Bruised Reeds
K Hanna Korossy

Sam sat crunching his way through a bowl of cereal he couldn't taste, flipping through a newspaper he didn't really see. It was distraction, all of it, to keep him from thinking too much.

He'd been here before, awash in grief, needing all his energy just to keep going day to day. It was familiar, almost comfortable, these patterns of pain. But last time he hadn't been an orphan. And last time he'd had Dean.

Bobby's half-asleep shuffle into the room brought Sam's head up, and he nodded to the older hunter, getting a grunt back. Mornings were not Bobby's best time.

"That brother of yours out in the yard already?"

Sam looked past him, through the screen door into the back yard at the dull wash of dawn. Not that he was seeking confirmation. "Yeah."

Bobby shook his head. "Three days out of the hospital—you'd think he'd still be taking it a little easy."

Sam just raised an eyebrow.

Bobby made a face, realizing, yeah, this was Dean they were talking about. Muttering something under his breath about the wreck not going anywhere—Sam hoped distantly he was talking about the car—Bobby grabbed the box of cereal and fixed himself a bowl.

Sam went back to skimming the newspaper. It was something to do, and old habits were all he had left now. If he thought too much about what had happened in the last week, if he thought about Dad or Dean…

Sam kept turning pages. He came back to the front page when he was done and stared sightlessly at it for a long minute before his eyes strayed to the masthead.

And suddenly it was hard to see, hard to breathe.

He forgot about the cereal, shoving himself to his feet, knowing nothing more than that he had to get out of there, right now. Not hearing Bobby's question, or the slam of the screen door behind him. Just running, away from his broken life and lonely fears and, oh, God, the chasm of loss. Running.

He didn't look back to see Bobby stand puzzled in the kitchen doorway until, still muttering, he returned to his cereal.


It was only dehydration that drew him back to the house, because God knew he was never hungry these days, and he certainly didn't want to be around people. Bobby gave him space but looked at him sometimes with eyes that knew too much, and Sam… Sam was an open wound, and Dean was too busy trying not to let himself bleed out to be able to take care of Sam right now, too. He avoided those wet eyes and pleading looks like the plague and immersed himself in the one thing that still made sense. The car, at least, was fixable.

Dean moved through the house in almost unconscious silence, hoping without real expectation not to run into his brother. Sam was listless and worried and hurt, and usually latched on to every appearance of Dean as if his older brother had come to dish and to hug. It just…he couldn't do that now. Not while every thought was Dad and every movement pain. Not even, God help him, for Sam.

So it was a relief that he made it to the kitchen unmolested. Dean snagged the bottle of water from the fridge and drank long and deep, then closed his eyes and put the sweating plastic to his forehead. He still felt lousy, weak and aching and unwell, but if Bobby or Sam ever got a hint, they'd probably lock him in his room. It was just one more thing Dean shut away and didn't talk about, pretended wasn't there. He'd always been good at that. At least until the lock strained under pressure, until what was inside pressed so hard and painful, he thought he might burst. Sam had no idea what he was trying to pry open with all his little attempts to talk and deal. Dean knew he was hurting his brother with his distance, but it was the only way he could keep that lock and himself from breaking. Sam would understand that in time.

Dean grabbed another water bottle and headed back outside.

Bobby was just coming around the corner, and their eyes slid past each other in a tacit acknowledgement of the other's presence without any kind of engagement. Dean appreciated that and kept going, mind hurrying ahead to that afternoon's work.

"You seen Sam?"

The fact that Bobby had asked him something struck him first, like the betrayal of an unspoken bargain. Dean was already frowning as he stopped, turned. And then the question sank in.

"What? No, not since…" He had to think for a second. "Well, saw him in bed this morning, but last time I talked to him was last night." If grunted good-nights counted. Dean's frown deepened. "Why?" Bobby was the one keeping an eye on Sam those days, by necessary if not quite happy agreement.

Bobby shook his head. "Nothing. He just bolted outta here so fast this morning, thought maybe you two were up to something."

The latter was a bold-faced lie and they both knew it, but Dean hardly paid attention, thinking over Bobby's words. Sam had taken off? As in, takenoff, or just wandered away somewhere to think? He'd liked to do that even as a kid. Until Dean would find him and coax him to get things off his chest. Sam's concerns then had ranged everywhere from where Dad was, to if Dean would be mad that Sam spilled the gun oil, to how lambs were born, thanks to a spring spent at Father Jim's. And Dean had always listened and answered and made it better.

Things changed.

"You show him your stuffed trophy head collection again?" Dean tried for the joke. Seven- or so year-old Sam faced with the downstairs wall of Bobby's hunting souvenirs—the normal kind—had nearly sent the kid into palpitations. It'd been funny until he'd had nightmares for the next several days.

Bobby's mouth didn't even twitch. "He was just sitting and reading the newspaper. Didn't say a thing, just took off."

Dean's concern crept up another unwilling notch. A month ago, he would have taken a look at the newspaper to try to figure out what had set Sam off. Now, he didn't want to attempt to put himself into his brother's shoes long enough to figure it out. They each had their own problems, and his included vision that still hadn't completely cleared from thetrauma he'd suffered—one of those things he carefully wasn't thinking about—and which made reading difficult.

But that was the excuse, and Dean was still honest enough with himself to know it. He shifted his balance, sighed.

"You haven't seen him since?" he finally asked. Sam had spent the last few days puttering around the house…or at least so Dean figured. But Bobby seemed to think the disappearing act was unusual, which meant Dean was paying attention.

"Nope. Kinda strange, too—he was gonna do some research this morning."

Dean winced. He didn't want to hear this, didn't want to worry about anything except whether he could get the engine put back together by the end of the following week. But Sam skipping out on research? Something was wrong there besides the general moodiness his brother had been wallowing in since… Since.

Dean cleared his throat, asked the one question he dreaded.

"He didn't, uh, borrow a car or anything, did he?" Because avoiding Sam was one thing. Having him leave, leaving him defenseless, Dean alone… That was something else he couldn't face right now.

Bobby's eyes narrowed. "You think I woulda waited until now to say something if he had?"

Point. Dean nodded, dodging the older man's eyes. The water bottle felt too cold against his skin, and the meager air conditioning in the house made his muscles feel stretched and tired from the heat. "I'll take care of it," he muttered, and turned away, out toward the yard.

Isolation and quiet and mindless work beckoned. Dean headed ninety degrees in another direction, his steps the only sure thing about him.

He didn't even have to think about it. Sam still came as natural to him as breathing, and Dean knew where he was. Remembered despite himself a half-dozen times he'd walked this same path to retrieve his brother. The listening he could probably still do. The answering and making things better…well, Sam was smart enough to answer his own questions now.

Dean used to have to get closer to this graveyard of automotive skeletons before he caught sight of the tousle of dark hair. That was before, even bent, his brother's head stuck out like a freaking tower among the rusted A-frames and crumpled bodies. He was sitting on the dented trunk of a Datsun that had seen better decades. Dean's fingers trailed along the rusted metal hood, feeling pain he could understand and empathize with, until he drew his hand back and turned his attention to the far greater, more daunting puzzle of his brother.

"Bobby said you took off this morning. Didn't rinse out your cereal bowl or anything."

Sam didn't startle at his presence but didn't turn, either. Or answer.

Dean's mouth flattened and he moved forward another few steps, until he stood next to the rear bumper of the car…or where the rear bumper would have been, anyway. From there he could see Sam's bowed head in profile. The misery carved there shoved something deep and painful into Dean's own gut.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked gruffly.

"Leave me alone, Dean."

Okay, that was a new one. There had been, I'm not leaving you alone, and we're in this together, and, Dean's personal least favorite, talk to me, man. But Sam was all about the sharing, not the pushing away. That was Dean's gig.

He didn't like the tables turned. Enough had gone unpredictable and unfamiliar in his world the last week.

"C'mon, Sam, don't make me beat it out of you. This is what you wanted, right? Us yakking about what's eating you?"

Sam's face shifted, his jaw squaring. "Go back to your car. This is what you wanted, right, me leaving you alone?"

Dean's eyes narrowed. Fine. If Sam was going to shove the olive branch back in Dean's face, then his little brother knew what he could go do with said branch. Dean didn't need this. He turned, strode two steps away.


Because Sam had tried to sound angry. He'd tried to say the best thing to shut Dean down and back him off, tried to get him mad. But the part of Dean's brain that worked on Sam's frequency no matter what, in exhaustion, unconsciousness, agony, or even black despair, was still listening. And it heard the utter misery in his brother's voice, saw it radiate off the curled shoulders. This was more than just…than just Dad. And it was more than Dean could walk away from.

He came back, steps less certain this time, and, after a moment's hesitation, climbed up on the trunk next to Sam. The metal groaned under their weight, but she was a sturdy little car and she held.

Dean's eyes swung to the horizon, checking out the scenery Sam seemed so fascinated with and was probably blind to. Okay, big brother was there. Ball was in Sam's court now.

It took a minute. "Why are you doing this?" Sam finally gritted out. "You've been avoiding me ever since we got here, and now you won't leave?" He flicked an angry, frustrated glance at Dean.

Dean shrugged, almost offering a flip answer but knowing it would shut Sam down completely. Besides, he didn't really have the energy for it. "I'm here now."

Sam turned away, face twitching. Tears in his eyes, for God's sake, and Dean wished again he'd made it back to the car in peace, didn't hear about Sam's little crisis until it was over. He didn't have what Sam needed anymore.

He braced his weary body and waited.

"It's November fourth today."

The admission, when it came, was so quiet, Dean wasn't positive he'd heard. He played the words back, realized what Sam was saying. What he was really saying. And felt a fresh hurt where he didn't think he had room for more. "Oh."

"I missed it," Sam spat out. "She's only been gone a year, and I couldn't even remember. God, I don't think I even thought about her all day."

Dean made a humorless sound. "You've been a little busy, Sam." Two days before—that was one day after they'd stood in the desert and watched the funeral pyre burn. Dean hadn't thought about their mom that day, either. He shook himself. "Jessica would understand."

Sam's shove off the car took Dean by surprise and nearly sent him sprawling. He hadn't even realized he'd been leaning on Sam. "What do you know?" Sam growled. "You didn't know her, Dean—you spent twominutes with her. You can't even grieve for Dad—don't you give me advice how to feel about Jess."

Dean shut his eyes and also slid off the car. Anger. Anger was easier than…this, what he felt now. "You're right, Sam. Forget I said anything. You have fun beating your breast out here." He turned away and stalked back toward the Impala, more blind than usual, damn that bright sun.

Sam choked behind him. "Dean. Wait."

He could never refuse the kid anything. Not when Sam asked for himself. Not when he asked like that, like he was breaking in two. Dean didn't turn, but he paused, waiting.

"I'm sorry." There were tears in Sam's voice. Dean rubbed a hand in annoyance across the sympathetic wetness that sprang to his own eyes. Then Sam drove the stake in completely with a faltering, "Please."

Dean turned back. Couldn't help but see the neon-bright defeat in every line of his brother's suddenly small and vulnerable form. And felt something in him bend and give way at the sight.

He walked back within touching distance, hesitated, then held out one arm. And all six-foot-four of his brother somehow fit against him the next moment, unruly hair brushing Dean's chin, those octopus arms wound around him like they just needed something to hold on to for fear of getting swept away.

Dean knew that feeling. And the one soaking his shirt through his chest. There was probably something profound about being baptized in your own demon-drawn blood and your brother's tears in one week, but Sam was the one who'd know about that.

Dean knew just this. Sam needed him. He was there. It hurt…but not worse. Maybe a little better even, which didn't make sense except that nothing really had lately. Except this.

Dean raised his other arm, wincing a little at the pull, and crossed Sam's back with it, fingertips just brushing the fringe of hair. Haircuts were so far down on the list of priorities right now, they'd fallen off the page altogether, but somebody still had to worry about stuff like this. Like what day it was.

"God…Dean." Sam's hand twisted in his t-shirt, his voice muffled and thick. "This is so…"

"Yeah." He cleared his throat on the second try. "You wanna go visit?"

Sam shook his head. "I just…I don't want to forget."

"We won't," Dean said quietly, because that much he could promise. He held on fiercely because he was starting to think maybe he needed this a little, too. "We won't forget, Sammy." Even when, God knows, he wanted to.

Sam nodded. After another minute, he drew back, wiping abashedly at his eyes. Dean let him go, stuffing his suddenly empty hands into his coverall pockets. "I'm all right," Sam said, voice still tear-shod but steadier. He even managed a pathetic smile. "Go work on your baby."

Dean had been. But this wasn't Sam's self-deprecating martyrdom, this was Sam pulling himself together, finding his balance again and wanting Dean to go do the same. This was his brother being a man, and Dean wondered when that had happened, when Sam had become equal instead of little brother.

Dean nodded. "Yeah. You go do your research." He turned away, then paused to call back over his shoulder. "See you at dinner."

"All right," Sam answered softly. Dean didn't look back.

But he knew Sam was there.

The End