Author's Note: I wrote this as a tag to 7.19 "Of Grave Importance." It simply took on a life of its own.

Reviews are love. :)

Disclaimer: I own nothing but the arrangement of words in this document. Sam and Dean Winchester belong to other, more talented people.


"We're all cast-aways in need of rope,

Hanging on by the last threads of our hope,

In a house of mirrors, full of smoke…"

- Josh Garrels


He woke to the sound of chirping birds and the hum of distant traffic, the distinctly acrid smell of gasoline assaulting his nose.

Sam blinked bleary eyes open and yawned, his hand coming up automatically to keep the bright sunlight from burning his eyes. The temperature was warm, making him feel uncomfortably stiff in his clothes.

Not immediately recognizing his surroundings, Sam looked around, noting that his long limbs were sprawled awkwardly within the tight confines of the passenger seat of their most recently stolen car, an old, grey, 1988 Honda Civic. He wrinkled his nose at the still unfamiliar smell of cigarettes and cheap air fresheners.

He'd never tell Dean, as it would be like rubbing salt in an open wound, but it was times like this he really missed the Impala.

They were parked next to a pump at a small, nondescript gas station.

No brother in sight, but Dean was most likely inside either using the facilities or buying more alcohol and/or road food. All was well for the moment - or as well as things got, anyway.

Sam stepped out of the car and peeled off his dark brown jacket, grimacing as the sweat-soaked ends of his hair clung to the back of his neck and tickled the collar of his shirt. The light breeze felt cool and soothing against the clammy skin of his exposed forearms and through the thin plaid material of his shirt, still slightly damp from hours of unchecked perspiration.

God – he could smell himself. He needed a shower, like yesterday.

A scuffle of gravel behind him, and Sam turned to see his brother walking across the parking lot toward him, staring intently at the ground with his hands in his pockets. It wasn't how Dean usually walked. Normally, his big brother walked with his head up, his arms swinging, and his eyes scanning left and right for threats. It had always made Sam think of a guard dog. Lately though, Dean didn't seem to have that kind of energy. His walk was defeated, his shoulders slumped.

"Hey."

Dean's head shot up, as if he'd been startled by Sam's presence. "Hey, yourself," he greeting dully.

Coming to lean against the side of the Honda, Dean rested his bent elbows against the roof of the car and squinted appraisingly at Sam.

"How're you feelin'?"

Sam shrugged. "I'm fine. Feel pretty gross, though."

"Yeah, Rufus' cabin isn't that much farther. We'll be there before nightfall," Dean replied, turning to unscrew the gas cap and deposit the nozzle in the hole.

Sam blinked. "Rufus' cabin? Dude…how long did I sleep?"

"You've been out for a pretty-freakin' long time," Dean stated matter-of-factly. "I was actually starting to think that maybe that Van Ness douchebag hit you with some bad ghost mojo or somethin'."

And there it was – the not-so-subtle note of concern hidden within the nonchalant tone of Dean's voice.

Sometimes Sam really missed his big brother.

For the longest time after the wall came down, he'd been so out of it. Out of touch…literally out of his mind. Dean had been his constant, his stone-number-one.

But more and more, now that he was healed, Sam was seeing just how much that responsibility had cost his brother - especially after losing Bobby.

Bobby, who had been Dean's stone-number-one since Dad had died.

His brother had become closed-off, distant. What he once guarded with humor and a disarming grin he now fortified with a cold and violent despair that shocked Sam to speechlessness.

But it was moments like this that gave Sam hope that his brother was still somewhere inside the brusque stranger he traveled beside - that there was still hope to reach him, if only Sam knew how.

Sam let out a huff of air. "I wouldn't consider getting a good night's sleep bad mojo," he joked, wryly.

Dean just continued to stare at him, his brow furrowing.

Sam shook his head, feeling the humor leach away with his brother's uncomprehending gaze.

"I'm okay. Really," he clarified. And watched as Dean's shoulders slumped, visibly relaxing with relief.

Sam had to cough to clear the sudden lump in his throat.

"So, ah…where are we, anyway? And what time is it?"

"It's going on 3 p.m., and we are about nine hours out."

Dean tapped off the full tank and returned the gas nozzle to its holder.

Sam's faced screwed up in surprise.

"Holy crap. I slept for ten hours straight?"

"Yep. Listen, if you want to grab something to eat, you'd better do it now. I already paid for the gas and I wanna hit the road."

Sam nodded, already heading for the gas station. "You want anything?"

"I'm good," Dean curtly replied.

Absently, Sam wondered when he'd last seen his brother eat.

Tacos, he remembered. The night Annie called.

They never did end up eating lunch at the pier-front restaurant. The prices were too high, Dean didn't much care for seafood, and neither of them could have stomached eating while a friend was likely in danger.

They had grabbed a quick breakfast at the McDonald's 24-hour drive-through after their first all-night search of the Van Ness mansion, and Sam had ordered Dean a sausage-egg-McMuffin, which Dean had scarfed down in addition to both his and Sam's hashbrowns. But other than whiskey, coffee, and water, neither of them had eaten in almost 32 hours.

Sam's stomach growled as he piled his shopping basket full of apples, bananas, chips, and granola bars.

Dean should be starving. But then again, he never did have much of an appetite when grieving, and they'd just lost Annie.

Sam was acutely aware of how less affected he felt by her death, considering he hadn't had a soul to feel anything more than physical pleasure during the one night they'd spent together.

It was different for Dean though, he knew. He knew it from the way his brother had sounded on the phone when Annie first called – happy, joyful even – for the first time in ages. He could tell by the way Dean softly called out for "Slimer," an obvious nickname for Annie, back at the mansion when he thought Sam wasn't in earshot. And he could sense it from his brother's defeated posture and tone of voice while standing next to the trunk of the car before they left last night after burning Annie's ashes.

Losing her was just another blow in a long line of sucker-punches life had been throwing at them lately.

He paused in the candy aisle and grabbed a bag of licorice to add to the basket, knowing comfort food was likely the only thing Dean would eat. Pausing, Sam also stooped down to grab two boxed pies from the shelf to add to the mix. It wasn't going to fix anything, not by any stretch of the imagination, but Sam would do what he could.

After paying for the items, he walked outside with his two bags full of junk food, squinting into the bright sunlight. It was unusually warm for this time of year, in this part of the country, and Sam was glad he had shed his jacket earlier.

As he neared their stolen-car-of-the-week, he noticed his brother had his head tilted back against the driver's seat headrest, his eyes hidden behind dark shades. Dean was still wearing his multiple layers, despite the blazing sun.

When had his brother last slept? Sam wondered as he dipped into the front passenger side of the car, the two grocery bags balancing on his lap as he slammed the door shut.

Not since before they'd stopped for tacos the night Annie called. Sam had been driving for awhile when Dean suddenly woke and demanded they stop for food.

That had been a good three nights ago, and Dean had only gotten about five solid hours.

"I got you some stuff," Sam offered, a banana and granola bar for himself already in hand.

"I'll eat when we get to the cabin," Dean said dismissively, raising his head with a sigh and starting the car. His movements were slow, as if his limbs were wading through molasses.

Sam stilled, giving his brother an assessing look. "You want me to drive?"

"Nah, I'm good," Dean replied easily, shifting into drive.

Sam's mouth opened, then quickly shut again.

It was so hard to find the right words these days. So hard to predict how Dean would react. He not only had to pick his battles, but also carefully choose the weapons with which he fought.

He couldn't come right out and tell Dean that the heavy drinking was scaring him, that he worried about what it was doing his brother's organs, that all it did was turn Dean into a masked automaton.

"I don't know who you are when you drink," Sam had told him once. Dean proceeded to go on a two-day bender, as if to spite Sam. As if to say, 'you thought my drinking was bad? Well it could be much worse.' Sam had cried like a child as he sat on the dirty bathroom floor of the motel room and held the shivering, puking stranger that had become his older brother.

When Dean finally got it out of his system, waking from his drunken stupor in the middle of the third day, Sam called him a selfish sonofabitch, and threatened to leave if Dean ever did anything like that again. Dean, for his part, never said a word, and they never talked about it again. But an unspoken agreement had been reached, much to Sam's dismay – as long as Sam didn't make his brother talk about it, Dean would keep the drinking under control.

And so, days ago, when Sam finally, finally broke down outside of the pier-front restaurant and gently suggested that Dean put Bobby's flask away, he had been shocked by his brother's calm and measured reply. For a brief moment, the stranger disappeared, and Sam caught a glimpse of his brother Dean – a deep hurt mixed with the reluctant understanding in his eyes.

Sam wondered if maybe they'd turned a corner. If Dean was actually starting some sort of healing process, and if so, maybe, just maybe, Dean would let him in on it. Because no matter how old he got, Sam still needed his big brother, and Dean wasn't the only one white-knuckling this crazy life.

He kept his voice soft and non-threatening as he geared up to reply.

"Yeah, I'm not saying you're not, it's just…you've been on the road for like, twelve hours straight."

"So? I've driven for longer than that," Dean retorted, shooting Sam an irritated glance as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Sam grimaced. "Yeah, I know. It's just…you should know you don't have to."

"Well, maybe I want to, Sam," Dean replied heatedly, and Sam knew the conversation was done.

Maybe they hadn't turned a corner, after all.


They finished the trip up to Whitefish Montana without saying another word to each other, Dean tense and rigid in the driver's seat, while Sam munched on fruit and granola bars in thoughtful, worried silence.

It wasn't just Annie's death that was gnawing at his brother. It was Bobby.

For months now, Dean had been hinting that the man was still around. For months, Sam had watched him cling to that damn flask like a drowning man to life preserver. And just when he'd finally thought his brother was ready to move on, to stow away the flask and the grief and accept that Bobby was gone, they discovered they'd been wrong – or at least, Sam had been.

Bobby was back – but only in spirit-form – and the surprised excitement at seeing him again quickly gave way to dread. Sam and Dean were hunters of the supernatural. Bobby was a spirit. There was really only one logical way this could go - one road, with one inevitable destination.

Losing Bobby the first time had gutted them both, but had crushed Dean's spirit to the point of despair. Sam dreaded what losing him a second time would do, and silently prayed to a God he still believed in – despite everything – that it wouldn't come to that. That they wouldn't have to put down Bobby like they had a hundred other vengeful spirits.

It was dark when they finally pulled in front of Rufus' cabin, and Dean killed the engine.

"I'll get the bags," he announced without preamble, his voice sounding thick and rusty from disuse.

Sam watched as the older man swayed a bit when getting out of the car. Dean was clearly dead on his feet, but Sam knew better than to call him on it. Not yet.

Once inside, Dean plopped down on the couch with the weapons bag and began pulling out the guns and laying them out across the coffee table with mechanical precision.

"Dude…what are you doing?" Sam asked incredulously.

Dean didn't bother looking up. "Cleaning the guns, what's it look like?"

"Dean…." Sam paused, pursing his lips.

His brother began methodically polishing one of the shotguns, a practice that was second nature to them, but Sam didn't miss the obvious trembling of his hands.

"Listen, I'll clean the guns. Why don't you go grab a shower and shave?"

"No thanks. You go ahead." The deadness of his brother's voice caused Sam's stomach to fill with ice.

His tone dropped in gently cradled fear. "Dean…man, you haven't eaten or slept in days."

Dean's shoulders hunched in a brief and barely visible shrug. "I can keep going for a bit longer."

Sam shook his head, his eyes wide and sorrowful. "You're not a machine."

He watched as his brother stopped his movements and let out a huff of breath.

"What?" Sam prompted softly, wondering if this was the moment he'd been waiting for all this time.

Because Dean Winchester didn't talk about his feelings; he stuffed and boarded them down deep inside until they burst under the constant, ever building pressure, and then oozed out of him in shockingly self-destructive bouts of anger and alcoholism, and roadside confessions that left Sam wordless under the weight of his brother's crushing emotions.

"Nothing, it's just…Cas said something similar to me." Dean bit his lip and reached again for the shotgun. "Doesn't matter."

Sam moved until he was standing closer to and in front of the couch.

"It does matter. Look, man – I know you're hurting –"

The shotgun clattered angrily onto the wooden coffee table, and the taller man forced himself not to flinch.

"It doesn't matter, Sam!"

And as Sam stared into the stormy dark of his brother's eyes, he was hit with the realization that they were talking about two different things.

Casually, Sam eased himself down into the plush armchair nearby, then leaned forward to face his brother, resting his elbows on his knees.

"Why? Why doesn't it matter?" Because instinct told him Dean was talking about a 'why', not a 'what.'

And there it was, that subtle change again.

Sam's heart clenched with empathy - he could see it now. For there, in the wildness of those bloodshot eyes, surrounded by lines and dark smudges of fatigue, was his brother Dean. Where had he been hiding this whole time? Battered to the last frayed nerve, too tired to hold the mask up any longer, but Sam would take him over that gruff, detached stranger any day.

His brother's chin trembled ever-so-slightly as he looked away.

"I think God hates us, Sam."

The confession came out hushed and barely-controlled, the words hitting Sam with all the force of a brick to the chest.

No matter how many times he tried, he could never fully prepare himself for the raw pain and honesty of these rare moments when his brother broke open before him. It always left him breathless, searching for a better grip on reality.

Every single time.

"What? Why?"

His own words came out sharp, in a higher pitch, and shaky in a slightly hysterical way, belying his deep-seated need for Dean to be the strong one - his big, fearless older brother. It took everything he had to reign in that part of himself.

Dean shook his head, the shattered edges of a humorless smile morphing into a painful grimace.

"What other conclusion is there? Everyone we know…everything we touch…."

Broken and pain-filled, the words cut into the vestiges of a horrible, twisted, unspoken truth.

"Don't say it," Sam ordered harshly. "Don't you say that."

Because Dean was skirting the perimeter of an abyss so dark and fathomless that, if Sam wasn't careful, his brother would tip them both over the edge.

"But you gotta wonder…." Dean continued, his gaze distant, eyes haunted, "I mean, how much does God have to hate a person…to make 'em lose everyone and everything they ever cared about, and still have t'keep living?"

"We haven't lost everyone," Sam insisted quietly, helplessly. He hated himself, that he never knew what to say in these rare times his brother revealed to him such need.

Dean let out an incredulous huff of air. "You don't think Cas is lost to us? You don't think we're gonna lose Bobby all over again, and worse this time?" He stopped abruptly, glancing away as he worked his throat to swallow the bitter tears.

"I think you're exhausted," Sam replied after a long moment, his voice gentle. "And you're hurting because we lost Annie, and you're upset because Bobby ran away from his reaper."

Dean shook his head, two tears shaking loose from his wet eyes and running down his stubbled cheeks.

"I can't keep doing this man," he whispered roughly. "I mean, when do we get a break?"

"I don't think we get breaks in this job," Sam said, his lips turning up in an apologetic smile. 'I don't have anything to offer you, man. Not even empty platitudes.'

Dean was the one who always knew what to say to get Sam to keep fighting. But Dean had given all his strength away, and had nothing left for himself. And Sam, for all his ability to comfort victims in their distress, had no words for his brother, who had survived and suffered so much more than any of the humans they'd encountered.

"M'just tired man," Dean slurred miserably, allowing his eyes to shut and leaning his head back to rest against the top of the couch. "…s' freakin' tired of losing people…."

"You've still got me," Sam reminded him, his tone fake-bright.

Dean cracked an eye open at that, staring. Sam met his weary gaze with a hopeful smile.

Dean grunted. "That I do," he conceded. "M' freakin' tall-ass li'l brother."

Sam chuckled at that, but quickly grew somber.

"I'm serious, dude. I mean, not to go all chick flick on you, but…we've still got each other. And I'm okay with that. I mean…I'm right there with you. It sucks losing people, and we've lost a lot…and this job, really, really sucks sometimes. But bottom-line…at the end of the day…I need my big brother. As long as you're watching my back, I'm okay, and I can deal with all this other…crap."

Sam patiently waited for a response, but none came.

"Dean?"

Instead of a reply, his brother snored.

Sam sighed loudly. Leave it to Dean to fall asleep during Sam's chick flick moment.

"Right. Good conversation," Sam said to the oblivious man. "Glad we could clear that up."

He rose to his feet, walked around the coffee table. Bending down, he gently gripped Dean's upper arms and slid him down until his upper body was lying prone. He then bent down and carefully removed his brother's boots before lifting up his legs to rest on the couch.

He was just turning to grab the afghan off of the back of the couch, leaning across his brother's body as he did so, when he felt the cold tip of a blade poke against his gut.

Sam froze, turning his head to meet his brother's half-open bloodshot eyes.

This was not unfamiliar territory when taking care of his brother. Sometimes Dean awoke in the middle of the night ready to kill something, and Sam knew it was only gut instinct that gave him pause when it was Sam in his grip.

In four years of suffering night terrors that would fascinate and confound even the most learned psychiatrists, Dean had never hurt him, and Sam doubted he ever would. If it was one thing he'd come to trust the hard way, it was his brother's instinct.

"Just grabbing you a blanket, man. S'okay," Sam soothed, waiting for the words to register in his brother's addled brain.

Dean grit his teeth, the knife quivering in his grip. "Where's Sam?"

It always unnerved him, how Dean could look right at him in these moments, with an expression reserved for only the vilest of creatures, and not even know it was Sam he was talking to.

"Right here, Dean. We're at Rufus' cabin, remember? I'm just grabbing you a blanket."

Dean's eyes softened, blinking through the confusion. The blade lowered, and Sam, using slow, deliberate movements, carefully spread the Afghan over his brother's body.

"Sammy?"

The taller man froze again at the sound of the familiar nickname, smoothing the blanket across his brother's shin before turning to look the older man in the eye.

"Yeah, Dean?"

"I'm still here. Y'know?"

Sam bit his lip in surprise at the unexpectedly coherent and meaningful words, and he had to clear his throat again over the lump that suddenly appeared there.

"I-I know that."

"Do you?" Dean probed.

Sam hesitated. Because deep down, he often wondered if his brother even had the will to fight anymore, and that scared him more than anything.

His own words, spoken to Bobby the day before he died, chose that moment to replay in his memory.

"You ever think…he's going through the motions, but he's not the same Dean?"

"How could he be?" Bobby had asked.

Maybe Bobby was right. Dean was nothing if not a survivor, and after everything he'd been through – well, maybe it was too much to expect him not to change. But to become someone Sam hardly recognized…that was a cut too deep.

Sam looked at his brother now, noting how hard he was fighting the call of sleep, how he was holding onto tenuous consciousness only for Sam, that never-dying need to make sure his little brother was okay so ingrained in Dean's DNA that he would rather suffer than ignore him and get the rest he so desperately craved.

Dean had changed. But he was still Sam's big brother. He just maybe needed reminding at times.

"Yes," Sam replied, with firm conviction. "I do."

Because when Hell tore at Sam's sanity – Dean had reminded him of what was real. When the demon blood turned him into something twisted and ugly – Dean had fought for his soul. When death came for him too early – Dean had given up his own life in exchange. When psychic visions clouded his mind and darkened his future – Dean had guided him through. And when he'd lost the love of his life to a violent evil, the grief so terribly thick it was suffocating – Dean had looked after him, reminding him that life still had purpose, that it was okay to laugh, that he would eventually heal and move on.

"Get some sleep, okay?" Sam said quietly.

Because when Dean grew weary under the weight of his many burdens, Sam was there to help carry the load.

He waited until his brother's eyes fluttered shut, his breaths evening out in sleep, before quietly walking back to the recliner and perching on its arm.

After everything he'd seen, everything he'd lost, Sam still couldn't believe that God hated him.

Not when proof of God's love for him was sleeping on an old worn-out couch, right in front of him.

He knew Dean didn't see things the way he did. They were very different that way. But Sam resolved in that moment to be for his brother what Dean had always been for him – living evidence that the universe, for all of its injustice, still contained some measure of good.

Because no matter how many times they were tested, tried, and split asunder – no matter how much they'd lost and regained, only to lose again, they still had the most important thing - each other.


Dean awoke to a twinge in his lower back and a slight but persistent throbbing in his skull.

He groaned as he rose to a sitting position and glanced at his watch. 3 p.m.

Damn. He still felt like he needed hours more sleep.

Rubbing some of the grit out of his eyes, he noticed a folded white piece of paper sitting on the coffee table where the guns had been the night before. Dean reached over and snagged it with a yawn.

The note was, predictably, from Sam.

"Hey – went out for more supplies. BBL.

There's pie in the fridge. EAT.

Then Shower. Then Shave. Please.

Seriously - you're starting to look like a caveman, and smell like one too.

-S"

The smile that slowly morphed across Dean's face felt oddly foreign, but good.

It was a new day, and Sam wanted him to eat something.

Sam wanted him to live.

Baby steps. One foot in front of the other.

Dean pressed both hands against the couch cushions beneath him and pushed himself up.

Then, swinging his legs around and planting both feet onto the solid oak floor, he rose to his feet and walked.


End.