He wonders where he is, sometimes, when he knows that he exists. When the light doesn’t distract him. He stumbles back into consciousness time after time to find himself seated at a kitchen table, a warm hand wrapped around his wrist, a familiar voice talking to him about eating, go ahead Sammy it’s okay.
His mouth is usually full, his jaw working, and the taste (mashed potatoes, cold peas; always cold, this must take him a while) is a late addition, more a faint echo than a real thing. He wonders why he needs to be there when the body seems to manage the task on its own, but he has no say in the matter.
One of those times he listens, even though every fiber of his being still wants to shrink away from the sound. Not to know. It’s Dean’s voice somehow, again, his dead brother from a destroyed world and an impossible life (no, wait, Dean isn’t the one who’s - - is being down here the same as being dead? He wants to believe that it is), and it sounds like he’s trying.
Trying to do what?
To bring you back, asshole, part of him snaps back at the question, annoyed with his slow grasp. He must have shattered when he fell.
Back. Dean needs him back, but then Dean always needs him back, forever refusing to let him complete his walk off the plank. He’s pulled Dean back from the brink and beyond on more than one occasion, too, but he thinks that he wouldn’t anymore, not now that he knows how badly it hurts.
He can’t rest. Even when the meals are over and the grip on his arm (his heart) loosens, even when he slips back into the fog, exhausted and numb and grateful, it doesn’t last. The light filters in, needles threading through him. He finds himself in the shower, staring blankly at his hands. There is no blood. No mud or viscera or stone when he looks down, miles below him to where his feet are. Just water, pooling around his toes, all ten of them accounted for. Dean’s voice is close but muffled, like he’s farther away. Door; he is alone in Ellen’s bathroom and his clothes are in a pile on the hamper and Dean is talking to him from outside, behind the door.
He does as he is told. When you’re done with the soap you rinse yourself off, you remember how, right? Then turn the faucet to stop the water, real easy. You’re almost done, man, stay with me.
Something about the water against his skin keeps him anchored whether he wants to or not. After a couple times or maybe a few years, he can’t tell, his hands find the faucet on their own as soon as he enters the bathroom. He follows Dean’s instructions before they are spoken and then waits, leaning against the tiles, water dripping from his hair down to his uninjured feet, for his brother's voice to catch up. He wants to tell him it’s okay, that he remembers how, but words aren’t real and he wouldn’t know how to speak, anyway. His fingers reach for his throat and it’s all there, his voice box hasn’t been carved out yet today.
But he can’t.
Instead he tries time after time to escape, to find a trap door, maybe a crack in the wall, though it’s hard when nothing around him is real. Once when it’s dark he tries to look for Dean, but all he sees are disconnected patches of color (green. A yard?), and something is cold against his face and he lets go, too exhausted to stay and find out what new instrument of torture it is. He can’t rest. Maybe that’s his punishment.
What did he do?
A vise grip that won’t let him get away, crushing muscle and bone. Hurts. It shouldn’t hurt that much. There’s talking, someone telling him it’s okay, it’s okay to - -
He suddenly thinks of Cas, clawing into his brother’s mangled shoulder and pulling him out of hell, and he wonders if Dean screamed, if he knew he was being rescued because how would you know, how can you tell when searing hands tearing your flesh apart are all you know about the world anymore.
He wants to howl, too, maybe for Cas, but a twisting knife in the ruined part of him that was once his memory tells him Cas won’t be answering, and that added knowledge is too much.
He feels himself crumbling to ashes, swept away, fading into nothingness and the words follow him angry and desperate no no come on - -
For the first time, he isn’t sure if he wants to go. But as it turns out, he has no say in that, either.
He is gone before he completes the thought, a pebble dropped down an old well.
Darkness and light take turns outside and there’s more eating and his fingers struggling to hold a glass, that’s it good Sam I told you he could do it, drink sweetie and there’s noise, there’s touch: a palm pressed flat against his back, hands on his forehead. He thinks he knows why they don’t burn, but it keeps getting away from him.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed, or why he’s getting increasingly restless. Something he forgot. What did he forget?
Who did he forget?
He doesn’t have a word or a color for the kind of pain that comes when it occurs to him that it’s Dean. That Dean might exist outside, that he might be real.
That he’s alone out there.
Dean decides against counting the days the morning after Sam’s short trip to the window. He spends the night watching his brother’s still form -- he and Ellen had to carry Sam to the sofa when he just dropped, like every muscle in his body gave out, like his entire system was shutting down -- and somewhere around half past 5 AM he can’t take it anymore.
He reaches out and shakes Sam’s shoulder gently, desperate to see him conscious, stupidly hopeful. Don’t expect anything right away, Ellen told him before she went to bed, her face lined with the pain she doesn’t think he sees (he wondered if it was her back or Jo, and decided again that it was better not to ask), baby steps, okay? Sam isn’t going to just wake up and be himself tomorrow.
He knows, of course he knows, and he scowled at Ellen and told her to give him some credit, and then hugged her carefully before she went to her room. He watches Sam’s face now in the early morning light just the same, can’t help himself, can’t not search for awareness when his brother’s eyes slowly blink open.
Sam’s gaze is the ruins of everything he once was, a hollow, empty stare that feels like death. His face is vacant like it’s never been used, and he doesn’t look at Dean, doesn’t look at anything.
The rest of the day is a haze of pain and Wild Turkey, though Dean is pretty sure he went through the motions, and he keeps doing the same the next day, too. He tries not to think as he feeds Sam and guides him through the few actions his brother can still manage to perform even when absent from his own body. Sam doesn’t try to move on his own again as the days go by, doesn’t make a sound, and Dean begins to wonder if that was it. Maybe Sam walking those few steps on his own was his last, failed attempt at coming back. Maybe this is what’s left.
He’s still not counting the days (six) when he leaves his brother with Ellen and walks outside one afternoon, to find a tree far enough from the house. He takes care not to break his knuckles -- he needs his hands to work for Sam’s sake -- and the measured punches aren’t enough. He stares at the blood he's left on the bark, then down at the torn skin on his fingers, and wonders if this is what Sam feels, a nothingness so palpable it’s hard to breathe around it.
He wipes his hand carefully on his shirt as he enters the house (there’ll be no hiding it from Ellen, but coming in bloody is never a good idea), swallows hard a few times before he’s sure he can speak.
“Hey, I’m back. Did - - “
Sam’s head turns. He looks at the doorway where Dean is standing, looks right at him, his face expressionless.
Takes a breath.
Sam says nothing. His eyes remain fixed on the old screen door, even as Dean moves towards him to put a careful hand on his arm, to speak. To beg. Gone again, if he was ever there.
Ellen sighs. “I think maybe he was just reacting to the sound, honey.”
I know, he wants to say, don’t tell me, let me have this.
Instead he just says, “maybe.” He doesn’t look at her -- is too ashamed to look at her, for her to see the useless, naked hope in his eyes, or worse, the anger. Ellen, who took them in, him and the shell of his brother that stumbles from the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom like a ghost, not even lost, because to be lost Sam would have to be looking. No, he can’t be mad at Ellen. She’s right, anyway. It seems increasingly obvious that there's nothing left of his brother other than his body, his old reflexes.
But he didn’t turn to look before, something in him insists. He thinks of Sam in the motel that first night, of how much effort it took to even remind him he could chew. This is different -- even if Sam doesn’t know what he’s reacting to, he is reacting.
Dean doesn’t tell Ellen that, keeping the thought to himself the way Sam used to guard a piece of lore he couldn’t quite prove had value to their research, but wouldn’t part with until he knew for sure.
Sam doesn’t look at him no matter how hard he tries, watching the doorway dreamily, silent and detached. Thinking about the old days is useless, anyway. Only one of them is on the case now, and it feels like, as far as his brother is concerned, it’s Dean doing the haunting; as incorporeal and unwanted as one of the countless ghosts that wouldn’t move on.
He is so tired of chasing Sam without ever leaving his side.
Ellen’s voice is softer as she says, “maybe a walk around the yard will do him good.” She shoots a quick look towards the kitchen, crinkling her nose. “I mean, dinner should be ready in what, half an hour?”
Dean nods. Neither of them is much of a cook, and he’s pretty sure Ellen isn’t looking forward to his bastardized version of tuna casserole any more than he is, but it’s in there baking; they’ll just have to hope for the best.
He wraps an arm around Sam’s shoulder. “Let’s get you ready for dinner, huh?”
Huh, buddy? He hates his own words, the forced reassurance. Some days it feels like he’s cheerleading on the deck of the Titanic.
Sam is still looking away from him when he speaks, his voice low and cracked from disuse.
“Out- - outside.”