The hospital was as small and unfamiliar as the city surrounding it, and if it weren't for Dean's unconscious figure on the bed in front of him, Sam might have convinced himself that the events of the night before had been no more than a nightmare. Even now, it was only the intensely awful taste of the hospital's coffee that kept him grounded, and as he held it with one hand and fiddled with Dean's phone with the other, he wondered why he hadn't yet called home.
One part of him was relieved he'd stuck with his estranged brother, that he'd followed him on his crazy errand and been there to call 911 when it counted. Another part of him was less altruistic, the part that had gotten over the boogeyman long ago and which was worrying about the study time he'd lose from the memory of a couple of dead bodies and seeing his brother try to kill himself.
In hindsight, that last trauma might have stuck with him anyway for different reasons than the events of last night.
"Sammy...? That you?"
Sam's head snapped up and he stood from his chair. Dean looked like hell, but his eyes were half-open and he was smirking like this was nothing, like he'd gotten stabbed and gotten over it a thousand times before.
"Dean," Sam scowled as he approached the bed, and though he sounded stern, he was more relieved than he could say. "You're an idiot, you know that?"
"Goin' after the djinn by myself? Yeah, yeah, I know." Dean grimaced as he tried to shift his weight. "Wouldn't believe the stuff it put in my head. You should be glad I had the balls to--"
"To what, Dean?" Sam shook his head, frustrated that his brother's delusion continued even after the fact. "Stab yourself?"
Dean's eyes slid over to Sam's as his smirk slowly faded. He stared for a moment.
"Do you ever take responsibility for anything?" Sam asked through an angry sigh, rubbing his eyes with one hand. He hadn't gotten any sleep. "How are you going to explain this to Mom? To Carmen?"
"I..." Dean seemed to be at a loss for words as he turned his head and stared at the wall opposite him. He arched an eyebrow. "Huh."
"Dean," Sam said, his hand tense as he set his coffee cup down on the nearby bedside table. "You don't get to try to kill yourself and justify it with 'huh.'"
"I know, I know!" Dean's voice rose a few notches in volume, and he grit his teeth as his injured chest rose and fell sharply. "Dammit!"
Sam got the feeling that Dean's cursing was due to something other than pain, and the thought unsettled him more than it should have. He watched as his brother coughed, then groaned, then fell back into the bed's white sheets. Sam should have helped him, put a hand on his shoulder or called a nurse, but he just didn't feel that generous at the moment.
Instead, he sat back down in his chair and took a swig of his lukewarm coffee, eyes fixed on Dean in the way a wolf watches its stumbling, somewhat brain-dead young. Dean seemed to be in another world altogether, staring at the ceiling for a good ten seconds before he said anything.
"What'd you tell the cops?" Dean's voice was hoarser than before.
"The cops?" Sam asked in his evasive, law school way. "Dean--"
"Did you tell them your whackjob brother went to hunt a djinn, and there just happened to be dead bodies when you got there?"
Sam found it hard to keep his cool with the accusatory tone his brother was using, but then again, he knew his brother wasn't all there. He sighed and scratched his head.
"I told them you had suspicions about an abandoned building in this town, and when we went in, there was a tattooed man keeping a girl hostage." Sam paused, wondering again at how Dean had dragged them into this whole mess and still marveling at the fact that he'd lied to the police to protect the idiot.
"Did you show them our IDs?" Dean asked, sounding grim.
"What?" Sam balked at the absurdity of the question before continuing. "Of course I did, Dean! What do you think we are, criminals?"
"I don't, but I'm sure as hell the cops did once they saw we drove all the way from Kansas to play vigilante." Against all reason, Dean began to sit up, and this time Sam did rush over and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Then just tell them the truth, Dean," he said. "Tell them how you knew about the guy and then we can get out of here."
"Trust me," Dean replied with a snort, wincing as he reached for the hospital bed's recliner switch, "the truth won't help, and 'sides, not really in a state to travel."
This was hopeless. Sam turned his gaze away from his brother, fiddling with the cell phone again as it slowly dawned on him that this whole thing wasn't some one-night accident that was going to go away with the morning. It made him angry that he could still dwell on such childish notions, that there was half a chance that there was something in the world that Dean was smarter about than he was.
"You haven't called them yet, have you?"
Sam looked to Dean, whose face seemed to go from despondent to jovial in a matter of seconds.
"You didn't!" Dean laughed and grimaced at the same time. "Man, maybe you do have some common sense."
"Common sense?" Sam echoed disbelievingly. "How the hell is not letting Mom and Carmen know that you're on the brink of death in the middle of nowhere common sense?"
"Aw, c'mon, Sam," Dean groaned, this time with exasperation instead of pain. Although he was still smiling, Sam could tell from the lack of light in his eyes that the expression was forced. "They don't deserve to hear about all that stuff we saw. Hell," he gestured in Sam's direction, "you don't either."
There was something to that, something more than Dean was saying. It was weird for Sam to know that, Sam who had never seen Dean act the way he had these past two days, dazed and confused but bewilderedly well-meaning. This wasn't the Dean Sam knew, the Dean who was selfish and indecent and drunk. The way Dean was talking now, it was as if he cared more about other people than he did himself.
"Is that why you've been putting on the nice guy act?" Sam asked slowly, gears turning in his head until they finally came to a satisfactory conclusion. He looked to Dean, eyes narrowed. "Were you just trying to make amends because you knew you were going to kill yourself?"
"What?" Dean seemed taken aback for a moment, looking a mix of hurt and puzzled until he winced and shook his head. "No, hell no--just..."
Dean hesitated, like he didn't know what to say. Sam forced himself to think it was because his brother needed to come up with an excuse, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was still missing a vital part of the equation.
"I just... feel bad about how things turned out, Sammy." Dean finally said, wry grin on his face. "Guess I'm not allowed to call you that, though."
"A little late to feel bad," Sam muttered, tossing his empty coffee cup to the trash before he stood up and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't understand the 'Sammy' fixation and it gave him the impression that Dean's brain had degenerated to childish mush. Who knew; maybe the drinking and auto shop fumes Dean inhaled on a daily basis had messed him up, and maybe Sam just hadn't noticed the change because he hardly ever saw the guy. If that were the case, Sam couldn't help but think that he didn't feel much pity. Dean had brought it upon himself.
The phone in Sam's hand suddenly felt heavier and more conspicuous than it had before. With a sigh, he brought it up and snapped it open, scrolling to "Mom" on the contact list.
"What're you gonna tell them?"
Sam glanced back to Dean, then to the room's window. Although the curtains were half-drawn, he could see the faint light of dawn approaching.
"That you're having a crisis," Sam said after a moment, taking a deep breath. He scratched behind his ear. "I'll tell them you're having a crisis and you wanted to get away from everyone, but I didn't let you."
"And the djinn? The injury?"
Sam hesitated from making the call. He glanced up, then down again with an exasperated snort as he pressed "Send."
"You can come up with a half-assed excuse for that yourself, Dean."
"Hey," Dean smirked, "better me than you."
Dean could hear the faint sound of voices from beyond the door of the hospital room and though he couldn't make out any words, he had a good idea what they were talking about. Sure, everyone had their weird days, and people were going to accept that and forgive it, but Dean knew that with this last stunt he'd pulled, he'd most likely thrown his second chance to live a normal life down the crapshoot.
Then again, he wasn't what really mattered here. Dean opened his eyes and glanced around the room, bleary gaze moving from Mom's discarded purse to the law school textbooks that Sam had told Jessica to bring over for him to study. The sight made him smile a little, though craning his neck pulled at his chest's muscles and caused a new wave of pain to overtake him. Though he didn't cry out, he grit his teeth and eased himself back until he was lying down again. He closed his eyes and tried to remember times he'd been worse off, and really, there were a lot to choose from.
"...how long...acting this way?"
"...past couple of days..."
Dean opened his eyes, a new kind of ache growing in him. He of all people knew how a few crazy-sounding ramblings could ruin a relationship beyond mending, a relationship you thought was strong and you thought you could risk your life on. He knew that he wanted this, wanted his family, wanted to live and grow old and be happy, but he also knew he could never forgive himself for putting his own happiness above someone else's.
Things didn't work that way.
The door creaked open and Dean glanced over to see Sam poke his head in.
"What's up?" Dean smiled, voice weaker than he'd like to admit. "They need my mugshot yet?"
Sam answered the joke with a furtive glance around the room before he shut the door behind him. He made his way to the bed, looking strangely urgent.
"What's wrong?" Dean asked. His smile faded, though he felt a small surge of gratitude that he could still read his brother's body language even if this was a far cry from the Sam he knew.
"The cops are here," said Sam, and for a moment Dean contemplated how a law student could be so damn nervous about dealing with... well, the law. "They heard you're conscious and they want to take a statement."
Dean paused, waiting for more. When no more came, he glanced to his brother and arched an eyebrow.
"You really aren't concerned?" Sam looked back, and his brow furrowed as he pointed towards the door. "Listen, Dean, those guys mean business. They don't believe the hobo story, and one of the girls he abducted was a deputy's daughter. They're gonna grill you and they're gonna take advantage of the fact that you're out of your mind--"
"Whoa, whoa, tiger," Dean interrupted, holding up a hand and looking Sam in the eye. "First of all, I ain't outta my mind. Second off... did you say hobo?"
"Yes, the tattooed homeless guy," Sam hissed, and Dean looked at him long and hard. It figured that civilian Sam would already be in denial that anything supernatural had happened in the creepy place, and a djinn was human-looking enough that it could pass for one in the eyes of the uninitiated.
There were reasons Dean would want to go along with the lie. Good reasons, objective reasons, reasons like not sounding crazy and covering up his tracks, reasons to take advantage of a perfectly presented excuse to explain something he couldn't explain.
But Dean knew he had a reason more important than that.
"Yeah... Yeah, you're right," he mumbled, looking away and relaxing back into the bed. "The hobo."
There was a knock at the door and Sam's head snapped towards it. He seemed tense as Dean watched him walk away and turn the door handle.
"Good afternoon," the taller of two men gave a nod and flashed his badge. "I'm Detective Whitman and this is Detective Morgan. We'd like a word with your brother?"
Sam nodded back, looking stiffer even than he normally did, and Dean smiled as the two cops breezed past his brother and approached his bed.
"Hey, Officers," he said, trying to act more like a misplaced grease monkey than one of FBI's most wanted. "I hear you guys had some questions?"
"Yes," Morgan, the shorter one, answered. "Quite a few, actually."
"Mr. Winchester," Whitman glanced at Sam, and even from Dean's awkward vantage point, he could tell the officer's smile was curt. "Could you wait outside?"
Sam automatically began to open the door again and Dean turned his attention back towards the officers, trying not to seem as nervous as he was. All his life, he'd laughed in the face of death and authority, but that life had been one where he'd had back-up plans and connections only with those who knew his line of work. Now, he had a family who knew a version of him that was normal, a version that they expected to be as well-adjusted and law-abiding as Dean could get. Now, he had something important he could lose or at least disappoint if he didn't play his cards right.
"Now, Dean," Whitman began, pulling out a small memo pad. "Could you explain to us how--"
"I'm sorry." Sam's voice cut in.
Dean and the detectives looked towards the door where Sam was standing, looking tense as hell.
"Pardon?" Whitman asked, and his voice held more than a hint of intimidation.
"I'm sorry, but..." Sam trailed off for a moment, looking to Dean before steeling his resolve. "Although my brother's agreed to questioning, I'm not sure he's physically or mentally fit to tackle the questions on his own."
Dean's eyes widened and he would've bitched out Sam had the glare he shot him not made him feel like it'd be a really bad idea.
"Son," Morgan said with a drawl, "are you saying you want to solicit an attorney for your brother this early in the investigation?"
"No, no, of course not," Sam raised his hands disarmingly and smiled with the puppy eyes that Dean knew all too well. "I'm a law student and I just feel like it'd be best if I stayed and helped him answer the questions."
The detectives exchanged glances and Whitman shrugged. Dean knew what they were thinking, asshole cops they were; they were banking on a law student not being much help to their suspect and in fact posing a much better gig than having to deal with a lawyer.
"Sure, I suppose it's all right," Morgan said slowly. Dean's glare followed Sam as he nodded thanks and pulled up a chair next to the head of Dean's bed.
"You coulda just said you wanted to stay," Dean muttered. Sam seemed to ignore the aside and smiled pure honesty at the cops.
"So, what do you want to know?"
Sam was beginning to regret having saved his brother's ass from jail time or a stint at an asylum. Although a claim of crazy mixed with coincidence and tempered with lack of evidence had satisfied the cops in Illinois, it was now four months, one MRI, and five psychological evaluations after the fact, and there still didn't seem to be any clear reason for Dean's memory loss or delusions.
The whole thing was a mess, layers of misunderstanding piling upon one another depending on the person involved. The Illinois cops thought Dean was completely nuts, though in a fairly non-murderous way, Carmen thought he'd gone off the deep end of boredom and auto shop chemicals, and Mom thought he was going through a nervous breakdown caused by Dad's death and his own repressed emotions over it.
Jess knew whatever Sam told her, which wasn't much. He wasn't proud that his drunk of a brother had turned out to be crazy too, and he was glad that Dean had sworn him to secrecy on most of what he knew. Sam had more important things to worry about, anyway, like Jess and their engagement and law school on top of it all. It was a shame that they'd decided to spend the summer in Lawrence before Dean's crisis; it was about the last place Sam wanted to be right now because of it, but he figured he could at least be there for Mom while she dealt with the whole thing.
He was doing that now, as he sat down next to her on the couch and rubbed her back. She wasn't crying yet, but Sam was prepared for it with a tissue box in reach while she looked through a hefty photo album.
"You two grew up so fast," she murmured, flipping from one page to another. Her face lit up and she tapped her finger on a picture of the family in front of a pile of hay and pumpkins. "Oh...! Sam, do you remember that ranch we used to go to every Halloween?"
"Yeah, I do." Sam took a breath and forced a smile. "Dean used to tell me the scarecrow over there came to life and attacked little kids."
"Oh, Dean, always making trouble," Mom said, smiling with nostalgia that Sam felt was sorely misplaced. "I remember that fight. It's a good thing you had your father to set him straight and tell you there was no such thing."
"Yeah," Sam said half-heartedly, looking for something less awkward than old photographs to busy himself with. His eyes found the fireplace, and he stood up and walked towards it, motioning towards the basket of logs next to it. "Hey, Mom, want me to get a fire going?"
"Sure, Sam, that'd be nice," she said, though there was something in the tone of her voice that made Sam feel like she was on to him; after all, while it was nearing the end of summer, the nights weren't all that cold yet. Still, he nodded and grabbed a log, placing it on the iron grating.
"You know," Mom started, standing up from her own seat. "Lit fireplaces make me crave hot chocolate. You want some?"
"Sure," Sam said, though by the time he'd given his answer, she was halfway to the kitchen.
"What about Jessica?" She called. "Is she coming back downstairs?"
"Nah, I think she's already asleep," Sam called back as he grabbed for the box of matches on the mantle. He lit one up and put it under the log, waiting for the embers to start burning. Once they did, he stood up and turned around to see that Mom had already brought over a couple of mugs for them.
"Good," she said matter-of-factly, setting the mugs down on the coffee table. "Then we can talk."
"Talk?" Sam echoed as if he didn't already know what she meant. He chuckled a little as he continued: "What's there to talk about?"
"Your brother, for one," she said, sitting back on the couch. "I think that's a pretty big topic for conversation."
"Mom..." Sam started, shaking his head. "I know it's been really hard on all of us, but honestly..."
He paused, unsure of whether he should be fully frank when Mom already had so much on her shoulders.
"Honestly?" Mom arched an eyebrow, picking up her mug. The prompt was enough to keep Sam going, and he scratched the side of his head before he continued.
"Honestly, Mom, I barely know him," Sam said. There were a lot more negative things he could say of his brother, but it'd probably be better to keep quiet on those counts. "I barely knew him back when we lived under the same roof, let alone when we've had half a country between us."
"Well, maybe that's the problem." Mom's voice had taken on a sterner tone, the kind that she usually only used with Dean. "Maybe you should know him better than you do."
"What?" Dumbfounded, Sam watched her take a sip of the hot chocolate. He sputtered for a moment, then gave a laugh that was harsher than he meant it to be. "Are you saying this is my fault?"
"No, Sam," Mom sighed, raising tired eyes towards him. "I'm just saying that you could do more to help him is all."
"Hey," Sam retorted, temper mounting faster than a lit fuse as he gestured towards the front door. "I'm the one who went on the crazy trip with him, okay? I had to deal with some... some psycho and dead bodies, and that's not something you can just forget. Hell, if I hadn't been there..."
Sam trailed off, body tensing even as his frustration began to leave him. Mom watched him carefully, her words quiet but level.
"If you hadn't been there, what?"
Sam rubbed his forehead with one hand as he rested the other on the back of one of the living room chairs.
"Nothing," he muttered. "There wouldn't have been anyone there to stop him from killing himself, that's all."
Sam was sure that Mom knew he wasn't telling the whole truth, but if she did, she didn't give any indication of it. Instead, as Sam closed his eyes and tried to ward off the migraine he was sure was coming, he felt warm hands on his shoulders and opened his eyes to see Mom's steady gaze staring back at him.
"Sam," she began, a look of motherly empathy on her face that could still even the worst mood, "I know this must be hard for you. I know how rebellious your brother was when he was younger. I know how stern we had to be with him and I know Dean took it out on you."
"Yeah, exactly," Sam said. He could barely control the words coming out of his mouth at this point and he wasn't sure if he cared. "Took it out on me, meaning I didn't deserve it."
"Hey, hey, listen to me," she said gently. "I know you didn't deserve it, sweetie, but he's really trying to reach out to you right now. I think he wants to make it up to you."
"He's been trying to make up for a lot of things lately," Sam said under his breath even though he knew Mom could hear him. He knew she'd tell him what she always did: that Dean hadn't meant it and that he had grown out of it, and even if he still drank too much and didn't want to do anything special with his life, it didn't mean he had bad intentions.
The thing was Sam didn't believe it. Maybe it made him sound arrogant, but growing up in the shadow of the constant trouble Dean caused had shaped Sam more than he wanted to admit. He didn't want to be the kid who lied and schemed, the kid who cheated and stole and got grounded more times than he could count. Maybe they'd had different personalities from the start, but it was the way Dean had decided to live that kept them apart, and maybe that's why the recent and sudden changes in his brother bugged Sam so damned much.
Mom had gone and sat down on the couch again, and Sam muttered an apology even though he wasn't sure what he was sorry for. She didn't respond, instead resting her elbow on the couch's armrest and rubbing her eyes.
"Sam..." She started, the sorrow of a mother worried sick lacing her words. "Do you know what the doctors have been saying?"
"Sort of." Sam sat next to her again. He knew Mom needed less of his deep-seated grudges and more of his emotional support, and he really did want to give that to her. "I thought you said they haven't found anything that could be causing it?"
"Medically speaking, no." Mom leaned forward and began wringing her hands slowly. "Even the psychiatrists say that he's been really reserved about talking about himself, and Carmen says..."
She paused. Sam had a bad feeling he wasn't going to like what she had to say.
"Carmen says he keeps talking about a roadtrip." She looked him in the eye. "A roadtrip with you."
"Well, that's... because he's crazy." Sam laughed, though it came out more cynical than amused. "I mean, come on, Mom. The last roadtrip we went on together was when we were kids; we nearly killed each other in the backseat."
"Sam, don't avoid the point," she said with a shake of her head. "You know he wants to spend time with you, and frankly, I don't think a roadtrip is such a bad idea."
Sam's head snapped up.
"You'd be the one driving, of course," Mom continued as if Sam's tone hadn't been one of utter disbelief. "And you'd keep an eye on him and check in with us every day..."
"Mom," Sam said slowly, "an insane roadtrip is what started this whole mess in the first place. Besides, I--"
"No," Mom cut him off, her voice lowering to the kind of serious that made Sam uncomfortable. "You don't just lose your mind overnight, Sam; he must have been getting like this for months, maybe even since your father passed."
"Well, you know how Dean is," Sam offered a small kernel he did know for sure about his brother's personality, "he hides anything un-macho."
"But we should have known that, Sam!" Mom clasped his hand in hers. He didn't like how she kept on bringing "we" into the conversation. "The way he is, and how much he looked up to your father..."
"Yeah," Sam replied halfheartedly. He really didn't know what he could have done to keep his brother off the deep end; he'd been in California when Dad died and he'd only been able to spare a couple of weeks back home for the funeral. "But Mom, if anyone should have been noticing weird behavior, it's Carmen. It's not like any of us--"
"We're his family, Sam." Her grip on his hands tightened. "You can't tell me there was nothing we could have done."
"I don't know, Mom," Sam mumbled. "Don't really know him well enough to say for sure."
Sam knew it was a mistake to go back to that point of contention as soon as he said it. Mom's hands tensed just before she sighed.
"That's exactly why you need some time with him. He needs you right now."
For a moment, Sam felt like agreeing. He knew what his mom was saying was true and he knew that helping Dean would make her happy again, at least for a while. But then he remembered Jess and law school, the two loves of his life, and he remembered that there were only a couple weeks left of summer vacation before he had to get back to Stanford. He remembered that his brother had never been there when he'd needed him, and he remembered how much it had hurt.
"I... I can't, Mom." Sam looked away as he finally pulled his hands from hers, and he stood up, running a hand through his hair. "There's not enough time left in the summer for something like that to do any good. I can't just drop my responsibilities for him."
'Responsibilities' was a word that Sam used frequently and a word that he put a lot of stock in. 'Responsibilities' included money and school and keeping his life together. They didn't include his brother.
And yet Sam got the feeling that Mom thought they did, and he knew that saying otherwise was as good as breaking her heart. She knew her sons had never gotten along and even now viewed each other with a kind of detached indifference; Sam knew it too, and he wondered if he cared at this point. His big brother had mattered to him at some point in his life, back when he was too young and naive to know any better.
He waited for her to press the point so he could keep saying no even if he felt guilty about it, but his mom's usual stubbornness never came. Instead, he heard the clinking of mugs and turned around to see his mom gathering up the hot chocolate cups and standing up.
"I know, Sam." she murmured, back turned towards him as she made her way back to the kitchen. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't be putting all of this on your shoulders."
Sam watched her as she walked, pace slow and tired, her shoulders slightly slumped. The way she spoke sounded profoundly exhausted, and when she said she was going up to bed, there was something like grief in her voice.
"I'll do it," Sam said, and as soon as the words left his mouth, he winced.