Sam watched Dean as they trudged through the snow. Head down, not really watching where he was going, Dean just looked so defeated. It was a posture he'd had for weeks. Ever since Jo and Ellen, Dean had been…different. He'd tried to hide it, and Sam had let him, for awhile. But, since losing those two, Dean had been going under. Yeah, he still snarked and teased, but Sam knew it was more for form than from anything else. Dean was in real trouble, and Sam couldn't come up with a way to make it better.
So far, whenever he'd tried, Dean had quickly shot him down. "Dean, come on, talk to me…" Dean told him to back the hell off. "Hey, man, let's go to Bobby's, take a breather…" Dean had told him to shut up. Sam had found hunts to distract him. Dean would do the job, but never lose the 'I'm so done…' expression that was putting a clutch in Sam's chest.
Last week, he'd surprised Dean by rolling into Atlantic City. Sam had given over the $2,000 stash he'd been saving and told Dean to go have fun. Dean had just looked at him, no smile of anticipation, nothing. "What are you gonna do?"
Sam had shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe go catch a movie or something. Really, Dean. Go have fun. See if you can win some money."
Dean had shrugged. Said he was tired. Sam had literally pulled him by the arm to see 'The Hangover' at a Beer 'n Cinema place on the board walk. Dean had laughed, 'Dude, Mike Tyson and the tiger was pretty freakin' funny…' But, when they'd gotten back to the motel, he'd just taken a shower and gone to bed. The next day, he was up and packed, giving Sam a coffee telling him to get a move on.
Sam got it, he really did. A lot had happened over the last little while, especially to Dean. It took its toll. And, because they were facing a serious shit storm, and who had time to wallow, they'd just kept with the 'burying all the trauma' thing that had always worked in the past. Now, however, it wasn't really doing the trick. Not only did the apocalypse hover over everything they did, but Dean's ability to bounce back, to kick ass and take names despite everything they faced, had broken down completely.
Sam had tried all the usual things that would get Dean out of a funk. He'd stopped at bars and pool halls, been anal and prissy about the room and the car and the music, hoping to either distract Dean with activities or supply some stress relief by picking a fight. And, nothing. He'd found hunts that would give Dean the chance to help some people, opportunities to kick some evil ass, and Dean finished each job with the same lack of expression, the same slump to his shoulders that he'd had for months.
What he'd started to understand lately was that, for Dean, the apocalypse was different from all the stuff that had come before. For Sam, even though he felt depressed and guilty and responsible, he really believed that there would be some solution. Sam thought if he and Dean stuck together and stayed true to what they'd always been taught, somehow they would find a way to stop the coming battle. It was Dean who taught him that. If Sam didn't believe that, he wouldn't be able to get up in the morning.
That was why it came as a shock when Sam realized that Dean didn't believe that. And, not only did Dean think they couldn't fix it, but Dean felt responsible for it. Which, you know, considering what Sam had done to bring it on, was kind of ridiculous. If anyone should feel responsible, it was Sam. But, somehow, Dean felt the weight of this coming failure down to his bones, and Sam didn't know what to do about that.
The thing with Dean was, his surface was so loud and blinding, it took some real effort to get beneath it. You had to really be looking to see Dean's selflessness, to understand that, at his core, he was about saving people, keeping them from harm. Stopping evil. Sam saw now that the reason Dean had so fiercely protected him all his life wasn't because Dad had told him to, but because that's what Dean wanted to do.
In retrospect, Sam thought, things had really started going south when Castiel had confirmed that Dean had broken the first seal in hell. Sam had known he'd taken it hard. But, he hadn't quite gotten the scope of it. All his life, his brother had laid himself on the line over and over to protect other people. Now, in Dean's mind, he was not only responsible for keeping 6 and a half billion people safe, but for putting them in harm's way to begin with. Sam had tried to tell him that the only reason the seal opened was because Dean was a 'righteous man' who hadn't belonged in hell to begin with. Alistair and the demon higher ups had unleashed all their formidable powers to get him to break, and he had still lasted 30 goddamn years. That hadn't mattered to Dean, though. As far as he was concerned, if there hadn't been Dean Winchester, the apocalypse would never have begun. Dean was harder on himself, for breaking in hell, than he was on Sam, who'd gorged on demon blood, denounced everything Dean and Dad had taught him, then trotted off to drain a possessed woman to kill Lilith and break the final seal.
Losing track of what was going on in Dean's head, well, that was just one more thing Sam could put on his plate of steaming regrets. But, he'd been so full of fury and fear, so crushed that he was responsible for Dean going to hell, he had turned in on himself. Being Dean's brother had sort of fallen by the wayside. Then, time had just gotten away from them. The angels had been popping up every 10 seconds, demons had been riding their asses, Lilith had been out there breaking seals. Finally, Ruby had convinced him to go with the power of the demon blood, and Sam had been lost. His connection with Dean had been lost.
He was determined to find it again. Reading Dean, when he was in full-on 'deflect' mode, was hard. But, Sam was getting better at it. And the more Sam paid attention, the more he saw. Dean was getting quieter and quieter, drinking less and sleeping more. He wasn't playing his cassette tapes much, wasn't eating much. Sam had started to get that Dean literally felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But, really, how could Sam help with that? That was who Dean was. If Sam tried to tell him the fate of the world was on God's shoulders, or that the angels and demons had set them up to break the seals, or any one of 10 logical reasons why this whole mess wasn't Dean's fault, Sam knew he wouldn't listen. And, when did they have the time for that little therapy session anyway?
The last couple of weeks were a perfect example. They'd finished dealing with a horseman, for God's sake, and instead of savoring that victory, it was off to Bobby's for detox. And hadn't that been a joy ride? And, now, with Sam barely at full strength, here they were, walking along some railroad tracks in Batavia, Illinois, because Castiel had 'felt' angels in the area. Cas wanted to find them, maybe figure out what their end game was. Sam and Dean had canvassed the whole area, and, after two days of investigating, they hadn't seen anything unusual. And that was par for the course, too. Winchesters – 0, demons/angels – 762.
Sam got that this wasn't a time for dance parties and drunken revelry. There was something off about enjoying anything when people around you were suffering, when people you loved were dying. Especially, if you felt responsible for it. So, yeah, Sam got it. But, Jesus, if this was going to be their life, and all indications were that the Winchesters – for the foreseeable future - were going to feel responsible for a lot of suffering, then something had to give. They had to be allowed to occasionally feel something besides guilt and sadness.
He just had to figure out a way to make that happen.
They came up behind a high school. It was late afternoon and the whole place was deserted. Its football field and baseball diamond were covered in snow, not even a footprint in sight. They both stopped walking, and just looked out over the vast space. It was overcast. The sky felt heavy, like maybe it was going to start snowing again. He sighed and glanced over at Dean. "I think this is pretty much a bust."
Dean's shoulders dropped a bit further. "Yeah. What else is new, huh?"
Sam felt that clutch in his chest give a thump. There was something so wrong about a guy like Dean, so full of life and energy and will, sounding dull and listless. Sam silently cursed fate and himself and the universe for putting that tone in his brother's voice. He flexed his fingers inside his gloves, reaching for inspiration on what to do. He looked down at the snow. Glanced over at Dean. Considered. Well, why the hell not? How mad can he really get? At least, mad is better than sad and empty.
Sam reached down, grabbed up a double handful of snow, started packing it into a ball. Dean was still looking around. "You want to keep looking or should we just call Cas---" He stopped when he glanced at Sam and saw him forming a snow ball. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
Sam tried to look innocent. "What?"
Dean shook his head. "Get your head out of your ass, Sammy. These angels could be up to anything. We just can't---"
Sam flung his snow ball, not too hard, just barely enough force to get it there, right into Dean's shoulder.
Dean sighed, looked at him with genuine anger in his eyes. "Sam, knock it off."
Sam was suddenly so sick of that look on Dean's face. So tired of the anger and guilt and defeat that they'd lived with for the last couple of years, that he just said 'screw it.' He leaned down, scooped up another double handful and started packing it. "You knock it off, Dean. You never could throw a decent snow ball. You don't spend enough time making sure it's firm. Just scoop and fling. No wonder---"
Dean bent down, scooped up a large handful of snow and flung it at Sam's head. "There, happy?"
Sam wiped snow out of his eyes. Actually welcomed the bracing feel of ice on his face. "Happy? Hm…not yet." He whipped the snow ball from his hand, got Dean on the side of the head and took off running. "Getting there, though!"
He didn't look back. Actually, he kind of said a prayer along the lines of, 'please, let him just let go for a minute…" When he felt the show ball hit his back, he couldn't help the whoop of laughter that came out of his mouth. He scooped as he ran, packed a snow ball and turned to whip it Dean, hardly breaking stride. Dean was running, now, not fast, but not just standing there either. Sam looked for cover. The bleachers were too exposed. There was a low, cinderblock fence on either side of the baseball diamond where each team sat. Sam ran for the one on the right side. He packed another snow ball and turned to look for Dean. Saw him packing a ball of his own and running for the wall on the left side. Sam only had about 50 yards to the wall. He packed and threw as fast as he could, hitting Dean with each ball. Dean did an impressive job of accuracy himself. Got Sam right in the back of the head, the whole icy ball shattering and running down Sam's neck in a slushy ooze. Then, he heard something that actually brought tears to his eyes.
They pelted each other until they reached cover. As Sam slid behind the wall, he heard what sounded like a group of laughing kids running across the field. Maybe 12 to 15 of them were heading their way. Sam's heart sank. He knew Dean was going to want to leave. Getting into a snow ball fight with Sam was one thing, but having a bunch of strangers participate would not be Dean's thing. Sam decided he wasn't going to give Dean that choice.
Dean had heard the voices by now and Sam saw him stand up, out from the cover of the wall. "Sam. Come on, you've had your fun. Now, let's go before this gets out of hand---"
Sam threw three perfect balls at him. Two landed in his hair and one on his shoulder. Sam stood up, called toward the kids. "Half on this side with me. The loser half go with him!"
Sam kept his head above the lip of the wall, to watch Dean's face. Because if Dean really wanted to go, Sam would go. Dean watched the kids running toward them, then glanced over at Sam. Sam gave him a 'don't be a chicken' grin, and Dean's answering smile was a beautiful thing. He crouched back down behind the wall and yelled over, "You are going down, Sam!"
Sam laughed, the clutch loosened. "Keep dreaming, Dean!"
Two teenagers came skidding to a halt behind the wall with Sam. Two more ran up into the stands, started gathering the snow that covered the spectator benches. They were all wearing hats and scarves and gloves, and Sam wouldn't remember their names later, but for the next half hour, they bonded over strategy and tactics. 'Three of us will create a distraction, Chris, you take the others and go around behind the backstop and raid their ammunition…' Sam was their undisputed leader, and he mostly made snow balls as fast as he could and told the kids where to go. He stayed behind the wall and aimed at anything that moved behind the opposing wall. The kids on his team ran around and whooped and trash-talked non-stop. He heard the rumbling of Dean's deep voice giving orders to his team. And there, the occasional burst of his brother's laughter.
He felt sort of unbearably grateful to hear that sound again. And, there in the cold and wet of a snow ball fight, Sam's new strategy was born. He would make sure he and Dean made time for fun, apocalypse or not. Sam made a mental list as the battle went on. Pillow fights, practical jokes and pranks, food fights, just stupid stuff that Dean wouldn't have a chance to think too much about. Maybe if Sam could get Dean out of his own head, just a little, this whole thing wouldn't feel so overwhelming and unrelenting all the time.
Sam was never going to be Dr. Phil. He didn't know how to get Dean to open up, and wasn't sure what he'd say to him if he did. None of this is your fault? Dean wouldn't believe him. You can't save everyone? Dean would still want to try. It's okay to have fun once in a while, even during an apocalypse? He'd probably get a smack to the side of the head.
But, this? Acting like an adolescent idiot to get a smile out of Dean? Shoot, Sam could do that.
So when Dean sent his whole team to attack Sam's position, Sam took off for the trees at the edge of the field. The rest of his team scattered, as well. He could hear the kids taking off, "Hey, thanks for the battle, dudes!" "You guys are awesome!" "Pizza at Rinaldo's…" Sam slowed his running, and sat on a fallen tree just inside the woods. He was cold, and wet, and winded. But, he also felt a tiny bit of hope that he could maybe make things better for Dean. Maybe.
He heard Dean calling out for him. "Sammy?"
"Over here, MacArthur." Dean changed direction and started heading for him.
In the next instant, Castiel was standing in front of Sam. "I have looked over the whole area, and the angels have moved on."
Sam nodded. "Yeah. We figured."
Cas looked around, saw Dean coming toward them. "Has there been some sort of incident? You are both wet and covered in snow."
Sam smiled. "Snow ball fight, Cas. You should try it sometime…You know, scoop up snow and pack it into a ball for throwing---"
Castiel made a slight motion of his hands, and there was a pile of about 30 snowballs right in front of Sam. "Like this?"
Sam stood up. "Wow. Yeah, just like that. Hey, listen, when I say 'now'---"
But Dean had spotted Cas and had started jogging over. "Uh huh. No way, Sam. You can't get an angel to help you. That's cheating, even for a cheating cheater like you."
Castiel looked between them. "I don't understand. What does one do with little spheres of snow?"
Dean and Sam looked at each other. Sam raised his eyebrow. Dean lifted a corner of his mouth. They were agreed.
Dean got closer, he raised his hands in a non-threatening gesture. "Nothing, Cas. Sam is just regressing slightly."
Sam nodded, moved closer to the pile of snow balls. "I'm just a big kid sometimes."
Castiel was still trying to figure out what was happening. He looked at how wet they were, glanced over at the mess of the baseball field. Put two and two together. "You were hurling snow at one another?"
Sam nodded. "Pretty much."
Dean came and stood next to Sam. "Yeah. But, we're done with that."
Castiel nodded. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. There are better things you could be doing with your time."
Sam sighed in agreement. "When you're right, you're right." He looked at Dean and the spark in Dean's eye made him a little giddy. "There is something better we could be doing." He picked up two snow balls and put them in his pocket. Grabbed up a couple more. They were perfect, of course. Round and tennis ball-sized. They didn't crumble or drip. Just right.
Dean also filled his pockets and picked up as many as he could carry. He looked at Cas, so serious and sincere. "What we should be doing, Cas…is throwing them at you."
Sam and Dean both unloaded their ammunition at Castiel and took off running. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, snow balls began pelting the brothers as they ran, one after the other, almost like they were being fired from a Gatling gun. Castiel may have been slow on the uptake, but, no one ever said the angel was stupid.
They kept up the battle for about 15 minutes. Sam and Dean stuck together, hitting Castiel over and over again. He'd get wet, then they'd look up and he'd be totally dry again. It was a little surreal. Sam and Dean were drenched, out of breath, but having a great time. Sam thought the funniest part was that Castiel assumed it was his job to supply the snow balls. Whenever Sam and Dean were running low, a new pile would manifest itself at their feet. Cas was making the ammunition that they were throwing at him.
Sam caught Castiel's eye at one point, and the angel winked at him. Sam wondered if he understood what Sam was trying to do. Sam looked over at Dean, hair dripping, breath hitching with exertion and the cold, and Sam couldn't help it. He threw back his head and laughed. Dean chuckled in return. They exchanged a long look, then, Sam held up his hands and stood up. "Okay, Cas. We're done."
Castiel appeared in front of them. "Truly? No more trying to wear what should be on the ground?"
Sam laughed. "For now. I think it'd be nice to get dry and find some food."
Dean looked around. "Where the hell is the car? We're still parked in front of the motel---"
Castiel whooshed them and they were standing just outside the motel room door. Dean gave a slight grin. "It doesn't even surprise me anymore."
Sam clapped him on the back. "I get first shower." And he went to open the door.
As soon as it swung open, Dean ran past him. "Not if I get it first."
Sam watched his brother run into the bathroom and slam the door. He tried not to let his smile color his tone when he called out, "You're such a friggin' jerk, Dean."
He waited for it…and there it was, a quiet chuckle. Sam felt the clutch loosen, just a little. And then he heard Dean call out. "You move too slow, bitch."
Sam made cocoa and warmed chicken soup. He was cold, wet, probably bruised from some of the icier snow balls. He heard the shower come on and didn't mind a bit that he shivered while he waited for his turn.