouth, the salt from her skin stung his chapped lips.
"Shhhh. You'll take it and be happy you're not in a hospital bed, got it?"
Dean glowered, but nodded once, curling his lips away from her finger.
When it came, the cold water cooled his raw throat and helped wash away the lingering taste of death in his mouth. And, it didn't take the pain med long to take effect. Stubborn to the end, Dean fought to keep his eyes open, though everything in him wished for oblivion. The ingrained need to find Sam drummed in his skull even though he knew—he knew—if Sam were here they'd only argue. Damn, if he wasn't sick of fighting with his brother. Imagining it was enough to sour his stomach, so he forced himself to let it go. His instincts said Sam was safe and he needed to trust in that. The rest would keep.
He listened to the others talking, both intent on keeping watch over him. Which, Lori he got, it was her nature to nurture, a born healer, but nothing explained Chris's motivation. Maybe he thought he needed to stay and keep Lori safe from the big bad Dean Winchester, or maybe it was a misplaced sense of debt—Dean didn't know. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something had changed between them. He wasn't sure if it was a good something or a bad something—but definitely something. Too tired to contemplate it, he added it to his ever-expanding list of things to think about later.
Gentle fingers sifted through his hair and he startled at the realization that he'd fallen into a light slumber unaware. When he tried to lift his eyelids, all he got was a quick blink before both fell stubbornly closed.
"Shhh," he heard, "its okay. Rest."
A few seconds passed—or was it minutes?—and he heard, "Is he supposed to be that color?"
"Better than the gray from earlier, don't you think?"
Dean felt blankets pulled higher on his shoulders and, for one crazy minute, he wondered if they could see the cold building inside him.
"He's not out of the woods, yet. None of this is normal—his body has been through a lot and is stressed. Not solely the actual physical injuries, but whatever these dreams—visions or whatever—are doing to him."
A small silence passed, or maybe he drifted, and he heard, "You think he's gonna be okay?"
"I think so. We'll keep watch tonight and by morning I think maybe he'll be better. Last time, the burns were nearly gone in a day's time. Of course, his concussion and those gashes aren't going anywhere."
Dean continued bobbing in and out of awareness, unable to sink fully or surface completely, catching snippets of hushed conversation over an indeterminable amount of time.
"Never seen so many scars…"
"Tells quite a story…"
"…then what happened…"
"Thing was wicked—all claws, yellow eyes..."
"Do you have any idea who would…?"
"…I saw her and I still can't believe …Jessica was…"
"So you saw it too? His eyes…"
"…Why'd he do that? He could've been killed."
Dean roused in time to catch Chris's last words and debated whether or not he should let them know he was awake. Being talked about made him want to squirm—but he didn't really want their attention, either. In the end, he held still and hoped sleep would rescue him from the awkward he knew was coming.
"You think yours is the first life he's saved?" Lori responded. "You saw his scars and you have a pretty good idea how they got there. I get that you don't like him much, but from what I understand, he and Sam make it their business to keep people safe—at great personal risk. I don't know about you, but I gotta respect the hell out of that."
Chris sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I'm always right," she joked around a pronounced yawn.
"Hey, why don't you get some sleep, I'll take first shift."
"I'm sure. You've been working hard all night. Go, sleep—I'll wake you if anything happens. Anything special I should keep an eye out for?"
Light fingers rested on Dean's forearm and he peered through his lashes.
"His breathing is a concern… I think his inhaler is in here somewhere—you might check his pockets." Yawning again, she shook her head and shrugged. "Wake him up if he starts actively dreaming. Especially if he's having another nightmare."
"Can do, boss. Go on, now, before I change my mind."
"If you get hungry, you know where everything is, okay?"
"You may regret that—you know my appetite."
"Knock yourself out," Lori chuckled, "I'm way too tired to care about it."
The bed jiggled, leaving a cold spot where Lori had been. Dean shivered as the constant coldness settled in deeper. The warmth of comforter he'd been longing for finally settled over him, and it helped a little—it was enough he could sleep.
It was late by the time Sam stood in the hospital lobby. Nathan had been right; Aaron simply seemed asleep. It reminded Sam of those kids in Wisconsin whose life force was stolen by the Shtriga. This whole case was weird. Jessica couldn't be a coincidence, but simple spirits weren't known to cause comas.
Sam drew his phone out to call Dean to come pick him up. Nathan had left long ago and Becky was staying the night. When Dean's voicemail picked up after several rings, Sam ended the call and dialed again. Still, no answer. Unease warred with irritation as Sam called a cab instead.
Dean always answered his phone—always. Unless he couldn't, and there was never a good reason for that.
When Sam got to the motel, there was no Impala in sight. On a hunch, he gave the cabby the apartment's address, hoping he was wrong and Dean wasn't doing something stupid. Not knowing where his brother might've parked, Sam had the cab drop him off in the front. He had kept the key, had hoped it'd help slow Dean down, but he knew something like that wouldn't stop his stubborn brother if he was determined.
Standing outside the main entrance, he noticed several drops of blood on the concrete. His jaw muscle clenched. He found another small drop at the bottom of the stairs inside. Climbing upwards, he kept a vigilant eye out for more… and kept finding it. Enough that he half-expected to come across someone passed out in the stairwell, and God help him if that someone turned out to be Dean.
Reaching the end of the hallway, and, subsequently, the end of the blood trail, the doorknob itself was smeared in dark streaks, several dots covering the floor below it. Sam used a tissue in his pocket to open the door—unlocked, unsurprisingly. He tried not to shiver as he entered the room and hesitated. Even setting aside his issues with this apartment, he didn't get good vibes from the place. His hunter's instinct buzzed a shiver along his spine.
He cautiously entered the wide open bedroom and found it in shambles. The window was open, curtains askew and puffing in the breeze, and there were bits of things strewn all over the room. The whole place looked like a storm had blown through and wreaked havoc. That could've been from the disastrous visit from before except… Sam squinted and walked up to the disheveled bed. Here, blood covered the mattress in grisly splashes, enough to make someone pass out.
Blowing out a nervous breath, Sam pulled out his phone and dialed Dean's number. Again. Immediately, Dean's ringtone played in the same room with him. Turning in a circle, he spotted it lying on the floor next to the dresser. On the wall above it was a large, head-shaped dent punctuated in the color of the day—red-red-red.
"Dammit, Dean!" Sam hissed picking up the phone and pocketing it along with his own. He shoved a hand roughly through his hair. He had no idea what to do next. His brother had definitely been here, but wasn't now. Someone had been injured, but the extent was uncertain.
Abandoning the apartment with a growl, Sam ran down the stairs and checked up and down the streets for any place Dean might have parked. No sign of him. So whatever had happened, he'd been well enough to drive away… so why wasn't he at the motel?
In a hopeful jolt, it occurred to Sam that maybe he'd missed him in passing. Dean could be there by now for all he knew. Calling for another cab, his fingers gripped the phone in a stranglehold when a wave of unexpected anger hit so strong it gave him a headache. He might have wondered why the emotion was so intense had his brain not been too busy chanting, Be there, Dean. Dammit, be there, to process much beyond that.
Back at the hotel, there was no sign of the Impala and more frustration piled on top of the building fear. Sam decided to give his brother thirty minutes to show up while he decided on his next move. Going in, he sat on the bed and put his head in his hands, planning all the ways in which he was going to murder his stupid brother for going back on a promise, and for giving Sam a heart attack... again.
Weary from the intense emotions of the long day, he flopped back, his phone and Dean's lying beside him, his eyes focusing purely on them until sleep overcame him.
When a door slamming somewhere outside finally roused him, it was already the next morning. Peering blearily around and finding the room empty, Sam jerked upright and cursed, his heart instantly hammering. Fumbling at the phones and finding no missed calls, he barely stopped himself from hurling both into the wall. Breathing through his nose, he forced himself to think through the haze of emotion.
Okay, Dean had been hurt, but had left. He wouldn't go to a hospital willingly, so where could he be?
About the time he'd convinced himself he was desperate enough to call the hospital to at least check, his phone rang. An unknown number popped up and he frowned down at it.
"Yeah, this's Sam." His teeth clenched when the voice on the other end began talking. "Hey, Lori, what can I do for ya?" He listened as she explained Dean was with her and had lost his phone, but he wanted Sam to know where he was and that he was safe. Lori went on to tell him she was keeping Dean a few extra minutes to make sure he ate breakfast and, did he want her to pack him breakfast to go? Anger, like a poisonous viper, slithered through his heart with the same intensity as before. He tried to clamp down on the unreasonably strong emotion and keep his voice steady.
"Yeah. Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks."
"No problem," the voice sing-songed in his ear. "He should be there within a couple of hours then."
They said their goodbyes, but Sam had no intention of sitting around simmering for another hour or more. At the rate his ire was doubling, he'd be a real-life case for spontaneous combustion soon. Maybe this is what going postal felt like. Grabbing his wallet, he flipped open his phone and called another cab.
Chris had finally nodded off in the bedroom chair sometime around 4 AM. Lori had died on the living room couch and he'd never woke her. The morning light filtering through the window had been teasing him awake for about an hour now, but the early hour kept him in place. Exhaustion won over his grumbling stomach and his full bladder. It wasn't every day one of your friends went into a coma, you got to see the ghost of a friend, and then help give stitches to a friend's brother who'd been beaten up by said ghost while saving your life from a black shadow thing. Yeah, long day. But for the last few seconds, he'd become aware of not only light playing across his eyelids, but rustling sounds and soft grunts interspersed with the silence.
Cracking an eyelid, he caught Dean struggling to get his pants on, his impressively bruised back set toward Chris as he gripped the end table with one hand. Staring at Dean's back, he wondered how Dean could be moving, much less bending over to maneuver his jeans on—though, admittedly, Dean wasn't making much progress getting his feet into the leg holes.
"Need help?" Chris asked.
Dean jumped-wobbled, grunted, and sprawled across the bed in an oddly graceful attempt to keep from kissing the floor face first. The man had serious reflexes to go along with his remarkable pain tolerance.
"Dammit," Dean hissed sharply.
Chris pushed up from the chair, asking, "You okay? Didn't mean to scare you."
Dean focused his keen gaze on him and Chris felt that familiar urge to squirm. After a minute, Dean seemed to sense he was being sincere and his face relaxed into resigned weariness. "I'm awesome," came the cheeky answer. "Can't find my phone or my shirt, though. Got any idea what Lori might've done with 'em?"
His hand scratching across his stomach, Chris muttered through a yawn. "Well, the shirt was a goner—she threw it out. As for your phone, I have no idea."
"No idea about what?" Lori asked from the doorway.
"You threw away my favorite Zep shirt?!"
They spoke at the same time and Lori cocked an eyebrow.
Grinning, she answered, "Your shirt was soaked in blood where it wasn't in tatters—of course I threw it out. As for your phone, I have no idea. You didn't have it on you when you got here."
"Sam's going to kill me," he muttered under his breath, pinching his nose. Standing carefully and holding his stained jeans in front of him like a shield, he spoke between winces, "I gotta get outta here. Sam's probably going nuts. I have extra clothes in the Impala if someone could grab them for me?"
Dude's less scary first thing in the morning, Chris thought. Standing in his underwear, his hair going all directions—body beat to hell and exhaustion heavy in his movements—and clearly more fearful of his kid brother than of any ghost or monster. Chris felt bad for the guy; he got the impression Dean's life was comprised of cleaning up one mess after another.
"Chris can get your clothes—but before you go, I insist on cooking breakfast."
Dean tried to protest, but Lori was as talented at shutting him up as she always had been with the rest of them.
"Dean, not a word. You're staying. The fact that you're on your feet is nothing short of a miracle."
And boy, did she have that right.
"You are not leaving here without a good meal in you. Do you even remember the last time you ate?"
Dean looked bewildered and shook his head. "But Sam—"
"I'll call Sam, explain where you are and let him know you'll be home shortly—guess we should've called him last night... I didn't even think… I'll fix extra food to take to Sam, okay?"
Dean fidgeted with the material in his hands before finally giving in with a tiny shrug and nodding. "Yeah, okay."
Lori clapped her hands together. "Great. I'm gonna go call Sam, then freshen up. When I'm done, I'll get breakfast started. You fellas are in charge of coffee and getting Dean dressed."
Dean's right hand rubbed lightly across one set of bandages before settling protectively over his nipples. He lifted his eyebrows with a smirk. "Well, that's not gonna be awkward or anything."
"Right, okay," Chris cut in, squashing the urge to laugh. "So, your extra clothes? Where…?"
"Backseat floorboard should have an extra duffel. Bring the whole thing." Dean eased further onto the edge of the bed, scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck and over his spikey hair. Just before Chris made it out the door, Dean said, "Thanks, uh, you know. For getting me here yesterday. I don't think I've said that yet."
Feeling awkward for getting thanked for something that should go without saying, Chris worked up a nervous reply, "Of course. Couldn't leave you there bleeding all over the place. I don't think Sam would like that."
Dean snorted. "Yeah. Guess not."
Something about the way Dean said it made Chris pause. It sounded… off, so he looked again. The regret and uncertainty on Dean's face left him confused. Ever since he'd laid eyes on Sam's brother, he'd been making judgments about him and trying to fit the man into a nice comfortable box of predictability—he'd assumed a lot of things. Considering him now, he didn't seem to fit those assumptions. The minute Dean became aware of the scrutiny, his posture relaxed and the odd emotions fell away.
Chris dropped his gaze, slapped the side of the door. "Uh, be right back." He left before anything more could pass between them. This new ground with Dean was weird and uncomfortable.
Chris didn't know what to make of the man—didn't know how to reconcile what he thought he knew and what he'd seen. It wasn't something he was used to and it wasn't something he wanted to make into a habit. He didn't do complicated. Things for him were pretty simple, everything black and white and neatly placed into categories of expectations. Dean was this confusing jumble of gray, a tangled mystery. Messy.
Even when Dean was in the hospital, he'd not reacted to Chris's words the way he'd expected. If anyone had poked their nose in his personal business, he'd have knocked their lights out. Instead, Dean had quietly listened, a weariness a guy their age shouldn't have hanging on him like old rags. Sure, Dean had used fierce words and growls to back Chris off in the end, but Dean's face had betrayed him. Chris had caught the fear, the sadness and doubt. He'd assumed at the time that it was proof that he'd been right about Dean. Now he wasn't so sure.
The man Chris had judged Dean to be wouldn't have risked his life without hesitation—especially for someone actively aggressive toward them. Cowards didn't throw themselves into repeated danger without a moment's thought. Or remove their own stitches from raw skin with a steady hand like it was merely another day. Dean had taken over when Chris had freaked, despite the pain lifting his arms had caused—going so far as to offer conciliatory words when Chris had been mortified by his own reaction.
Yesterday, Dean had been more worried about scaring Sam than about getting the help he needed. And now, he was more worried about getting himself back to Sam rather than give merit to his own discomfort. Chris wouldn't have blamed him if he'd stayed curled up in bed for a week. Everything he'd witnessed in the last few days showed a Dean who put his brother first in everything he did—a man who did dangerous things without thought for himself. That's not what selfish people did. But, he also knew people were experts at deceit.
Opening the door to the Impala, Chris shook his head, conflicted. He found the duffel easily and when he got back to the room, Dean was sitting on the edge of the bed where he'd left him—obviously in pain but fighting it. He remained pale as a sheet, but as Lori had said, it was a damned miracle compared to where he'd started.
Last night, Chris hadn't been able to stop eyeing Dean's chest—constantly checking for the rhythmic up and down motion that meant the man wasn't dead or dying—and had hoped Lori would give in and call an ambulance, let them deal with it. He felt ashamed about it now, but in the dark of night, his fears had seemed reasonable. Chris sat the duffel on the bed so Dean wouldn't have to stoop to get his things.
"Think you can manage on your own?"
"Dude," Dean said, "does it matter? We may have this weird truce thing going on, but no way I'm letting you help me put my pants on."
Holding up his hands and shuffling back, Chris agreed, "Hey, you'll get no argument from me. I'll be in the kitchen getting the coffee going."
He pulled the door shut behind him to give Dean privacy. He chuckled to himself and began whistling as he strode toward the kitchen.