Walls You Built Within

"Just wait here."

Choked words, half-sobs spoken like a prayer, like a dead man's last request, and he wants to nod but he's frozen, suddenly, ice creeping through his bones and he can't move. It doesn't matter, anyway, Sam knows the answer, has always known.

Sam turns, abruptly, and looks desperately back at Dean, gaze boring into him and pleading, begging for answers he doesn't have and salvation he wishes to God he could offer. He's not saying anything but his eyes are speaking awful, deafening volumes, screaming silently for Dean to help him, please, and it's worse than anything he's ever had to hear out loud, worse even than Dean what did he tell you or Dean please you have to promise me, worse because he has no answer to give. His eyes are burning and his throat constricts painfully with the knowledge that he can't save Sam from this, that for all the promises he's made and all the years upon years spent worrying, all the blood and sweat he's poured into trying to keep him safe, none of it matters in the end. In the end, he's still left standing here watching his brother's world torn apart again by another senseless twist of fate.

Before he knows it, Sam's gone; he's left standing there waiting numbly for the sound, and when it comes he could swear for a second that the bullet's gone right through him, tearing through skin and flesh and bone to bury itself deep in his chest. It's a few seconds before he remembers to breathe; his lungs burn and his eyes swim and he's moving forwards without volition, dreamlike, gliding round corners and over pristine carpet spattered with blood.

The first thing that catches his eye is Sam frozen in place, gun still clenched in violently trembling hands, and the body, her body, crumpled in red at his feet. He'd expected her to be farther from him, for the act to be a distanced one, and the twisted intimacy of the scene stops him in his tracks, an intruder. He wonders if they touched, if Sam kissed her first, if she pressed her face into his shoulder as he pulled the trigger.

Nausea rises in his throat and he moves forward again, reaching out a tentative hand as Sam moves too, bending, kneeling beside her body.

"Sam-"

He stops, because everything he could say sounds wrong and Sam's not listening anyway, he's reaching out and touching her, touching her face, her hair, her heart, blood coating his hands as his fingers trace imperceptible patterns into her cooling skin.

And he thinks that this, right here, might be the worst moment of his life.

The last time he'd felt like this, aching helplessness pounding like rock salt in his bloodstream, was months ago now (and god knows it feels like longer), when he'd stood in flickering darkness watching flames devour a house he'd never really known, Sam near catatonic beside him in a paramedic-issue blanket. "He's in shock," they'd said, and Dean had rolled his eyes in what he hoped was an obvious enough yeah, thanks gesture He'd rested a hand awkwardly on Sam's shoulder that night, squeezing, and hadn't let go for what might have been hours until the blaze was finally out, not speaking because there wasn't anything much to be said.

His hand is still outstretched and since he can't think what else to do, he reaches for the gun now lying discarded on the floor. The metal against the palm of his hand makes him sick, and he thinks dimly of a time when holding a gun was a thrill, his first hunt when he'd stood beside his father with a new .45 clutched in his hand, feeling strong and loved and ready.

Suddenly, violently, Sam pulls back and rises jerkily to his feet, brushes past Dean to the door before he can react.

"Sam, wait."

To his surprise, Sam obeys, and when he turns around Dean can see the tears have stopped; his eyes are dry and bright and strangely hollow, and when he speaks his voice is steady and too low.

"I need to shower."

Not what he'd expected to hear, but this is worse, the way Sam's face is closing in on itself, the visible struggle to crush down pain that's too raw and aching and real to stand. It's all too familiar to Dean, a twisted, worthless excuse for a coping mechanism that's never done him anything but damage, and he's starting to hate how much of himself he can see in his brother these days.

"Could you-?"

Sam gestures vaguely towards the door and Dean nods silently, understanding. What's left behind the deceptively white-bread window boxes and drapes is like a scene from someone's nightmare, plaster peeling from slashed walls, blood congealing on plush carpet, and suddenly he wants nothing more than to get his brother out of here, away from this house that stinks of death and loss and crushed dreams.

"Yeah. Yeah, you go, take the car. I'll finish up here."

And he does. He watches Sam leave with a slump in his shoulders, wondering when they'd both gotten so old, watches the Impala purr out of sight into the distance and keeps staring into the distance long after it disappears. He can't put it off forever, though, and when he finally goes back in he doesn't give himself any time to think or analyse or regret, just snaps on a pair of rubber gloves he keeps in his pocket especially for occasions like this (not exactly like this), and gets to work. He goes through every room in turn, wiping fingerprints from every surface he can think of, collecting up odd things he recognises as Sam's (spare shirt, contact lens solution, powdered green tea junk that costs $30 and tastes like baked dirt). His eyes linger for too long on the photographs arranged on the mantle, their rows of smiling faces spelling out silent accusations, and he has to fight the urge to smash the frames and rip them all to shreds because this is her, these pictures, these patches of blue and red and green add up to the fact that she was a person, with freckles and warm eyes and people who will have to bury her.

And he can't think of her like that, won't see her as anything but another faceless victim like Glenn or Meg or the girl he'd shot at point blank that day in the hospital with his hands steady as a rock, his mouth dry and tasting of ashes. They're all the same to him, they have to be, or his resolve will start to crumble, he'll falter and weaken and be less than unrelenting, and one day soon he'll wake up and he won't be able to do this any more.

He almost considers leaving just a few fingerprints behind, enough for the police to name them as suspects, because then at least the people left behind will have something to cling onto, something like the truth. But it's a fleeting impulse, and it doesn't take him long to figure that one more homicide on their impressive criminal records isn't what either of them needs. So he wipes every surface, over and over and over until the cloth squeaks against it, and doesn't look again at the photos or the washed dishes or the rumpled bed with both sides still unmade.

By the time he gets back to the motel, hours have passed, and he's tired and aching and almost comfortably brain dead. He finds Sam sitting on the edge of the bed staring unseeingly at a spot on the wall, and it couldn't be more obvious that he hasn't showered or changed or even taken off his jacket since getting back.

A feeling of dread starts in the pit of Dean's stomach, and he goes to his brother, kneels before him and looks into his face, searching.

"Sam-", and then he stops, because he's sick of starting sentences that don't lead anywhere, too damn tired to keep his game face on when all he wants to do is crumble. So he hunches there, silent, knees getting number and number beneath him until at last Sam breaks the quiet, voice low and brittle.

"I was-I was going to wash it off."

Dean looks up at him, confused.

"What?"

Then he sees. Sam's hands clutched in his lap and still coated with blood, palms soaked scarlet, dried tendrils of red spread over his fingers, his knuckles, his wrists.

"Oh Jesus, Sam-"

This is all horribly familiar, reminding him of another too-recent day when Sam had sat numbly before him in a dingy motel room, covered in blood that wasn't his own (there's always blood on their hands, now) He reaches out and takes hold of Sam's wrists, pushes up his sleeves and the blood doesn't stop, spreading and wrapping itself around his arms, long, spindling trails reaching almost to the elbows.

He swallows hard against the bile that's rising in his throat, closes his eyes and listens to himself breathe for a count of five, waiting for the sudden nausea to ease off. Yanking his resolve back into place, he opens his eyes and starts taking off Sam's jacket, focusing on the immediate need to get him clean, get him back, get this filth off him before it soaks in any deeper. Sam makes no move to help or to resist, but sits motionless and allows Dean to push his jacket off his shoulders, guiding the sleeves down over stained arms and hands.

"Okay, let's go, c'mon."

Hands under Sam's arms, he heaves him to his feet and Sam comes without protest, lets himself be steered towards the bathroom with Dean's hand resting lightly against his back. He leaves Sam standing in the doorway, half-leaning against the frame, while he navigates his way around the bathroom, finds soap and turns faucets, runs hot water over a scratchy off-white towel.

Gently, firmly, he tugs Sam towards the sink and pushes his left arm under the running water, scrubbing at stained flesh with water and cloth and his own hands and it's soothing, somehow; the distant belief that if he can only do this right, if he can get every last inch of the blood off then this whole sickening day can be forgotten, cleansed from them as easily as stains from skin. Not looking at Sam, pretending not to feel the tension in his muscles or the way he's starting to tremble, he works his fingers over every inch of skin he can reach, again and again until the water runs clear and Sam's arm is red and raw and spotless.

By the time he's reached for the other arm, though, he can't ignore it any more; Sam is shaking so violently beside him his teeth are chattering, eyes screwed shut like he's struggling with something, a losing battle raging inside his own head.

"Sam. Sammy," Dean murmurs, gripping his shoulders and shaking gently, "look at me. C'mon."

Sam's only response is to tremble harder and shrink away from his grasp, closing in on himself with both arms folded against his chest. He backs away, staggering slightly and Dean goes with him, holding on, holding steady, because it's all he knows how to do anymore.

"Don't, Dean, just-" Sam gasps, struggling feebly against him, "just-God..." He's choking now, choking on words he can't say and pain he can't stand; too much, too raw, too hollow, and he's slumping back against the doorframe, sinking, legs crumpling under his weight. Dean, thinking dimly of trying to get back to the bed, tries to heave him to his feet, but Sam's legs won't hold him and after a brief moment of struggle they collapse awkwardly to the floor, Sam clutching blindly at fistfuls of his shirt as Dean lays hands on him, his shoulders, his face, soothing.

"Easy, Sammy, easy. It's okay. It's okay. It's gonna be okay."

Empty words, echoing back to a long-lost time when Sam was young enough to believe everything Dean said, believing completely that there was nothing his big brother couldn't fix, and when Sam looks at him now, face crumpling, he thinks maybe there's some part of him that still does. It breaks his heart a little, and he falls silent, throat closing up against all the platitudes and comforting lies he can't bring himself to tell anymore.

"Why, Dean?" Sam rasps, voice cracking dryly. "She was...I mean, we could've...It's not like it would have worked, long-term, you know? I mean, I get that. We'd have had to move on, keep hunting, leave her behind, I knew that from the start. I knew it couldn't really be anything. But she...God, it was-"

"I know, Sammy. I know."

And he does, he knows, because for a few glorious moments he'd seen Sam happy again, that goofy damn smile lighting up his face like Dean had forgotten it could, burdens and fears and all the Destiny of Doom crap temporarily forgotten. It kills him, the sheer cosmic injustice of it, the fact that for the first time in way too long Sam actually let his guard down, dared to be happy for all of a few hours, and he's paying the price in grief and bloodshed.

"She covered her eyes, Dean. When I-she couldn't watch me, she just...covered her eyes and waited. Tried not to let me see she was crying-"

And then Sam is choking on his words, his body folding in on itself like paper and Dean's wrapping him in a desperate, bone-crushing hug, thinking that there's nothing he wouldn't give right now to turn back time, to wrench the gun from Sam's protesting hands and finish the job himself, anything to keep him safe from this. Sam's breath is warm and ragged against his skin and he's clinging to Dean, arms around him in a vice grip as hot tears spill onto his neck. His eyes are burning again, suddenly, and he blinks rapidly, pressing his face into thick, dishevelled hair and rocking slowly as quiet, aching sobs shudder through Sam's body.

He thinks about Madison, and about Jess, and how he never really knew either of them. He thinks about how many people they've saved, and wonders if it evens out the lives they've cost. He thinks about Jo, how she'd nearly died for knowing them, about Meg and Pastor Jim and god knows how many others the demon left behind. And then he stops himself, closes off the thought before it gets any nearer to where he knows it's heading. He can't think about him right now, can't let himself begin to re-experience that gaping, incomprehensible loss; he's too close to cracking as it is and Sam needs him now, more than ever, needs him to be strong and whole and steadfast, not brittle and broken and fraying at the edges. He's gotten good at monitoring his own thoughts lately, and it doesn't take him too much effort to take hold of this one, crush it down and seal it inside a corner of his brain, hidden. It won't stay there forever, of course, but tonight he'll be steady and for now, that's enough.

The sobs have quieted now, Sam's like a rag doll in his arms, drained and deadweight, and Dean has never felt so tired. He knows dimly that they can't sit here all night; he's lost all concept of time, but the room's a lot darker than he remembers, and when he looks up the sky through the dingy windows is dusky. Sam's head is resting against his shoulder, arms still clutched loosely around him, and Dean's not even sure if he's awake.

"Sammy?" he says, hesitantly, not sure he wants to wake him if he is asleep. "Sam?"

"Hmph?"

"My leg's gone to sleep."

Another muffled sound, one that might be a laugh. Smiling in spite of himself, Dean gives Sam's arm a shake.

"Seriously man, I have no circulation below the waist right now."

Definitely a laugh this time; feeble, quiet, not much more than an intake of breath, but he'll take it.

"Well, that's certainly a personal tragedy for you."

"You're damn straight. Get up."

And just like that, they're back. The quipping comes easier to them than pretty much anything else by now, the comfortable back-and-forth jibes often the only routine, familiar thing they have in days filled with new hunts and new faces and endless by-the-night motel rooms.

After a few more minutes of stillness Sam disentangles himself from Dean, and they make their way slowly to their feet, every stiff muscle in Dean's body screaming in protest as he rises. He winces, tries to walk and staggers sideways into the wall, leaning against it until the feeling in his legs starts to return.

"Real graceful, Dean."

"Shut up" he drawls, automatically. "C'mon."

He rests a hand on Sam's back again, steering him back towards the bed where he slumps into a sitting position, and when Dean looks at him his eyes are averted, suddenly, catching sight of his still-unwashed left arm. After a moment or two he starts to rub at it, worrying at the dark stains of blood with his other hand, wiping urgently, trying to scratch out patches with his nails.

"Whoa, easy Lady Macbeth," Dean says quietly, catching hold of Sam's wrists. "I'll get a cloth."

He's halfway back from the bathroom, newly-wet towel dripping in his hand, when he notices the way Sam's staring at him. "What?"

"Did you just reference Shakespeare?"

He scoffs. "Oh sure, Mr Stanford Law, because dropping out of high school makes you automatically illiterate? I read!"

"Okay, okay," Sam says, hands up in a defensive gesture. "I just-I mean, Shakespeare?"

"Yeah, well, Dad had a copy of it in the house." He's not surprised Sam doesn't remember; he'd always made a point of avoiding the Winchesters' personal book collection, made up mainly of heavy tomes on demon lore, legend and myth. "There's some good stuff in there, anyway – witches, curses, prophecies? Guess that's why he kept it."

He's quiet after that, they both are, remembering. After the fire, after Mom's funeral, Dad had taken boxes out into the back yard, boxes filled with her clothes, her books, her everything, and started a bonfire right there on the lawn. Save for a few photos and keepsakes, everything had gone, and he'd stood with Sam in his arms for the second time in a month watching the flames reaching higher and higher, watching all the things that reminded him of his mother burn to ashes. Her Shakespeare collection went along with the rest of her books, save Macbeth, which he'd discovered years later mixed in with the encyclopaedias of demonic tradition and hunting tips. He never had asked why.

His mind's straying again, and he pulls himself away from thoughts he'd rather not have. Clearing his throat, he kneels again in front of Sam, wincing at the twinge in his still-stiff legs, renews his grip on the dampened towel and starts to rub gently at the bloodstains.

"Grab some dinner after this?"

"Sure."

He'd expected the predictable I'm not hungry response, and he takes this as hopeful. Either Sam's actually hungry or he actually doesn't want to be alone, and while his tone isn't exactly enthusiastic, it's something. It's something.

It's enough.