It's been three weeks, eighteen hours, and forty-six minutes since Dean made his deal.
That means he has eleven months, one week, six hours, and seventeen minutes left before he dies, and his soul gets sent to Hell for all eternity.
Standing alone in a shitty motel bathroom, bruises on his face and a bullet hole through his shoulder, Sam is about two minutes and three seconds away from having a complete and utter meltdown. He sets their stitching kit on the bathroom sink— Christ, no wonder he always felt slightly out of place at college. Hi, I'm Sam. You've got a bong? That's great. I've got a wound stitching kit— and slowly begins to peel off his shirt. He's absurdly grateful Dean went out to buy food and alcohol so Sam doesn't have to bother stifling his moans.
It figures this incredibly awful day— The day from Hell, ha, Dean the stupid cocky bastard laughed, think I'm going to be losing my shoe and falling on my ass for the rest of eternity?— would end with a gunshot wound. But Bela wasn't lying, she could aim, and the bullet went clean through, and missed all the bones. All things considered, it could be worse.
Eleven months, one week, six hours, and nine minutes. Yeah, it could be a hell of a lot worse.
Sam opens the wound kit and pulls out the disinfectant, remembering the first time he ever got shot. (There's been half a dozen times since then. You wouldn't think gunshot wounds would be a regular hazard of hunting things that were largely incorporeal and/or rabid and feral, but apparently they came with the job, as common for Sam as grave dirt in his hair and watching loved ones die).
He was twelve and they were in some small town shop, Dad scoping out the possibility of a hunt, when it happened. The ghost of the former owner, somewhat disgruntled by the new management, manifested and began exploding things straight off the shelves. The cashier had panicked and whipped out a forty-five. The ghost was immune to the lead-and-not-at-all-rocksalt bullets, but Sam's hand, raised in the air as he tried to usher the store's patrons to the exits, was not.
It seemed like Dean was there before Sam even hit the floor, holding him by the shoulders, snatching novelty t-shirts from their hangers and pressing them to Sam's wound.
"It's not bad," Dean said, while their Dad took care of the ghost and then the cashier. The ghost was killed, cursed object destroyed, and Sam never knew for sure but he was pretty sure the cashier ended up in the hospital. "You're okay, Sammy, it's not bad." Dean pulled back the t-shirts to look, and Sam started crying, not from the pain or the blood but from the way Dean's face was paper white beneath his freckles. "Look, it's a clean wound, all the way through, see?" Dean shoved the t-shirts back in place, roaring lions and bad Hawaiian prints darkening rust-brown. Sam was young enough then his one hand fit easily between both of Dean's, held tight and secure. "We'll take you to the hospital, get this looked at, and maybe we can ask them to keep it like that. It'll be a great party trick, huh, kiddo. Like peekaboo."
The scar on his palm and back of his hand is barely noticeable now, except when Sam makes a fist or clenches the sink in the bathroom of some motel so hard it's like he trying to pull it off the wall. He looks down at the hole in his shoulder, wondering if he could get his head craned right to see through it, so maybe he could be looking at Dean that way whenever he gets back. Peekaboo.
An awful high-pitched gurgle fills the bathroom, and it takes Sam a long moment to realize the sound is coming from him. It's laughter, he thinks, dimly recognizing he's half-hysterical and edging beyond the 'half' part with every passing second. This day has been nothing but one shitty thing after another, and Dean is going to Hell in eleven months, one week, five hours and fifty-nine minutes, and Sam just can't take it anymore.
He snaps out a hand— the one that was shot over ten years ago, peekaboo— and wrenches the gaudy light fixture from the wall, hurling it to the floor and not even caring when his shoes and pants are coated in glittering debris. Like fairy dust. If you believe, clap your hands. Maybe if Sam claps his hands hard enough, Dean will stay alive. He seizes the shower curtain instead and tears it to several pieces before catching sight of himself in the mirror. His skin is paler than the bleached tile wall behind him. There's blood all over his shoulder, and his eyes are wild. In the dim light, Sam imagines they look black.
This, Sam thinks, breathing so hard his ribs creak in protest, This is what Dean sold his soul for. This is what he's going to Hell for. This is what Dean will die for.
Sam smashes the mirror with both hands. He keeps punching and tearing until there's not a single shard left in the cheap wooden frame. Then he sinks to the floor, among shreds of plastic and broken glass, and he sobs.
When he first figured out Dean's deal, Sam didn't freak out. He got angry, sure, and he got determined, but he didn't go absolutely batshit as might be expected when learning the one person he had left in his life was going to die and suffer unspeakable torment for all eternity. Even at night, when Sam's breath threatens to stop in his throat, he just rolls over and looks at Dean sleeping in the other bed, repeating I will fix this over and over in his head until he drowns out all the screaming fears and doubts.
But right now, Dean isn't here, and Sam's had a terrible day, and he hasn't found anything that might even possibly stop Dean from going to Hell in eleven months, one week, five hours and forty-three minutes, and Sam fucking loses it.
He cries until it's not even crying anymore, just gasping, harsh and ugly, into the dirty ripped knees of his jeans. His head spins and he knows he's going to hyperventilate or make himself sick if he doesn't stop soon, but apparently surrendering that one bit of control means he's surrendered it all. Sam scrabbles fingers in the mess on the floor, trying to get a hold of himself. He's breaking apart from the inside out, his pulse beating in time with the clock in the other room. Steady, inexorable tick, tock.
As soon as Sam can stand, that's the next thing he's destroying.
Strong hands land on his shoulders and haul him to his feet before he gets the chance. It takes his brain a fraction of a second to recognize it's Dean, and Sam fights to get away, caught between embarrassment, anger, and guilt. He must have been really out of it not to even hear Dean get back.
"Dean," he tries to say, but chokes on another sob that catches him unaware like a punch— or like a bullet to the shoulder. His wound is still bleeding, a wet pulses in time with his heartbeat, in time with that fucking clock— and Dean uses his momentary incapacitation to move him back towards the bed.
Sam expects to be shoved, maybe even hit, but Dean makes him sit down on the sagging mattress in a way that's careful, almost gentle.
"Sit still, Sammy," Dean orders when Sam immediately tries to get up. The clock is still ticking and there's blood on his hands and tears on his face and he can't deal with this right now. "Lemme fix your shoulder."
"No, I'm—" He tries to stand again but Dean pushes him back, not roughly but firmly enough that Sam knows he'll be staying put whether he wants to or not. "I'm sorry," he manages to grind out.
"Hey, man," Dean calls from the bathroom, "It's not your fault someone thought it would be a good idea to give that crazy bitch a gun."
Dean is back before Sam can figure out what the hell he's talking about, the stitching kit open in his hands.
"Bela," Dean elaborates, noting Sam's stupefied look. "Man, the things I'm going to do to that slimy piece of trash if we ever see her again. I'm getting my forty-five thousand dollars back, for starters. This is gonna sting."
Sam barely feels the pain of the disinfected burning through his wound as he struggles to follow Dean's train of thought. He's talking like there's nothing's wrong but the bullet hole in Sam's shoulder, like he didn't just come back to find Sam having a breakdown on the floor of a bathroom that looks like a tornado went through it, followed by one very pissed off wendigo. Like he isn't going to hell in eleven months, one week, five hours and fifteen minutes.
"Dean—" Sam tries again, though he has no idea what he's going to say. Dean cuts him off regardless.
"I brought dinner," he says, nonchalant and relaxed, like this is any other day. Except it's not, it's already day twenty-one of Dean's remaining three-hundred-and-sixty-five days, and it's one of Sam's worst days ever, not because he was beaten, battered, and nearly killed about a hundred times, but because he's let himself think about what happens if he can't save Dean. "And I bought you a book."
"What?" Sam tries to focus on his brother while he's eyes are puffy and he's hiccuping like a five-year-old after a temper tantrum. Jesus.
"Chinese," Dean says as he wipes blood away from Sam's skin and preps the needle. "And the book's an older one, by that guy you like, Black or Brown or whatever, some color. I know you don't have it, so I figured maybe you hadn't read it before."
"Dean, what—" Apparently Sam's forgotten every other word in the English language but those two. He wonders distractedly for a moment if he'd have better luck communicating some of his whirling thoughts if he said them in Latin, but he knows in reality it wouldn't matter if he used nothing but primal grunts. Dean always understands him.
"You had a really shitty day," Dean answers with a shrug, then the first sting of the needle is in Sam's skin, bright and biting like a kiss. "And you don't like normal comfort items like burgers or pie or porn." Dean pauses, and Sam's knows without looking Dean's happily contemplating burgers and pie and porn, probably wondering if there's some creation that exits in the world that combines all three. Sam almost laughs, except he still feels dangerously close to crying. "So yeah, book, for my great big giant dork of a brother."
Dean flashes a smile up at him, rubbing the thumb of his left hand absently over Sam's collarbone, and it's so fucking unfair that Sam wants to scream. He leaps off the bed instead, ignoring Dean's violent curse and the needle now dangling from the thread stitched into his shoulder. This, this is exactly what Sam cannot take today.
He can't take Dean being so gentle with him, nice and considerate in a way he hasn't been for a long time. He can't take Dean's concern and concentration on Sam's well-being because that's exactly what got Dean into this problem in the first place. He can't take Dean's cocky, everything-is-just-peachy attitude that has him going out and buying Chinese food and fucking presents for Sam while Sam is seeing reality and punching mirrors and destroying shower curtains.
Sam knows Dean is just as scared as he is, underneath all that bravado, and he hates it because Dean is the one who looks after Sam and tells him everything will be alright. Sam's known since childhood that when Dean gets scared it's bad, and it's bad this time. If Sam could get his act together, and be a little stronger, and smarter, and faster, then he could be the one looking after Dean. But apparently he fails as badly at that as he has at protecting everyone else he's ever loved in his life.
More than anything right now Sam wants to collapse onto the bed and put his head on his big brother's lap and cry out his frustration like he used to when he was six and his greatest problem was not having the action figure he saw in a toy store window. But he can't, because he needs to be strong now, he needs to take charge. He needs to save Dean.
He looks at Dean, wanting to tell him that, tell him everything, but the only words that come out are, "I can't."
Sam says it again as one hand lands on his uninjured shoulder and one on his right wrist, guiding him back to the bed. "I can't." Sam hisses it, furious, when Dean picks up the needle and makes another tiny, flawless stitch— all sloppy manners and reckless driving, Dean's the fucking picture of perfectionism when it comes to fixing Sam. "I can't." Sam nearly sobs it, wrecked, when Dean wraps the bandage around his shoulder with sure, competent fingers, always so confident, like nothing can touch him, like he'll walk into Hell with a goddamn smile on his face if Sam lets him.
"I can't, Dean." It's a plea, a litany, a fucking prayer. "I can't I can't I can'tIcan'tIcan't—"
"Here." Dean tugs something soft over Sam's head, coaxing his arms through the holes. It smells like gun oil and leather and beer and aftershave that doesn't quite disguise the smell of several day-old sweat. It smells like Dean, like home.
Sam runs his fingers over the faded logo of some band he's pretty sure no one has listened to since 1978 while Dean stands up and begins to pull Chinese food out of the take-out bag.
"I have orange chicken and beef lo mein," Dean announces. "Which do you want? I want the lo mein."
Sam cracks a shaky smile at last, still pissed and afraid and in pain and teetering right on the very edge of the brink, but unable resist Dean's earnest face like he actually believes he's offering Sam a choice.
"I want the chicken," Sam says, like he's making one, and Dean smiles back.
They eat in front of the television while some generic action movie splashes colors and the sound of gunshots over their walls. Dean got chopsticks for both of them but gives up on his own after a few failed attempts and starts using them like spears to steal pieces of Sam's chicken. Sam retaliates by sticking his whole hand in Dean's carton like he used to as a kid, grabbing hunks of noodles and licking his fingers deliberately between each handful. Dean moans about germs and cooties and going hungry, even though he likes the beef best anyway and he's eaten almost half of Sam's chicken. It's normal and it's familiar and Sam hates every moment of it.
He needs to go to bed, he decides, just go to bed and fall asleep and have this clusterfuck of a day be over. He's going to wake up tomorrow, the twenty-second day of Dean's deal, and he's not going to look at the clock or a calender or feel like throwing up every time Dean smiles at him. He's going to find a way to get Dean out of his deal and he's going to stop resenting each second spent with his brother because they won't be limited anymore. Nothing is taking Dean away from him, not ever.
When all that's left of their food is a few pathetic bits of broccoli— one vegetable Sam hates and Dean refuses to admit he likes— Dean clears their cartons away and Sam shucks out of his jeans, tipping backwards on the bed without even bothering to get under the covers. His shoulder is pulsing with a barely-there ache thanks to the pain meds he took, but the clock on the wall is as loud as ever. Sam is considering smashing it again when something heavy lands on his stomach.
Rolling on his side, Sam finds it's the worn paperback Dean bought for him. He touches the age-softened cover with delicate, almost reverent fingers, then picks it up and flicks the pages in front of his face, inhaling the musty old paper smell. It's a smell that reminds him of knowledge and learning and answers and making Dean laugh when Sam reads aloud the weirdest facts he can find. It's a smell that reminds him of hope.
"You are such a freak," Dean says as he strides past into the bathroom. Sam rolls on his back again and tenses, clutching the book to his chest, but Dean doesn't say anything else. Sam listens hard as Dean brushes his teeth and washes his face, glass and plastic and the remains of that godawful light fixture crunching like bones under his feet.
Sam tries to think of something— an apology, maybe, or an accusation— to level at Dean when he comes back into the room, kicks off his boots and changes into sweats. Sam's mind is still a frantic, buzzing blank a minute later when Dean settles his weight on the opposite side of the bed.
"Tomorrow is Thursday," Dean says, and starts running his fingers through Sam's hair. No, Sam wants to say, Tomorrow is Day Twenty-Two, only three-hundred and forty-three left but Dean hasn't done this for him in years and Sam's forgotten how good it feels. "I'm pretty sure that diner over on twelfth is having a breakfast special. We could stop there on the way out of town, get pancakes."
I don't want pancakes, Sam thinks, I want the head of every single demon that has even the slightest thing to do with your deal on a platter but Dean's fingertips rub over his scalp and he feels like a infant, lulled into quiet by the touch.
"Go to sleep, Sammy," Dean murmurs, like Sam really is a child or like he's had a nightmare, except it's not a nightmare, it's real and it's called their current life. "You've had a rough day."
It's nothing compared to yours. Sam tries to open his mouth, but the most he can do is crack his eyelids. He hadn't even realized they'd been closed. It's nothing compared to each day you spend getting closer to Hell while I fail you in every way possible.
Dean's hand combs from the roots to the ends of his hair then starts over again, and as much as Sam wants to shove him away or start screaming and breaking things again he can't fight his body's knee-jerk reaction to this kind of comfort and tenderness from Dean. Dean brings up his other hand to brush a thumb lightly over Sam's temple, and Sam knows he's lost.
His last thought before sinking into sleep is that he can't hear the clock anymore. It occurs to him maybe his mess wasn't the only thing he heard Dean stepping on in the bathroom.
When Sam wakes up the next morning, his head is on a pillow, his body is under the covers, and his hands are still clutching the paperback to his chest.
Dean is standing next to his bed, dressed like he's ready to go though it doesn't look like he showered. His mouth says "Morning, lazy-ass," but his eyes say something else, something that's almost begging and that Sam doesn't understand until he has to sit up and reach around Dean to get a hand on his cell phone.
Sam checks the time immediately, and Dean turns away, expression briefly and brutally closed.
Eleven months, Sam thinks, six days, fourteen hours, and twelve minutes.
Dean turns back, smiling again, perfectly sculpted with just the right amount of mocking and absolutely no trace of fear.
"Pancakes?" he asks.
"Okay," Sam says. Okay.
I can do this.