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You have to tell someone how bad it really is. - SPN 7x07

 

Sam's laughing.

He's laughing at something Dean said, which never happens. (Dean's already forgotten what it was; like everything else, the best jokes have no lifespan.)

Then Dean hits a snag and spills over the underbrush, zero elevation, velocity at a stand-still, and ends up elbow-deep in puddle and decomp and pinecones and shit. Sam laughs harder. Dean would have told him to keep laughing, dick, and he would have meant it, but then he's in pain.

His shoulders cave, and he makes fists of the foliage, feels cool mud sludge between his fingers like an animal, and he's in pain.

Sam speeds ahead. Guy acts like running is actually something he enjoys, Dean thinks; it's a thwarted attempt to drive his focus elsewhere. But as far as Dean's nerve endings are concerned, Sam's hobbies are not important.

Dean stays down.

It's a dizzying, Dean-doesn't-even-know-what kind of pain, to the point that for a moment he's not even sure it's real. In that moment, he's up (there is only one rule to fleeing a crime scene: keep fucking running), and almost immediately, down again.

His right leg--christ no, not again--splinters under him. Black fuzz overtakes his vision at the peripheries, but thwarted arson is a good reason to keep fucking running, so Dean does. If you play ping pong with enough trees, you can hobble your way out of the woods pretty damn fast.

By the time Sam catches him by the shoulder and--because it needs to be qualified--very literally keeps him from diving off a cliff, Dean's body's been shooting so much adrenaline through him he doesn't feel anything at all. Dean holds tight to the memory of Sam's laughter. Sam holds tight.

When Sam finally releases his shoulder, Dean thwacks at Sam's elbow. Brief contact--thank you.

"Dude, you smell like deer shit," Sam says.

Dean holds tight to the sound of his laughter.

"You smell like sex."

He's being generous. For Dean, the number of times sex has smelled like sweaty lumberjack dude has been blessedly small. But their sudden immobility feels like going 90 to zero, chemical whiplash. His body's already shaking the high, waking up to shit gone wrong, and it's occurred to Dean to wonder how the hell he's gonna get down this cliff without regretting all of his life choices. Trying for a better look, he shifts his weight onto the wrong leg, nearly goes over the edge the fast way.

"The same way we got up, I guess," Sam answers, whatever Dean asked. "Or jump."

Twelve feet onto gravel.

Sam: "Not bad."

"For some people."

Sam raises his eyebrows. He appraises Dean in a single glance. Whatever he sees, the next five minutes is the closest Sam's ever gotten to straight-up carrying Dean in a long, long time. He doesn't even ask, doesn't pester, just does. He drops halfway down the cliff and calls upward, there's a good foothold you can use here. Dean slides down, leading with his right. With his left he makes a minor landslide, pebbles and clods of mud that probably topple right into Sam's face. He feels a steadying hand at his hip.

As far as Dean's concerned, this year, Sam is a flickering presence he has to remember not to fully trust (and always has been, Dean's this close to admitting, Sam always has been), but right now, Sam is here. He's here, and Dean holds to that.

Sam says, "I'm gonna try to--" and then he says, "Shit--"

Dean throws an arm out, but there's nothing to rescue. Sam is fine.

"Don't step there," Sam says, though the advice isn't specific enough to be helpful. "Hang on, I'm gonna--"

The gist of Sam's plan is, Dean climbs down him. It must look like a complete riot, because it definitely feels like one, but it's so easy, Dean remembers to miss how easy things used to be between them; he misses it with an intensity he's not sure he actually remembers how to feel.

He misses it.

Then they hit ground. Dean leans on Sam longer than he needs to. He's fine, it's not that he can't stand, but something is, something feels, off, like he can't track, like his thoughts aren't tracking and maybe it's the pain, but it's not, that's not. "Sammy--" he says, and in the night air it sounds exactly like it did in his head, thank god. "Sammy, I--" The ground swims before him. His thoughts race, and something just feels weird.

Then something's different.

"Sam?"

"Nothing."

Dean looks up from the gravel.

Sam purses his lips at the cliffside and shakes his head 'no' at it.

It's dark, but the moon is bright, and if Sam thinks Dean didn't see that, he's an idiot. With his heart in his throat and his stomach in his head (watery and top-heavy) Dean steps out of the drainage ditch and limps across the road under his own steam. Car's parked in a turnout somewhere over there, and he'll find it. Under his own steam. He'll find it. He forgets memory and holds to putting one foot in front of the other.

The only memory that matters: He and Sam are a complete fucking disaster.

He doesn't know why that's so easy to forget.

Dean can feel that distance press between them when Sam doesn't follow, instead does whatever it is he does--keep Lucifer at bay, play house with him, whatever. He feels the cold at his back. He feels his stomach leak out of his head and down his neck, but that's just sweat. It's just sweat.

By the time Dean finds the car--their flight pattern hadn't been the most direct--Sam actually has to jog to catch up with him. And needless to say, Dean ain't exactly rushing.

Sam seems fine.

Dean feels vacated.

The last six hours: Angry naturalists, traumatized schoolchildren, thwarted arson, jokes at Sam's expense, Sam's touch, and Sam's trust. It's slipped away somewhere. Things do that, Dean's noticed--slip away. Just like that, gone. That breathless, no frills kind of zany they used to be, gone. Now it's Leviathans, Leviathans, crazy Cas, crazy Sam, more Leviathans, federal prison, the FBI's most wanted and also, crazy Sam. Just to be clear. That's the sum of his life and Dean hates all of it.

Sam asks Dean if he's okay.

"Slipped," Dean says. But Sam's not asking about the leg.

"I slipped," Dean repeats, because it doesn't matter. That's life, and newsflash--no one cares if you don't like it.

But this train of thought is a way of coming home Dean promised he'd never revisit. He promised.

One night, Sam went off to be the Devil, and Dean promised.

But he's standing here thinking he should win a gold medal for standing, it's that fucking hard; and he's unlocking an '84 Subaru (baby blue), not the Impala; and Sam is-- Well, Sam isn't, actually. So what are promises for if not for breaking, anyway.

As Dean leans across to flip the lock on Sam's door, he just lets it go. He lets the whole day sink into what tomorrow will only be last night's lost cause.

Dean calms the fuck down.

He settles into the driver's seat and straightens his leg, with a series of shallow breaths that sound like they've tripped down a flight of stairs. Sharp cut, then a release as everything simmers into generalized misery. A sigh of relief.

He sits.

And Sam sits.

And because he hasn't said anything, and Sam hasn't said anything, Sam issues his seasonal fuck you to comedic timing and says, "Hey, if, you know, if you want some private time--" And the insinuation lingers, half-formed, mostly incoherent, not quite suggestive enough, not really worth it.

Dean's not sure if Sam's worse at cracking jokes, or he's just worse at taking them, but it's not even sort of funny. It's all in the delivery, and Sam sounds like he's either gonna kill someone or cry. Neither is punchline material. But if Dean had to choose, he hopes Sam's got his gun on him.

Dean samples the gas with his left and they shoot forward a foot, nearly off the cliff; they rock in their seats before he tries again, more controlled. If the trip home is jagged and whiplashed with inexperience and distraction, Sam says nothing. Maybe he's distracted, too.

It's gone, it's all gone, and Dean lets it go. Dean drives.

 

 

Sam hisses as he pulls off his shirts, shakes his hand out.

"You okay?" Dean asks, as he all but hurls himself at the ground. He lands in a puff of dust as his sleeping bag exhales beneath him. It's only blindingly painful for an instant; then his leg settles into the dull, vindictive ache typical of Dean's relationship with most of his body parts, and most of his friends. And his family (singular). But at least everything's in the right place again. Pull it together, Winchester.

"Think I ripped off a finger nail back there," says Sam, fumbling through his duffel.

Dean tries to rub the graininess from his eyes and resists the urge to sneeze. He wonders if Sam's fumbling one-handed, and if he's got that nail-less finger jammed into the scar on his palm.

He sneezes.

A puff of dust.

"Are you all right?" Sam asks, with a strange lilt to his voice: wait, are you all right? he says, as though he's just realized this is the dumbest fucking conversation they've ever had, a conversation only once removed from a discussion of Sam's nail beds. Or beds of nails, or you know. Something.

Dean just wishes he'd stop asking that, even though he knows Sam won't, not if Dean doesn't.

But maybe part of him is afraid Sam will.

One day, Sam will stop asking.

"Dean," Sam says, in lieu of repeating himself too many times in one night.

Dean spares Sam a witticism and fails to answer. Gotta break the cycle somehow.

He's thinking about how hard it's going to be to fall asleep on the ground like this when he wakes up to the smell of breakfast.

And maybe everything's going to be okay.

Square one, breakfast. Make that your square one, Winchester.

But by the time he opens his eyes, scratchy and raw-feeling, the smell's beat a retreat back into memory, and Dean is alone with his dust.

It's okay, he wasn't craving bacon anyway.

His neck aches and his ribs, overcompressed, they ache too. His shoulders ache and even his goddamn ass aches, and he is really goddamn cold. And his goddamn leg feels stiff and log-like. He's already trying to walk it off--and already regretting it--by the time it occurs to him to check the time.

2:47. It's only been an hour and a goddamn half.

Dean's too tired to think about trying to fall asleep again. He sidles unevenly along the edge of the shack, fingers catching splinters as he tries to take stock of his schizophrenic tibia. A bone-deep gnawing. Sharp fireworks. Hateful red-hot pulses. It doesn't even know, so Dean sure as hell doesn't know.

Sam's gone, and Dean's not sure what to think about that, either. He limps to the door and hopes he won't find Sam taking a dump, or marrying Becky, or consorting with Lucifer. You know. All the typical stuff.

He's not doing any of those things, as near as Dean can tell. He's sitting on a rotting pile of damp wood, jacket wrapped tightly against him, gaze far away. But he's unsurprised by the intrusion of Dean's company. He turns and gives Dean another one of those furtive looks, and his jaw goes slack like he's about to say something. Then Sam closes in on himself, keeps quiet. His hair is too long, Dean feels the sudden urge to point out. His hair's too long, if he's not gonna take the time to brush it.

"Stealth mission?" Sam asks finally. He hadn't missed Dean's graceless exercises inside, and he doesn't pretend to miss the roughness to Dean's breathing now. He just doesn't point it out.

"Could say the same to you," says Dean, after a beat. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but he doesn't have anything else to say. He leans against the doorframe and tries to weigh the pros and cons of joining Sam on the ground.

They could have sat in silence then, looked up at the stars (but it's cloudy; while Dean was out, the clouds came in, and the fog settled). They could have sat in silence and taken in the forest around them, too dark to see and too cold to smell. But doggedly, Sam keeps going; he won't let their talk just die. It's like he'd take it personally if they failed at this right now.

"Nah, you were out, man. Couldn't wake you if I tried."

"Did you try?"

"You were asleep."

"You wanna go finish that thing?"

"I want to go to sleep."

"So what are you doing out here, then?"

Sam shrugs. "It didn't seem like a good idea, to both be--"

Sammy standing sentry; Sammy kibbitzing with the Devil. One of these is probably exactly like the other.

"We hit it now, no interruptions for sure," says Dean. He feels cramped somehow, or cornered. Like he needs to burst from his skeleton and blow Sam to pieces with him, let Lucifer evaporate out of the mess before Sam can put himself back together again. "They wouldn't be expecting it."

Sam wants to talk. Sam wants to sleep. Hell, Sam probably wouldn't mind some pillow talk. What, Dean berates himself. What?

Then he stops listening, and just starts doing.

That's how Dean ends up regretting this decision before they've even made it around the shack and out to the car. He comes down a little too hard on the hood nearest the passenger door.

Startled, Sam looks up.

It's a sharp pain, Dean's decided. It's definitely a sharp pain. He slings the keys shrieking across the hood, toward Sam. "Less daydreaming, more hairpins for you," he says. "Happy holidays." He's not thrilled when sliding into the passenger's seat does little to mediate his leg's

"motherfucking--"

protestations.

Sam, to his credit, says nothing. Sam drives.

 

"It" does not walk out. It also doesn't hike out; Dean feels like they must have gone a hundred miles and knows they can't have gone even half of a single one when his leg calls halftime by default of it collapsing beneath him.

"Huh, I guess it's time to go back," says Sam, trekking back to the crag Dean had failed to scale. The performance makes Dean wonder how Sam ever got away with any lying, ever. "Trust me, no one saw that coming."

"You're a-- you're a cheeky bastard, you know that?" Dean pants. Sam must have planned this from the start--to run him until he couldn't run anymore. It's a rotten feeling, though it's more shame than betrayal--which means it's his fault, not Sam's, except it is Sam's fault, except--

"I had to," says Sam, preempting the accusation. "You weren't-- You don't seem... I didn't know what else to do."

Sam makes him shift onto his ass and lean back. He says something about expanding the rib cage, and about breathing. Dean wonders if Sam thinks these tutorials are at all helpful, because jesus christ. It's not like Dean never learned how to deal with pain.

To Sam's credit, though, this is different. For better or worse (usually worse), he and Sam were built for the job. Fairly literally, if theology can be literal. And sure, Dean's broke a lot of bones, but never anything that really mattered; ribs were small fish, and the collarbone is kind of a bitch, but...eh.

Still. Even after everything they've been through, there's a part of this that's fucking terrifying.

He hadn't stayed at that hospital long enough to get the worksheets his nurse had promised, to hear prognoses or select a local physical therapist or fill his meds prescription--damn everything--but Dean's scammed enough money at the tracks (okay, so it was only one weird weekend at Bay Meadows, a long time ago; but motels near Stanford weren't fucking cheap) to know about broken legs on racehorses. Sam is probably more forgiving than a horse man, but the job sure isn't. Dean's been learning first-hand that on the road with a bum leg you can't sleep for shit; you can't do winter, or hell, weather, period. You can still get thrown into walls all you want, but getting back up requires all your most impressive masks, and all your mental dissociations.

And Dean isn't helping; he knows that. He's never been the ideal patient, though he thinks about his cast and he thinks about, well, other shit, and he's rarely been this stupid. But really, that's just garnish at this point; he feels like his life is coming to this point where no matter what, you really can't make it all that much fucking worse. One day you just know it's all gonna come down, and it don't matter whether you feel ten percent or 50. That will be that.

For the first time, it occurs to Dean that day might be today.

He calms himself with the assurance that there was plenty more on the chessboard right now that was probably going to go to worse shit faster. His leg wasn't winning any races. (Dean laughs a little.)

"There we go," says Sam, because yes, Dean is breathing like Sam told him to. Sam has his hand clasped behind Dean's neck and over his shoulder. "So, what'd you do to it?" he asks.

"I broke it."

Sam waits for elaboration.

"Well, I had some help. He lobbed you with a metal pole."

"Uh, right." Sam bites his lip. "But like, today. Did you trip? Or maybe a stress fracture, or..."

Then there's a moment, and Dean anticipates it by the shifting prickle of Sam's touch on his neck alone, and Sam just goes for it. Point blank: "Why didn't you say anything before?"

"Haven't had to do a lot of backwoodsing, I guess. It was fine," Dean lies.

But he's not lying, really; by their standards, all their cases lately had been pretty civ. The one plus side when your monster of interest also happens to be a Ted Talk-giving dictator. (Dick-tator!?) Dean's brain yelps, as Sam drags him upward and all the pain he'd zoned out breaks the levee.

Other than that, Dean keeps quiet. There's no point in explaining pain to someone who's in pain. There's no point in admitting that everything hurts, all the time, everything is shit, all the time; that he'd take any way out of this, any day of the week, and name your crossroads. This is not new information. This is not something Sam can help. This is not something Sam needs bouncing around in his head--another thing bouncing around in his head.

But probably more than anything else, this isn't something Dean can give.

He just, he can't, he knows that look Sam gets. And he can't be that. It's not even that he won't--he can't.

"Let's get you home," says Sam. His voice sounds far away again.

Which, home. Right. Whatever. "Yeah, because a couple days as a muddy popsicle'll do wonders."

 

 

Sometime between reuniting with the Subaru and daybreak, the "worse shit faster" almost beats the bullet off the starting blocks. Dean doesn't even know what it is, or where it comes from. There's no ambush waiting for them or anything; their shed is no more crappy than it was when they left it, and it's not even about the leg. It's just that at some point in the dark, Dean starts to feel dismembered, like maybe his limbs aren't his, and maybe his head's not his. And by the time the sun kicks the fog up to a bright, thick white, Sam stops being a person to him, too. He's just this voice that says things, over and over again. A body that gives him looks. Overinterested looks, if Dean has permission to gauge. And none of that is what Dean expects out of his morning afters, but whatever. New shitholes, new cars, new pain, new crazy Sam brain--it's just all part of a new lease on life, right?

Everything is under control; it's just been a long damn night.

Sam takes one look at Dean in the lantern light--because it's a shed, not a house Sam; this is a utility shed in the middle of some forest--and says, "Downtime official."

"What, here?" Dean asks incredulously. What part of "fugitives from everything" had Sam missed? More importantly, what were they gonna eat? Squirrels and wild berries?

"Fuck. No, we gotta keep moving. And we should--" And Sam becomes a voice again, rattling off information like an incomprehensible machine, conducting its life in binary series. Something about "we took the three months, we can do it again" and "should have made sure" and "dammit, Dean" and "well, we're definitely not doing this case."

Which, frankly, is just the last fucking straw. Everything feels a little weird and then, like change clunking into a vending machine, everything feels very, very right.

It's all clear.

Dean feels animosity rise out of him like bile, because they are definitely doing this case. This case is all they fucking have. "What, ghost not good enough for you, Mr. High-and-Mighty?"

Sam pinches the bridge of his nose, like he has a bad headache, or has just received bad news. Neither apply. "The case isn't the problem--"

"Yeah, it's you. Well, newsflash, Sam--this is the job, this is the only thing that still--"

"Dean! Dean. Look at me. The case is not the problem here; I got it covered. I will deal with the ghost-- Dean, hey, come on. I will deal with the ghost. We're not ditching the job. Calm down, jesus."

"Then wha--" Dean sucks in breath between his teeth. He was gonna get up, feed his unearthly need to pace the room, to be moving, to be doing something, to not be useless, but Sam keeps him down and for some reason that hurts. He thinks of Lucifer inside his brother, Lucifer's power pinning him to the floor and him helpless against everything.

"I don't need you," says Sam.

It would have been out of the blue if it weren't so self-evident. It's not as though there's a designated time and place for the great truths of the world. But this is not happening here, this is not happening now, Sam can't do this to him now, not when he needs-- Sam needs-- someone needs and Sam can't walk out on him again, not after last time, not after Amy, or hell, after that stupid, stupid wedding-- Not after almost losing him because of Cas, not after losing Cas, not after losing him because of Cas because's Dean's losing him every day he's losing him he knows he knows he's losing him and one day that will be that Sam will be gone and that will be that everything will just be Lucifer's messy leftovers with a Leviathan pour-over and Dean will be left, Dean will be alone, and that's how this ends--

"Stop. Stop!" Sam's voice cracks, and for a moment he's not a voice, or a voice machine, he's Sam, and he just looks so fucking tired. Dean stops.

Or Dean wants to stop, but he can't stop, because stopping is giving in and stopping is letting disaster catch you. And don't get him wrong, that's been stuff of fantasy, pornographic levels of fantasy. Dean would kill--has killed--to beckon disaster that much nearer. They've courted each other so long that by this point it's lingering isn't just stones on his chest, muck in his head, acid emptiness in his stomach; it's relief, too; it's a thrill of excitement. The only reason Dean doesn't jump is because one time, Sam told him not to.

But one day Sam won't be Sam anymore; the disaster will catch him. And Dean can't run out ahead of it. He can't save him. And anyway, Sam doesn't need him.

"I don't need you to do the job, Dean. The one job. I'm lighting a barn on fire--big fucking deal. I just-- I need--"

Sam's arms are all over him again. He's got his knee pinning Dean's good leg to the floor. "I need you to calm down. Please."

And he just looks so fucking tired. "Please," Sam says again.

Dean takes a deep, shuddering breath.

And then: "No, fuck no, I'm not calming down if people would stop calming the fuck down maybe the world could drop its own ass back in the green zone we are definitely not going to be calming down--"

"Dean! Trust me, you're not green zoning anything right now. You're not calming anyone else down. You seem freaked. So just--"

"I'm fine." And he's fine. He's not freaked about anything. Maybe he was, but that's gone now, and for the first time in a long damn time he doesn't feel buried. He has this window of opportunity, suddenly, to get shit done. Make things right. And they aren't gonna waste it lying around this shithole. He can do this. It's just gotta happen right goddamn now. His mind races it's fantastic because this whole time he's been so concerned with stopping stopping and now it's like he'll never need to stop again, they can burn right up to the finish line and outstrip everything tonight. Just for tonight--nothing can stop them. All they gotta do is burn a barn and then, over breakfast--somewhere warm, somewhere with chairs and light and modern fucking plumbing--they figure out how to take Dick Roman down. How to--whatever else it is they're supposed to be fucking doing. Because come on Sam they gotta do this now before Lucifer tears you apart before Dean's foot turns and even weirder shade of purple than it's been working up to all this time before anyone else dies before their curse catches up with them and sends him straight back to the hell and bullshit where he really belongs.

"Dean, stop." And there Sam is again, just this security blanket of words, and he's so important, he's so completely beside the fucking point, he's Sam, or he's not Sam, maybe he's not Sam, in which case none of this matters anyway--

Then Dean wipes the sweat off his face, a lot of sweat considering they're in a utility shed in some ass-end of the taiga or something, but it just comes and comes.

"Dean," Sam says. He's stopped offering Dean anything but his own damn name. But Dean swivels, Dean swivels too quickly, and Sam does have a body, a body with arms, and Sam catches Dean's shoulder in his stomach and cushions their crash back to the ground. Dean hadn't even realized they'd left the ground.

And maybe it's on of those odd, odd spaces where you are dimly aware that you are about to go over a tall damn cliff, because as he attempts to scatter out of Sam's lap, he senses that something might be wrong. He suggests this by saying, "Uh."

What could be wrong, what could be wrong. That's the question of the hour then, isn't it. But Sam must be the problem then, right, Sam and Lucifer. Just Lucifer. That's the only variable, and Sam just keeps talking, and he keeps saying things and something about crying, like he wants Dean to cry, or Dean is crying, or something. But honestly, Dean's just confused as hell about Sam's whole obsession and he feels like he's being pulled apart, more importantly he feels like he's being pulled apart. He's being pulled apart and Sam is doing the pulling, just saying things or maybe asking questions Dean can't answer, or touching him or something he's not sure. But what is very very clear is it feels like Sam is coaxing him off a cliff and it's a long goddamn drop. And he won't do that, because he can't fall to pieces, he can't go over that edge, he cannot survive that drop.

"Dean, Dean listen to me," says Sam, from somewhere close, Dean-can-smell-him close. Which is maybe not that close--still lumberjacky, Sam. "Dean, listen to me."

"Lucifer--"

"Yeah uh, okay, great," says Sam, "Yeah, Lucifer. Now shut the fuck up and calm the fuck down, Dean, come on, come on--"

"No," Dean insists. Protesting god knows what. No, though. It's a decent enough party line, generally speaking. "Hell no."

"Okay," says Sam, and the word sounds strange. "Don't calm down. So let it out, then."

What the fuck he's supposed to be letting out, Dean has no idea. He is not the one seeing Satan on his tortillas. And he's not sure if Sam's noticed, but none of this, none of it, has ever ridden out.

"Just let it out."

"I-- don't-- have anything to let out!" What did that even mean? Was there some kind of rot he was supposed to dig out? A cursed coin? Some kind of proof, did Sam need proof? Were metaphors supposed to be relevant or helpful at all right now? What the fuck was he supposed to "let out"?

"Why do you never listen to me?" Sam's doing that thing again where he looks exhausted. But it's morning, it's dawn, it's almost truly bright outside--up and at 'em. "Dean, where are you going now. Dean--"

It's hard to move, like when you're in a dream and you're running to catch something but your legs are just weak, they don't remember the motion, they're just these leaden blocks and everything around you is outrunning you. Even the things without legs, like Sam's voice, or Heaven, or--fuck, fuck. "Fuck!" His leg hurts, and it's this deep fucking exquisite pain, so unlike the sting of avulsed skin, nauseating chuck-making chow times, anything like that. It feels like shit but maybe it almost feels good it's familiar somehow, he remembers it from a different place. A deep and different place.

Dean falters, and he feels something touch him. He has this sense that Sam is sneaking up behind him (on the right or the left? both, even though he can't be doing both, but yes he can). "Don't touch me."

"I'm not--" Sam from far away. Sam without a body, or Sam who is only a body? Or Sam-- Or actually, Lucifer.

"Dean, you're going to hurt yourself. You are hurting yourself."

Like in a dream, like in a dream. "I'm having a hallucination," Dean pronounces. (Can you have them? Or are you then, do they have you?)

Something like relief registers in Sam, which can't be right. That can't be right. It confirms something for Dean. That can't be right. Lucifer, Dean thinks. Lucifer.

The pain he's feeling is a hallucination. It's not real. See, the difference between a human and a demon, Dean, is we give up that sense of reality. When nothing's real, you can find an ecstatic pleasure in just about anything. Down here we can torture your body but you have to know you don't actually have one, right? And if you don't actually have one, you can get up now. You can get up now and I don't even need to slow my knife because it's not a knife is it; and you're not a body. And here, take the knife. Take my knife and show someone else how unreal they are. You are such a righteous man, Dean. Show someone else how stupidly, pathetically fake they are. If they're still screaming, you're job's not done yet.

Show them how to be just like you.

You're good at that, you know?

Take the knife.

No. No, no. "We need to go burn that barn. We have a case to work, we need to go burn that barn right now--"

"Dean, we're talking about the hallucination. What hallucination?"

"What?"

"What hallucination?" Sam repeats slowly. Patronizing son of a bitch.

"Exactly, what?"

"You said you were hallucinating."

"Nope, that was a rabbit-hole." They just need to burn that barn, why are they sitting around here like they've got all the time in the world when they've proven time and time again they don't have any. They have always run out, they keep on running out. When the other shoe drops, somehow they're always right beneath it, so they gotta get in front of this, this is not happening.

"I just need you to let this happen, Dean. Sit tight, and just--"

That's what people keep fucking telling him. Don't try to stop it, play your roles, let me go, Dean; this isn't working out, don't try to have a family, don't try to save your brother, stand down, let me handle this, don't try to stop me I am God I am God I am God but then every damn time Dean lets shit happen somehow it's semicidal somehow he's letting someone down it's always worse--

"We need to burn that barn."

"We really don't right now, Dean--"

"We need to burn that barn."

"Look, okay. I will burn the barn; will that make you happy? I will burn the barn after--"

"After that? Your beauty sleep? Do you have a date with your manicurist? What."

Sam mutters something that sounds a lot like he can't handle this right now. Always "this." What is this. "After you calm the fuck down and fucking listen to me--"

"Are you an expert, all of a sudden? Why? Why the fuck should I listen to you?"

"Because I'm your brother," Sam shouts. "And that's enough for me, and--"

Sam splashes into focus. He says, "And I need that to be enough for you. Please." Then Sam says something about a Square One.

"Please," he repeats.

"Yeah, well obviously it's not," Dean snaps, with an anger he can't trace, can't chalk up to much of anything. But now he's gotta roll with it so he figures, let's fucking roll with it.

Sam rolls. "What do you want instead, huh? Who do you want instead?"

"I want to burn that barn," Dean shoots back breathlessly. His lungs aren't having any of this anymore. "I wanna-- We just need to burn that barn, Sam. Don't you understand?" He must say it a couple more times, because Sam's lips are moving but Dean sure ain't hearing him. Then he jerks back. He can't breathe. He can't breathe. "Don't touch me."

Sam backs off--for now. "I'm just trying to do damage control."

"Bang-up job so far."

"Yeah, well, we didn't exactly start from neutral zero."

Fuck. Dean's arm sails out and--thankfully--finds the wall of the shed, which he uses to prop himself up. Chest heaving, and basically strangled into stillness, it occurs to Dean that it's not breathing that is painful, or at least not to start with. It's the pain that's wrenching up his leg. Even now, when he shifts his weight, releases the pressure. It's pain, pain that may or may not be a hallucination pain, that's making it hard to breathe. Mmm, he thinks. Cause and effect. Right, cause and effect. Then he says, "Lucifer bending spoons in your brain kinda shifts the balance, yeah."

"Lucifer has nothing to do with this." Sam moves forward again, and Dean moves back.

"Don't even think about it."

Sam's face simmers with some illegible concoction of emotions, spills over, then drains out.

Clearly he's not thinking about the big picture, here.

"Lucifer has everything to do with this. You don't underestimate Lucifer, jesus, Sam, do you even listen to yourself? Do you listen, period?" This last, he adds when Sam makes another grab for his arm. Sam catches only air when Dean jerks back yet again.

Sam lets his arm drop. A deep breath, and then, barely audible: Fuck. "You don't underestimate Lucifer," he parrots. "Fine, Dean."

Dean's gearing up for Sam's plaintive admission, that confirmation of all his deepest fears which should have come long ago, yadda yadda, when Sam says, "So why would you underestimate me?"

He takes Dean by the arm, successfully this time. Dean's run out of the space and energy to run--metaphorically speaking, naturally. But Sam's grip is so tight Dean can feel his own pulse sprinting under Sam's fingers.

"Because I beat him. I won. I threw him in the Cage and made it back up topside and I'm still here. I'm still here, Dean."

Dean swears he can feel the veins in his wrist distend as he gives his arm an experimental tug. Really wrestling out of this one would require more torque than his leg can handle right now, and the world really didn't need help spinning. He blinks back god knows what.

In Dr. Sexy, MD, there'd been a couple episodes that involved tango. The one with the dancer who had the cerebral edema and then the other one with the Spanish twins, and the one where Dr. Sexy proposes to Dr. Piccolo (though in the end it's only a dream). Or maybe it was square dancing, or swing; anyway, it was something like that, something not ballet ballet. Dr. Sexy takes Piccolo by the arm like this and he leads her through the fancy twirling thing. And yeah, it's romantic and shit, Dean's not gonna lie, but he's not really feeling it right now. Dean's trying to find a pithy way to make Sam understand all of this, some way to make him understand Dr. Piccolo so he can tell Sam to back the fuck off, he left his dancing legs in his other pants, when Sam must read something completely different on his face.

Because he wraps his other arm over Dean's shoulder and, Dean realizes, they're hugging. Or Dean is being hugged.

"We won," Sam repeats, sounding now like he hadn't won anything at all. He had before, maybe, Dean thinks. He'd sounded like he had before. He had seemed so sure for a moment, like he'd really believed. But then they were hugging, or Dean was being hugged, and well, that's Dean--sucking all the joy from Sam since 2005.

Because you didn't, Dean thinks. You didn't win. They haven't won jack shit, because Lucifer's still up there, gnawing away, and one day, probably tomorrow, it was all gonna come down. If this was winning the Apocalypse, it felt like being set on fire at the finish line.

They were never going to win.

"Get off of me."

Sam loosens instantly, though less from obeisance and more out of flustered surprise. As though they'd been in the middle of something he'd thought was gonna pan out differently. Somehow.

It's cold in the shed. Now that Dean's looking, he can see their breaths mist up out of them, in great big stupid tragic puffs. Now that he's looking, Sam seems a little more real. And Sam is really damn upset about something.

"Look," says Sam, after too much silence. "I'm gonna get some sleep. You should, too."

"What, we're done tag-teaming it? No one's gotta play sentry?"

Sam shrugs. "If something wants to come kill us, then I'll wake up."

"Wow."

Sam takes a seat on the ground and leans over to drag his sleeping bag over to this side of the shed. He dusts it off. "I can't do this with you right now."

He drags Dean's sleeping bag over too, and pats it. "Come on. Penthouse suite. People pay top dollar for cabins in the woods; look at us."

Sam lies back and rubs at his eyes, runs his fingers through his hair. They must come away grimy because Sam wipes his hands down his front. Then he turns out the light.

"They pay top dollar because Jack's a dull, dull boy," says Dean to the darkness.

Then he leaves.

He's gonna burn that barn.

It's graceless, his leaving. It's more of a shamble than a storming off. But Sam, definitely not sleeping yet Sam, doesn't fight him and doesn't follow. Dean limps all the way to the car before he realizes Sam still has the keys.

Well, that explains a lot. And you know what, this is the second fucking time Sam's run some kind of bizarre, passive-aggressive circle around him in one night (day; it's rightfully day now), and it's starting to piss Dean off a little. He entertains a fantasy, one where he rushes back into the shed and rips the keys from Sam's body, drives off in a plume of exhaust and burns the whole forest down, fuck that barn. But he slumps against the hood of "their" offensively practical Subaru and doesn't see that plan going well for him. This alone wouldn't stop him, necessarily, but he's missed that window of opportunity and he's crashing into being tired as fuck. Which makes him wonder again if Sam had already read and foreseen that, and that pisses him off all over again--

But there are other, easier ways. Path of least violence, right? That's the Winchester fucking mantra.

Dean slams his elbow through the Subaru's windshield.

It doesn't work at first; he just thuds dully against the car, cast askance by the impact. But this offensively practical Subaru, Dean's decided it's going down--and it's going down hard. And he whales on the thing because there is nothing more important in the world.

Paydirt. First there's a spidery crack, then another. Once the pain in his elbow and shoulder starts to make all the other pain stand down a notch, Dean crashes his way through, and reaches around to unlock the passenger door.

All the glass gets Sam's attention pretty quick. Huh, so he hadn't been lying, Dean muses. If someone showed up wanting to kill them, Sam would indeed wake up.

What Dean hadn't banked on was how quick and sprightly Sam could be. Somehow he's out at the car, confiscating all the weapons, locking the trunk, and cursing offensively-impractical-for-their-purposes hatchbacks before Dean figures out what the hell was going on now. He's on the ground again, though. And his arm hurts. His leg hurts more. He's bleeding a little--a nick from all the glass. But none of that has captivated Sam's attention. He's focused on--well, Dean's actually not sure what. On him. Sam's mouth is a tight line and his fists are so tight that in the cold, he's skin's gone mottled.

"Do you even know why we're out here?" Sams asks, each word strained and brittle. He's been yammering for a while, but this is the first thing Dean hears. "Tell me one thing about this case--this barn you need to burn--that you even know."

Sam's breaths are ragged--adrenaline high.

Adrenaline's cheating, Dean thinks. "Monsters," he answers simply.

"Tell me one thing you even remember about why the hell we're out here, Dean."

Because it had made Sam laugh, Dean thinks. Because they were out here, and Dean said something stupid--Dean said something hilarious--and it made Sam laugh. Maybe that's not why they'd come, sure. Not to this specific hellhole. But it was a salt and burn and it was easy and it was like old times and for a couple hours it was just the job that mattered, not all that other bullshit, and somewhere out here for a flashfire second they'd been okay; they'd been kind of happy; and it had made Sam laugh.

"I'm gonna make breakfast," Dean announces instead of explaining.

"Uh," says Sam.

"It's Thanksgiving; I'm gonna make breakfast."

"No, it's not."

"Well, it's November."

"Barely. Dean--"

Dean remembers waking up to the smell of a phantom breakfast. "Sam, I'm hungry and I'm gonna make breakfast. Now fuck off."

Sam fixes him with an appraising stare. Measures him. In the end, he seems to weigh barn burning against breakfast burning, and submits to the latter.

There's a cooler in the trunk, which Sam fetches. Its contents are warmer than the air outside, but for once that's probably to their advantage. Sam also dumps their duffel bag at Dean's side. "Work your magic, then," he says.

"Close your eyes."

"I'm not that stupid."

"Then get in the car, if you don't trust me."

"You can't just sit here on the ground. You'll die of exposure; my hands are already numb."

"Don't want to feel anything anyway."

Dean avoids Sam's gaze by splashing in the cooler. There's a six-pack of tapioca puddings, danger orange sale tag justifying their unholy existence. Dean rips them all open and crumbles some dubious wafers over them.

A sound catches in Sam's throat, a half-formed protestation, but he doesn't follow through.

Then Dean digs in the duffel--rock salt. In his pocket, lighter.

"Uh… rock salt?" Sam questions.

Dean nods, and throws a generous scattering over the tapioca-wafer confections.

"Why?"

"Because we don't have 50-pound bags of Splenda in the car," Dean scoffs. "Are you seriously getting picky about your condiments?"

Then he lights it all on fire.

And the protestation Sam had ready in the wings, that comes back now. He lunges toward the puddings. "Dean, what the hell--"

"Creme brulee, man." But the wafers go too quick, and it turns out pudding doesn't caramelize all that well. Go figure.

Sam is waging a verbal assault against Dean's creme brulees, but Dean's not listening; he's moved on to heartier courses. Even with Sam's intrusions--when he opens up a can of tuna, Sam snatches the lid out of Dean's hands like it's a circular saw and Dean is an infant, which, seriously, what was Sam's problem--Dean makes good time with the meal. He dumps the insides of a couple scrawny, off-brand hot pockets into a can of chili to bulk it up and knifes hunks of the tuna back into the hot pocket skins. Bam, done--chili and tuna delight. Who said cooking was hard? But it doesn't take a genius to figure it's probably gonna take more than a few lighters to heat an entire can of chili, to say nothing of the pale, limp tuna things. But problem solving is Dean's forte.

"Here, you're just gonna have to eat it cold." Dean offers up a tuna thing.

Sam's rubbing at his eyes again. "You're the one who said he wanted breakfast, Dean. I'm not hungry."

"No, I made it for you. You need to eat, Sam."

"I'm not eating a cold hot pocket."

"Tough fucking luck. You need to eat. Here, have some creme brulee."

Sam lashes out with his arm and smacks the tapioca cup out of Dean's hand. It smears across the Subaru's chassis and onto the ground. "It's not creme brulee! I'm not hungry! It's your breakfast!" he snaps, and jumps to his feet.

Which, again. Unfair. "Waste not, want not, Sam."

"Exactly," Sam hisses.

"I made it for you."

Sam sweeps a foot through the remaining tapiocas with vicious force. "I didn't ask you to. In fact, I'm pretty sure I said no, don't do that. I'm not fucking hungry. I didn't want to make breakfast. You're the one who said--"

"Oh, right, this is all my fault--"

But Sam cuts him off. "Well, it sure as hell's not mine."

"I never said it was!"

Sam laughs. But it's bitter this time, and sharp, and tinny. "Then you're the one who hasn't heard a word he's said all night, Dean."

Sam doesn't touch him, but it feels like a smack in the face. Sam snatches up the can of chili and for a moment, Dean thinks Sam might throw that, too. But he doesn't. He storms around the front of the Subaru and gets into the driver's seat. Then he turns the key in the ignition. Why throw chili when you can just run someone over, right?; and hey, Dean's mildly panicked about this because his ass is so cold now, and everything that's not in pain aches and everything that is in pain definitely isn't moving anywhere.

But Sam's just running the heater.

Good luck trying to heat all that trunk space, Dean thinks. Stupid hatchback.

Hatchback with no windshield. That's your fault, he thinks. You did that, Dean.

Dean's not sure if Sam expects him to join him, or never wants to see his face again. He's probably not thrilled, Dean reasons. Dean's not thrilled. But right now it's not about what he can do for Sam--or, separately, what Sam wants him to do. Or even what Dean wants to do. He can't move at all and he can't think straight and he just feels useless, useless, useless. An errant nuclear missile seems like it'd be a pretty sweet deal right about now, though. Sam would probably survive it, even; maybe it'd give him superpowers.

 

Dean's thinking about the pros of annihilation over sleep when he wakes to the smell of breakfast.

"Those three months up at Rufus's sorta cleaned us out," Sam says. "We don't have anything stronger."

What they have is a can of chili, passably warmed. Steam twists up out of it. So he's been out for hours, then.

Sam holds the can out to Dean. "Cig lighter," Sam explains. "Apparently those things actually do work."

Of course they do. At one point, the Impala's had worked, too; but maybe Sam had been too young to remember.

It should feel good, when Sam thrusts the warm can into Dean's hand. But mostly it hurts too much to hold something up that high. He must've done something to his arm. Dean switches to his left.

"Careful," says Sam. Then, as though it were a separate instruction, he adds, "Don't hurt yourself."

"Dude, I'm not an idiot." Dean can drink from a razor-edged can. This is a skill he's mastered.

The chili tastes like pennies and want of whiskey. Dean grimaces and tries his best to look grateful.

"Happy Thanksgiving."

Sam chuffs. It's almost laughter. It's somewhere between laughter and fatalistic disbelief, but hey. Round up. "Remember that time we did Christmas, before you... with the--"

With the Santa's Village and the pagan gods and those smelly goddamn wreaths and Sam's ridiculous egg nog and also that football game, but mostly the pervasion of Dean's dying, Dean's imminent dying, the then-certainty and finality of Dean's dying.

Yeah, Dean remembers.

"This is so much worse," he says, at the same time Sam asks, "This is better, isn't it?"

And Sam looks so crestfallen Dean figures his preemptive response does not bear repeating.

Blood floods his mouth. He's cut his tongue on the can. Dean swallows his error.

Sam looks like he wants to say something, but instead he claps Dean on the wrong shoulder, and Dean nearly drops the chili into his lap. But he manages to keep the pain under wraps long enough for Sam to rise, mumble something about getting their stuff from the shed, and something about burning a barn, and they should talk to Bobby, or crash at Bobby's or something like that--something not that, because they got Bobby's burned to the ground.

When Sam is gone, Dean surveys the mess around him and thinks about nuclear missiles again. What they need is a bomb shelter. A bunker.

Or at least someplace with a trash can. There's tapioca trash and soggy cardboard, flaccid hot pockets and empty cans all around him, and he doesn't know what to do with it all. But he can't be completely helpless. Sam needs him to not be completely helpless. So Dean gathers up as much as he can in a single go and heaves himself up the side of the car. He dumps it all into the back seat. Hey, it ain't his car.

Then he lets himself collapse, because it seems like the quickest way down. Which it is, but it's a bad fucking idea. The nerves in his legs sing, like they've been pulled taut in preparation for someone's Guitar 101. The vibrations register as throbbing heat. But he snatches up the last of the garbage and manages to hurl it into the car before sliding back to the ground.

This isn't good.

Though it'd be harder for a Leviathan to impersonate him now, at least. He can't imagine them condescending to gimp.

Dean wipes his eyes. Again with the tears, christ. When Dean folds over, his back twinges and his ass aches and his right shoulder protests, like every part of him is is screaming what have you done, what have you done, what are you doing. He can't bend far enough to hike up his pants, so he runs a diagnostic hand over the denim. But it's not like his pain is something he can see, or would know how to fix anyway.

"Hey," says Sam, when he returns with their bundled sleeping bags and the lantern. "You're looking better."

Dean feels like shit, so either that's a damn lie or last night set a hell of a curve.

Sam nudges him to the side as he opens the passenger door and throws the rest of their gear into the backseat, on top of Dean's trash.

Huh. Door. That might have made things easier.

"Has this ever... Has anything like this ever happened to you before?" Sam asks finally.

Always "this." What was "this" supposed to mean?

Dean feels like yes, like there's a yes in his throat or in his head somewhere. But Dean's not entirely sure on what he'd be saying yes to. Except he is, except he's not. So he shrugs. "Not that anyone's told me."

It's a one-off. He hopes it's a one-off.

This doesn't appear to satisfy Sam. "You can't do this alone, Dean."

Sometimes you don't have a choice.

Sometimes you're really fucking alone.

Sometimes you just don't come first. You can't. You just--

"I mean, I think you can," Sam rephrases, which seems generous given the givens. He slams the car door shut and takes up the space next to Dean. "Like, you're capable. But... it turns you into someone I can't trust."

It turns Dean into someone who makes Sam fucking angry, and fucking terrified. Dean's only guessing. But see, that's the thing. Dean's fucking terrified, too. He's afraid that if he comes apart, if he gives up that distance, then either Sam's going to break or he will. He definitely will. It's too much work to have those open lines, to have all this shit at surface-level so he can offer up the overflow. It needs to be locked down, lead box, deepest part of the ocean or he just. He can't.

"I'm doing what I can," he says.

"That's not good enough."

Of course it's not. "Tough. This is what you get."

Sam rephrases again. "I can't just let you--" Well, he tries to. "I can't just leave it like that."

Then that's Sam's problem. He can never fucking leave anything alone, or just sit tight and be safe for thirty seconds.

He'd been laughing yesterday. They'd been hunting a dumb ghost and it had felt safe.

"Dean," Sam says.

Dean says nothing.

"Dean."

Sam runs his fingers through his hair again. The guy reeks. He needs a shower, and they need real breakfast. They need to get out of here. Sam must feel similarly, at least sort of, because he leaves Dean's side and heads for the driver's seat.

"When we get service, call Bobby," he says. "I mean, he found Frank. Maybe he knows a decent psychiatrist."

"A what?" says Dean.

"An orthopedic surgeon," Sam clarifies. "Or just, you know. Some guy with a spare X-ray machine. You're not picky, are you?"

Whatever. Dean maneuvers himself into the car. There's still glass everywhere, but he doesn't care. He wants to sleep for a week and knows he probably won't sleep at all.

"If you're keeping a tally," Sam continues. He still doesn't know when a conversation's dead in the water. "You know, of all the people you've scared this month. If you are--make sure I'm at the top of that list."

Dean is sorry and not fucking sorry at all.

"We have a barn to burn," he mutters.

That shuts Sam up.

 

It's cold going down the mountain with no windshield. Moist. It's going to be a bitch burning down that stupid barn in the morning dew, and they should have just finished it last night.

"Honest answer," says Dean, after the first several miles of wind chill. "Are you alright? I don't want to be lied to. I don't want anything lurking."

Sam regards him surprisingly darkly, considering the pep talk he's just given. "I learned from the best, Dean," he says.

"You tell me."