Warnings: cursing and unabashed angst.
It's gonna be ok but now, my last wish
Is that you do this with me
I know you can
Just hold on, hold on to me...
-Angels and Airwaves, Do It For Me Now
John Winchester startled awake and stared at the ceiling of his motel room somewhere in the midwest, unsure of what had tripped his wires. He sat up and checked the corners without turning the lights on, knowing his eyes were already adjusted to the dark.
Something was wrong.
He waited - for anything that would give him an idea about what the trouble was. It was no nightmare. The feeling should have tapered off the longer he was awake, if that had been the case. He rose to go to the door, looking outside for a moment and finding nothing that would usually cause concern.
He checked his phone messages. Nothing.
It occurred to him that he had no idea where his boys were. He couldn't quite remember the last thing he'd said to either of them that wasn't an order or a direction, and that was suddenly very important.
He was panicking. He hadn't gotten enough sleep, and he was imagining things. That was all. He'd been dreaming and just didn't remember it. If he ordered his thoughts and emotions, it would fade into the background again and things would be fine.
He thumbed through the numbers in the phone's memory anyway, lingering over Sam's number and then Dean's. There would be questions. They'd recognize his number and get rattled, and for all he knew he'd be blowing their cover in something or giving their position away by causing a phone to ring. He'd taught them to turn their phones off if they were in a situation, but then again, even he had to admit situations were often unplanned.
He flipped the phone shut.
He'd know - he'd know - if one of his boys was dead. He'd know if he lost them, one or both. He never questioned that. There was no point. It didn't matter what the mechanics of it were, or whether it was simply because he was their father. There was nothing to know.
He continued to stand and hold the closed phone as if he hadn't made up his mind. It wasn't like him, and he was conscious of it.
They could take care of themselves and each other. Better, now, than he ever could have.
Sam figured things were like this:
Whatever had been messing with them at the door the night before had managed to catch hold of Dean's edges enough to loosen him a little; and it wasn't like his shoelaces were tied that well to begin with.
That didn't help him now.
His first thoughts when he was conscious again were that he should have been more uncomfortable than he was, and that he was outside. He groped outwards to get his bearings and his hand clapped against the slick, cool vinyl siding of the house he lay next to, shoulder crushing a section of hostas. A memory broke free of Dean slamming a hand against the siding just outside a motel door, so much struggle in his voice when he said Stay inside, Sam . Everything was green-smelling earthy dark and his skin tingled like he was standing under high voltage wires in the rain.
Stay inside, Sam.
He finally got it all to click into place. He rolled to a sitting position, stunned and trying to get his bearings in the dark, eyes focusing on the streetlights. The yard was empty and he had one terrible moment of thinking Dean had blown apart in the most physical of senses rather than unraveling internally like he had before. He knew better than that just by being awake a moment longer and letting things settle. The long-ringing bell of Dean played on somewhere near the street, just tolerable from that distance.
The lights had zeroed in on Dean and pulled him apart, and probably hadn't even realized it or meant to for all he could tell.
That was all well and good and he really didn't give a fuck at the moment because he couldn't see Dean. Dean would never have simply walked away from him and left him unconscious on the ground - not if he was himself, anyway. Nothing smelled of ozone or like there'd been anything he could pin down to an electrical discharge. His insides clenched all the way into his throat at the idea that Dean might not be Dean anymore and that he might find one last great fulgurite in the shape of his brother on the road.
He could get up; he had to get up.
He'd just referred to Dean as a bell in his head but he felt like maybe he was one, too, because as he climbed to his feet he was pretty sure his entire skeleton had become a tuning fork, struck into giving off his own paticular tone whether he wanted to or not.
He didn't call for Dean. He didn't have to, and he doubted Dean would answer. Dean was all over him, and the grass, and plastered all over the side of the house. There was a point of origin still in effect nearby, and hopefully the supernova was done ejecting its shell because he wasn't sure he'd weather another event. He stumbled getting out of the side garden and ended up on his hands and knees in the grass, causing a shock to bones that seemed too sensitive and giving him a stronger sense of Dean. When he stood, he wiped his hands on his jeans, flicking away dew and grass clippings. He walked straight for the spot where they'd parked, sinuses and chest cavity humming, knowing without question that he was headed in the right direction, still in the event horizon but moving through.
Dean was on the ground, legs tucked beneath him, slumped against the passenger side of the car. He looked like maybe that was as far as he could get and as close to safety as he could see. He wasn't as sun-bright as Sam expected, to any part of his vision. Sam decided he could probably mull over exactly why once he had enough time between himself and this one night. The closer Sam got, the more of a ring he picked up, nothing to do with sound the way he understood it but all to do with the way his own bones rang and whether or not he could get any closer without managing to find himself in the same condition Dean was in.
That was it. Dean had put as much distance between them as he could once he realized that he might be too much for Sam to handle.
Grass became asphalt under Sam's feet but he could barely feel the difference. He nearly stumbled down the sloped curb because his depth preception seemed a little off. Dean didn't move but he wasn't still either, and Sam realized he was seeing the regular photons of the physical world with the faint after-image negatives of what ran beneath, just one step off, a bad printing job and all that Dean had left behind.
He managed to pass some sort of break-limit about ten feet from his brother because instead of an increase in pressure or his bones actually shaking apart, it vanished, and he made it to his knees close enough to see that the entire white of Dean's right eye was dark with blood. Dean was staring at something without blinking and didn't look at him.
Before he could say anything, Dean said, "Look."
There was someone standing at the edge of the trees to their right. At first Sam thought it was someone; then he realized it was a dark shape with only vaguely humanoid resemblance. The streetlights didn't quite reach it, and it didn't quite reflect the faint light anyway. It didn't come any closer.
"If we can both see it - " Sam said.
"Then it's not just one of us having some kind of meltdown or psychic fit," Dean said.
His voice was nearly unrecognizeable with a hoarse fatigue. It was still his voice but a step away like the rest of the world, no longer his alone.
"I think I may have brought a little attention down on us," Dean said with deliberate care, lowering his voice to a whisper and not bothering to lift his head from where it rested against the metal of the passenger door. "It's not whatever was at the door, though. Yet. You okay?"
"Yeah," Sam said, keeping his eyes trained on the figure. That close, he could tell something was happening but not what, so he tried to be still and listen.
"I think it's always been there," Dean said. "Standing there, guarding. Like an elemental or something, right? You can set those for specific tasks. Funny how we just noticed it."
"We've gotta get out of here," Sam said.
"They were just looking," Dean said as if he hadn't heard. "You were right, they're just looking for a way out. It's just lots of energy, trying to fix something that happened except they're not sure what happened anymore. I heard them."
Sam listened but couldn't keep looking at him. Dean wasn't bright again yet but he was burning the backs of Sam's eyes with an afterglow, some kind of radiation. "We'll figure out how to help them. After we figure out how to keep you from...coming apart."
"I was more than they could ignore, maybe," Dean said, eyes still fixed on the figure by the trees. "That's okay. We probably don't have to salt and burn anything, because that would be a whole cemetary of people, and hey, someone's gonna notice all those holes. Plus, my back - "
"Dean," Sam said. "You're not okay. Let's get out of here."
"I don't think you can put me back," Dean said.
Dean tried to push himself up the side of the car and only succeeded once Sam hauled him upright by his jacket and then steadied him with one hand on the back of his neck. He leaned against the car and breathed, unaware that Sam was doing the same because he'd made contact and the resulting silence was overwhelming.
Not silence, though. Just the eye of the storm, again. Not keeping anything in or bleeding anything off, just holding still, one thin membrane against the tide. The circuit didn't close, and Sam had an idea that it should panic him but he couldn't dredge it up. It would do him no good. He really still had no experience at this but it was like so many other things they'd dealt with over their lives, and the hunter in him slid right into place to keep the panic down.
The house, the grass, himself. Some part of Dean was all over him and the immediate world, the trickle having become a rush no longer held back by any construct.
Dean was bleeding out.
"Oh, God," Sam said, too much wonder in his voice overshadowing anything else, because dread and fear wouldn't cover it, awe was all there was left once grief was transcended. He'd been dealing with ways to get past the baser emotions all his life, and it left the way open for a clearer view. Dean was standing there bleeding out in his hands and his edges were peeled so far back and away that stitches alone were out of the question, maybe patches, maybe a whole new skin -
"Sam," Dean said, still not looking at him, weirdly calm and contained on the outside even though his innermost existence was anything but.
If Sam held on - if he just held on - then there was still a chance of sealing him back up. They always found a way, no matter what it was, and Sam knew all the pathways already. This was just a worst case scenario, they ran them all the time, with weapons and words. This close, Sam wasn't sure what was keeping Dean in his body at all.
"I've got you," Sam said, even though he was no longer completely sure what that meant.
Dean turned his head and looked at him finally, and Sam realized why he hadn't before. The last connection slid into place, held away until then because the rest of it had been involuntary. Dean made a purposeful connection, able to do so more than usual because he really was bleeding away, soulstuff and everything he was, and Sam felt it and felt that he was the only anchor.
He was the only thing still holding Dean in place, the last bit of weight on the string of a balloon long since free of any other constraint.
"No," Dean said softly. "Not really. I think I did it this time, kiddo."
It was the affection in Dean's voice and in his choice of words that was hardest to bear. Sam wanted to shake him, but he settled for tearing his gaze free long enough to check the darkness around them. There was a beat of time where everything looked normal; then there was a pulse of something past his eyes like he could see his own heartbeat behind them.
There was a moment of a hazy grayness and a sweep of a radar's compass, a brief illumination for everything he could never see. Figures darted past or stood, staring, faces indistinct as the world they stood in, suggestions only of people or shapes that could have once been living things in forms he'd have known. Then the dark and solid world was back, coloring inside the lines, the shapes of objects caught within their own confines.
"The world's full," Dean said. "We're walking through them all the time, Sam."
"They're..." Sam couldn't finish the sentence. Another pulse passed, the shadows in negative relief, full of indistinct faces and reaching hands, converging.
"If you let go of me I think it'll quit," Dean said. "For you, anyway."
The dead and the waiting and the inbetween, the ones who couldn't make themselves known or get between the worlds.
Sam opened the passenger side door without letting go of Dean, trying to steer him to get in the car. Dean resisted, looking back into the dark. "They're just lost," he said. "Figures, right?"
Sam looked again and the tide of faces turned toward them in smears of grayscale, the sub world, the one he looked into occasionally because it reached for him, but this one was stale and one step off. Forgotten. The tide at his back and himself as the only separation with the lighthouse in his hands.
They sat on opposite beds facing each other again like they had before, hands folded, Dean drifting away like he was unable to stay attached to his surroundings. He startled a little occasionally and Sam didn 't need to ask to know the room had prior occupants that had never left. Dean had shrugged him off and now Sam sat and tried to keep his eyes away, his skull ringing with an aftershock of Dean-reverb.
The ride back had been so odd, Dean accidentally sweeping the dark and finally closing his eyes against it, Sam driving and trying not to ask, Dean flinching away from him when he reached out.
Tell me what happened.
It was just too much, Sam. I don't remember what went on between the yard and when you found me by the car.
He wanted to pace, to get Dean to say more, to try and talk his way out of not knowing what to do next. He wanted to hypothesize about what he could do to fix things, he wanted Dean to let him lay hands on him and find all the salvageable places between. But Dean had made him sit.
"Sooner or later everything that heard me will figure out where we are," Dean said, voice slow and measured with consideration.
"Then we'll keep moving," Sam said, eyes on his hands.
"Sam," Dean said. "I don't really understand this even though its happening to me...but I'm not...I can't..." He paused. "I think we're done, here. Whatever I did the first time, it was something people shouldn't do. I'm running out."
"I'll fix it," Sam said, and even to his own ears it was too wooden to hold any emotion. Dean wasn't just making an occasional comment, he was completely out in the open then, nothing left to hide behind. Anything he said now would be the truth as he understood it and there was no time for anything else. "I can. This is just something bigger."
"If you can't," Dean said, "Then you can probably pull things apart the rest of the way."
Sam's head jerked up before the sentence was complete. Dean was hard to look at, the light in his eyes fading, the bloodshot red and green of his right eye a startling reminder of damage to more than whatever animated them and defined them. "You can't ask me to do that," Sam whispered. "You can't want that, and you can't ask me to do something like that."
"I can't handle this, Sam," Dean said, holding his gaze. "Not open like this. Not all caught between. You know I wouldn't say shit like that to you if I thought..."
"Dean," Sam said, realizing he was losing it but unable to respond any other way.
"You're the only one who can," Dean said, voice and hands too steady, already resigned. "Sammy. The stitches won't hold. You can't keep patching me up. You've gotta seal me in permanently, or you've gotta..." He trailed off, finally realizing how much he was asking Sam to do. Kill him. It wasn't that he couldn't handle the idea; it was that he couldn't say it aloud to Sam when he knew Sam couldn't handle it.
Sam was shaking his head slowly and refusing to look up. "You're just giving up."
"You have to listen to me," Dean said in a softer tone. "Just put all the rest aside and think. Sooner or later I think I'm just gonna...separate, permanently. It feels like that. As in, drop dead somewhere, and leave you with that to deal with. In the meantime, I'm drawing everything right to us. You saw that. Sooner or later you'll get hurt. Sooner or later we'll both be dead. Help Dad, and go on, and kill the thing that killed Mom and Jess. Don't make this all for nothing."
Sam kept shaking his head. "I'll find a better way to stitch you up. We'll find someone who knows more about this."
Dean waited a moment. Then he said, "Don't make me go on like this, Sam."
It was that his voice was so calm and matter-of-fact; that was what finally broke Sam.
Sam put his face in his hands.
Dean knew he was crying and knew he couldn't join him if they were going to get through this. "You don't have to do it. But if you're not going to, then you have to let me go."
"No," Sam said, dropping his hands, already shaking with denial. "No. After all this, there's no way this is where we end up."
"It's like I always tell the girls," Dean said with the faintest smirk, a moment of everything back the way it was. "There's only so much of me to go around." The smirk faded because he couldn't even hold on to that, really. He blinked at Sam for a moment and it was obvious it was taking a lot of his concentration to focus on where he was. "It's okay, Sam. We did good."
Sam slid to his knees on the floor between the beds, head bowed. He meant to say don't leave me but the words wouldn't come, maybe because he knew they were unfair or because it was too much to ask. He wiped at his face, thoughts still darting between possibilities. Stitching Dean back up meant risking this again, and he was right, he couldn't keep doing it, but sealing him in meant only hoping he could get him back out once he found a better way to weave him back together -
"Sammy," Dean said. "You did good."
Sam lashed out and gripped the denim at one of Dean's shins, using it as a representation of what he meant to do in all ways, and the circuit still didn't close and there was less underneath to hold onto already. He leaned closer and rested his forehead on one of Dean's knees, listening to him fade. The tide slowed against the contact, whatever it was, but didn't stop, no reason for the physical part to stay bound to whatever it was that made his brother all the things he'd become over time.
"It's not that bad," Dean said.
Screw fair. Nothing was too much to ask. "Don't leave me," Sam said, and he didn't mean to break down but words like that demanded more than just being spoken, they had to mean everything. "Don't. Help me figure this out."
Dean carded his fingers through Sam's hair, possibly more Dean then than he'd ever been, the world no longer pressing down. "I never would," he said. "Right? I'm always..." He paused, and when he spoke again his voice was far away. "Yeah. Let go of me, Sam. You're all there is."
Sam knew he meant holding me here and he didn't have the strength to pry his hands loose or lift his head, he'd never have the strength, the idea kept flinching away even though it was right in front of him.
No, no, no.
Dean sighed, and it seemed like something was slipping when the door unlocked itself behind Sam in quick snaps.