“Come on, Sam, Dad’s in the car already.”
“’M’coming,” Sam promised, even though he wasn’t. He was crouched on the smoky carpet, one knee tucked up against his chest, and staring at his sneaker.
They were new, the shoes. Dad had bought them fresh two days ago, when his last pair tripped through a puddle of slick, black ectoplasm and leeched it up like a sponge. Sam promised up and down that he didn’t mean to, because he knew the rules. You had to take good care of your clothes and stuff – not let them get too dirty to wear to school, and never leave them behind. Winchesters didn’t buy new clothes willy-nilly. You had to outgrow your old ones first. He apologized all the way to the car, trying not to cry because Winchesters didn’t do that either, but Dean knew Sammy had trouble when Dad got mad.
Right now, Dad didn’t want to be distracted. Dean could tell. He kept telling Sammy not to pull at his seatbelt and asking Dean to find him a picture book. So Dean told him about the oil leak instead – that’s what Dad had told all the people with angry faces. And the sad faces too – and agreed that Sammy didn’t track it into the room on purpose.
They trucked it straight to a 24-hour laundromat, Dad saying there was no way he could walk his son shoeless past Mrs. Norris, that mouthy night clerk. On top of everything else, he’d said, and Dean didn’t know what the everything else was, but obviously Sammy couldn’t walk around barefoot. There was broken glass and ghost guts and stuff everywhere they went.
Three heavy duty cycles later, and one with bleach even though the high-tops started off red, and the EMF meter still taunted them like a mockingbird, shrill and unyielding. The town next door was big enough to have a Wal-Mart, luckily, so Dad dragged Sam in by the wrist, barefoot and shivering, and told him to put his foot on the cold metal scale. For as scrawny as he was, his feet were a youth-size Ginormous, and there was only one pair left that would fit.
Dad was in a rush to check out and get to Tennessee before some molting season started, so Dean didn’t blame him for not remembering, but the shoes were no good because Sam couldn’t tie laces yet.
And now, Dean’s arms were full of his and Sammy’s bags, propping the room door open with his whole body, but he dropped everything in a heap when Sam still didn’t budge.
“You better learn this quick, ‘cause slowpokes get left and gotta take the bus.”
Sam’s head snapped up, fingers tangled in the still-white laces, and his face a stiff mask of fear. Dean rolled his eyes, because little brothers were dumb sometimes.
“Jeez Sammy, I was just kidding. Look, I’ll show you.”
Sam’s fingers didn’t loosen, and as Dean got closer he could see what a mess he’d made, knotting the laces until they looked more liked crumpled silly string, permanently tangled and stuck together. Dean crouched beside him, like a runner on his mark, and pulled his own laces loose with one practiced tug.
“Okay, like this. No, you gotta let go and start fresh.” Dean reached over to pry loose all the knots Sam’d made with his thumb nails, huffing at Sam, and then started again. He walked him through the initial cross-over and loop, through the bunny ears and how to tighten them without undoing all that hard work. In the end, Dean had retied his shoe and Sam had made a crow’s nest of things.
Dean sighed. “Come on, aren’t you supposed to be good at this stuff? Presti-something or whatever.”
“Mrs. Norris says I’m pre-ko-shuss,” Sam suggested helpfully in that almost-baby voice he still had, and Dean just rolled his eyes again.
“Yeah, well, then she can teach you to tie your shoes. Okay, just gimme the other one, we gotta go.”
Sam yanked his books up out of his backpack, one at a time, only to slam them down in an ever-more precarious tower on the table. It was the only table they had – half for meals, half for Sam’s homework, and half for Dad’s research. At least, those were the claims laid. There were acres of land, whole countries, less coveted than the one table this Rusty Pines Motel two-queens room offered.
Dad’s papers fluttered with each loud thump of Sam’s textbooks, upsetting the order of things and unalphabetizing skinwalkers from strigas, until Dad smacked one open palm on top of Sam’s stack.
Sam continued his rote movements, grabbing yet another book from his bag – a paperback, this time, a play for his English class – and slammed it, too, on top of the pile, heedless of Dad’s hand.
Dad was quick, reflexes honed and sharp, but he was probably too busy standing his ground to move. And when the latest book came down on him, he reacted like any hunter in the world would. He pulled the stinging hand back and lashed out with the other, pushing Sam’s whole pile of textbooks away and off the side of the table, landing in a sharp, heavy pile on Sam’s bare feet.
From the bathroom doorway, Dean swallowed his breath.
Sam stood his ground, back tensed like an unsprung trap, and hands clenched. No way would he show weakness in front of their father, especially not now, but some of those textbooks were 300 pages a piece, with stiff cardboard covers and sharp, pointed corners.
Dad didn’t notice.
“I said target practice. Now.”
“I have homework!”
Dad shook out his hand, then reached for his leather jacket on the back of the chair. “It can wait. Training comes first.”
“It can’t wait,” Sam insisted, more childish petulance in his voice than Sam would want to admit. “I have a math set due tomorrow, and reading for three classes.”
“I don’t care,” Dad said, readjusting his coat over his shoulders, letting it billow around him before falling down, snug. “I don’t drag you from school to school just to impress more teachers. At home you train, like your brother.”
Sam glared back, teeth bared. “I don’t know why you drag me anywhere.”
But Dad’s attention had already shifted. “Dean.” He made eye contact straight away. “Ancient weapons, tonight. Ten reps of each, twenty with the halberd. Make sure he does them.” And then his hand was on the door.
“Dad,” Dean called out. “Where—”
Dad turned just his head, silhouetted in the doorway. “I have to see a man. You understand the priorities, Dean. Get your brother on board too.”
The click of the door was quieter than any Sam’s books had made, but just as startling. Sam didn’t move, just stared at the locked door like he could bar it from ever being opened again, and Dean could see his fingers start to twitch. This was how it always went, both Dad and Sam stood their ground until Dad went out and Sam crumbled, and Dean hung around to walk the line between sympathizer and enforcer. He’d bet the man Dad had to see owned a liquor license.
Dean was at Sam’s feet immediately, curling his fingers under the books to lift them directly, rather than risk more sharp corners sliding across Sam’s bare feet. When he looked up Sam’s eyes were wet and bright, and Dean was willing to pretend it was just from the pain.
“I hate him.”
“Hey, come on, Sammy,” Dean said quietly, rising to his feet. “No, you don’t.”
Sam dragged a whole forearm across his eyes. “I do. If I can’t do my homework here, maybe I should just stay at school. You guys can drive off without me.”
“Hey,” Dean said sharper, louder. “Quit it. ‘Sides, if you weren’t around, who’d steal all the hot water in the morning? You really wanna get back at Dad with hot showers?”
On cue, Sam snorted, his mouth only twitching, but his real concession was in the way he struck a leg out, knocking his boots out from under the table. They laced all the way up to mid-calf, unnecessary for training and absolutely a stalling tactic, but shoes were shoes and Dean wasn’t about to argue. At one point, getting Sam to even acknowledge his steel-toes had been a challenge – said all he needed was a black trenchcoat before he looked like the gun freak no one would talk to. That had been a bitch of a fight, lasting through six months and no less than four towns, but even then Dean had been smart enough not to say how stoked he’d been when Dad had bought him his own first pair.
But now, Sam slipped his foot into one – sockless, the dumbass – and then the other, obviously content to walk around with the tongues flapping like target practice didn’t take any balance. Rather than letting his brother fall flat on his face, though, Dean scooped up the end of one lace, using it to yank the boot up to his own bent knee.
He watched Sam teeter and windmill with satisfaction, but had the laces crossed through ten of the brackets before Sam couldn’t even think to complain. He would make a chore of this if Dean let him, taking his time to evenly space the laces and tie them off in an artistic little bow, when really he just couldn’t match Dean’s level of efficiency. His little brother – working overtime on honors classes, but still couldn’t get the damn bunny to stay through the rabbit hole.
Sam, conveniently, waited for Dean to tie off the first shoe, smooth and practiced, before yanking his foot away.
“I’m not four. I can do it myself.”
“Then do it. Let’s get this over with before Dad comes back, then he can’t say jack about you humping your books all night.”
“I do not—” Sam protested, until Dean grinned his filthiest leer, and Sam just rolled his eyes. “You know he’s not coming back tonight.”
“Yeah, well, still gotta get this done. He’s gonna ask me, when he is back.”
And that was probably enough to get Sam to agree. He could pull out his secret weapon, say please, but that only worked because he always saved it for last-ditch efforts, and the night wasn’t that far gone yet.
Sam was still looking severely put out, though, collecting his books to his chest like a shield.
“I have to do this first. Homework isn’t supposed to be voluntary, Dean.”
Dean ignored the dig. “Yeah, but you gotta get this stuff done too. Look, it’s all homework, right? Crap you gotta do when you go home. So why don’t you put twenty minutes in with the targets, and I’ll take care of the math set so we can both hit the hay on time.”
Sam rolled his eyes again. “It’s algebra.”
“So? I got the glock, you got the revolver, and we both need to go six rounds with a shifter. How much silver do we melt?”
Sam huffed, sheepish and maybe even slightly apologetic. “Fine.” It suited Dean, to see his brother appropriately cowed, ‘cause he wasn’t the only one who could get shit done around here. Dean just didn’t see the point in doing anything that wasn’t gonna be graded by Dad.
“Fine,” Dean said back. “Go set up the targets, I’ll pull the bags from the trunk.”
Sam’s shoulders slumped as he let his books tumble back onto the table, but he headed toward the door anyway. Dean knew he’d only agreed because Dad had put Dean’s ass on the line too, and if Sam had fought it too long they’d both have to withstand the consequences.
It was a smart move on Dad’s part, a calculated move. Except, someday Sam would figure out that angle too, and then they’d all be in for a world of hurt.
Dean sighed. Not like there wasn’t bitchwork he’d rather skip. And Dad, too – he hadn’t asked to spend half his life chasing down a demon. Or, Dean thought as he watched Sam do up the other boot, would he have chosen to keep two growing boys in tow as he did. But they called it homework for a reason; the shit you took with you no matter what.
The loft in the barn was high – damp, too, with hay long forgotten and rainwater trickling in through the moldy gable roof. It was more than high enough to evade the long stretch of any horse’s neck, Dean figured, and definitely enough to have him looking for a stepladder. On a jump, Sam could just barely graze the underside with the tip of his middle finger, but with an impromptu step made of Dean’s interlocked hands he managed to roll himself up.
Dean tracked the footsteps, keeping his brother in mind if not in sight as he listened to the wet creak of wood and hoped the footing would hold. They went soft, eventually, Sam hissing, “Dean, shh, it’s up here,” and then there was nothing.
Silence was the game and they were both expert players, well trained five times over under abandoned beds and the routine B&E, so a solid twenty minutes passed before Dean thought to worry. Another ten and he called for Sam, quietly at first but eventually loud, sharp, as much to reach Sam as to cover up the hollow sound of his own voice echoing back.
He’d crossed straight through panic into action and was hauling an overturned wheelbarrow under the railing when he finally heard a sound he hadn’t made.
But the figure that stepped from the shadows was much too short, too slender, and Dean had a moment of preparing for some sort of animal before it spoke in a high, frightened voice.
Dean primed his gun, salt at the ready, and the click of the barrel made the shape stop suddenly.
“Dad? Don’t shoot. It’s me, Sam.”
Sure enough, the trickle of recognition finally crept past Dean’s instinct to fight, to shoot, to run, and the familiarity slammed through him like another of the cold gusts sweeping through the barn.
It, the boy, was – was all eyes and hair, knobby shoulders swimming in a t-shirt that proudly displayed the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A shirt that Sam had hated, threw fits over and eventually ‘lost’ when they left a split-level in Tulsa, because as much as Dean had loved the red Ranger, Sam had always gone for Transformers instead.
“Sammy?” Dean asked, and then coughed to clear his throat of the voice that sounded nothing like himself, then or now.
“Is my Dad here?” Sam asked, sounding braver than he was – Sam at this age had been a wuss, scared of spiders and thunder and getting yelled at by teachers. Dean almost smiled at the thought.
“He sent me to get you,” Dean answered, easy as flashing a fake badge with a smile. “Come on out here, kiddo.”
Not that Sam would fall for that, at any age.
“Why’d he send you?”
“Dean’s in trouble at school again. Your dad had to talk to the teacher.”
“Aww, man,” Sam groaned, apparently buying that hook, line and sinker. “Not again. He’s gonna be so pissed.”
“Hey,” Dean said, waving Sam out into the empty expanse between stalls. “Your dad’s not so bad.”
“No,” Sam insisted, kicking at some invisible piece of rubble. “Dean. He pro’ly got in trouble looking for me. Are we gonna pick him up?”
“We’re pretty close to Bobby’s,” Dean said, stalling like a champ. “I thought we’d wait there for them.”
“Naw,” Sam rebutted. “We gotta find Dean.”
“It’ll be fine. I’ll give them a call, let them know where we are.”
“Can I talk to Dean? When you call?”
Dean hesitated, knowing that the easiest lies were half-truths but finding only halves and more halves of lies that he couldn’t piece together to make a whole.
“No, we should just go there. He’ll be waiting.” Sam shook his head, then, sharply, like he was ridding his ears of water. Then he was suddenly charging toward the thin sunlight cracking through the door, cares scuffed under his shoes like so much ancient horse manure.
Dean considered him carefully; gangly and just a little bit sullen, a Sam on a mission, unconcerned by his strange surroundings and the even stranger man coming to take him away. It was an uncomfortably familiar sensation, watching Sam charge away from him, leaving him free to follow or not and unperturbed by either. Dean had no idea how he could be so convinced – here, now, in the absolute absence of context – that his brother was waiting for him. But Sam tended to charge into everything – towards demons, or angels, or other unspeakables Dean couldn’t bring himself to confront Sam on these days.
Only, he supposed, this miniature Sam was currently charging towards his own brother, heedless of all else. A brother that was still prepubescent and probably was in trouble at school but apparently still Sam’s main focal point. Children were only aware of so much, Dean told himself, their worlds small and simple. And it had seemed so natural growing up, with a shared language of motel bathrooms and obscure landmarks that no one else could follow, in each other’s spaces like two shingles holding up one roof. But now it just seemed weird, off. A little unnatural, maybe. Dean got, suddenly, why the teachers had been so insistent they stay in their own classrooms, stick to their own lunch periods, no matter how much Dean argued and kicked and Sammy cried.
Suddenly greeted with silence again, Dean followed Sam out to the dirt parking lot. It took some blinking against the tepid sun, but he eventually found him shifting nervously in front of the abandoned cars. Sam eyed them cautiously, gaze flicking up to Dean on every third pass or so, and nose scrunched like everything on the broad street was decidedly fishy.
It took a minute for Dean to catch on to the incongruous nature of the neighborhood. The cars were too bubbly and bright, no matter that they weren’t new, and the cellphone tower was probably completely foreign to Sam. It was clear from the way he fidgeted that Sam couldn’t tell exactly what was off, and the sooner Dean figured out what to do with him the better. Bobby’s probably was the best bet, at least for now, if only Dean could get them there. He had a feeling Sam would be a fighter, though, if he figured it out along the way, and he could only hope Sam hadn’t grown into his habit of reading each and every street sign they passed. (Aloud, usually, like Dean couldn’t do it for himself. Or was too lazy to care.)
It occurred to Dean, now, that he probably couldn’t even risk saying he’d borrowed the Impala, and thank god he’d thought of that in time. As much as he hated the thought of leaving her behind it’d be safer just to hotwire a car, so long as he could find one without a talking GPS or Bluetooth.
“Alright, little man. Let’s get this show on the road.”
He studied Sam, again, for any false move, maybe a blink that looked a little too black, but there was nothing. The annoyed twist of his nose was perfect, his hair was the exact mix of finger-brushed and rat’s nest, and his jeans were too wide and just short of his socks, like Dean’s hand-me-downs had always been. Even his shoes –
Would the kid never learn? Definitely Sam, alright.
“Wait,” Dean called, careful not to put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Tie your shoes first.”
Sam paused, regarding his feet unhurriedly, and shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Dean leveled his best are you shitting me look – one Sam should recognize regardless of space and time. “Is not. We got that hill to climb before we hit the car. Put your foot out,” he ordered, dropping to his knee. “I don’t bite.”
Dean reached for the laces and ignored it when Sam still eyed him grudgingly, like Converse were some holy symbolic grail he’d dared to touch. His movements were rote, comfortable, and not at all disorienting like tying a tie for someone else could be. Then he settled back on his heels, palms braced against his thighs to push himself up, but stopped at the tug of leather around his neck.
Dean pressed his own hand to the necklace too, oddly shocked by the reminder that there was a time when his amulet didn’t mean anything to Sam, no matter that it had been staring him in the face for twenty minutes. The leather suddenly felt stiff, alien, with Sam pinching the charm between two fingers like it was weightless, like nothing more than a bug under a lamp.
Dean hadn’t truly panicked, not yet, but the sharp urge to get Sam all humpty-dumptied back together again came on in a hurry. Not just unrecognized – Dean was unremembered, a stranger in the face of his own history. This Sam had no monsters in his dreams and no scars on his body. The creatures they’d killed, the people they’d lost, even the Hell Dean had lived through – all blank in the face of a seven year old boy. It was like staring into the mirror of his life only to find it had no reflection.
“Nothing,” he said, tucking the amulet in his shirt. “Let’s go.”
Later, in a ’98 blue Civic with child locks, Sam stared out the window and bounced his heels restlessly off the underside of his seat. His laces flapped around, loose and free enough to wrap his ankles on the upswings. When Dean pointed it out – incredulously – Sam said, “Whatever. When we get there, Dean will tie them right.”
“Brains!” Sam called, and Dean rolled his eyes while he tilted the small chair in the kitchenette back on its hind two legs. Oblivious, Sam made a low gurgling noise in the back of his throat and wandered around the motel room with stiff legs and arms outstretched.
“Braaaaains,” he called again, warbling the word out across several seconds and frequencies.
“Dude, you’re getting zombies and mummies mixed up.”
Dean looked up from the article about the freak explosion down on 46th Street that had, unsurprisingly, got all the details wrong. Sam was inspecting his bandaged hands. He did look like a mummy, with graying gauze twisting its way down his forearms and around his hands. Sam’s burned fingers had each been individually wrapped, Dean had watched the nurses do it from behind a thick glass window, but several of them were broken too so they’d put in braces and balled his hands up with extra tape. Now his arms looked like white, cloth chicken legs.
By all rights Sam should be curled up in bed, bitching like usual about the pain, but the hospital had sent him home with little happy pills and Sam, for once, felt lighter than anyone.
They must have given him the good stuff too ‘cause Sam had been high as a kite all day. He’d eaten his cereal dry until Dean reminded him there was supposed to be milk and spent two hours in the shower with saran-wrapped hands because he was ‘trying to read the morse code tapped out on his back’. It wasn’t until half an hour ago, though, that he realized he looked like a mummy. Only, in his smashed-egg brain-on-drugs, mummies apparently crawled out of their graves and liked to eat teens in abandoned amusement parks.
To be fair, there was the hint of a few brain cells knocking together to make a spark when he suddenly switched over to moaning, “Egyptian braaaaaains.”
When Sam had finally zombie-walked his way over to Dean, he lifted one unsteady leg and dropped his foot on the chair, slamming it down onto all four wooden legs and nudging dangerously close to Dean’s most prized possessions.
“Hey,” he said, “careful with the goods.”
“I need your help, Dean,” Sam slurred, because the first thing to go had been his articulacy. Oh boy, had it.
Sam pulled on his saddest expression, twisted into a mockery of true grief by all the pain meds. “I can’t tie my shoes.”
Dean snorted, but looked down at Sam’s 18-holers. They were almost entirely unlaced and Dean had to concede the point. In fact, he wasn’t even sure how Sam got them on in the first place.
“Why don’t you just put on those weird-ass flip flop things you love so much.”
“It’s fifteen degrees outside!” Sam flailed his arms aimlessly, and the chair beneath Dean wobbled so much he was afraid Sam would tip them both over. The thought of bare toes in the snow seemed to stick in Sam’s mind so long that he shivered, and Dean had to snap a finger in front of his unfocused eyes to get his attention back.
“Okay, Sammy, fun time’s over. How ‘bout you lie down for a bit?”
“No. I need shoes. I’ll get frostbite, Dean.”
Dean regretted ever opening his mouth, but he didn’t forget to store this all away for future blackmail. The docs had said Sam’s hands would be fine in about six weeks, and after that anything was fair game.
Maybe he could tell Sam he actually did run around barefoot in the snow. Barefoot and naked. In front of the neighbors. The hot twin model neighbors, who laughed and gave Dean their number instead.
For now, though, Dean had to stop the flailing before he hurt someone. And since Sam had no functioning pain receptors at the moment, that someone was bound to be him.
Careful to steady Sam with a hand on his back, Dean eased himself to standing and steered Sam back to the beds.
“If you lay down,” he promised, “I’ll tie your shoes up.”
Satisfied, Sam flopped himself onto the closest bed, limp hair bouncing a couple times before his mouth gaped open in a yawn. “I would do it, Dean, but I can’t. I…” He held his hands up to show Dean, just like he’d been doing repeatedly for a day and a half. “Lookit.”
“I see them, Sam.” He pushed Sam’s arms back to the bed and propped the sole of Sam’s shoe against the edge of the mattress to start the tying process. “But there are some things you’re just going to have to live without.”
Sam’s whole face scrunched up. “Like what?”
“Well, dude, I don’t care how bad off you are, I’m not helping you jerk off.”
Sam’s mouth dropped open in horror and then pursed into a deep pout as he stared desolately downwards. He looked for all the world like he had lost his favorite toy but, then, Dean figured, he kind of had. He looked so miserable that for a moment Dean almost felt sorry for the poor guy, but that quickly gave way to laughing his ass off.
It had been eight months since Dean had dropped his brother here, and four more before that since he’d heard Sam’s voice. A year of empty, vague silence, filling up the spaces around footsteps and car horns like blood wells in an open wound. At the time, Dean’d sworn up and down, first with the filthiest words and then with the most tender, that he’d come back for Sam. He would, on his life. Bobby’d clamped a hand on his shoulder and told him there was only so much one man could do. Sam, for his part, didn’t say anything. Didn’t even look up when Dean turned his back to go.
Dean thought he had covered all his bases. He had Sam close, and safe, with the promise of a wall that would tie down all the loose ends the devil had sewn into his memories. But introspection is for the living, and Death’s domain only extends so far.
After that, no amount of questioning could garner a response. Dean poked and prodded, threatened and coddled, but there was nothing in the world that could put the shine of recognition back into Sam’s slow blinks. The white coats had called it PTSD, then Locked-In Syndrome, then a slew of acronyms plus a dissociative disorder, but in the end it all amounted to fuck all. Sam was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
Not on his own, anyway.
Dean hadn’t been back in, god, too long. He visited every day at first, then every week, or month, but he’d stowed and unstowed the winter tires since he’d been there last. He just hadn’t seen how staring into his brother’s slack face would do more good than hunting down leads. And even more than that, he was dreading the day Sam did actually look back, did recognize Dean as the brother who failed him, and made Dean account for all his faults.
At least his current routine was familiar. He’d lived it first with Dad, in the years after Mom burned, and then with Sam after Jessica. And now it was his turn; following flimsy advice and flimsier leads, driven to the point of mania, but he yelled to the sky that he’d get the son of a bitch that did this to his brother. A black-eyed Christian had led him to a demon wearing a slut in Miami who said she had the security clearance to know about these types of things, but he’d barely put the pedal to the metal when he got the call.
Sam was acting out, they said. Becoming a problem. They weren’t equipped. Dean wanted to take it as good news, as a sign that his brother was coming back, but in the darkness of the Nebraska night he knew that until Sam said a word he was just as lost as ever.
Dean drove through stop signs and railroad crossings, through sleepy towns and stark, empty plains until he got to the hospital parking lot, but he couldn’t make himself unlock the car door. He’d sped all the way there just to stall out at the gates, afraid of some new turn for the worse he hadn’t yet imagined. Something that would tell him he was too late. That he’d failed, once and for all, and that in the end, he’d sold his soul for nothing.
No, not nothing. Just not as much as he’d hoped.
The halls were quiet so early in the morning. Nurses behind half-windowed doors were stacking cups full of pills that Dean frowned at. He rapped on the glass, prepared to blame whatever outburst this was on their incompetence instead of Sam’s lapsed communication, but the nurse had simply jumped and said, “Oh good, you’re here.”
Sam was huddled into the corner of his room, back shoved up against the baseboards and arms locked around his knees. He was too meaty to fit into such a small place, Dean thought, but a more careful look showed him just how much weight his brother had actually dropped.
When Dean stepped forward the nurse put a tense hand on his arm. “Careful. We haven’t been able to get near him.”
After another few steps Sam’s arms flung outwards, reminding Dean just how broad his wingspan was when he had to side-step Sam’s clutching fingers. Without Sam’s knees in the way, Dean could see the stain of last night’s mush-dinner still on his powder blue smock.
“Sam? You remember me?”
Sam clasped his arms back around himself and shivered, and Dean took the opportunity to creep in closer.
“Come on, Sammy. It’s Dean, your big brother. Now, you’re scarin’ all the nice orderlies here, and I know I taught you to treat the ladies better than that.”
Sam flinched, tucking his head into his chest and staring down at his feet. The regulation shoes were white and generic, elastic but with a little adjustable tie to make up for the fact they didn’t have everyone’s size. Sam’s were, predictably, a mess, with the ketchup-sticky laces pulled out from the holes. Dean had no idea if somehow that was Sam’s answer, if Sam had even heard him at all, but the state of things was desperately obvious.
Not like he couldn’t have known, have seen this coming. How many times had he stared into a Samless void and realized that just wasn’t going to cut it? How often had they about-faced and marched to their own private hemispheres, only to flounder and tumble back to equilibrium? They were like two fucking magnets, sticking together because they were made that way, but overcome that initial frantic pull of each other’s orbit and suddenly they were just two lumps, as useful as rocks.
And still, somehow, Dean had thought this was a fight he would only have to pay for in blood. Not with time, or tears, or treading through the same mire Sam was trapped in, inch by inch. He’d thought he could take the North from Sam’s South and still expect him to be a force of will on his own, even with nothing to balance against.
Dean opted, suddenly, to skip on the blame game. He’d find out, later, if the hospital had done this, and he’d come back to torture, kill, or exorcise whoever was responsible. But before that, he had to look after Sammy himself.
It hurt to look, physically hurt, to see what his brother had become. To remember the way he used to roll his eyes at Dean’s jokes, or squint at the good ones. The way he used to leech up all the room and free air in the Impala, making any space he was in his own.
The withered man in front of him owned nothing.
“I’m checkin’ him out.”
“But, Mr. Remington—”
Dean flicked a deadly glare over his shoulder. This unnerved woman, little wisp of a thing, didn’t really deserve it. He didn’t care.
“I checked him in and I can check him out. I don’t care what you gotta do, but we’re leaving today.”
Turning his attention back to Sam, Dean reached out hesitantly. Sam shivered more the closer he got, so Dean veered his fingers down to the floor, twisting into the ragged laces there. He bent the fabric against the dried crunch of condiments, and set about perfunctorily tying them. He pulled the loops tight, double knotting them to make sure they wouldn’t magically come undone on the short trek to the car.
Dean had just started in on the second foot when he heard the nurse, blatantly ignoring his order by staying, swallow a gasp. Dean tensed immediately, preparing himself to handle whatever she considered ‘acting out’, but instead of a fist he caught Sam’s eye.
Wide and glossy, faded green windows to Sam’s shredded soul stared at him with more focus than Sam had given anything in over a year. His gaze flickered over Dean, confused and scared but so very aware, and Dean felt the urge to flood the space with excuses.
The nurse spoke up with, “He’s never—” but Dean talked right over her. He might only have one chance for Sam to hear him, and he wasn’t going to let it slip by like so many months had.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t, I didn’t know, and I couldn’t just – I don’t know what to do.”
Sam’s nostrils flared, his eyebrows low and chin quivering up, and Dean knew that face. He had seen Sam in pain too many times not to, but this time he didn’t know how to stop it, what he was supposed to do, and the impotence choked up in his throat like a sob.
Dean hooked a hand behind Sam’s neck and swore, “I tried, Sammy. I’m so sorry.”
Sam didn’t respond, just blinked rapidly until the intent in his eyes was gone and he slumped back against the wall.
Dean hoped it was enough, hoped that whatever universe Sam had locked himself into – landscape of memories or a hell of his own making – he had to hope his brother knew he was sorry. He craned his neck around to snap at the nurse again, but before he could open his mouth he felt a nudge against his knee.
Sam’s head lolled against the wall, staring past and away from Dean, but his foot was weakly pressed up against the denim of Dean’s jeans. Another moment went by and his foot nudged again.
Dean sniffed, clearing the stuffed up nose that made him sound water-logged because he wasn’t. That was Sam’s job, his little drama queen brother who got all emotional over which songs played on the radio, and he was gonna leave that honor wide open for whenever Sam felt like taking it back.
Instead he set to business, tying Sam’s other shoe just as tight as the first.
“I’m gonna be walking my brother through those big glass doors in an hour,” he said loudly. “Feel free to do whatever paperwork you want in the meantime.”
He assumed the nurse left, because she didn’t say anything else, and Dean set about cleaning his little brother off. Sam looked like he’d floated back to wherever he lived in his head, except the tips of fingers were playing with the criss-crossed laces of his shoes and Dean couldn’t be sure.
While he looked for clothes that actually belonged to his brother, Dean filled the silence with all the words they’d missed out on over the past year.
“I’m getting you out of here, ya hear? Probably go to Bobby’s, I don’t know, but we’re never coming back to this place. This was a mistake, I know.” He flicked through identical shirts in Sam’s makeshift closet, clacking the plastic hangers again and again. Yet another mistake to atone for. “I thought they’d look after you real good, but I was wrong. If they did something here, if they hurt you, you just gotta tell me. You hear me, Sammy?” he called out without turning to look. “You just say the word and I’ll burn this place to the ground.”
Dean expected Sam’s silence, but was still disappointed when it came.
“S’just you and me now, Sammy. Like it’s supposed to be and—god damnit, where are the clothes you came with?”
Dean started pulling off his own jacket, jimmying it between Sam and the wall and threading his arms through it so he didn’t look so Cuckoo’s Nest anymore. Sam was limp in his arms, unresisting, but when he finally got the jacket on Sam actually lifted a hand, suddenly interested in the buttons on the collar.
Dean wished he wouldn’t pick at them, one of the threads was loose and it’d probably fall off if Sam so much as breathed hard, but he quickly shut that thought down. Sam could yank them all off if it meant he was actually doing something.
When he was ready to go Dean pushed himself up to standing, and didn’t even bother holding a hand out for Sam. He just bent at the knees to hook his hands in Sam’s armpits, manhandling him up like he used to when Sam was a kid and too sleepy to walk to the motel room himself.
Sam was a hell of a lot bigger now, a lot more unwieldy when he wasn’t helping, and Dean had to brace himself with a step back when Sam flopped into him. His arms flung over Dean’s shoulders, a sick joke of a hug, and Dean pressed a hand to his chest to push him off until he felt the weak grasp of fingers in his shirt. Dean froze, all his attention focused to pinpoints on his back, and waited to see what Sam would do. When his other hand curled into Dean’s shirt too, holding on like he might slip, Dean realized it was exactly that: a hug.
Dean’s senses flooded, too hot where his brother leaned on him, too cold where he didn’t, and despite any of the nurse’s prior warnings about sudden movements he banded his arms around Sam’s back, squeezing too tightly.
Sam’s breath was hot against his skin, sticky and uncomfortable, but that was probably the only reason he felt the sharp inhale. Sam’s throat moved, working like he was trying to swallow, trying to wet a mouth that hadn’t spoken in lifetimes. Dean strained himself to listen so hard he was afraid he’d miss whatever Sam might do beneath the rush of blood in his own ears.
Just as Sam’s grip loosened, as Dean was readying to stand him back upright, he heard it. Weak, and raspy, but undeniably there.