The flash of fire from across the clearing comes half a minute too late - or maybe Dean was half a minute too slow. It's possible. He's lagging, these days.
Everything just takes a little more effort. Running and shooting and hauling himself over the iron gates before skittering down the night wet grass, away from where Sam is digging into the ground. Keeping all senses alert to track the sudden shadowed glimmer of some spirit, to dodge its cold hands before it can pin him on the spikes of those fucking gates and go after his brother next. So he runs, and shoots, and stays awake, because this is what he does. This is how the job goes.
And maybe it's Jack, or Jim, or both of them, or that sleep is an hour tucked to the end of a passed out night. Maybe it's the endless row of diners where burgers taste of stale fat and he'd rather go with a slice of too sweet pie instead, and the bitter burn of coffee at the back of his mouth. Something's to blame, anyway, for how his hands were shaking, making him miss the target and burst the ground with salt instead.
Not like it matters in the end. Grave full of bones gone up in flames, job done, so who cares?
Chasing after only one Winchester never saved anyone, and Dean's face pulls into a grimace meant to be a smile when he hears Sam shouting his name. His gulps down two, three lungful of air, then wheezes out his answer. His head is throbbing in time with his out-of-control heartbeat, and all he wants to do is lean back against the stone wall and let it all be. Just for one second, let it be. Tip backwards into the bloated space of his body, deep down under his skin, into the hollow void opening under all this upheaval where it's quiet and numb.
"Dean. Are you okay?"
Gravel scrunches. The fall of heavy, hurried steps, and then the smell of sweat and wet earth, of fuel and fire. Dean forces his eyes open and hastens to shuffle his body into an upright position. He meant to be on his feet before Sam could catch up with him. Must have mistimed that a little.
"Yeah,"he grunts. "Peachy."
His left boot keeps slipping before he can put any weight on it. His head is big and light, and dark specks start whirling in front of his eyes, protesting every move towards the vertical.
"Are you hurt? Did you get hurt?"
Sam sounds like the tape deck back when it was acting up that one time. Not shrill, just a beat too fast, and Dean can't keep up. Sam pushes him back down before he can answer. When he shakes his head, Sam's already occupied looking for injuries and doesn't see it. His fingers are busy prodding Dean's chest, padded points of pressure splayed all along the curve of his ribs. Through the damp cotton, it doesn't feel like much at all.
"I'm all right, Sam,"Dean says. "Told you."He wants to get up and pat Sam on the back and say, Let's get back to the motel, get you cleaned up, Sammy, 'cause you reek worse than a whore house in the desert, and then steal the first shower anyway. It's what big brothers do, be a pain in the ass, and as long as he's playing it right, Sam won't notice Dean slipping more than a towel and fresh clothes into the bathroom. Sam doesn't need to know about the fresh trickle of blood draining down the sink. About the sweet lines to take the edge off, to keep the world from coming unhinged over night.
But Sam's hand is sliding along his jeans and creeping too close to the scars. Dean tries batting him away, but hits only empty space.
There's a swallowed sound and Sam brings his fingers up into the dim light where he can see, and he turns them and makes that sound again, and his fingertips are shiny now, smeared with something dark.
It's not so bad. Not so bad that it'll need stitches; he doesn't think that it'll be needing stitches.
Dean slips his fingers under the towel and traces the rip in his jeans. Underside of his left thigh, high up too. Can't stitch that up himself, not there, not unless maybe he's got a mirror, maybe if he had a mirror.
Everything's warm and slippery there with his blood, soaking his jeans, the towel, the upholstery if he's not careful while he tries to measure the length of the wound in fingertips.
"We're almost there,"Sam says. He looks across the front seat. The blue light of some advert slides over his scrunched up face and it must be falling on Dean too, the light, coming in from this bad angle where it drags all over the interior and their bodies and Dean's leg, and Sam can see everything. His hand leaves the steering wheel to slap at Dean's arm. "Don't do that."
"Not doing anything,"Dean says and puts pressure back on the towel.
He doesn't think it'll need stitches. Hard to say as long it's bleeding, but maybe all that blood is actually from before; maybe the bleeding has stopped by now.
He slips his fingers under the towel to check.
"It's okay, Sammy. I'll go wash it out and everything's good as new. Told you, I'm all right."
Dean walks through the motel door first yet somehow five steps in, Sam manages to block his way to the bathroom. And for all it's worth, Dean might as well be talking to himself, or the wall, or his baby out in the parking lot.
"Sam,"he starts again and tries pushing him aside.
The fight is short and unfair. Sam is too tall and too fast and Dean lands sideways on the edge of the bed and the towel down on the floor. Under the overhead lamp, it looks bloodier than it really is, but that's just the light, the too-bright bulb.
The water's running in the bathroom. Sam must be washing his hands, scrubbing them clean with soap as means of preparation. He'll be back in just a moment with the med kit and a clean towel, with a glass of water and a bottle of Jack, and then he's going to want to see.
It's all so clear in this light. Everything dragged to the surface and laid out. The threads in the woven pattern of the bed sheets, the faded dirt stains on the rug, and all the blood and how it spread along the washed-out cotton of the towel. How it dried, evidence of guilt, in the capillary structure of his skin.
He sits up, but Sam's already there to put him back down.
"Jesus, Dean, what the hell?"
"It's okay, Sammy,"he tries. He doesn't need stitches, it's okay, Sam doesn't need to see this.
That expression on Sam's face is the one that should have taught Dean how to lie. Always too skeptic, too curious, stupid bright kid. Hair is falling over his eyes and for a weird second he looks small again. Dean can see his little brother in these features. The little boy he picked up from school, who ate Dean's lunch, who came crawling into Dean's bed long before he knew he had reason to be afraid of the dark. It's the softness in his eyes, and the slant of his mouth, traces of innocence in proportions that seem all wrong now.
Dean looks away and Sam calls his name.
He has always lost this fight. Sam says his name and there he is, swallowing the pills he's handed, unbuckling his belt, shoving down the stiff bloodied mess of his jeans.
"If it makes you sleep better,"he mumbles.
Maybe if he angles his legs right, maybe that will do, maybe Sam won't notice.
He rolls over and buries his head in the pillow as Sam starts cleaning him up. Long swipes from hip to the hollow of his knee, a drawn out circle around the flesh wound, working with so much care.
"So?"Dean asks. He wants Sam to hurry up. He wants this to be over with yesterday.
"Give me one damn minute,"Sam replies. He washes out the tissue and then he's back to clean the right side of the wound, the inside of Dean's thigh, and Dean holds very still.
One swipe. And another. And Sam's hand comes to a halt.
His fingers creep over the edge of the tissue, brush over Dean's skin. Dean can hear him exhale.
"What's that you've got there? Is that a rash?"
Lie. Lie to him. Hurry up and tell him a story. Something gross. Anything.
"Nothing. It's nothing, Sam."
His watch is ticking. The room is large and empty.
Sam is not doing anything, and not saying anything, and he doesn't say anything the whole time it takes to perform the stitches. Dean levels his breathing with the pricks of the needle, but what little pain it can offer holds no comfort, only shame.
When it's done, he ducks his head and disappears in the bathroom. He finds himself begging for this silence to last forever. Building structures around emptiness, that's what he's good at.
It lasts one night and the morning. Has to bring it up over the second cup of coffee, outside the diner just before they get on the highway. Couldn't even wait until night when Dean could have at least well armed himself with something more efficient than caffeine.
"I'm not talking about this,"he tells Sam. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Yeah, okay,"Sam says and pauses just long enough for Dean to bark out laughter. "You don't have to talk to me about it, if you don't want, but-"
"And I'm sure as hell not talking to a shrink."
"That's not what-"
Dean cuts him off with one sharp word and turns his back. He glares at the street and the rain clouds there on the edge of the low, grey sky. One hand is resting against the cool metal of his car, against the heavy distance between him and Sam's accusations. He'd rather shield himself behind his baby than get back inside to drive shoulder to shoulder, miles on end, with this thing hanging in the air. There's so little space between them as it is. And Sam's always watching, with his big worried eyes, always tracking and taxing, because that's how it goes with Sam. Can't leave anything alone. Always has to have everything.
He's playing with the lid of his cup now, little plastic scratches. Dean can hear him sorting through his words. Figuring out his weaponry.
Dean feels for the flask in his jacket.
"I get it, you know?"Sam says eventually. "Why you would... And I'm not telling you to just put a stop to it or something. I know that's not how it works."
"Okay, so don't."
And Sam inhales like he's been hurt, like Dean is punching him or something, like the mere fact of Dean's existence is some tragic error in his life, a constant irritation.
Furious, Dean turns around. "Just let it be, all right?"
Sam's opening his mouth, but Dean's not having this conversation, not now and not ever, and if he can't make Sam shut up, then he'll at least drown him out with his tapes, push the gas pedal until the wind and the engine are howling, and Sam can blabber all he wants without Dean having to hear a thing. So he drains his coffee, and he tosses the cup away, and he's about to open the driver door, when Sam says, "Let me."
Drive, Dean thinks.
It takes him fifteen miles to catch on.
It's a close tie between throwing up and throwing punches when he does, and the only thing Sam's got going for him is that neither are viable options on a highway, pushing 90.
Age twelve, Dean catches a backhand for picking at scabs. Dad keeps saying, Don't touch it, let it heal, you gonna catch something, boy.
Keeps telling him and Dean still can't keep his fingers away. Always touching the dried blood and the new pink skin and the clear fluid leaking where the claw cut the deepest. He peels off the dead tissue with nothing but a faint sting.
So Dad does what he has to and drives home the point.
After that, Dean tries clenching his fists whenever he's drawn to the bright slashes until eventually, he learns to feel them out from inside. He stretches into the ache, rolls his shoulder or drags his breath so it'll make the pain in his side flare up, or wherever else he's been stabbed, shot, cut, bruised.
Sam's always looking at him with big eyes. That's right, Dean tells him. That's one badass of a big brother you've got. It feels good while Sam believes him, but it only lasts until Dean comes back from a hunt and can't walk or speak and barely breathe. Sam starts to cry. Don't be a baby, Dad says, or maybe it's Dean, memory's a little fuzzy on that one, but what he does remembers is that Sam does nothing but fight for a month after that.
Sometimes, with the shower running in the background because no one needs to know about his vain moments, Dean looks at himself in the mirror and his growing collection of scars. They're reminders why Dad needs him, etched into his skin, definite and reassuring. That's what Sam doesn't understand. And if he fucked up, then it's only right that there's proof of that too. The pain that comes with it is the punishment he deserves and maybe, he thinks, when he's still young and bright-eyed, maybe one day that'll be enough to buy him absolution.
That's before he takes his trip downstairs.
And when he comes back, the world is hollow, dragging breaths with punctured lungs. He can see red flashing from the holes.
The angels wipe his body clean in some gruesome act of mercy, but don't care enough to wipe his head. Or maybe his soul, maybe that kind of stuff resides in the soul, and the angel acts like he still has one, so Dean's inclined to believe. Not that he understands why and how, but what does he know about the feathered bastards and their business.
Truth is, Castiel did a piss-poor job when he got Dean out. Raising a piece of Hell can't have been part of the master plan, but here it is and Dean is stuck with it. Where other people have a heart or a soul or whatever it is that makes them good people, he's got an abyss filled with vile memories, and every so often it swells, it leaks, it's like a fucking fountain spilling out the stench of singed intestines and those sounds, the squelch of naked flesh and the little bones breaking like twigs and the screams and how they begged when the skin ripped and the chest stood open and always, over his shoulder, in his ear, an acid sugared whisper.
Inside his own head.
Told him to stop picking. Just like Dad. Slide your hand right in, don't play shy now, kiddo. Make it fit.
He'd take a knife to his own head, if it helped. Cut that voice right out.
The least he can do is keep it from spilling over. What he did, and who he is, that's not something Sam needs to know about, so he does his best to put a lid on it. He crams forty years into a dark place in his guts where no one can go looking, crams them as deep under his serenely virginal skin as they'll possibly go.
And it's possible that as the months drag on, hell develops its own pull. Or something like it anyway sits stone-like in his belly, gulps down life and grows in mass and gravity. It solidifies, it festers, and by sheer weight rips a tendon between Dean and the world. There's a slowly widening gap that's opening, a disconnect just below the surface of his skin.
And then it's November and the Devil is in Carthage, Missouri, together with his hounds. There's a fire, and death comes to take all the wrong ones.
At night, Dean lies in his dark bed, listening to the sounds of sleep like phantoms from the far side of the room. Under his pillow, he still keeps a gun, and after a while puts a knife there too.
The best solution to deal with anything you cannot kill is not to deal. Suck it up and keep on moving and if there's one thing Dean's got, it's forward momentum.
His baby's outright purring.
These are the better days, when there's nothing to do but drive until he goes blank with the engine's tact and the sway of the road. Time is a smear of color in the corner of his eyes. Time is a singular moment of turning the tape, or a needle indicating refuel, or Sam taking a piss by the roadside.
At night he has a drink, or maybe two or maybe more, it's hard to say when he's pulling straight from the bottle, but the point is never to let the world gain focus. This hazy shade lacking depth is just right. It's an easy step into darkness from here.
But sometimes he can feel the car spinning sideways like she's aiming for a tree, or a wall, something concrete enough to withstand her violent impact. Sometimes the light reflects in the mirrors and the road frays in front of his eyes, disintegrates into meaningless shapes, and he puts his hands tight around the steering wheel and digs his thigh into the seat. The wound flares up, the stitches groan, and there it is, his one point of connection. Mellow, orange-colored pain spreading through his blood, and it's like a lighthouse, a homing beacon, and he can almost imagine filling his skin again, fitting into this two-dimensional painting of a world. It's a gossamer thread just strong enough to haul him back and keep his baby straight.
Sam looks away when Dean turns his head.
Sam looks away when Dean picks out the whetstone. In the motel room, after dark, two beers down, and the weapons spread out on his bed. He cleans the sawed-off the first day, and a handgun the next. On the third, it's the machetes, and Sam stares at his laptop screen hard enough to burn a hole in it. Only gets to show he doesn't understand. These are for slicing heads off. It's the pocket knife close to Dean's leg he should be watching.
But Dean doesn't do it. He keeps on going through the motions, just like he's been taught. Driving, and drinking, and shooting. All he has to do is hold on and maybe Sam will forget about it. Maybe Sam will decide that it's not worth his attention.
A turn of the blade every morning and every evening, when he puts it under his pillow and when he gets it back out, without ever pricking his skin. An endless line of smeared colors, and round after round on his tapes. The stitches don't bleed anymore. His lip does, once, when he bites it, and there's a crescent mark on his wrist where he pressed a fingernail in. The stitches come out. And he's still holding on.
And then he finds himself in a bathroom where the sink is grimy, and the fittings and bare pipes rust, and thick water spots spread along the corners, the walls crumbling away. He finds himself staring at his body in a broken mirror, finds himself frantically searching a spot that nobody will ever see, a better hiding spot, and he pulls down the seam of his jeans and brings out the blade to line up with his hipbones. Here is the thought and the promise of a world gone so still, and here is the threat of a secret weighed against Sam's presence, and here are all of his weaknesses lined up in a row.
He sticks his tongue out instead and thinks, there, this he can do. Ugly inside that no one will ever see, no one will find out. He can cut and he can chase it, he can still guilt and shame by paying, by making his amends in red and in breath.
He stands there in a derelict bathroom, his reflection split into multitudes, and the blade shimmers and his tongue is wet, and all he can think of is Sam, Sam, Sam. Never satisfied, always wanting everything.
Another piece of the mirror shatters under his fist.
Out in the diner, the midday light slices squares into the floor and sharp edges across the interior, through tables and counter and faces. The door squeaks behind him as it shuts. Big windows stained with gone rains and smoke. Something's sizzling on the stove. Something's burning.
Sam sits hunched over his meal. Hair all neat and the button-down clean.
The coke spills over when Dean slams the knife down. "There,"he says. The table rattles. Blunt violence for covering the shake in his voice.
Sam looks up from his meal, but not as far as to look at Dean. Only at the knife and at Dean's hand where there are bruises on the knuckles, red, and his eyebrows furrow in concern. "Oh,"he says. "Did you...?"
Dean shakes his head, jaw set hard. He might just punch Sam, how he sits there, quiet-like, inhabiting all this space and playing dumb. He pulls out a rough count of bills instead, needing something to do with his hands. They land in the spot of coke, on the plate and the bacon Dean hasn't even touched.
Some truckers are looking over. The waitress too, coffee pot in hand.
Sam fiddles with the fork. Shoves the plate away, soft scratch over the plastic surface. Rubs his fingers, thinking. "You want me to do this,"he says.
And then he blinks up at Dean with this strange expression, like he's hurting, or waiting for something, but then he nods once and finally gets up, puts on his jacket and pockets the knife.
Soon it'll be quiet. The world will go so still, almost like it was before. One white blast when the pain swells and for a little while, Dean will feel good and empty from inside.