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I'm cold inside with fear
And I can't feel my soul.
--Trust Company, Fear
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-|-

He waited.

Sam was slouched next to him in the Impala, eyes soft and unfocused, brow smooth. Gone away to gather himself.

If they had to sit there for hours, that was fine. Sooner or later Sam would crack, and Dean needed that to happen even if it meant that there was screaming and maybe a little destruction. He'd get him out of the car before the destruction, of course, but still. Sam had learned how to wrap himself tightly in his early teens, how to shut down and withdraw, and it was the only thing Dean had no tools for. Sam had learned to hide and Dean had finally learned to wait . Minutes or days or whatever it took, sometimes, because railing at him or teasing brought nothing but extensions of that time. Dean had never resented it, not really, because whatever steel Sam had for a backbone, whatever held him together, it had first manifested itself in his ability to lock down. It was a relief that his wide-open and wide-eyed younger brother had found a way to hold the center.

Whatever had warped the kid in the house behind them and allowed him to shoot himself in front of them did not, could not exist in his brother.

How he wished the silence was sullen, this time, and not soul-numbing shock.

He sat with his hands folded loosely in his lap and let Sam soak up his presence and waited for the youngest Winchester to surface for air.

When it came, Dean decided he would rather have heard Sam scream.

"What if I brought it?" Sam said, the words nearly stuttering out of him. He could only contain that bit of horror for so long, no matter what it cost him to voice it. "What if just being me and having...whatever it is I can do, brought the thing that killed mom, and Jessica? What if I did this to us all, Dean? "

What if I'm just like Max?

"No, Sam," Dean said, eyes still forward, keeping his voice soft and level.

"I did this," Sam whispered. "I did this just by existing, I bring everything out of the woodwork. You and dad have been hunting the wrong things."

"The symptoms, and not the cause?" Dean said. " Jesus, Sam."

"It's not like I don't understand what made Max do it," Sam said.

He didn't flinch when Dean's hand shot out toward his face; this was, after all, Dean. There had been countless flashes of anger between them in all their years that included blows, but never without due warning. There was no flinching of an external nature, but he felt a moment of surprise settle over him when that hand settled on the side of his face. Dean cupped his jaw and pressed a gentle thumb to the ridge of bone below his eye, something warm but urgent and asking him to be still.

"You would never," Dean said, low and shaken, and Sam knew exactly what he meant, knew that Dean would realize what was crowding behind his eyes unsaid.

You would never turn a gun on yourself even if you felt like it.

The tone was so low and rough because the moment was so damn hard, full of words and worry that should never have to be expressed. Sam wore a nearly visible and grinding weight of guilt the same way he'd so recently worn a spattering of Max's gray matter. Death often whispered along the napes of their necks or pulled at their shoulders, but it was so rare that it slapped them across their faces with such abandon or left such personal handprints.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the desperation to pass because it always did if he waited long enough. "How can you be sure?" he said, conscious that they were more emotional than could be good for them right then. The hand against his face was as capable of putting his head through a goddamn wall as it was to comfort, if he went on suggesting the unbearable.

"I know you," Dean said in that same tone, something raw enough to make Sam clench his teeth to keep from sobbing. "Everything that makes you Sam would never give up. After everything you've seen and done, you would have offed yourself long before now if you were going to. If you need reminding about how you're too damn stubborn to go nuts over something like this, I'll remind you. Every fucking day and forever, Sam." He slid his hand into the hair at the back of Sam's neck and made a gentle fistful of it, aware that Sam still had his mouth and eyes pressed into lines of anguish. Dean held his own eyes as wide open as they would go, knowing there would be tears otherwise. He wasn't up for that. "Just so we're clear. Right?"

Sam nodded after a moment, his breathing shaky. When Dean tugged on his hair, he didn't resist, tipping sideways until Dean could loop an arm around Sam's head and hold it against his own chest. Sam gripped Dean's shirt in both hands.

"It's hard," Dean said. "And maybe it always will be. Whatever happens, whatever's coming, we'll watch out for each other. If I gotta protect you from you, I will. But I won't have to. Because you're Sam. "

Sam wanted desperately for that to be true.

Wanting would not make it so.

"Who and what you are can never be bad," Dean said, voice softer and distant. "If it's just that shit can hear you better because of it, that's still not your fault. A world that lets that happen deserves to have its ass kicked. We'll get to the bottom of this, Sam. We'll fix it."

"I don't think so," Sam whispered, and it didn't matter which thing he was talking about. What he didn't say was that he didn't mind that Max had chosen to shoot himself rather than keep pointing the gun at Dean's head. One less freak in the world, leaving him his brother. The adrenaline felt like acid this time, as bitter in his mouth as his own newfound self loathing.

He wasn't absolutely sure that the idea had been Max's alone.

"Maybe you don't yet," Dean said. "But you're not the problem, here. You never will be. If anything they said is true, Max wasn't always loved or wanted. Maybe it didn't feel like it when things got hard, but there was never a moment, even before you were born, where we didn't want you more than we wanted our next breath."

it stood over your crib not long after I had been in the room, it killed your girlfriend not long after I had been in your apartment, god help us if I'm the lens that focuses all this on you.

It had always been all or nothing with them. He had to either be in Sam's space 24/7 now and watch him or get the hell out of his life and stay out, because anything in between seemed as if it would leave the door open for things to gnaw on the frames and jambs.

"Just so we're clear," Dean whispered.

-|-

Not another word spoken, even when they reached the hotel. Sam managed to throw his duffle into the corner before collapsing on the bed furthest from the door, still looking stunned but contained. Dean left the door open, because the walls would be too close otherwise even though this was just like any other room they'd been in over the last six months. Too dark this time, too small. He opened the single window facing the parking lot, keeping one of the orange-brown curtains pulled because he intended to clean their guns and didn't want a misunderstanding . Not today. If he kept his hands busy, things would be fine. That had always been true before.

Fresh air and daylight and salt and a sense of purpose drove so many things out of the corners.

He watched Sam roll himself off the bed and strip his clothes off as he headed toward the bathroom. The shirt he'd been wearing earlier, now wrapped in plastic in his bag, would go in the trash. No amount of washing would get it clean in ways that Sam would be able to tolerate.

Dean sat on the edge of the other bed, facing the bed that was Sam's by default. He listened to the shower start and frowned as he unpacked the guns that needed the most attention, beginning to break them down. He could break down the day's events as methodically as he did the weaponry they hauled, and most of it made him uneasy about how bad it would get for Sam if whatever power he had shifted into full gear. Lock windows and doors, fling things and people around, why not?

Point weapons?

He wanted so badly not to think back to that night in the asylum and how little it had taken to tip Sam over the edge. Anything evil could get hold of him and maybe twist him inside out again, most likely because of what he could do. These were things their father had not trained them for. He didn't know who could show Sam ropes like this, except Missouri. She seemed to be the only true psychic they'd ever run into.

But had anyone she loved ever been on the ceiling, burning away into the void? Was it just a matter of Sam learning to lock down hard enough to be invisible to whatever came knocking?

Sam came out again in a t shirt and boxers, looking blank and damp and somehow missing some of his height. Dean tracked him with his gaze long enough to watch him settle on the bed across from him. If he was careful, the sheer exhaustion and shock would knock Sam out for awhile. Sam rolled over to stare at him, head propped along one outstretched arm.

Keeping his eyes on what he was doing, Dean lapsed into a nonsense monologue, something he hadn't done since they were kids. If he was talking, soft and low and even about weather and his all-time fantasy baseball team, then things were fine. Dean often talked and talked in his life without saying a thing, but never did he actually waste breath unless Sam needed it. He was somewhere into his third minute about import vs. domestic beer when he hazarded a glance at Sam again, and by the set of his face he could tell that he was under and not just resting his eyes. Sam had always been the absolute worst at faking anything.

Dean smiled a little and rambled on a bit longer. Brunettes vs. blondes.

-|-

Sam listened to the patterned rise and fall of Dean's voice, purposely not focusing on that or anything else, knowing that was the point. The daylight still spilling in the single window lost focus the longer he stared, the details all melding into a single dim color. He didn't remember closing his eyes, but he felt the moment the voice in the back of his head began listening to Dean and then became Dean.

It's too bad. You, wanting to be normal and all, which is the funniest thing ever, right Sam? It would be great to turn you back out to the apple pie life, right into society, you being the wolf among the sheep. You couldn't settle for just being a freak, you have to be one up on everybody. You and Max and whoever the hell else is out there, maybe you get to call in the End Times.

Sam twitched. He could hear the soft clicking of Dean checking the action on one of the revolvers.

I always knew you were a monster, I've always seen what you really are, so I'll make it easy for you, this once. You're just going to do it eventually anyway.

He opened bleary eyes on Dean, finding his brother still sitting on the edge of the opposite bed, his Glock now held loosely in hands that dangled between his knees. Dean flipped the gun so that it was pointing toward himself rather than the floor, his right hand tucking the barrel under his chin and pressing hard into the soft palate. He tilted his head back a little so that he could stare down on Sam with hazel-green damnation. Sam watched in frozen revulsion, screaming unheard.

"Just so we're clear," Dean said, and his finger took up the slack of the trigger with Sam's help.

-|-

Dean's hands made a convulsive scatter of the silver bullets he was reloading with when all 6'5" of Sam went from boneless slumber to jacknifing off the bed without warning. Before he could register the intent (which would shame him later when he reflected on it), Sam had barrelled into him and sent guns every which way and the both of them ass-over-tincups across the other bed and onto the floor with a thud.

Dean's strangled and breathless "What the fuck, Sam!" from his tangled position on the floor was met with his head being cradled in frantic hands and Sam's bloodshot-blue gaze darting over him. Smashed as they were between the wall and the bed, and being that Sam seemed mainly composed of elbows and knees, it was uncomfortable in many ways. Dean kept his hands where Sam could see them, not understanding how he knew that was best. He kept quiet until Sam's eyes cleared a little and could focus on him.

Sam braced his hands on either side of Dean's head and his breathing slowed just a fraction. "You...you said..."

"Okay, so, we're totally against brunettes, I guess," Dean said. He took the resulting look of confusion as a good sign for once. Sam wasn't fully awake yet, but he had some semblance of control back. "That's all I was saying, Francis. Whatever else you were listening to wasn't on my playlist."

Sam let that click into place and finally leaned back, bracing himself with one hand on the bed. He looked out across the room, checking the shadows. "You said I was a monster," he said before he could shut himself up. "You pointed your gun at yourself."

"At this pretty face? Again?" Dean said, but there was nothing approaching amusement in his tone. "After the day we've had, Sammy, yeah, this is par for the course."

Sam disentangled himself enough to sit on the edge of the bed and give Dean a hand up. Dean leaned against the wall and watched Sam hang his head in weariness. If he noticed the trembling in Sam's arms from the way they were braced on the bed, if he felt how loose his own knees were, he kept it tucked away.

Already knowing that any more kindness was going to send them way over their quota for the decade, Dean nonetheless said, "What can I do?"

"Let's just get the hell out of here," Sam said. "I don't care where. Just...far."

There was nowhere to go where none of it was happening. But if changing their proximity to the actual psychic impact crater this hellhole of a town had become would help at all...

Dean packed the guns because Sam wouldn't touch them.

They got the hell out of Dodge.

-|-

Supernatural: Silver and salt       Gekizetsu.net