By the time Sam got out of the motel, the rain was slowing but thunder cracked ominously overhead.
Foreboding, Sam thought, grimacing because Jess would have laughed at him for thinking it—would have teased him and called him superstitious. Funny how she and Dean were alike that way—insistent on believing only what they could see in their own diversified versions of reality.
None of those thoughts, however, stopped Sam from disliking the trepidation the thunder was giving him.
He tightened his jaw, trying to hold onto his frustration over his worry. Already, a dozen bloody scenarios of where his brother might be were flashing through his mind.
Getting across the parking lot to the Impala was an adventure in itself. Had he not been so frustrated he might have navigated better. As it was, he got his shoe stuck in the mud twice and had to catch himself before sinking his socked foot into the mud next to it. And when he finally made it to the car, he didn't bother scraping his feet before getting in, letting the mud drip off below.
Dean would just have to live with it.
Sardonic, Sam grinned. It was inappropriate Dean-like humor Sam realized as he changed the emphasis of the words in his head. Dean would have to live with it. Dead, Dean could say nothing of how Sam treated his car.
He drove to Roy Le Grange's first. He wasn't sure Dean would go back there, but he had no clue where else to start looking.
The tent was still standing but the Services sign had been taken down. The attendees whose trailers had taken up residence in the lot were already vastly thinned. A few cars were parked close to the Reverend's house. Through the front window Sam could see blinking lights—like people were still in there—still awake. Apparently not all the flock had abandoned their minister, and though Sam felt no regret at Sue Ann's death he was glad Roy wasn't passing his time of loss alone.
Like he would have… had it been Dean.
Reasonably sure his brother wasn't among the comforting followers, he drove away from the house and the pseudo church, intent on not looking back. Intent on finding some other way of gaining inspiration regarding his older brother's whereabouts.
Though Sam could guess fairly well at the thoughts running around in Dean's head, he couldn't begin to guess where else he might have gone. It bothered him, and he decided if he absolutely had to be psychic—and consequently had to live with the guilt of having not prevented his girlfriend's death—the trade off should be the ability to always know where his brother was. That would at least be useful and helpful in a comforting—not terrifying, wake up in the middle of the night with visions of death and mayhem—way.
Wasn't he owed that somehow?
As Sam drove aimlessly, peering out the windshield between strokes of the wiper blades, looking for any shadow or shape that might be Dean, he realized he actually felt that way—like Dean's perpetual life wasowed to him.
Sam didn't want to play God. He hadn't wanted innocent people to die. He was sorry Marshall had. Sorrier still because he knew Dean would be hurt by it. But in the cosmic scheme of things, the universe had had no right to fate his brother away from him. So however—whatever—had happened, none of it meant Dean didn't deserve to live.
Dean had no right to think he shouldn't live.
Sam was clenching his jaw so tightly, it hurt. And he was so lost in his battered train of thoughts he almost missed the obscure, lone figure moving slowly and steadily down the street ahead of him. An accompanying flash of lightning brightened the sky, just long enough for Sam to recognize Dean's light hair and keep him from driving right past.
Thunder followed the flash, bringing with it a hail of rain.
Sam slammed on the brakes, hydroplaning momentarily before skidding safely to a stop.
Dean was just over half way back to the motel when the roar of the Impala whirred beside him, screeching on the spun gravel-top road, water spraying out from puddles under all four tires.
He was surprised he hadn't noticed the car before its dramatic arrival.
That was when he realized he'd grown increasingly numb as he'd settled into the steady rhythm of walking. In the process, he'd also tuned out most of his surroundings, humming, focusing on rhythm and meter in the effort to ignore the headache building behind his eyes.
From the driver's seat, Sam reached across and popped open the passenger door.
To Dean, his brother was all hard angles as the light from one of the few scattered streetlamps backlit him.
Sam's eyes were smoky as they pinned him. "Get in," his voice clipped.
If Dean had ever had trouble knowing whether or not his brother was angry, it wouldn't have been then. And even though he recognized it, something in Dean couldn't give in to Sam or his anger. He wasn't sure why—thought maybe it was because it would just be too easy, too easy to let Sam be the answer to all this. So easy it would feel like cheating in a way Dean could never live with.
It was an enticing way to resolve the emotions stuck in his chest, because just the thought of Sam being alone—of Sam being left behind—made all the horror justified.
And those thoughts weren't fair either. Not to him. And not to Sam.
Sam was his little brother, but he was no longer a kid.
And Sam wasn't him.
Dean could admit that being left was one of his biggest fears. Not Sam's. And it sucked, but he'd lived through it. Dean couldn't guarantee something like this would never happen again. Realistically, how many times could you cheat death? His number had been up a long time ago. Like he'd said to Sam—it's a dangerous gig.
And imagining Sam incapable of dealing with his death was unacceptable.
Sam wasn't meant to be like him.
The added sting in all this was—even without factoring in his brother—Dean was content to be alive—realized since the very moment he'd woken in the hospital that there were a million and one little things, and a few not so little things, he wanted to live for.
He felt guilty and confused about that most of all.
And he couldn't just send those feelings away because of Sammy—Sam, who was currently glaring at him with a fire reflective of John.
Dean looked down at his soaked self tiredly, then moved carefully to the open door. Placing one hand on the roof of the car for balance, he bent down to meet Sam's smoldering eyes. "I'll walk," he told him. "I don't want to get the seats wet."
Sam very nearly growled. Swearing under his breath, he reached into the back, produced two towels, and proceeded to drape them haphazardly over the passenger seat. "Get. In," he clipped again.
Dean dragged the moment out, stood upright, looked up and down the empty street, then—finally—sighed and complied.
He realized, once he was in, that it actually felt good to sit down.
He was dripping and cold, and knew his clothes were so wet the towels would do little to protect his car but...
He closed his door anyway then looked left to see Sam's expression had changed. Sam was now looking at him warily, worriedly—like he'd looked at him almost the entire drive to Nebraska.
Dean didn't like it.
The expression drew out Sam's eyes, and though the look was determined, it made him seem young—younger than Dean wanted him to seem. He almost smacked him to get him to stop but the ache spreading through his limbs made the twitch of his hand too slow in response. Too slow also to stop the hesitant hand Sam reached toward him—the warm dry hand he used to lightly grip the side of Dean's face and neck. "You're freezing," Sam grit out—an accusation—cranking up the heater with the same hand before Dean's motion to jerk his head away did any good.
They idled in the street. Dean watched with detached curiosity as Sam finally pushed his angry gaze out the windshield and stepped lightly on the gas pedal—the grip of his hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel.
"Problem, Smiley?" Sometimes Dean just couldn't help himself.
With a visible jump in his jaw muscle, Sam took one hand off the wheel, dug into his jacket pocket, and dropped Dean's cell phone un-gently into his lap.
Dean's reflexes were stuck on slow and he didn't get his hands out in time to catch it—or to stop it from sliding away from him to the floor. It was too dark to see where it landed, and he was too tired to go fishing for it. "You have issues with my cell phone now?"
"Always keeping them with us is your stupid rule," Sam grunted, keeping his gaze straight ahead.
Not that Dean wasn't grateful to have him no longer glaring or staring at him, but— "And we all know how big you are on following orders," he replied evenly.
"Well maybe this is one I happen to agree with, Dean. I mean what the hell was I supposed to think happened to you?"
"You weren't supposed to think anything happened to me, Sam. I just went for a walk—"
"In the middle of the night? In the pouring rain? For who knows how long? To who knows where? When you're still—"
"Still what, Sam?" Dean felt his own jaw muscle jump. "I'm not sick anymore. Marshall Hall died to save me, remember?"
"When you're still tired."
Dean rolled his eyes. Tiredness, the way Sam said it, was apparently a sin.
And Sam wasn't finished. "You don't think I've noticed how drained you've been since we stopped the reaper?" He bit down on his lip. "I mean—you saw it again. Didn't you? It did something to you last night. When I met you at the car it was like you were barely standing." Sam glanced over.
Dean tried to school his features, but his brother had already seen the question in his eyes.
"When I found the black alter… Sue Ann had your picture on it," he explained.
"It didn't do anything to me Sam," Dean explained in return, patient. "You stopped it. I'm not sick. I'm not hurt. I'm alive and kicking, okay?"
"No," Sam countered. "You're alive and freezing to death! If I'd taken off in the middle of the night like you did, you'd—"
"Is that what this is about? Fine, Sam, I give you carte blanche on a midnight stroll of your choice." Dean knew it wasn't what Sam meant, but deliberately misunderstanding was easier. Easier, because they were so tangled up in issues they'd both be in knots by the time they tried to sort everything out.
Dean was already on his last legs—he couldn't hold himself up and his brother too.
Let Sam see things go back to normal… normal deflection and joking.
Dean could deal with the confusion later—on his own.
Sam wasn't ready to agree. He slammed on the brakes, skidding the tires—worsening Dean's headache—and flipped the car into park. "Damn it," he whispered, voice choked and controlled, like it had been in the hospital when he'd growled at Dean for his haunted-car joke. "Why can't you just…" Sam shoved open his door, swinging himself into the night, slamming it behind him so hard the car rocked.
Stunned, Dean did nothing for several long moments—watched as Sam paced back and forth on the road in an apparent attempt to calm himself down, swiping hands across his face twice in view of the running Impala's headlights.
Sam didn't know how he'd let this conversation—if you could call it that—get so far away from him.
He didn't know how he'd let his emotions get so far away from him.
He didn't know how he'd let Dean get so far away from him.
And not even the continued cracks of thunder were loud enough to cover the shout building in his chest, so he kept it in, and kept pacing.
When he'd left for Stanford—when Jess would ask and he'd try to explain—it hadn't been because he didn't love his family. And it had never been against Dean, but his anger, his frustration, and his desire to be normal had isolated him from them more and more… angered him more and more each time he'd had some sort of fleeting contact with them. And them had usually just been Dean—who he'd only seen as an emissary of their father's at the time. So he'd stopped answering the phone calls… stopped participating in the Winchester's isolated and ardent views of the world… and by so doing became more like them than he could ever admit.
He was realizing now that he'd lost some connection to Dean in the process, because a Dean connected to him like they'd been as kids—Dean his brother—could never be so blasé about this.
He stopped moving, sucked in air, filled his lungs to capacity, slowly counting as he let it out. He was on breath number three when he heard one of the Impala's doors open behind him, heard his brother's boots shuffle in the gravel.
Sam wished Dean would just stay in the car where the heater was running. Where Sam wouldn't look up to see him pinched and pale in the drizzle. Where he was less likely to conjure images of him suddenly dying from pneumonia.
But Dean came anyway.
Sam waited until breath number five before he finally looked up to see Dean leaning against the front of the car—as pale as he'd pictured—both arms folded tightly across his chest.
The look on Dean's face was something new—uncertain—like Dean felt this conversation had gotten as far away from him as Sam did.
They were in new territory, Sam realized—realized Dean thought it was hostile territory, if the look on his face was any indication.
Sam swallowed tightly, breathing deeply again, trying to ignore the raw emotions tingling across his skin and seeping into his muscles.
Controlling his movements he stepped slowly toward Dean, slowing further when Dean inexplicably tensed. Sam chewed his cheek—feeling angry—feeling his jaw muscle spasm from the pressure he was giving it. But he realized he needed to give Dean some leeway. Needed to accept that Dean hadn't gone for a midnight stroll just to annoy him. Needed to realize there were things on Dean's mind—things Dean was feeling whether Sam wanted him to or not.
But Sam was also remembering—during the Bloody Mary fiasco—he'd been feeling just so… everything, and Dean had seen it and been there. He'd pulled to the side of the road with an unwaveringly proclaimed "that's it"—prepared to make Sam talk about it. Prepared to make it better, whatever it took. Had even offered to let Sam blame him… to take a swing at him for Jessica's death.
Well that's it was how Sam was feeling now and it wasn't fair that Dean got to do all the brotherly things and wouldn't let Sam do them in return. As if everyone was supposed to see Dean as impenetrable, un-damnable, stoic and steady. Unfair, because Sam really could see through the crap.
Whatever, dude. Have you even slept? You look worse than me. That's all Sam had gotten then, when he'd told Dean as much—a display of Dean's ability to shift concern, deflect it, even reflect it. That's all Sam would get now if he wasn't careful. Because he could see even through his anger that Dean was trembling with emotions neither of them were comfortable with.
The look on his face was guarded, shadowed, yet incongruously raw and open. The dichotomy made Sam stop to study his brother more carefully, wondering if he was seeing him correctly.
Finally, he took a shaky breath, fighting the shout in his chest as he said, "Dean. Please."
Dean met his eyes. "Please, what?" And he sounded so achingly annoyingly innocent it almost sent Sam into a tantrum like he hadn't had since he was two. Almost. Sam stopped, realizing maybe Dean wasn't just trying to avoid him. Maybe the question was just as it sounded—innocent.
"This," Sam said, stepping closer, waving a hand between them in the air, relieved when Dean didn't tense. "We have to talk about this or it will destroy you. It will get you killed." The truth of it hit him once he said it—hit him so hard he wished he hadn't said it even though he knew pretending couldn't make this go away.
"I don't know what you want me to say here, Sammy."
Sam sighed in relief. The statement didn't make Dean an open book, but it was void of deflection, which meant Dean wasn't dodging him—yet. And maybe, just maybe, he was offering the tiny branch that said he might let Sam help him through this. "How 'bout you start with where you went tonight?"
"I went to see Marshall Hall. His grave."
Sam nodded tightly.
"He ah… his little brother was there."
Oh God—a prayer. Sam felt his eyes burn. He'd had a brother. Marshall Hall had a brother.
"I just wanted to see who he was. I wanted to see who I killed."
"No!" Sam had to stop him there. "It wasn't your fault, Dean. You didn't kill anyone. You didn't know. And more people would have died if we hadn't come here."
"People are still dying, Sam. We just changed which ones they were."
"I know it doesn't seem like it—but we did the right thing."
"Yeah, we did the right thing… and I still get to live." Dean stood up, turning away from Sam to look into the dark beyond the dim light lining the road.
Unconsciously Sam realized he'd been waiting for Dean to say that—say it out loud. And he wasn't about to lose Dean now. He jumped at it, taking two sliding steps to his left, pivoting in front of his brother and ducking his head to catch Dean's eyes. "And you think the only right outcome is you being dead, right?" Sam tried not to sound accusing and realized he probably hadn't done a very good job.
"I didn't say that." Dean's eyes darted left, over Sam's shoulder, again into the dark.
Sam shifted, catching Dean's eyes again, shuffling closer to Dean than Dean probably wanted. "It sounds like what you're saying."
"I'm not… look, Sam, it's gonna take me a few days to sort this out… just give me a break okay?"
"No. If you want to blame someone, blame me," Sam said carefully. "I wanted you alive. I need you to be alive. I brought you here. If you need to blame someone, blame me. If you need to take a swing at me, go ahead."
Dean shifted, re-crossed his arms, dropped his gaze from Sam to the point where the light from Impala met the road—illuminating the occasional drop of rain, turning it to silver. But Sam had seen it before Dean looked away—the faint recognition of the conversation they were echoing. Sam hoped the familiarity would work in his favor. After all, he was taking his cues from Dean.
Dean closed his eyes.
"I don't blame you," Dean breathed a moment later. "And I don't—" he made a weak gesture with his hand, opening his eyes, "I don't want to be dead."
And even though it was what Sam had been hoping to hear he cursed Dean's voice for being so steady when he felt like every word he was trying to push out his own mouth would shatter before it got there. He'd been so afraid—so afraid Dean had wanted to die, feeling some misguided duty to the fates. Sam looked down at his shoes, and suddenly, to his horror he was crying—the scream in his chest running embarrassingly out his eyes—causing his breath to hitch. He bit down hard on his lip to hold in the sob.
And suddenly Dean's icy hand was on the back of his neck. "Hey," he heard as Dean pulled him forward, sounding staggered and surprised. And even though Sam was taller he let his head drop to Dean's shoulder, rawly thankful when Dean's arm came strongly around him, gripping tightly, the hand on his neck moving up to rub up and down the back of his head carefully, and Sam had to wonder if he'd somehow gone crazy in the last five minutes because he couldn't remember having needed human contact this badly.
He tried to stop the tears but couldn't—clenched his eyes closed and clenched his fists tighter into the back of Dean's sweatshirt, no longer trying to hold himself together—feeling broken with relief—feeling four.
"It's okay, Sammy. It's okay."
Sam cried harder.
"I'm sorry… okay? I'm sorry I scared you. I'm sorry I… I'm here, okay? I'm not dead." It occurred to him through his jumbled thoughts that maybe now he was scaring Dean. Knew he was by the frenetic edge in Dean's voice, even though his arm stayed confidently circling his baby of a brother, even as his hand continued to reassuringly rub at his neck, fingers still icy cold from hours in the rain. Evidence that he should be taken back to the motel and shoved into a hot shower so he didn't die of pneumonia.
Abruptly, Sam let go, backing up, only to reach out again in a mad grab for Dean's elbow when he swayed unexpectedly.
"Sorry," said Sam, after it was apparent Dean could stand on his own—feeling stupid, feeling immensely relieved when Dean made no cracks about chick-flick moments nor attempted to remove his arm from Sam's grip.
Dean nodded, eyes looking widely at Sam—clearly a bit dazed by his little brother. But Dean's eyes were red too and not just from the cold. "I'm sorry too," Dean told him. And Sam no longer felt completely crazy. He nodded back, making a last swipe at his eyes.
The rain was picking up again. "Come on," he said, trying to bounce back from his breakdown, reaching out to turn Dean's gaze away from him, steering him resolutely back to the car, opening the door and closing it securely after Dean was completely inside.
He walked around to the driver's door, aware Dean's eyes were still on him, still processing Sam's sordid fall from stoicism.
When he slid into his seat, he was grateful for the warmth the running car had built up inside while they'd had their discussion. He revved the engine, using it to bring back a semblance of familiar territory, common ground.
"So," Dean said, cutting the silence a few minutes after Sam stepped down on the gas pedal. "You find any jobs for us today?"
"Yeah, actually," Sam answered. "Ghost sightings in a canyon outside Lander, Wyoming—with three missing hikers from that same canyon in the last three months." There was more to the story, but he'd tell Dean about that later—fill him in on the gut feeling that had made Lander stand out to him.
"Huh," Dean grunted, showing interest. "Wyoming's never been my favorite state—but I guess we're going to Lander."
"Yeah," said Sam. "But with our luck… you'll probably get sick from all this cold before we get there."
Dean rocked his head toward Sam, grinning slightly. "Don't sweat it, little brother—a little cold never killed a Winchester."
And though he kept his eyes out the windshield, Sam smiled back.
Dean lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, trying to quiet his running mind enough to sleep.
He was exhausted enough. Exhausted enough that he hadn't complained when Sam steadied him with a grip on his elbow while they'd walked back into their rented room. Even let Sam get the warm water in the shower running before waving him out and away.
Part of him recognized Sam had some need to do it—and Dean still hadn't quite gotten over the intensity of his brother's emotions.
He shifted onto his side—eyes adjusted enough to the dark to make out Sam's face—Sam hadn't woken with a nightmare yet, hadn't stirred, though he'd just fallen asleep and dawn was less than two hours away.
Dean didn't know if their talk had made it all better—was pretty sure it hadn't—and would have avoided it if he could have, not liking to see Sammy that freaked out. But it had made things a little better.
He still didn't have the answers to why he lived when others hadn't. He still felt guilty that Marshall had been forced to take his place, and regret that he'd been saved when Layla hadn't been. But he also knew he couldn't change it, couldn't turn back time, couldn't waste life by looking back too much.
He didn't know if God worked in mysterious ways. Wasn't sure all this had turned out right.
And he couldn't be sure it all wouldn't come back to bite him in the end.
But one thing was certain—he would live to find out.