Disclaimer: The Winchesters don't belong to me, though I really think they should. I'd promise to love them and squeeze them and…fortunately or unfortunately for them, they belong to Kripke Enterprises and The CW.
Author's Note: This story hasn't been edited. I farmed it out, but the truth is it's been SUCH a dry spell for me I'm just excited to have something on paper I had to post it right away. Maybe it sucks to high heaven. I'm...not sure I care. It's words! For a while, I really thought my muse had ditched me for greener pastures, the cow. (I suppose that could still be the case if this is made of the suck.) Now I only hope this means I can start writing actual things. :)
Understanding Yin and Yang
Dean ran. He was a steady, reliable runner. He didn't need fancy shoes or gear; he could do it all in rough boots, jeans and leather, hauling an arsenal with him. He was better at keeping his pace for distance than he was in at short burns, but when he had to he could pull small spurts at amazing speed. Terrain didn't matter. Weather didn't matter. Nothing mattered but getting there, and getting there quickly. Life or death was just a cliché for most people. Not for him.
Dean ran, but knew in his gut he wasn't going to make it anything like in time no matter how much adrenaline pumped through his veins. The vampires were closing in on his brother from all sides, while Sam fought them with everything he had. It wasn't going to be enough. He could see the desperate, grimacing expression on Sam's pale face, the feral, sharp-toothed grins of the vampires. Dean's heart felt like it was in his throat and beating out of his body at once. No. He was not going to watch his brother die again, ever.
He raised his crossbow and fired, clipping one of the evil sons of bitches. There was a surge of satisfaction, but Dean was still too damned far away for it to be more than fleeting victory. He had to stop running to reload, fumbling to work around the blade he carried in his left hand. His stuttered breath hindered already shaky hands. It took him only seconds, but they were seconds Sam didn't have. When he looked back up, he saw there was no way he could take another shot without the risk of hitting Sam by mistake.
"Sam, down!" he shouted, so strident his throat, and the heart figuratively in it, felt torn.
Sam didn't, or rather couldn't, drop to the ground on cue. It would have left him more exposed anyway. One big motherfucker had Sam by the throat before Dean's shout faded into the chill night air. Dean pushed his legs to move faster, wildly wondering how the hell he and Sam had become so distanced from each other. His brother had been right next to him. He dropped the crossbow, excess baggage now, pulling out the second dead-man's-blood-laced machete instead. Goddamned vampires were supposed to be a dying breed, but they kept popping up. He brandished the weapons, so ready to see heads roll.
What Dean saw instead was an ugly face in front of him, and what he felt was a blow to his legs as they cut out from under him. He landed face first. Moist loam filled his nose, his mouth, choking him. He twisted onto his back, lashing out with both blades. Jets of cold blood slicked his hands, splashing on his neck. His ears rang, but he could hear Sam's struggles. The vampires flopped down onto him, felled temporarily. Dean shoved them off and made it permanent with two swift downstrokes. He started moving again, now only able to jog an unsteady line. More came at him, from behind trees, from everywhere. He swung at them, his frenetic fear for Sam fueling him. He saw blood streaming down Sam's neck, bluish red in the dark atmosphere.
An arm constricted around his throat, halting his forward momentum with painful suddenness. More fists beat at his ribcage, his unprotected stomach. For one instant, Dean's gaze locked with his brother's. Facing each other, both trapped in the same way, they were macabre mirror images. Hot breath on his neck had Dean thrashing to pull free, but he got nowhere. They were so screwed.
Except Sam moved. Dean watched his brother through hazy vision, as Sam went from bloody and slumping to something he'd never seen before. Sam came alive, unfazed by injury or odds. He was agile any day of the week, employing skills they'd both had drilled into them at young ages. This was different. This was cold, fast and mechanical. Sam fought with proficiency Dean had never witnessed in anyone before, not even his dad. His brother dispatched the vampires surrounding him – all of them – as if they were no more capable than kittens. It happened in a blink, literally. Sam shot an unfocused look in his direction, then headed toward him, carrying red-stained, dripping blades in each hand. The vampires let Dean go abruptly, shuffling backwards with quick steps. He slid to the ground, weak for some reason.
Dean didn't blame them for running.
The look on Sam's face was one to fear, he could see that even from the short distance. It wasn't filled with rage or determination or concern. It wasn't filled with anything, Dean realized when Sam was close. Sam paused only long enough to check on him, a fraction of a second and a slight nostril flare, before running after the remaining vampires. Dean staggered to his feet, grabbed his machetes and followed. By the time he caught up, he saw Sam brutally hacking at the last unliving creature, like a man possessed. Wincing, Dean approached his brother.
"Hey, Sam. You got it, man," he said. He sounded like a scared ten-year-old. He swallowed. "You can stop now. Stop."
Sam did, straightening up, blade held high in an upswing. Instead of slicing down again, Sam's arm lingered up there. Dean saw the limb trembling. He flicked his attention to his brother's face, uncertain he really wanted to see what was there. When that same terrible blankness stared back at him, Dean couldn't stop the cringe from showing. Sam's expression changed, his brother looking at him first with confusion, followed closely by a rapid succession of uneasiness, dread, nausea and worry.
"Your neck," Sam said, sounding small, almost breathless, and so Sam it hurt. "It's bleeding."
Dean lifted a hand up to a warm patch on his neck. His arm was shaking, too. He stared down at his fingers, seeing they were slicked with red. Huh. He took a wobbly step to Sam, weakened but not incapacitated. The alarmed look on Sam's face increased. Dean wasn't sure if it was because the vampires had nicked him, or if there was something else going on. Sam had seen him in worse shape. A lot worse, lately. He clenched his jaw and tried to square his shoulders. He nodded his head.
"So's yours," he said, pointing.
Dean watched Sam check his wound the same way he'd just done, slowly, as if dazed. An inscrutable feeling settled in his gut, a feeling something wasn't right with Sam, maybe. Dean had thought something wasn't right with Sam for months, but this something wasn't that something. It was not entirely different, but also not entirely the same.
"Oh." Sam blinked. "It's just a scratch."
Sam rubbed his fingers off on the front of his jeans, leaving a faint smudge. He grimaced at the blade in his hand, leaning down to wipe it clean on the grass. He picked up the other machete and repeated the process. Once he was finished, Sam stepped carefully over the corpses, moving away from the carnage and toward the other death scene.
Dean stayed where he was. Achy with exhaustion, he gazed down at the headless bodies. Normally, the sight wouldn't bother him. He felt queasy now. He turned away, looking at Sam who had moved too far away for his liking. Dean scratched at his still-oozing bite mark, trudging over to help his brother with the clean up. They were both worn out, but it had to be done and neither of them had injuries that needed tending to right away. They fell into the post-kill routine easily. Sam did most of the heavy work, because Dean had to admit he felt woozy. The whole time, Sam gave him fleeting, worried looks, all angst and chick flick. Dean's apprehension for his brother edged to the back of his mind, but it did not go away.
After they finished loading their stuff in the trunk, Sam headed for the driver's side. He'd done that a lot lately, also. Dean let him this time, too tired to argue. He slouched in the passenger seat. With nothing but the road in front of him to focus on, he started replaying Sam's fighting maneuvers in his head. He had never seen his brother fight like that. He wasn't sure if he should be impressed, or if he should hope he never saw it again. He sat up, scratching at his neck. His fingernails came away caked with rusty flecks. He flicked his thumbnail under his pointer fingernail a few times, sending tiny pieces of maroon flying.
"Hey, where'd you pick up some of those moves?" Dean blurted.
"What?" Sam jerked a little. He looked at Dean, returning his eyes to the road after a second. "What do you mean?"
"Back there. I've never seen you fight like that, that's all."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Sam said, just like he knew what Dean was talking about. "That's the way I always fight."
Sam's face paled a shade, his knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. He shook his head, but Dean didn't think his brother even realized he'd done it. Dean leaned closer. Sam eyes skittered in his direction. A glimpse was all he needed to see they were filled with ghosts. Sam looked away quickly, hand jerking to turn on the radio. A burst of static, then Zeppelin filled the empty spaces in the car. Dean had seen the ghosts haunting Sam's eyes before. He knew what they were.
They were him.
The truth was Sam didn't remember from the time Dean was overtaken by vampires, ones Sam had already killed in a nightmare, until it was all over. He'd had a visceral jolt of panic, of Dean and no, NO, and then there was nothing but a big, black void. The next thing he knew, Dean was telling him to stop, his hands were bloody and his whole being flooded with emotions he couldn't control.
The truth was Sam was terrified. The fear of losing Dean was like residue. It lingered on his skin, in each heartbeat. The taste of it was sharp on his tongue. His head ached with it. He thought Dean might keep talking, and didn't think he could bear that. Sam needed time to pull himself back from the line he hadn't consciously crossed. He glanced over again, his brother's face wan in the dim dashboard glow. Dean didn't say anything else, didn't have his concerned attention on Sam anymore. Even the relief from that threatened to drown him. From the tape deck, Robert Plant singing The Song Remains the Same was too loud yet not loud enough. Three years ago Sam wouldn't have known the name of the tune. Three months from now, he'd never listen to it. He swallowed past a tight throat. The road blurred in front of him, making him blink to regain clarity.
Sam had lived that same big, black void, after he'd lost and lost and then lost Dean. Oh, at first, when Dean died and never came back, there'd been anger. Deep, burning rage. But it didn't take long before Sam felt nothing at all, and he was as lost to himself as his brother was. He remembered it as if it wasn't him. Every meal he made himself eat, every execution he carried out, every wound that should have been piercing but didn't even register. He experienced none of it as himself, and didn't until he laid Bobby (not Bobby, not Bobby, not) out on the floor, back full circle at the Mystery Spot. Seeing his old friend splayed out, stake in his back, had something like humanity start returning to him. Horror and doubt, anger and sorrow so heavy it weighed him down. Hope, too, floating just above it, but intangible.
Then the Trickster had reset the clock one last time, before Sam had had the wherewithal to ask for more, a clean slate with no deadline on Dean's life. Thrust back into reality, Sam's body and psyche had to hard reboot. There had been days relentless feeling, of tastes sharper, lights brighter, touches more bruising, regrets hard and cruel, as if to make up for so much time gone to emptiness. He'd had no gradual return to self, but swift, jarring pain and fear that would not let go.
The way he felt now was the same. A mere trickle by comparison, but a clear return to himself after brief minutes of that god, he didn't know what.
"We should pack up and leave tonight," Dean said as they pulled up to the motel, his voice craggy with fatigue, and something deeper than that. The words seemed sudden, loud. "No reason to stick around. Besides, I'm sick of this place."
"Yeah," Sam said, surprised to hear his own voice was hoarse. What he really wanted was sleep, voluntary oblivion. "Me, too."
He opened the door, sliding out. Once upright, Sam wobbled for a second, moving slowly after he regained equilibrium. Dean followed suit, but Sam noticed how much more unsteady he was on his feet. Blood painted Dean's neck and all three layers he wore, evidence his wound was more than a scratch. Sam's skin prickled with a resurgence of adrenaline. He took a deep breath. Dean was fine now. Dean had to stay fine. Always. He followed his brother to the room, watching to make sure Dean wasn't disguising any more injuries. Anything could have happened while he was in the god, he didn't know what.
"You clean up first." Sam pointed to Dean's neck before rummaging for their first aid supplies. He didn't think Dean needed stitches. He didn't trust himself to suture anything. "I'll load the car."
"Okay." Dean gave himself a once over, grimacing at the gore and the shirts stained beyond salvaging. "Good idea."
Dean gathered jeans and flannel out of his bag, took the antiseptic and bandages from Sam's outstretched, shaking hand and went into the bathroom. Sam sat down on the foot of his bed, hunching over to rest his elbows on knees. He pressed the butts of his hands into his eye sockets until the darkness was filled with a million glints of light. Like stars. The silence in the room was profound and suffocating, relief coming when Dean turned the shower on. Like the water pounding on the tub kept Sam from being alone.
John Winchester had been a driven hunter, fueled by a need for revenge. For most of his life, Sam had thought his father was a fixated son of a bitch with no regard for anyone or anything but vengeance. Part of that was true. Part of it wasn't. John had also been a man who wanted to protect his family, who had a twisted sense of humor, and who loved his boys more than his own life. Everything he had done as a man and hunter had been born out of a very human place, continued to be heartbreakingly human until the day he died.
Sam remembered now. He remembered the focused, cold obsession in which he had existed when Dean was dead. As a third party observer to his own memories, Sam saw bits and pieces of it. He'd become all of the worst bits of his father, with none of the good to balance. He'd been a precise hunter and researcher, no room for error, with no reason (Dean) to let soul affect his actions. There had been no need for anything but death and destruction, no reason to think or feel.
Sometimes Sam wondered if he had always had only the bad from John, an unlucky inheritance.
The bed dipped. Sam smelled soap and damp motel towel, felt the warmth of his brother sitting next to him. He didn't change positions. Dean didn't say anything, the bed jostling as he dried his hair. A heavy slap came next, the towel landing on bathroom tiles.
"Sam," Dean said at last. "I want you to tell me what's going on with you lately."
Sam removed his hands from his face, straightening up. He glanced over to Dean. His attention went right to the small gauze bandage on Dean's neck, white and clean. The tape was applied crookedly. Shifting his eyes up, he winced at making eye contact with Dean. He wasn't surprised to see confused anger there, but it hurt anyway. He averted his eyes. Dean stood, pacing a tight line in front of him. Sam's head and heart ached.
"Dean, can't this wait unt…"
"No. It can't."
Dean was a lot like their father, always moving. Seemingly quick to anger, but really just a victim of letting things simmer on a slow burn for too long. He had John Winchester's sense of humor, too, amped up tenfold and slightly more crass. If their dad's motivation had been him and Dean, Dean's motivation was always to help people. To help Sam. It stemmed from a place of good and light, like Dean had inherited all the good things from Dad. Sam smiled sadly.
"If you hadn't been there, I would have sacrificed the girl," Sam said, his voice cracking. Dean stopped walking.
"What?" Dean sat down on his own bed.
"The secretary. Nancy. Back in Colorado. I wouldn't have liked it, but I saw no other way. It didn't bother me." Sam's eyes lost focus, everything blurring in front of him. "Not the way it bothered you."
"The Trickster made you stay dead." Sam slid his eyes over to his brother. Dean blinked at him. "And I turned into some thing I can't even describe because it was like I wasn't there, except I was. It was dark and cold and nothing, Dean. I couldn't feel anything. I killed everything…everyone who got in my way. Bobby."
Dean's left eye twitched, a bare reaction that could mean a million different things. It only meant one. Sam looked down. His jeans were ripped and filthy. He held out his hands. They were red with blood.
"But I'm not dead, Sam, and I know you. You're no killer."
"I'm not? You almost died tonight," Sam said. "I saw you there, and I don't know. I don't remember taking out those vampires."
"I get it, Sam, I do."
Dean sounded desperate and pained. Sam imagined his brother in Cold Oak, after he died. He remembered himself there, confused, cold, alone and wrong.
"Maybe you do."
He pulled his bloody hands into fists, rubbing them along the top of his thighs. Without Dean, Sam would become a killing machine. Just like that. No moral compass, no balance. He knew it. He didn't think knowing would prevent it from happening. Sam looked at Dean, clean and good and not dead, and he felt every splatter of blood and dirt on himself.
"But I don't think you really do. I know you believe it's your job to keep me safe. To keep me alive." Sam swallowed, shaking his head when Dean opened his mouth to speak. "What I'll be if you die isn't alive. I'll be the furthest thing from it. I can't…Dean, I think that without you I'm…it won't matter."
"Why are you saying all of this?" Dean said, sounding small, almost breathless, and so Dean it hurt.
"Because I know I'm made of dark stuff, Dean," Sam said. "And you're made of light. My whole life, it's always been about you."