Sam doesn't talk for four hundred miles.
Which isn't to say he's silent, oh no. He's sighing and sniffing and twitching like he took a fricken bath in itching powder, which Dean is pretty sure he didn't because Dean hasn't bought any itching powder in a long time. And Sam's smart enough at least to be able to tell the difference between liquid and powder in a bathtub. Probably.
This isn't Sam's normal sighing or sniffing, either, like when he's mad at Dean for ordering extra onions on his burger or annoyed at having to listen to Led Zeppelin IV for the third time in a row. No, this is Sam sighing like he doesn't know how else to breathe, and sniffing like he wants to cry but doesn't remember how.
But even with all that noise, Sam doesn't say a single word.
Dean chatters at first, trying to fill the spaces left by Sam's non-silence with words of his own. He complains about not eating breakfast, but that makes Sam go white and clutch at the door handle like he wants to rip it off, so Dean switches to waxing lyrical about the improvements he plans to make on the Impala next time they stop at Bobby's. Then he moves on to the twins he met when Sam was at Stanford, then finally starts pulling out old childhood memories and laughing through a description of Sam as a seven-year-old trying to smuggle a stray kitten into their apartment under his shirt and hoping Dad or Dean wouldn't notice.
Sam closes his eyes two-hundred miles into Dean's rambling, but it's clear he's not sleeping. He takes these deep breaths like he's trying to suck Dean's words straight into his lungs, and eventually Dean has to stop sharing stories of their childhood because it's getting a little difficult to listen his brother heave like he's running out of oxygen.
"Sam," he says around mile three hundred and six.
"Dean," Sam answers ninety-five miles later. "Do you want me to drive?"
"No, I thought maybe we could stop, get something to eat. Dude, you look a little—"
"I don't want to stop." Sam's response is swift and vehement and little terrifying, what with the way he sits bolt upright and looks at Dean with bloodshot eyes that are kind of rolling like the horses on that ranch Dean worked on for two months who got spooked as hell whenever the elusive poltergeist he was hunting made an appearance. Dean learned the hard way those horses could kick hard when they got like that and he's sorta hoping Sammy's not gonna have a similar reaction.
"Well, we're going to need to get gas soon." Dean uses the same tone he did for the horses, the same tone he's been using since he was four and dealing with Sam's cries and temper tantrums became his first priority in life. "Are you sure you don't want some food, too? I don't know if you noticed, but we skipped breakfast—"
"Dean." Sam twitches, a full body shudder that's a pretty awful to watch. "I don't… I'm… Are you hungry?"
Dean stares at him, unable to understand the hesitant, concerned tone in Sam's voice when Dean's not the one who looks two seconds away from having a seizure or puking all over his knees.
"Sammy, what happened?" It's the first time Dean's ventured to ask, because the look in Sam's eyes and the painfully rigid set of his shoulder's suggest Dean might not want to hear the answer. "What did the Trickster do to you?"
"We can stop somewhere for food," Sam says quietly. His breath is starting to hitch again, but it's clear he's trying to control it. "But let's eat in the car, okay? I'll drive if you need me to. We just… We need to get the fuck out of Florida."
"Sure." Dean doesn't know if he wants to hug Sam or shake him until his teeth rattle, but he wants to do something because Sam's got this empty, broken look on his face and there's a buzzing tension electrifying the air inside the Impala and Dean thinks probably if he lit a match, the whole car would explode.
They stop at a one of those gas-station-fast-food-restaurant hybrids, and Sam crowds right up against Dean the entire time he's pumping gas and ordering chocolate milkshakes, burgers, and two large fries. In some ways it's a little gratifying, because it reminds Dean of being a kid and hauling a tiny Sam around places like this, taking to heart strict orders from Dad to stick together, and in some ways it's really fucking annoying because he's twenty-eight years old now and it's a little difficult to maneuver around with a giant Sasquatch plastered to his back.
"Dude," Dean says when it seems like Sam is all set to follow him into the closet-sized single bathroom. "Do you mind?"
He shuts the door before Sam can answer, and though his built-in pick-on-your-little-brother-whenever-possible instinct makes him want to take his sweet time and see how agitated Sam will get, his never-let-your-brother-look-like-he's-about-to-pass-out-from-terror instinct wins out and he goes quickly. When Dean opens the door Sam is standing exactly where he left him, skin paper-white and lower lip bitten to the point of bleeding.
Dean hustles him straight back to the car, and though Sam offers hollowly again to drive Dean shoves him into the passenger seat. He doesn't think he wants Sam driving his car when Sam looks that, and this whole thing is really starting to bother Dean.
Sam is right, they need to get the fuck out of Florida.
It's useless trying to get Sam to eat or talk about what went down in Browden County, so Dean crams his own mouth full of burger and fries in petulant retaliation and drives way over the speed limit with the windows down and the music up.
He slows down and snaps the radio off a few miles later when it's clear that's not getting a reaction out of Sammy except making him lean forward slightly and stare fixedly out the windshield as if he can make the car go faster with sheer force of mind.
And hey, maybe the psychic Boy King anti-Christ Wonder Child can. Dean is just about to make some sort of joke out of it when he sees the sign warning— congratulating?— them on leaving the state of Florida. They're approaching the sign, and Sam pulls in this huge breath like he's not planning on taking another one for several years, then they're past it and Sam lets the breath out in a rush and catapults himself into Dean.
The contact is sudden and unexpected, making Dean swear and actually swerve for a second before he regains control. Sam's face is smashed against Dean's neck and Sam's hands are pressed to Dean's ribs and his hip and it's too violent to be a hug but too desperate to be the start of a fight.
Dean pulls the car onto the shoulder the moment he realizes Sam is shaking. The second he kills the engine Sam's weight vanishes from his side, leaving Dean with an open passenger door and the quiet night stretching beyond it. He grabs a flashlight from the floor and goes after his brother. It only takes him several steps to find Sam, kneeling by the side of the road and throwing up everything he didn't eat that day.
"Jesus." Dean drops down next to him, seizing Sam's shoulders while his mind runs through a hundred different horrible options of what this could be. "Jesus, Sammy, what is it? Is it another vision? Are you… are you hurt? Come on, buddy, talk to me, tell me what's wrong."
Sam jackknifes to the side, body convulsing as it releases an acrid stream of bile like there's something else inside it's desperately trying to get rid of. Dean rubs Sam's back and holds his arm and feels panic rising in his throat because Sammy's hurting and Dean should be helping but he has no fucking clue what to do.
"Six months," Sam groans, and Dean catches him when he slumps forward, he stops Sammy's head from connecting with the gravel, that's something he can do and he does. "Six months, Dean."
"Six months what?" Dean is trying not to sound frantic, but Sam is starting to shudder now, like really shudder, and it feels like a punch in the gut when Dean realizes he's sobbing. "Fuck, Sammy, what?"
"You were dead for six months." Sam's crying so hard he's barely making any sound beyond these sharp, shallow gasps which become number one with a bullet on Dean's list of Worst Sounds He's Ever Heard in his Life. "The last time you died you stayed dead and I couldn't… I hunted the Trickster down, for six months… I did everything I could but… God, the things I did…"
"It's okay, Sammy," Dean murmurs, because it's his default phrase when things are great and when things are a little shitty and when things are really fucking absolutely not okay. "It's okay. It was just the Trickster screwing with you. I'm here, I'm fine. You're fine."
"You don't understand, Dean." One second Sam is a weeping mess and the next he's seizing Dean's biceps in an iron grip and leaning into him with such intensity Dean is a little afraid they're both gonna go sprawling and Sam is going to like, take a bite out of him or something. "It was real. It was like when the Djinn gave you that dream, only this was a fucking nightmare. You were dead, Dean, and I was on my own and I— I didn't care about anything except getting you back. I didn't care one bit about the people who got in my way, not anyone, and—"
"Stop it, Sam." Dean's not listening to this, he won't. He can't. Ignoring the moisture that's started clouding his own eyes, Dean gives into his impulse from earlier and shakes Sam, not so hard that his teeth rattle but hard enough to send his stupid hair flopping over his eyes. "It's over, okay? I'm here. You're here. It's Wednesday, we're not in Florida anymore, the Trickster is gone, we're both alive. So just let it go."
"No, Dean." Sam's voice is low and choked with tears, the kind of voice that only says things Dean doesn't want to hear.
"Yes, Sam." He tries to prevent it, tries to cut Sam off before he gets to the inevitable catastrophe he's hurtling towards. "Now what do you say we get back in the car and find a motel?"
"Dean, I—" Sam is refusing to stop as vehemently as Dean is refusing to let him continue.
"Maybe we can order a pizza too." Dean will talk all night if has to. He tries to haul Sam to his feet but it's like tugging on a statue.
"Dean—" There's a wild look in Sam's eyes that Dean wishes he could un-see.
"Pepperoni or sausage?" He tries smiling, feeling like his face might crack from the effort.
"I COULDN'T SAVE YOU!" Sam bellows, and Dean punches him.
It's not a hard blow; Dean pulls his fist back the moment it makes contact, throwing both arms around Sam and keeping him from falling backwards into the mangy scrub that always seems to thrive by the sides of roads. Sam slumps against him, boneless and shaking again, and it's so reminiscent of another time they were both on their knees in the mud, Dean cradling a damaged and needing Sam, that Dean has them both on their feet in less then a second, charging over to the Impala and all but throwing Sam against the side of it.
"Sammy," he says as firmly as he can manage, because he just doesn't want to deal anymore with Sam looking so fucking lost or throwing up like he's been poisoned or sobbing and shaking like he hasn't done since Jessica died.
"Dean," Sam says, and grabs on to Dean again like that's the only other thing he can do.
They stand like that for a while, Dean half-holding Sam up, letting Sam push bruises into his arms, the crickets and knife-sharp sound of Sam's breathing the only noises in the darkness of the night.
The inside of Dean's head is a different story. He hears Sam's last shout reverberating over and over like an alarm or a funeral bell or some other awful metaphor Dean so doesn't care about coming up with right now. For Sam to spend six whole months with Dean dead… Well, Dean spent less than a day with Sam dead and ended up selling his soul to Hell, so he kinda understands the feeling.
And that right there is the problem. Because while spending what seems like six months trapped in some fucked up reality where your brother is dead and you're— judging by what Sam said and the whole demon blood thing and the Winchester propensity towards manic vengeance— some sort of psycho vigilante is enough to mess anyone up, Sam's reaction is clearly more than that. Sam wouldn't be screaming "I couldn't save you" at Dean if he wasn't afraid the entire thing was going to repeat itself in less than four months time.
Which it is not. It is not. It is absolutely fucking not.
First, because Sam is going to save Dean. Or at least, Dean is going to let Sam believe he is going to save Dean and Dean is going to try really goddamn hard to believe it too, because now that's he admitted to himself and to Sam he wants to be saved thinking of the alternative makes his insides seize up and his head pound and he might as well release Sam and join him in the gravel for another round of gastric pyrotechnics.
And second, if Fate continues getting its jollies by kicking the crap out them like it's done their whole lives and Dean does end up taking a permanent vacation downstairs— at least he'll probably get one hell of a tan, right? If they let him keep his skin— then Sam is… well Sam is going to live. That was the deal. Dean goes to Hell, Sam gets to live. And throwing up his lungs on the side of the road with empty eyes and shaking hands is not living.
Dean pulls back slightly and Sam flinches like he expects to get hit again, and fuck if that doesn't make Dean feel ten kinds of terrible.
"Sammy," he says, smooth and steady because that's all he's got right now. "You can't do this, man. You can't."
Sam's hands are still clamped to Dean's arms, flexing like he can't decide if he wants to let go or hold on tighter. It's a pulse almost like a heartbeat, and Dean can see the futures flickering between each bloody beat. Open fingers, Sam is going to run away, back to a life that's normal where brothers don't abandon each other because they had to sell their soul in order to reverse a fatal stab wound that should never have happened. Closed fingers, Sam is going to stay right here and take down every damn demon or hell hound that comes Dean's way, even if it means becoming a monster himself to do it.
"Goddamnit, Sam!" Dean's not sure why he's yelling, except he doesn't like either of those options. He prefers the one where Sam keeps hunting in a psychologically balanced sort of way and wins this war against Hell then meets a girl and gets married and grows old and has gray hair at his temples and wears terrible clothes, and he finally gets that dog he's always wanted and has a bunch of kids and he names one of them Dean and one John and one Mary and maybe one Jess, and the whole crew heads over to Bobby's on the weekends to eat his terrible peach cobbler and learn how to speak Latin and how to fix carburetors.
That's the future Dean wants for Sam, and dammit, he's the one who sold his soul and is going to burn for eternity here, so that pretty clearly gives him the right to call the fucking shots.
"Sammy, listen to me." Dean tones down his voice and even puts gentle hands on Sam's shoulders because this is important and he needs to make sure Sam gets it. "You're not doing this, okay? I made this deal so you would live." Sam gives another one of those full-body shudders and Dean has to push him firmly against the reassuring solidity of the Impala to make sure they both stay on their feet. Neither of them usually bring up why this deal exists in the first place, because it makes Sam quiver with guilt and rage and seeing that makes Dean feel pretty damn guilty and furious himself, but in this instance it's necessary. "So that's how it's gonna go, you got that?"
Sam opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but Dean has a feeling it's not going to be "Okay, Dean, you're absolutely right and I submit to your will completely" so Dean pushes Sam even harder against the Impala and cuts him off before he can say whatever it is he wants.
"Sammy, you're going to be okay without me. You're going to survive." Images flood Dean's mind of all the time he's had to pull Sam from danger or stitch him back up when he didn't quite pull fast enough, and he can't stop them morphing into images of Sam with no one there to do anything for him at all, and it's so fucking stupid that this deal that became his ultimate success of keeping Sam safe is also going to be his ultimate failure.
His voice cracks when he's finally able to speak again.
"You're gonna survive, and you're gonna do more than that. You're gonna eat salads and read those dumb books you like so much and laugh at all the wrong parts of movies and… and…" Dean doesn't know how to tell Sam about the whole wife and kids and dog part but that's okay because his voice is friggin wobbling now like a chick in high heels after a night of tequila shots. "And you're gonna… you're gonna live, Sammy. You're not going to let this thing kill you because… because that would be ironic, and you know how much I hate things that are fucking ironic."
And great, now Dean's kind of crying, or else Sam has become so pale he's transparent and Dean is seeing the night sky shimmering from behind his skin. Sam's hands have stopped clutching him now, and he's just standing there, limp against the Impala, staring at Dean.
For a moment there's a hint of a smile on Sam's face, like the beginning of the look of a five-year-old when he knows his big brother will let him have the last Oreo, but then it vanishes so quickly Dean's not sure if it was actually there it all. And it's feels like he's watching in slow motion as Sam's face crumples, his eyes go dark, and he starts to shake his head.
No. Just… fucking no.
Dean throws them both off balance by suddenly standing up straight and lunging for the handle of the Impala's back door. Sam stumbles, falling into Dean, and he uses that momentum to send the two of them sprawling into the backseat.
There's a blanket on the floor and Dean digs around until he gets his fingers in it, old and worn and some fugly-ass pattern that he's pretty sure Sam once called "tartan" but Dean usually just calls fugly. He hauls it up and wraps it around Sam, wraps good and tight, like Sam's shaking because he's cold, like if Dean can just get Sam warm and secure inside the blanket he'll be safe, like wrapping Sam in some long-ago stolen fugly-ass tartan thing that smells like car-leather and kerosene is like wrapping Sam in armor, protecting him from pain and fear and the fast approaching time when he'll have to do the wrapping himself.
After he's got Sam swaddled in the blanket like a newborn, Dean leans over the front seat and snags Sam's untouched chocolate milkshake. It's melted but still cool, and it's liquid, and Sam threw up what looked like all the food he's eaten for the past two years plus the entire lining of his stomach and maybe a vital organ or two, so he needs to get some fluids in him. Also, he hasn't said a word in long time, and Dean is going to chalk that up to his throat being sore, on account of the whole puking stomach acid and being dehydrated thing.
Dean fumbles through layers of blanket before finding Sam's hand and dragging it out just enough to force those long fingers into a grip on the chocolate shake. He doesn't shove the straw between Sam's lips, but he orders him to drink with a tone that clearly says he will if Sam doesn't do it himself.
Sam does it himself. Dean can't decide if it's a victory or a surrender. He thinks about death and dogs and little kids and Hell, and he's glad that Sammy keeps staring at the floor, because that way he won't see how hard Dean is trying not to cry.
Dean grabs the flimsy plastic cup the second Sam is done, rolls down the window and hurls outside in the darkness. Then he waits. His hands are clamped on his knees like mandragora tentacles, but he makes himself sit still. He waits. Sam is still and silent next to him, in the same exact position Dean first put like some creepy life-sized doll, only one that's been broken, his little wind-up thing snapped off so he doesn't play music anymore, his legs don't walk, and Dean is left with just the empty body, the lifeless eyes, but he doesn't accept that, he'll never accept—
"You shouldn't litter."
The words fall out of Sam like rocks shaken lose from a cliff face, tumbling and uneven with the threat of tears still behind them, but that's okay, Dean's okay with that. It's okay.
"Says you, Mr. Still Plays Flick the Bottle Cap every goddamn time we have a beer." If Dean's voice sounds almost as rough, well, this blanket has bound to have been hoarding some serious dust.
"I'll never stop."
"Okay, but no amount of practice is ever gonna get you beating me, Sammy m'boy, when I—"
"I'll never stop trying to save you."
Sam throws himself at Dean for the second time that night, but this time Dean is ready for it, turning just in time to get his arms open and catch Sam's seventy-billion pounds of weight against his chest. He slams back against the door hard and lets out a grunt, but Sam doesn't back off, he keeps pushing like he's trying to force his way under Dean's skin.
After a moment Sam abruptly starts to pull away, and Dean lets him go long enough to readjust himself into a more comfortable position, then he sticks his hand in Sam's hair that way Sammy's always hated and drags his brother back.
Sam struggles last for all of the two seconds it takes him to wiggle an arm free and stick his hand on Dean's neck, thumb and fingers each finding a pulse. It's a little claustrophobic, but Dean doesn't protest, because he can remember doing the exact same thing every night for a month after Cold Oak. He takes a deep breath, lets Sammy hear the air moving even and sure through his lungs, and that does it. Sam collapses against him with the heavy, boneless weight of the beyond-exhausted.
The backseat of a '67 Impala isn't an ideal location for two grown (one overgrown) men to get a solid night's sleep, except for them it kinda is. The old blanket has ended up covering them both, it's warm, and they're both here, both still drawing stolen breaths of the chill night air.
Dean waits until he's pretty sure Sam is asleep before murmuring, "You're not giving up everything for me, Sammy."
Sam's fingers twitch and his eyelashes flutter against Dean's skin. Butterfly kisses, Sam used to insist they were called. More like touches from the dead, Dean would say, because he knew what those felt like, while he'd sure as fuck never been kissed by any butterflies. The idea of something rubbing it's wings against him always sorta creeped him out.
"I'm not giving up everything." Sam sounds petulant and stubborn and about five-years-old, and Dean almost can believe he's talking in his sleep except for the how he knows this is what Sam sounds like when he's at the end of what he can take, and nightmares never quite push Sam that far.
Only Dean can.
"I'm not giving up everything." Sam's fingers twitch again, securing their place over the steady confirmation of Dean's pulse. "I'm trying to keep it."
No, Dean wants to scream at him. Think about your dog, Sammy. Your ugly clothes. Your messy-haired kids. Your stupid perfect girlfriend. White picket fence and all the things I could never give you.
But Sammy is really and truly asleep now, so Dean doesn't start yelling, he just pushes the tickly bits of Sam's hair away from where they are trying to sneak their way into Dean's mouth, devious bastards, and hopes Sam doesn't drool too much on his shirt. It's been a while, Dean knows, in the Trickster's world and this one, since Sammy got much rest.
They both sleep until sunrise. The car heats up like anything big and black and metal left in the sun, but it's the sound of a bird that wakes Sam.
"Raven," he slurs into Dean's chest, and Dean almost smacks him because of course Sam would be able to name a bird by its call alone when he's barely awake and, yep, drooling all over Dean's shirt. Dean doesn't have the energy to do much more than grunt, however, being mostly asleep himself. That is, until Sam jerks away from him with a gasp and demands in a voice that's far too loud,
"It is Thursday?"
"It's Thursday," Dean groans, unhappy with the way Sam's absence has left his front and left side all cold and hollow. He pulls at the entirely inadequate blanket, hoping Sammy will get the hint and come back.
"Is it?" Sam asks like he doesn't know if he wants to laugh or cry. "Is it, Dean?"
"Yes, you giant freak, it's Thursday." Dean cracks open his eyes at last and sees Sam half-kneeling on the seat next to him, hands raised like he's going to throttle someone or maybe just flap them around like a little kid trying to fly. Maybe Sam wants to be a raven.
"Okay," Sam says, as if he's giving his permission for it to, in fact, be Thursday. "Okay."
He does cry a bit, but he laughs too, and it's the laughter that wins out in the end, loud and steel-bright as the sun bouncing off the hood. And if there's a tinge of hysteria to it, well, Dean's not saying anything.
They crawl back to the front seat and begin driving again. Dean asks if they can stop for breakfast and Sam grants his permission for that too, even though Dean can tell he doesn't want to, and he knows for certain Sammy won't be eating one bite.
The sun is warm on their faces and almost bright enough to hide the way Dean's hands grip the steering wheel a little too tightly and Sam's bites his lip so hard it bleeds again. The raven caws a second, and Dean turns on the radio so he doesn't have to listen to it, or to Sam's still slightly labored breaths that almost sound like the panting of a dog.
All they get is static.
"Hmmm," Dean says, fiddling with the knob for a good three minutes after it fails to change anything, because he knows it will get Sam to slap his hand away in exasperation. "We must be in a dead zone."
"Yeah." Sam reaches out, seizes Dean's hand and pushes back on to the seat, holding it down like he can fuse Dean's skin with the leather and lock him there forever. "Yeah, I think we are."