"Listen...I may not be able to carry the burden that comes along with these trials," Dean had told Sam that night several weeks ago; had stared through the rain-splattered windshield as the Impala had rumbled down the road and Sam had sat beside him in the passenger seat where the kid belonged. "But I can carry you."
I can carry you.
And Dean had meant it.
Those four words having defined his responsibility as a big brother for as long as Dean could remember.
I can carry you out of a burning house...or out of a burning apartment.
I can carry you when your eyes are bleeding...or when a vision strikes.
I can carry you when you're too sick to stand...or when you're too weak to walk.
I can carry you.
Whenever it was needed, Dean had carried Sam throughout his life.
And Dean would do that now – would carry Sam.
It was his promise.
It was his instinct.
The big brother instantly reaching for his little brother when Sam collapsed in the church; when Sam closed his eyes and half moaned, half yelled as pain suddenly knifed through him seconds before he dropped to the floor.
In that moment, Dean's heart dropped as well.
Because no – no.
This was not happening.
Sam had not completed the third trial.
He had let go...which meant he was supposed to be safe.
And Sam had seemed safe – his arms had stopped glowing, the pain had vanished.
Sam had even twitched a smile and had huffed an amazed but relieved laugh as he had held Dean's gaze.
For a fraction of a second, everything had seemed fine.
Sam had still been sick and weak and pale and exhausted both physically and emotionally...but everything had been fine.
Then the second had passed and now...
"Sam!" Dean called and followed his brother to the floor.
Sprawled in a motionless heap, Sam stared at Dean as Dean crouched beside him; his bandaged hand desperately fisting the fabric of Dean's coat as his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.
But Sam wasn't speaking.
Hell, it looked like Sam was hardly breathing.
Dean's heart hammered in his chest. "What?" he frantically asked his brother, his hand covering Sam's as the kid continued to grip the edge of his coat; his gaze sweeping the length of Sam's body looking for something, anything.
But there was nothing to see.
Nothing to indicate what was wrong...what had happened...what was still happening.
Dean's heart continued to pound even as he kept his voice calm, lowering his head for a better view of his brother's face. "Sammy..."
Sam blinked at him, his mouth open in a silent scream; his expression pleading for Dean to help him, for Dean to fix this.
"I will," Dean promised, the vow bone-deep. "I will." He briefly squeezed his brother's hand. "But Sam...talk to me," he ordered, panic sharpening his tone. "Tell me. What?"
Because Dean couldn't fix this if he didn't know what was wrong.
But Sam was unable to answer, remaining speechless either from the intensity of the pain or from lack of oxygen...or both judging by the way Sam's face contorted, by the tense muscles in his neck and the way his chest heaved liked he was breathing against a vacuum.
Still crouched beside his brother on the church floor, Dean's gaze once again swept over Sam, knowing there was something he wasn't seeing.
As if to prove it, Sam's back suddenly arched; the motion so severe that it seemed as though Sam had been jerked backwards, yanking a strangled moan from his closing throat.
Sam's eyes widened in panic, his hand releasing its grip on Dean's coat; first reaching for his neck as he struggled to breathe and then reaching for his back – the flaring pain a familiar sensation since he had felt it course through his arms numerous times, especially over the past eight hours.
Dean's gaze followed Sam's reach, "Sam. What?" he demanded, then blinked when he saw the whispering glow beneath the fabric of Sam's shirt.
Whatever supernatural force that had been in Sam's arms seconds ago having not vanished as it had originally seemed but had only moved – the glow having traveled up Sam's arms, over his shoulders and settled in his lower back...which would explain why Sam had collapsed so suddenly.
It's in me, Dean.
And Sam had been right.
Whatever this was hadn't left Sam's body. It had just changed positions.
Dean swallowed, staring at the glowing whatever causing Sam to writhe in agony on the floor.
You don't know what this feels like, Sam had told him.
But Dean was getting a damn good idea now.
Dean shook his head. "Okay..." he announced, instantly done with feeling helpless and instead deciding their next move. "Okay, Sammy. Let's go..." he told his brother as he hoisted the kid off the floor and draped Sam's arm over his shoulder.
Sam's eyes squeezed shut in pain, his long legs wobbly like a newborn foal as he grunted and sagged against his brother.
"Easy. Just hang on..." Dean urged, wrapping his arm around Sam's waist as they started moving forward. "Just hang on, man. We're going home."
Home meaning the Impala...meaning the Batcave...meaning anywhere Dean could take his brother that was relatively safe, anywhere he could settle Sam and figure out what the hell was going on.
Two steps toward the door, Sam stumbled.
Dean paused. "Whoa, Sammy. Easy..." he soothed and readjusted his grip on his brother; frowning as it seemed Sam's legs were suddenly unable to hold any of his weight.
That couldn't be a good sign.
Dean glanced at Sam as his brother slumped against him; his body clearly trying to return itself to the floor.
"No," Dean denied and tightened his grip. "Come on, Sam. Stay with me. Just a few more steps to the door..."
Sam gasped his response – a horrible, strangled sound – and then gasped again; one gasp following another as he struggled to breathe.
Dean cringed, not knowing which was worse – Sam's earlier silence or the harsh wheezing that had now taken its place.
The gasping continued – Sam looking as panicked as Dean felt.
"It's okay," Dean automatically assured and started moving forward again, carrying Sam with him.
I can carry you.
"You're okay," Dean continued to soothe his brother as they approached the church doors.
Within seconds, those doors burst open.
"I gotcha, little brother," Dean told Sam as they spilled into the damp darkness, his voice strained from bearing all of the kid's weight as they cleared the doors and went down the steps. "You're gonna be just fine..."
...though that seemed to be a lie even as Dean said it.
Because Sam continued to gasp and stumble despite Dean's help, making it only as far as the Impala's front wheel on the passenger side before once again collapsing.
And Dean once again followed him down.
"Sam!" Dean called, kneeling in the mud beside his brother. "Sam!" he repeated, cupping the kid's pale face as thunder rumbled above.
Sam gasped, his head rocking back and forth against the Impala; his mouth open, his eyes wide and so fucking scared.
Dean could relate, his heart pounding so hard and fast he was sure it would explode.
Because there was something strangely familiar about this...
Dean shook his head, trying to ignore the growing déjà vu of this moment.
The big brother remembering all too well when he had cupped the pale face of his unresponsive little brother in a different place; a different night several years ago when they had both been on their knees in the mud as thunder had rumbled above and Sam had slipped away at Cold Oak.
What had just happened in the church was eerily similar – Sam's closed eyes, open mouth, head thrown back in unspeakable pain before he dropped to the floor.
Just like Sam had dropped at Cold Oak when Jake had shoved the knife in Sam's back and had severed his spine.
Sam had been unable to stand, unable to speak.
Dean swallowed at the memory, staring at his brother now as Sam writhed in pain on the muddy ground from the glowing force seizing his back; the kid sitting up only because the Impala and Dean were bracing him; Sam's eyes closed as he gasped and clutched his chest and throat.
Realization slowly dawned.
Dean shook his head in denial at the thought even as Kevin's words about the trials echoed in his mind.
Whosoever chooses to undertake these tasks should fear not danger nor death...
Dean's heart beat painfully hard in his chest.
...nor getting your spine ripped out through your mouth for all eternity.
Dean swallowed against the urge to throw up as the realization took root; as the potential explanation for Sam's current condition continued to echo in an endless loop, becoming more plausible with every repetition.
After all, a person couldn't walk if his spine was being ripped out...and couldn't talk – or breathe – if his spine was exiting through his mouth.
But that didn't seem to be happening right now.
Dean had remained focused on his brother since Sam had collapsed in the mud, and as far as Dean could tell, Sam's spine was not coming through his mouth – thank god.
Was the last line some kind of abstract, figurative bullshit?
Sam's spine not actually being ripped out through his mouth – just feeling like it was, just causing his body to react as though it was; causing pain and paralysis while taking his breath and his ability to speak.
Dean clenched his jaw at the possibility, pissed and scared.
Because no fucking way had he just stopped Sam from killing himself in this third trial only to watch his little brother live the rest of his life wishing he was dead.
No fucking way.
"Cas!" Dean yelled, hoping the angel was nearby; hoping Cas could hear him; hoping he could help even though he had previously said that Sam was damaged beyond his ability to heal.
Dean's voice echoed in the darkness.
No one answered except Sam – those gasping breaths.
Perhaps that was what someone sounded like when their spine was being figuratively ripped out of their mouth.
It certainly couldn't sound any worse.
And Dean certainly couldn't be more panicked.
"Castiel!" Dean growled, cutting his eyes over his shoulder.
But again, there was no response.
Just Sam's wheezing, his fingers brushing the edge of the Dean's coat.
"Where the hell are you?" Dean muttered about Cas's absence and then directed his attention back to Sam. "Hey. I'm right here..." he assured, feeling Sam's reaching fingers. "Right here. I'm not gonna leave you..."
I'm not gonna leave you.
Because Dean didn't leave Sam by himself even when Dean was being beaten to death at the hands of Lucifer...and he wasn't leaving his brother alone now.
It's you and me against the world.
Even when the world felt like it was fucking crumbling...again.
Dean continued to kneel beside his brother in the mud, one had still cupping Sam's face while the other rested on his shoulder.
"Sammy..." Dean called, knowing he needed to get the kid to his feet; needed to load Sam in the Impala and then haul ass to the Batcave.
Because something bad was about to happen; something besides what was already happening to Sam.
Dean could feel it; had been a hunter long enough to sense when bad shit was coming.
And bad shit was coming.
...which meant Dean needed to get his brother off the ground, in the Impala, and back home to the relative safety of their bunker.
Not to mention that Kevin should still be there; should still be hunkered down in the Batcave waiting for all of this to be over, waiting for them to return.
And if anyone could help them figure this out – what happened when a person didn't complete a trial and how they could reverse the effects – it was Kevin.
Dean nodded, his decision made.
"Sammy..." he called again, raising his voice to be heard over Sam's surprisingly loud gasps.
Sam didn't respond, his eyes closed; his arm still crossed over his chest; his hand still clutching his throat in the classic sign of someone choking.
Maybe figuratively choking on his own spine...
Dean swallowed at the possibility – because how the fuck was he supposed to fix that?
He was pretty sure that little trick wasn't in any of the journals or books back at the Batcave.
They could only hope the answer was somewhere in the tablets and that Kevin could translate toot fucking sweet.
Because Sam's life depended on it.
Dean sighed, reminding himself to handle one crisis at a time.
And right now – he needed to get Sam home.
That was step one.
They would figure out the rest later.
Just like we always do...
Dean nodded at the memory of what he had told Sam earlier in the church.
And he had meant it.
They would figure this out.
Even something as fucked up as having your spine ripped out of your mouth...
But in the meantime, Dean would carry his brother.
Just like he always did.
I can carry you.
Dean nodded again and rubbed Sam's shoulder as the kid continued to sit beside him in the mud next to the Impala's front wheel.
And that's when he heard it – a vague but distinct sound of something opening.
Dean blinked, recognizing the sound as otherworldly, and glanced over his shoulder, then up at the sky as the lingering clouds from the earlier storm began to separate.
The dark suddenly illuminated by pockets of light scattered through the clouds – first one...then two...then three...then too many to count; some appearing within seconds of each other, while others appeared simultaneously.
"No, Cas..." Dean breathed, still looking up at the sky while keeping his hand on Sam's shoulder; monitoring the developing situation as well as his brother's condition.
Beside him, Sam had stopped gasping but was thankfully still breathing, was still sluggishly moving beneath Dean's touch.
Above, the clouds continued to part; the night sky turning orange with flaming streaks plunging to the ground.
Most civilians who were watching this across the world were probably dazzled and impressed by what they assumed was an unannounced meteor shower; shooting stars and all that crap.
Make a wish.
That wasn't what this was.
That wasn't what was happening.
Not even close.
No wishes would be granted tonight.
What Dean was seeing could only mean one thing.
One, Cas had failed his mission – everything having apparently gone to shit with Naomi and Metatron.
Dean's thoughts scattered as one of the falling objects suddenly splashed into the nearby lake; the effect so remarkable it was like a fucking whale had just dropped from the sky.
Dean blinked, his eyes widening as he instinctively raised his arm to shield himself and Sam from any potential danger.
Sam startled at the sound. "What's happening?"
Dean startled at the sound of Sam's voice and glanced at his brother; relieved to hear Sam speak.
But Sam stared up at the sky, once again speechless; his mouth open only to quietly wheeze.
Dean would take it.
At least it wasn't the harsh gasps of earlier...
There was a beat of silence.
"Angels..." Dean finally reported in response to Sam's question. "They're falling."
And wasn't that just fan-fucking-tastic?
Nothing but peace, love, and hugs could result from this turn of events.
Dean shook his head in disgust. "Dammit, Cas. You had one job..."
And that was to keep this shit from happening.
Dean sighed and then frowned as he noticed movement in the water; the fallen angel surfacing with a whoosh and flailing as it attempted to swim ashore.
And that was their cue to leave.
Not to mention the other angels beginning to land not only in the lake but in the yard surrounding the church; some of them still flaming when they hit the ground, their smoldering bodies igniting the damp grass with holy fire.
And yeah, it was time to fucking move.
Because Dean was in no mood to tangle with undoubtedly pissed angels freshly stripped of their powers and dumped from Heaven...and Sam was in no condition.
Even now the kid was struggling to breathe again; the quiet wheezes replaced with the strangled gasps from before.
Dean cringed at the painful sounds. "Sammy..."
Sam turned his head in the direction of Dean's voice but didn't speak.
"We have to go," Dean told his brother, already bending forward to slip his shoulder under Sam's arm.
Sam blinked in response, disoriented from the intense agony burning through his back.
The angels continued to fall, some splashing in the lake while others thumped into the ground. Their wings burning off in transit to earth; some extinguished before landing while others continued to fuel the flames in the churchyard.
The fire began to creep toward the brothers.
Dean glanced at the flames, then back to his brother. "Alright, Sam. Up..." he ordered, wincing as he got to his feet; his boots squishing in the mud as he brought Sam with him.
Only Sam wasn't standing.
Sam couldn't stand.
"Whoa..." Dean blurted, stumbling forward before shifting Sam's weight and regaining his balance.
Dean frowned his confusion and glanced at his brother, swallowing as he realized his earlier suspicion about Sam's paralysis was true.
Because Sam just hanging there beside him; the kid's legs completely lax, not capable of moving much less supporting his weight.
If Dean had not lifted his brother, Sam would have never gotten to his feet.
If Dean had not been securely holding his brother now, Sam would have collapsed back to the ground unable to stop himself.
Because Sam was paralyzed.
And Sam knew it, too; his expression panicked, his eyes welling with tears at the realization that he couldn't move his legs...couldn't even feelthem as the glowing force in his back paralyzed him from the waist down.
Dean shook his head, stunned and momentarily speechless.
Because now what?
Dean clenched his jaw, swallowed. "It's okay," he assured his understandably upset little brother even as his own heart pounded with fear and dread and panic.
Because seriously...what the fuck were they going to do now?
Dean swallowed again. "It's okay," he repeated.
Because somehow he would make this okay; would figure out a way to fix this.
Sam opened his mouth to speak but gasped his response instead; his breaths becoming more restricted from the strain of stress and emotion...and from the new realization that in addition to not being able to stand, he couldn't speak anymore, either.
The two words he had spoken only seconds ago being beyond him now; his voice gone as he was barely able to manage one inhalation after another without choking.
Dean stared at his brother.
...your spine ripped out of your mouth...
That would certainly obstruct a person's breathing; would certainly make it difficult to speak if you were choking on your spine.
Dean continued to stare, hoping the same thought wasn't occurring to Sam; hoping Sam was too panicked and disoriented to remember Kevin's warning about the trials all those weeks ago.
Though Dean couldn't help but wonder – by stopping Sam from finishing the third trial, had he unintentionally sentenced his little brother to this?
Sam had shown that he didn't fear danger because he had killed a hellhound.
He had shown that he didn't fear death because he had gone to Purgatory and Hell and then had made it back topside alive.
But this whole spine-ripped-out-of-your-mouth crap – was that what Sam was showing he didn't fear by curing a demon?
That made zero fucking sense.
But whether or not it made sense, was this outcome of not finishing the third trial? Would Sam be paralyzed for the rest of his life? Unable to speak and struggling for every breath?
Was this Dean's fault?
Dean clenched his jaw and tightened his grip around Sam, silently demanding himself to get a fucking grip.
Beside him, Sam continued to limply rest against Dean, openly crying as he was held up only by Dean's unyielding grip.
And that was fine.
Because Sam was allowed to lose his shit.
He was the one currently unable to move his legs, unable to speak, and on the verge of being unable to fucking breathe.
But Dean – no.
Dean needed to keep his shit together – and he needed to do it right fucking now.
They didn't have time for this.
The sky was falling...and the ground was burning...and Sam was counting on him; was counting on Dean to literally carry him now.
I can carry you.
Dean sighed, the sound shakier than he intended, and forced a smile as he focused on Sam.
Tears continued to freely streak Sam's cheeks.
Because this was too much – was too fucking much to bear.
Sam had gone from confessing his greatest sin to beginning all over again – being nothing but a burden Dean if he couldn't walk or talk. Even now, Sam could imagine Dean seeking out others for help that Sam was unable to give, making this another disappointment added to the long list of ways Sam had let Dean down over the years.
Sam gasped a noisy breath, his tears continuing to flow.
Something twisted deep inside Dean's chest at the sight, hating when his little brother was this upset; was this broken.
"It's gonna be okay, Sammy..." Dean told his brother; desperate to reassure, to take Sam's pain. "We're gonna go home and talk to Kevin and figure this out...and everything's gonna be okay."
Please, please let that be true.
"You hear me?"
Sam's only response was to gasp, cough, swallow...repeat.
Dean frowned, still holding his brother beside him. "Easy, Sammy..."
Because god, please don't let the kid cough up blood right now.
Neither of them could handle that reminder - the reminder of how damaged Sam was internally.
Above, the sky continued to glow an eerie orange as angels plunged from Heaven.
The fire in the churchyard continued its slow approach as dazed angels were beginning to rouse.
In the lake, the angel that was closest to them was reaching the shore, reminding Dean of the urgency of their situation.
It was time to go.
"Alright, Sammy..." Dean commented, shifting beneath his brother's weight and awkwardly shuffling forward in the mud, bringing Sam with him.
The big brother being careful as he maneuvered his little brother; thankful for the years of experience that allowed him to balance Sam against his shoulder and hip and hold the kid steady while opening the passenger side door.
Sam breathed noisily, grunting as pain flared when Dean lowered him into the passenger seat.
"Sorry. Just take it easy..." Dean soothed, carefully lifting Sam's legs and folding them into the floorboard; unnerved to think that his brother couldn't feel his touch.
This was going to take some getting used to.
Though hopefully they wouldn't have to get used to it; hopefully this was temporary, not permanent.
The paralysis, the inability to speak, the struggle to breathe...the getting your spine ripped out through your mouth.
All of it temporary, despite the "for all eternity" promise tacked to the end of the warning about undertaking the trials.
And if this wasn't temporary, there had to be something they could do; something to counteract the effects of not completing the third trial if these effects didn't wear off on their own.
Some spell...something that would return Sam's health.
And hopefully Kevin would know.
In fact, Dean would call the prophet as soon as they got on the road; would give Kevin a heads up that they were coming home and needed answers right fucking now.
But first, they had to get on the road.
Dean swallowed again, his buzzing mind driving him fucking crazy.
One thing at a time...
Dean sighed, smiled at his brother. "Sammy, you good?"
And "good" had never been so relative.
Sam inhaled a shaky breath, not bothering to wipe the fresh tears from his cheeks as he closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the seat.
Dean resisted the urge to cry as well and instead squeezed his brother's shoulder in silent comfort and support; lingering beside Sam before closing the passenger door and crossing in front of the Impala.
Dean glanced up at the sky aglow with orange as angels continued to fall; his gaze then flickering to the angels in the churchyard and in the lake and to the fire steadily creeping toward them.
Funny how he had forgotten about that – about all of that – in the midst of taking care of Sam; how his brother had been his only focus.
But then again, Dean was not surprised.
Because fuck the world.
Sam was the only thing that mattered.
On Dean's list of priorities, nothing came before his little brother.
Dean nodded in agreement and then shook his head, vaguely wondering where Cas was...and how many angels were in Heaven...and if they were all falling...or if Metatron was keeping some as pets.
Dean shook his head again in disgust at the thought of that particular angel. "What a dick..." he growled and then opened the driver's side door, slipping behind the steering wheel and glancing at Sam. "Hey..."
Sam turned to look at Dean, silent except for the constant wheezing made harsher by crying.
But words weren't needed; were never needed.
Dean smiled softly. "C'mere..." he called, reaching for Sam and carefully pulling him across the bench seat; trying to ignore how his brother's legs dragged in the floorboard.
Sam didn't resist, settling against Dean and resting against his brother's shoulder with a strangled sigh as Dean cranked the Impala and backed her away from the church.
Sam stared at the old building through the rain-splattered windshield, vaguely wondering what would happen to Crowley still tied inside – more human than demon.
Would he somehow escape?
Would he burn in the fire consuming the churchyard?
It was hard to say.
Sam sighed again, then blinked; his gaze shifting to the sky – the falling angels blurry as he watched them through his tears.
Beside him, Dean shifted gears and steered the Impala forward, driving past the fire and the dazed angels getting to their feet.
Sam tilted his head back for a better breath; gasped anyway, coughed, swallowed...and settled in for the ride back home.
Hoping Dean was right; hoping they could figure this out; hoping Kevin could help.
But for now, Sam found comfort in his big brother as he rested against Dean and tried not to think about his spine being ripped out of his mouth.