|The Road Less Traveled VI: End of the Line
Author: Guede Mazaka
Dean woke up with an awful sour wetness coating his mouth. He raked his tongue over his upper incisors and swallowed, grimacing. Things tasted better after that.
His body was one large, raw sore. His head was muddled, and somehow he didn’t want to think through it and figure out what had happened and where he was. Where Sam and Dad—
The tears dissolved the crusts sticking his eyelashes together, so after a while he could look around. He stared at the water-stained ceiling. The air smelled like dust, blood and rotten meat, with enough of a trace of Sam that Dean didn’t immediately try to move. And Luther was around, too. Actually around; Sam had been out of the room for a while. “He saved your ass. He fucking saved you.”
When the pages stopped moving, that was when Dean heard them. “He’ll be back in fifteen minutes. He needed to eat.”
Dean braced himself, then rolled over. He ended up swearing a blue streak anyway, and as soon as he could, stopped moving. The sleeping roll beneath him was too thin to cushion against the pits in the concrete floor.
Luther was hunched over in the far corner on another roll, book propped up on his knees and right foot twisted awkwardly to keep it out of the sunlight coming through the lone broken window. He looked about two steps better than Dean felt, but he still wasn’t in the running for king of the night. Something else about him was off…his hair was longer. By a good half-inch.
“You’ve been in and out of consciousness for three weeks—you’ll probably remember those parts soon,” Luther said. He glanced up afterward, then went back to his book. The spine of it wasn’t completely visible to Dean thanks to Luther’s calf. “It took so long to heal because we were short of blood.”
For a second, Dean wondered whether ‘we’ referred to him and Luther, or to Luther and Sam. Then he decided it really didn’t matter, since he didn’t much like either. “So how the hell has Sam been feeding us? Not all by himself…”
That made Luther flinch in a weird way, though the rate at which he was reading didn’t falter. The side of his mouth twisted with bitter humor. “I think he was hitting blood banks at first—sneaking in as staff and stealing the bags just after they’d been filled. Then he found this spell that’ll transmute animal blood to human blood. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it cuts down a lot on how much of the real stuff you and I have to drink.”
“Guess that’s why we’re across the street from a butcher’s shop?” Dean blew hard through his nose till he felt his nostrils flaring. The smell was repulsively attractive, like pond scum to a man dying of thirst. “He’s still doing magic.”
“With a vengeance.” Luther paused, then put the book aside and hauled himself over to Dean, careful to avoid the scattered spots of light on the floor. It wasn’t a huge distance, but he still was starting to breathe heavily by the time he could bend down to be on the level with Dean. “Listen. It’s just about the only thing he can—maybe—control right now. If you really do care about his sanity, you’ll shut up about that.”
“Are you sure about that?” Dean icily asked. He let his eyebrow go up as far as it wanted.
Of course Luther got it. The damned son of a bitch seemed to get everything…everything except how to have two centuries of experience at his back and not get taken for a ride by a twenty-two-year-old. And it showed in his answering smile. “Yeah. I wouldn’t kill him when he wanted me to.”
“You…goddamned bastard--” God, it hurt to lunge like that. But God, was it good to knock Luther over and whack his head into the floor once. “You bloodsucking piece of—”
An elbow plowed into Dean’s stomach, sending him reeling over so he landed mostly off the bedroll. He heard Luther thump back, then hiss and scramble; Dean smelled a very faint trace of scorched flesh and snickered. Then he laughed, and then he put his head down and just let the terrible raw noises claw out of his throat till he ran out. Or till he got too tired to let them go. He wasn’t sure.
“You should tell him,” Luther eventually said. “Tell him suicide by vampire is a dumb thing to do. I could’ve made him into one.”
Against his better judgment, Dean was in sympathy with the bleak humor there. He was also in deep pain, and too incapacitated to do anything, so he had to lie there and think about it. Then he looked up and looked hard at Luther. “Yeah?”
“No,” Luther snorted. “I had a mate. I don’t want to replace her. And trying to turn Sam as anything else…I’m not suicidal yet.”
“Made up your mind about that, huh. So it isn’t just about the blood, and Sam’s crazy effect on bloodsuckers?” Dean was watching for the smallest tic in Luther’s poker-face, and he saw plenty. For a couple seconds he could’ve spit nails. Then it settled down, simmering but not calm again. But he hurt too much. “You two-faced asshole. Why the hell does he let you stay?”
A flicker of exasperation passed over Luther’s face, and he started back towards his corner. “He’s your brother. Ask him.”
“I thought you knew everything.”
“If I did, then I’d have better taste in the company I keep,” Luther spat back. He picked up his book—the title was in Latin, but that was as much as Dean got before Luther slammed it back on his legs.
The floor was too damned hard. After some rocking and cursing, Dean got himself back on the bedroll. It was funny how much a margin of comfort could mean sometimes. It was funny how much shock and repression could do for maintaining sanity sometimes. “Sam and I are probably the nicest company you’ve had in years.”
Luther sighed and rolled his eyes, and no, it wasn’t anything like how Dad did it, but the way it—
“Jesus!” The ceramic whatever-the-hell Dean had swiped from the floor smashed against the wall, right where Luther’s head had been. The book was too heavy to slide more than a few inches, so Luther ended up bashing his knee into it when he flattened himself against the floor. He stared wildly at Dean, then at the wall. And then he looked more composedly at Dean, who just wished he could break something else. It didn’t even have to be Luther’s face—just something.
So much for holding it together, Dean distantly thought.
Dean’s arm was killing him. He looked down the length of it and was pretty shocked, actually: the muscles had wasted so it reminded him of a toothpick. “He—” Luther moved and Dean snarled, because the fucking son of a bitch better not try to run out now “—Sam really tried to die? Right after--after Dad?”
“Yes,” Luther said. What he actually told Dean was yes, with you still there, and yes, it was like when he tried to run into that flaming house, and yes, that means you’ve done a shitty job of taking care of him. Of making sure things didn’t get to him.
“What happened after you turned him down?” Did he try any other way? was what Dean really wanted to ask, but couldn’t work up to.
“…he had to get some blood in you.” Luther was cutting out a lot. His eyes dared Dean to press him on those points.
Fucking son of a bitch. If Dean had had a choice, he would’ve taken that arrogant act and shoved it up Luther’s—but he didn’t, apparently. He’d been unconscious, and Dad—Dad dead—and Luther had stayed Sam. Stayed with him, which was something Dean had to be grateful for, thanks to the result.
Sam was still kicking around, and by all that was holy, he’d stay that way. He hadn’t gotten taken by the demon, and as long as Dean was around, he wasn’t going to be taken by anything else. Dean would make sure of that…no matter what it took, Dean reluctantly acknowledged. Maybe Sam wasn’t sure how far he’d go, but Dean knew how far he’d go. Now.
Dean pulled in his arm and took a deep breath. He could remember the demon talking about a trap that’d been set for people like Sam…they’d have to figure out what that was and take care of it somehow.
He flicked his eyes up at Luther, who seemed to have settled back into placidity. Except for the tightness around his mouth, and the way he was turning those pages too fast.
“What’d you do? After you ended up a vampire, and decided you were just going to take it?” Dean asked. “What was the first thing you did?”
Luther lifted his head from the book and steadily regarded Dean for a good minute. Then he turned back to the book and began actually paying attention to what it was saying. “Learned how to read and write properly.” He glanced at Dean again, then snorted. “In English. It was the Western territories in the eighteen-thirties. But I wasn’t a part of that world anymore.”
“Picked up the Latin later?” Dean said after a second.
“The only people I’d known as a human that could read Latin were the priests and my friend. The demon killed my friend, priests weren’t good company anymore, so it seemed like a good idea. It’s paid off.” After another page, Luther abruptly sat back and stared up at the ceiling. He looked a little like he was going to laugh and a little like he was going to hurt that waterstain above him. “Sam and you. You keep making me think about what it was like when I was human.”
Dean wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment, or as an additional goad. In the end, he rolled onto his back and concentrated on healing up. Once he was back on his feet, he wouldn’t have to take things. “Mostly Sam, I’m betting.” He tipped his head back to catch Luther’s eye. “Give me a reason—a hint of a reason, and I’ll be on you before you ever see me coming.”
Luther nodded, lifting another page.
* * *
“Shit, shit.” The bowl slipped through Dean’s fingers before he could catch it and hit the bottom of the sink. Blood splattered up all over: on him, on the counter, on the wall behind the sink.
“Towel,” Sam said. He handed over a stiff tan rectangle without looking, using his other hand to scribble notes. Sometime while Dean had been unconscious, Sam had switched from loose-leaf to an actual bound notebook. It even had a cover with a snap band to keep it closed.
The cover was made of some kind of plastic, but still…Dean worked at the thing Sam had handed him for twenty or thirty seconds, then looked down to see that it’d bent over like sheet metal. “Jesus. This actually is a towel. Or was.”
“Sorry. I had better ones, but I accidentally set them on fire two days ago. Anyway, I think we’re going to have to get moving in a day or so.” Sam turned around to mess in the cabinets and the notebook started to fold up. He absently smacked his hand over it, flattening it down again, and gave Dean an inadvertent look at the cramped writing and the thumbnail drawings done in heavy lines.
“Yeah?” Dean held the towel beneath running water till it had softened to the stiffness of paper, then mopped at his face.
When he lifted his head, Sam was lighting a thick-bodied, dull red candle. “Yeah. My nightmares are starting to turn into visions again. Something’s coming at us, so I’m thinking west.”
“Are we running away or towards?” Dean muttered. He dropped the towel in the sink; sluggish spirals of red water circled outwards from it like it was a maimed animal. “Sam. What are you doing?”
His brother blinked a few times, startled. He glanced at the candle and the flame wavered, going almost horizontal at times. “I talked to Bobby a week ago. Pastor Jim left us some stuff. And he filled in his replacement on things, so we can crash at the church. I was thinking…I could get it right this time. Do the spell over.”
“And then after that?”
“And then—and then I don’t know,” Sam snapped, hissing a bit at the end. His shoulders jerked up and he lifted his hands, then sliced them down. The movement turned him sideways, but he stopped himself with a hard blow to the edge of the counter. Sam exhaled and tipped his head up, eyes narrowing as if he were staring into the sun. “I don’t know, Dean. Dad’s—God, we didn’t even get a chance to bury him. That demon had something else set up, and I think that’s starting to come down, and I just don’t know. All I know is we can’t stop yet.”
“But we are eventually.” Dean raised his eyebrows at the confused look Sam gave him. “Stopping. Sooner or later, we’ll beat it and then it’ll be over.”
The way Sam looked at him then was despairing and contemptuous at the same time. “Don’t you think that’s a little naïve now?”
“No. No, I don’t.” A huge swell of anger buoyed Dean into stepping forward and grabbing Sam by the shoulder, and even through giving him a good shake. But maybe Dean broke something again by doing that, because then it all drained away to leave him collapsing onto Sam, who barely caught him in time. His ribs definitely hurt like he had. “Goddamn it, Sam—sometimes I’m barely holding it together here. And—and Dad’s dead and didn’t you notice I waited all of a week before I went and got you the last time I couldn’t get to him?”
Dean tried to pull himself back up onto his feet, but his fingers slipped off and went flying off to the side. They hit a bunch of razor-thin things that gave with crumpling noises: Sam’s notebook. It just about killed Dean’s ribcage and forearm, but he sent that damn thing soaring across the kitchenette to hit the wall hard enough to chip the drywall. The candle toppled into the sink and went out with a sharp, short sizzle.
Then he slumped over. His knees hadn’t been all that happy with the twisting motion he’d needed either, and when Sam tried to set him back up, they gave out. Only a last-minute grab at Sam’s neck kept Dean from falling on his ass. Physically, anyway. As far as the rest was concerned, he wasn’t sure he’d even been back up on his feet.
Sam breathed past Dean’s ear and it sounded a little like words, but at the last moment, Sam blurred them into incoherency. He momentarily tightened his arms around Dean, then shifted them so he was holding Dean more by the waist, getting the pressure off the fragile, barely-healed ribs. Dean didn’t have any such compunctions and pulled hard on the arm he had around Sam’s neck and shoulders, burying his face till he couldn’t smell anything but his brother’s sweat and dirt.
Stubble scraped over Dean’s temple, then moved away. It wasn’t long before Sam’s hands started shifting uncertainly across Dean’s lower back, positioning themselves to help Dean move back but not quite having the balls to actually push before Dean did. Sam sucked in his breath and started to say something. Cut himself off, but his stiffening body language signaled his discomfort clearly enough.
Dean was sorry about that, and deep down hated himself for not being able to help himself, but he held on anyway. “Sam. Don’t change me back yet.”
“What?” Now Sam felt like an iron statue. “But—”
“I’ve got a better chance of surviving what’s coming like this. If I’d been a human, I’d still be bedridden right now and you’d just have to leave me somewhere. And I’m not leaving. You’re not going after whatever the hell it is by yourself,” Dean muttered, like talking low and fast was going to make it sound any better. He moved his free hand up to latch onto Sam’s arm, slid his head so he was talking directly into Sam’s ear. “Hell. You won’t be the only freak around this way.”
“I wasn’t to begin with,” Sam replied. He sounded like hysterical laughter was trying to break through his anger, or maybe it was the other way around. Then he jerked. “Dean, is this because you and Luther have that—”
This time, it was Dean’s turn to go stiff. He slowly leaned back to look Sam in the eye, but he hadn’t been expecting that intense a stare. He blinked, and Sam sucked in air so fast it cracked against his teeth.
Sam looked at Dean another second, pressing his lips together. Then he shook his head. “No—”
“If I’m still a vampire, then you’ve got to live. Because there’s no way—no goddamned way you’re gonna leave me like this after it’s all done,” Dean hurriedly, urgently said. He dug his fingers into Sam’s arm and shoulder, glanced down and then back up. “Look, yeah. That other thing—it crossed my mind. I can’t make it not—but mostly it’s for this reason.”
“Oh, Jesus…” Looking away, Sam gently but pointedly put a couple inches between them. He didn’t make any move to pry Dean’s hands off of him, but he let go himself. One hand came up to pinch at the bridge of his nose. “Are you blackmailing me?”
“Hell, yes,” Dean said. His smile was shaky and didn’t last for more than a second. He bit his lip and stared at their feet. “Why is Luther still alive, by the way?”
Sam dropped his hand and looked wearily at Dean. He shrugged. “Well, he knows useful information, and apparently he has some kind of obsession with me. I thought we could use every advantage we can get.” His eyes flickered. “Mostly.”
“I’m not sure I like this side of you,” Dean said after a moment’s thought.
For some reason, Sam found this funny. His mouth twisted up in a harsh half-smile. “Yeah, and I’m trying not to get used to it. But it’s hard. It’s getting mixed up with all this other stuff, and…”
“I know.” God, did Dean. Signals got crossed one too many times, and suddenly one thing led to the wrong reaction, but it was tough to jettison anything when they had so little to begin with.
After a while, Sam bent slightly, trying to slip out of Dean’s grip. Dean reflexively tightened his fingers and the muscle in Sam’s jaw twitched. He raised his hands to lay them on Dean’s arms, but didn’t push right away. “Okay.” He waited a second. “All right. I won’t fight you on this one. Dean. Dean.”
Dean flinched forward, then pulled himself back with so much force that he couldn’t stop before his back hit the counter. He took one deep, unsteady breath, and then a second one. Then he was…functioning. He couldn’t really look at Sam. “Sorry.”
Tense silence. Then Sam turned away. “I’ll get you another bowl.”
“Thanks,” Dean slowly said. He closed his eyes and pulled himself up against the counter, trying not to listen too hard to Sam’s heartbeat.