As always, let me know what y'all think.
Title: The Constancy of Pain
Challenge: Firsts Chart: First Time Dean Went to the ER
Word Count: 18,050
Rating: R for language
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, I'm just stalking them for a while.
Summary: Sometimes it’s the constancy of pain, not the intensity of it, that’s the enemy. And in the fight to overcome such an enemy, finding even a small respite from that constancy can be the only way to make it out alive.
The Constancy of Pain (Part 1)
John knew the moment he saw her it was the hair. He should have realized it earlier – should have known it by how hard Dean was watching her – but he didn’t. He didn’t even notice the woman until Dean walked up and stopped right in front of her.
He didn’t notice her because his mind was on other things.
Like how close he’d come to buying the farm tonight, and what would have happened to his sons if he had. Jim was a good friend and a responsible man, but he wasn’t in any position to raise two boys orphaned by their own father’s bullheaded stupidity. He would have made sure the boys were placed with good people, would have done his best to make sure they were placed together. But beyond that, there wouldn’t have been much he could do.
And it wouldn’t have been enough.
Not enough to protect either one of them. And not enough to save Dean.
Even after more than two years, his son was still so fragile; still so raw and wounded and broken by the continuing absence of everything stolen from him for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. It took him months to talk at all after Mary’s murder; almost a year to talk to anyone who wasn’t his father or his little brother.
Dean was talking now – had been talking for a while – but not the way a child his age should talk. And not about the things a child his age should be talking about. Nothing seemed to interest him. Nothing intrigued him, made him curious, made him want to know. He never asked questions about why things happened, or what they meant, or if they were going to happen again. He just accepted things the way they went down.
And not just some things. Everything. No questions, no protests, no appeals on the grounds of injustice. Just acceptance. It was as if he thought he had no power at all to control what happened to him, what happened to others; no power to change them for better or worse, or to change them just for the sake of change itself.
When Mary was alive, he’d been so interactive, so engaged with the world around him, so interested in everything he saw or heard or touched or tasted or smelled. Everything he thought, everything he felt, everything that was anything, and even things that were nothing: Dean was fascinated by it all.
But everything changed when Mary died … when Mary was murdered.
Now he was only interested in Sammy. It was all he seemed to care about, the only thing that really mattered to him. That and his old man: The two of them had become Dean’s entire world.
They’d always been close, he and Dean; but as close as they were before, they were closer now. He’d become the only thing Dean trusted in the aftermath, Dean’s only perception of safe refuge in a world gone suddenly, utterly mad.
And he’d become Dean’s only source of input, too. What he said, what it meant and why he said it were the only things Dean ever really asked questions about, ever really wanted to know just because he wanted to know. By the time he started talking again, Dean had already begun to re-define the world he lost into one that was whatever John said it should be.
If John said it, Dean believed it. If John said something he didn’t understand, Dean asked about it, and he kept asking until he understood it, and once he understood it, he believed it. For Dean, life after Mary’s murder became just as simple as that: It was whatever his father said it was.
But it wasn’t only Dean who changed. He changed, too. He changed so much he hardly recognized himself any more. He wasn’t the man Mary loved and hadn’t been for a while now. He wasn’t even a shadow of that man any more. Sometimes he wondered if she would even know him if he met her on the street.
If she hadn’t been murdered.
If everything hadn’t changed.
Dean was the only thing that kept John going those first months after it happened. Once he got his feet back under him, Sammy became important again, too; but those first few months, the only thing that mattered was Dean. The only thing he cared about was how much Dean needed him. It was all that kept him on his feet and moving; the only thing that kept him alive and breathing and going through the motions of a life he no longer wanted.
A life that no longer wanted him.
It was only the faith in Dean’s eyes – the fear in Dean’s eyes – that reminded him he had to stay alive, if not for his own sake, then for his son’s.
Sammy would have been fine. He was so young, he would have never known the difference. But Dean was different. Dean needed him. Not somebody. Not anybody. Him. Specifically him. And only him.
And that was still true – as true now as it had been then – but John forgot it sometimes, lost it in the haze of his own need to punish things for stealing Mary away from them. He lost it in the pain that burned him ugly with the boys at times; lost it in the lonely that left him drowning in a bottle, or just foundered in his own misery to such a degree he was willing to let his son carry them all for a while, do his father’s job, take on his father’s burdens, make the world go away by taking care of his little brother until the pitiful excuse of a man his father had become could find his way back again. Until John could pick his shit up, get it together, soldier through it, be a man instead of whatever it was those times made of him.
But when that happened, when John lost track of what his son needed and who the only person was who could give it to him, Dean had his ways of reminding him.
Tucking Sammy into bed when he was home from the hunt – home from the Roadhouse, home from the library, home from this research trip or the other, home from those or any of a dozen other places he had a bad habit of being when it came time for his boys to go to bed – Dean would hover near his shoulder like some worried nanny who felt displaced by the return of a parent to the fold; who felt unneeded and worthless and utterly without purpose while he watched someone else do the job he’d taken on as his own. Once Sammy was safely asleep without suffering any mishap at the hands of a father who wasn’t as adept, or as practiced, at handling a two year old as his older brother was; Dean would crawl into his own bed, or sometimes into the bed beside his brother, to suffer the same ritualistic tucking as if it was some sort of family tradition to which he was accustomed; an acknowledgment of the passing of normal days into normal nights that was commonplace, ordinary, familiar, routine.
He would say his prayers dutifully while John sat on the edge of his bed and listened; he’d always remember to ask God to look after his mother even though neither of them were sure they really believed in God any more. He’d suffer the kiss John felt a need to put to his forehead as if sleep wouldn’t come without the benediction of a parental blessing; and he’d offer the ‘see you later, alligators’ and the ‘in awhile, crocodiles’ and the ‘not to soon, you big baboons’ that had been his favorite bedtime silliness when Mary was still alive, but were only words now.
Empty words. Hollow words.
But when John stood up, when John moved to walk away from the bed and leave his son behind to dream the dreams they both still dreamed, Dean would remind him what it was he needed and who it was who had it to give. Without a single word, without touching him or even reaching out for him, Dean would remind his old man why he had to stay alive, if not for his own sake, then for his son’s. Dean would look at him through the dark – just look at him – and in his eyes would be what John needed to remember to keep himself going.
His son needed him. For John, life after Mary’s murder became just as simple as that: Dean needed him.
When Dean looked at him in the confederacy of renunciation of a darkened room, his eyes said he believed in one thing. He trusted one thing. He was okay as long as one thing stayed where he could see it, where he could touch it.
Just that one thing.
It was at those times John remembered what a fragile child his son was. How much Dean hadn’t recovered, hadn’t healed; how much he was only hanging on by a thread, and even that one thread was in constant danger of breaking. He remembered how much Dean had only scarred over the worst of the wounds so he could keep going, keep tucking his little brother into bed at night, keep dragging his dad out of the morass of bottomless grief with a thousand little things he did every day, always thinking about what else he could do, always trying to put his dad back together again, or at least keep him from falling apart until nothing else was left.
It’ll be okay, Dad.
John couldn’t count the number of times Dean said that to him, his little voice quiet, calm, steady, comforting; one hand on John’s shoulder like he was the one who had to be strong about this, who had to soldier through it, pick up his shit, get it together, be a man, damnit.
Just be a man.
But at night, when Dean was tired and the room was dark and his Dad was there with him rather than off God knows where doing God knows what because he was under some stupid ass impression, God only knows why, that it was more important than this was; Dean would look at him with eyes that reminded John who his son was and what he still needed. Eyes that lived and died by the ferocity of the faith in them that tried so hard to hide a much deeper, much darker fear: the fear that when he closed them at night, he’d open them again to a world stripped of everything he knew, everything he loved, everything that mattered.
It was seeing that fear in Dean’s eyes – that fear coupled with a singular belief that there was only one person who could stop it from happening, who could keep his world safe, keep it sane, keep it there – that kept John going. It peeled him to the core like acid put to flesh when he saw it; but it kept him going, kept him moving, kept him putting one foot in front of the other for no better reason than because he had no other choice; no other choice but to let his child lose the last thing he believed in, the last thing he trusted, the last thing that made him feel safe.
And in losing that, lose himself.
The way he’d almost lost Dean tonight. The way he’d almost let Dean down in the only thing the boy really, truly needed.
It hadn’t been that dangerous. He shouldn’t have gotten hurt; certainly shouldn’t have almost gotten himself killed. But he had. And he had because he was careless. He didn’t pay enough attention to the details, didn’t make sure his I’s were dotted and his T’s were crossed. And it nearly cost him everything.
Nearly cost Dean everything.
The boys were already in bed when John showed up at the door, face caked with half-dry blood, cradling his left arm against his body with his right. Jim’s well-practiced expression of benign tolerance when it came to the failings of his fellow man darkened to something more akin to disapproval, an affect that intensified when he looked past John to see the Impala parked catawampus in the driveway, half on the cement and half on the grass.
It was as close to straight as he could manage, John said as he half-stumbled his way to Jim’s couch; and he should consider himself lucky it didn’t end up half in the garage, too, the garage door being down at the time as it was. Jim closed the door behind him without asking why, or how, or what in God’s name he was thinking; and retrieved the first aid kit that was never far from hand.
Jim resisted the urge to lecture as he checked the head wound first – "I don’t like this, John. It’s deep; you could have worse than a concussion. A lot worse." – then the wrist – "I’m pretty sure it’s broken. I’ll set an arm for you; but you don’t want me screwing around with a wrist. Too many moving parts that won’t move if you don’t know what you’re doing when you set it … which I don’t, in case I haven’t told you that, or in case you weren’t listening when I did."
John laughed, said it could have been worse. Softening dried blood with a wet towel to get a better look at the gash that laid his cheek open to the bone and the shiner that was already puffing his eye to near closed, Jim told him that was a damn comforting thought: Damn comforting to know John hadn’t done as much damage to himself as he could have done with a little well planned effort.
John assured Jim he wasn’t trying to get thrown down a flight of stairs headfirst, that’s just the way things played out. Poltergeists can be thoughtlessly unpredictable like that, he said.
Jim impugned his mental capacity and told him if he kept playing with fire, sooner or later he was going to get burned.
Perhaps even fatally.
Wincing as Jim peeled his hair away from a second head wound – the one doing most of the bleeding despite the fact that it was, by far, the lesser of two evils when it came to walking a straight line … or driving one, for that matter – John said it would take a hell of a lot more than some punk ass poltergeist to kill him; then cursed at Jim for being punitively uncharitable in the way his examination was proceeding.
Jim grunted, noting the obvious in announcing the bleeder wasn’t much more than just a deep gash, then re-iterating his feelings that the less ostentatious injury was something due some serious consideration if John wanted to assure he was going to continue doing his sleeping above ground instead of six feet under. John laughed, said he’d sleep on it. Jim didn’t find that particularly funny and said as much, adding a pointed reminder that falling asleep with a serious head wound was a good way to wake up in a coma or dead or worse.
John asked what was worse than waking up dead. Then he smiled at Jim with a bitterness he could feel in his teeth as he said never mind, he already knew the answer to that one.
Jim did lecture him then, telling him he needed to pull his head out of his ass; he had a lot to live for, a lot to be thankful for. John thanked him for his concern by closing his eyes and dropping his head back against the couch cushions, doing his best to look like he didn’t give a rat’s ass about anything Jim had to say.
When Jim was finished wasting his breath on that subject, he went back to wasting it on the other one. "You need to see a doctor," he said, making it sound like an order in the way men of God liked to make their edicts concerning the welfare of others sound like orders. "Tonight, John; not tomorrow. I’ll drive you. The boys will be fine here until I get back."
John said it would wait until morning, that he was too tired to be filling out forms and sitting in some over-taxed, under-staffed ER all night; but Jim was already standing, pulling on his jacket as he said, "If it’s a fracture, it could kill you. I’m not willing to take that chance, and someone should kick your ass if you are."
John started to argue – started to point out the odds of a pastor successfully kicking a Marine’s anything, let alone his ass, even if it was a skull fracture and even if both arms were broken and tied behind his back, and even if Jim had been a Marine before he gave up his gun for the good book – when he heard a noise behind him that froze his tongue to silence in his mouth.
Jim heard it, too. Turned. Winced.
John could tell by the look on Jim’s face it was Dean. He could tell by the tone of Jim’s voice when he told Dean everything was okay and he needed to go back to bed that Dean had been standing there long enough to hear every word they said.
The tremor in Dean’s voice made it impossible for John to do anything other than twist around on the couch and try to smile it back to sleepy. His son was standing in the half dark at the end of the hallway. The look in his eyes said he was finally seeing what he always knew he was going to see. The end of the world. The end of his world.
"It’s just a scalp wound, son," John assured him easily. "They always bleed more than they need to. They’re the big babies of the bumps and bruises world: fall down and bellow like a cat that’s been stepped on before they figure out they’re not even really hurt."
Dean looked to Jim.
"Everything will be okay, Dean," Jim said. "Go back to bed. Keep an eye out for Sammy until I get back."
"We’re not going anywhere, Dean," John corrected. "Pastor Jim’s just a real girl when it comes to blood. It’s no big deal. Go to bed, and I’ll tell you all about it in the morning. Pretty good story, actually. I think you’ll like it."
"What if you wake up dead?" Dean whispered.
Which is how they ended up here, sitting in a jam-packed ER waiting room on a Saturday night, his wrist iced and aching and his head so full of jagged shards of glassy pain he could have had one hell of a good time if he were only more masochistically inclined. The place was swamped with a baseline clientele that made him look almost respectable by comparison. He might have gotten more attention if Jim hadn’t cleaned away the blood to get a better look at the head wound; but as it was, he looked more like a drunk who got in a bar room brawl than a fool who went head-to-head with a pissy spirit bent on breaking his fucking neck, so they gave him a number, told him to have a seat, and said they’d get to him when they got to him.
That was more than two hours ago, and there were still at least a dozen people who’d been here longer than he had.
The constant mill of noise and confusion was wearing on John’s nerves, making him crabby and vaguely nauseous. The ice had long since melted, and his wrist was bruising up now, swollen, throbbing with every beat of his heart. Not to be outdone by lesser injury, his head ached as if something had tried to cave his skull in – odd coincidence that, considering that was pretty much exactly what happened.
Uncomfortable as he might be, however, neither complaint was deemed eminently dangerous enough to move him up the triage list in a county hospital that handled gunshot wounds, knife fights and car accidents in addition to hunters too stupid to remember where their salt lines were and where they weren’t. As far as he could tell, for all practical purposes, unless you were bleeding out, having a heart attack you could prove without benefit of an EKG or dropping a baby right there on the waiting room floor, you had your number, you had your chair, and you had the choice to wait or leave as you saw fit.
While John would have much preferred to leave, he waited because he promised Dean he would. And only because he promised Dean he would.
And because Dean was sitting right there beside him, making sure he did.
Glued to his side like they shared a common rib or three, Dean was sitting sentry on his father, making sure John stayed, making sure he followed through with promises made. Silent and uncommunicative, he responded with nods or glances to anything John said, sparing him single-word answers when the question or comment couldn’t be answered without actually speaking.
He was there instead of back at Jim’s because even at six, when Dean took a stance, he really took a stance.
And the stance Dean took this time was accompanying his old man to the ER. He was going. Period. He made that clear by refusing to be left behind when John finally agreed – grudgingly, and only under the duress of his son’s overtly disquietous anxiety; something both Jim and Dean wielded like a weapon against him, albeit Dean unwittingly, but Jim as wittingly as wittingly could be – to go get his damn head examined. Both John and Jim tried to talk Dean out of going, but neither of them succeeded. Jim did a much better job with the reasoning approach than John did, but he didn’t make as much impact as John made when he ordered Dean back to bed, starching his tone with enough unwarranted anger to bring tears to his son’s belligerent eyes, but not enough to actually make him go. Accomplishing that would have required shedding blood and breaking bones, and a lot more energy than John had to spare.
So in the end, Dean won simply because Dean refused not to win. He stood there in his pajamas, waiting out two grown men by refusing to budge until they agreed to let him do what he was going to do, come hell or high water: go to the ER with his old man. Even the necessity of waking Sammy for the trip didn’t dissuade him. And as it turned out, the mere fact that both Jim and John thought it would only went to show how much better Dean understood his little brother’s sleep habits than either of them did.
Sammy didn’t even wake up when Jim carried him to the car. He was still curled up on the back seat, snoring like a miniature buzz saw, when Jim dropped he and Dean off at the ER entrance, waiting to leave until he was sure John was steady enough to make it inside without falling on his ass and taking the boy trying to hold him up with him.
The triage nurse asked enough questions to make John’s headache escalate by a factor of ten, then gave them a handful of forms to fill out and directions where to go and how to get there. He would have reciprocated in kind; but she didn’t deserve his pissy attitude any more than Dean did, so he refrained from making comment to that effect by just shutting the hell up and going where she told them to go.
Dean took the forms as soon as they sat down, printing very carefully as he filled them out, taking great pains to keep all his letters inside the admit form’s neat little boxes without ever realizing being six and writing well enough to put down what John told him was something that made his old man just as proud as watching how easily he mastered the physical tasks of precision and dexterity John set for him when they were training in the guise of playing.
Once the forms were finished and Dean returned them to the admit desk so John didn’t have to, he came back to resume his place at John’s side. Sitting there still and silent, he presented a stark contrast to the other dozen or so kids in the place, virtually all of whom were grumpy, bitchy, sneezy, squealy, whiney, shrieky or dead alseepy … or some combination thereof.
But Dean was none of those. Rather, he was a six-year-old soldier on duty, his spine straight, his demeanor calm and respectful, his eyes fixed straight ahead when he wasn’t studying his shoes or his hands, or scanning the crowded room every ten minutes to update his perception of where the exits were, who might present a danger and what kind, and how best to fight if it came to a fight, or escape if it came to an escape.
Six years old, and this was the child John’s son was.
Dean only looked at John when he had to; only said anything when his father asked him something directly, or when John touched him in a way that required an acknowledgement before he shrugged it off like he had no use for the kind of contact he normally craved like other kids craved candy. To the casual observer – an outsider to their world – Dean no doubt looked like a startlingly well-behaved boy. To someone who knew him – someone like Jim, or Missouri, or maybe even Bobby – he would have looked angry. But to John – to his father and the one person who knew who Dean was beneath the way he tried so hard to be – he looked something else all together.
He looked terrified.
On the one hour anniversary of their arrival, Dean took it upon himself to stand, walk to the admissions counter and inform the nurse there his father had been waiting too long and they needed to see a doctor. Now, please. The nurse was patient with him, smiling as she assured Dean it wouldn’t be too much longer.
He didn’t like her answer; but he accepted it by nodding and returning to his chair to continue with the quiet of a small soldier sitting vigil at his father’s side. John tried to talk to him again, tried to say something that would help; but Dean wouldn’t respond.
So he tried a little harder, equating the nurse to a storm trooper, but with better legs. Dean didn’t answer. He suggested Dean might have had better luck if he’d tried to Obi Wan her instead of reasoning with her. Dean said nothing. He told Dean to quit worrying so much or it would stunt his growth, and he had to consider things like that now because Sammy was already going to be at least four inches taller than he was, and a guy didn’t like being looked down on by his geeky, little brother.
Dean turned his head then, looked at John, and didn’t answer.
"It’ll be okay, Dean," John assured him gently. "I’d tell you if it wasn’t."
"No you wouldn’t," Dean said. Then he shut John down, shut him out, shut him up by going back to a studied focus on his shoes, Dean’s sigil of choice when it came to amplifying the ferocity of his concentration to the level required to successfully hide inside himself so deeply no one else could see the fear eating him from the inside out.
John sighed, closed his eyes. The constancy of the pain was wearing him down, so he let his senses go dull to the continual barrage of noise and light, let himself sink below the surface of his own instinctive awareness. He counted the passing of time in pulses of ache through his arm, or skitters of icy pain that bounced around inside his skull, focusing on the pain rather than trying to ignore it.
"Don’t go to sleep, Dad," Dean said, his voice quiet but firm.
"I’m not asleep," John returned without opening his eyes.
Dean didn’t say anything else, but John could feel the weight of his son’s unrelenting gaze. He suffered it for several minutes simply because the respite of darkness did more to back the pain cutting through his head off than anything else did; but when Dean began to fidget, when he began to lose the battle to control his own fear, John opened them again, gave Dean a wan smile.
"Pastor Jim’s was just being cautious, Dean," he said. "It isn’t as bad as he made it sound."
Dean nodded, but his eyes didn’t believe him. John sighed and kept his eyes open.
On the second hour anniversary of their arrival, Dean went back to the nurse and told her the same thing he’d told her an hour earlier. She responded in a very similar manner. Dean believed her the first time. He didn’t the second. He argued this time, calling her a liar and asking who her boss was. When the nurse chuckled at that, Dean’s hands balled to fists at his side.
"Dean," John called, his voice quiet but authoritative enough to interrupt whatever response Dean was about to make.
Dean didn’t answer him, but he didn’t answer the nurse either. All in all, that was more or less what John was looking to accomplish. But it wasn’t quite enough in the long run, so he said again, pushing the command in his tone just a little harder, "Dean."
Dean stayed where he was for a moment longer, staring at the nurse with a look that changed her chuckle of amusement to an expression of vague surprise. When she stopped laughing at him, Dean turned his back on her and walked away without another word. It was as much insult as his old man was going to let him express, so he made the best of it, his pivot military precise and pointed as all hell.
When he got back to his chair, he crawled up into it and settled at John’s side, his small body literally vibrating with anger.
"Step it back, son," John said quietly. "You can’t take your frustrations out on other people."
"She’s a liar," Dean said. He was speaking to his dad, but he said it loud enough for the admit nurse – and everyone else in the crowded room – to hear. He was still glaring at her like she was the personification of all things evil, still focused on her as if she’d slapped him rather than simply laughing at him, still punishing her for failing him when he’d believed her an hour ago in saying she’d do something she obviously wasn’t going to do.
"She’s just doing her job," John returned. "We have to wait our turn like everybody else."
"It doesn’t work that way," Dean informed him. "She’s let a bunch of people see the doctor that came in after you."
A bunch was a bit of an exaggeration. There’d been a man with a knife sticking out of his back, and a woman who was so far into having her baby she was just about done by the time her fool husband got her to the ER door: They’d been put on the fast track for obvious reasons. In addition, three ambulances had screamed through, getting the kind of attention screaming ambulances always got when they pulled up into an ER’s ambulance bay. But other than that, the admit nurse had been very diligent about calling people up in a very orderly fashion: first come, first served; first in, first out.
"Those people were hurt worse than I am," John explained patiently.
Dean looked at him then, looked him dead in the eyes with that expression of rotting, bone-deep fear that he was losing everything. Losing it right here, losing it right now. John could see it in his son’s eyes that Dean thought it was all being stripped away from him, and there was nothing he could do but sit and watch.
And there was nothing John could do for him but sit here and watch him think it.
"It’ll be okay, Dean," he said yet again, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference but trying anyway. He gave his son a smile, reached out to put a hand to the side of his face. Dean shrugged the gesture off. He turned away to face forward in his chair again, resuming his silent vigil as he waited for his world to end.
John sighed. He leaned back in his chair, watching as Dean went back to staring at the nurse again, his focus singular and ferocious in a way most children reserved for video games or cartoons. Because it wasn’t hurting anyone, and because the nurse likely didn’t even notice the furious attention of one small boy in a room over crowded with grumpy people as impatient for their turn at the doors she protected as Dean was, John didn’t try to explain it again, or even tell him to stop.
He just let it go. He let Dean do what Dean wanted to do, let him do what he needed to do – or at least what he thought he needed to do – to make the time go by.
The harsh glare of the ER lighting was kicking John’s ass again, so he closed his eyes, took a moment to concentrate on quieting the harsh roar of blood pulsing through his veins, the deafening thunder of every thought he indulged charging through his head like a herd of horses on the stampede. It was a futile effort, just as comforting Dean right now was a futile effort; but it was still one he made, just as he made the effort with his son, knowing he would fail before he even tried.
But he had to try.
The pain possessed him for a while, and he let it; giving in to the pound of it through his battered body rather than fighting against it as he had been for what seemed so long now he could hardly remember the actual fall itself.
Sometimes it’s the constancy of pain that’s the enemy, not the intensity of it.
Any man can endure even the most horrific wound short term. It’s the way we’re designed: to withstand even grievous injury long enough to fight your way free of the danger zone, or to run and hide until it gives up and goes away. But once the initial shock wears off, once the initial pain is past and the ramifications of the damage you’ve taken settles in for the long haul, then it becomes a battle of wills. A test of endurance. A fight to keep going, to carry on, to soldier up, to simply make it through.
To just exist.
To simply survive.
And in the task of surviving, the injury is the thing, not the pain. Pain is just the body’s way to keep you engaged. To keep you conscious. To keep you awake enough to the danger of dying to keep you fighting.
But when the pain becomes more than a man can take, more than you can bear, more than you can continue to take and still survive; sometimes the only way to keep fighting is to give in for a while. To let it have you. To let it own you. To let it pass through you so you can get over it and get on with it.
Get on with living. Get on with healing the injury itself instead of spending all your resources managing the pain the injury has become.
Sometimes it’s the constancy of pain that’s the enemy, not the intensity of it. And in that, sometimes finding even a small respite from that constancy is the only way to make it out alive.
It was something John learned in the Marines, and it had saved his life more than once. He used it now, willing himself to surrender to the struggle, to give in, to let it win for a while as he concentrated on just sitting there and taking it like a man.
Like a battered man looking to survive the long haul. Like a smart Marine looking to live to fight another day.
So John relaxed, let it have him. He allowed himself to feel every bruise on his body, every rattle in his bones, every twist of joint and wrench of muscle that comes from being thrown half way across a room and headfirst down a flight of stairs. He felt them, endured them, and let them pass.
His perception of sound and sensation dulled to a less brutal intensity. The cut of pain through his every thought lost its edge a bit, becoming soft, becoming bleary. Time passed differently than before, more like warm syrup now than cold ketchup so thick it took a knife in the bottle to pry the flow of it into motion.
The injury itself, once again, became the thing. And in that, the only war a man had to fight was resisting the sometimes overwhelming urge to wake up dead.
More than half an hour passed. And John let it. He let it pass until he felt Dean shift beside him in a way that was more than random fidget, until he felt Dean push out of his chair and heard him walk away.
John wanted to ignore it – wanted desperately to ignore it – but he couldn’t afford to, so he didn’t. Even at six and even in the less-than-optimum environment of a late night ER, Dean was capable of handling himself or calling for help if he needed it; but the admit nurse was harried enough without him escalating his objections from every hour to every half hour. If only for that reason, he needed to find Dean and call him back before someone got frustrated enough with his badgering to respond to him in a way Dean didn’t deserve.
He was just trying to help. Just trying to be an advocate for his old man, trying to save them both from the fate fear had written as the inevitable outcome of every moment that passed without a real doctor assuring him Jim’s prognosis of "it could kill you" was full of shit. Or at least somewhat overstated.
Stirring himself out of the cocoon of half-dazed stupor into which he’d fallen, John forced his eyes open and worked to focus through pain that intensified exponentially as soon as he resumed his abandoned struggle against it. He scanned the crowded room and found his son where he didn’t expect to see him.
Dean wasn’t heading for the admit counter again, and he wasn’t walking toward the bathroom, or making his way to the drinking fountain for a drink. Instead, he was threading his way through the scatter of waiting room chairs, every line of his body language clear with purpose as he stopped directly in front of another patient: a woman with long, blonde hair and a child playing quietly near her feet.
John knew the moment he saw her it was the hair. He should have realized it earlier – should have known it by how hard Dean was watching her – but he didn’t. He didn’t even notice the woman until Dean walked up and stopped right in front of her.
She didn’t look like Mary at all – didn’t resemble her even in passing – but her hair was the same length, and almost the same color, and she wore it the same way. It was only when Dean was standing in front of her that John realized it hadn’t been the nurse his son spent the last half hour watching. It was her. Her and the long, soft blonde of her almost-Mary hair.
"Hi," Dean said, his voice firm, calm, composed. Purposeful. "My name’s Dean."
Startled out of the book she was reading by the nearness of an unexpected voice, the woman looked up, blinking in surprise. For just a moment, she didn’t look like she knew how to respond to the little boy standing before her; but then she smiled, relaxing into the realization that her addresser was a child and his proximity posed no threat to her, or to the toddler at her feet. "Well, hello, Dean," she said, closing her book with her thumb on the page to keep her place. "It’s very nice to meet you."
"What’s your name?" Dean asked.
Though she seemed taken aback a little by the directness of his question, she answered it easily, speaking to him like a mother speaks to any child who seeks her attention in a way that reminds her of her own. "My name’s Janet," she said, smiling.
Dean nodded. "That’s a good name," he told her. Then, almost as a revision, he added, "It’s pretty. I like it." He looked her straight in the eyes then and said, "I like your hair, too. Can I touch it, please?"
For just a moment, John considered calling him back. He would have if the woman had balked, or acted as if she was unduly bothered by Dean’s sudden and specific attentions. But she didn’t. She seemed surprised. A little puzzled, maybe. But not angry, or unnerved, or even more than passingly disturbed to have a strange child walk up to her and begin asking bold questions while she killed time between the pages of a book.
Because the woman seemed amenable to the exchange, and because it was the first time Dean had voluntarily spoken to a stranger – any stranger – since Mary died, John let the interaction play. He was loathe to interrupt whatever was going through his son’s head right now; and even more loathe to discourage Dean from seeking something that reminded him of his mother rather than turning away from it as he normally did; hiding from it, pretending it didn’t exist for fear or pain of remembering how much he missed what he no longer had.
The woman made a quick scan of the crowded waiting room. Unaware she was speaking to a motherless child, she was looking for a childless mother she wasn’t going to find. "Where’s your mommy, honey?" she asked rather than answering Dean’s request.
"My mother’s dead," Dean said simply.
His statement was a slap, more to the woman than to John; but in some ways, to them both. The calm, cold, informative inflection of his tone was so stark, so lacking in childish affect it was jarring. Heartbreaking. Horrifying.
To them both.
"Oh," the woman said after a long beat. "I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t know."
"Can I touch your hair please?" Dean asked again.
"Uh … okay. Sure." She smiled at him, a consolation prize offered to balance out the cosmic injustice of his mother’s murder. "You can touch my hair if you want to."
Dean reached out, ran his hand down the side of the woman’s hair like he was touching something reverent, something precious. Completely focused on what he was doing, he was almost in a trance of sorts; stroking her hair again, and then a third time; oblivious to the crowded room around him, equally oblivious that the woman wearing his mother’s hair was watching him with an expression that indicated she thought he might spontaneously combust at any moment.
Watching them from across the waiting room, John was as focused on what his son was doing as Dean was on touching the woman’s hair.
Dean ran his hand the length of her hair several more times, then took some to rub between his fingertips like he was testing to make sure it was real, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. "It feels just like her hair," Dean said finally, his voice more wistful than awed. "But it smells different." He put a piece up to his nose, inhaling deeply to verify what he was saying before he clarified, "It smells like cantaloupe."
The blonde woman had no idea what to do with that. John knew he should rescue her, but he didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to interrupt yet, couldn’t bring himself to shut Dean down when Dean so rarely let himself open up. He was touching someone he didn’t know, talking to her about his mother, about something he remembered of a life he hadn’t spoken of since the night it burned to death in his little brother’s nursery. John couldn’t interfere with that. He wouldn’t interfere with that.
"Uh, yeah," the woman said finally. "Honey melon, actually. And …" she hesitated like she had no idea why she was telling him what she was, then finished, "… and kiwi."
Dean nodded. "Different," he repeated definitively.
"Different from …?" the woman prompted.
"From the way it’s supposed to smell," Dean clarified.
She frowned, trying to figure him out. "How is it supposed to smell, honey?"
"Like strawberries," Dean said. "Or sometimes like flowers. But I don’t know what kind of flowers." He hesitated for a beat, then added more quietly. "I don’t remember what kind." He looked up then, stared straight into her eyes again to ask, his voice strong and firm like it had been when he first started talking to her, "Can you call me Dean instead of honey, please? My name is Dean."
"Um. Sure, hon – I mean, Dean."
"Thank you. Is that your little boy?"
The woman glanced down at the child playing at her feet. "Yes. It is."
"How old is he?"
"Does he have a brother?"
She cocked her head to the side a little, still trying to figure Dean out. Trying to understand where he was going with his questions and why. Or if he was going anywhere with them, or just asking her things because he was bored, and she was available and willing to answer him. "No, Dean. He doesn’t. Why do you ask?"
"My brother’s two," Dean told her. "His name’s Sammy. What’s your little boy’s name?"
"His name’s Bobby."
"Bobby." Dean nodded his approval. "That’s a good name, too. You can call him Bob when he gets bigger. Did you name him that?"
The woman leaned forward a little. She smiled at Dean, asking, "What’s your last name, Dean?"
"Winchester. Did you name him that?"
She tried to ask it gently: "Dean, are you here by yourself, sweetie?"
"No. Did you name him that?"
The insistence of Dean’s tone startled the woman, made her frown. "Uh. Yes. I named him that. Who are you here with, Dean? Can you show me who you’re here with?"
"Yes. Does Bobby have a dad?"
She looked around the crowded room again, starting to show signs she was thinking about involving someone else in their conversation. "Bobby’s daddy is home with his sisters right now. Who are you here with, Dean? Is your daddy here?"
"Yes," Dean said. "He’s here." And then he just looked at her.
It was the first response he gave that didn’t involve a question of his own. She seemed to understand there was a significance to that, but she didn’t look like she had any idea what the significance could be.
Neither did John.
She smiled encouragement, prompting, "He is?"
"Yes," Dean repeated. "My dad’s here." But he didn’t offer anything else. Or ask another question. He just looked at her. Just stood there and looked at her like he was waiting for her to ask him the right question.
The woman sighed, gave in and asked, "Where is your daddy, Dean?"
That was the right question. Dean took a step closer to her, staring intently into her eyes as he lowered his voice to a near whisper John could only half hear to tell her in a rush of words that came out of his mouth as fast as he could push them, "My dad’s hurt, and I think he’s going to die, but the doctor won’t help him even though the whole reason we came here was because he needs a doctor to fix his head because it was bleeding really bad before and even Pastor Jim thinks he needs a doctor, too; but they won’t let him see a doctor, and I think his arm’s broke, and he keeps closing his eyes, and he’s not supposed to go to sleep with a head wound or he’ll wake up dead, and can you make them bring a doctor out for him because they won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to you if you tell them they have to get a doctor for him because if they don’t get a doctor he could die, and I don’t want him to die because me and Sammy don’t have anybody if he dies, and he’s my dad, and I don’t want him to die, please, because I’m afraid he’s going to die, and he can’t die; he can’t die because my mom is dead because something killed her, and he can’t die, too; so can you please just make them go get a doctor for him, please, because I need someone to help me so can you help me, can you make them, please, can you, please, can you just, please —"
It took John several seconds to find his voice in the vacuum his chest had become, but when he did, he called, "Dean." It came out sharper than he intended. Dean flinched and stopped talking, but he didn’t turn around.
Looking over Dean’s head, the woman located John by his voice. Her expression asked what he wanted her to do. John would have liked to tell her, but he had no idea what to do with this. No idea at all.
His heart was pounding at how much information Dean downloaded in the few seconds he spent confessing his most precious secrets to this complete stranger. He’d opened himself like a gutted deer to this woman, spilling it all in her lap in a blind hope she wouldn’t destroy him with what he was saying, but would instead help him. Show mercy to him. Take pity on him.
Dean didn’t believe in mercy. He didn’t believe in pity. Those concepts were burned out of him, along with hope, when a demon ignited his mother to a funeral pyre in his own home, reducing the spirit of the trusting child he’d been to ash as surely as John destroyed the spirits of vengeful entities with the application of fire and salt.
Wincing a little as he sat up, John leaned forward in his chair, calling to his son again, his voice low, quiet, personal: "Dean. Come here, son."
But Dean didn’t turn. He didn’t come. For the first time since Mary’s murder, in an arena outside the safety of John’s immediate proximity, Dean didn’t do exactly what his dad told him to do, the moment he told him to do it. As he had in the hallway of Jim’s house – a place he felt safe enough to think rather than obey, protected enough to respond rather than react – Dean defied him.
He chose the mercy of a stranger over the protection of his father. He chose something he didn’t believe over something that defined his very existence.
"Please?" Dean whispered, staring at the blonde woman like she was his last hope in the whole, entire world. "Please help me. Please."
"Dean," John said again, making his voice a little harder, a little more of an order with a little less room to consider it anything else.
And just that quickly, Dean gave up. The desperation that drove him to such a dramatically self-sacrificial act broke, and he collapsed back into the hollow shell he’d become after Mary’s murder. Turning away from the woman he approached as if he’d never confided in her – never begged her for help, never thrown himself at her feet in a last ditch effort to earn mercy he no longer even believed existed – Dean walked back to his chair, crawl into it and sat there like he’d never abandoned it at all.
Like he’d never left his father to approach a total stranger and beg her to stop the end of his world from coming.
The woman was watching him, her eyes worried; but Dean was done with her. He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t look at anyone. Not her, not John, not anyone. All he would look at was his shoes. He stared at them like they were all that existed right now, his shoulders trembling, both of his hands clenched to such tight fists the fingers were white all the way to the second knuckle.
"Jesus, Dean," John whispered.
He reached out, put a hand on the back of Dean’s neck. Dean tried to shrug it off, but John didn’t let him this time, pulling him close instead, bowing his own head to rest his forehead against Dean’s skull.
Dean resisted him, his body stiff as a board as he refused comfort he didn’t believe, rebelled against being told everything was fine when he knew it wasn’t. He was still staring at his shoes – glaring at his shoes – both hands still clenched to fists, still glued to his thighs like they were spot welded there and never intended to move again.
"It’s okay, Dean," John said. He spoke into his son’s hair, his lips against Dean’s skull and his voice so low no one but Dean could possibly hear what he was saying. But Dean could hear it. Dean could feel it. "Everything’s going to be okay, son. I promise. Everything’s going to be okay."
It took three minutes for Dean to give in; three minutes for the resistance in his body to begin to fail. Over the next five, he collapsed in increments, capitulating by degrees to the pressure of John’s hand on the back of his neck, allowing himself to be pulled closer, letting himself be drawn in until he was huddled against John’s side, trembling there, his face turned to the comforting warm of his father’s shirt.
John shifted his grip, pulled Dean into his lap. His son’s body was boneless now, folding in on itself as he settled against John’s chest, his hands twisting into John’s shirt, his face pressing into the lee of John’s shoulder. "I’ve got you, bud," John said as he tucked Dean in close, held on to him as best he could with only one hand, spreading his fingers where that hand rested between Dean’s shoulder blades, creating as much contact between them as possible in an effort to compensate for not being a mother who could wrap Dean up in her arms and rock him until the world was safe again.
Dean started to cry. He didn’t sniffle, didn’t sob, didn’t make any noise at all in fact. He just broke. Crumbled. Shattered.
In complete silence.
Hiding against the shelter of John’s body, he came apart, trembling, gasping in small huffs of desperation as the warm, salty wet of his tears soaked through John’s shirt and into his skin. "It’s okay, Dean," John whispered to him. "Everything’s going to be okay. I promise it’s going to be okay."
He moved the hand on Dean’s back, rubbing small circles while he talked, soothing his son like he had when Dean was a colicky baby, and Mary needed rest so badly she was nearly frantic with exhaustion before it occurred to him Dean could cry on his father’s shoulder as easily as he could cry on his mother’s. Dean’s hands dug deeper into the folds of John’s shirt, hanging on like he was terrified someone was going to snatch his dad away at any second.
Like he believed that more than he believed anything John was saying.
"It’s okay, buddy," John murmured, his lips against the top of Dean’s head. "It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay."
"Don’t leave me," Dean whispered when he’d finished crying; when his breathing was no longer tearing through him in small, silent sobs; when he was hiding against John’s chest instead of breaking there.
"I won’t. I’m not going anywhere."
"You promised," Dean breathed.
"I promise, Dean. I promise."
"You said you wouldn’t leave me. When I said I didn’t want to live with Pastor Jim, I wanted to go wherever you were going, you said you wouldn’t leave me. You promised, Dad. Do you remember? You promised. You promised you wouldn’t leave me."
"I remember," John whispered to him.
"Don’t leave me," he said again, his voice cracking.
"I won’t, Dean. I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’m not going anywhere, son. I’m not going anywhere."
"You promise?" It was a question this time.
"I promise," John promised.
"I swear," John swore.
"Okay," Dean whispered. He sniffed, snuggling deeper into the sheltering bulk of his father’s body. "I believe you."
His son’s words were a sacrament. He spoke them quietly, reverently, the smallness of his voice quavering a little with the intensity of their conviction as he offered up everything he had left to give.
The last piece of faith he had left to offer.
Go to Part 2