This takes place before Solitudes… you don't need to have read it or my other stories to read this but I'd love it if you did and reviewed. And I would really like to thank all of you who have reviewed my other stories for taking the time to throw me those morsels of praise and encouragement: they mean more than I can say!

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Bobby has the presence of mind to heave the thing's body into the motel room and out the window into the alley before the desk clerk pounds up the stairs to knock skulls. One fairly animated conversation – punctuated by the old man rooting out his billfold a couple of times – later, and he's herding Sam out the door to help him load the thing into the Charger, while hissing at Dean to pack their stuff, stat. They're leaving.

Siren stowed in the back, Sam's more relieved than he wants to admit when Bobby orders him into the passenger seat of the Dodge. He feels… wired, totally wired, it's like a trip. He keeps replaying the conversation over and over in his head, replaying his brother's sheer hurt as he laid into him, stabbed him when he was down and then twisted the knife said all the things he'd been wanting to say since that knock on the hotel room door in Pontiac it's fucking true… I've been fighting this battle by myself.

Simple fact is his brother's not up to the job any more. He's broken beyond repair. And meantime, all this potential inside Sam is just… rotting before it even has the chance to come to fruition, and he wants to scream, "This! This is the way to be free of it… Just how stupid is it to chip away, here, there, when we could set off the bomb to end all bombs, and you could finally be free of all this? Just let me do this my way – the only way."

And Jesus, how it feels to be judged by one of Hell's finest. "Not as bad as you, Dean," he says softly, as he watches Bobby walking over to the Impala. "How dare you judge me."

Dean is sort of milling about aimlessly and Bobby barks at him to get his sorry ass in the car and follow them. They salt and burn the thing just outside town as the sun rises, not really talking much, "just gittin' her done," as Bobby says. Sam's too tired to talk anyway, and sore as hell. He watches as Bobby busies himself patching up Dean's shoulder and doesn't miss the old man glancing at his wristwatch as Dean takes a brief time-out from the first aid to lean into the trunk, liberate his bottle of Jack from the cooler, and take a couple or four long pulls. Dean doesn't meet his hard stare and doesn't look at Sam either. Just gits her done. Sam wonders if his brother really notices Bobby's meaningful tone as he hands them the soda pop.

Once in the car he knows his brother didn't.

"Soda, huh. Who'd have thunk. Bobby's on the 12-step plan for sure," Dean says, no note of irony or of anything at all in his voice really. Just making conversation, Sam thinks, and most definitely not making the jump from the anvil Bobby just dropped on him from a great height to the fact he crawls into the bottle on a nightly basis. "He hit it pretty hard. After."

Dean's voice trails off then, like he can't think of anything else to say. And it hits Sam that they've never done small talk before. He watches Dean from the corner of his eye, sees the tense set of his jaw, eyes darting anxiously over at Sam every few minutes, fingers of his left hand drumming an endless tattoo on his thigh, fist clenching and unclenching. And something else hits Sam: he makes his brother nervous.

xxx

About ten minutes after the Impala peels onto the highway, Bobby calls Dean's cell to say he's plumb tuckered and he's stumping up thirty for a motel to save himself the drive back to South Dakota ahead of a full stack, a gallon of coffee and a few hours' sleep. And yep, he could use some company.

Sam knows damn well it's because the old man is on to them, but Dean takes the bait, glances over at him, says they've been up all night and they're tired. He seems oblivious to the fact he's been had judging by the way he sets about drinking himself into a stupor once they hit the diner with Bobby. He's careful at first – gotta hit the head… whoah, needs to splash his face before he falls asleep in his pancakes… left his cell in the car… each time coming back just a tad less steady on his legs. Then the sheer ignominy of, "Fuck, Bobby, did that mo-fo just sideswipe the Dodge as he pulled out?", and Sam catching sight of him upending his flask into his coffee as Bobby whips around to look out the window. If Dean saw Sam notice, he ignores it.

He chases his pancakes and sausage around the plate without achieving much and hits the sixth stage of drunkenness in just over an hour. He's at the point where he isn't even trying to hide it, and starts telling whoever will listen all about the devil sitting on his shoulder as he gradually lists over to the side, until Bobby is all that's keeping him – barely – upright.

Bobby takes it in his stride. "He get this hammered often?"

"S'right Bobby. Hammer, that's me. Daddy's little hammer," Dean slurs from the vicinity of Bobby's armpit.

Sam shrugs. "I guess. Well, lately."

The old man raises an eyebrow. "Is he drinkin' on the hunt?"

Sam doesn't have to reply to that one because he's saved by the belly: an upchuck of impressive proportions, with Bobby at ground zero. The old man leaps to his feet: pretty spry for a guy his age, Sam thinks, apropos of nothing, as his brother slides gently to the floor, eyes rolling up into his head. And Sam feels… relief. Because by now he doesn't know how much longer he could have kept looking at his brother not looking at him. Dean hasn't really looked him in the eye since sometime yesterday.

One sizable tip later – "You're payin' me back for this, boy," Bobby snaps – they're hauling his barely conscious and curiously docile brother out to the car and, a brief drive later, into the motel room to sleep it off. Drained, and God forbid that he should think any more about what happened, what he said it wasn't right, what you said, it was cruel, and you're not cruel Sam lies on the on the other bed and is out for the count before his eyes are fully closed.

xxx

Maybe that thing's venom, or whatever the heck it was, is like some sort of sleeping pill, because he only wakes to Bobby's violent shaking and hollering right into his face. Bleary-eyed, he doesn't quite register the noise at first but then it hits: frenzied screaming coming from the other side of the room. Not his brother's bed because Dean isn't there (local bar?) but from somewhere beyond it and low down. And he becomes aware of Bobby having some sort of argument with someone outside the motel room door, hears snatches of conversation: "Medical discharge… PTSD… no, we can handle it… missed his meds… 'preciate your patience…"

And then Bobby is back in his face, more hollering, "Christ, don't just leave him to it!" And then he realizes where the noise is coming from: his brother, cowering in the corner of the room, staring at nothing – no, at something – not there, somewhere, and the awful monotonous, boring, just stop the fucking noise alreadywailing, not even forming words, blank eyes. And no venom. Just – normal. Him having become accustomed to this, to the extent that he can now sleep through it. And Bobby, unprepared, unknowing, standing there appalled and expecting him, Sam, to know what to do because this is his brother, who went to Hell for him. And surely he must know what to do?

All this runs through his mind in seconds because Bobby has taken matters into his own hands – literally. He has Dean's face gripped between his great paws, strangely gentle he always was your favorite, and is talking steadily to him. But Dean doesn't hear, can't hear, and is starting to wheeze great sobbing, heaving lungfuls of air in between the screaming until Bobby can't take it any more, cradles the back of his head tenderly with one hand and socks him right in the kisser with the other.

Silenced, his brother collapses back against the wall, blood trickling from his lip. Bobby leaps to his feet, reels back a few steps, panting, pulls off his cap, drops it, runs a hand through his hair. Sam can see that his hands are shaking. Sam's hands are steady as a rock, his breathing even.

"What the fuck was that?" the old man chokes – something Sam doesn't in all honesty think he's ever heard Bobby do. And then he rounds on Sam. "And where the fuck were you?"

"He just had a bad dream is all," Sam says. As fucking usual.

"Bad fuckin' dream? That's the understatement of the century!" Bobby doesn't seem able to hold himself up all of a sudden and sinks down onto the bed. They both sit there, the silence now punctuated only by Dean's rapid, snuffling breathing and the odd whimper.

And Bobby suddenly gets it. "Jesus. He remembers it, don't he?"

Sam sort of quirks his head, yes.

"For how long?" Bobby says, aghast.

"Not really sure. He was having the odd bad dream pretty much straightaway. Nothing like this, though. I think it was the ghost sickness kicked all this off."

"Is this happenin' every night? And the drinkin'?" The old man is genuinely upset, Sam thinks, he's wringing his hands.

"Pretty much," Sam muses. "Yup."

"But how is it that he's even functioning?"

"Oh… you get used to it." No choice: it happens every fucking night.

Wrong thing to say. Bobby's expression is the whole nine yards of disgust. "You're sayin' you're used to that? So maybe that's why you just sat there and let him get on with it? Was that some sort of controlled cryin' thing you had going on there, boy?"

For a second Sam doesn't really know how to reply to that, but he gives it his best shot. "Bobby, you saw what he was like. It happens and it's like I'm not even there. I can't help him when he's like that, no one can. It's best to let him get it out of his system. He passes out and the next morning he's in bed again. And he's fine." And I'm getting no sleep, old man.

He didn't think Bobby could look any more horrified but he raises his game. "Let him get it out of his system? You mean to say you just roll over and leave him to deal with that himself?"

He gets up, starts pacing, rubbing his head, sits down again, speaks steady and serious, his Pay. Total. Attention. Right. Nowvoice. "Sam, for God's sake. How do you know he wouldn't be aware of you bein' there on some level? How do you know that gettin' down there with him and bein' humane, treatin' your own goddamn brother, who gave up everything he had for you, like a human being, wouldn't comfort him through this in some way? How do you know he ain't aware of you not bein' there, Sam? When he needs you most? Would he leave you to that? Would he turn his back on you? Well would he?"

But before Sam has the chance to say anything, his brother gives him an out for the second time that night, moving faster than any drunk who just had the Jacob's Ladder of all nightmares has the right to as he crashes out the door.

"He's rabbiting!" Bobby yells, and sets off in hot pursuit. And, grudgingly, Sam follows although he knows it's for nothing when he hears the heavy rumble of the Impala as it exits the parking lot. Bobby is leaning over, winded, when he catches up to him. "Get in the car," he wheezes, between pants.

By the time Bobby races back to the Charger with his keys the Impala is nowhere in sight, and as they tear up the highway Sam knows it's a lost cause. "He never did this before," he snaps at Bobby, prissily. "Maybe I know what I'm talking about."

At which the Charger screams to a dead stop. Bobby is silent for a moment before sighing wearily. "You break my heart, boy," he says. "I've tried, God knows I've tried. For your brother. But somethin' is all wrong about you. Somethin' is broke inside you, Sam. I don't believe what I just saw… I don't want to believe what it says about you, that you'd not bethere, not want to be there, sittin' next to him, holdin' his hand or… somethin'. Anythin'. And you justify it. You really do think it's alright to pretend he ain't there." Bobby pauses before looking right at him. "It's… inhuman. That's what it is."

They don't speak as Bobby drives them back to the motel.

xxx

"Why are you still breathing, Sam Winchester?"

Sam sits bolt upright for the second time that night. "Castiel?" he says, into the darkness of the motel room. He can just see the holy tax accountant sitting on Dean's bed. Is he glowing? Is this a dream?

"I pray for your salvation," the angel says coldly. "And yet I fear I waste my time."

And suddenly he looms up, now taller than Dean, even taller than Sam, filling up the whole room and filling up Sam's head, eyes like ice chips boring into his skull, filling up Sam completely, full to bursting. "Greater love hath no man, Sam Winchester, than that he lay down his life for his brother."

And the angel's voice is resounding inside his head, ricocheting around his brain. And he falls… and suddenly his world is burning heat and flashing red, all he can feel is desperation, all he can smell is sulfur, all he can hear is the screams of utter torment and suffering. And one scream rising higher than any of the others, soaring in its agony and abject terror: Help me… God somebody help me. Sam! Sam!

xxx

Sam sits bolt upright for the third time that night? to weak sunlight filtering in through the cheap curtains and urgent knocking at the door. He's disoriented. What the fuck just happened? Bad dream?

The door opens and Bobby's expression speaks volumes. Careless, Sam. Not even a salt line – or is that not necessary any more? "Your brother's passed out over there in his car," he says, motioning with his head outside the motel room. "You ready to try again?"

He heaves himself off the bed and they make their way over to the furthest corner of the motel parking lot, where Dean has obviously gone to a deal of effort to ensure he slept safely for the rest of the night. A clumsy salt line meanders around the Impala and the windows are scrawled with sigils is that lipstick? They squint in through the symbols and Sam fully expects to see his brother cuddling up close and personal to the Jack. But he isn't.

"What is that he's wrapped himself round?" Bobby murmurs.

"It's the bag of rock salt," Sam says quietly. Who is he trying to protect himself from?

"Should we – I don't know – try wakin' him?" says Bobby, sounding unsure for the first time since he buried his knife in Dean's shoulder.

They don't have to, because some sixth sense has his brother stirring, rubbing his eyes, and though he startles when he sees them peering in he seems – normal. Okay, even, as he opens the door. But he doesn't speak, just climbs out and walks past them, across the parking lot and into the motel room. He's sitting on the bed when they follow him inside.

And Sam suddenly knows, knows what he's said, knows what he's done, knows how hard it hit, how much it hurt. Because it was real, what Castiel showed him, not a dream, and for a split second he was there, a split second that wasn't forty years of torture. And now do you get it? Why you're still breathing? He was calling for you. Does he still think you'd come?

He falls to his knees in front of his brother, picks up his freezing-shaking hands between his own. "We have to talk about this," he says.

And then Dean laughs.

And then Dean weeps.

xxx

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