A/N: This story follows on from Please Exit Hell Quietly By the Rear Doors.
And Deposit Your Trash in the Receptacles Provided
by Innocent Culprit (aka JoJo)
Over there, past that line of trees, that was where things would get better.
Past the trees and whatever lived in them, past the wall of inescapable truths and untreatable wounds -- and, man, is that bastard solid -- over there, past that place, that was where things would get better.
Sam sucked out the tomato poking from the soggy, pink crust of his sub, kept his eyes on the trees. He had an idea they were larches but he couldn't be sure. At anyrate, for the past half hour he'd been watching for them to reappear as the Impala wound its way along what had to be the twistiest, pukiest stretch of asphalt ever bludgeoned into the side of a mountain. He'd dreamily placed some significance on the pretty, spiky things, made them a random metaphor that suited the drive and his mood, but every time they'd come into view they seemed neither closer nor farther away, and that was disturbing.
Because, obviously, it was impossible to leave behind something that you couldn't even get close to in the first place.
Half of Dean's sandwich sat in its wrapper on the seat between them, shifting slightly whenever the car made a turn. Sam could see the movement out of the corner of his eye. He had said nothing about it so far, not a thing, because he figured the half-a-sandwich diet was a whole lot better than the no-sandwich diet Dean had been following yesterday, a yawning ten-hour fast bookended by a protein-lite breakfast and a sorry excuse for a pizza.
Appetite had been a bit of an issue since Bedford, however many days ago it was now. After watching Bobby leave and mutually agreeing they were good, Dean had hammered the car in no particular direction, just trying to get away, and when Sam got behind the wheel he did the exact same thing. Eating hadn't come into it, and neither had sleeping. Eventually, everything protested - the Impala's tires, Sam's butt, Dean's dry eyes. They'd slowed to a meander through Nebraska and finally turned hard right at Bridgeport one evening after Sam finished a long phone call out in a motel parking lot.
"We're going north," he'd announced when he got back through the door and found Dean pretending to be engrossed in some shopping channel featuring eternity rings.
Dean seemed to consider arguing for a bit. Then he had some whiskey and said nothing. Saying nothing was his favorite position in most debates right now and it actually made things a lot easier, especially since the last thing Ruby had said was "how are you going to handle your brother, Sam?"
No handling required this time. Sam breathed a little easier, but only a little.
They left the motel at the tail end of a twelve-hour silence, hit I-90 at Rapid City and tracked it through Montana.
Since this morning they'd been ascending into what looked like it should be a national park but didn't seem to be, and had left the rest of the world behind. All the trees and mountainscapes, the rivers and vistas in the clean, cold air, made Sam believe he was thinking clearly.
"Look, this job," Sam said, picking up the half-sandwich and then putting it back, "it could really ... I mean, it could really be hardcore, Dean."
There was no discernible response and Sam had to sit really hard on his desire to explode. Not that it was even a sulky silence. It was more like the silence of total defeat, and Sam hated it.
"Yeah, so from where I'm sitting you're going to go down as soon as you get out the door."
Dean shook his head then, like some buzzing insect had bothered him. His voice, when it came, was low and scratchy, like he didn't want to use it or hear it.
"You want to drive?"
"No, I .... no, I don't want to drive. I want you to talk to me."
"We're done talking."
"Oh what ... like forever?"
"Are we working or not?"
Dean shifted his weight, flexed his fingers and then settled them once more around the wheel. "North Silverbridge," he said. "You remember. Looks like demons. You told me all about it."
"Yeah, and what do we do when we get there? I mean, if we're done talking, and you can barely stand up and you're fucking losing it? That's ... uh, just me versus the demons then, right?"
"Tell you what, why don't you discuss it with them?"
Sam opened his mouth and some words nearly came out.
Go to hell, Dean.
So nearly. The phrase backed itself up just in time.
He blinked. Saw the trees again through a hot, bright sheen. They were no nearer. He cleared his throat, patted the crackly sandwich wrapper.
"You're not going to finish this?"
Obediently, Dean looked down at the seat, gave the half-sandwich some distracted thought, and then leveled his gaze back on the road. "Help yourself."
"I don't want it."
"'kay, problem solved."
Sam let his head fall against the seat-back, shuffled the pages and map on his lap. His stomach felt the lurch of the car as it swung around a bend, and he realized there was another reason why concentrating on the pretty trees had been good.
It was warm inside the car. Outside there was sharp sunshine bathing the mountains. All was airy and spring-like and fresh and they were driving a back road that was in such bad shape after the winter that nobody else in the world seemed stupid enough to be driving it too. They hadn't seen another soul since breakfast.
The Impala hit a pothole.
Sam felt his stomach creeping upwards towards his mouth. "Um," he said.
"You're not," Dean said. "Don't." Then he suddenly craned his neck forwards as if listening for something, some particular sound within the general noisy growlings of his baby not enjoying the drive. "No," he said, a sudden realization dawning. "That's ... no."
"Really I'm good ... you don't need to."
"I'm stopping," Dean said, but the Impala began to roll to a peculiar halt by itself. Sam was pretty sure it wasn't Dean applying the brakes, because he was half lifting his hands off the wheel, body leaning forward, head still cocked as he listened. There was a crunching sound like the gear-box had just eaten itself, and then a melancholy tick-tick-tick as they slowed to a stop at the side of the road, tipping down a slight incline and swishing to a standstill on dry, rutted mud and stones. The engine sighed into silence.
Dean sat where he was for just a split second, hands still raised in some kind of silent entreaty, and then he was out of his door.
"Crap and crap and ..... crap!" he shouted.
It was the loudest Sam had heard his voice for some time, and it shocked him. The hood flew up, rocking the car slightly.
Sam stayed sitting until the nauseous feeling passed, and then he swung open the door and put one foot down on the rocky ground. "What is it?" he asked.
Dean came along the side of the car, face set. Sam heard the trunk creak open, the sound of rummaging. Then Dean came past carrying a couple of tools which he dropped on the ground by the front wheel hub.
"What?" Sam demanded again, "What is it?"
When he got no reply he was forced to get out of the car and go up front. Dean had his head right under the hood, was poking around in the recesses of the engine with a wrench in one hand. He reached his other arm in, thrust the hand into the black. He usually worked with smooth and loving precision when anywhere near the hallowed interior of the Impala's heart and guts. Now he was being all crazy.
Sam heard what he thought was the hiss of hot metal on flesh and jumped.
Dean whipped his hand out again with a growl, cracked his head on the hood and then struck something so hard with the wrench that Sam's ears rang. "Fucking engine!"
"Take it easy," Sam said, thrown for a loop by this further incontrovertible proof that his brother was losing his grip. Dean was never rough around his beloved's inner core. He never shouted at her and he would have thumped anyone else who might try it.
"What do you think's wrong?"
"Fanbelt ...." Dean muttered, gesticulating wildly before thrusting the hand in again to the exact same place as before. "And there's something else, not sure what .... maybe it's just overheating, I don't have the tools for ... shit!"
"Be careful!" Sam yelped. "For God's sake, Dean!"
Dean turned, stared at him with wide eyes. "What?"
"Just be careful," Sam said quietly. "Look at you, you idiot, you ... " He grabbed hold of Dean's sleeve, pulled his hand towards him. "Ah, Jesus, Dean ... you know better than ...."
Dean let the wrench drop, with a clatter, right into the engine. He was still staring at Sam. Then he looked down at the two white slashes criss-crossed into his oily palm.
"No it's fine," he said vaguely. "It doesn't hurt."
"Yeah, so that's not good."
The muscles in Dean's hand and arm clenched hard. Sam looked up, thinking maybe the nerve-endings weren't as stunned as the whitened flesh suggested, and felt his heart dive for his boots. A couple of fat tears sprang into his brother's eyes. One brimmed right over, crawled down his face, and the other plopped straight on to his sleeve, an inch from where Sam had hold of him. Dean inhaled quietly.
Sam was prepared for cursing, bravado, denial in spades, but he wasn't prepared for tears, for the tangible frisson of horror that had caused them.
You're remembering something. No, no, no. Don't think about it. Nonononononono.
Sam wanted to give up. All the clean, clear thoughts in his head were suddenly useless. He had a whole flash-vision of himself as a four year-old, sobbing his heart out over something that was wrong with Dean which he couldn't fix with a bright smile and a chubby hand stroking his arm. He couldn't remember what it had been, just that he'd hated being helpless and it had made him angry. Angry enough that the whole incident had ended in him being in trouble with John and Dean still not fixed.
"OK," he said, a little bit angry now too because this just so hadn't needed to happen. "You're a freakin' jerk, Dean."
One of Dad's most basic tenets, practically shaken into them, was that they shouldn't waste each other's time by requiring first aid for self-inflicted injury. Even as little kids they'd gotten short shrift if they cracked their heads together during a tussle.
"So just don't do the not-breathing thing, all right? You're not going to do that are you?"
"Don't think so," Dean said in a voice that sounded suspiciously starved of oxygen. A flat, uncharacteristically patient voice, and not Dean. Sam had been listening to Dean not being Dean for some time now and it irritated and panicked him in equal measure. His nostrils flared at the tone and at the way his brother practically stuttered out the words. A stutter meant Dean might be about to go awol on him. Like, awol in Crazyland. He kept his fingers clamped on the cuff of Dean's shirt until he'd slid the other hand under his elbow.
"You need to come and sit." It was a firm direction, brooking no dissent. As he said the words he tugged Dean away from the hood and along the side of the car.
"The engine's screwed," Dean muttered as Sam pushed him into the passenger seat. He lifted the injured hand as if to scrub it down his face and Sam grabbed for it again.
"Would you quit that? Damnit, Dean, this looks like a freakin third-degree burn you've got here. It needs ... just keep still."
"No, now come on. Don't touch it." He batted away the hand that was hovering, fingers clawed to scratch. "What are you doing, what's wrong with you?"
Dean's eyes roved from one hand to the other, like he was drunk. Sam knew he wasn't, hadn't been for a few days at least.
"I'm going to cover it, so just do me a favor and leave it alone. I know I can do a lot of awesome things but skin grafts isn't one of them."
Sam returned to the trunk, marched back with bandage, gauze and ointment in hand. That slap-in-the-face expression of remembrance had gone away but Dean looked pretty lousy. Lousy and offline.
When Sam placed the dressing over his palm, Dean's lashes fluttered slightly and for some reason that seemed all wrong.
"OK there?" Sam asked. "This'll cool it some, keep it clean. Yeah? OK?" When he got no reply he squeezed the ends of Dean's fingers, first gently and then harder.
"Come on ... hey, are you zoning out? Would you please not zone out? What do you think's wrong with the car, Dean? Tell me again. Tell me what we've got to do."
"Call a mechanic," Dean said after a few blinks, like he'd chosen the answer at random from a list that was too long and largely unsatisfactory. His lashes were wet, clumped into sharp fronds that caught the light. Flapping his other hand, he muttered, "Bottle of Jack ... in the trunk."
"Do not give the person alcohol ... come on, man, get it together."
Dean eyed him resentfully. "I'm in shock," he said. "I burned my freakin' hand, bitch. Give me the Jack."
"We should swing by a doctor, and soon. It could get infected. It's going to hurt like fuck and we've got nothing."
"We got Jack."
"OK, enough with the refrain already."
"So I can feel something now. Yeah. Feels like I burned it."
"Tsk," said Sam, and then. "So you have a number to call if you break down, right?"
"I don't need a number to call. She doesn't break down."
"Oh really. That might have been true once."
"Meaning you don't really look after her anymore."
"Oh and you would know that because ..?"
"Because you don't, Dean. You don't spend the time."
"She's never recovered from four months on your watch is all. She'll be fine. It's just ..." Dean snapped the fingers of his good hand. "You're going to have to whip off your pantyhose for me, Sammy. Doesn't matter what color they are. You know, tan works just as well as black."
"Screw you, Dean. Seriously. Is this fixable?"
"Not out here, not without pantyhose."
"Great," said Sam. His heart was beating a little fast, and not because they'd just broken down at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, but with the unexpected pleasure of having a pointless argument that wasn't about him.
He watched Dean fussing for his cell and then holding it up and grimacing.
Sam's didn't have bars either. Not a one.
"When did we last see a sign for .... anything?" he wondered out loud. "I mean, like any evidence at all that the apocalypse hasn't already been and gone?"
Dean planted his boots against the ground, centered himself firmly but didn't try to get up.
Sam rose, staring back along the road. He shook his head. "No point walking back the way we came, dude," he said. "We have to keep going. We gotta hit something within a mile or two. Find a phone, get you some help. You going to be all right to walk?"
"Does this look like my foot to you?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
"You can take it any freakin' way you want. Just let me have the Jack. Look, I know what you think of me and I don't care, OK? I may be the weak brother, but I'm still the big brother so just ... give it to me."
"Get it yourself, asshole," Sam said.
And that was it. They were back to being two wasps stuck under a glass, nothing to sting but each other.
Dean hauled himself on to his feet and went to get the whiskey. Under Sam's silent gaze he unscrewed the lid, looked at the full bottle dispassionately for a second, and then took several slugs, apparently counting to about three between each one. Then he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his injured hand, winced, jammed the bottle between his elbow and ribs to get the lid back on, and then slung it back in the trunk, slamming it shut before coming round the front. Sam had moved a few steps away, looking down the road in the direction they were going to walk. He heard the hood bang shut behind, the key turning in the door locks. Then Dean arrived at his side.
It was a moment that had happened many times. They would set off from point A on the way to point B and they would be side by side. They would take the first step in sync sometimes, turn in the same direction, move off at the same speed. It didn't feel like any of those times to Sam. He caught the whiff of liquor on Dean's breath.
"So you're all good now?" he asked.
"No," Dean replied, "I'm about half a bottle from being all good and if I didn't think you'd bust my balls in a really irritating whiny voice for the next hour and a half I'd bring the freakin' thing with me." His shoulders rose and fell like he was trying to shrug away some physical or mental burden.
Sam put his hands on his hips. "We could stay here," he said. "Wait for someone to come along. Or you could stay here and I'll walk."
"Why do you think I can't walk?"
"I don't know. I don't. I don't think you can't walk, I just ... forget it."
Impossible to explain his all-consuming certainty that he might crack open from head to toe where he stood if he had to deal with any more injury or violence perpetrated against his brother ever again. From wherever or by whomever. Ever.
"Quit looking at me funny," Dean said.
They set off down the road not quite in step, at a pace set by Dean. After a few minutes Sam tried to slow it a little and bring Dean into his rhythm but that was a useless exercise.
"How's the hand?"
"Told you. Hurts."
"What all over?"
"Where exactly does it hurt?"
Sam arrested Dean's progress with a tug of his jacket. "OK, so work with me here, Dean. If it hurts then maybe it's not so bad, I mean if it hurts where you burned it."
"Of course it fucking hurts where I burned it."
"Dude, come on, please."
"Okay, it doesn't."
"It doesn't hurt where I burned it. It hurts where I didn't burn it, which amounts to the same freaking thing far as I can tell."
"You know, it probably needs a splint."
"Probably does," Dean agreed, holding the hand away from him like it was contaminated. He came half a step nearer, like they were about to actually look at each other and have a real conversation. Sam was acutely aware of the lines and shadows on his brother's face which just ought not to be there, that his eyes were full of something Sam couldn't bear to see. Now that they were face-to- face in this unyielding mountain light he supposed some strange and terrible thing shone out of his own eyes and that was why Dean didn't look straight at him anymore either.
Dean frowned, flicked his gaze up and started talking rapidly, quietly, almost as if he had no control over where the words were coming from.
"Uh, got this kind of burning flesh thing going here, Sammy, and I'm not real good with the whole burning flesh experience to tell you the truth and it's just that once it starts it won't go away and if I think about it apart from making me want a drink really fucking badly it kind of freaks me out and I'm not sure I know what'll happen but I'm figuring there's going to be damage like a scar or maybe I won't be able to use it and we really need to make sure it doesn't get infected because that would be bad so with that in mind I will tell you if I feel crappy and now can we get on and find somewhere where I can get some pantyhose before it gets dark can we please?"
Sam stared at him.
"You should be lying down under a blanket and I should be calling 911," he said.
"Okey-dokey," Dean said, eyes falling, and he turned away, began walking again.