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The world is spinning faster than he wants it to. Or maybe he's just getting too slow for it. Either way, some guy starts talking sacrifice and self-preservation, offer up the girl with the bum ankle and save ourselves! or something like that, and Dean flashes back to a dozen different, similar situations and starts barking orders. The orders are in a language he's not sure if he can speak, because what comes out of his mouth tracks faster than his mind can keep up with, but no one's staring so it must have been English. Must have been. Of course, Dean also gets the impression that no one's really convinced.

There was that time once, when Sam had been not-infected-after-all with the Croatoan virus. And Dean had shouted then, and taken control, and he had made himself clear. And the world had fallen silent on his behalf. The memory floats above him like a plastic tarp over a swimming pool, nauseating and heavy and full of the taste of chlorine, and for an instant Dean is glad, Dean is desperately glad, that Sam's not here right now to see this.

Because Dean's not in control, not even close; it's like he lost that leadership, that mastery, somewhere along the road. But he looks over at regretful Suzy, and tries not to regret too much. He bobs in the suction of memory and refuses to circle the drain. Just before he pulls it together and remembers to act like a normal fucker and concentrate on their imminent deaths and not all the times he's died already, he wonders if it was worth it. All of it, he guesses, is what he's wondering about. But mostly Suzy, the maracas. Whatever was most recent and least important--that's what he was gonna focus on. That's all he needs to focus on. He'd thought she was gonna be his way out. His way back.

She hadn't been. His way 'back,' that is. But yeah, she'd been worth it. Suzy didn't seem to think so, but he'd pick up for the both of them. He could do that work, force things into place until the world ran great. Because it sort of had to; otherwise, Dean had nothing. It had to be worth it.

 

--

 

Sam's suspicious, but in wrong ways. He's off, Sam says. He is--Dean is. Apparently Dean's the off one. But it hadn't just been Sam; Ezekiel's on that train, too. Fifteen, sixteen hours ago he'd risen up like some kind of sea monster in Sam's big, stormy head, ice blue and as even-toned as dead ocean, windless and unmoving.

"Not much progress," Dean said, guarded and trying not to sound guarded. He'd failed.

He'd imagined great sails, ragged angel wings pierced with holes beached and tideless in Middle of Nowhere, Sam, when Zeke said this thing and made his promises and worked whatever wordy magic he'd been spouting this whole time.

"You need to act more like yourself," said Zeke. Dean didn't need to be himself, or even know what that meant; he just needed to act like it.

But Sam was the one in Our Town, not him. Dean's not even sure where to start anymore; and he's tried. He eats, he mostly sleeps, he drinks but not too much, he remembers to reference things he used to love and sometimes, even, there is music. What the hell is he supposed to do? Hit the books and study for the part?

"What's going on with you?" Sam asks, because Dean, again, is tripping over himself trying to make sense. He doesn't even know what he's saying anymore, something borderline aphasic and completely unhinged. Words he'd meant for someone who wasn't even supposed to exist. Someone not Sam.

"I feel like, I dunno," says Sam. "I feel like you're."

And why the fuck didn't Zeke just help him? Pave over the gaps, make Sam safe, or at least feel like it. Why the fuck wasn't he helping at all?

But Dean probably doesn't want to know the answer to that. Part of him, he's sure, knows it already.

Dean takes a deep breath of saltwater and tells Sam something ridiculous.

"Branston," Dean explains, when Sam stops looking worried and morphs instead into scandalized. "Set him up in the motel room, picked up the damn falafel. I come back and he kid's got a baby prostitute in the bathroom."

"But what does that have to do with you? How--"

It had to do with Dean because the prostitute was also a witch, a witch Kevin found on Craigslist--like mother, like son. And Dean couldn't just let that happen. But mostly what he'd done was think, that's not a prostitute, that's a fucking child.

And that probably meant that he was getting too old for this kind of shit, but things sort of spun out after that and Dean had nearly kissed a tzatziki-scented Prophet of the Lord. Or had, who knew.

The whole thing was airtight, because neither he nor Kevin could remember what had really gone down. The story became the story. What happened in Branston stayed in Branston, at the bottom of too many tinted bottles and a pathologically selective memory Dean's been honing for years. Dean's supposed to forgive, after all. He's supposed to forgive and forget. He's supposed to forget. That and he'd bedded a fucking porno dream girl, like, hours ago. That's gotta count for something.

Dean looks to Sam defiantly, daring him to question that kind of crazy, to berate it, be disgusted by it, whatever. But Sam just looks concerned.

"Dean," he says.

 

--

 

Dean swims. He lies on one of their couches (and the fuck, even--one of their how many? how did that even happen) and swims. Sam flounders.

Sam's party line this week has something to do with acceptance and things being exactly what they are and taking them up that way, and Dean's honestly not sure how much more of that he can stand. He's watched Sam dial back, start making adjustments to his schedule, and the way he lives. Pick up new little tics and basically start making room for the reality of his condition, whatever it was. He's started acting like a sick person, preparing for the worst. Sam doesn't need to sleep at nine or wake at six, he doesn't need to time his meals, or take stock of himself the way he is--not even close. But Sam's preparing. He's preparing for something he isn't yet, and something Dean still won't accept Sam will ever be.

Fuck you, Zeke, he thinks, and hopes he angel can hear exactly what he thinks. It's the one thing he's still sure about.

"I'm just saying," Sam says, and he's saying something he'd already told Dean years ago. Something it had taken him nearly seven years to say the first time. It just comes out now, like he's not concerned with the aesthetic of it, or making sure Dean hears him--really hears him. Like he's not concerned about what Dean will do with this information, or what it will change. Change happened, rock bottom had been located, whatever equilibrium that had existed between them was long shattered. Sam just says it.

You wanted to die, didn't you. That year with Cas and Bobby and all of the, all of the drinking. And yeah, sure. Dean supposes. It's hard to remember exactly what he'd been thinking back then, or at any other of the various points he'd managed to survive. It was all just kind of there, a slush he'd choked on, waded through, wrung from his shirt and slapped from his jeans. There were hard, crystallized moments in there somewhere, probably, but Dean's lying on the couch right now, and he wants a drink, and he wants to fall asleep to Game of Thrones, and he wants to wake up on a shore somewhere.

He's tired of talking and he's tired of not talking and he can't keep piecing these things together anymore. He just can't.

 

--

 

There'd been one day, early on. Sam had wanted to go in for a headscan or something. The blackouts, maybe concussions--he was starting to worry, and he wanted to get checked out. Dean had said no, because he'd seen those pictures, they'd been seared into him, and he knew Sam couldn't, not yet. (At the back of his mind, he already knew: Sam could never.)

"If there's something wrong, man, it's not like getting checked out's gonna be the thing that caused it. If there's something wrong, I'd want to know."

"Of course you would," Dean said, because of course Sam would. But then nothing had really happened, there'd been no scans, and Sam never brought it up again. They got distracted finding Cas, and Oz, and stuff.

And stuff:

"We don't have to do this," says Sam, even though he knows they do. He has to.

"Why not?" Dean asks. He licks his lips and steadies his breath and tries to keep his head in the game, because Sam's been doing altogether too much talking. This is supposed to be Dean's turf.

"Because it's torture, for one."

Yeah, they should be above this. But they're not, and this is a skill Dean happens to have. He thinks. Sam's been doing too much of the talking, too much of everything. Dean's been wandering.

Clarence and It's a Wonderful Life. He'd seen that. At some point.

"Dean," Sam says, and the way Sam says it, it's like Dean's name is the worst thing you could possibly say to a person.

But Dean shakes off a wave of opaque nothing and wipes the sweat from his cheeks and adjusts his grip on the knife, and he finishes the job. When Dean lunges forward with the knife, finding Cas and ending anyone who'd stop him, he feels Sam jerk forward after him, as if to stop him.

But Sam doesn't, and then it's done. And Dean walks out, thinking about the dew point in Purgatory as memory sluices from him, regurgitated sounds and flashpoints sticking to his hands like pine sap and algae and blood.

There are things they've done that none but them will ever dream. There are things they know that none could ever understand.

That's the day Sam stops talking about doctors and becomes his own.

 

--

 

Sam is awkward around Kevin now, and it's made Kevin careful around Dean. Not that they see each other much; but the whole thing is built around some shit that probably never went down in Missouri, and Dean's not sure if that's pathetic or prophetic.

"Nothing's wrong with you," Dean assures Sam, when nine o'clock rolls around and Sam is determined to sleep, and then wake, and eat on certain hours. To have a sick man's routine. Dean's is a very determined blindness, but he needs to be determined about something, and there's only so many low-hanging options.

Sam just tells Dean the thing he's been telling Dean for years, though no longer in so many words. It's more of a look, really. A certain hopelessness Dean's been challenged to interpret, like Sam is a cluster of stars meant to guide him home. "Look," Sam says. "I'm not saying you have to listen--"

And Dean doesn't.

 

--

 

Dean finds a new room in the bunker one night. Sam's gone missing, or isn't in his room, isn't adhering to his stupid schedule, and Dean goes looking. He doesn't panic. He's determined not to assume the worst. Either that or he's so unsurprised by the worst that he can't bring himself to act otherwise.

In any case, he wanders after Sam, and finds an empty pool. Dean squints. The tiles are green and teal, small like the kind you used for old-ass bathroom sinks and stuff. They look like they're arranged to be craters at ground zero before Dean realizes the design is supposed to recall flowers.

Dean fills the pool. It's not large, and not deep, but it must take hours. Eventually the water spills over and pools around his boots. He stands his ground, imagining the dry spots beneath him, and remembers a time, once, when Sam had saved a little girl from a pool like this, but bigger.

'But bigger' sticks with him.

When Dean moves away from the edge of the pool, he finds there were no dry spots underneath him after all. The water had seeped through his cracks, and he'd saved nothing.

He leaves without turning back the faucet, and it must be days later before Crowley starts complaining of the leak, dripping down into the basement. Sam thinks nothing of it, employs a deadpan zinger about Chinese water torture, and that is that.

Dean doesn't think he'll ever be able to find his way back to that room again.

 

--

 

"Dean, I need to know where you're at right now," Sam says. He'd tracked the leak, found the pool. Fixed everything. Dean got caught in a whirling memory of tile puddles and the rush of water as it purged itself from the faucet.

"Dean."

"Not Missouri," Dean answers, finally. Which doesn't nonpluss Sam--because really, what does anymore--but also doesn't answer much. It's then Dean realizes he's the only one fucking obsessing about that, the only one who even remembers. And it hadn't thrown Sam off the trail at all. He has bigger things to worry about.

"You're not yourself." Dean is not himself, says Sam. Says Sam.

"I like this robe."

"I know you like the robe. That's not at issue here." Dean's been unpredictable, incoherent. Emotionally unavailable. He's been everywhere and nowhere.

That's not how Dean sees it. "Look, we're doing our thing, Cas is doing his thing, Kevin's safe, Charlie's in Oz; I answer my phone, I make food, we drive around, we hunt things, we make sure the world isn't gonna tip over the waterfall, we make it through the day. There's sex. There's good times. What the hell else do you want from me?"

Sam wants him to be a person. Like, an actual, living, thinking person--Sam's words. Sam wants Dean to be a person he can trust.

"Why can't I be trusted?" Dean wants to look Sam in the eyes, prove Sam otherwise, but he can't bring himself to memorize the waxiness of Sam's skin, the hollow smudges under his eyes. His new lines and creases. The dullness to his hair, his lips.

The smug victory, Dean is sure, of the frosty, alien glow inside him somewhere.

Dean's eyesight's gotten worse over the years, though he'll never admit it; but it's to the point now where they'll miss roadsigns because Dean doesn't see them coming soon enough. It's to the point, now, where killing things is that much easier, because Dean is almost never close enough to notice details, jitters, expressions; to watch them die in ways more personal than a vague blur, many yards off, faceless. But it doesn't spare him from Sam.

"I'm losing you," Sam says, when he realizes Dean can't even look at him. Sam is losing him, and it doesn't have to do with demons, or angels, or Hell, or Purgatory, or Heaven, or monsters, or hunting, or any of that (except obviously it does, Dean thinks, because what are they otherwise, if not the footprints and scuff marks of all of that shit?). Sam is losing Dean Winchester, his brother, to a storm drain nest of whatever's left over.

Dean wonders if Sam would think differently if he knew there was an angel beating the bounds inside of him. Would he be busy feeling certain that they had "normal people problems" right now?

Sam repeats his mantra. Unpredictable, incoherent, unavailable. "And that's not you, Dean," Sam says. "I know it's not."

"It's me," Dean insists. It's truer than Sam knows, and a lot truer than Dean feels. He feels piecemeal. And apparently he acts like it. Dean resolves to read the books.

Then Sam grasps Dean's wrist and puts them concretely in a room together, concretely in the bunker, in a way that calls Dean back. Nah, he'd tried to read the books. He couldn't follow the story, and gave up.

"Dean." And there's that tone again. Like it's the worst thing Sam has ever had to say.

 

--

 

A long time ago, Dean dove into a lake. And Sam dove into a lake. There was a child to be saved, a child that got saved, a ghost that floated away. And then a grateful mom made them a platter of sandwiches. But mostly what Dean remembers is at the end of it all, Sam had looked at Dean with a shade more understanding. And it had been uncomfortable.

It had made him feel naked, maybe, but that wasn't it. It made, he knew, Dean more real to Sam. And that had made Dean realize there was a time where Dean had not been real to Sam. That that time was longer, and closer, than any other time Sam knew.

"Dean," Sam said, later that night, so many years ago. "I mean. I just."

Sam just.

 

--

 

Sam likes the pool he found, he tells Dean. Low impact exercise, or something.

"Don't drown," says Dean, and Sam looks at him funny.

"It's barely five feet deep."

But Dean just hears the waves building behind him. He doesn't need to look back to know how deep they'll bury him.

 

Him and Sam both.