He wakes up in a room he doesn’t know with an angry pain in his spine.
At first, there’s panic—panic of not recognising the bed underneath him or the ceiling up above him, of the blank space in his head between here and the place he’d just been, of being apparently alone in a dark space—and he’s just about to give in to that panic when something jolts beside him and he hears “Sammy? Sammy, hey—” and it’s Dean and everything is abruptly alright.
In his peripheral vision a lamp clicks on and he blinks, rapidly, and when his eyes adjust he sees Dean sitting in a chair pulled up beside the bed, looking exhausted and as if he’s been rooted to his seat for a very long time.
It’s a motel room, and automatically the familiarity soothes him. He’s sitting up on the same side of the same bed he always sleeps in in doubles like these and Dean is here and so everything must be okay.
The first thing he says is, “It’s freezing in here,” and for whatever reason he proffers his bare arms to Dean as if to show him the gooseflesh as proof.
Dean is looking into his face with eyes that are strange and flat and it takes him a moment to register that Sam has spoken to him. Then he starts, pauses, gets up out of his chair, scrubbing with one hand at the back of his head. “Sure—sorry. I’ll get the heat.”
While he’s bending at the radiator Sam looks down at his arms, still outstretched, and pulls them slowly back towards his body.
He remembers now. The church, the syringes, Crowley in that chair. The needle marks in his forearms, the bandage around his wrist, the bandana around his hand. His hair is wet and his clothes are damp and he desperately needs a shower because even he can smell himself and he reeks—of sweat and wood and stagnant rain.
“What happened?” he says. His throat is sore, vision blurry.
Dean comes back from the radiator and Sam tries to get up but Dean pushes him back down, gently, one hand flat in the center of his chest. Obediently, Sam lies back, winces when whatever is making his back hurt so much comes into contact with the pillow.
“Had some kind of fit,” Dean says, keeping his hand above Sam’s sternum until he’s certain Sam won’t try to get up again. “Outside the church.” He’s biting at the inside of his lip in a way that makes Sam vaguely uneasy, but he’s too tired to think about it. “I got you out of there as soon as I could.”
Sam clears his throat. “Crowley?”
Dean smirks a little. “Cooped up in the trunk outside.”
“He’s still alive?”
“Yeah.” Dean gets up again, goes into the bathroom, seeking out the plastic cups under the sink. He fills one with water from the tap and brings it back. “You are, too. More importantly.”
Sam takes the water in one long gulp, grateful; his mouth is dry as sandpaper but for the faint tinge of blood on the edges of his teeth. It soothes the ache in his throat a little.
Dean looks him up and down; Sam can feel his eyes all over his body. They’re hesitant, cautious, pulled back at a distance, as if afraid that if they probe him too far he’ll break apart.
“How you feeling?” Dean asks, as carefully as if he’s stepping around a land-mine, and Sam supposes he can’t blame him—he hasn’t exactly been consistently healthy lately.
Sam works his throat, considers. He’s still too cold, and the bed is hard, and his back hurts as if someone has punched him in the kidneys; but the weird burning of trial-power is gone from his body; when he flexes his hands he can no longer feel the singe of it inside his bones. His mouth is dry but his lungs aren’t heaving, and there’s hunger roiling around in his stomach. He can’t remember the last time he was truly hungry.
“I feel—better,” he says, finally. “All things considered.” He looks at Dean, and Dean keeps doing that thing with his eyes, glancing up and down. “You okay?”
“Me?” Dean says, sounding startled, as if it’s a question no one’s asked before. He pauses a long time, mouth open, before he says, “Yeah, I’m good.”
He smiles, then, and Sam feels a great cascade of relief inside him.
Dean slaps Sam’s thigh as he stands, and Sam flinches. “You hungry?”
Sam strives to sit up again and feels that angry red pulling against his spine and hisses, freezes up. Dean turns to look at him, eyebrow cocked.
“Did I fall or something? Back’s killing me.”
“Well, you hit the ground pretty hard out by the car.” Dean slings his jacket around his shoulders and pulls it down around his wrists, keys jangling in his pocket. “Probably bruised it up.”
“Yeah.” Wincing, Sam drops his legs over the side of the bed, bracing himself to get up—he’s still a little weak, he thinks, a little underfed. He hopes Dean brings him something greasy and made of beef; he could use it. “I’m fine, you go on.”
“Take it easy, okay?” Dean says, and then he’s out the door, and Sam is alone.
He sits there, taking stock again and again, trying to decide if he really feels okay. The unsettling conclusion he comes to is that he does. That makes him nervous, somehow.
The shower is probably too hot when he steps under it, but it doesn’t matter. Watching the water and the steam sluice the dirt and sweat and grime off his body feels like being baptised. It washes the needle marks in his arms clean and dark. The wound in his hand scabbed fast, he sees—just a long dark line in the center of his palm.
He takes his time. It’s been a long while since he’s had the strength or the means to take a long hot shower. Strands of hair come off in his hands when he runs his fingers through it and he shakes them off onto the floor—he hopes Dean brings him fries, too. As many fries as he can eat. When he looks down at himself he can place his hand flat and squarely in the hollow between his hips. He needs to get his weight back.
When the entire bathroom is a white cloud of steam he turns the shower off, steps out, rubs a blank space in the mirror. He’s got bags under his eyes to beat the band, a cut on his lip, a few more on his cheek, and his skin is a sickly pale-blue colour like thin milk. But at least he’s not hacking blood into the sink; at least he’s not wasting away quite so drastically anymore. When Dean comes back, he thinks, he’ll eat a full meal for the first time in months and get some decent sleep and then they can head back to Lebanon and see where they stand. And it’ll be good.
He thinks of Dean’s voice in his ear in that church—let it go, brother. And he had. It’s not here anymore; he feels light on the balls of his feet.
Sam smiles to himself, experimentally, in the mirror. His teeth are grey but his mouth feels better.
He digs down into Dean’s travel bag for the bottle of ibuprofen and knocks a few back for the bruise on his spine. Then he puts on clean clothes that don’t smell of sickness and goes out into the room to lie down, to watch the window for the glare of the Impala’s headlights, one arm tucked underneath his head. It’s quiet and his head is not pounding and he knows he’ll be able to sleep tonight.
He smiles again, secretly, into the skin of his wrist.
“When are we heading back?” Sam asks, the next morning, pushing his hair out of his eyes in the mirror. Already, he thinks, he looks better. Skin still pale, face still gaunt, but a little more rested.
“Kevin’s still in the bunker. We shouldn’t leave him hanging longer than we have to.”
Dean appears in the bathroom doorway, shoulders down in concern, looking at Sam look at himself.
“You’re not up to speed yet, man,” he says. “Oughtta stay here until you get your sea-legs back.”
Sam scoffs a laugh. “I’m fine, Dean.”
“No offense, brother, but you look like death warmed over,” Dean says, and Sam rolls his eyes, but he knows it’s true. “Let’s just rest up here for a few days, head back to Lebanon at the end of the week.”
Sam’s still too tired to argue. He shrugs, and Dean turns out of the doorway. From around the corner Sam hears the TV pop to life, tinny muffled game-show laughter rattling out into the room.
“Where are we, anyway?”
“Cairo,” Dean says. “Nebraska.”
Sam reaches down to pick up his toothbrush. A fly appears from somewhere and circles his head before he swats it away. “Just until the end of the week, yeah? We have no idea what Kevin’s dealing with down there.”
“He’s in a magically-sealed bunker, Sammy. He can hold his own.”
Dean doesn’t press the issue, and neither does Sam. He tucks his worry for the kid away in the back of his head. He’s too exhausted to argue; better to resign himself to this imposed vacation than wear himself out.
“How’s your back?” Dean calls, a few moments later, with a note of caution in his voice, as Sam is running his fingers through his hair. He’s pleased to see that none of it comes out this time.
They watch The Price is Right until Dean gets hungry enough to go out for food again. Sam contents himself with staying in bed, propped up with pillows. He’s tired but his heart is slow and easy. During commercials he watches the fly in the bathroom do its intricate loop-de-loops in front of the mirror, a little black speck going nowhere.
He insists on leaving the room for dinner, though, and Dean obliges, though they don’t go in anywhere to sit down. Dean jokes about Sam scaring the locals with his face, and Sam’s too happy to be here, and alive, and okay, with Dean, to bother with getting pissed.
Instead they park the car in a near-empty rain-drenched dollar store parking lot, under a streetlamp, and sit on the hood of the Impala, Dean sucking his soda obnoxiously through his straw, Sam picking the onions out of his burger. The sky is full-blown-black and sprinkling rain but the warm humid air feels blessed on Sam’s face, and even though they’re eating in silence, at least they are together, and even though Sam knows in the back of his mind that somewhere thousands of homeless angels are wandering the Earth and Kevin is alone and Cas is God-knows-where, it’s good to be eating shitty to-go with his brother on the hood of this car. All the rest can wait a few days, especially if Dean insists upon it. The world can’t possibly end by the close of the week.
Maybe he’s being foolish, or selfish.
Don’t you dare think that there is anything, past or present, that I would put in front of you.
But maybe that’s okay.
Sam sleeps on his side that night. The ache in his spine is too much.
They play cards. They haven’t played cards in years. Sam has a suspicion Dean is letting him win, to some extent, but the sun splaying out across the dinette table is bright and good and he doesn’t feel so chilled anymore and though he keeps insisting he’s okay to move, Dean keeps insisting they wait a little while longer, and maybe it’s the exhaustion, but Sam can’t find too many reasons to argue.
It would be perfect if not for the fly.
Sam’s not sure if it’s the same one or not, but it is particularly persistent, and seems to have abandoned the bathroom in favour of annoying the living hell out of him. Every time his hands still or come down flat with his cards face-down on the table it lands on him. Shaking it off so constantly is making him look like he has a twitch. Dean just looks mildly amused.
“Come on, man, just kill it,” he says, drawing a card from their pile, but the thought of smacking a bug with his scabbed-over hand doesn’t exactly appeal to Sam, so he endures.
He isn’t sure why this motel is so quiet. The rooms to either side seem to be empty; no kids are running past on the sidewalk in the turbid summer heat, no families migrating to the pool out back. Not that he’s complaining. He can’t remember the last quiet motel they stayed in.
The fly lands on his hand again and, frustrated, Sam smacks it off and drops his cards on the floor. Bending down to pick them up makes the bruise on his back stretch and singe and itch and he gasps, clutching the table for support.
Dean is on his feet immediately. “You good?”
“Jesus.” Sam sits up, face scrunched up in pain. “Yeah, yeah.” Gingerly he touches his fingertips to the spot where it hurts, under his shirt, and settles upright again; Dean crouches down to get his cards.
“Want me to take a look at it?” Dean says. He doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s looking at Sam’s cards. He shuffles them around in his hands. The fly perches briefly on his wrist before it takes off again.
Sam shakes his head. It’s just a bruise, after all. It’ll be gone soon.
Two games later Dean finally crushes the fly against the table and wipes the dead gunk off his hand against his jeans and smiles at Sam.
The next morning Sam gets up before Dean and quietly puts on his jeans and boots and slips out for coffee. The room is nice but it’s stifling and still too cold and he wants to feel the sun on him.
He wonders—as he walks down the sidewalk parallel to the motel lot, towards the doughnut shop on the corner—if maybe he’d overdone it with the fast food these last three nights. His hand no longer fits into the hollow between his hips; he supposes that’s a good thing; but he feels heavy now, bloated.
He orders two coffees, black, from the girl inside the doughnut shop, and though she stares at him for a minute she eventually goes and gets it for him. Sam supposes he must still look a bit of a wreck. He knows his skin is still too pale, too blue. The colour should come back into his face eventually, though, he thinks; eventually he’ll look normal again.
He stops inside the drugstore next door to buy something stronger for the pain in his spine. The cashier stares at him as he pays and leaves. I’m not sick, he wants to say. I’m actually really okay. But he doesn’t.
When he opens the door to the motel room and sets the coffee down on the dinette, Dean stirs, turns over in bed, and scrubs at his eyes. There’s a faint buzzing and Sam looks up to see a whole family of flies, now, dancing in the curtained sunlight, whirling. A few of them dart towards him and Sam swats them away, irritated.
“Coffee,” he says, giving the window a wide berth.
“You,” Dean says, reaching out to take his, “are a saint.”
Sam smiles, sitting down on the edge of his bed, watching Dean come slowly into wakefulness.
That evening he’s in the shower, too-hot again, when he smells it, and nearly gags. It bursts into the bathroom like a wave, borne on the steam, and Sam chokes, slams the shower off, yanks the curtain back and calls out to Dean.
“Dude, you smell that?”
“Smells like something died in here. Holy shit.” Sam covers his nose and mouth with his hand, dripping wet onto the floor.
“I don’t smell anything, man.”
As quickly as it had come, it’s gone; when Sam pulls his hand away he smells only the soap on his skin, a warm sort of lavender smell; and though he’s tuned towards it all night it doesn’t come again.
Sam thinks that flies must reproduce exponentially.
He tries to go for a run early the next morning—finds that he’s not quite up to it and ends up walking back fifteen minutes later—and opens the door to a swarm of them rushing out towards his face, lets out a frankly pathetic yelp of surprise, and fights his way past them as they dip and dive back in after him, a black cloud around his head. Dean’s not in—he went to talk to the motel manager, probably to get her number, Sam thinks—so he’s left alone to grab the nearest newspaper and smash them against the wall, a hundred dark smears like paintball pellets on the ugly wallpaper. When all but a few are dead he throws the newspaper out and shudders, trying to ignore the increasing throb in his spine, and goes in to wash his hands.
No sooner has he turned on the steaming water in the sink than he smells it again, bold, encompassing, the definite stink of rot, and he tries to keep the bile from rising in his throat. No matter how many dead bodies he sees, he’ll never get used to that reek.
There’s a weird kind of mottling on the skin of his wrists, he sees, when he’s finished. Blueish. Veins standing out, he thinks.
Dean comes back as he’s pushing the glow of a flashlight into the air vent above the TV, standing precariously on a chair. He pauses in the doorway, smacks a survivor fly away from his head, and says, “What are you doing?”
“I swear something died in here,” Sam says, holding one hand over his face to mask the stench. “Can you not smell it?”
Dean shrugs, though it’s noncomittal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, dude.”
“Maybe something got into the vents.”
“Be careful up there,” Dean says, looking down at the black-spattered newspaper in the bin.
“That’d explain the flies, too.”
“You’d think they’d fix this stuff when they clean the rooms, you know?”
There’s nothing in the vent. At least, nothing that Sam can see. The smell goes away again, eventually, and he climbs down off the chair, takes another couple of painkillers.
They order takeaway and Dean finds some old war movie on TV. Sam doesn’t eat much. He feels like he’s coming down with a cold or something—his throat feels sore and gummed-up, and has since this morning. Hardly surprising, he thinks, after coming back from the brink of death the way he had. His immune system’s got to be shot to hell.
Dean watches him out of the corner of his eye all evening. Sam pretends not to notice.
“Just until the end of the week,” Dean says, over and over. “Just another day or two.” But Sam is increasingly restless—there’s only so much relaxing he can do before he needs to be on his feet, moving, working. But Dean insists, and Sam obeys, because he owes Dean that much.
But he does give up on lying around watching TV. If they can’t move, he can at least work. He calls Kevin every few hours but gets only voicemail. He digs out the books they’d brought with them to the Third Trial, just to have something to look at, busies himself with translating some Latin in the back of one of them into English on a diner napkin. Dean calls him a nerd, affectionately, and ruffles his hair as he goes by, and Sam tries to be annoyed and fails.
He also tries to ignore the flies that are stuck under the blinds on the window, creeping up and down the glass, as if too lazy to find their way out and into the room again. Their nearness makes him itch. If only he knew where they were coming from he could at least demand some flypaper from the manager.
His throat still hurts; his back still hurts. He’s starting to wonder if, maybe, he’s not so okay after all.
But he doesn’t say that to Dean. Dean wanders through the day in blissful ignorance, and the smiles he casts Sam’s way are so bright, so reminiscent of a Dean Sam had thought long-dead, that he can’t bear to put a damper on them in any way. And why shouldn’t Dean smile? He’d brought Sam back from the brink of suicide and Sam is grateful for it. Let him smile. Let him be happy. It’s such a rare thing in their lives these days.
The smell—rot, decay—keeps him up that night, and now he knows Dean can smell it, too, but Dean says nothing. Sam resolves to stop complaining about it. They won’t be here much longer anyway.
The next day Dean goes out for, as he puts it, road food. When Sam looks at him with hopeful eyes, he nods, exasperated. “Yes, yes, we’re leaving tomorrow. You happy?”
Sam watches him pull on his jacket and his boots. He rubs at his arms; they’re prickling with gooseflesh again, though he’s turned the radiator up enough as is humane in a summer like this. His throat feels like it’s full of glue and he saw hair falling out in his hands in the shower again that morning but he says none of this. He’s a little scared, now—he’s been well-fed and well-rested for nearly a whole week but whatever high he’d hit seems to be coming down, now. His veins are standing out in the crooks of his arms. Dean doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he doesn’t mention it.
“Promise?” he says.
“Got a hot date?” Dean says, grinning quietly to himself at his own joke.
“Just restless,” Sam says, casting a glance around the room. “And this place is disgusting, man.”
“You smell that last night?”
Dean seems to weigh his words for a moment before he responds.
“Yeah,” he says, finally, clearing his throat, focusing hard on his boot laces. “Yeah, maybe something snuffed it in the walls. You never know. Possum or something.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Maybe.”
“Be back soon,” Dean says, jangling his keys in his pocket. “Don’t throw any parties while I’m gone.”
Sam smiles as he disappears out the door.
He clears his throat, rubs at it momentarily. He’s got a tic in his eye, now, too—some vein twitching back there. He hopes this isn’t some kind of residual effect of the Trials. He’s so tired of being sick.
He gets up, opens the door, lets it stand a crack. Pulls open the curtains and shoos the gathering swarm of flies on the warm glass out as best he can. A few escape into the bathroom and he follows after, sighing, holding his arm up over his nose. The smell is back, stronger now in a space as claustrophobic as this one.
He feels like he could drop at any moment. He hasn’t been this tired since he first woke up here. Half-heartedly he swats at the flies, crushes one against the mirror, tries not to gag when it smears all across his fingers. He turns on the water, rinses them off.
“Where are you coming from?” he mutters, grabbing up a wad of toilet paper to smash the others, waiting for them to land where he can get to them. He rubs at the skin below his eye to smoothe out the tic but it doesn’t work. It’s like something is crawling in there.
The gunk in his throat—mucus, whatever it is—moves when he swallows and he sighs, turns around, flies forgotten, to hock it up into the sink; pulls his hair back from his face and makes himself cough, cough, cough it up onto his tongue and spit it out.
Something sticky, white, and writhing lands in the sink and begins to break apart and move up the porcelain sides.
Sam reels back, horrified, runs into the wall and reaches up and scrubs furiously at his tongue with his fingertips, gagging—lurches towards the toilet and retches. The smell of the dead thing is overpowering now, seeping down into his throat. When he gasps back up and reaches up to flush the toilet another maggot drops off his lower lip onto the toilet seat and he sticks his fingers right back into his throat, retches again, trembling violently, one hand clutching his hair at the back of his neck.
When his stomach is heaving and there’s nothing left to come up he stumbles back against the wall and sits there, shivering, feeling weak.
“What the fuck,” he whispers, clutching his stomach. “What the fuck.”
Witches? It seems their style. But he doesn’t know. He isn’t sure. He can still feel the worming tic in his eye, is acutely aware of the rumbling of his empty stomach, of the stickiness in his throat. The room smells like flesh and rot.
Worse when he raises his hands to his face.
He—he smells like flesh and rot.
Horrified—slowly—uneasy on his feet—he stands up, braces himself against the wall, goes to the mirror. He tries not to look at the maggots making their way up from the drain. He pulls off his shirt, turns around, twists his head to look at the bruise on his spine.
But it’s not a bruise. It’s a burn—a burn in the shape of a letter, or a number, or a sigil, he can’t tell from this angle—something seared into his skin, peeling, glazed over with scar tissue. He can see where he’s stretched and torn it. It’s burned so deep that its lines are dark and reddened.
Sam gasps, winces, tries to turn further, the better to see it, even though he thinks—he thinks he knows what it is, even without recognising it; he thinks that maybe it’s something he’s seen before in books about the dead; he thinks he remembers it, in some way, somehow, from a long long time ago, from a young woman who crawled out of her grave in Illinois, Greek symbols on a coffin—
He drops his shirt, turns around, looks hard at his face in the mirror, at the blue tinge to his skin, the tic under his eye, the scabs on his cheek—some larva or another, slow and fat and white, crawls meekly out over his lower lip and he watches with horror as it drops heavily into the sink and joins the others making their idle way.
He remembers coming out of that church, caught in Dean’s arms. He remembers his heart seizing up in his chest. He remembers watching angels plummet like comets out of the black sky but he doesn’t remember anything after until—
Waking in this room in a panic. Cold and pale and not-quite-right.
Oh. Oh, oh, he’d died out there.
“Oh,” he says, a noise of despair, “oh, Dean, no, Dean, you didn’t.”
He braces his arms against the sink, shoulders shaking, and then in a flurry he shunts the water on and watches the maggots drown, watches them sweep down the drain and wriggle in the rising tide.
He lets the water run. He sits back down on the floor, staring at his hands.
Sam watches Dean pack his bag from the doorway of the bathroom. The morning light is gentle and cool on the windowsill and Dean is whistling to himself and Sam hasn’t heard him whistle to himself in years.
His back is throbbing. He shifts uncomfortably against the doorjamb.
Dean’s movements are methodical but content—an ease to his shoulders Sam hadn’t known he’d had in him. And every time he straightens, as if on cue, Dean throws him a smile, as if to say, it’s just so nice you’re here.
Sam smiles back, sad small smiles. Dean doesn’t seem to notice their sadness or their smallness.
His fingers are blue around the nail but he hides them in his pockets.
He could tell him. Tell him that he knows what Dean has done. Tell him he knows that he died on the road outside that church and that Dean brought him back, yanked his corpse back into life with a brand on his back where Sam might never have seen. Tell him, I’m a monster. How can you live with me? Is it really worth all this, to have me?
But he knows the answer to that question, and so he doesn’t ask it. Yes, of course, Dean would say. Of course it’s worth it. It’s worth anything.
And Dean is so, so happy. The world is still crumbling but Dean is so happy. Sam watches him pack his bag and knows he couldn’t ever take that kind of happiness away from him. It’d break them both apart.
Dean slings his bag over his shoulder and turns to him, with his big broad grin, his let’s-hit-the-road grin. “Ready to head home?”
Sam looks at him—into him—feels the tic or the worm inside his eye twitch and shift. He looks at him and smiles back, a fleeting smile, and takes a deep cold breath.
“Yeah,” he says, lingering in the bathroom doorway. “Yeah. Let’s go home.”
Dean smiles, and opens the door, floods the stinking, fly-ridden room with light.