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The Only Other Sound

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On the way up the stairs, leaning almost all his weight on Dean while trying to force his legs to manage the next step (and the next, and the next) without falling, Sam asks Dean where he gets all the handkerchiefs.

“You use it?” he mutters when Dean doesn't answer.

“Hmm?” Dean grunts as Sam fumbles the second-to-last step, dipping to catch his not-so-little brother before he face-plants.

“You, uh...” Words. Sam forces them out through the fog in his brain and the laziness of his tongue. “You like, blow your nose on it?”

Sam can't see his big brother through the swimming blackness, but he can feel the shudder of disgust roll through him. “What? No. God, no. That would be disgusting. I wouldn't use it on you if it had snot all over. Gimme some credit.”

With a faint smile, Sam decides not to mention that stuffed-in-the-back-pocket-of-Dean's-pants is not an ideal location if he wants to keep anything sterile. Anyway, it's the thought that counts, and the feeling of the cloth, already warm from being held so close to Dean, is calming, like everything's gonna be okay.

Sam wonders if Dean gets the ugly plaid handkerchiefs just to wrap around Sam when he slices himself up. He remembers the one Dean used on his hand in the church. Sam ruined that one, too. A quick glance at the olive one currently knotted around his arm reveals that it's soaked beyond saving with Sam's blood. Sam doesn't have any handkerchiefs on him, but he insists that Dean stop in the bathroom to to treat his own arm on the way out. Dean wasn't stupid like Sam was, didn't deepen the wound, so it's mostly clotted now. Slumped against the wall, he makes sure Dean cleans and bandages it before doing some quick first aid on Sam. No good if they're both out of commission.

From where he sits on the floor, Sam can just barely see into the room where Susie is, can still see the smears of blood and brain matter on the window.

You're not real, he had said to Susie, like he'd said to Lucifer. Funny how he expected that to actually work.

He remembers the hallucinations earlier. Sam has a lot of experience with hallucinations. Should know better by now.

He thinks of Rowena. Sam has experience with manipulative women, too. He thinks of her hands on him, squeezing the blood from him. He remembers her voice, calling him Sammy, her touch that made him feel sick and filthy in ways he was all too familiar with.

He doesn't think of Ruby.

Instead, he bites his lip and looks at Dean, who's finishing with his own treatment and advancing on Sam. No use tearing off the handkerchief and starting the bleeding again. Too dangerous. Dean wraps it until Sam looks like the Michelin man, until blood doesn't seep through the bandages.

If anyone ever saw the Winchester's arms, they'd think they both wanted to die or something.

Maybe they'd be right.

 -  oOo - 

Dean manages to avoid the conversation until they get home, but it's playing on repeat through his head until the moment he returns from locking down the book with Sam, who proves unnervingly interested in making sure the book is safe. Dean finally settles him down on the couch and rolls Sam's sleeves up, gathering first aid stuff around him in teetering piles on the table.

They have the equipment to do a transfusion, but no blood, and breaking into a blood bank? That shit is not as easy as people think it is. Dean settles his brother in on a bed of pillows on the couch, gathering cups of water and juice with straws while he checks Sam's pulse and blood pressure (a bit fast, and a bit low, respectively).

Sam is a little shocky, but he's conscious enough to joke, even if he's barely strong enough to stand. Dean settles for closing the wound and hooking Sam up to IV fluids. They won't restore the lost blood, but they'll give him some more volume to work with for now.

Face pale and clammy with cold sweat, Sam fades in and out while Dean pulls up a chair beside him and works. Dean wipes the sweat from his brow with a warm rag for several long minutes while Sam more or less dozes.

Warm.

Alive.

Dean's own breathing calms when Sam finally rests on the couch, wound closed, cleaned, and bandaged (it was an ugly son of a bitch, cut and then cut again, cut deeper), and breathing shallow but steady. Sam's lucky, really, that he somehow managed not to destroy his tendons, though there's some ugly muscle damage. A problem for later. Maybe Cas can help. For now, Dean has done everything he can.

He watches Sam's eyelids flicker restlessly, sees Sam mutter and whimper and curl into himself, and his relief fades, replaced with worry and terror that gets mixed up on the way out and ends up as anger.

He grips Sam's shoulder, shakes him out of slumber.

It's time they talked about this.

"Mmm,” Sam says.

"Sammy, wake up.”

“Dean...?”

“Yeah. Wake up. We need to talk.”

“Sleepy.”

“I know you are. Wake up. Open your eyes. You give me the right answers and you can go back to sleep soon.”

Sam makes an incomprehensible noise, and Dean draws a deep breath as he watches the hazel eyes open and roll until they focus on Dean. “Hey,” he whispers.

Dean has to try really, really damn hard not to go soft as Sam's face breaks into a lazy smile.

“Hey yourself. We need to talk about what you were doing down there, Sammy. I know something wasn't right. You know it, too, and we need to talk.”

Sam's eyes narrow with fear, and he tries to force himself into a sitting position. He gets about halfway up before Dean watches the color flee from Sam's face as his breath goes ragged, eyes dipping in a slow blink that Dean knows from experience precedes unconsciousness. He shoves a hand underneath his little brother's shoulders and guides him down again.

“Oh no you don't. This is a conversation you can't escape.”

“Dean, 'm'sorry. I didn't mean to—”

“I think you did. Sammy, I thought we established this. I thought... back when we got you fixed up from the Trials...”

Sam's eyebrows knit, confused. “Dean?”

“I thought you'd given up on this 'I don't care if I die' shit.”

Sam's brow smooths out, as if he thought Dean was talking about something else, and he seems at peace again. “Sorry,” he says.

The anger surges up again. “Don't you fucking apologize to me!”

All he can see, for a second, is Sam slumped over the bowl, bleeding his last into it. Sam, barely responsive, whispering Dean's name, faint and breathless. Sam basically begging to die because the box needed Legacy blood.

“Don't you apologize! I know you're not stupid, Sammy. I know you have a good head on your shoulders. You... you always know that there are options, other ways. So I have to ask you, what the hell were you thinking?

Sam shakes his head. “It... it had you. I couldn't get you to respond, and I just...needed it to open if I was going to save you.”

“Then why not tie me up and take me with you? Keep us both safe?”

Sam shakes his head, groaning with the motion and stopping, closing his eyes. He pulls in slow breaths. Dizzy. He's already lying down with his legs propped up on pillows to make sure there's enough blood in his core. There's not much more Dean can do for him now, and Dean needs to know.

“Why were you so ready to die?”

Sam darts his tongue out to lick dry, cracked lips, and Dean leans toward the water before shaking his head, returning his focus to Sam.

“Why, Sam? Answer me.”

Sam swallows, a dry click. “S'sssave you,” he whispers.

Dean mutters a few choice words under his breath and lifts his brother up a little, giving him sips of water until he turns his head away.

“Sammy, you didn't have to do that.”

“Only way. Needed... th'box open, Dean. You don'understand.”

“This Mark wasn't gonna let me kill myself, Sam. You knew that. You know that. And if you'd spent even a second thinking, you would have realized that there were two of us who could share the burden to open that vault. You're level-headed, Sammy, and the fact that you didn't think of those things, it...”

Sam reaches up blindly, eyes still closed, until the fingers of his undamaged hand find Dean's arm and trail down to his fingers. He squeezes. Dean imagines that it's Sam's confused attempt to be comforting, but his grip is so weak, his skin chilled with cold sweat and blood loss. Dean takes Sam's hand and holds it in both of his, as if proximity can make Sam warmer.

“M'srrrry,” Sam slurs, eyes still closed, and Dean listens as his breath deepens into sleep. Dean repositions his hands around Sam's so that he can feel his brother's pulse (a little weak, but still steady), and leans in to listen to his breaths (steady, thank God, steady).

Sam is asleep by the time the tears come.

Dean stays calm for a long while, thinking about what Sam said, but then he thinks about how Sam bled himself dry into a bowl without calling for Cas or hauling Dean down the stairs or thinking of the other solutions he's so well-known for. And Sam says that it was this thing where he just wanted Dean to be okay, but the Sam Dean used to know would have found another way, thought of a solution where they both came out okay. This Sam, the one that's so ready to die for Dean that he doesn't think twice, it scares Dean more than he's ever been scared before, is scarier even than Hell, because at least then he knew that Sam was safe, alive, topside.

He's scared by the way Sam looked at him today, frightened by the little smile like an apology, like giving his life will somehow get him absolution for some real or imagined sin.

At first, Dean just clenches Sam's hand and rocks back and forth. Dean isn't afraid of dying. He told not-Benny as much just today. If he has to, he'll take his own life before he hurts Sam or Cas. But there's a difference between a willingness to die and a desire to die, and Sam seems to be tipping toward the latter more and more.

Dean rocks, and his breath hitches, because he can treat the wounds he can see, but he doesn't know how to fix this, doesn't know how to make his brother okay again, and it scares the shit out of him.

The tears come, but Dean doesn't move. He bites his lip to keep quiet, and he listens to Sam breathe.

He looks down at his little brother, strong but thinner than he's been in a long time and so, so pale, and he sees a kid (always a kid, his kid brother) who's had to make the kind of choices that would ruin a man.

He never meant for Sam to be like this, never wanted him to become the kind of person who would throw himself away.

Sam sleeps on.

Maybe Sam has always been like that. Maybe Dean just never noticed.

Dean inhales a ragged breath, bowing his head over Sam's hand, and for the first time in a long, long time, he entertains the thought of praying to a God who isn't there.

He doesn't. He laughs at himself instead—a ragged sound—and finds comfort in the faint beats of Sam's heart.