The Fighter Still Remains

My final posting for spn_cinema – the fanfic to go with the art post HERE

Title: The Fighter Still Remains
Movie prompt: Warrior
Pairing: Gen (maybe a hint of wincest)
Rating: R for violence & swearing
Length: ~8500 words

Warnings: Medical stuff written by a non-medical person, so bear with me if some details are inaccurate or exaggerated! I took some advice from dear_tiger and changed some things accordingly, so I’m hoping it’s not too far fetched.

Thank yous: Beta’d by thursdaysisters and jennytork – thank you chaps, most kind! As mentioned above, medical consultant dear_tiger, who wasn’t even wearing her gold lame pants at the time and didn’t get to stab anything either, so that was extra kind. A big thank you also to the spn_cinema mods for running the show!

John Winchester was the first to admit he had an obsessive personality. Driven was one word Mary had used to describe him when she was in a good mood, stubborn son of a bitch when she was not. When her voice was silenced in a mob hit gone awry, John lost all sense of proportion. Deprived of Mary’s ability to bring balance to his life, John clung to the one thing he excelled at – MMA fighting. He loved his two boys, of course he did, but his training was almost as consuming as his desire for vengeance. It was a frequent source of arguments between John and Bobby Singer. Singer was John’s trainer and life-long friend, who in the face of John’s neglect had appointed himself as surrogate uncle to John’s boys.

When John’s career in the cages came to an abrupt and painful end with a broken pelvis and ruptured ACL that no amount of skill and money could repair, he turned his laser focus onto his two boys at last. Somewhere along the way, while John’s attention had been on building up his own muscle-mass and wrapping his hands right for the next fight, Dean had grown into a sturdy but disturbingly pretty fifteen year old, while eleven year old Sam was a mess of angles and bones under his mop of unruly hair, with only traces of puppy fat.

John looked at them both and thought they were ready. Bobby didn’t.

“They’re too damn young for this kind of fighting, John,” Bobby yelled, his face red under a beard that was starting to show signs of grey.

“Fuck you, Singer. I’ll train them myself!”

John grabbed Dean and Sam. Ignoring all their protests and without even bothering to pack their bags, the Winchesters left Singer’s gym in Sioux Falls behind them. After one glance, John avoided looking in the rear view mirror. That way he could forget the sad sight of Dean’s blank, stoic expression as he comforted a sniffling Sam, and the way the two boys huddled together in the back seat of the truck.

Training Sam and Dean to follow in his footsteps and become better fighters than he’d never been became the only thing John could focus on – the only thing that eclipsed the longing for revenge on the mobsters who’d murdered his Mary.

Since the latter was an impossible dream, Dean and Sam became the centre of John’s universe.

Dean was a natural fighter, but John could see that Sam would be something special.

Their training was fierce and unrelenting, but John felt vindicated when first Dean then Sam started winning in competitive fights.

It was an utter shock when Sam reached eighteen and left, rejecting John’s vision of the future for his own – a college degree. Sam’s departure tore the Winchester family apart. John’s anger burned like fire, and he turned all that heat onto Dean. The pattern John’s anger and Sam’s desertion had welded into Dean’s blade was complex, beautiful and dangerous, and whenever Bobby saw his boy, which was rarely, he couldn’t help thinking such a forging was just as likely to break Dean as it was to make him stronger.

For two years, Sam refused any contact with either his Dad or Dean, telling himself it was better to have a clean break. Which was partly true, though for a while he secretly kept in touch with Dean’s career via Internet subscription and MMA magazines. Envy mixed with pride as Sam watched Dean progressed as a fighter – now so reckless and wild – advancing up the ranks until some eighteen months after Sam started his law degree, Dean finally reached the semi-finals of the Nationals at Sparta.

Dean was an inch away from taking the title of champion, and Sam didn’t know how he felt about that.

The day Dean Winchester should have lifted the shining champion’s belt was the day Sam stopped watching.

That was how Sam missed Dean failing to achieve the title. He missed seeing his big brother taking hit after hit, then getting up to get hit some more. He missed seeing Dean finally taken out so hard there was no getting up from it; he missed seeing the camera zoom in on their Dad’s face, contorted with yelling, trying to make Dean stand and fight one more time; he missed seeing the medics pounding his brother’s chest to restart his heart, and the stretcher carrying Dean off-screen to hospital. Sam missed it because he thought Dean had it all, everything he and Sam and their father ever dreamed of, and that Dean didn’t need Sam any more.

0x0x0x0x0

Dean surfaced into white light and antiseptic, choked round the obstruction in his throat. He coughed and flailed, feeble and ineffectual because his limbs had the consistency and strength of cooked spaghetti.

“Easy there, tiger,” a woman’s voice told him, her tone gentle but firm. He felt warm hands and heard soothing words, but he couldn’t seem to escape the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t fucking breathe…Tears leaked from the corners of his crusted up eyelids, then he was being lifted up and the tube down his throat was pulling out and he snatched at the blessed air through his ripped-apart insides, though he felt like gagging. The same warm hands lowered him back down and curiosity gave him the strength to crack open his eyes. The effort left him muzzy-headed and exhausted.

“Hey there, handsome,” the kind voice said, and he focused on the face smiling down at him. Dean had to admit it was a very nice face to wake up to. Dark brown eyes and a wide white smile in a round face, framed by long dark hair that was tied back into a loose knot. Well hey, at least he wasn’t going to die somewhere the nurses weren’t even pretty.

“You aren’t going to die, period,” she said, grinning, and he flushed a little as he realised he must have said something out loud. “Now don’t try and speak any more until after you’ve had something to moisten your throat. You’ve had that tracheal tube helping you breathe for a long time, so you’ll be feeling pretty sore for a while. Here…”

She came closer and put her arm round his head again, lifting it up so she could bring a paper cup filled with ice chips to his dry lips. He sucked on a few chips with deep gratitude, too busy trying to manage the agony of swallowing to be embarrassed at the ease with which this slight woman man-handled him.

“M’Dean,” he said, attempting insouciant charm and failing, if the amused look in her dark eyes is any indication.

“I know, Dean,” she smiles, “I’ve been nursing you since you were admitted. You can call me Lisa. Oh, and if that was an attempt to hit on me, don’t bother. I’ve seen it all and I’m not easily impressed!”

Sadly, Lisa wasn’t kidding about keeping a professional distance, though it didn’t stop Dean flirting. In spite of constantly smacking Dean’s advances down with apparent relish, Lisa was a regular at his bedside, the one bright spot in his much too lengthy hospital stay.  Unlike his Dad, who came infrequently and sat in awkward silence most of the time, doing nothing much except make Dean feel vaguely guilty. It was Lisa not John who was there for him when the attending surgeon gave him the bad news that rang the bell on the last round of his MMA career.

“Mr Winchester, I don’t think you understand the seriousness of your situation,” the surgeon said, after Dean had spent the first few minutes of the guy’s time bemoaning the fact he was not allowed to walk to the restrooms yet, and complaining that the nurses (pointed look at Lisa) kept giving him jello instead of apple pie.

“You were brought in here having suffered a massive head trauma. You went into cardiac arrest twice and were lucky you were surrounded by brilliant staff who were able to bring you back. You subsequently developed a pulmonary edema, which we successfully removed. You are very fortunate that the repeated blows to your head from that last fight, together with the cumulative effect of previous bouts do not yet appear to have affected your mental faculties,” the surgeon shot a sharp glance at Lisa, who might have snorted a laugh at this point, and Dean couldn’t help grinning, even though his throat felt tight from tamping down the fear bubbling inside his chest.

“However,” the surgeon continued, his face grave and disapproving, “you have not escaped without penalty.  You have been left with a high risk of seizures, which is not in itself dangerous as we can control them with the right medication, but will preclude certain strenuous activities. I would strongly advise that competitive mixed martial arts is one such activity that should be avoided at all costs.”

“Seizures?” Dean croaked. “What, like epilepsy or something?”

“Symptomatic generalised epilepsy caused by traumatic brain injury is uncommon but you have already shown signs of absence seizures,” Dean stared at Lisa then, frantic questions bubbling under the surface, waiting for the man to leave so he could ask her to explain what the hell was happening to him. “This will affect your ability to drive, as they are unpredictable and can occur without warning.”

The surgeon continued with his info-dump, but Dean couldn’t really take it all in. His heart was racing, and he could feel the panic fluttering in the centre of his chest. Then he blinked and the man was gone. The room was empty, and he wondered whether he’d dreamt it all.

Except the surgeon’s words swam around inside Dean’s head, congregating in a solid lump inside his offending faulty brain until he had to blink to relieve the pressure. If only it were that easy – blink and this handicap would slide out of his life like the single tear slipping down his cheek.

The surgeon (who’s name Dean never bothered to learn) left the room with a parting shot that split Dean from his dad as surely as the surgeon’s scalpel separated brain tissue from tumour in patients luckier than him.

“If you return to MMA, Mr Winchester, the next injury you take will probably kill you. An eighty-five per cent certainty.”

John Winchester only visited Dean in hospital once after that, when Dean gave his dad the news that he would never fight again. John was so angry that he didn’t ask why, just raged at Dean, who lay in silence, white as the clean sheets Lisa had put on fresh that morning, and never said a word to defend himself.

“Why didn’t you tell him?” Lisa asked, after her own rage at John’s treatment of her favourite if annoying patient had cooled a little.

Dean thought about not answering, but it was Lisa, and he owed her.

“MMA is everything to Dad. It’s been his life since our Mom died and he’s got nothing else. I’m a disappointment to him anyhow, so this way I’m just meeting his expectations. He can hold onto his anger, and that’ll keep him going.”

He closed his eyes then, and pretended not to hear Lisa’s murmured “but what’s going to keep you going, Dean?”

What kept Dean going as he fought his way back to fitness was Lisa. Dean was smitten from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, and made it his number two mission in life to break Lisa’s resistance down. His primary mission being to heal as quickly as possible, and get out of the damn hospital. On the day he was finally fit enough to walk out of the door, Lisa stopped him with a hand on his arm and a twinkle in her eye.

“Hey, Kansas,” she said. Dean started a little at her use of his MMA nickname. He hadn’t realised she had absorbed anything about who he was (had been); she’d never let on while he was flat on his back and vulnerable. Her smile faded into a more serious expression.

“If you’re still interested; if this is more than just fixating on the ‘pretty’ nurse because you were stuck here with no other options, and if you want to get to know someone with an eight year old kid,” she pressed a slender finger to his lips, effectively shushing any protests he might have made, and continued, “Leave it a week then call me.”

Dean walked out into the chilled autumn afternoon. His legs felt a little shaky, and he was momentarily disorientated by the heady combination of scents, so refreshing after too much stale hospital air.  He inhaled deeply – fallen leaves mingled with Lisa’s perfume on the slip of paper she’d pressed into his hand – and he smiled.

He waited exactly a week and no more before he rang the number she’d given him.

0x0x0x0

Stanford was good for Sam, but Jessica Moore was better. In her arms Sam lost his past so completely he felt like a new person. When he thought about the future, anything seemed possible – anything except going back to his family.

He had a new family now. There was Jess, and Brady, Zach and Becca. There was the middle-aged librarian in the college library who had a soft spot for him, and Dr Zimmerman to hero-worship for his intellect, who regularly blew Sam away with his brilliance in class.

“What would I do without you?” he asked Jess – a rhetorical question, but Jess laughed and answered him anyway.

“Crash and burn, baby, crash and burn.”

Except it wasn’t Sam who crashed and burned, it was Jess. Fucking Brady drove them both  into a fucking tree and the car went up in flames just to emphasise the point. Sam was left alone. His friends tried to reach him, but he couldn’t hear them over the crackle of the flames.

For the first time since he arrived at Stanford, Sam went to the gym. For the first time for a year and a bit, Sam flipped the TV on the gym equipment onto the MMA channel.

Two weeks after Jessica’s funeral, Sam threw his cell phone into the trash and got on a bus for Lawrence, Kansas.  He didn’t bother knocking, just walked right in and took the bottle of Jack out of John Winchester’s hand. He ignored the look of outraged incredulity on his father’s face. He didn’t wonder when John Winchester started to show every one of his forty-five years. He didn’t ask the obvious question – where’s Dean?

Sam didn’t ask anything, he stood tall and demanded.

“Train me to win Sparta this year.”

0x0x0x0

It was a day like any other when everything changed. Dean came home buzzing with the pleasure gained from a job well done. He really enjoyed his work as a mechanic at Victor’s Motors, not least because in his spare time he could use the garage’s equipment for a little project of his own. He’d finally finished the rebuild of his ’67 Impala, and she was a really beauty, all sleek lines and gleaming chrome – reminded him of Lisa, actually.

But not the Lisa he found today. His best girl was slumped on the sofa, hands tangled in her messed up hair. Her face was pale and streaked with tears, but she looked up at Dean as if he was going to hang the moon for her. The hope in her eyes just about killed him.

“It’s leukaemia,” she said, and Dean’s stomach felt like each word was a lead weight he’d just swallowed.

“I thought Ben was just a bit anaemic…” he trailed off. He straightened his shoulders, took a shaky breath. Can’t fall apart now, Winchester. Your family needs you to be strong. He knelt at Lisa’s feet and took her two hands gently into his calloused palms.

“C’mere baby, it’s ok. It’ll be ok, we’ll work through this together. We’re not gonna lose Ben; don’t ever think that.” Dean meant it, every word – though that didn’t stop his mind racing. Getting treatment for his young step son was going to stretch their meagre resources to the limit and beyond.

He thought about all the different ways he could earn some extra money, but he knew none of them would be enough. There was only one path he could take.

When Lisa was at the hospital with Ben for the boy’s first round of treatment, Dean picked up the phone.

“Hey, Bobby. I need your help. I have to win at Sparta this year. Will you train me?”

0x0x0x0

John never talked about Dean. It was a while before Sam noticed, and a while longer before he realised how strange that was. Surely Dean was the golden boy, the favoured son, after winning the championship all those years ago?

That was when he thought to check what happened, and saw the result. The Russian they called the Machine was there in all the photos, holding the Belt aloft with bloody hands, grinning through bloody teeth, and the only images he found of his brother were shocking in their graphic brutality.

“What happened?” Sam asked Dad, placing an old MMA magazine down on the kitchen table.

John stared in silence for a second at the cover picture celebrating the Machine’s championship win, before sweeping the magazine to the floor.

“Dean went down and didn’t get up,” John said, his mouth set in an unforgiving line.

After that, Sam didn’t mention his brother to John again, but he did some research. He discovered that Dean had retired after that disastrous fight, though none of the sources knew exactly why. Speculation ranged from some kind of MMA associated PTSD, or crippling injuries, right through to accusations of cowardice and/or weakness.

Sam thought he’d found out the real reason when he tracked Dean down to a quiet suburban road in Sioux Falls. He rang the doorbell with trepidation. He wasn’t even sure why he wanted to see his big brother again after all this time, but something was driving him to make contact.

Dean hadn’t changed. Somehow Sam had expected the years of fighting and the injuries to show, that his brother’s face would be marked with every blow that his competitors had landed on him. Instead Dean looked as beautifully sculpted as ever. A little thicker-set than before, perhaps, and there was a slight bump marring the straight Grecian sweep of his nose, but that was the only evidence of the years that had passed while Sam had been away. It hardly seemed fair.

The wary expression in Dean’s eyes was new, though, and unwelcome.

“Hey, Dean,” Sam said, trying a tentative smile. Dean didn’t return it, just turned and walked back inside the house. Sam had time to notice the well-defined musculature of Dean’s shoulders and arms, nicely framed by his oil stained singlet, before Dean looked back, one eyebrow raised.

“You gonna stand there all day, Sam?”

Sam told himself he wasn’t bothered that Dean didn’t call him Sammy and followed Dean, just like he always used to follow his big brother. Until the day he didn’t. They took a left into the small living room, and Dean directed him to sit.  Sam perched awkwardly on the edge of the sofa until Dean reappeared, presumably from the kitchen. Dean now held two bottles of beer, condensation running down their sides, slicking Dean’s blunt fingers with water. He’d found time to throw a button down on over the singlet. Sam tore his gaze away to look at Dean’s face. Dean popped the caps off the bottles with the same battered silver ring he’d always worn and offered Sam a beer.

“You look fit for someone who’s retired,” Sam said, taking the cold bottle.

“Really, Sam? That’s all you’ve got after three years radio silence?”

“I’m training for Sparta this year,” Sam blurted out, eyes now fixed on the label on his beer, so he didn’t see Dean’s reaction. He wasn’t sure what he expected when he finally looked up, but it certainly wasn’t the studied indifference he was greeted with.

“Good for you. And that was so important, you came all the way from Stanford to tell me?”

“I’ve left Stanford,” Sam paused. Should he tell Dean about Jess? He swallowed down the lump in his throat that always threatened to choke him when he remembered her, and instead he grasped onto the tendril of anger that was rising in the face of Dean’s disinterest. “I thought you’d be pleased I’m back in the family business, Dean. You made your views on me daring to leave very clear, after all.” Sam half-stood up.

“Not my views, Sam. It was Dad who told you if you were leaving you could stay gone. I never did anything but support you, and you know it.”

Dean’s eyes were blazing and Sam almost preferred it when they’d been cool and uncaring. He should never have come, he didn’t know why he’d thought this was a good idea. As he placed the bottle down on the cluttered coffee table, the front door opened and a woman’s voice sounded in the hall.

“Hi babe, we’re home!”

Sam had noticed the photo on the mantle of Dean and a pretty dark-haired woman, so he was prepared for the girlfriend’s entrance. What he hadn’t expected was the kid who burst through the living room door and flung himself onto the sofa and virtually into Sam’s lap before realizing there was a stranger in what was clearly his usual place.

“Ben!” Both Dean and the girlfriend admonished as the kid – Ben – disentangled himself from Sam and slid his butt along the leather cushions to the other end of the sofa. Sam rose to his feet, resisting the urge to rub the sensitive parts of his anatomy that had just found out how sharp a kid’s knees and elbows could be. Ben didn’t look like Dean – his round face and dark hair were evidently his mother’s – and besides, he was surely too old to be a product of this relationship. Still Sam was disconcerted by how much Ben resembled Dean in the way the kid grinned while apologizing in that careless way kid’s have for nearly crushing Sam’s nuts with his bony knees.

“Sorry, dude, I didn’t know we had visitors,” is what Ben actually said, of course, no mention of Sam’s genitalia’s lucky escape, though Dean’s girlfriend looked almost as mortified as if her kid had said something rude.

“Dean, aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?”

“This isn’t a friend,” Dean said, leaning across to take Sam’s elbow, guiding him towards the door. “This is my brother Sam, and he’s just leaving.”

Sam shot the girlfriend an apologetic look over his shoulder as Dean ushered him out.

“It was lovely to meet you at last, Sam,” she called out, “don’t be a stranger, now.”

A brief word of thanks and a smile was all Dean gave Sam time for, then they were outside in the rain.

“Where’s your car?”

0x0x0x0

Dean stopped the Impala before he reached Beaver’s gym on the outskirts of town, parked up in a pull off space with the engine running and the rain drumming like agitated fingers on the roof of the car. He stared at his battered knuckles, bloodless-white where he was gripping the steering wheel too hard.

Fuck.

Sam was going to fight for the Sparta prize, and unless Dean was very lucky, at some point it was inevitable the two Winchesters would meet in the ring. As if this effed-up situation couldn’t get any worse. Lying to Lisa about what he was doing when he sneaked off to train, ignoring the occasional flutters in his chest that had started again since he’d increased his seizure medication, ignoring the little voice in his head that wouldn’t fucking stop repeating the doctor’s warnings about giving up fighting or else…all of that paled into insignificance at the thought of having to fight his little brother and above all else – win.

An image of Ben’s face floated into his head. Today had been a good day. Ben had been in good spirits, and Lisa had been happy because the hospital had confirmed that she could donate her stem cells.  The transplant would hopefully set Ben right for good. The kid might not be his blood, but Dean understood that family was about more than genetics. Both Bobby and Lisa had taught him that, and he’d learned the hard way that sometimes it was your blood kin that were the first to let you down.

Dean breathed in deep, smelling the new leather of the refurbished seats and remembering the way Ben’s face had lit up when Dean had let him sit behind the wheel when he’d first brought the big car home. His back stiffened alongside his resolve as he flipped on the blinker and pulled out into the flow of office traffic, all headed home for the evening.

He had work to do.

0x0x0x0

Sparta was exactly how Dean remembered. Loud, brash – all flashing lights and thudding bass, mixed with the overwhelming smell of sweat and liniment and the hints of metal that spoke of pain and blood.

The promoter was the same unctuous guy who’d been all over Dean before he’d crashed out last time – the wiry, orange-tanned Balthazar. He didn’t seem to have a second name. Balty was less interested in Dean this time, gave him the once over with an expression that clearly said he doubted Dean was up to the challenge. Dean tried not to let it affect him. He couldn’t afford doubt.

Bobby sat Dean down on a bench and moved behind him to knead at the tense muscles in his shoulders. He’d already been through the draw with Dean and both of them had noted with relief that Sam was scheduled in the other group. Dean’s route to the finals shouldn’t be through his little brother. Which was just as well, because the opponents who Dean had lined up were tough enough.

“What music do you want?” Balthazar asked in his clipped British accent, and scribbled AC/DC Back in Black in his notebook, while raising a sceptical eyebrow. Dean ignored it. Fuck modern crap, he’d stick to classic rock, thanks. He wondered what soundtrack Sam would choose to enter the arena. After three years, he had no idea what Sam liked any more, and that kind of stung.

The answer, as it turned out, was that Sam chose to have no music at all. He entered the arena in the first fight of the tournament to nothing but the general hubbub of the crowd, who were all fired up to support the Louisiana Steamboat, Benny Laffite, an old favourite. Laffite was a wily fighter but he stood up for all of thirty seconds in the face of Sam’s onslaught, before Sam’s superior reach and lethal left hook caught the Cajun on the point of his jaw and laid him out cold. It was furiously clinical and Dean, watching from the side-lines, wondered for a moment whether he’d had an absence seizure and lost some time somewhere, it was over so quick. He couldn’t reconcile this tornado in human form with his little brother.

Dean didn’t hang around to watch the next two bouts. He was familiar with all four of those fighters from his years with John Winchester. In fact, only three of the sixteen finalists were new to the circuit since Dean had retired, and one of those three was Sam.

The first man he was to face was new to him, however, and younger than Dean. Apparently Bobby had a few instructions he wanted to impart. Bobby loved his research, and Dean didn’t have the heart to tell the old man all he wanted to do was chill before the adrenaline rush made it impossible. Besides, it was a good distraction from worrying about Sam, and what Lisa was going to say when she found out what he was doing this weekend.

0x0x0x0

:: So, Chuck, who do you fancy in this next bout? ::

:: Well, Gabe, if you’d asked me that three years ago, I’d have gone with Winchester for sure. I’m sure we all remember how hard the Kansas Krusher fought, right? But those three years out of the game could make all the difference now.  Plus The Reaper has the advantage of, what, ten years on Winchester? ::

:: I don’t know, Chuck. In fact, nobody seems to know much about The Reaper. Heck, we don’t even know his real name, let alone how old he is, but his record since he appeared on the scene last year, well, it speaks for itself. ::

:: That’s right, Gabe. Not a single fight lost in all that time. He’s certainly lived up to his nickname! ::

:: Yeah. Reckon this could be over as quick as Sam Winchester’s first fight. You know they’re calling him the Lightning now, Chuck. ::

:: That’s right, Gabe. He strikes fast, hard and deadly – I’ll be interested to see if he can keep that up against Azazel in the next round. But hey, Back in Black’s playing for his older brother now; let’s see what sort of storm the Kansas Krusher can muster up against the Reaper, shall we? ::

0x0x0x0

“Christ, kid, I hope you aren’t going to let the next guy pummel you like this. I don’t think my heart can take it, watching.”

Dean tipped his head back, letting the rough cinder-block wall support its weight while Bobby mopped the blood off his face. He didn’t think the damage was that bad, but the Reaper had managed to get in several brain-rattling punches and a couple of nasty body blows before Dean had finally used his legs to sweep the guy off his feet and get him pinned long enough to force the tap out.

“I’m fine, old man,” Dean grinned, then regretted it as he felt the split in his lip open again. “One down, three to go.”

Bobby’s hand stilled where he was smearing petroleum jelly on the cut above Dean’s eye.

“Have you thought what you are going to do if you both get to the final?” Bobby didn’t mention Sam by name but of course Dean knew what the old trainer was referring to. Fuck, it wasn’t like he’d been able to think about anything else – not since Sam had first told him the news, nor since he’d seen the draw. He pushed Bobby’s hand away and stood up.

“The final’ll be a fight like any other, Bobby, doesn’t matter who I’m facin’. Azazel, Lucifer or Sam, makes no difference. I gotta win, any way I can.”

Dean grabbed his water bottle and took a long chug. Through the closed door of the changing room they could hear the dulled roar from the crowd crescendo. A moment later the door burst open and Alfie, the skinny kid who ran round filling water bottles and dishing out clean towels, stuck his head through.

“Your brother’s one mean fucker, ain’t he? Knocked out Azazel quicker’n the last one!” The kid had to yell to be heard over the cheering, and Dean felt his heart lurch. One step closer to fighting Sam, then. He was careful not to catch Bobby’s eye, determined to maintain at least the pretence of not caring. He knew Bobby wasn’t fooled, but it made him feel better.

Dean took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and waited for Back in Black to play him in.

0x0x0x0

:: These Winchester brothers are providing all the surprises in this tournament so far, huh, Chuck? ::

:: They certainly are, Gabe. Nobody thought the Kansas Krusher could make his comeback a success, yet here he is in round two, facing the Inquisitor. Sam Winchester has been the real revelation though; two knock outs so far, and I don’t think either opponent even managed to land a punch. I’m not a betting man, Gabe, but I wish I’d placed a wager on those broad shoulders before the session started! ::

:: That’s right, Chuck, anyone who took those odds could be in for a huge pay-out. I sure wouldn’t bet against Sam Winchester reaching the final, maybe even going all the way after this performance. ::

:: Uh oh, there goes the bell. Let’s see what the other Winchester can do against Alastair. After the punishment he took from the Reaper, the guy’s gotta be hurting. ::

:: Whoa, Chuck! That’s one hell of a right hook the Inquisitor has got, ain’t it? ::

:: Yeah, Gabe, Alastair is certainly asking all the questions so far in this round, and I’m not sure Dean has any answers. Oh, and Winchester is down again. That boy sure does love the mat today. ::

:: So far, there’s been no chance for the Kansas Krusher to get in close enough to use those wrestling skills of his, and that cut he got from the Reaper looks to be causing him problems…oh, nice move! Winchester’s proving me wrong again, Chuck. He’s gotten in under Alastair’s guard and that looks like a great choke hold…yes! The inquisitor is pounding the floor with his fist, he’s tapping out. ::

:: Well, that was unexpected. It’s another win for Dean Winchester, and it’s starting to look like a brother against brother final is a real possibility. ::

0x0x0x0

“Quit it, Sam, you’re making me dizzy.”

Sam ignored his father and kept pacing. The changing room was claustrophobically small, the air thick with years of accumulated Deep Heat and old sweat and unrealised dreams. Two fights down and two opponents floored within seconds and Sam thought he might burst if he didn’t punch someone again very soon. Anger bubbled under his skin. It felt like thousands of fire ants, crawling all over him.  He just wanted to get out there, tear someone apart. He didn’t care who, didn’t care that Lucifer was the defending champion, had the reputation of being an evil son of a bitch. He didn’t even care that Dean was working his way through the field and that, in all probability, his brother could be the last man to stand between Sam and his goal.

Sam didn’t even know what that goal was any more. Somewhere along the way the route had become more important than the destination, and all Sam wanted was to see blood spilt on the canvas, and know it was his hands that had put it there.

Alfie popped round the half open door with a grin and a thumbs-up.

“You’re on, Lightning!”

Sure enough, Sam heard Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain blaring out, announcing Lucifer’s entrance. Sam pulled on the padded leather gloves over his bandaged hands and clenched his fists.

Lucifer put up more of a fight that Sam’s first two opponents, even managed to land a couple of telling blows, but Sam barely felt the sting. He bounced on his toes, staring down at the tangle of limbs sprawled on the floor at his feet, deaf to the roaring of the crowd – irrelevant, tedious. He couldn’t remember what happened, didn’t really care. He waited for Lucifer (arrogant and smirking just seconds ago, it felt like) to get up, the anger burning even fiercer when the guy didn’t move, didn’t give Sam the satisfaction he craved.

Then he was in the changing room again, with no memory of having moved. He reached for the drink bottle Dad was holding out to him, but stopped with his arm outstretched. He could see his hand trembling, the tremors running up the corded muscles of his arm. He couldn’t shake off the rage that filled him, brimming over so all he could think about was tearing, kicking, gouging…

“What did you give me?”

His voice sounded strange to him, rusty from disuse. John didn’t lower the bottle, he just shrugged, his eyes dark and unreadable in the deep shadows cast by the single naked light bulb.

“You were tense, and not in a good way,” John said, no hint of apology in his tone. “It’s just a low dose amphetamine to help you stay focussed.”

A cold line of sweat trickled down between Sam’s shoulder blades. His fist clenched and he lashed out, knocking the plastic bottle to the floor. It bounced once before rolling under the wooden bench.

“Get out.”

“Sammy…”

“Don’t call me that. You don’t get to call me that. Get the hell out and stay out.”

Sam didn’t watch John leave, didn’t listen to the apologies and excuses that John dropped behind him like penalty flags on his way out – he didn’t want to know. The door was left ajar, and Sam could hear the build up to Dean’s next bout beginning. He thought, briefly, about going out to watch his brother fight, but his legs didn’t want to move. He leaned back against the cool roughness of the cinder block wall and worried at the tape on his hand while he waited.

0x0x0x0

:: On paper, these two are well matched, Gabe. Both similar heights and weights, plus they both favour wrestling fighting styles. ::

:: You know, all through this tournament I’ve kept saying Winchester’s lack of recent experience is a handicap, and he just keeps making me eat my words, Chuck. So I’m sitting on the fence for this fight. But Michael Aguirre isn’t known as the Wrath of God for nothing – that’s all I’m sayin’. ::

The noise from the crowd reaches a crescendo as Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War blasts out from the speakers. Michael leaps into the arena, gold robe dazzling under the harsh spotlights.

:: Aguirre’s had an easier route to this point than Kansas, too, Gabe. He’s certainly looking fresher. ::

Back in Black plays, and a small section of the audience erupts.

:: Looks like Winchester’s gotten himself a following, Chuck. Just listen to that reception! Check it out, some of them have banners… what do they say? ::

:: I think that one says ‘mechanics know which nuts to tweak’, Gabe. Looks like Kansas has seen it, by the smile on his face. ::

:: That might be the only laugh Winchester gets tonight, Chuck. ::

:: True enough, the Wrath of God is one tough cookie. But what a story if he gets through this fight, Gabe. Dean Winchester was a thousand to one against coming into this tournament, and Sam Winchester was an unknown quantity, yet here we are, just minutes away from the fight of the century – two brothers in the middle-weight championship final of the world, fighting for that five million dollar prize. ::

0x0x0x0

“How’re the ribs?”

“Fine.” Dean gritted his teeth as Bobby’s prodding fingers moved from his bruised torso to his face. The cuts left by the Reaper and Alastair had opened up again, and Dean thought there were probably a few new ones adorning his cheekbones after his last bout. He was avoiding looking in the mirror right now. Lisa was going to be so pissed with him.

Michael Aguirre must have been watching Dean’s previous bouts this weekend, or maybe even old vids of his fights from years back, because instead of his patented Wrath of God moves, Michael had come out punching. This shit was getting old. Just as well Dean had the best incentive in the world to keep going or he’d be walking out that door and never looking back. He couldn’t remember exactly what happened, but he was still standing, so he must have come through it, right?

“Dean. Dean!”

Dean blinked. Bobby was yelling, so close to Dean’s face the peak of the man’s ancient ball cap was practically poking his nose. Roughened hands were gripping his arms tight enough to bruise and really? The last thing Dean needed was more bruises.

“What s’matter?” Dean’s voice sounded slurred, which was weird.

“What’s the matter? What’s the matter? Kid, you just checked out on me for …” Bobby released Dean’s arms – which, good – to check his watch. “Nearly three minutes. You’d just gone, son. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Nothin’s goin’ on, Bobby, I’m fine.” Dean looked away, unable to hold his old friend’s piercing gaze, even though he was aware it made it clear he was lying. Maybe a small part of him wanted to confide in Bobby, share the burden.

“Yeah, you’re just fine and dandy. That’s why you’ve been popping pills when you thought I wasn’t looking. What’re you on, Dean?”

Dean stood up abruptly, swaying slightly. Bobby’s expression was an awkward mix of concern, accusation and fear, and Dean didn’t know what to do about it. Surely they had more important things to worry about right now. Like how he was going to face Sam.

“It’s not what you think,” he said, sounding like a kid caught smoking behind the school.

“It’s Dilantin.”

Dean spun round in shock, and had to grab Bobby’s shoulder for balance. Lisa stepped into the room, her face heavily shadowed and unreadable in the harsh lighting.

“How did you know I was where to find me?”

“You must be Bobby Singer,” Lisa said, pointedly ignoring him to offer Bobby a slim hand to shake, leaving Dean to gawp like a beached guppy.  “I’m Lisa. I’m Dean’s girlfriend, and I’m also a nurse, so I know what I’m talking about. Dean’s not on steroids or performance enhancers. He’s taking Dilantin for his seizures.”

Bobby had opened his mouth to exchange pleasantries, but Dean could see his expression change as he absorbed the implications of Lisa’s words.

“Hold up a second – seizures?” Bobby turned to Dean, and the frown on his craggy features could have crushed boulders. “When you first came to me sayin’ you wanted to train again, I asked you to tell me anything you were takin’, any injuries or illnesses. You tellin’ me you lied, son?”

“I…I couldn’t tell you the truth, Bobby. You’d’ve refused to take me on, and I have to fight. I gotta do this, it’s the only way…” Dean trailed off, deliberately not looking at Lisa. He should have known neither of them would let him off that easy though. Sure enough, Bobby and Lisa spoke in unison.

“Why?”

Don’t make me say it, don’t make me say it… “Dean.” Lisa demanded, using the tone that had Ben out of a sulk faster than one of Sam’s knock-outs. Dean had no defence against it either.

“Because there’s no other way to get the money to pay for Ben’s treatment, okay? I lied about getting a job as a bouncer, because no way would some pathetic second job pay enough to cover what we need, babe. This,” he gestured at his sweaty, battered body, “this is the only thing I’m good at.”

It was Lisa’s turn to look shocked. She sat down heavily, as if her legs would no longer support her, and looked up at Dean. Her dark eyes were sparkling with unshed tears. Bobby looked from one to the other of them.

“Is anyone gonna explain what’s goin’ on? Do I need to pull Dean outta the final?”

“Nobody’s pullin’ me out, Bobby. I’m doing this. I’m going out there and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win that purse.”

Dean was spared any further attempts at conversation by the arrival of Alfie at the door. It was time to face his brother. This would be the first time they’d been face to face since Dean had hustled Sam out of his house all those weeks ago, and the first time they’d fought since before Dean’s injuries and Sam’s desertion. Dean wondered what John was thinking now, if he even knew what was happening.

The cool slide of the satin robe raised goosebumps on his skin as he slipped it on and belted it up. Lisa stood up, opened her mouth as if to say something, then changed her mind as Dean’s music crashed on, drowning out everything with the raging bass and drums. She put a hand on his arm and reached up to kiss his cheek, careful to avoid the worst of the bruising. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard her whisper thank you in his ear.

It was enough. It had to be enough. Because that was his little brother out there.

He walked down the slope to the ring for the last time, near blinded by the spotlights and the thousands of flashes going off in his face. The announcer was screaming, something about the Battle of the Brothers, but Dean blocked it out, his attention tunnelling down into one focal point, the pale cream hexagonal cage, and the tall shape awaiting him, already dancing on his toes.

So eager, much, Sammy?

Dean came to a halt in the centre of the chaos, standing patient and solid while Crowley the match ref, another Brit, ran through the usual pre match stuff. Fair fight, touch gloves, yada yada yada. All he could see was Sam’s eyes, gleaming golden in the lights, alien and cold. Dean knew his little brother. Sam never could bear being beaten by anyone, but least of all by Dean.

This was never going to be pretty.

“Gentlemen, are you ready? Then go war!”

0x0x0x0

Sam went at it – like Dean was everything he’d ever hated, ever loved, ever lost. Dean was their father’s obsession, the mother Sam had never known, the whisky John drowned in, the fire that had killed Jess. The brother who’d been there for him every moment growing up, until Sam had walked away to better things. Until everything went sour.

Sam couldn’t stop. Even after the bell signalled the end of the first round, his fists flew, crashing into Dean’s already bleeding face. His corner was empty since he’d sent Dad away – he was probably lying drunk in a motel room somewhere. Sam didn’t care. He allowed Crowley to drag him away, watched Bobby shoving Dean onto the stool, mopping his brother’s damaged face, shouting at Dean to focus. Sam didn’t need any encouragement to focus, he was sharp as a laser. Faster than lightning, deadly as poison.

The bell rang and Crowley shouted go war and Sam did.

He lifted Dean up, smashed him down. Pummelled his brother’s face, sweat pouring into his eyes, salt stinging like tears. He couldn’t see anything, hear anything except their laboured breathing, smell anything except sweat and fresh blood. Dean was holding back, he wasn’t trying, damn him, and Sam couldn’t bear it. He wanted pain – giving or receiving, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it hurt. And god, it hurt so bad/good. Liquid fire was running through him instead of blood, burning all kinship away.

When the bell rang Sam didn’t sit. He clung to the fence, staring out into the crowd, all of them baying for blood. They didn’t care whose. Except maybe for one man and one woman. Because there, staring back at Sam was John Winchester, sober and grave-faced and next to him, biting her knuckles, was Dean’s Lisa.

Sam blinked once, twice. So what? It was just sweat, trickling into his eyes, that’s all.

Round three, and there was something new in Dean’s face. If Sam had been able to think straight he might have been able to name it. Sorrow? Resignation? Determination? Who knows, but one thing had changed. Dean was no longer pulling his punches. That was fine, that was what Sam wanted. With the noise of the crowd at his back, Sam flung himself forward, grappling Dean to the mat once more.

Except suddenly Sam was on his back, Dean’s legs crushing Sam’s ribs until they creaked under the strain. Sam twisted and struggled but only achieved a body flip, so he was being pressed face down instead of face up, his cheek rubbing itself raw on the canvas. Dean grunted, shifted his grip and Sam’s arm was twisted round and back, screaming with the strain. Sam remembered this move now, memories flooding back of training sessions when he was seventeen, eighteen, before he fled to college. He gritted his teeth against the unbearable pressure, unable to move without dislocating his shoulder.

“Tap, Sammy, please,” Dean said. “I don’t wanna…”

Sam snapped his free elbow back, felt it crunch into Dean’s face and grinned, his lips distorting round the gum shield. A grin that immediately turned into a grimace when Dean shifted slightly and the pressure on his shoulder increased to from unbearable to intolerable to – snap.

All breath left Sam’s lungs as the white heat of pain washed over him. Muscles tore, tendons ripped away from the bone and he bit down hard to swallow the scream that welled up from somewhere deep inside. He didn’t hear the bell ring, all he could hear was Dean, saying he was sorry, sorry, so sorry.

Then Dean was gone, and Sam crawled, rolled onto his side and somehow hauled himself to his feet. He staggered to the fence, hooked the fingers of his good hand through the mesh and hung on. Hung onto the pain, hung on to the anger that still bubbled under his skin, hung onto that rictus of a grin and the blankness that meant he could turn around and beckon Dean on when it was time for the fourth round. The look of horror on Dean’s face was enough to spur him on. He swung his fist, fell into an embrace that allowed him to use his heel to jab into Dean’s calf muscle with as much venom as he could muster.

Dean pushed him away, staggered back.

“Sammy, it’s over, please. Just, stop…” Dean was pleading now, Sam could see it was tears not sweat streaking his big brother’s face, mingling with the blood from the many cuts that marred those perfect features. Sam wanted to wipe the compassion and love away. He kept coming, kept trying to hurt Dean, force Dean to take on his pain.

It didn’t work. Why didn’t it work?

“Come on,” Sam said – shouted – over the storm of noise from the enthralled audience. The despair that came over Dean’s face was satisfying, but Sam didn’t see the kick his brother aimed at his head. He went down like Dean’s foot was a wrecking ball and he was a lump of concrete. Dean was on top of him before he hit the ground, and even over the tremendous volume of noise Sam could hear Dean sobbing as he got Sam into a headlock.

Fuck. Dean was choking him out, Sam was going to die here and Dean would never forgive himself.

“It’s ok, Sammy, it’s ok. I gotcha,” Everything was fading to black, all Sam had left was Dean, pouring out his heart, even while he cut off Sam’s air. Being held in Dean’s arms was soothing, comforting, reminded Sam of home. The pain faded too.

“I love you, Sammy.”

Sam tapped out.

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