He gets the idea in the middle of the night, awake in the half-dark of a motel room. He's tired, but not life-threateningly so; just not enough to close his eyes and actually sleep. Lucifer might be gone, but Sam's head has never been exactly quiet, and a couple hundred years of hell aren't helping.
Dean's passed out in the bed across from him, sleeping the sleep of the very drunk. He's snoring softly, these long whistling breaths that are comforting and annoying in equal measure. They carry over the sound of the TV, because Sam's kept it on low, on the grounds that one of them should be sleeping. They only get two channels out here, anyway, which is about right from a motel of crumbling brick and patched roof they found a the end of a dirt track.
So there's the channel with the dude too heavily spray-tanned selling the miracle of Jesus, and the channel with the dude too heavily spray-tanned selling the miracle of household products. Sam's gone for the household products, obviously. There's a blender he almost wants. Wouldn't be that hard, setting it up in motel rooms. Dean would bitch about it, but he'd eat Sam's pineapple while he did, and Sam would pretend to be irritated by it. Nutrition by stealth, the only way Dean gets any.
That's what he's thinking about, when the next segment starts. There's a pretty blond woman brought on to replace the spray-tanned guy, and she's saying something about gifts and beginners and baby names, all with a set of needles in her hands. At this volume, Sam gets maybe every third word. Which is probably a third more words than he needs, because, blender aside, it's not like they're the target audience for any of this stuff. Their lives aren't built for it. And then the idea comes to him, so surprising that he lets out a snort of laughter. He stands to get a closer look, knocks his knee off the jutting edge of metal bed frame, which results in a frankly ludicrous degree of pain, and he drops the remote as he grabs for his leg, semi-convinced it won't even be attached. It's possible the cursing is louder than the clatter it makes as it hits the floor, but he can't be sure.
"If you're not being eaten by a leviathan," Dean says, awake just like that, "I'm going to brutally murder you with this knife."
"Sorry," Sam says, and he is, so he's glad Dean hasn't opened his eyes to see him smiling, the idea he's just had still lit up in neon in his mind. Apart from anything else, he's still got his teeth clenched around the pain in his leg, and he probably looks a bit unhinged. "Go back to sleep, dude."
"Damn straight," Dean says. He mashes his face into the pillow and then, as if that gives him permission to ask the question, says, "You okay?" concerned and tentative all at once. More than tentative, if Sam's honest. Scared, and that's nothing new.
"Apart from my debilitating knee injury, yeah," Sam says. He thumbs the off button on the remote, climbs back under the covers, the bed letting out a frankly alarming series of creaks and groans as he does. He feels obscurely comforted. Useful, even. Tomorrow, they're on the road again. Somewhere in Arkansas, people are cutting off their fingers for no good reason. Witches, Dean says, a pronouncement also made for no good reason. Except that it's Dean, and he's got an infuriating habit of guessing wildly and being right.
Sam closes his eyes. In the back of his head, there's a memory of pain and fire, of loneliness that fell with him into the hole and stayed after everything else had been taken from him. If Sam lets himself, he can feel it all tugging at him in the quiet, looking for handholds in all Sam's fractured places. Beside him, Dean's snoring again, louder now, because he's changed position. Keeping this, that's what Sam needs to do. He falls asleep with plans shutting out the darkness. Arkansas tomorrow. That's where he'll start.
There are no witches in Arkansas--at least, on this occasion. There is a cult, black magic and blood and the raising up of long dead spirits. Spirits that don't take too kindly to being raised; there's very nearly a bloodbath in Robert Storman's musty cellar, except that he and Dean are superheroes, and they arrive just in time.
"It's so unoriginal," Dean says, like that's where the finger-amputating cultists have gone wrong with their life choices. Sam stands close to him now, as they burn the altar. There's a ragged hole in his shirt, a cotton testament to another near miss. Sam stays close and thinks about all the symbols he knows. Protection runes, ones for warding off and keeping out; crosses and sigils and ancient hieroglyphs.
He says, "We should stop for supplies," and Dean grunts, grumpily acquiescent. Later, Sam puts him back together, a bandage over the cut in his shoulder, like it's really that easy. He goes to bed, knocked out by the usual cocktail of whisky and pills, and Sam sits with the laptop on, a surprisingly bright desk lamp throwing light across the table. He's got a needle beside him, a spool of black thread next to it.
It makes sense, really, and it was stupid never to have done it before. They've got protection tattooed on their skin, sigils carved into their bones. For a while, Sam even had a wall in his head. This is where they should've started. A t-shirt (thick cotton so it'll last), Sam's sewing prowess, and a multitude of open tabs with clear, sharp images.
Sam picks up the needle, threads it like he has so many times before, and makes his first stitch, careful and slow. Once, in a life that feels like it can't ever have been his, Jess had smiled at him in surprised delight over a shirt ripped at the shoulder, and the row of stitches Sam had put in, neat and straight like Dad and Dean had taught him. "That's why I agreed to go out with him," she'd say later. "Isn't like I could sew even a button on," and that was entirely true. In a group where even the poorer kids were richer than Sam, he'd been something of a prodigy, at least until Rebecca took up cross-stitching. Sam hadn't paid that much attention. Even when he was only doing it once or twice a year, mending nothing more than fraying seams, sticking still felt bigger than that, a necessary thing. Like knowing how to trace a route with a blindfold on or hotwire a car to bring your brother home, it was an act of salvage, sometimes a desperate one.
Now, it's coming up on midnight, Rebecca years and failed-apocalypses behind him, and Sam wishes he'd asked her to show him. Also that he'd given her more credit. The difference between completing a row of stitches and a circle, he's discovering, is the difference between hitting a moving target and a still one. Only Sam's aim has always been good. The same can't be said for his ability to even draw a circle. The whole thing is more suited to Dean; he's got skill and patience Sam lacks. But Dean goes on sleeping, restless and uneasy.
Sam unpicks his messy stitches, one by one, until he's got a smooth, blank t-shirt in front of him again. In his head, Dad says, "Practice might not make you perfect, but it might stop you getting killed," and Sam knows he's nothing if not persistent. There's a pink glow started in the sky when he crawls beneath his scratchy covers, a world waking up beyond the window. Sam's right hand feels stiff and over-used, like maybe he'll develop a whole new set of calluses. He actually likes that idea. At the bottom of his duffle, his practice t-shirt lies, the beginnings of Dean's name marching across it in a drunken, haphazard scrawl.
In the morning, while Sam eats and Dean moves the food on his plate around and tops up his coffee from his flask, Dean says, "You look like roadkill," and he's worried still, but Sam smiles back at him. He's absurdly pleased with himself, hopeful without cause. Or maybe not. Three weeks ago, he honestly believed he was going to die, no takebacks this time. Now he's managed to get syrup in his hair, eating pancakes in a diner that seems to be playing host to an outing for all the octogenarians in the town.
"I'm good," he says, and right now, he means it. "I think there are zombies in Arizona, though."
"You do not," Dean says, though he is, very briefly, hopeful too. Sam's almost sorry to break it to him.
"Not really. Wendigo, maybe. But someone on the internet thinks it's a zombie."
"Someone on the internet probably thinks your hair is acceptable. It's not reliable, Sammy."
He props his elbow on the table, chin balanced on his closed fist as he gazes across at Sam. Since Lucifer went quiet, Sam's been seeing more--or maybe just processing what he's seeing better. Dean's eyes are tired; the circles beneath them look like they've been carved there. There's defeat and exhaustion in every line of him, but his face still lights up for an instant when he smiles at Sam. For that instant, this feels like another life, too. A better one, where they get to save people and not the world. Sam wants that back, wants an after that's theirs.
"The leviathans," he says, on impulse and with conviction. "We're gonna beat them."
Dean raises his eyebrows, skeptical. "You know how?"
"Not particularly," Sam says. He doesn't say that they didn't know how they were going to beat Lucifer and Michael. He doesn't think Dean would find it all that comforting. "Pluck and American spirit," he says.
"Hard to imagine how we could fail." Dean pushes his plate away, unfinished. "You can drive, if you want."
Sam shakes his head, and not just because it's insulting, how much more Dean trusts him behind the wheel now that it's not his baby. "Got research to do," he says. Dean rolls his eyes, predictable and relieved, like he was maybe expecting Sam to say he had some hallucinations penciled in for the morning.
Sam reads up on mutilated bodies and sketchy police reports while Dean taps out an off-beat rhythm to Zeppelin. The rest of the drive, he reads about stitching technique. There are forums, pages and pages of discussion about the type of thread and the material to use. Sam reads it all, like he used to read about silver bullets and consecrated iron. Practice seems to be the common thread, so that's what Sam does.
Once the Windego's been put down. In Austin and Buffalo and Chattanooga. While Dean's in bars or passed out or tuning up cars he doesn't really love. Sam shuts out the dark with the thing that might keep it away from them. His nightmares still wake him, and somehow this puts him back to sleep. He starts with Dean's name. It's always been the most familiar thing to him, the sound of it like gravity on his tongue. Now he learns the shape of it, stitching it over and over until he could probably do it blindfolded. Names have power; they're either a weapon or a shield. Once Sam's got a good version of Dean's, he starts to wrap it in protection the way he's never been able to do when it counted. A hieroglyph for safety, and one for deflection. A scaled down version of their tattoo, because it never hurts to have extra ammo. He blesses them after, with holy water or chanting as necessary, and it's only his imagination that the shirt feels heavier when each one is complete.
He stabs himself more than once, getting them out of sight, when Dean comes back unexpectedly. Dean gives him sidelong glances, and Sam says, "The only thing I'm seeing right now is you. Which is it's own kind of horror, but whatever."
Dean unscrews his flask and says, "Didn't say anything. Though you couldn't blame me, if I had."
Sam couldn't, he knows. He's not been anything his brother could rely on for a long time. Maybe that's why he doesn't tell Dean about his forays into cross-stitching. At first, it was just to avoid the mocking, which Sam knew would be brutal, even if Dean's heart wasn't really in it (Probably because Dean's heart wasn't in it). Now it's something more. They've spent so long running, desperately running out a clock or helplessly waiting for the next disaster: The end of the world; Sam's wall coming down; the end of the world again. With each stitch (even the bad ones), that feeling he had back in the diner is growing. Maybe they have to believe in a future to get it, lay the foundations. Dean can't do that, not yet, but Sam's got no intentions of going anywhere without him.
Two weeks go by, uneventful, except for Dean flailing wildly at the wasp dive-bombing his face and nearly driving them off the road. Sam laughs so hard he nearly chokes on the coffee he's drinking, and he's not sure it wouldn't have been worth it, if he had.
"It seems the biggest threat to our lives might be the insect population," he says. "Don't worry, Dean. I've got your back."
"Fuck you," Dean says, and every now and then, Sam remembers how they didn't talk and didn't trust each other. This is why he believes in the possibility of better. Nobody should, more than Sam.
That night, he sits outside their motel room while Dean's hustling pool at the nearest bar. He's nearly finished Dean's shirt; if they don't get a job in the morning, he might be by tomorrow night. Of course, they've only been asleep a few hours when Garth calls.
"I'm a little bit stoned," he says, first off, like that might be news. "Not even like I chose it, before your brother starts getting pissy," and they exchange a look, each accusatory. "Morphine. Lots of it, and still not enough."
That gets their attention, and it still takes another fifteen minutes before they get the story out of him.
"So you're saying," Dean says, around a mouthful of soggy chips, "you're saying an elf got you." Dean talks about Sam, but Dean judges like a pro. Sam would point out how Dean was kidnapped by fairies, but for how Sam was there--some version of him, anyway--and he didn't do much to help with that.
"It was vicious," Garth says. "And cunning. Played dead and then--bam! Practically threw me into space. I'm lucky to be alive." The silence that follows is expectant, Sam thinks.
"We're glad you are," he says, finally.
"Even if you didn't finish the job," Dean says.
"You shouldn't hide from your feelings, Dean," Garth says, like he wants Dean to hang up. Dean doesn't disappoint.
"Guess we're going to California," Dean says, and even now, he says it like the state has offended him.
"Guess we are," Sam says, and goes to pack. He doesn't know that there are any symbols to ward off vicious, cunning elves, so he figures Dean can go another day without what Sam's made.
In California, the elf--it's really more of a sprite, no matter what Dean says--turns out to be every bit as vicious as Garth said it was. Sam tries to reason with it, but it doesn't seem to want anything, beyond terrorising the little town that borders its patch of woods. That, and beating the crap out of him and Dean. Dean eventually puts a bullet through its tiny, spiteful heart, but not before Sam's been thrown against a tree. He actually misses the ending, because he's passed out.
Dean has to help him back to the car. Dean's got bruises already rising on his face and his right eye swelling shut, but Sam's got at least a cracked rib and something torn in his ankle, and that's not the worst of it. Dean had looked cracked, too, torn in all the vital places, when he'd found Sam sprawled out on the ground. He'd maintained a stony silence all the way back to the motel, started up when they got in about Sam not following the plan, and all the time, his hands had been shaking. Like DTs, only this was something worse, a kind of terror Sam couldn't assuage.
They're back to squatting now, because Sam can't hunt, and staying more than a night in a motel is out. An old house, and well-loved, at least for a while. There are magnolias in the garden, outshining the weeds driving up between the cracks. The house is full of dust, but the paint is bright. They sleep in blankets in what was almost certainly the living room, and Dean brings him McMuffins and sugary coffee, and shoots him looks every three seconds or so. Like a compulsion, something to go along with the drinking.
Sam sends him for groceries on the second day, because it's that or punch him in the face, or shake him and yell at him until Dean has no choice but to believe in his existence. Also, he's tired of beef jerky and ramen. "There's still electricity. We could make something."
"We?" Dean asks, pointedly, as if Sam's propensity to set things on fire while he's cooking should be held against him for the rest of his life. He goes, anyway. There's a supermarket not far, but Sam knows Dean will head further into town, looking for a liquor store. That gives him an hour, probably more. He hobbles to his bag, gets his needles and thread and white t-shirts. Sam's gotten faster, and there's only one more symbol to finish, though it is the hardest. Sam had found it in one of Bobby's books, years ago; he and Dean had spent hours learning to draw it. It's pretty, intersecting spirals laid over a triangle. It's for driving off spirits. Less effective than a round of rock salt, sure, but Sam's always liked it, sleeps better with it above the door.
He puts his iPod on shuffle, and gets to work, the ache of his ribs forgotten as he concentrates. An hour passes, and then another, and Sam hardly notices. He doesn't hear Dean until he's in the kitchen. For half a second, he thinks about stuffing the whole lot under the blankets, like a kid caught reading after dark, but Dean's shirt is finished, black stitches curling solidly around the bottom quarter. Sam sets his needle down and picks the shirt up, waiting.
"I got pasta," Dean says, though it's doughnuts and beer he's got in his hands as he comes through the door. "And chicken. Even peppers and other green shit to mix--." He catches sight of the spools of thread gathered round Sam, and he gets this expression, that what the fuck is going on with Sam now face that he used to get when he found Sam practicing lines for drama club or trying to light light bulbs with potatoes for science class. "What the fuck?" he says, just in case Sam needed the verbal clue, too.
"I'm very proud about the vegetables," Sam says, because he believes in positive reinforcement. He holds the t-shirt up, then, one-handed because it still hurts to stretch his left side. "I can't cook," he says, "but I am a sewing master."
Dean looks at him, confused, and then he sets the beer and food on the ground so he can take the t-shirt from Sam. Sam instantly picks up another, a plain one this time, just to have something in his hands. He doesn't know why he's nervous, or if he does, it's all too stupid to actually admit to.
"It's protection," he says, unnecessarily. It's not like Dean doesn't know every symbol on there as well as Sam does. "For hunts. Every little helps, right?"
"Knew you were up to something," Dean says. His voice is hard to read, and Sam's always hated not being fluent in him. "It's a good idea." There's no conviction in it, though, and his face is as blank as his voice.
"It is," Sam says, and he stands, forgetting why he shouldn't. His ankle gives out beneath him, and the blanket slides him along the hardwood floor as he goes down. It's a moment with no dignity and a lot of pain. On the upside, it gets Dean to laugh, and he sinks to the ground beside Sam. His fingers tracing over the stitches of his name. His other hand touches Sam's wrist, a brief apology or comfort or just reassurance.
"Thanks. It is a good idea," he says, once Sam's sitting upright again. is smile is tremulous, more like fault lines shifting on his face. "You should maybe wear three or four of them, Sammy. Track record like you've got."
He ducks his head, and takes his hand away, embarrassed, as if him being scared of losing Sam has been a well-kept secret up until now. And that's what gets Sam talking, saying words he should've let Dean hear weeks or months or years ago. "Dean," he says. "I'm not planning on going anywhere."
Dean shrugs, like he really doesn't care, except for how his knuckles show white under the skin where he's gripping the t-shirt. "You never do," he says, and the blame that saturated his voice the day he threw the amulet away is gone; now he just sounds resigned, accustomed. "Not like this is gonna stop the leviathans, or would've kept Lucifer out."
"Lucifer's gone," Sam says. "And I'm not. And not so long ago, we didn't think we could kill any leviathans. Maybe--I mean, we've been dead three or four times over, and we're still here. Maybe there's a lesson in that."
Dean looks at him, wide-eyed. "That's your argument? That's fucked up, dude."
"It's still my argument." He didn't know it was, not until a few minutes ago, but he likes the sound of it, and he's planning to stick with it. "Dean," he says, because that always sounds like an argument to him, too, the most important one.
"Are you going to make a speech?" Dean says. "Please don't." But it hasn't escaped Sam's notice that he's stayed in grabbing distance.
Sam brandishes his needle at him. "This is actually really sharp," he says, and Dean rolls his eyes, says, "I've got a gun in my waistband."
"Shut up," Sam says, smiling again, so fucking fond of even this wounded, lost version of Dean. He reaches over, picks up another t-shirt. "I don't do well without you," he says, and it's easy to say, finally, a truth that might save them for once. "And I'm set on being okay, you know? So just--" He points the needle at him again. "Just--stop just waiting for me to end up dead. Or hoping that you get there first. It pisses me off."
Dean's quiet, long enough that Sam starts to think maybe he's going to have to do damage control, but then he reaches out, takes the t-shirt out of Sam's hand. "How many of these you got?"
Sam very definitely doesn't mumble. "Just the one," and at Dean's look, he says, "it's harder than it seems."
"It would have to be," Dean says, "Turn around time like that. Are you proposing I just wear one shirt for the rest of my life?"
"I'm proposing you step up and do some goddamn work." Sam shoves at him, and that hurts, too, but Dean catches his wrist, actually holds on this time.
"You're gonna need some, too, I guess," he says. "Maybe after dinner, I'll show you how it's done."
"Maybe after dinner, I'll let you," Sam says, just to get the last word.
Dean stands, but at the door he turns. "I'm pretty set on you being okay, too, for what that's worth."
Then he leaves, too quick for Sam to say anything. Sam gets to work on another shirt, which he figures is answer enough.