Title: Choices on the Crumbling Road

Author: Still Waters

Fandom: Supernatural

Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural. Just playing, with love and respect to those who brought these characters to life.

Summary: 7x14 tag. Sam had expected the nightmares. Dean hadn't expected the absolution. And Lucifer just couldn't resist.

Notes: This story is dedicated to strive2bhappy over on LJ. Not only did she patiently listen to my lengthy rants about what I didn't like about the writing and characterizations in 7x14, she encouraged me to channel all that energy and emotion into an episode tag and even threw a few ideas out for consideration. It was pieces of those ideas that sparked this story to life, and the first draft came out of me like a freaking shot. So, thank you, my dear, for your patience, support, and inspiration! I truly enjoyed giving my hands to the characters' tale here. As always, I hope I did them justice. Apologies to any readers who are fans of the "Twilight" book/movie series, but the mocking of "sparkling vampires" is pretty much canon (6x05, "Live Free or Twihard"), so what better way for a glitter-puking Sam to get Dean to smile? Thank you for reading.

Sam couldn't believe it.

A clown doll. A friggin' clown doll.

His immediate reaction was pure, unrestrained anger. The nightmares were already brewing, gnawing at his gut and threatening each passing thought of rest, so he sure as hell didn't need a corporeal reminder of that night on top of the fractured sleep he knew was coming. But as much as Sam wanted to rage at Dean for the seemingly callous dismissal of his very real phobia, he didn't. Couldn't. Because the echoes of Dean's laughter – a real, honest, big brother laugh instead of the world weary, run-down picture of loss and depression Dean had been for so long – meant too damn much to him. So Sam put on an expected, petulant "dude, you're a dick" glare which, honestly, was kind of true, and made a comment about how the doll probably had a creepy laugh or some other equally disturbing sound effect.

"Nope," Dean said cheerfully, ducking into the car to avoid the clown missile launched at his head.

Sam sank into the passenger seat with a sigh, finding no comfort in the dull sound of the doll hitting the ground; no relief with Dean's grinned assurance of the toy's silence.

Because the doll had laughed.

Sam heard it.

Even worse, he knew the voice.

And it wasn't a clown.

Sam was running.

Running hard and fast and desperate; always running…..the story of his life. Running through darkness, biting cold, and suffocating evil; through flashes of oversaturated color exploding around him in perverted parodies of fireworks, rustles of fabric meant to be cheerful and nonthreatening, and echoes of stretched grins, waggling fingers, and mocking laughter. He held onto Dean's words, running them over his tongue like prayer beads through the devout's hands, a mantra against the endless crescendo of panic. The clowns phased closer in a cruel, macabre dance of pleasure, puppets on the string of his darkest childhood terrors. His heart hammered against his ribs, vision darkened around blown pupils as his respirations lost the fight to hyperventilation, invisible bonds squeezing his chest until there wasn't enough space in the country to ease the choking claustrophobia. He felt the cold, sticky spray of seltzer, heard the clown twirl his flower gleefully, but it felt wrong…..like an acid suddenly coursing through his veins, shooting up to his brain, burning and slicing and eroding something….important. He clenched his eyes shut until tears bled through the bunched muscles, fisting his hands against his head in a vain attempt to dig the acid out…..only to open them again to the sudden chill of breath on his face. The clown was right in front of him, all semblance of personal space gone, and it wasn't until it spoke that Sam was suddenly able to see past the cheerfully garish costume to recognize the worse nightmare underneath.

"Sam, you poor, sad son of a bitch," Lucifer sighed around the painted smile. "You really do care. I mean I'll admit, all the work it took to find you, then you betraying us back to the Pit….it made me a little angry. But then you turn around and give me a gift like this," he spread his arms wide to encompass his costume and the surrounding clowns.

Sam began to shake, fighting invisible hands keeping him in place. "Get…..get away from me. Leave me alone!"

"Leave you alone? Why would I do that? Your heart rate right now?" Lucifer tapped Sam's chest with a colorfully gloved finger. "Is actually higher than when you were hanging over the coals – and that required work. Hooks….fire…..knives….." Lucifer's eyes shone as Sam paled. "This is so much easier."

"Just….stop," Sam pleaded, tears burning through tightly screwed eyelids as his hands were prevented from digging into his temples. He could feel Lucifer in his head, strolling casually through his brain as if it were his personal museum of amusement, reaching out to caress passing neurons with a deceptively calm interest, eyes sparkling with the joy of impending destruction.

"Sammy," Lucifer chided, "We've had this conversation before, remember? You know what they say about denial…"

"Please, just…." Sam panted.

Lucifer pulled him impossibly closer. Sam's panic exploded over the ensuing words, pulse pounding in his ears, breathing ragged on the edge of darkness, bile burning up his throat, choking, scalding, drowning him until…

Sam arched with a wet gag, rolling onto his side as he violently emptied his stomach.

"Sam?" Dean hurried across the room, sliding into a worried perch on the edge of the bed.

Sam's stomach spasmed painfully with the dip in the mattress, bile searing through his esophagus with intensified ferocity.

Dean shifted slightly to avoid the spatter and laid a light hand on one shaking shoulder. He frowned as muscles bunched under his fingers, a split-second where Sam threatened to pull away before allowing the touch. "Sammy? Hey, you with me?"

Sam thought he had held back the half-sobbed response. Apparently not, because the worry in Dean's voice spiked up several notches. "Sam? C'mon man, talk to me."

Sam looked up into concerned, guilty green eyes; eyes that just hours ago had been bright and clear with the laughter of simpler days.

"Hey," a hint of relief breathed through Dean's worry as Sam met his eyes. "You okay?" he asked, cringing at the stupidity of the question even as it left his mouth. "Nightmare?" he tried again. Sam had been as still as a stone until the vomiting started, but that didn't mean he hadn't been under attack from a lifetime of bad crap just waiting to take advantage of the vulnerability of sleep.

Sam shook his head, groaning at the resulting wave of nausea. "Swallowed too much glitter," he murmured.

Dean's eyes flashed through responses with the speed of a cartoon flipbook - appreciative humor, sarcastic denial of the obvious lie, pleading for Sam to tell him the truth, and crushing guilt, all in the span of a single blink. And settled on guilt. Guilt that Sam's current state was his fault, that he had made a potentially unforgiveable call in sending Sam to deal with the clowns, forgetting, or worse ignoring, the depth of the phobia under the teasing. "Sam….."

Sam swallowed thickly. The panic was still lingering on the edges of his senses, his stomach rolling, head pounding. But he couldn't take the pain, guilt, and crushing weariness that had seeped back into his brother's eyes. Sam had been shaky as hell coming back from the clown attack, his laughter more the manic edge of crashing adrenaline, but all it had taken was one look at the sparkle of amusement in Dean's eyes to push everything else aside and encourage the mockery. Dean's unfettered laughter had been a palliative balm to Sam's own weary soul. He may have been seeing Lucifer while brushing his friggin' teeth for the last several months, but he wasn't crazy. He knew how this was all going to end. At this point, all he could do was hope he and Dean went down together, because the alternative was so much worse. But that was the future – a rapidly approaching future, maybe - but the future nonetheless. If Bobby had taught them one thing, it was to focus on the present. And right now, Sam needed to see that spark of his playful big brother again just as much as Dean needed to see that he still was that brother.

When it came down to it, sacrificing some of his dignity for the second time that night to erase the deep lines of fear and guilt from Dean's face was hardly a choice at all. In fact, it was the easiest thing Sam had done all day.

"'M I turning?" he asked, forcing the weary slur from his voice.

Dean's eyes flashed with panic at Sam's seemingly nonsensical response. "Turning?" he repeated, possibilities whipping through his head. Turning over? Turning into something? "Sam, what….." His eyes landed on Sam's vague gesture to the puddle of glitter-encrusted vomit on the floor and tears blurred his vision as relief-stricken laughter caught in his throat. Dean's lips quirked on the way to an actual smile. "Well, you're pale as crap, but not powdered Snow White levels. No spiky hair, awkward pauses, or complete lack of personality," he noted clinically. "You getting any urges to grab a Volvo, go back to high school, and watch teenage girls sleep until Chris Hansen starts calling you a pervert on national TV?"

Sam grinned weakly, closing his eyes with another wave of nausea. "Definitely not."

"You feel, like, a speck of testosterone anywhere in your body?"


"Then congrats, dude, you're clean. No 'Twilight-ification.' Just sparkling puke," Dean diagnosed with a snort, wrinkling his nose at the floor as he clapped Sam's shoulder on the way to his feet. "Although the fact it was your first thought…." He gave Sam a pointed look as he handed over a plastic cup and bottle of water.

Sam pushed himself up on one elbow, swished the water around his mouth, and spit the foul taste of emesis into the cup. "Says the guy who just rattled off all those details," he retorted before a second, grateful rinse.

"Friggin' crap is everywhere," Dean grumbled in defense, taking the cup to the bathroom and returning with a towel to throw over the mess on the floor. He gave Sam a careful look, considered asking if he wanted to talk about it, then pushed the thought aside. He knew what Sam was doing. For both of them. Normally, Dean would feel even guiltier to be on the receiving end of what he perceived as undeserved absolution, but all he felt at that moment was an embarrassing flood of love.

And a spark of an idea; a way to honor Sam's actions while giving a gift of his own.

"You wanna try and get some more sleep?" Dean asked, even as he knew the answer.

The "hell no" practically screamed through Sam's barely suppressed shudder.

"Okay, then." Dean slapped Sam's upper arm and stood with a pop of cartilage. "Grab your coat," he said, striding over to his duffel.

Sam sat up slowly. "Where're we goin'?"

"Job," Dean shrugged into his jacket.

"A job? Dean, we just finished a job," Sam reminded him wearily.

"Important job."

Sam stood with a shaky groan and reluctantly worked his arms into the sleeves of his jacket, swallowing against whispers of cruel laughter; the heightened memories of invisible, claustrophobic bondage.

Dean watched him carefully, waiting until Sam seemed vaguely steady on his feet before tossing a colorful blur across the room. "Hold this."

Sam caught the object easily, reflexes undimmed despite his slogging mind. "The Slinky?" he asked, confusion clouding his face.

Dean grinned when Sam deflated a split-second later, the realization finally kicking in. "This motel sucks – not even a decent flight of stairs. I saw a park a few miles back that might have something we can use."

"We're gonna test the giant Slinky in some random playground at two in the morning?" Sam asked drily.

Dean shot him a "duh" look. "Dude, it's just….wrong to keep a Slinky boxed up. You got better plans for tonight?"

Sam really didn't.

"You think one of those twirly slides would work?" Dean asked, drumming the steering wheel lightly as he thought out loud. The tactical consideration behind the glint of childish excitement soothed Sam's still sensitive stomach and drowned out the rumbling of another unfamiliar engine that wasn't home.

"I don't know, man….." Sam suddenly dropped off, body stiffening as the side mirror was filled with the image of Lucifer in the back seat, his usual clothing a sharp, eerie contrast to the clown makeup still coloring his face.

"You are so far beyond a river in Egypt," Lucifer sighed. "Honestly, Sam," the painted smile smeared into a twisted wisp of some nameless fear just beyond Sam's reach, as Lucifer dabbed at the borrowed face with one of Dean's favorite shirts. He leaned forward, icy breath chilling exposed skin while frighteningly familiar fingers tucked long hair behind Sam's ear. "You know, we didn't get to finish our conversation earlier," he murmured.

"Sammy?" The worry was tainting Dean's voice again, overriding even Lucifer's sickening blasphemy of a lover's touch.

Sam cleared his throat roughly, pulling away from the seatback under the guise of a stretch. "Worth a shot," he mused. "Hey," he suddenly recalled, "weren't there some stone steps or something going up to that hiking path?"

Dean's face brightened with the possibility. "Awesome," he shot Sam an anticipatory grin.

Sam latched onto that smile and held it close, adding it to the memory of Dean's earlier laughter, playing it as a low, white noise of comfort in the back of his mind; a continuous, desperate cleansing ritual.

Lucifer was wrong. This was far from denial. It was just….who they were. Sam and Dean. Two brothers on the last leg of a long journey, taking care of each other the best way they knew how along the final stretch toward a mutually understood, inevitable end.

How could Sam ever deny that?

He unfolded himself from the passenger seat as they reached the park, huddling into his coat and the mental warmth of the memory of Dean's uninhibited laughter; fortifications against a chill the night air refused to own. Their lives may have been accelerating toward a darkness where choice would be nothing more than a memory, but until they got there, Sam still had a few. He had chosen Dean's happiness over his own fear and anger earlier that night. And now, he chose to join his brother's musings on the Winchester-perceived physics of Slinkies; to get swept up in Dean's infectious excitement as he gleefully scouted out their first test site.

Not to focus on the deep chill in his bones, the nagging scratch at the back of his mind, or Lucifer's ominous validation of what Sam already, instinctively knew.

Another nightmare destined for waking truth.

"Everything up to now? Has just been one long dress rehearsal, Sammy. Opening night is coming. You've known that for awhile. And when it does…you'll wish you were back here with the clowns. If you still knew what a clown was. Or if you could even wish at all."