"Today is a winter Sunday, we wear our heavy coats.
The soul of my brother is pure though he doesn't think so.
Oh, one for sorrow, oh, one for sorrow, two for joy."
The Innocence Mission
One For Sorrow, Two For Joy
"I wish I couldn't feel a damn thing," Dean said, his voice cracking.
Sam Winchester was twenty-five years old, a grown man by anyone's standards. The things he'd experienced in his life would make a normal person's blood run cold. The things he had done especially of late would shock just about anyone. He thought himself strong enough to handle anything. He was wrong. When it came to Dean, he could never seem to be more wrong.
"Dean," he said when he finally had enough in him to speak.
But Sam couldn't get anything else past his lips, his tight throat. How could he? Nothing anyone could say would make Dean better, least of all him. He'd never been qualified to help anyone, really, not even himself and certainly not Dean. Now, after everything, Sam was sorely under equipped for lending comfort. He didn't know what that word meant anymore, outside of having Dean by his side. Even that wasn't comfort so much as relief and familiarity and hope, things he'd lost long ago. He couldn't even process what his brother had told him for himself, and he was once again useless to Dean. Sam was beginning to think he was just overall useless.
"Don't," Dean said, voice trembling after only one word. "Don't try to tell me I'm wrong."
"I wasn't going to say that." Sam almost choked on the words, because of all the things he could say to his brother you're wrong was at the top of the list. The truth was, he didn't know what he could say that wouldn't sound empty and pat. "I know I don't have the right to tell you anything, man."
"I just wanted you to know, I guess." The more Dean talked the more wounded he sounded, which didn't seem like it should be possible. "'Cause I don't know what I am anymore most of the time. The things I did in Hell … they were so evil, Sam. I don't know how to live with that yet. I don't know if I ever will."
Sam knew what evil was, contrary to Dean's belief that his grasp on good and bad was fuzzy these days. Evil clung to Sam like a shroud he couldn't tear off, pumped through his veins no matter what intentions lay in his actions. What evil wasn't, was Dean on any level. He wasn't sure telling Dean that would do much good, at least not right now. His brother had never been easy to convince of his own worth. That ingrained product of their unusual and terrible upbringing would only be worse after what Dean had just told him. Thirty years of torture, ten of torturing. It was staggering.
"But you, Dean, you're not evil," Sam said it anyway, thinking not like I might be. "You could never be that."
"Sam, I said don't. I don't expect you to understand. And the truth is I don't want you to understand."
Dean might as well have punched him. Any blow Dean had ever delivered in anger, and there were a number of them, hadn't hurt quite like that, though Sam knew just what his brother meant. He cleared his throat, hoping to relieve the pressure there. When that didn't work, he tipped his beer back to wash away the dryness in his mouth. He almost choked on it instead. Somehow the beer had gotten warm and flat and he might as well be drinking piss. He chucked the bottle. It landed on asphalt. It didn't break but rolled down the road, sloshing its contents out and clinking hollowly.
"No one ever should understand this, what's going on inside me, Sam. It's too much."
Sam heard Dean sniff again. He looked away, unprepared to see his brother's pain. He couldn't even handle hearing it. The moment to say something truly meaningful would pass and his opportunity would be gone and Dean would remain broken beyond repair. If Dean was broken, then so was Sam. They were a damned textbook case of codependency.
He wished for the first time in nearly two years that Dad were alive, and that the first deal, no second, he couldn't forget about their mother's, had never been made. He wished he had killed Jake Talley when he'd had the chance. He wished for the millionth time in nine months that he'd begged the Trickster to reset their lives before either he or Dean had died. While he was at it, he wished he'd never been born if it would have saved Dean all of this pain.
"It's too much for you, Dean."
His brother let out a laughing sob, and then drained his beer dry. "I know it is, Sammy."
"You think I can accept that, leave you to it by yourself, then?"
Standing, Dean tossed his bottle the same direction Sam had. It hit Sam's, shattering them both. He sat again, as if he'd depleted all of his energy with that one action. His breath hitched, and no scream could voice torment more brutally.
"About as much as I can accept you dealing with demon blood alone," Dean said softly.
Sam couldn't help slumping, his own breath catching in his throat again. It wasn't an insult and it wasn't condemnation. For the first time Dean acknowledged the demon blood like it just was. Sam was grateful and all the same heartsick because Dean couldn't fix him either. He had to wonder if anyone or anything could help them both. Dean's angels didn't seem to care much, and as much as Ruby had pulled through for him Sam couldn't trust her or any other demon. He slid down the hood until his shoulder brushed against Dean's. There was nothing else to offer that his brother would take. Sam knew that. Dean didn't pull away, and that was enough for the moment.
They sat in silence, steeping in awkwardness and pain and comfort. Words would only get in the way.
"We should get going," Dean said after a minute, though, sounding weary. Old.
Though Dean wasn't looking, Sam nodded. They had nowhere to go, but nowhere was better than here.
It was cold. Sam could barely feel his fingers and it had only been ten minutes. He knew if he brought it up Dean would totally agree to a moratorium on winter hunts in any states above the Mason-Dixon line. At least it was a dry cold, he thought, and that was … actually no help at all. He didn't know what he even meant other than the coast of Oregon would suck even harder than Nebraska right now, dank and chill.
"Damn, it's cold," Dean said, stating the obvious.
"Minus ten," Sam said, stating the even-more-obvious. Even his words sounded brittle and sharp.
"And that's without considering the wind chill," Dean said, pulling his collar up and ducking his head down as if he could nestle into warmth.
In the snow-reflected brightness, Dean looked faded from the winter. His face was pale and his freckles stood out despite the ruddiness in his cheeks. It looked to Sam as if his brother's energy was being leeched every second they stood outside. The chaser of whiskey Dean had following yet another early morning nightmare couldn't be helping, the deception of alcohol playing physical games as well as mental. Sam didn't mention how two years ago Dean had nearly kicked his ass for drinking while on a case. Sam rarely mentioned the alcohol use anymore. He wasn't ready to.
Besides, Sam knew those alcohol tricks all too well. After Dean had died, Sam drank to numb the pain the way Dean was trying to do now. It hadn't been long before he had numbed the pain without much real help from the booze. He had numbed so much he didn't feel anything anymore, and then he drank to feel something, anything, even if it was the drunken misery of a hangover or the artificial heat in his cheeks. He didn't want Dean to ever get to that point, something he'd thought about often when he remembered Dean longing not to feel. Feeling nothing wasn't the answer. It sure as hell wasn't something easy to recover from.
"So basically no one outside of tabloid reporters and certifiable wackos has actually seen this thing. Do we really know it's real?" Dean grumbled.
"It wasn't that long ago the Weekly World News was a big source of information for us, and most wackos are about four notches away from us on the sanity scale."
"That would be a much more valid point if Weekly World News was still in publication, Sammy." Dean blew on his fingers. "And maybe you're a wacko, but I'm not there yet."
Sam pretended the comment didn't hurt him just a little. He knew Dean meant it as a joke, but there was always a grain of truth in jokes. After all, Sam was the guy who could do things with the power of his mind. Sam was the guy who had demon blood. Sam was the guy who slept with a demon and that was crazier than Dean sleeping with an angel. Sam was ca-razy at every turn.
He gave Dean a long-practiced sour look before turning his attention to the water, which wasn't frozen over completely yet. Or, wait, maybe it had been. He scanned the white expanse of ice and looked back, frowning at the jagged hole near the shore. He thwapped Dean on the shoulder and pointed.
"Does that look fake to you?" Sam asked.
"I guess not." Dean straightened, still looking miserable but all of the whining was gone. He took a few steps away from Sam, crouching down at the edge of the lake. "They said the kid's going to be okay?"
"All things considered, yeah."
Fifteen-year-old Kyle Editon had been airlifted to Omaha from Gordon, after his mom found him in their yard. Unconscious, hypothermic, cut up in several places and barely alive, it didn't seem likely he'd managed to get home on his own, but no one was talking. They couldn't even count on the still-hospitalized Kyle for an accurate report – his memory was Swiss cheese, and not the kind where people who've seen insane things choose not to share.
As for the local fuzz, all they could do was chalk the incident up to a terrible accident at a nearby lake or river and assumed whoever was with Kyle had panicked. That made sense, except for the stories of an alligator-like creature living in Alkali Lake. That was how he and Dean ended up in frosty Nebraska in the dead of winter. Before now, all of the sightings had been just that – a strange shape in the middle of the lake, no threat.
"I'll tell you one thing," Dean said. "One scrawny kid couldn't have broken through the ice like that. It's pretty thick, even near shore."
"I'll tell you another thing." Sam stepped back. "That water should have at least partially frozen over by now."
"Oh, crap, that can't be good."
Sam shoved his hands in his pockets, both to get grip on his weapon and to warm up his fingers. They were so stiff he was afraid if push came to shove he wouldn't be able to pull the trigger. He watched Dean stand, hands flexing to get the circulation flowing.
"I want to know what made this thing surface now. All reports are from the summer, presumably when the lake's not frozen."
"We're apparently in a recession," Sam said, shrugging. He could almost feel the pointer and middle fingers on his right hand. "Maybe it's hitting the supernatural world, too."
His brother gave him an exasperated look Sam might've smirked at had it had any real emotion behind it. Knowing he wasn't the only one faking his way through things only made him more depressed and cold.
"Dude, you are strange sometimes." Dean blew on his fingers again, though it clearly wasn't helping. He squinted toward the car. "If this thing is as big as the wackos say it is and is roaming around, we're probably gonna need more than handguns and blades."
"I'll get the Yellowboy and, what, a sawed-off?" Sam waited for a nod and Dean to toss the keys before he took off in long strides. Twenty feet away, he had a cold feeling in his gut notapremonition. He turned and shouted, "Keep your eyes peeled. The Alkali could be anywhere."
"Thanks for the reminder, Poindexter," Dean shouted back. "I think I can handle it for the two minutes."
Dean's face was obscured by clouds of his own exhalations, but Sam could sense the glare without seeing it. He heard the crunch of footsteps on snow and it took him a couple seconds to realize Dean hadn't moved. They were critical seconds. Before Sam could think, move or shout, a massive gray shape plowed into Dean as his brother was turning toward the sound, weapon out. Then Sam's world was chaos. Pained yells, roaring, splashing and he was running, running into the fray before the thing dragged off his only living everything. All he had left in this craphole of a world was being eaten by a gigantic alligator monster.
The thing did look like an alligator. It moved that way as well, hauling a fighting Dean toward the icy water with little effort. Sam watched in horror as it tried to death roll Dean, certain that any second he was going to see his brother's limbs flying from his body. By the time he reached the lakeshore (how the hell had he gotten so far away?), Dean was half-submerged, stabbing at the Alkali with his Bowie, and cursing a blue streak.
"Dean," Sam said, lifting his Taurus. "Down."
The monster seemed to anticipate Sam's intention, stopping mid-roll and abandoning its attack on Dean. Sam thanked his lucky stars for small brains as the creature opened itself up for a clear headshot. He took it without hesitation. The Alkali staggered back, but didn't go down. Sam emptied his gun, starting to panic just a little when the thing kept coming at him.
Dean scrambled out of the water on his hands and knees, blood caking half his face. His aiming hand was somehow steady as he stood and took wobbling steps. He unloaded into the huge creature.
"Die, you bastard," Dean growled.
Just in case, Sam withdrew his knife. Adrenaline pumped through him, fueling and heating him where a minute ago he was cold to the bone. The Alkali collapsed inches from him, losing all tone and forward movement. He glanced up at Dean, whose eyes were still skittering slightly from the roll.
"This is you handling it for two minutes?" Sam asked.
"Shut up. At least now we get a bonfire to torch this sucker." Dean wiped a hand across his bloody cheek with a grimace and a shiver. "It's fucking freezing out here, Sam."
Sam could do without the stench of burning mutated-alligator flesh, but the blaze itself was welcome. Thankfully Dean hadn't been completely drenched, and the fire staved off any remaining concern he had about hypothermia. It did nothing to stave off Dean's bitching, of course, but Sam wouldn't have it any other way. Moments like these were almost pure Dean, with only trace amounts of regretful haunting his eyes.
"I think we've done all we can here," Dean said tiredly.
The Alkali was mostly ash now, the fire so hot the bones wouldn't be found by some local or crackpot reporter. The old Sam would have been curious now in the quiet of post-kill why the monster had deviated from pattern, the very way Dean had earlier. But now he just wanted to get out of Nebraska and back to bigger things. War between heaven and hell type things, because he was determined to be on heaven's side, even if that meant death.
"Yeah, it looks good," Sam said, scuffling snow onto the smoldering pile of ash. "I'm starting to get cold again."
"Tell me about it."
Dean was still damp, and it had to be getting uncomfortable. Sam frowned as his brother reached for his flask again, but remained quiet. He shook his head when Dean extended an arm to offer him a drink. Sam picked up the can of lighter fluid instead, following Dean to the car.
"How's your head?" Sam asked.
There was something in Dean's tone that worried Sam more than the maroon flecks of drying blood on his face, something that suggested Dean was disappointed he still had his head. He didn't know what to do with that, like he didn't know what to do with anything about Dean these days. He felt like a miserable failure, unable to do something as simple as assure Dean he was worth it. Worth saving, worth living.
"What're we going to do now?" Sam asked.
They fell into silence that these days was more awkward than comfortable, neither of them able to address their issues. Sam was tired of it, his insides felt hollowed out and no amount of Dean back in his life was filling the hole inside him. It scared him, for himself and for Dean. He wanted his brother back, that cocky, assured guy who knew without a shadow of a doubt he was fighting the good fight. He feared it was an impossible dream now, but he clung to it.
It was only when they made it back to the motel in Gordon that he noticed Dean limping heavily, favoring his right leg. And the dark stain which wasn't water.
"Dean, your leg is bleeding," he said.
"What?" Dean looked down and shrugged. "Oh."
"They're just scratches," Dean said as he opened the motel door, shrugging out of his coat. "I call the shower first."
"Dean, they're bite marks, not…" was all Sam managed to get out before Dean disappeared into the bathroom.
Sam lay down on his bed, staring at the ceiling. From the bathroom, the sound of Dean's off-key singing was replaced by silence. Dean didn't sing anymore. Sam found he missed it tremendously. He was so alone it felt as though he was suffocating. He sat up, sliding off the bed and leaving the room quietly just as the pipes rattled and the shower stopped. He didn't know where he was going. Anywhere.
He ended up at Dick's Re-Bar, the kind of badly-named shitastic bar most towns in the Midwest seemed to have, no matter how small a population. Sam didn't want to drink, but he sat at the bar, ordered a shot of whiskey, didn't drink it and thought. He tried to imagine thirty years of torture and ten years of torturing and couldn't. He tried not to hate a god who could let that happen to his brother and couldn't quite manage.
"You going to drink that or stare at it?"
Sam looked back, finding Dean behind him. He picked up the shot glass and tipped it back, hating and welcoming the burn of liquor sliding down his throat.
"Johnnie Walker," Dean said to the bartender, sitting on the stool adjacent to Sam's.
Dean didn't stare at his before drinking.
"Your leg okay?" Sam asked.
"I've had a lot worse."
Alastair's face flashed in front of Sam, conniving and smug. He tried to picture Dean like that, the quintessential torturer in training, and he couldn't do it. He looked at his brother, whose face was blank but not blank, broken. Always suffering now.
"I know, Dean." Sam toyed with the empty shot glass. "I know you have."
Sam thought about Uriel telling him in that arrogant, judgmental voice to ask Dean what he remembered from Hell, what he'd done there. Sam thought about Dean telling him what he'd done in Hell, in that broken, self-judgmental voice and wishing for the peace of numbness.
Uriel knew crap about humanity, and Dean was plain wrong.
Sam flagged the bartender down. "Three more, for both of us."
"No lectures on drinking tonight, I see," Dean said as the bartender poured.
Sam looked at his drinks, and this time Dean did, too. From the back of the little bar, the clatter of cue balls and series of mocking shouts echoed. To Sam, it sounded like the ghosts of Winchesters past. They couldn't go back now, but it didn't stop him from longing to sometimes.
"It doesn't help, you know, feeling nothing. It doesn't help at all," Sam said suddenly. Everything simmering in him bubbled up and out at last, too long in coming and he knew it. "And I've said this before, but you're not evil, Dean. Evil people don't feel remorse. Evil people don't hurt as much as you do about something they didn't choose, something that happened to them more than happened because of them. Evil people don't feel anything. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
"Sam, you don't..."
"You need to believe, Dean. You need to know the angels chose you because you're good. Your soul is pure." Sam smiled. "And I need you to know you're worth your life."
"I don't know if I'll ever believe that, Sammy."
"You have to," Sam said. "For me, but mostly for you."
Dean picked at a sliver of wood, unable or unwilling to commit. Sam was useless after all. They sat like wretches, silent and lonely.
"This one's for sorrow," Sam said at last. He didn't look at his brother, lifting one of the shot glasses up. He drank, sliding the glass away. He heard the thud of Dean's empty glass hit the bar top. Sam picked up the second glass. "These two are for joy."
He downed the remaining shots in rapid succession, already his cheeks flushed from the alcohol. Sam saw Dean hadn't drunk, but was staring at him with eyes suspiciously watery and filled with emotion that was confusion rather than regret.
"I get the sorrow," Dean said. "But what's the joy?"
"You're alive." Sam smiled sadly. "I'm alive."
Dean's face twisted, just for a second and his expression returned to blankness. He pushed the two remaining shot glasses together, clinking them and hesitating. Then he drained the whiskey down one after the other.
It wasn't much, but it was something.