Sam was fourteen the first time his brother died.
He's never really been sure exactly what happened that night. He knows they were hunting a skin walker somewhere in western Montana, a really mean sonofabitch who had been stalking children on a nearby reservation. He and his father had been fighting, again, about some inane thing, and he remembers the palpable rage and tension in the truck as they drove from the reservation to the nearby woodland. He knows Dean must have been cracking jokes the whole drive even though he can't remember it.
Most of the actual hunt is a blur of shadows and leaves in his memory. He doesn't remember when he and Dean got separated from their father. Isn't even really sure if it was accidental or part of the plan that they ended up alone by that pond, twenty feet from the skin walker's lair. Would rather not consider the implications if his father had left them on purpose; a skinny fourteen year old and an overly-cocky eighteen year old armed with silver bullets and a handful of protection charms against a centuries old predator with a taste for young flesh.
He remembers hearing a rustling behind him, then he knows only blackness, and when he wakes he is face to face with a rotted coyote head that is somehow twisted into a rictus of terror. He can remember hearing Dean's voice, uncharacteristically high and panicky, but he can't recall the words. And here's where the details get fuzzy, he doesn't know how long that thing had them in it's lair, he doesn't know what words, if any, were said. He's pretty sure, and logic seems to agree with him on this one, that he was the next item on the menu when Dean decided to play the hero. He can recall vague impressions of the ropes around his wrists, the taste of blood in his throat and the smell of the coyote head as the skin walker drew closer.
Mostly, though, he just remembers the fear.
Next thing he knows Dean is there, stepping in front of him and intercepting the slash of a sickle meant for him. He can still see the splash of blood, bright red against the stark gray of the cavern wall if he closes his eyes. Can hear the grunt of pain that slipped from his brother's lips in that moment as though Dean is standing right behind him. It's the only moment he'll ever remember clearly, and this single memory will haunt him, will change him, in more fundamental ways than he can comprehend.
After that the details blur into chaos and noise and fear, and he wouldn't be able to give an accurate account of what happened if his life depended on it. There was a struggle, he was aware of that much at least, and Dean was apparently on the losing side. He knows this because one minute he could see his brother fighting out of the corner of his eye and the next Dean was gone.
In the silence that follows all he knows is blind panic that lasts until his father finds him.
It's the feel of fresh air across his face that he remembers next, so he figures he must have been led out of the cave. Outside it is early morning; the sky is still that soft pastel color somewhere between gray and purple and the air is so still it's like the whole world is holding its' breath.
He remembers thinking that it might have been the most perfect morning he'd ever witnessed if it weren't for the lingering smell of smoke in the air.
He remembers the feel of his dad's hand on his arm as he is led through the forest to a small clearing, the rough grip somehow conveying relief and worry all at once. He knows his dad was speaking then, the words low and rough, his father's voice almost unrecognizable with suppressed emotion and self-reproach. Looking back on it, he wonders why it took him so long to understand just how terribly wrong everything had gone, why he didn't notice the frenzy in the clearing or the skin walker's corpse smoldering on a nearby rock. He wonders how he could ever have missed the sad, pitying faces that followed him through the clearing. He'll never forgive himself for not wondering about Dean sooner.
Somewhere on the edge of his memory he can remember seeing Dean lying motionless at the base of a large tree, but he is never able to focus on it, and he's half afraid of remembering the details, afraid that knowing would make the nightmare real. It's just as well, because he doesn't want to remember how blue his brother's lips would look against too pale skin or the dark bruises that would be circling his brother's throat. He doesn't need more memories of that moment, the ones he has haunt his dreams as it is.
He can remember the silence that shrouded the truck during the drive to the hospital. Has memorized the back of the ambulance they followed as it sped towards town carrying the only thing that mattered in the whole world. When he bothers to think about it he's never really managed to explain how or why the paramedics responded so quickly. Someone once told him that questioning miracles is just one step away from giving up hope. Take the good with the bad, be glad for small favors but never, ever let your guard down. And even though he can't remember who spoke those words he figures it sounds like good advice, so though he doesn't question the arrival of the paramedics, he's glad for it all the same.
He doesn't remember much of the hospital waiting room; his time there has been reduced to brief flashes of half formed memories that sneak up on him when he least expects it.
The door swinging shut behind Dean's gurney. Back and forth, with unspent momentum, each swing a little shorter than the last, affording him fleeting glimpses of his brother and his too pale skin stark against the blue of the hospital issue blankets. Back and forth, and the way he craned his neck to get just one last look, just in case. Back and forth, until one time there was no "forth" and he felt the finality of it like a sucker punch to the gut.
The sympathetic eyes of the night shift nurse as she brought him a soda on her way off shift, the blue so dark with sadness and concern and understanding that it took his breath away.
His father, with those dead, haunted eyes as he stood in the middle of the hallway for hours just staring at the door Dean had disappeared through. The way he never moved, not once, not even an inch, until Dean's doctor emerged from behind that door looking like he'd gone nine rounds with the devil.
"Mr. Winchester? I'd like to talk to you about your son's condition, would you mind following me? I've got a room set up where we can speak in private."
He can remember the conversation with Dean's doctor in perfect detail, right down to the well-practiced look of carefully controlled optimism on the doctor's face. Even with all the years between this moment and then he's never been able to come to grips with the cruelty of a world that will allow him to forget his brother's jokes and laughter but has burned this conversation so deeply into his memory that he doubts he'll ever be able to look at Dean again without remembering it.
He remembers hearing about the defensive cuts and abrasions on his brother's arms, about the contusion at the base of his skull acquired when the skin walker threw Dean against the tree, about the partially collapsed windpipe and asphyxiation.
He can remember, with frightening detail, the exact tone and tenor of the doctor's voice as he spoke about Dean's surgery. Can recall how the gruff voice had cracked slightly when he explained that Dean had been brought into the OR without a pulse. That Dean, his Dean, had been clinically dead for up to six minutes before they had managed to revive him and stick a tube down his throat to help him breathe.
Emotionally, he remembers nothing. Not grief, not sadness, not anger, not fear, nothing. Not even a goddamn flicker of concern for the brother who threw himself into harms way to save him. It's like the whole world is put on pause and he feels like one of those cartoon characters who've run off the edge of a cliff and all he has to do is look down and he'll be falling.
Then the doctor warns them that Dean may not be Dean anymore if he wakes up. And that's when the world gets taken off pause and the ground rushes up to meet him and he feels like he could be falling forever. The last thing he remembers seeing is his father's face wearing an expression that would have broken his heart into pieces all over again if the darkness hadn't caught up to him first.
He wakes up in a hospital bed six days later to the steady beat of his brother's heart monitor and the faint smell of antiseptic. He has barely enough time to register that Dean is sleeping, sleeping not unconscious, in the bed closest to the door and his father is slumped in a chair exactly halfway between his sons, before a horde of nurses and doctors storm into the room armed with thermometers and needles and questions.
He remembers hearing the words "post traumatic stress" and "shock", and then "highly unusual" and "under observation", but it's not until the doctors leave and his father pulls him into a hug that goes on forever that he really understands just how close it came.
In fits and starts, he is told the story of how he collapsed in the waiting room, about the seizures and the coma that followed, and how no one could explain it or find the reason why, because, medically, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He remembers hearing the unnatural tension and gruffness in his father's voice, remembers the way the mighty John Winchester seemed reluctant to take his hand off his arm, the way he would alternate his focus between both of his boys like he was scared they would disappear in a moment of inattention. Remembers hearing about Dean's recovery with a mixture of relief and joy and something that could have been expectation or knowledge if he'd bothered to examine it closely.
It had taken Dean thirty-seven hours to wake up after his surgery, another twenty-four before he could breathe on his own, and even six days after the skin walker he could only talk in monosyllables. They called it a miracle that he could speak at all, that he was awake and coherent and still Dean at all. Sam remembers thinking that maybe it was a miracle after all, until they tell him that it was forty-one hours after he passed out, after Dean's surgery, that his seizures ended and his condition improved. There's a cold trickle of suspicion when he hears that.
It's not until four years later that he really learns what happened that night.
He is sitting on the back bumper of the Impala in a motel parking lot somewhere in north eastern Michigan waiting for his brother to finish settling the tab. His hands are playing nervously with the crumpled piece of paper and he doesn't even bother to read it anymore. He knows what it says, word for word. He knows what it means, to him, to his brother. He knows exactly what this means and he's not sure if he'll be strong enough to do what needs to be done when the time comes.
And it has to be done, as much for Dean's sake as for his own. Because that skin walker in Montana was only the beginning. As they got older the hunts got more dangerous, the risks got more real and Dean got more protective, until it was almost every other week that he'd be stepping in front of his brother to take the hit, to be the hero, the fucking martyr. Sam has decided that enough is enough; he is not going to be the instrument of his brother's destruction, no way in hell.
So here he is, with a crumpled acceptance letter and a conviction to save himself, to save Dean, from the inevitable conclusion of this life they were leading. He already knows what his dad will say; he's hoping Dean would at least try to understand.
To say it didn't go as well as he'd hoped would be something of an understatement. Dean had yelled, he had raged and screamed and even lashed out once, but in the end he had relented, had even accepted, just a little, like Sam had known he would, because he had never been able to deny his little brother anything.
"But Sammy, let's make one thing clear. Here and now, you and me. You are not and will never be a liability; if you're anything at all you're the reason I'm still here, still breathing, still fighting. I…Fuck, Sammy. The first time…back in Montana, when I came out of it, they told me I should have died, told me it was a medical miracle and they'd never seen anything like it.
And I knew it was true….I could feel it, ya know? That some was wrong, really fucking wrong and I was almost ready to give up. But I didn't. Because I could feel you…in here, in my head, and you were so scared, and all alone, and I just couldn't leave you alone in the dark."
The words are like a blow straight to his solar plexus and Sam can barely breathe through the pain, can barely see his brother's face through the blurry mist in his eyes. Can't even begin to think of what to say in the face of this revelation. He isn't really surprised when Dean saves him from having to answer, as he saves him from all things.
"So if this is really what you want, I'll drop you off, where ever you need to go. You take the time you need, do whatever you need to do and I'll be ok with that. But if this is about me, about risks and about us then know that it's tough shit but it'll never change, Sammy. Never. You can emo and guilt and call yourself a liability if you want but it's just the opposite, you're my reason to keep coming back.
"Because I can't, I won't, leave you alone in the dark, Sammy. Not now, not ever."
If Sam was fourteen the first time his brother died then Dean was eighteen the first time his brother saved his life.