This is quite short but I thought I'd throw it in here, seeing as I've had it sitting around. Set S3, so no real spoilers unless you haven't seen AHBL 1+2, just minor speculation.
Once again, I don't own them, just borrowing.
Sam was so sure he'd find a way to save his brother. For almost four months, he charged along, fuelled by such great faith he'd find the answer he was seeking, find a way to get Dean out of the deal he'd made. He barely stopped to consider the other path their lives could take, the road they'd have to walk down should no answer present itself. His thoughts barely touched on the possibility that this time there might not be an escape hatch, no convenient crack in the fine print they could slip through, no way to undo what had already been done. He scarcely dwelled on the prospect that he might have to say his last goodbye to his best friend, once Dean's twelve months met their close. He didn't think of these things because, quite frankly, Sam didn't consider them options.
So what derailed him? Sam couldn't be sure. He and Dean had just completed a hunt involving a poltergeist in a nineteenth century hotel and were kicking back in their crusty motel room, tending to their minor battle wounds, when fear twisted his gut. He was standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, having a conversation with Dean's reflection, when the gravity of their situation dropped his heart through his ribcage and shattered it upon the cold, tiled floor. Despair rose in a sickening wave from his feet to his forehead, causing him to wrap fingers around the thin rim of the basin to keep from falling down. Thankfully, Dean was too engrossed in what he was watching on the television to notice Sam's suddenly faded complexion. Sam hastily closed the bathroom door, announcing he was having a shower. He sat, scrunched up under the scorching water until it ran cold and shook him into numbness, his tears stinging salt trails down his cheeks.
The nightmares began. That night he was rattled by half a dozen frightening full-length features involving Dean's dreaded 'final hour' and the crushing sadness it would bring. He woke, countless times, twisted in his bed sheets, gasping for air and fighting claustrophobia, battling to be free of not only the linen but also his surging anxiety. He buried his face in his musty pillow so as not to alert his brother and worry him. But the more he dwelled upon the deep sense of foreboding swelling within him, the more it threatened to devour him.
When he pulled himself from his bed the following morning, the feeling tailed him like a shadow, matching his every step; a dark reminder that the clock was ticking and that Dean's time was running out. It was hardly a surprise, then, that his worry eventually manifested itself physically, and two weeks later, Sam became sick.
Much to his dismay, he was unable to hide his condition from Dean. Big brother always had an eye for detail, and it didn't take long before he cottoned on to things. They were on the verge of heading off to another gig when Sam's headache and queasy stomach got the better of him, pressing him to his knees in the middle of the motel room floor. Dean's concerned expression was a thumbnail in the corner of his vision as reality began to twist, and a deafening roar rose to meet his ears. At first Sam thought the noise was external, but it quickly became apparent that it was the sound of unconsciousness coming to claim him. He fought a brief battle against his spotting vision, willing the dizziness away. But it was futile, and his efforts were useless. Sam felt the ground give way beneath him as he fell into oblivion.
Dean postponed the new hunt, despite Sam's best efforts upon waking to convince them both that he would be fine. Dean ignored him, paying for another fistful of nights at the motel, and immediately began to nurse his ailing sibling. Sam, sensing his brother's worry, became deeply ashamed. He was the cause of so much trouble for his brother when, really, Dean shouldn't have to look out for him. That job had been done, and Dean had passed with flying colours. It was Sam's turn now, to take care of the older. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. For once, Sam knew beyond a doubt, it was supposed to be the other way around.
As the hours rolled on, it became apparent that Sam wasn't going to get better overnight. His headache got worse and the slight tremors that had rippled through his aching body increased, evolving into a sickening, teeth-chattering trembling. Dean wrapped him in blankets, forcing pills down his throat. Big brother murmured light insults and reassurances, his concern warm and gentle in a way that somehow managed to fracture Sam's heart. A tiny voice grated in the back of the younger brother's mind, continuously scolding him for being ill. It was vital he stay sharp if he was to safeguard Dean against the things that would eventually come to claim him. Night came on, and the nightmares returned.
The dreams assaulted him viciously, from all sorts of dark places. They came from all sorts of deep crevices in his frenzied mind. Sam tossed and turned through their disturbing scenes as if being thrown by the sea. He heard voices, whispering and hissing, burning him with fear. Dean's voice stood out amongst the others, burning him also, only with courage instead of panic. Sam couldn't be sure, but he guessed that his brother stayed beside him the whole of that first night. Dean was a light that helped him navigate his way through the nightmares that plagued him like a curse.
Sam cried out a couple of times, despite how hard he tried to bite down on the sound before it tumbled from his lips. Dean's presence was always there; a squeeze on his shoulder, a fresh compress lain upon his head. The fever carved its frantic way through his soul, blowing all of his horrors out of proportion and reducing him, sometimes, to tears. He felt himself become somehow less of a man, in such a broken state, and he began worrying more that he was a burden instead of any kind of asset to his brother. It burned his heart.
The second day the madness reached a plateau. Sam lay on his back, sweating against his pillow and sheets, as Dean kept busy in the room. A scattering of times he piped up and told Dean to go out, stop hanging around. But big brother refused, infuriatingly patiently, and explained that they'd go out together when Sam was better. Sam went to reply but was stopped short by an agonizing fit of coughing that rattled his skull, nearly driving him from his bed. Dean's hands were there to catch him, as always, guiding him back to safe ground. Sam held his tongue, and drifted back to sleep.
Sometime, between days, Sam woke to find himself in the shower. He wasn't able to remember crawling in there, let alone having had the energy to strip down to his boxers. Cool water splashed over his face, and someone gently washed the perspiration from his skin. Cracking an eye open Sam saw his brother on hands and knees, sleeves rolled to the elbows, leaning into the shower, casually washing him. Dean commented that if Sam didn't get better soon, they'd have to go to the hospital. Sam was appalled to hear himself pleading, begging like a five year-old not to be taken there. The idea was completely frightening. Somewhere, in the back of Sam's mind, he was aware that he was being irrational, but he couldn't help it.
Sam lost track of time. His determination to get well overrode all else. His fears evolved, they mutated. Pretty soon he began wondering whether he was being selfish in his desire to save his brother from the demon's deal. There was just so much about Dean that made up so much of Sam's world. Without his sibling by his side, Sam worried that he'd crumple like a puppet with no strings, as hollowed as an empty shell upon a beach. He'd always prided himself on his independence, but the truth was he was so terrified of being left alone. He didn't want to lose Dean like this. He didn't want to be the cause of his brother's end. The guilt of that would surely eat away at him until there was nothing left. He didn't want to grow old if it meant growing old on his own. Was that wrong?
More nightmares came. They ravaged him senseless. Sometimes they were clear as day but mostly they were a fit of emotions, undefined, each as frantic as the last. At some point he awoke, flung bolt upright in his dishevelled bed, eyes stinging with sweat that dripped from his brow. Teeth rattling and head spinning, he sought out his brother, but was unable to find him. Sheer panic sent him tumbling from his bed and across the room.
The front door was ajar, and Sam slowed, grabbing at the curtain of the window and peering through the frosted glass. He saw Dean standing like a statue looking out at the night; the older brother's shoulders slumped in a way that was troubling, his stature shrunken. It was a harrowing scene, and a voice in the corner of Sam's mind urged him back to bed. He obeyed, leaving his brother to his midnight ponderings. When Sam awoke the next morning and recalled the event, he was sure it couldn't have been real. Dean never looked like that.
Sam became angry. He became angry at the situation. Too much time within his mind was causing hairline cracks to appear in his sanity, slowly pulling him further apart. He became angry with Dean, angry with the demon. He found himself regretting the fact that he was alive at the expense of his brother. Dean had taken something that wasn't his. The older hunter had removed Sam's right to pass from this world at a time when the world had chosen to let go of him. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair because Sam couldn't undo it. And now Dean was going to die, and what could Sam do but sit and watch the sand sift through the hour glass? In that final moment, when the last grain fell, what the hell was he supposed to do?
He heard Dean talking to him. How long had they been talking? Sam's vision was a fish darting in and out of filtered sunlight, fading and blurring as his older brother's words washed upon his consciousness. Dean sounded tired, his timbre hollow. Sam was exhausted from dreams and stumbled over responses. Dean was saying that his fever had gone down enough for them to hit the road, and that he would gather their things and drive them to a warmer place where Sam could recover properly. Sam wondered just how many of his nightmares had made it to the surface, how many he'd screamed out or had narrated for all to hear. His inner fears had been twisted and given life, and as much as he hoped he'd managed to keep them to himself, he worried that he'd shared more than he'd planned. He felt as though he'd been turned inside out. And it, along with the fact that he'd become sick in the first place, brought him shame.
An immeasurable stretch of time later, Dean helped him through the front door and to the car. Sam blinked against the cold air, watching the snow swirl. In the end, the most heartbreaking thing was that he so desperately wanted to give something back to his older brother. All Dean's life, he'd been taking care of Sam. Now Sam's chance had come to repay the kindness, it appeared as though the younger would fail. Dean had given everything; his past, his present and his future. Sam had never wanted that much from anyone. Those things were never designed as gifts; they were never meant to be gambled away.
Sam opened his eyes. Silence pressed upon his ears. He was wrapped in a blanket, balled upon the front seat of the Impala. His head leaned against the window, frozen glass numbing his cheek. The world outside was an alien landscape, white and distorted, flakes of snow blowing gently to rest and melt upon the window. Something was wrong. Something was missing. The keys were still in the ignition, but there was no sign of Dean. Painfully Sam forced cramped muscles into life, straightening and looking around wildly. He wasn't even sure where he was. There were no street signs, no other people or cars in sight. Oh God- Sam's heart pounded. Dean was gone. This was it. Oh God- He called Dean's name, but there was no reply.
He'd been dreaming again, maddening slideshows of his brother being pulled into the depths of hell, the terrifying emptiness that moment would bring. He'd cried out to the demon, begging to exchange places. They'd taken the wrong man, and Sam had felt himself slowly torn to pieces by the knowledge that truthfully, it should have been him. God damn it; it should have been him.
Choking down fear, Sam shouldered his door open. Confused and disoriented, he stepped from the car. Snow swirled around him, its silence frightening and deafening. Stumbling against the open door, Sam caught sight of a figure leaning against the trunk. With a surge of relief that stole even more colour from his cheeks, he realized it was Dean.
Dean turned at the noise, his own cheeks unnaturally pale. Sam dropped an arm upon the Impala's roof to steady himself, regarding his brother and the tilt of his shoulders, the lines etched into is brow. Dean offered a weak smile, explaining that he'd just needed to stop for air. Sam's eyes travelled along the icy road, tracing the outlines of white hills and frozen forests. It was a strange place to be taking a break, a rather featureless part of the world that could have been anywhere. Dean motioned towards the car, advising him to get his ass back in, before he caught pneumonia. Sam wanted to tell Dean to do the same, but there was something in the older man's demeanour that silenced the words upon his tongue. Resignedly, Sam shuffled back into the car and pulled the door behind him. The last tendrils of his nightmare had almost receded, leaving him with a sense of reality that unfortunately wasn't too much different. Dean was still here, yes. But the clock hadn't stopped ticking.
A moment later Dean fell into the driver's seat, slamming his door. The key was twisted in the ignition and the silence was broken by the rumble of the engine, the air-conditioning firing up. Warm air blew against Sam's neck as he leaned back, eyes upon his brother. Dean's features were set in an expression that was mildly unsettling, and Sam couldn't tear his gaze from it. There were patches of moisture on the older brother's cheeks that stood out against his waxen skin, a pinkness rimming his eyes that betrayed more than just a lack of sleep. As Sam processed the man before him, he found himself worrying. But Dean shook him off, as always, saying that Sam should go back to sleep. And the moisture was brushed from his cheeks as the wipers brushed melting snow from the windshield; clearing away whatever emotion he was currently hiding, erasing the evidence that such an emotion had ever been.
In their own private worlds, both brothers were, very slowly, unravelling.
It doesn't hurt me
Do you want to feel how it feels
Do you want to know, know that it doesn't hurt me
Do you want to hear about the deal that I'm making
You, it's you and me
And if I only could
I'd make a deal with God
And I'd get him to swap our places
Be running up that road
Be running up that hill
Be running up that building
Say, if I only could
You don't want to hurt me
But see how deep the bullet lies
Unaware I'm tearing you asunder…
(from Running Up That Hill, Kate Bush.)