From the moment the ground swallows him, Sam Winchester ceases to exist.
There are always sounds, just beyond his capacity to discern, his willingness to comprehend: the kind of cries that don’t leave any doubt of pain, of torment, the death rattles of millions, millions upon millions and more -- souls torn to shreds and left, crippled unto the ending of the world, maybe further, deeper; the sounds of anger, of vicious betrayal and bitter hate, voices that are almost familiar, that he holds dear somewhere he can’t possess, doesn’t know anymore, but that still burns, lingers somewhere beyond him -- wrenched from his grasp.
There are vague impressions of feeling -- of being on the fringe, the edges -- of stretching, fit to burst. Of brushing fire and scalding skin, of blood burning and hair singeing and the prints of fingers -- not his fingers -- melting off; symbolic, though of what, he isn’t sure.
There is no sight: merely enough light to blind, and then darkness to serve the same end.
The scents in the Pit pervade, rank and vile: copper and iron, sweat and burning flesh, ammonia, the trembling bile of fear and exhaust, self and spirit fractured, shattered; and the blackness consumes, reeks of carbon.
He can almost feel the riling of a stomach, too close; the burn of acid as it crops up and licks at the back of a tongue, familiar; wants to wretch, as if the sensation is his own, and knows it like marrow set aflame in bones razed to dust. He chokes -- or he would, if he had the lungs, the breath -- when something greater, something stronger and cruel swallows hard against the sting, burns him back and tears him, shatters at the seams until he’s nothing.
There’s a feeling like tripping, like falling; but there’s no bottom left to fear.
There’s no real gravity, no real space here. The pressure he feels, that builds in the chest he owns in his mind, if not his flesh -- that’s illusory, that’s false.
Nothing here is real; everything is all too true.
He’d refuse to believe it, if he could think that far.
What he feels -- when he feels, when he knows enough to know he feels -- is, in essence, like a phantom limb must feel: detached, illusive, transitory -- once there, but no longer necessary, no longer seen; vestigial, no proof that he’s more than a delusion, a memory.
There is a husk in the corner, sandy-blond and pock-marked with the struggle, the violation: empty, now, and left to rot.
He wonders how it got there, wonders who it is, who it was -- what it means.
It’s an impulse he never feels until the response is already in progress, his limbs already in motion. He reaches up, against his own will, and feels a sticky, viscous pool at the temple, just below the hairline that touches, brushes now against fingers he used to control -- the fingertips slip inside of his mouth and he tries to cringe, smiles instead as he clenches his jaw against the skin and rips.
It tastes bitter, tainted, wrong; it tastes like human blood.
He suffers a wrath of duals: he condemned no innocents, but the Cage was made for only one.
There’s too much sin for this place to contain.
There’s hate, and there’s love; there’s rage against him -- the real him, the him that he knows beyond mere knowing, that he believes exists, once existed, still endures beneath all of this, above all of this -- and then, there’s the rage of the brothers that inhabit shells of flesh so simple, so fragile: longing and aching and treachery, the kind that clips wings and breaks hearts -- all of it, and he knows that no torment, no bodily harm could ever match the sting of that venom, that pain. He feels it like a blow, like the fragments he can recall of the physical sensation, but the impact isn’t absorbed in the muscle, doesn’t stop when the vessels burst beneath the skin -- it just reverberates, endless, driving him to despair anew until something drowns it out, takes it over, draws it in and ups the ante, drives him closer toward the fringes, out farther toward the edge until all he wants is to fall, to break, to end.
It’s a fate more cruel than he could have dreamed: to be there, without being there, to be taken from his corporeal form, and yet anchored to its every hurt, its every pain -- that anguish, so much deeper than the flesh.
Because that tenuous link will no tolerate escape, no release; that bond won’t ever let him die.
The brothers, they watch one another, study and see, pinpoint the weaknesses to exploit -- no rush, and he feels the drag of moments beyond moments where they barely notice the passing: the gap too charged in itself to be deemed a lull. There’s an ancient set to the features they’ve stolen -- fresh and young -- that doesn’t fit, that he can’t comprehend, can’t reconcile, and he wonders if he’d recognize himself in the face worn now by another; wonders if he’d see himself in the countenance he used to know.
Wonders -- if there was a way to watch a soul -- whether the place he’s in now, the state of existence that he claims for his own, whether he’d know himself, if he stared himself down; passed himself on the hypothetical, metaphysical street paved with blood and good intentions.
He wishes he could feel it, more of the pain; wishes there was a way to know it as his own, even if he couldn’t survive it -- wishes he could own it, rather than just feel it, and know it isn’t his, not really, even when it should be. Even when it’s everything he deserves.
And it’s violent -- obscene, the way they pull skin from bone and leech blood from vein; they cause themselves harm as much as they harm one another, and he knows what it’s like: to see more pain in dead eyes at watching blood seep from the pores of another, rather than to suffer the fate for oneself -- they kill each other slowly by self-immolation, giving over to the flames that lick from Beneath; that only ever started here, right here.
He’s done that, before; knows the destructive power of love, and something indistinct, something acidic and vile and right inside that knowledge -- less of a memory and more of a constant, a truth -- burns hard, flinches deep enough that the parasite who owns him takes note, pulls him to the fore and denies him respite, refuge.
He’s brought this down upon himself.
Watch, the hiss commands, in his tone, but not his voice, never his voice; he tries to bite down on his own lip, but there’s no control any longer, no influence -- he floats, disembodied, within his own skin. The Master of his Flesh knows it, chuckles like lead in his veins; digs the sharp lines of his teeth against his bottom lip until he draws blood, until the taste is everywhere, black and strong and nauseating -- an addiction, a plague come back to finish him off, too late.
He watches Michael’s deteriorating Vessel, sees the way it flickers between shades, blond to brunette, all flesh of his flesh; he sees it when the shell of the Avenger, the Sword starts to flinch, its empty stare deepening, shifting into something bright, something hollow and hurt as Michael claws the meat from his own husk’s ribs, shows the suck of tissue and the throb of muscle and bares it raw and red, never blinking, never stopping. And he feels eviscerated himself, feels the heart that’s still his heart -- for a moment, one moment before Lucifer takes him back -- pound too fast, too flooded with fear, and more now than before, than ever before, when the gaze drifts, dies, and flashes a soulful, soulless green, he wants to follow it, wants to fade by its side.
His eyes are no longer his to close.
But there’s a part of him that whispers -- traitorous, just below cognition -- that he knows this, knows a fire in his blood and a passion that’s almost hate, sometimes; has almost become hate except that it never could be, never would, because it was too much, too full, and if it ever truly soured into hate, he’d never survive it. There are murmurs that he knows this.
He’d cry, he thinks, if there were tears, if they could fall.
Say what you will of the mind; he knows that dreams are of the soul.
The flesh rots before it returns, re-grows, unmarred; it’s deliberate, he knows -- they do this for a reason. He learns that, here, blood never stops flowing; here, there are no limits, and no ends, and the pupils he sees out of burn, split, wither, yet still take everything in -- wide-eyed, he learns how not to see, learns to see anew.
He snaps, can sense the dislocation when things feel lighter, when the screams dampen to a muffled hum -- it’s mostly black, tinged in crimson and sepia at the edges, churning shades that set him adrift, that threaten punishment and pain, but he doesn’t fear, not here; it’s mostly black, and he doesn’t know how long it lasts, how often he slips unnoticed before he’s thrust back to a timeless present that demands and courses through him like magma and cold iron -- doesn’t know how many times it takes before he catches flashes of something better, something more.
He can’t make sense of the images, or the sounds; but whatever they are, they remind him of brightness -- something so opposed to the darkness that he’s known, all he knows, that it almost hurts. He latches onto it and tries to wrap himself in the sensation, the feelings that emanate like open hands, fingertips reaching out and wanting, needing him, of all absurd notions, all impossible things; he tries, but he can’t -- the shine of it too much for the prison he finds himself confined to when he wakes to reality, to something more surreal than the world of the dreams.
Over time, though, he can keep it close, the reflection of it -- not the same, never the same, but something; he can focus on the light, the echoes and the refractions, reflections that surge through him, too fast and strong to be cut off before they begin; their remnants like the echoes of the sun in the dark, burned in technicolor behind the retina so that Lucifer knows it, hates it; claws out his eyes until the nerves die and the lids themselves are mere scraps, torn tendon and sinew upon the ground.
He doesn’t wish for more of the pain, not now; and he wonders, not for the first time, if these are the only kinds of gifts he’s earned -- the small mercies set aside for the Prince of Hell itself.
He’s struck by a certainty: Dean was stronger than he will ever know.
He’s not sure what it means, how it fits -- he’s not even sure what Dean is, who Dean is, if there’s a face that matches the sensation, something solely his, something the Devil only watches, can only partake of as spectator, outside -- but his soul rests at the thought, and suddenly, he is still.
He is still.
He thinks there’s something pivotal that’s gone from him: something more than just his comprehension of self and being, his essence, his memories and his sense and what made him, once, whoever it was that he’d been, whoever the Green Eyes in his dreams recognized, whoever Dean -- Dean who maybe has a face and maybe is a person, maybe has green eyes and maybe, just maybe cares -- is missing, right now, is wishing to have back like burning, damnation, salvation, any and all of it, together, combined; whoever that was, though, is not what is left.
It’s his humanity, he thinks; his humanity is what he’s lost.
So he watches, learns to accept when the hand-that’s-not-his-hand-but-is-his-hand cuts through flesh and cracks bone beneath the prints of fingers, tearing through muscle and collecting blood beneath the nails; when shocks wrack the frame-that’s-not-his-frame, and fry the nerves-that-aren’t-his-nerves.
He learns to watch the face-that’s-not-his-face as it careens toward death over and over, as it twists murderous more times than there are numbers he knows to count; wonders if there were people in his life, before, that could have watched, would have died by his side -- if there were people he would have killed for.
He wonders about Dean, mostly, and the Eyes he can see when the-eyes-that-aren’t-his-eyes are opened and the soul-that’s-still-his-soul’s intact.
When finally -- finally -- his eyes slip closed, he knows the world has changed.
There’s no prelude, no warning: he blinks, he surfaces, tries to draw in breath; can’t, but finds he doesn’t have to.
It’s more terrifying, more inconsequential than he’d have guessed.
He looks around him, can’t recognize the spot: the grass is dead and there are trees, were trees -- bleached and toppled all around him, struck down like the Hand of Retribution trying to keep him down, keep him locked inside, deciding to spare him in the very last of seconds, a boon. He doesn’t notice that his hands -- his hands, his goddamn hands -- are roaming across his skin, feeling out the lines and angles, probing cautious and rough beneath the hem of his shirt and the sleeves of his jacket and the waist of his jeans, just to be sure it’s not a trick, that there’s real flesh and blood beneath his clothes.
It’s warm, though; he’s warm. Real.
He flexes, bends and creaks at the joints, just a little. He can feel his eyes widen as he lifts his foot from the knee, takes an exaggerated step, slow and careful, like a newborn -- first prints upon the earth.
He moves forward. And again. One foot, the other, over and over, and it doesn’t hurt, isn’t hard. Natural. Free.
He walks; stares ahead, looks for anything -- a direction he doesn’t want, doesn’t have to heed.
He doesn’t notice that his boots never make a single indentation in the ground.
Most of those first few minutes -- hourssecondsdays -- consist of wandering, of seeking out familiar ground. The memories slip back in fits, bursts, trickle in like a crack in the wall, leak against his consciousness carefully, crassly; sometimes slow but still too fast, too quick.
The first thing that pushes through is a rhythm -- not a heartbeat, or a bassline, something more primitive. Fingers, maybe; drumming. Something that changes nothing, but that matters, more than it should.
The second thing that comes to him is a tone, the pitch of a voice that speaks words he can’t make out, can’t understand, but that calms him, seeps like a hum and propels him, lets the thump of his footsteps -- quicker, now -- match, meld with the tapping, the cadence that’s thrumming through.
After that, there’s nothing: just the steady crescendo, the build to a climax he cannot predict -- doesn’t know if he’ll crumble with the fall that awaits.
The levee breaks, unbidden, and it’s just images, just thoughts, just sounds, just touches and recollections and light and smiles and the world and heaven and eyes and looks and words and feeling and damnation, fire and salt and water and blood -- and he’s on the ground again when he comes to, when the stream ebbs or his will surges and he can balance, can stand, shaky, one more time.
He doesn’t understand, at first, why everything in his world in tinged in emerald, splashed with green; not until he’s already on his way to Indiana.
He stares in through a window for too long, not long enough; doesn’t notice the way the lamps flicker and die around him because the scene inside is just so bright.
It’s only silhouettes at first, the dusk too thick and the panes too caked with glare and dust, but his heart beats hard -- his heart, for fuck’s sake, his; and he’s not sure that it has to, needs to, but it does, because there isn’t any other choice in this moment, in this singular place -- and he knows: the curve of a spine and the set of those shoulders and the jut of that chin and the gait, the way the shadow moves.
It takes a courage he thought he’d lost, in the face of a fear he’d have sworn he’d overcome, to enter the house; he wonders, for a moment, if he’d actually needed to pick the lock -- too soundless a job, too discreet, almost a farce -- if he could have just...
It’s only then that he realizes, looking in through the window, there was no reflection -- no sign of him anywhere.
He sinks onto the floor, the base of his spine lined hard against the wall, and gathers his wits -- tries to keep track, to remember a mental state before the demon blood and the apocalypse, tries to muster some semblance of calm from the pieces, tries to fit so the cracks aren’t gaping, don’t wait for him to fall right back through.
A boy -- he can’t remember the name, the woman’s boy, maybe-Dean’s-but-no, she’d said no, that he remembers, but what was his name -- walks past him, protests his bedtime with a whine as he huffs up the staircase.
The boy never spares him so much as a glance; doesn’t merely ignore him -- never sees him to begin with.
He bites his lip, hard; waits until he can feel his pulse between his teeth and taste iron burst hot, until he can tell himself, firmly, that ghosts don’t fucking bleed.
Whatever he is, he’s real. Seen or unseen, he’s alive.
He steadies, sucks the blood from inside his bottom lip like it proves sometimes: he’ll take what he can get.
It takes something more than courage to climb the stairs, to know they should creak and yet aren’t, never do; takes something so much more to follow the intrinsic pull of a thing so much bigger than him -- bigger than destiny and fate, even, bigger than God and the Devil; to trust in it and let it lead him, let it take him to the Green Eyes and the hunched shoulders and the soft face with the hard lines and the freckles that stand out when he’s reckless, when he’s broken; always have.
The body, the frame that he watches; he sees it standing and staring off, useless and unfocused, unmoored -- the room around them sparse and untouched, void of personality, of life, and he gets that, because all of the life is concentrated, here, condensed into a vibrating mass that’s so hardened, so choked down that he wouldn’t have seen it if he wasn’t looking, if he weren’t so focused on the man standing just beyond his reach.
He doesn’t see it at first, the way the Green Eyes shine, too much reflection, too much interference; only notices when he hears the ragged draw of breath and watches fingertips play with the cord of something hanging long at the neck, hidden beneath layers and close to the skin, lashes splayed low beneath the bruises of stress and sleepless nights as that chest heaves and that throat shudders, and he can make out the slow slip of bottom lip against the top, of teeth clenching against the flood; the whisper of a word that sends waves through him, that changes contexts and rhythms and gives everything meaning again.
He hears it -- has heard it before, he’s sure, but not like this; never not like this -- and he knows, is certain, in the moment.
He has a name. He knows his name.
Sam knows his goddamn name.
And he watches as Dean stares at the bed, kneels; folds his hands and bows his head and does the one thing Dean never does, never did -- the one thing Sam doesn’t think he’ll be able to do ever again, and Sam cries, feels it run, real sorrow down his cheeks when he watches the salt-tracks creep between the splash of freckles on Dean’s cheekbones before pooling between the heels of his palms.
Sam doesn’t comprehend the way his own tears soak into the sheets; doesn’t even notice.
The details fill themselves in quicker, now, in different ways: he notices things about Dean that have changed, that have shifted, and things that are the same, and that’s how he remembers -- Dean eats cereal for breakfast, and there’s not a slice of bacon in sight, and Sam remembers diners and Grand Slam Specials and cholesterol and the way Dean would sometimes buy a whole box of Lucky Charms as a snack on the road, just to eat the marshmallows. Dean still isn’t a morning person, and Sam remembers listening to Asia and too many mornings, strong hands shaking him awake in motel rooms and the front seat of the Impala, remembers the way his throat would ache in the second just after waking, like something inside of him knew things he couldn’t fathom. Dean watches daytime TV on his days off, and Sam remembers Dr. Sexy and the Trickster-turned-Archangel and having to ditch a number of stolen identities far earlier than necessary due to enormous bills racked up on Pay-Per-View. Dean tolerates people better, it seems -- hugs Lisa (the woman, who taught yoga; he remembers her) just because and lets Ben (the boy, and the changeling -- he remembers that, too) sit closer to him than necessary on the couch; but then, Sam thinks, Dean was making progress on the people front before, in his own way. Dean takes longer showers now, still scalding -- doesn’t sing beneath the spray like he used to, and Sam feels like that’s wrong, somehow. Like off-key renditions of Rush and Sabbath are essential to the life he’s desperate to reclaim; a life that’s his and Dean’s, that’s real and whole and fucked up -- that much, he can tell already -- but right.
And what they were, and how; those are still mysteries, still something buried too far down, but Sam -- Sam, he is Sam, Sam is him -- can guess.
Because the trivialities were burned away by the initial sear, the shock of possession and control. The things that mattered, but couldn’t last, those wore down Below.
Of the things he managed to bury before the onslaught -- the things he held closest, dearest, deep inside whatever was left of his soul -- only some of it survived as Lucifer forced his way in, took his pleasure in wiping the slate of Sam’s being clean, wrenching his heart from his chest and watching the impossible beat spill everything he was, everything he’d ever wanted to be down his wrists, the black of the Pit swirled in the blood as it fell, sluiced through to the waiting mouths of the desperate, the damned.
The things he managed to bury were the ones that the Devil took greatest pleasure in wrenching from him, in taking -- erasing forevermore, as if Sam had never truly owned them, as if they’d never lived at all.
Dean, though: Dean was deeper still. Untouched and untouchable. Ingrained upon something lasting, something even Sam couldn’t reach: more pervasive than flesh, for that had been peeled from him, stretched and clawed until the scars covered more than the skin; more precious than blood, because he’d spilled enough to feed the minions of Hell for eternity, to account for the Apocalypse all on his own; more stolid than bone, because even the Enochian on his ribs had been shorn off, sanded clean.
Dean was of him, in him, more fully than anything else; is still, if the pull of him at the center of Sam’s chest, white-hot on his sternum like an imperative, a need, is anything to go by.
So yes -- Sam can guess.
He doesn’t intend to be there, when it happens. He didn’t intend on getting spat back out of Hell as some invisible -- intangible, incorporeal, there but not there, whatever the fuck it is that he is -- freak of nature either, though, so he thinks maybe it all adds up, on some grander cosmic scale.
Admittedly, it’s shoddy logic. It’s a shitty excuse.
In truth, it’s mostly just a matter of needing to be close to Dean, needing to keep him in his sights as often as possible -- needing to be certain it’s not just a dream, not just his consciousness spreading, seeping slow away from the pull of his body in the hands, the grasp of another, his very being controlled, contorted by hellfire and rage. He needs to be sure that it’s real, sometimes.
He just needs Dean, most times.
He doesn’t even notice that the room’s different when he follows Dean up the stairs that night. Doesn’t think anything of the smooth planes of Dean’s body as he strips off his shirt, his jeans, hooks thumbs into the waistband of his boxer-briefs and shucks them to the floor.
When he hears the keen, the sigh -- the distinctly feminine sound that comes from where Dean’s propped, face down, too high off of the mattress, now that Sam looks; that’s when he starts to understand.
And he could leave, could walk away and wait in Dean’s room, with Dean’s smell and Dean’s lack-of-presence there that’s still such a presence; he could leave.
Instead, he watches, watches when Lisa rocks up into the line of Dean’s chest, watches when his mouth sucks hard and wet at the space between her shoulder and her neck, that tender splay of skin, watches as Dean thrusts and pulls back and teases and moves quick and draws out slow, watches as Lisa’s eyes flutter closed and her breasts heave and her throat ripples as she sucks in air too quick, counterpoint to the cadence, the way they move -- practiced. Unique.
He watches, and it feels wrong; he can almost trace the sense-memory of his racing heart, can almost convince himself that he’s panting, breathless with the rush of it, the heat -- won’t ever see his reflection in the window pane, flushed; the same reflection that Dean fixes lust-blown pupils on as he comes, too few syllables in the name, the moan on his tongue.
It’s frustrating, Sam finds -- the way he’s finally in control of himself, in possession of a self to control at all, and yet he doesn’t inhabit his own being, his own existence; can’t command his own physical presence, can’t always distinguish the difference between actual blood in his veins and the simple recollection, the deep-seated knowledge that blood is supposed to rush through him, whether it does or it doesn’t.
Not yet. That’s what he tells himself -- not yet. It just hasn’t come to him, just hasn’t revealed itself: the answer to whatever the question is that he’s asking, the solution to the problem -- it’s coming, he reminds himself.
He doesn’t let himself think too long on the alternative.
He distracts himself with the things that he’s sure of. He knows his name is Sam, Sammy, Samuel, Sam. He knows he let the Devil loose, knows there was no other choice but to do what he did to chain him back up. He knows there are angels and demons and monsters and ghosts, that human beings can be cruel, can be godsends; doesn’t know where he fits on the continuum, these days -- isn’t sure he ever knew before, either. He knows that he isn’t hungry, not like this, but if he were, he’d eat a Cobb salad with a small chocolate milkshake in a place where he could taste the grease on his goddamn fork and he’d fucking love it.
He knows that Dean matters to him, means more than safety and freedom and escape ever could; he knows that, once, he meant something to Dean in kind. He tries -- can’t remember how much time has passed, how much things have changed; and so mostly, he just stares. Watches. Protects, in his own way. When Dean sleeps. When Dean makes breakfast, packs lunches, grills dinner. When Dean goes to work -- mechanic, for a while, construction after that. When Dean drives home, too fast -- always too fast, and the music too loud. When Dean showers, dresses, brushes his teeth. Shaves -- too often, sometimes, because Sam kind of thinks the scruff becomes him.
He’s watching when it happens; leaning back against the wall, so close inside Dean’s personal space that, if he’d known Sam was there, he’d have bitched him out by now. His gaze is trained on the way Dean trims, rubs his hand behind the hum of the razor to inspect the job, and Sam can’t help it -- before he can think it through, can stop to think, he reaches out to touch.
He’s almost there, so close, when he startles, flinches back -- a sliver of the numbness, the cold slipping away, replaced for a moment with a fire like Hell, blazing at his core before it, too, fades -- flickers out. He watches Dean for any sign of disturbance, any hint that he noticed something, anything -- but no, and it settles heavy in his gut to know it, fills him with the resolve he needs, the daring he craves to chance a hand on his brother’s shoulder, just to be sure; but there’s not even a flinch, not a shudder in reply. He’d give anything to sigh for it -- tries, fails, chokes on the effort to grasp that much weight, that much life; too much -- but it’s blasphemy, futile, he doesn’t have...
He stops. Stops as if the world’s breaking in two and he’s standing on the precipice, one more time; a time too many.
His hand is on his brother’s shoulder.
And suddenly, Dean’s there -- Dean as he is and Dean with a touch fewer wrinkles, fewer laugh lines and Dean with the same jacket he always wears except too big on him, not yet filled out and Dean with a little pre-puberty pudge on his bones and Dean with Sam in his arms when Sam was small enough to carry and Dean who he’d watched lift him out of his crib and struggle to keep him steady as he squirmed against his grip, and Dean, Dean, Dean, for eons, forever -- and the means don’t quite justify the ends, and the love he feels isn’t new, but doesn’t fit; overflows and overwhelms and is too much, too much --
Dean means more to him than life itself. Dean is deeper than Heaven and Hell and God and the Devil and the End and the Beginning and anything that could fathom slipping into the interim.
Dean pats his chin dry and checks the haphazard twist-and-tuck of the towel slung loose around his waist; leaves the bathroom without a second thought, trailing the scent of his aftershave -- the same fucking aftershave he’s used since Sam was eleven years old, for fuck’s sake.
Dean’s his motherfucking brother.
He has to leave -- no question of want or will, just the shrill command of must -- walks to South Dakota because there is no time, because he can; tells himself there’s a burn in his muscles before there is -- long after there should be. Tries to breathe heavy for the exertion, but it’s more of a chore than simply moving, simply making progress, slowly west.
Sometimes cars slow as he walks the roads, the highways -- sometimes they slow, but they don’t ever stop. He doesn’t know what to make of that, as he shivers for the cold, the chill -- can’t be sure that it’s not just him, that he’s not the chill itself.
He doesn’t know how long it takes.
Sioux Falls is mostly like he remembers -- a little quieter, maybe. Bobby’s is mostly like he remembers; a little more chaotic, a little more cluttered.
He doesn’t bother walking up to Bobby’s door -- knocking, making himself known. No point to it, really.
He wanders around the yard, kicks at stray mufflers and rusted wheel-wells, mostly, just because they’re there, and he’s there, and it’s doable -- sometimes makes a little ping when the his soles hit the metal right. He mulls about, useless, eyes trained on the ground, or the sky -- never in front of him, never straight ahead. There’s probably a fuckton of hidden meaning in that, but mostly, Sam just doesn’t want to see what’s staring him in the face. Not now.
The dog knows he’s there. Barks loud enough to wake the dead, spurs Bobby into cursing the mutt to the Pit and back when it won’t shut up, but it’s not like Sam can blame it: Duncan, Bobby calls the Rott -- leaner than Rumsfeld had been, but taller -- he doesn’t know Sam; never met him.
It’s comforting, that at least the dog’s aware of his presence.
Once he finds it, coated with dirt from disuse, sitting untended, so far removed from how she’s meant to be; once he spots the Impala, parked by her lonesome just between the scrap yard and the driveway, he spends most of his time with her.
And it’s strange: he can sit on the hood of her, imagine the breeze smelling sweeter, less dank; can almost feel the heat of someone next to him, can almost taste beer on his tongue, if he tries hard enough, thinks long enough.
It’s strange: he keeps his balance, and runs his finger over the surface of the paint, tries to etch through dirt to reach the glossy black he knows -- he traces fingers through the dust, but leaves no lines.
It’s strange: he can stretch against the windshield, if he wants, and wonder how long she’s been sitting here, abandoned and unloved, and he can mull over metaphors and fold his arms across his chest like he can really feel something beneath, but his heart doesn’t clench and his lungs don’t constrict, sharp without breath -- it’s not the loneliness, the neglect that suffocates him, makes him feel weak.
He knows there was a time -- maybe farther back than he imagines -- when right and wrong used to be static, didn’t used to bend so quick.
It’s still easy -- too easy -- for him to fall back into the recollections of the Pit, of being owned and taken over, of witnessing horror at his own hand without his consent, without any power to stop it, to say no; without any escape from the knowledge that he couldn’t say no, because he’d already said yes.
He’d lost everything in that place, that space and time. He’d deserved it; deserved to be stripped of himself, deserved what he had now: a half-existence that might last, might not. Angels and demons had stolen every part of him, and he’d watched it happen, had endured in pieces as best he could.
They’d taken everything, except for his brother.
And he wants to believe that love was the only thing untouched by his time Below; wants to believe that it’s still sacred, still unsullied, but it’s just not true: love’s something the Devil understands, maybe more than anything else, and it wasn’t the one place Lucifer couldn’t go, the one place he couldn’t see -- but it was the only place that Lucifer didn’t tear apart, rip to shreds. It’s the only place he let live, not quite as it once was -- always was, would be -- but the only part he didn’t devastate, didn’t disassemble and piece back together, only to rearrange it and paint the cracks with blood.
Love survived, but Dean was the only thing left sacred; the only thing Sam could touch within himself and know, know was still the same.
That anchor, that love -- he could brush against it, and know that it had never left him, had never been in another’s hands; just his.
And love -- love’s been too much of a balm, was the only thing that kept him intact, kept him just this side of sane. Love brought him here, brought him back.
Dean -- the reality of him, just the fucking thought of him; Dean made it worth fighting for.
And Sam can’t deny it. He’s not sure he wants to.
There are worse things than this, he knows that -- better than most. There are worse things.
He’s not entirely sure, though, that there’s anything better.
He doesn’t sleep, exactly -- or else, he doesn’t think that he does; but he’s sprawled in the backseat of the Impala, curled against the vinyl with his nose pressed close to the hinges of the door, eyes in line with that goddamn toy soldier but too close to see, the shape of it just a blur if not for the way that Sam would know it anywhere, would recognize it blind.
He reaches out to touch it, to run just the barest brush of skin over the molded and melted plastic, but he can’t. Won’t.
He sighs, superfluous, and steadies his hand on the handle before pushing forward, lifting himself to his feet.
He barely gets his footing, finds his balance before he hears the telltale cock of a shotgun resonate sharp and full in the space he doesn’t occupy -- shiver everywhere that he isn’t.
“You’ve got three seconds to tell me who you are and what you want,” comes the angry timbre that Sam knows, and can scarcely believe; “before I blast your ass back to Hell.”
He spares the only moment he has to cast a quick glance around to make sure: it’s just Sam and Bobby here, no one else.
And when Bobby fires, his gaze doesn’t waver: he doesn’t see through Sam, he looks straight at him.
Bobby looks at him.
Sam dodges just in time for the bullet to strike hard into the dry ground instead of the meat of his calf, the impact billowing dust that gets lost when Sam’s feet shuffle quick with the shock of it, stir up the dirt in a dim cloud around his ankles. He watches Bobby take aim again, too fucking quick, and Sam’s too startled to argue, to try and explain -- he bolts, barely dodging the bullets that fly after him, too close to be shot at random.
Bullets that follow him with purpose. Bullets meant to make contact, to dig deep inside real, living flesh; inside a body solid enough to pose a threat.
He runs until he’s almost sure he’d have to draw breath, real breath, with the very next step -- almost sure, but not sure enough to test it, to try; but he’s following the Two-Twenty-Nine with a will -- hot-wires a Caprice just outside of Omaha, because his back hurts and his legs are sore and he’s goddamn tired, and it might just be wishful fucking thinking, true, but...
If Bobby really saw him...
It almost makes him sick to hope.
And well -- it’s too much to ask, and he knows it. But Sam wouldn’t’ve made it this far if he wasn’t a hopeful sort of realist.
Wasn't just a little bit of a fool.
Sam goes back to Dean, because there’s nothing else for him. Some things never change; never change, because they’re not supposed to.
Of course it was stupid to think that Dean would just notice him, would see him and things would be better -- it’s never that easy, not for them; but Sam’s not ready to give it up, not yet.
He thinks back to Bobby’s -- notices, in retrospect, in his mind’s eye, the way something like recognition, something like pain had flashed in the man’s eyes between one shot and the next.
It’s enough to keep him going just a little longer, so Sam waits it out, traces his brother through his daily routine, hopes that one time -- sooner, rather than later, but he’ll take later if it’s all he’s got -- Dean will just look up and catch a glimpse.
Dean will look up, and he’ll know.
One thing does change: he doesn’t follow his brother into Lisa’s bedroom anymore.
He does, however, eventually notice that Dean keeps his own small, soulless room apart from Lisa’s, where things are real and warm -- and they never fuck in it. Not ever.
Sam spends eons, moments in that room, with Dean and without him, stretched across the far side of Dean’s bed -- the mattress long enough to fit his whole frame, too long for Dean’s -- the dip of use faint but there, so very there, worn down closest to the door, instead of in the middle.
Sam wonders -- hopes; fuck all, he hopes -- as to what that might mean.
Dean doesn’t go to get the tree come Christmastime, feigns a stomachache and gets off with a concerned caress of Lisa’s palm against his cheek and a disappointed groan from Ben before the pair heads off without him to find the perfect pine for the living room.
Sam knows Dean’s faking it, because he gets up and picks at the leftover enchiladas in the refrigerator after fifteen minutes of being left to himself; Sam doesn’t get it, really, because Dean loves Christmas, always remembers Christmas.
He doesn’t think much longer on it, though, because Sam remembers Christmas, too.
The tree’s gorgeous, Sam admits; his brother’s gorgeous, as he smiles and sticks a star -- not an angel, that seems wrong, and Sam knows it, knows that’s why -- on the very top, but the joy doesn’t last. And that kills him, just a little bit; it kills him every time he sees Dean standing at the mantle, alone in the late hours that skim, edge into the early: elbow propped with a tumbler in hand, the colors catching, refracting against whatever he’s sipping slow, tossing back -- depending on the night.
Sam watches the gleam of those eyes, the way they outshine the evergreen, the lime-olive-jade lights caught up around the boughs -- doesn’t know how he ever could have forgotten whose eyes those were. He studies Dean’s fingers where they clench around the glass, the eggnog dark, splashed against the sides, and he knows that if he pressed his mouth against those creme-slick lips, he’d taste the burn of something sweeter.
Without waiting for the whys, the doubts, he presses up around Dean’s body, wraps from behind and lays his palm open, just atop the cool weight of something solid, foreign beneath Dean’s shirt -- an amulet, he realizes: a different one, the wrong one; a memorial, maybe, a heartbreak and a travesty, and it hurts -- caught above the soft push of Dean’s heart. He can feel the quick hitch of breath against the center of his own chest, can feel his brother’s hand come up and clasp against his own, real pressure driving his touch closer, until the pads of his fingers can measure every desperate throb of the organ below, the very flow of life.
And Sam can feel it: the way his brother stills, quick and harsh and complete beneath where Sam’s hand rests against him, beneath his touch; can feel the tightness seize in Dean’s chest -- the tension, a tangible thing as it closes, clenches around the muscle, presses in around the beat until it vibrates too frantic, resonates too fierce.
Dean’s hand tightens around his, the short crescents of his fingernails digging into Sam’s skin, and Sam almost misses the way the glass his brother’d been holding falls, shatters against the floor on impact -- almost loses the clatter of the pieces striking wood against the way his brother’s breathing hitches back, hard, caught in a breathy sound that breaks more than glass, crushing something fast in Sam that he can’t pinpoint or name, that just is, because... fuck; Dean.
His brother never turns, never looks before he walks away -- not fast enough, not quick enough, lingering and fleeing and running, fucking running -- but Sam knows: knows as his hand blossoms red where an improbable shard had nicked him, caught him sharp on the way down; knows as the blood beads on top of the skin and falls, wet, to the floor.
Sam knows that Dean felt him.
After that, things change. Slowly, too fast; that much, Sam doesn’t notice. The tree’s gone, days melt into months too quick, a flash of colors upon shades, with Dean the only real constant -- and sometimes, even he gets lost in the blur. But things change.
He watches, sees when Lisa does a double-take, thinks she catches something -- it’s almost too much, just a bit too soon still to hope, too painful yet to call whatever she sees, it, him; to call it someone -- out the corner of her eye. He gets hissed at by cats in the windows, dogs near the street. Once, a woman excuses herself for bumping into him when he’s wandering the sidewalk, but Sam’s too caught up with the sensation, the rush of acknowledgment and the sting in his shoulder where she’d hit to make any reply, to see if she’d hear it if he tried.
Ben sees him, once, sitting next to Dean; doesn’t get a good enough look at him to remember, if he’d remember what Dean’s younger brother used to look like at all -- but sees enough to ask.
Dean gets out his EMF meter, a different one than Sam remembers -- not the one made out of the crappy broken Walkman, and that seems wrong, somehow; he doesn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, and Sam’s grateful for that much. Ben gets a kick out of swinging an iron rod around in thin air. Dean salts the door after everyone goes to sleep that night, and it pulls something tight in Sam’s gut to watch it, to see that familiar haunted void in his brother’s gaze, fixed and certain as if it had never lifted, never lightened.
Because of him. Again.
It’s not that he thinks that Dean had left the house unprotected before -- it’s not that he’s stupid enough to believe that he’d somehow managed to get into the place unscathed all this time because his brother was lax in keeping up the wards -- but something in Sam won’t chance crossing the line, not now that he knows for certain that it’s there, not when there’s no room for doubt.
He doesn’t want to know if he’ll make it across, doesn’t care to know.
He doesn’t last long; can’t stay away or make a clean break -- he needs to be close to his brother.
He needs to know for sure.
He stands on the threshold of the door for a long while, wondering if it’s worth it, wondering what he’ll do if he can’t cross, if he can’t get in -- wondering how he’ll live with what that means.
He watches the handle, sees when it moves and hides quickly around the corner; Lisa’s the last one to leave, that morning, and she doesn’t lock the house behind her.
Small fucking favors.
Sam steels himself and lifts his foot, takes a step like the first step, like learning all over again.
When nothing happens, when he’s safe inside the little foyer -- when he’s through and he’s there and he’s whole -- he falls, palms up, against the hallway wall, just inside the front entrance; and though he can’t find his likeness in the mirror that hangs just inside the door, he watches the sway of its frame, the way it rattles, scratches the paint -- shakes with the weight of the impact.
He makes a point to stay out of the way, after that; makes a point to keep out of sight when Lisa and Ben are home, makes himself scarce -- a ghost of a presence, and isn’t that ironic.
When it’s just him and Dean, though, Sam’s anything but subtle.
He makes sure he’s close -- not enough to touch, but close enough for it to be impossible to miss him. Dean stops short once in a while, like maybe he feels the tug that Sam does, like maybe he knows something true, somewhere deep; mostly, though, Dean shrugs it off, covers the hesitation by flipping the channel or opening the fridge, grabbing a beer like he’d never wavered, never faltered.
Sam knows his brother well enough to see when he’s covering it up; hopes he still knows him well enough to know what he sees.
He stretches out next to Dean’s body every night, watches him sleep, feels the warm stream of his breath play at the curls of Sam’s hair -- too long, now, and all he wants is for Dean to see it, to look at it at tell him Sammy, you little emo bitch, get a fucking haircut.
Sometimes, he thinks Dean sees him, thinks Dean notices -- just the arch of a brow or too many blinks, too fast. Sometimes, Dean stares right at him when he wakes in the morning, and sometimes, when he does, Dean holds his breath and there’s only silence, and Dean’s looking, watching, drinking him in with wide, lazy eyes like he’s the best kind of dream, and it sparks fireworks in his gut like embers and ash until Dean exhales long and low, resigned, and rolls out of the bed on the opposite side, away from Sam.
Sometimes, Sam thinks he’s going to go crazy before whatever this is is finally over, before it’s done.
He doesn’t know what morning it is, doesn’t know how long it’s been -- things like that don’t matter, stopped mattering a long time ago.
He gets tired, now, like anyone would, and he thinks that’s a good sign; he sleeps at night, but less than he should, because Dean doesn’t get the sleep he needs, either, and Sam still takes a few quiet moments out of every evening, every early morning when Dean settles onto the mattress and finally drifts off to watch, just watch his brother’s chest rise and fall before he curls close to Dean’s warmth and hopes that tomorrow might be the day that Dean finally looks up and sees him waiting.
He doesn’t know what morning it is, just that there’s something warm pressed tight against his back, and something soft stroking through his hair, and he never wants to get up, never wants to leave it; not ever.
He moans, arches into the way firm fingers twist in the strands and pull, just a little; the way fingertips massage slow and deep into the flesh of his scalp -- he can’t remember the last time he was touched like this, the last time his chest felt tight and full and his skin felt charged with life, he can’t --
He hears the sleep-saturated groan, something he could imagine into ‘Sam’ if he wanted -- and he does, he does want, so it’s Sam, Dean says ‘Sam’ -- and he can’t help it, can’t stop himself from turning slowly, rolling over to face the heat at his back until his chest is close enough to Dean’s, close enough to brush on the inhale, close enough to watch the pulse at his clavicle.
So fucking close.
Dean’s hand is still tangled in his hair, and Sam almost stops to relish it, to file it away for later when Dean’s touch is gone, a fantasy again like it’s been for so long, too long.
But it’s not a dream, can’t be. He hasn’t really dreamt since the Pit.
He’s staring, doesn’t move; Dean, on the other hand, is slowly coming back to himself, cracking his eyes open and flinching back at the first hints of dawn out the window, and Sam can’t help the smile that’s almost too much, almost breaks his resolve and creaks under the weight of his racing pulse and the tightness in his throat. And Dean, when he finally gets his eyes open just that little bit more, just enough, and he sees Sam -- really does, because there’s no doubt of it, and Sam remembers that look, that little grin he used to shoot Sam’s way in the mornings, in the afternoons, something fond and free and still sure, after everything; Sam remembers -- it’s almost like nothing ever changed, nothing’s been lost; almost like they never died for one another just as sure as they’d lived.
It doesn’t last.
Dean’s face falls suddenly, and he blinks, heavy and fast and hard, lashes caught up in the sleep clumped at the corners, and something like confusion -- closer to mourning -- clings to the edges of Dean’s lips, weighs them down, and Sam: Sam wants nothing more than to reach out and smooth away the hurt in that expression; starts to, before he stops, heart in his throat.
Dean’s lips part, gaze darting between Sam’s face and Sam’s fingers where they hover, halfway there.
Sam sees himself in Dean’s eyes, swimming fuzzy in the black, reflected steady in the green.
“Sammy.” The sound’s not there, the shape, the motion of those lips around the name might just be his imagination -- wishful thinking -- but the way his brother’s chest catches, freezes, lungs stuck as he stares; the way his brother’s eyes stretch like the chasm that opened, like something that could bridge the gap -- it’s not a specter, or a trick of the light.
Sam doesn’t know what he does, if he does anything, but Dean reaches out for him again, quick and frantic, instinct taking over, and the way his brother’s touch soaks into him -- hot like sunlight and right, right like the beat of a heart or the turn of the earth itself -- that touch, shivering as he presses his palm, clenches his fingers like he’s holding onto water, to sand, like Dean’ll lose him if he isn’t careful: that touch is the ending they deserve, the beginning he’s been aching for, and he can’t help but follow suit as Dean swallows a shudder, a sob; because it’s real. It’s all real.
Dean’s touch hits solid on Sam's biceps, splays true toward the center of his chest, and he trembles as the heel of Dean’s palm cups, lilts careful, disbelieving at the curve of his jaw and catches the air in Sam’s lungs -- foreign, perfect, honest, familiar and fuck, but he’s real, and Dean’s there, and Sam breathes -- deep, until it burns in his lungs and strains against his ribs and the lines of his chest slide slow against the planes of Dean’s, and he can see the pulse of something undeniable and sure in the irises, the fathomless color of Dean’s eyes in the dark, the growing light; Sam sucks in the air until there’s nothing else, nothing else.
Sam breathes, and knows who he is.