Sam was already in motion in the second that Dean saw the glint of the switchblade. The nervous addict's shaky hand, Sam's long body like a coiled spring released from its pin. "No," Sam growled low and wild, shoving Dean roughly behind the shelter of his own body, placing himself in the arc of the blade's descent, reaching down to the holster concealed on his hip for his own hunting knife.
Sam scarcely made a sound when the guy's extended blade pierced through jacket and shirts, carving down into the soft flesh of his side. Dean, positioned behind his taller brother, could feel Sammy's body stiffen in shock, could almost feel the rush of air in the trail of the knife. "Shit! Sam, what the fuck-" Sam's hand convulsed around the blade of his knife - Christ, Dean realized, he was going to slash the guy down. He grabbed his brother's arm, halting the swing, and the weight of the knife hung heavy against his hand. "Sam, stop," he yelled, kind of freaked out by the blank slate of Sam's impassive face.
Not relaxing his hold on Sam - and fuck, Sam didn't show it, but when you touched him he was shaking like a goddamned leaf - he rounded on the poor sonuvabitch junkie who'd thought the two guys filling up their classic car late one Thursday night were a good mark. Dean snarled at him, really snarled, letting all his anger and anxiety bleed through. Bleed out. The junkie's eyes slid from the switchblade buried in Sam's gut to his stoic, expressionless face, and then to the feral gleam in Dean's eyes and the animal curl of Dean's lips. "Shit," he stammered, high and thready, and bolted, running for his life.
"You'd better run, you bastard," Dean shouted after the sound of his retreating footsteps, and then stopped thinking about him completely.
Sam was still trembling, breathing hard and fast, and his face was dead pale. But he still hadn't said a word, hadn't made so much as a sound. Dean could see the skin around his mouth, the white bloodless flesh Sam was clenching down so hard on. A thin line of blood ran down from his lower lip, as if he had bitten back his cries hard enough to pierce through his own skin. Not even a whimper. And when Sam reached down to pull the guy's knife out of his own goddamn body, reached for it like he didn't even really see it, Dean thought he might just die on the spot.
"Hey, Sam," he said, "hey, you're okay. Well, not so much right at this exact moment, but it's not bad, we'll get you patched up, here." He reached for the knife himself, batting Sam's hand away. He gently pulled it free, tossing it to the ground and pressing down on the wound to stanch the blood that welled up from his brother's torso after he'd removed the weapon.
He grabbed Sam' shoulders, trying to guide him back to the relative safety of the Impala, but Sam might have been made of stone for all the good it did. He was just standing there, pale and still and silent. Dean felt like maybe someone was pouring ice down his back, because this simply wasn't like Sam. Sam was vocal, Sam was emotional, Sammy was a little bitch most of the time, and Dean had no idea what to do with the stranger standing there bleeding all over his little brother's body. He let his hand curl into the soft hair at the nape of Sam's neck, resting protectively against his tense shoulders. "Sammy," he said softer, almost begging.
And this time he somehow got through. Sam's blank green eyes blinked once, twice, and focused on Dean's face more clearly than they had before. Sam's brow furrowed into pain and confusion, and he swayed on his feet. "Dean?"
"Jesus, Sammy, are you okay?"
"I … Dean, what's going on?" Sam's voice was whispery, and it broke for a second on Dean's name.
Still keeping a hand on Sam's shoulder, Dean turned him bodily back toward the Impala, almost dragging his down into the passenger seat. Shit, he always seemed to forget how ridiculously long Sam's body was; Dean could still feel his brother trembling as he lowered him in, and Sam couldn't seem to manage his feet quite right. "You ran into a switchblade, bro," Dean told him. Trying to keep it light, make it safe. "I don't have the slightest idea what you were doing, and we're going to talk about that at some point, but right now it's okay. I'm gonna get you back to the motel and then we can fix you up. Get you some painkillers, maybe - that wound can't feel good."
Sam blinked at him again, and Dean didn't know what was going on with him, but he was dead sure he wanted it to stop. "Dean?" Sam said again, and god he sounded lost. High and childish, like the round-faced boy he'd been. "Dean, 're you all right? J'you get hurt?"
Dean's gut clenched at that tone. It was like a memory made corporeal, sitting in the back seat while Dad drove them to safety, holding little Sam's hand when he was hurt, whispering reassurances and dirty jokes quietly enough that Dad wouldn't hear. "No, Sammy, I'm good. Just want to get you put back together."
Sam sounded almost surprised as he said, "It hurts."
Dean snorted. "No shit, Sherlock. I've got some good stuff in the kit, though, and we'll get you dosed up in no time."
Sam smiled softly, leaning back against the cool glass of the window. "Missed you," he said, and Dean had no idea what the hell was happening, anymore.
It was a clean enough wound - didn't take much, holy water and peroxide and a few stitches and some clean white gauze. Dean took the bloodstained towels into the bathroom, dumping them in the tub to soak, and then washed his hands. When he came out again Sam was lying still on one of the beds, still pale but relaxed now. The harsh lines and angles were gone from his face, and his eyes were closed.
Dean sat down on the bed beside him, laying a hand on the small of his back. Instantly, Sam rolled over and looked up at him, smiling - though he maybe looked like he was going to start crying, too. "How're you feeling?" Dean asked him.
"I'm okay," Sam said. "Tired." He leaned into the pressure of Dean's hand, subtly arching his back into the touch.
He was freaking Dean out. One minute his baby brother was a killing machine, pulling knives out of himself without blinking, silent and stoic in a way that Sammy never had been before - and then the next he was oddly, pathetically happy. At that moment, Sam had his eyes closed, looking completely and utterly content just to lie there curled up around Dean's body. It was freakish, and it wasn't like Sam, and it sure as hell wasn't anything that the impassive knife fighter Sam'd been back at the gas station would have done. "Sam," Dean said, loath to break the peace of the moment, the happiness in Sam's quiet features, but not knowing what else to do. "What the hell is going on with you?"
The smile vanished from Sam's face; Dean felt it like a blow. "Nothing," he said, closing down, pulling in on himself. No, no, no, Dean cursed under his breath, this couldn't happen, he had to figure this out. Couldn't go back to keeping secrets, not now, not again.
"Hey," Dean said, letting steel creep into his voice. "Sam, I know that there's something going on in that freaky head of yours. You stepped in front of that guy's knife like you were made out of steel or something, and I swear to god you were just gonna kill him where he stood. You didn't even try to talk him down, for Christ's sake! That's not like you, and what's more it's stupid fighting. You got yourself stabbed in a situation that we could have got out of without any casualties whatsoever. So you will give me an explanation."
Sam looked up at him, pleading. "Dean, I … he was …."
Dean cut him off. "No, Sam," he said, dropping his voice back to "big brother," heading away from "field commander." "There's something going on with you. I know it; you know it. Now you just have to tell me. Does this have something to do with what happened in Broward County?"
Sam nodded mutely. After a long space in which silence spiraled between them like some sort of goddamn whirlpool, a small hurt noise escaped Sam. "You died there," he mumbled. "You died."
"Yeah, okay, but you woke up after, right? And we got to the Trickster, and now we're out of the time loop. I'm fine, Sammy."
But Sam's eyes were downcast, and a line of tension arced along his backbone, pulling his shoulders down and in, away from Dean. He curled into himself on the bloodstained mattress, and Dean didn't know what he was supposed to do. "Sam," he said again, "I'm okay. I'm not dead."
When Sam rolled over his face was ghastly pale, all the color drained away from his features. Dean could see lines of stress and sorrow at his mouth and in the smooth expanse of his forehead, and the skin under his eyes was dark and bruised with weariness. Shit, he hadn't looked this bad right after getting stabbed. "No, Dean," Sam said, and his voice sounded like a decision. "You were dead."
"But I -"
"No." That word was like a knot of grief, heavy and resonant and inescapable. Sam shut his eyes, covered his face with his hands.
Dean felt cold. "Sam," he said, "you tell me what happened."
Sam might have sobbed; Dean couldn't tell through the auditory distortion of his covering hands. "I got the Trickster to end the time loop," he said, muffled but at the same time terribly clear, "and he did, and then on Wednesday you died again, only I'd ended the time loop."
Dean was completely silent for nearly five seconds, letting it sink in. "So I stayed dead," he said at last.
Sam nodded miserably. Said nothing. Might have sobbed again, Dean wasn't sure.
"How long?" he asked shakily. "How long was I dead for, Sammy?"
Sam dropped his hands; his eyes were red-rimmed, but there were no tears on his face. "Four months and sixteen days," he said, like he was announcing the end of the world.
Dean kind of thought it was. "I …what? Four months? I was dead for four months. And you …"
Sam was still looking at him, but Dean got the feeling his baby brother wasn't really seeing him. "I took you back to Kansas, to Mom, and just … hunted every thing I could find, I guess. And tried to find the Trickster."
"Let me get this straight," Dean said. "You hunted for over four months alone? Shit, Sammy, do you have any idea how dangerous -"
"Yeah," Sam interrupted. "I do. But, Dean," and his voice broke again, "you were dead, and it didn't -"
He'd been dead for four months. Sam had been alone for four months. God, no wonder the kid was wigging out. Grabbing him under his arms, Dean pulled his brother up into an embrace. He couldn't look at Sam's white face another minute more, and so he buried his face in his brother's hair, inhaling the sweet, mixed scent of shampoo and antiseptic and Sam. Sam heaved another sob against him - and that was another thing, Sam didn't cry in front of him much anymore, just got tight-lipped and bright-eyed and maybe if he absolutely couldn't help himself left the room - and then went limp, clinging on to Dean in a way that he hadn't done since he was, shit, ten or so.
"Okay," he said. "Okay. Sammy, I've got you. I'm here, Sammy."
When Sam spoke, he felt as much as heard the words, the vibrations of Sam's breath running along his collarbone. "I can't let you die again," Sam whispered. "Dean. I can't. Can't do this without you, missed you so much, Dean."
Sam said his name like it was the answer to all his dreams, like it was some sort of holy talisman or precious jewel or a gun that could kill anyone and protect anything. Jesus, he'd stepped in front of that switchblade knife deliberately, willing to die on the off chance that Dean might be in danger. And he'd handled the pain like a man who knew that no help would be coming. Dean felt sick at the realization: Sam had forgotten that there was any help left to come. He'd forgotten that he wasn't completely and utterly alone. God, what must he have done when he was hunting, with no one? Had he been hurt? Put his own skin back together, the way Dad used to before Dean was old enough to really help him? God. God.
Dean pulled his brother closer, holding on to him like the strength of his grip could make a difference somehow. "Yeah," he answered, gazing into the middle distance beyond Sam and remembering what his own familiar face had looked like with black, formless eyes. "Yeah, Sammy, I know."