This has been kicking around in my folder for a month or so, undergoing endless tweaking. (Poor words. I never let them catch a break). It's been beta'd by my ever faithful trio, Faye, kaly, and Tyranusfan, but as usual, I played with it quite a bit after they sent it back. (Thanks, guys, for putting up with me).

This is not a companion piece to "Until the End of the World," exactly, but they are kind of flip sides of the same coin. Hope and triumph vs. hopelessness and the expectation of loss.

Anyway, enough rambling.

Gen, as always.

Spoilers for AHBL 1 and 2

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Fall Until You Hit Bottom

It's brutal at the end.

Sam can't even look at him, eyes filling up every time they make eye contact. He doesn't sleep much, either—neither of them do, hearing the echo of hounds baying, sounding closer every night.

Dean's stopped filling up his time with one-lasts: drink, hustle, drive, screw. None of it makes him feel anything but empty, and feeling Sam's eyes on him when he walks out—watching him but not able to look—is like a literal knife in the back. And that's way too much for him to handle.

He starts a half-dozen conversations with It'll be okay and You have to understand and Promise me, Sammy. And Sam ignores every one of them. Turns his head away, mouth tightening, hardening, his whole posture a defensive wall.

There are fewer days left now than they can count on one hand. The Impala's pointed toward South Dakota, Dean entertaining the idea that he can somehow keep Sam at Bobby's while he goes to the crossroads without him. It's a ridiculous thought. He doesn't even have to ask to know Sam will never go for it, and in truth, Dean wouldn't want him to. He's never been a coward, isn't now. But he doesn't want to face his last moments alone.

It's the vivid image of exactly who he's leaving behind that drives Dean to say it one more time: that Sam will be fine, that he can go back to his life, make it good, make it count for both of them. The words die, though, when Sam interrupts with a broken, "Stop, Dean. Just stop."

Dean tries to keep from looking, but he can't help himself. And it's more horrible than he'd imagined. Sam's whole body is curled into itself, one arm pressed against his stomach like he's barely keeping his guts from spilling out. He's got his head buried in the opposite hand, tilted so low it nearly halves him. He's not crying—it's worse; huge, shuddering yelps for air and God.

Sam sounds like he's dying.

Dean's held the guilt off, kept it at bay since the first time Sam called him on it, back in Wyoming. Don't get mad at me. I had to. I had to look out for you. That's my job. But it's Sam's job, too, something Dean never acknowledged until Sam made him.

He's never thought Sam didn't care as much, didn't feel protective, or worry, or want what was best for Dean. But Dean's the older brother. Sam's his responsibility, has been always, even before the fire. Denial, these past twelve months…it's been easy. It's been essential: using the bulk of time he wasn't trying to not freak out over the whole Hell thing to make himself believe Sam would be fine, would maybe even better off without him

Facing the reality of it now, what this is really doing to his brother, hits hard.

This is killing Sam, every bit as much as it killed Dean when Sam died. Maybe more: for a year, Sam's been trying to stop a slow-motion train wreck with only his two bare hands, and now, he'll not only have to watch it happen, but deal with the fact that he failed—promised Dean he'd save him and failed.

Dean knows that feeling well. Out of everything they've shared, this is the one thing he never, ever wanted Sam to have in common with him.

For the first time, he wonders if it wouldn't have been kinder to let Sam stay dead in the first place.

Dean wrenches the car to the shoulder and reaches out a hand, but Sam flinches away, hard. He's pawing at the door handle, still holding his head, still breathing those awful, strangled breaths. He finally catches it, and the door falls open, force and gravity swinging it wide.

Dean's shouting his name, throwing the car into park, pushing his own door open, running after his brother as Sam mostly-falls down a shallow ravine.

"Sam!" Dean's nearly to him, but it's taking too long. Even uncoordinated, even blind, since Sam still hasn't lifted his head, those damn giraffe legs of his are moving him away almost too quickly for Dean to catch up.

Finally, Dean just tackles him. Launches himself at Sam's side and gets both arms around him, firm, knocking them both down. He rolls as they fall so he can take the brunt of their weight, feels his breath leave him. He's winded, but there's no pain, the ground wet and muddy enough so they slide a little. Under normal circumstances, Dean might be grateful, but at the moment, he's got more important things to think about.

Sam's limp in his arms; not like he's hurt, but like he's empty. Like every part of him has given up, given out, given in, and that's worse. So much worse.

"Sam."

There's no answer, and Sam doesn't even flinch, just lays there like a toy with the stuffing pulled out.

"Sammy, come on…"

When Sam still doesn't move, Dean does for both of them. He wrestles them upright, fighting the pull of the mud almost as much as Sam's (no, not dead) weight. He leans against a tree trunk, Sam cradled against him.

Alive, he hasn't held his brother like this in two decades, give or take. They're far taller now than they were then, especially Sam, who'd been such a deceptively tiny kid. But they still fit.

Dean loops an arm around Sam's neck, tight enough almost to choke him, but he needs for Sam to know he's still there. Sam, who's shaking like he'll never be warm. Sam, who still hasn't lifted his head or managed to draw a normal breath. Sam, who feels like he might shatter right there, right in broad daylight, might break into a million pieces and disintegrate.

Dean gets it then. This is his wake. His funeral will come later—a pyre like his father's, he hopes, with Bobby and maybe Ellen there to help, which he hopes even more. Sam can't be alone when this is over.

But this part? This part is private. This is family. This is them. Dean can't see the future, but he knows with complete certainty that Sam won't share it with anyone else. There's no one left who'd truly understand.

"I'm sorry." He's said it before, and meant it, in a way—in many ways—but not like this. This time, he's talking about all of it. "I wouldn't undo it, but I'm so sorry."

Sam doesn't respond.

Dean leans forward and presses his head to the back of his brother's. Sam's hair is cold and damp, coated with the mist that hasn't quite turned to rain. They sit for a long time, long enough that Dean actually shivers once, the unexpectedness of it jerking him more than it should have.

It's that motion that finally rouses Sam, who slowly pulls himself out of Dean's almost-embrace. Dean tries to catch his eye, but Sam's staring off into the distance, cheeks ruddy and pale at the same time. He waits for Sam to say something, but he doesn't, just rubs his fingers over his worry lines, swallowing audibly every now and then. He doesn't cry, though, and Dean gets that, too.

Some things are beyond tears.

When Sam finally does talk, his voice sounds low and ragged. Like he's been sick, or maybe screaming. "I'm not going to stop trying, even if—"

"Yeah." Dean doesn't make him finish, knowing what it would cost Sam to say it out loud again. He's paid enough, in tears, in sweat, in blood. They both have. "Wouldn't expect anything less."

Sam straightens at that, head cocked toward Dean, listening. Dean figures it probably wasn't the answer he'd expected, which is fair. It's not a lie, though. He knows Sam won't give up, even when it's all over; it's not in his nature. Dean's simultaneously grateful and kind of horrified about what that might mean.

"Just promise me you won't—"

This time, it's Sam who doesn't let him finish. "I won't."

Sam's not lying, either. At least, Dean hopes not. Some ongoing cycle of deals and soul-trading isn't going to make it any better. It's all got to end sometime; best that is ends with him. He accepts the innate selfishness in that thought, just as he has all along. It's a cruelty to Sam—the worst kind—but Dean couldn't have survived if their positions were reversed.

He's wagering everything he has, everything he is, that Sam can.

A few more minutes pass in silence. Dean's wrists are starting to ache a little, and his knees are getting stiff. But he waits until Sam is ready, until he stands on his own. When Sam reaches a hand down to pull him up, Dean doesn't hesitate, lets his brother take all of him. Sam hold him steady, fingers wrapping briefly around his shoulder, then pulls away, zipping up his coat.

Dean thinks they're done, and starts walking, but Sam's voice makes him stop. "Don't ask me to be okay with this. It'll never be okay."

The words are whispered, so soft they should be lost to the space around them, but Dean hears, every one. Dean glances back, and Sam's looking at him, looking like he hasn't done in nearly a month, looking, with everything he's been trying to keep in check just there, naked and raw on his face.

"I know," Dean answers. And he does. He finally does.

Fin