Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I'll myself disgrace
-- W. Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXXIX
The first time is always the hardest. It is also the most thrilling, because, hey, you never know if Lucifer is going to keep his side of the bargain when he says he'll bring you back. Sam makes preparations, which include a secluded motel, a third of a bottle of whiskey and a box cutter. It is about three in the morning, the hour when fatigue gives way to tense wakefulness and a teetering sense of possibility. Sam had spent the entire night turning Dean's words over and over in his head, his instructions to pick a hemisphere rolling off his tongue the way one might choose a sandwich filling, his demand that they stay away from each other forever. Forever frightens him; the idea of an eternal existence unmoored, adrift. Dean's nonchalance, though well-deserved, would have been more palatable if it was attached with an expiration date. Here, it would say, this is when I can come back, and you will be glad, for I was lost but now am found. Now he is in perpetual exile. He feels abandoned, even if he was the one who first walked away. After being fussed over for twenty odd years, Sam is suddenly nobody's burden. You might think he would have a little trouble adjusting.
However, tonight he is imbued with a sense of purpose. Yes, yes, yes, his brain hammers, yes. Tonight he is going to do it. The bottle of whiskey sleeps on its side, empty. He drags the blade of the box cutter slowly in and out, in and out. It makes satisfying little clicks as it extends and retracts. He grips it in his hand and stands in front of the bathroom mirror. Drawing a breath to steel himself, he digs two long tracks from carpal to cubital fossa, crying out as he does so. God, that fucking hurts, he says, to no one in particular. He leans against the sink and blinks. His vision clouds, then clears gradually. Now it's your turn, he tells his left arm, but the blade clatters to the floor when he passes it from one hand to the other. He bends down to retrieve it and almost pitches over, laughing dizzily as he picks it up. With this blade he will carve himself into something better. Two more cuts and he throws the box cutter into the sink before looking up into the mirror.
I'm dying, he thinks, with a faint tinge of satisfaction. Well, soon, anyway. But the man that gazes back doesn't seem any different; it certainly doesn't look like he's dying. He runs one bloody hand down his cheek, raps his knuckles against his furrowed brows. Now that's better. The dull thud of the back of his hand against his forehead is numb and familiar, hello, hello, is anybody in? Yeah, just one moment, please. He is quite, quite drunk. The blood runs down his forearms and drips from his elbows to the floor. He steps into it by accident and feels a little guilty for the ragged tessellations of bloodied footprints. It must make quite the sight in the morning. He staggers across the bathroom, trying to reach the corner where he intends to settle in and wait, but trips on his own feet and falls headfirst into the dirty tub. Well, that ended badly. The world darkens and his last clear thought is Dean saying, Sam, you idiot, you're going to bleed out in the bathtub like a fucking girl.
Then light, discomfortingly bright, and it turns out, he isn't going to after all. Lucifer leers at him from the ceiling as he tuts his disapproval. Sam, Sam, Sam, he scolds. What did I tell you about keeping off the sharp objects?
Dean twirls the demon knife. The demon eyes it warily.
I told you, I don't know shit.
He makes another cut along her arm. It joins the previous dozen to make a fairly impressive cross-stitch pattern. She screams. The chair digs deeper into the chipped wood floor.
He circles back before her. Still nothing?
I said, I don't know anything!
He considers this for a moment, then starts on the other arm. As always, he waits for the warm rise of pleasure that stems from perfect unadulterated control, and he smiles.
She coughs, blood staining her lurid mouth. You sick, sick bastard.
It's true. Sam wouldn't be caught dead doing this. Sam would exorcise the woman. No, Sam would do his psychic thing and she would puke demon while Sam would drink demon and there is an ugly symmetry to it all, right down to those eyes which stare at him now, not black but the most uncanny blend of hazel and green, as she begs to be released. That would be the right thing to do. It's just like Sam to always be so concerned about minimising collateral damage, tortured by the string of gutted vessels they left behind. Yes, Sam would do that. Exorcism. Dad's journal. Rattling off the words of the ritual by heart, the leather-bound volume a mere talisman. It would be the right thing to do. But for now all he can see is Sam's mouth, covered in a clownish smear of blood, chest heaving, hand stretched out to grasp his destiny.
Not good enough for me. He stabs her in the left shoulder and the jagged pulse of electricity that sizzles around the knife mirrors the spark running through his nerves, tickling the phantom itch to kill that lies just out of reach.
The demon seethes and sputters and spits. You know what, she hisses, I'm out of here.
Oh come on, you're not going to bail on me, are you?
The demon buries itself deep into the woman's synapses in answer. It's nice inside this body, Sam, soft and warm. Dean still thinks that was way too much of an overshare. The woman's head falls to her chest, her dark hair obscuring her face. Then she begins to wake. She blinks, takes in her surroundings: an unfamiliar man, a knife, ropes that tie her to a chair. A room she does not recognise. Then she begins to struggle.
Please, she sobs, I have a family. Two boys. They would--
Dean drives the knife deep into her chest, slightly to the right of her sternum, and she is permitted one last groan before she expires.
Dean shrugs. Just another demon. Just another day in the life of a Winchester. He wipes the knife on a dirty rag, throws it into the sink and wonders what Sam is doing right now. He hasn't the least idea, but one thing's for sure: that limp body tied to the chair needs to be burnt and buried by morning. This he knows. This he can do.
When Sam wakes he is still in the filthy bathtub. The blood has turned to rust but his arms are pristine, his skin unmarked save for a thin line of pink around the base of his thumb, bald and almost shiny. That's for keepsakes, the devil had said. Also, I do appreciate the artistry, but you could have chosen a more effective method. Didn't you know that the success rate for--
Sam closes his eyes. His heart beats, and beats, and beats.
For a demon dangling upside down from a hook on the ceiling, this one's sure a talkative one. His face is red, his teeth bared, a feral looking thing.
Dean Winchester. Alastair's prize pupil. Heard a lot about you.
Really. I do hope I live up to expectations.
He chuckles and swivels his head about. Where's the boy wonder?
Dean stabs him in the spine in reply. He howls. Dean appreciates the simple satisfaction derived from inflicting pain and eliciting a desired response, because really, he doesn't actually have any questions beyond the banal: where's Lucifer, how to gank him etc. It's not like any one of these toads is going to spill, anyway. He just enjoys making a neat incision into a belly and drawing out a length of gut to wind around a post he had hammered to the corner of a table. Also, a major draw to this set-up is that there is no Sam to outline for him the morally grey area in which they find themselves and the things they hunt. No Sam to be mortally terrified for, no Sam to set a sterling example to, not even a hint of Sam's conscience to censure him for brutality. Sam started the apocalypse, he can get off his high horse. Suspended from his ankles is a man who by sorry chance is harbouring a demon and hence can be killed with impunity. Dean's only doing his job by ridding the world of one more black-eyed bitch. Sam's only being force-fed demon blood by a bunch of vengeful hunters. It doesn't matter that the man he guts and the brother he holds sacred can both be violated without punishment, because they are both too unhallowed for sacrifice.
Tired of these mental gymnastics, Dean says, you know what, there's way too much gab going on. He turns and cuts a piece of industrial tape. We should get down to business.
Yeah. You know, you're kinda rusty. Must be all those classes you skipped, being topside for--
Dean shuts his mouth for him. This demon, he thinks, shares his sense of humour. He grins at him and he raises his eyebrows, you're wasting your time.
Well that's all right, Dean says, giving the rope about his ankles a little twist so the demon spins like a human top. I've got plenty.
Sam folds the rope into three and coils it about itself thirteen times, tugs on it, tests its friction. Its sturdiness is reassuring. Satisfied, he curls it into a neat bundle and slings it across his chest, leaving both arms free to reach and manoeuvre as he pleases. As he ascends, he inhales the sharp green tang of evergreen that lifts itself from the mulch and moss of the forest floor. All around him, the forest sings its own tune, a pleasant humming quietness neither threatening nor amiable, a pair of infatuated crickets, a startled bird. Sam smiles, recalling the time Dean showed him how to climb a tree. Escape from Werewolf 101, he'd called it.
Of course, the rational part of him knows it's never going to work. He'll kill himself, Lucifer will bring him back, he'll try again, Lucifer will haul his lame ass up to this earthly plane, ad infinitum. Yet the little child in him still hopes for an exception, a fissure in tempered fate. Maybe this'll be the last hunt. Maybe he'll get to go for that science field trip, even if Dad had said no. Maybe tonight Dean will hold him, maybe not.
It is with a fool's hope that Sam loops the hangman's noose over his head, the only medal he's ever won. He has to have some measure of hope, or he'll fall weeping; the tears are so near his chest aches. He's glad for the tree and its company, for its help in a doomed enterprise. It is likely that it will be days before someone will find him, and that person will not know who is, will not grieve for him because he knows these hands, these bruised cheeks, who will gently let his body down out of humanitarian reasons. He stops climbing, considers, then scampers up a couple more feet just to be sure. He's tall; he's going to need the height from which the drop will snap his neck. Hopefully. There's no telling if this may just leave him paralysed for the rest of his days, watching Lucifer sneering at him from a wheelchair. Probably not. The devil would take care of that. He is Satan's vessel, after all. He is meant for nothing but to house the brightest and most beautiful of all the angels. The devil's got too much to lose if he were to leave him drooling and incontinent.
Sam rises carefully to his feet, perched on a branch. The leaves, disturbed by the wind, brush against his hair, his eyes, tickling the back of his neck. His heart pounds. He stares out into the pitch black of the forest and imagines that once again they are standing on the roof of the shed. Sammy is five. He has on a black cape, a black mask with two holes cut out for eyes and two perky triangles on his head which have been glued onto a pink hair-band (Dean says he borrowed it from what he had called a bosomy blonde, whatever that was). Dean's cape is red, his pyjamas sky blue. He had drawn the line at the underwear on the outside, and Sam had agreed. (Sam always agreed.) Veracity has its limits.
Dean goes first. He makes his flight from the shed and lands safely on the grass, red cape fluttering in the wind, the very image of a hero. Come on, Sammy, he yells, jumping up and down, what are you waiting for? Sam swallows. He takes a deep breath and steps off the edge.
A sharp jerk and his spine is severed in two. He tries to cough, but cannot. There is a brief moment of panic when he realises that he is choking, but a firm voice in his head tells him that he doesn't need air, not anymore, oh no.
He wakes with his face in the grass and a phantom pain in his arm where he broke it so many years ago. (Who winged ya, Dean would ask, and he would crow, Batman!, and collapse in a fit of giggles.) The morning sun beats down on his back and he considers lying there forever. Lucifer says, I didn't know you liked hanging so much. He strokes Sam's firm, strong neck. I'll make a brief note of that right here.
Dean empties the clip of silver into a werewolf.
Bobby says, darkly, you know, one would do.
Lucifer peels off a bit of skull and picks the bullet from his brain. When it is out he brandishes it before him; shiny silver bathed in blood and pink tissue. He imagines its path through his head, high-speed rail through dense brain matter, a trail of soupy mess in its wake.
Silver. Very interesting, Sam. Also, I would espouse on the metaphorical implications of me sticking my digits in your noggin, but you look like death and I'll spare you.
He's wrong, actually. Sam has never felt better. The numbness in his head is not unpleasant. Nothing like a good dose of brain bullet to chase away the blues. He could get that patented, Sam thinks, he could. For children aged three and up.
All right. I'm done. You're all set. Sam gets up to wash his hands. Don't you think you're enjoying this a bit too much?
Then stop, he says to the mirror, stop bringing me back.
Didn't take you for one who begged.
The days at Flagstaff wilt slowly but surely from exhilaration to boredom and finally to a constant nagging worry about Dean. Details of the case they're currently working on creep back into his mind the very moment he banishes them, a bit too self-righteously perhaps, calling on childhood and innocence to make his defence and feigning nonchalance as his fingers worry the rough fur between Bones' ears, the soft down from chin to belly. He knows he has to return sooner or later; he only wants a little room for petulance. When the last of his whims have run their course, he shoulders his backpack and makes for their latest coordinates.
He creeps back just at the crack of dawn, hoping to miss the brunt of his father's wrath, easing the door open and inching past the couch and the sleeping form upon it, stepping over stray beer cans and sheets of discarded research pilfered from manila folders and old newspapers that have been trodden so deeply underfoot that they have become a part of the floor. Dean is sitting on the bed, awkwardly trying to sew up an ugly gash that runs from the back of his right shoulder all the way to his elbow. And it had hit Sam then, the depravity of their father's favouritism, how disturbing it must have been for Dean to always be seen and treated as so much less than someone who fell far short of his abilities and strength and valour, to be held in so much esteem by one and yet be so diminished in the eyes of another. He pads softly into the room and kneels at Dean's feet. He pries the needle from Dean's fingers and continues where Dean's left off. All this while Dean says nothing. He does gasp out, once, but for the most part they are silent, he sewing, Dean flexing and unflexing the fingers of his other hand before catching himself and stilling it. Then Sam finishes and for the first time in two weeks they look at each other.
Sam waits for the inevitable rebuke. He waits to be hit, although Dean's never hit him before. He wonders if this will be the first time this golden rule is broken. It occurs to him now that he wants Dean to hit him, so he can feel a little less miserable, so he is not the only sinner. What he cannot take is Dean's stubborn silence, his eyes so hard they're almost grey, trained on anything in the room (a bloated cupboard, the flaking walls, the hinge of a door) except him. It terrifies him, this sudden leaching of their persons to the point where they have become unrecognisable to each other. He wants to plead, it's me, it's me, aren't you happy to see me again, even as he is aware of how stupid it will sound.
Dean stands to leave. Wait, he croaks, and he wants to wrap both arms around Dean's knees in supplication, but he doesn't. Instead, he places one clammy palm on the edge of the bed, the other on Dean's bare breast, and he leans forward between his knees and rests his forehead on Dean's belly, exhales, shivers. Then he closes his eyes and presses his lips to that little square of skin just above Dean's navel and kisses him there, rocking gently against his brother's body, warm and familiar. He squeezes his eyes shut, if he is quiet this might last forever, and he wouldn't need to find out how Dean will react.
What are you doing?
Making it better, he thinks, saying I'm sorry, proving myself so much more than what you think, showing you that you are so much more than what you have been taught to believe, than all of this, this squalor that he wants to pull the both of them above. There is so much he wants to say that it falls from his lips in an amalgam of half-words, inchoate sounds coming in starts and stops, a crippled Morse code without a key.
Get back. This is sick. What the fuck, Sam?
You think you can just bust out of town and stroll back in like--
Okay. I know. I'm going. I'm going now.
The fuck you are.
And so Sam stays. They hunt. The only thing that's changed is that Dean doesn't touch him anymore, and so he finds himself giving him reasons to do so, a neat cut across his right palm that he offers up to Dean, sitting patiently while Dean nags and fusses as he closes it back up. A back punctuated with bruises and abrasions that forces Dean to swallow down a question, how did you--never mind, as he picks flecks of dried leaves and wood splinters from skin and flesh, almost like sorting beans, Sam thinks, as he drinks from Dean's careful fingers the barest pleasure distilled from twisted need. When he approaches Dean with a burn in a perfect circle, he holds it out as he once did the toy from the cereal box they were both hoping for, only this time it's a blistered coin of pink and red grinning at them from his arm.
Is there something I should know, Sam?
What--no, nothing, I'm fine. Just, you know--
And Dean grunts assent and that's that. Sometimes he imagines Dean is grateful for the excuse too. But that's sick. Thinking about that makes Dean sick, he must remember that. It's easier to delude himself into thinking that Dean reviles him for the physical contact and not for running away, that Dean being repulsed by him is a matter of taste and not a direct consequence of his betrayal. Besides, it's not like Dad's making it any easier, lavishing him with praises ever since he got back, as though honeyed words would defer the next of his escapades. Dean, on the other hand, gets snapped at for the smallest oversight and swallows every insult as though he had thoroughly deserved it. Sam hates it and hates it, but routine cocoons him and he doesn't run away for the next three years.
Secretly, Sam thinks the '75 Lincoln Continental a sweet ride. He'll be sorry to see it go. But, sentimentality aside, he should be getting down to business. Foot glued to the accelerator, eyes on the road, Sammy, eyes on the road.
His phone buzzes and does a little dance on the car seat next to him. He fumbles for it with his right hand, his fingers clumsy and disobedient. The codeine, he remembers, the sweetness of the syrup lingering at the back of his throat, overlaying the whiskey. You can be such a child sometimes, you know. The phone slips from his hand and he claws at it, barely able to hit the right button to answer the call and almost deciding to give up and let the phone drop into his lap. But the screen says Dean and his ear begs to hear that voice again.
Yeah. Yeah, it's me. I'm--kinda busy right now trying to drive myself off a bridge he thinks, but there's no way his addled brain can phrase that properly right now. Luckily Dean carries on talking.
Can you meet me. We gotta talk.
What? The car veers left as his hand slips from the steering wheel. The windscreen quivers. The ravine beckons.
I said, we gotta talk, man. Can we meet up?
He should say no. What was Dean thinking, first dashing his hopes so cruelly and then reining in his leash in the mere span of breaths? Who was he to command what little was left of his sorry life? He wants to die, he wants to die, no longer just to deny Lucifer, but because it will be an act that is his and his alone, the only thing that would ever be solely his, apart from that brief gig in Flagstaff, that failed detour to Stanford. But now he sees that he can't even be allowed to kill himself. This is pathetic. The disparity between his self-loathing and incapacity for action is pathetic. But he can say no. He will say it. He forms his mouth into a little round o but what comes out is yes, yes, he breathes, almost crying, where do you want me to go?, and somehow manages to bring the car around, one hand on the steering and the other dashing the tears from his eyes.
The drive back to the motel is fraught with tension. Dean doesn't talk, doesn't even look at him. All the words seem to have been wrung out of him. Dean keeps his eyes on the road, gazing occasionally up at the rear-view mirror even though the road is clearly empty, a habit he hasn't been able to shed since Sam began riding shotgun more than four years ago. Sam, for want of anything to say, readies himself again to apologise, to make another speech about his abysmal failures, but he recalls the way Dean drew the demon knife on the bridge, when he didn't know whether he was going to pass it to him by the handle or stick him in the ribs with the blade, and he keeps quiet. How much Dean trusts (or rather doesn't trust, although how one measures a negation he has no idea, that great gaping lack of faith that now stretches between them) him, how much of him is still a demon, a human, the limits of his righteous anger and the twisted glut of hard-won guilt, these are all questions still at large. Finally Dean pulls over and they slide out of the car. Habit kicks in, Dean taking two of the duffels and he the haversack even though Dean's the one with the keys, which leaves Sam hovering awkwardly with two empty hands as Dean curses and fumbles with the lock.
Once inside, they dump the bags on one of the beds, and Sam says again, I'm sorry. He is fully aware of the futility of his annoying iteration but can't help parroting it all the same, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, and is finally silenced when Dean grabs him in mid-sentence by the throat and pins him to the wall. For a wild moment Sam thinks he's going to throttle him and throw him in the boot, a punishment he has sorely earned, but still, they are brothers and he had hoped for something a little gentler.
Dean looks at him, really looks at him and Sam pleads. Sam pleads with his fingers undoing Dean's jeans and his lips ready at the space between Dean's legs, but Dean pulls him up by the arms so they are facing each other once more. What, what should I do, he whispers, in a voice so low and desperate Dean doesn't know what to say. Say he never made that deal, Sam's life for his soul. Say they undo the breaking of the last seal, resurrect Lilith, skewer Lucifer before he torches the planet. What can they do against the hate of the world, the might of the angels and the design of God himself? He has only ever known how to take care of his brother and gank the occasional monster. Destruction on a global scale is way out of his league. Sam waits, panicky, as Dean holds his jaw between finger and thumb and turns it this way and that, wishing the answer lay hidden in his chin, in that little dimple that bloomed just before a smile. Very slowly, he tugs off Sam's jacket, travelling down the column of buttons one at a time, running his hands over every inch of his little brother like he's trying to find some hurt he can actually mend.
Sam is relieved. This, this he knows. Let Cas take a leaf or two from this, he thinks, glaring at the handprint on Dean's shoulder that mocks him from beneath layers of clothing, let's see if you know how to do this. He grabs Dean's face and smashes their mouths together. Dean makes a sound and he swallows it whole, then he warns himself to be moderate, to slow down. He's the one at fault, remember, remember? But he cannot. This, whatever it is, is physiological. The tremor in his fingers as he draws them down Dean's back and the pale sheen of sweat that forms on his neck over which Dean will place his teeth a minute later and bite down, their compulsive need to save each other to the point where it occluded the entire world and obliterated themselves, these are all expressions of an atavistic hunger that both of them can never keep sated. Their bodies, a rugged terrain of flesh and ridges and scars, are at once compass and conquered land; they stake their claim on each other with every thrown punch, every inordinate caress. Dean works the buckle of Sam's belt and shrugs his jeans off impatiently. He dips his hand into his boxers, fingers as sure and insistent as they were a decade ago. You wanna get off, Sammy, yeah we could do that, as though he had suggested they go watch a movie, or eat nachos until they got sick (which happened once), or stage an epic battle between the thin flanks of toy soldiers Sam had painstakingly accumulated over two years but now lay forgotten in a biscuit tin swaddled by clothes at the bottom of Dean's backpack. The strange thing was, Sam hadn't even said anything. He had been sullen the whole day, terse and bitchy for no reason, filled with that blind burning hate which rose to the fore every once in a while that made him think the world odious and himself tainted and basically everything gone to fuck and destined for hell. There must have been a hopeful incredulity plastered on his face when Dean had suggested that, because Dean had given him a look and laughed, saying, what, you mean that wasn't what you were thinking, and then leaned over and kissed him for the first time.
Now Dean pauses, easy there, tiger, but he doesn't answer, doesn't even smile as he pushes Dean into the shower.
One can leap into the Cage as easily as one jumps forward two days, months, years. The angels can do that. So can Sam. But Sam isn't an angel. Time folds itself upon itself, quickens its march when fireworks are burning down the field on Fourth of July, slows to a trudge when you wait to bleed out into the Werther Box. One can never measure the speed of time without hitting up against paradox immediately. The Impala hurtles forward at ninety miles an hour, Dean used to laugh a measly twice a fortnight, they kiss whenever Dad's not looking. Recently, though, he's noticed that Dean doesn't laugh any longer, just watches him like he's one of the things they track through the woods. A second is as fast as a second per second. A minute as fast as his fingers get broken. Sam waits and waits for time to reveal itself. Time is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey--what the fuck are you saying, Sam, and now, now he is struggling as Dean pulls him from under the shower, yelping and cursing when the hot water hits his skin. Now he thinks oh what did Dean do to deserve this travesty of a brother, and how terribly unsexy this whole scene appears, a naked man with his body scalded red, slamming his left hand repeatedly into a wall that looks more and more like the picture a child would make if it were throwing a tantrum, ugly, ghastly streaks of red on a grimy off-beige that's almost grey, another with his clothes clinging to him from the wet, swinging a hand across the other's cheek as if to wake him from this dismal mess of which he is the cause. But I am awake, he thinks, or so he hopes and then despairs at the knowledge, I am alive, before he fades out again and there are ropes of arms around his bare waist, fingers pressing into his jutting hip bones, and the water is turned off.
He panics, fumbles for the shower knob, before Dean closes one hand over his and smacks it away, yelling something incomprehensible. Dean doesn't understand, he needs this water, needs it to go as hot as it will go, to scour off the chill that digs into his bones.
So he makes a dash for the shower again, it's easy, he's bigger than Dean; he can easily slide out of his brother's grip. Dean curses, stomps after him, a grotesque game of cat and mouse. He backs away into the corner of the bathroom. The blood from his hand leaves a trail of rusty breadcrumbs on the floor. He suddenly realizes how hungry he is and brings his hand to his mouth and sucks greedily, giggling as he dodges Dean once more. Dean comes up to him, hits him again across the face, twice, and he spits into his brother's eye, but Dean doesn't flinch, doesn't even blink, only grips him firmly by the shoulders and hauls him out of the shower again as he twists and yowls.
Shut up, Sam.
And it is this stern rebuke that brings him back to himself, to the dim light of the motel room and his embarrassing nakedness and he starts to keen, to make sounds he didn't think would come from him but Dean says nothing, just towels him off and drags clothes over him, underwear and sweatpants and long-sleeved cotton, putting the correct limbs into the correct holes, and he lets his arms be raised and lowered, his hair be smoothed out of his face and tucked behind his ears.
Then he turns and pulls his legs up to his chest, reading the carpet and tracing their futures, wondering at which point in the past did they take a fork that led to this, he curled up on the floor with the devil in his head and Dean poking away at the wound on his hand.
Dean snores. It's rather adorable actually, because his leg is at an angle and his mouth is open and he's even drooling a little. Sam likes it, the mornings where he wakes before Dean, which is often, stealing a glimpse of his brother before he arranges his looks into something which befits an elder sibling. He likes seeing Dean without the bravado, splayed out vulnerable before him, even if it means to be terrified and lost for a few seconds before the present kicks in. There are days when he resents Dean's dominance, and then there are days when he worries about Dean worrying about him and regrets the beautiful boy he had never gotten to know, the one who never had the chance to be a child because he was too busy being a parent. Lying on his back, Sam's been thinking. Well, that's never a good thing. The notion of staying alive for a single person is a fairytale ideal when one is little. It attains the notoriety of a cliché in one's teenage years, the kind of thing you roll your eyes at because it is nothing but empty kitsch for sappy losers. Yet if you're lucky (or unlucky), you get to see it take on some semblance of truth. What was once a flippant sentiment became alloyed by duty and devotion, an anchor on the high seas that you cleaved to when everything else, reason, feeling, instinct, all, questioned why you even bothered persisting. He had learnt this the first time his life had been on the line, a ghost tightening its fingers around his neck while Dean was in the next room, yelling, Sam! Sam!, and he had reached for the iron in his pocket, something he could have done ages ago but somehow couldn't bring himself to, it seeming so easy to give in to those wretched fingers that offered such an enticing boon, an irresistible chance for any man to bow out with his honour intact. But then he recalled the many times he had prayed for Dean and their father to return safely from a hunt, believing that Dean would fight tooth and nail to stay alive for him, to take care of him, like he had always promised. And he had lived, only to see the doggedness in staying alive for someone else become indistinguishable from the desperate need to die for that same person, which eventually circled back to the craving of death for its own sake.
Dean stirs, mumbles something. Maybe he's hungry. Maybe Sam should go get pie. Yes, he would get up in five minutes, head down to the diner and grab something sweet that would please his brother when he awoke. He conjures fillings and pastry and odours too tempting to resist, but still his body adheres to the bed, unwilling to budge. Dean's fingers twitch. This means that he will wake within the next couple of minutes. Sam thinks, fondly, maybe reconciliation of any sort was only possible because of the pain which preceded it, indeed was perfected by the pain, exalted by it, made whole and elevated until it became the entire point of this hapless existence. He understands that it reeks of masochism but clings to this belief all the same. It makes those moments of pain endurable, because he can anticipate the mending of all the hurts that is sure to follow. He stares at Dean again, and despite the constant drum of rage and despair his heart swells, and he is embarrassed, embarrassed for being as needy as Dean has made him out to be, embarrassed that he is not as grown up as he thinks he is. How is it that anyone, anyone at all, can by sheer fact of existing, demand that you do the same? An upraised hand, to strike or to console, in greeting or farewell. A commiserating eyebrow. Years and years of accumulated grudges and in-jokes and minor irritations. A lifetime of pledges. Dean yawns, cracks open one bleary eye and groans. Sam smiles, glad for the moment to be alive but afraid that this gladness will pass, as it will surely do, the same way all things come to pass. Perhaps it is silly to insist upon the integrity of time, of Dean's motives, of his own, of anything, really, because love would always be indistinguishable from the pain it necessitated, with the promise it held. He can see it now, him saying all that out loud and Dean responding, in a voice thickened by sleep, Sam you are so full of shit, and the familiarity of it, the very idea that an insult could somehow be a demonstration of affection, fills him with awe and makes him think that they might have a shot at beating this thing, that they can outrun fate, he and Dean both, they can revise their lives over and over, each time better than the last, each time with a little less sorrow.
What's that, Dean asks, and before he can make an escape Dean grabs his hand and turns it over and peers at it like it's an alien thing that had just budded off him, like he's some unicellular eukaryote writhing under the microscope, and Dean demands, a little louder, hey, Sam, what's that, and he forces himself to stare at it, that little barcode around the base of his thumb, lines and lines of pink on a merry-go-round marking time and ownership, as though his thumb were a tree, if his thumb were a tree, if Lucifer were--. It's nothing, he says, and pulls his hand into his lap and smiles weakly, because he is so afraid of spoiling this night, it's nothing, he insists, I'm okay, and Dean raises an eyebrow and drawls out slowly, okay, as he settles into the chair.
Sam, he starts, and Sam begs him with his eyes not to continue, not to say another word, and Dean looks at this broken boy before him, a boy no longer but a boy in his eyes all the same, to be protected from the world, to be saved because he is precious. And there are so many terrible things in the world waiting with eager teeth and bated breath to tear into Sam that he almost forgets Sam's twisted compulsion to undo himself, over and over. It is this which has haunted him since they were children, even when he and Sam are in the same room, this sick fear that he might turn his back and in that instant Sam would be hurt or dead. Or worse, now with this whole apocalypse bullshit hanging over them, that Sam might say yes, and with one short syllable stake out the limits of his autonomy. That Lucifer might draw a muted acquiescence from Sam's lips out of sheer exhaustion, which would entomb him somewhere Dean could never reach, turned so inward that he had finally become something which would forever escape his obsessive vigilance. For how could he keep his brother safe if the very fuse and spark lay in Sam's own hands?
Sam starts talking as he releases a sandwich from its plastic wrapper. (The diner had run out of burgers. How was that even possible?) He's talking about trying to gank Lucifer, which Dean assumes was what Sam was doing the whole time they were apart. I mean, the surest way he's not wearing me is if he's dead, right? So what I was thinking is--and Dean forces himself to see his brother as a grown man with his own griefs and fears and desires, kinder than most and the cleverest he's known, and tries to convince himself that Sam isn't something to be fixed. But each time Sam goes off and breaks himself and breaks himself and what can he expect Dean to do?
Dean, you're not listening.
Yeah, well, of course I'm not listening. I'm fucking beat. I'm going to crash. He stands up. He can't even look at his brother anymore, not when he was a walking proof of his own failure as a guardian, having chosen a demon over him, a demon chick, for fuck's sake. But Sam reaches over and grabs his hand like he's drowning and he knows that that means he doesn't want him to go, so Dean shrugs and says, but I'm starved, and sits back down. He shoves one of them disgusting sandwiches with the weird paste into his mouth and answers Sam perfunctorily between bites, and finally, later that night, yields to a soft, conciliatory kiss at the corner of his mouth, the shadow of Sam's smile dancing across his face.
No, I shall not forget, for it is well that I remember; and with it I have so much in memory of you that is sweet, that I take it all together. -- Bram Stoker, Dracula