Nowhere to Go but Everywhere
Dean doesn't know what he's expecting to find.
He's not even sure why he stole the damn files in the first place, just that they were sitting there, on the edge of the doctor's desk, and Dean was curious what kind of a diagnosis these sharing-and-caring people of the mental institution had come up with for two angel-vessels facing down the apocalypse.
Turns out they weren't terribly creative. Paranoid schizophrenia. Narcissistic personality disorder. Religious psychosis. Sam got obsessive compulsive added to his, which made Dean chuckle a little because, yeah, they got that part right. At the time he'd been vaguely interested, but now, now after all that shit with the wraith messing with their heads and his own personal Paul Bettany— only, you know, a woman, who wasn't trying to help him solve math problems, thank fuck— Dean wants another look at those files.
He waits until they're a good six hours from the mental institution to do it. The sun is just coming up over the horizon, and Dean uses it as an excuse to pull into the parking lot of a coffee shop with a sign on the door that promises free Wi-Fi.
Sam is slumped over in the passenger seat, having fallen asleep about two hundred miles back, a slight frown still creasing his forehead. Dean thinks about waking him up in some awesome and hilarious— to Dean, anyway— way like picking up discarded straw wrappers from the floor and tying them into Sam's hair or collecting cold rainwater from the outside of the Impala on his palm then smearing it all over Sam's face. But they haven't done they kind of thing for a long time, and, remembering the way Sam looked right before Dean convinced him to get in the car, Dean doesn't think this would be the best time to start up again.
Instead he reaches across and shakes Sam's shoulder, calls him Sleepy Beauty, tugs on his hair once for good measure, then demands he go buy coffee and donuts.
"And when you get back, you're driving, bitch," Dean concludes. The whole thing is overly loud and inappropriately cheerful; he's trying way too fricken hard, and they both know it. But thankfully, for once, Sam doesn't call him out on it. He just smacks Dean's hand away from his hair, gives a huff and makes a face— both feel forced, shallow, they're just going through the motions here, that's what they do, it's how Winchesters survive— then slides wearily from the car.
Dean waits until the door of the coffee shop closes behind Sam's hunched shoulders before lunging over the back of the seat and scrabbling for his computer bag. The coffee shop just opened, and it's clearly the kind of place that sells things fresh, so Sammy's gonna have to wait a bit to get those donuts Dean wanted, not to mention the ridiculously girly kind of coffee drink he always gets for himself, but that doesn't mean Dean has a lot of time.
He finds the database for the mental institution quickly enough, and sets to work trying to break into it. Sam may be the unparalleled best at manipulating computers and sneaking past firewalls— Dean's not entirely convinced Sam didn't do it as teenager for fun, like the way other kids played video games— but just because Sam has insane skills when it comes to this doesn't mean Dean has none at all. It might take him a little bit longer, and he's not exactly subtle about what he's doing— he tends to smash right through walls rather than find ways to go around them— but he gets the job done while he can still see Sam loitering at the counter inside the shop.
He scans his own file first. There's no new information there, not that Dean really expected there to be, except maybe great red lettering reading ESCAPED stamped across the whole thing (Dean's not gonna say he's not disappointed that that hasn't appeared). There's nothing about his bone-deep terror of being possessed by Michael, nothing about his twisted insides that still hold the scars and postcards of Hell, nothing about the blood all over his hands from all the people he can't ever save, Jo and Ellen and even his own brother. That was his one job in life, before all this Michael and cosmic destiny crap, Dean's purpose was to look after Sammy and he's fucked that up so many times now it's almost—
Dean tips his head back and blinks rapidly a few times— he's just been driving for a while, and everyone knows computer screens are bad on your eyes— then clicks out of his file, feeling stupid and hollow. He's about to close his computer, then decides instead to have a look at Sam's file again. He's not expecting anything new there either, but he can't get the image of Sam standing by the car looking lost and petrified and confessing his deep-seated and apparently unending anger at all things out of his mind.
He checks over the file quickly, suddenly anxious to put everything about that dumbass institution behind them, when he sees something that makes him freeze, an icy implosion that starts in his fingertips and races all the way to his heart. There is something new in Sam's file.
Suicidal behavior, it reads. And below that, physical examination shows patient has a history of multiple suicide attempts. Most recent episode occurred roughly four months ago.
Dean finds it hard to breathe for a moment. He tries to think about what kind of injury Sam got that made it look like he'd tried to commit suicide. Because that's what it is, it has to be, something attacked Sam and it looked like he tried to off himself, but he didn't, because Sammy wouldn't, Dean would know, and besides Sam would never—
Then it comes to Dean, and he lets out an embarrassing huff of a laugh at not having thought of it straight away. The ghouls. The ones that were pretending to be Adam and his mom (two more people Dean should've saved but didn't) had laid Sam out and sliced him up good, practically bleeding him dry before Dean had been able to get there and blow their fucking heads off. He had to take Sammy to the emergency room, and spent hours fielding questions from doctors about Sam's supposed suicidal behavior, which actually weren't so far off the mark given that several weeks later Sam chugged a couple gallons of demon blood, ganked Lilith, and started the Apocalypse. Sam had been weak and pale for days after the ghoul thing, and the incident had left long scars on his forearms that made Dean feel nauseous every time he caught a glimpse of them.
Dean shuts his computer and gets it back in its bag and thrown in the backseat before the full implication of what he just read pierces through his brain like a butcher's knife. Multiple suicide attempts, the last one occurring four months ago.
The ghoul thing happened last year.
Dean racks his brain for what they were doing four months ago, but trying to remember all the injuries they've gotten in that space of time is like trying to remember the names of all the different motels they've stayed in since then— there's far too many, and after a while they all start to feel the same. But if Sam had been injured badly enough that it looked like a suicide attempt, surely Dean would have noticed, unless Dean hadn't been there, but that was dumb because Dean was always with Sam, except for… But they weren't apart that long and Sam had seemed fine when he'd come back… Well, he'd found out he was Lucifer's vessel and Dean had told him to stay away from him forever, but he wouldn't have… Sammy'd never—
Dean jumps as Sam opens the driver's side and slides in, plunking a warm box of donuts down in Dean's lap and pushing a large black coffee into his hand. Dean can't get himself under control enough to send Sam a look that's anything less than ten kinds of freaked out, but Sam just sighs and rolls his eyes.
"Relax, dude," he says tiredly as he starts the engine and maneuvers the car out of the parking lot. "I got the jelly filled ones."
It takes Dean several seconds to figure out what Sam means, then he shifts his gaze to the box of donuts in his lap and tries to breathe with what feels like the weight of a semi truck settled on his chest. He wants to let this matter drop. Oh man, does he ever just want to let this drop, but he can't stop seeing those words in his mind. Multiple attempts. Four months ago. He considers straight up asking Sam about it, but he can't think of anything more subtle than going "Hey, Sammy, did you try to kill yourself four months ago?"
He takes a sip of his coffee, holding the bitter flavor in his mouth, pulling the liquid slowly through his teeth the way Sam hates before realizing that annoying his brother probably isn't the way he's going to get him to confess anything. No, conversation is the way to go when it comes to Sam. Dean'll just start a conversation, and gradually lead Sam around to the topic of psychotic breakdowns and incredibly fucking stupid suicide attempts.
"Hey, Sammy," he starts, and that's good, that's a good start. "Did you try to kill yourself four months ago?"
"What?" Sam tosses him a look like Dean just started speaking Russian, but his hands tighten on the wheel and the car swerves ever so slightly.
"Your file in that nut house, it said you tried to kill yourself four months ago." This is a conversation, Dean decides. Good enough.
"You read my file?" Sam's sudden death grip on the wheel is making the tendons in his forearms stand out and Dean can't stop staring at them.
"Yeah, I did."
"Cause apparently you were doing even more fucked up things than I realized!" Dean fully recognizes his answer makes little sense, but it doesn't matter. The issue here is not why he read Sam's file, it's why Sam isn't laughing and telling Dean it's some ridiculous misunderstanding and he's perfectly well adjusted, thank you very much. Except for the whole anger-issues thing he told Dean about six hours ago, but anger makes you want to kill other people, not yourself.
"Dean." And wow, for someone who confessed to being fueled by anger like the Energizer Bunny is fueled by the battery stuffed up his ass, Sam is being remarkably calm. "It doesn't matter."
"Of course it fucking matters, Sam!" Dean, on the other hand, can't seem to stop yelling. "It matters if you tried to kill yourself!"
"Dean, it was a long time ago, and obviously it didn't work, so can we just—"
"It didn't work?" Dean's voice drops along with his stomach. Seeing it written down was one thing, but hearing Sam basically admit it is something else entirely. "Pull the car over, Sammy."
"What? No." Sam gives Dean another one of those what-the-hell-is-the-matter-with-you looks, but Dean is not taking it this time.
"Pull the car over," he says in the voice he usually reserves for telling demons he's about to send them straight back to Hell. "Now, Sam, or so help me I will make you pull it over."
Sam pulls over. The second the he kills the engine Dean is out of the car, storming around to the driver's side to catch the door as Sam opens it and drag his brother bodily from the car.
"Dean! What the hell?" Sam struggles vaguely, like he doesn't want to or he's trying not to, but Dean shoves him up against the Impala without preamble and holds him there with one arm pressed against Sam's chest. With the other arm he grabs Sam's wrist, flips it over and yanks so the loose flannel shirt Sam threw on when they changed earlier falls back towards his elbow.
And there, right there, shining white in the early morning sunlight, is a perfect little line, cut diagonally from the bottom of Sam's hand to a spot several inches up his forearm. It's straight and neat and practically fucking surgical in it's preciseness, and Dean is betting if he looked on Sam's other wrist he'd find a matching scar, one that is probably the exact same down to the motherfucking angle at which it was cut.
Dean makes a noise low in his throat and gives Sam one hard shove with his arm, then turns around and take several steps across the roadside gravel, stopping when his feet reach the edge of a field.
"When?" he demands of the open sky. A small gray cloud forms, breaks, and disappears in the time it takes Sam to answer. Dean clenches his fists and tries not to punch anything.
"When I found out I was Lucifer's vessel."
It's hard not to take a swing when Dean feels like he's just been kicked in the chest and the first lesson Dad ever taught him was if something tries to hurt you, you hurt them before they get a chance.
Well, that had been one of the first lesson Dad taught him, anyway. The actual first one was look after your brother.
The next words tear themselves through Dean's throat like silver bullets through a werewolf's heart. "Before or after you called me?"
"Dean." Sam gives this big sigh, like he's the one put upon here, like this is really difficult for him. "Look, it's not—"
"Before or after, Sam."
Another sigh. You'd think Sam was trying to blow the clouds down from the sky. Dean kind of wouldn't mind seeing that, great masses of water and ice smashing into the earth, making craters like meteors. That's what Sam's best at, after all. Punching holes in Dean's life and fitting himself inside. But Sam won't climb into these craters, Dean will. He'll pull the dirt over himself like a blanket, and it'll be just like when he woke up from Hell, when he wasn't expected to save anyone because he was too busy drowning in the blood he'd made them shed, drop by glorious drop.
"After." The word is quiet, soft as a cloud-wisp.
Dean nods once, the fall of a meteor. Then he drops to his knees and sinks his fingers into the dirt at the side of the road.
He doesn't know exactly what he's doing— digging, maybe, trying to make a grave large enough to encompass all the corpses he's left in his wake, and all the ones he's yet to leave. Or maybe scratching, trying to rip away the surface of the world and get at what they all know is underneath, the writhing mass of evil just waiting to rise up and devour them— but he does know his fingernails are cracking and splintering as he drags them through the earth and Sam is saying his name in his panicking voice and touching Dean's arms and shoulders.
Dean shoves him away hard and Sam ends up sprawling, hands flung wide to catch himself, palms skittering across gravel that's no doubt leaving marks.
"What the hell, Sam?" Dean asks, because no matter what Dean does now Sam is the one who actually tried to give up, to check out for real. Dean could smear the dirt and blood from his newly torn hands all over his skin and drive the Impala off a cliff with himself still inside, and Sam would still be the more broken one.
"I'd just found out I was Lucifer vessel," Sam answers. He winces when he moves and Dean realizes he probably hit his shoulder on the Impala's fender when he fell. Dean digs his fingers into the ground again, but Sam doesn't comment. He draws in on himself instead, tucking long limbs up until he sitting with his back to the car, his knees to his chest, and his arms around his knees. It's the posture of a child, but Sam's got the eyes of a thousand-year old soul.
"He showed up as Jess, first," Sam continues, and Dean is seconds away from asking him to stop, please, Sammy, stop because the naked pain in Sam's voice is too much for him to bear. "It was in my dreams, but still she was there, and she was so beautiful… And I knew— I know— it wasn't real, but to see her again…"
Sam smiles then, this tiny broken sliver of a smile, and it's the worst thing that's happened since Jo and Ellen died. Dean puts his head down to avoid seeing even another second of that smile. Dean would put his head in a vat of acid if it meant not having to see that smile.
"And then it wasn't Jess anymore, it was him." Sam's voice suggests its safe for Dean to look up, so he takes a peek. Sam has his head titled back against the Impala now, addressing his words to the sky just like Dean was before. Maybe he's also waiting for that meteor. "He told me everything, and he seemed so goddamn certain I would say yes. Like there wasn't any doubt. Like I didn't have a choice."
Dean finds himself twisting around and climbing to his knees. It makes him taller than Sam right now, and he feels every inch of it. His bloodied fingers are twitching slightly at his sides, but Sam's hands look ready to vibrate off his knees.
"When I called you, I…" Sam raises his head, then lets it thunk back against the car once. A small punishment, only this time it's not his crime. "I was so scared. It was so easy to believe him, and I almost did. I almost believed I was going to say yes someday, and you…"
"I didn't, Sammy," Dean says, though of course he did, he did, everything Sam is accusing him of and more. He shuffles forward on his knees, gravel scratching through worn denim, wishing the sunshine would bleach the tears from Sam's eyes and the hurt from his voice.
"It's okay, it's fine." Sam's still speaking to the sky, but the words don't mean a thing. Clouds without rain, the next gust of wind and they're gone. "I couldn't handle it, after we talked. Lucifer. The Apocalypse. It was all my fault. It is all my fault, and I wanted…"
Dean is close enough now he can see the way Sam's throat is working as he swallows like he's trying not to choke on something that's too big to keep inside.
"Where did you do it?" It's sick, Dean shouldn't want to know, but he can't help trying to picture it as he reaches out and touches the back of one of Sam's hands.
"The bathtub." Sam lets Dean pull his hand from his knee and flip it over. There are cuts there from the gravel, just like Dean predicted. They're sticky from drying blood and full of dirt. When Dean touches them with his own fingers, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between the two of them. "Less of a mess that way. I figured if the cleaning staff were going to find a body, the least I could do was make sure they didn't have to scrub up blood the next day."
Dean can't help laughing a little at that, because only Sammy would be thinking about the well-being of a bunch of maids at some motel while he committed suicide. The laughter gets stuck in his throat, and he gags, body bowing reflexively over Sam's.
"Did you do it naked?" He forces the words out, because if Sam can still be Sam when the world is shaking to pieces around them, then Dean can still be Dean. "Please tell me you were naked, Sammy, complete the cliché."
Sam shakes his head minutely, then closes his eyes as Dean's fingers slide past the newly opened wounds on his palm to the scars on his wrist.
"What did it feel like?" Dean asks, the words a whisper, five more specs of drifting dust caught in the sunlight of the early morning air.
"There's was a lot of blood. I ruined my jeans. Your jeans." Sam turns his head, cracks an eye. There's a a spark there that catches the light before it dies. "I found them in my duffle."
"Bitch." Dean pinches the soft skin of Sam's wrist with his shattered nails, mildly impressed when Sam only flinches a little. "I bet they looked fucking ridiculous on you." He passes him thumb over the scar again. It's so much smaller and more innocent looking than the mess of twisted flesh on Sam's lower back, but the message is the same. Dean fucked up, and Sam died. "Did it hurt?"
"Yeah." Sam closes his eyes again. His head lolls against the Impala and Dean shifts until he's sitting next to him, a little worried Sam is going to pass out or faint or something. He wants, this time, to be able to catch him if he falls. "But only at first. Blood loss isn't the most fun way to go, but it's better than a lot of them."
Severed spinal cord. Gunshot to the chest. Electrocution. Torture. Angel-induced asphyxiation. Dean can count them all and more, in Sam's scars and his own.
"How long was it before you woke up?"
"A couple of hours. There was this moment, right before I blacked out, when I thought… I thought maybe it had worked. Maybe I'd called his bluff. Maybe I was going to set things right."
Dean wants to tell Sam no, it's about as far from right as he can imagine. Even if it meant stopping the Apocalypse— hell, even if it meant going back and making it so the Apocalypse was never even started in the first place, there was absolutely nothing right about his little brother slitting his wrists in some anonymous motel bathroom and bleeding out, terrified and alone.
But Dean can't say that, he can't say any of that, he can only hold onto Sam's wrist so hard he can feel the bones grind together and his pulse push against Dean's skin until he can't tell whose heartbeat it is keeping time with their too-short breaths.
"He healed my wrists, but he left me the scars." Sam's wrist flexes in Dean's grip as his hands clench into fists, and it's the first reminder that Sam isn't just scared and lost, he's furious. "His idea of a joke, I guess. A nice little reminder that no matter what I do, I can't escape him."
"Hey," Dean says. "Hey."
He can't promise Sam that they'll never say yes, because they both know he doesn't believe that, as hard as he may try. He can't promise they won't screw this up, because screwing things up is their one tried and true skill in life. He can't even promise they'll always have each other's backs, because Dean's seen Sam with the Devil inside of him and Sam has two white lines on his wrists from already giving up.
But Dean can pull Sam to his feet and around to the trunk, and he can get out the first aid kit and wash the dirt and blood from Sam's hands. He can stick on butterfly bandages like they aren't bound to be sweated off in a few hours, and he can let Sam carefully cut away all the broken parts of his fingernails and the largest chunks of his shredded skin. He can put Sam back in the passenger seat, and he can get behind the wheel, and they can drive off like they haven't left pieces of themselves scattered by the roadside.
Dean gets them on to a main highway, which puts the sun at their backs. The golden light touches the ends of Sam's hair, making him look like he has a halo. Dean reaches out with one arm and drags him into a headlock, steadying the wheel with his elbow long enough to ruffle Sam's hair.
Sam ducks out from under his arm and the abuse, but he doesn't slide away. Up this close, Dean can't see a halo anymore. All he can see is Sam.
"Don't ever do that again, Sammy." He puts both hands on the wheel like he needs help steering them down this straight line. "You… you just can't, okay? Not without me."
He expects an eye roll, some sort of snarky comment, maybe a return to teenage-Sam's favorite you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do argument. But all he gets is a shrug, Sam's shoulder sliding against his, and a quiet, "Okay."
Sam waits a bit before adding, "There wasn't much point, anyway."
"Sammy." Dean slows the car slightly, because this is important, Sam needs to get this, in spite of his guilt and his anger, and everything else. Dean needs to know Sam gets this. "Our lives, us living the way we want, just like this… It's about the only damn point we have left."
"Yeah." Sam doesn't sound entirely convinced, but he turns his head and offers Dean a smile. It's small and a little strained, but it's genuine, and it doesn't make Dean wants to cut out his own eyes or swallow a grenade. "Drive on then, cowboy."
Dean is morally obligated to roll his eyes and punch Sam in the leg for saying something so cheesy, but after he does that there's nothing stopping him from pushing the pedal to the floor and doing just as Sam asked. The road they're on is unusually empty, but Dean can't say he's surprised. There's six billion other people out there, Dean knows. He can hardly stop thinking of them, how he's got to save them, but in moments like these it feels like he and Sam are the only two people left in the world.
The sky is clear, the sun is at their backs, Sam is scarred and Dean is terrified, but his hands on the wheel don't shake at all as he drives straight and fast down this road that was meant for them.