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Forgotten Trails

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Dean walked back to the car on autopilot, barely giving Cas’s rusted-out truck a second glance.

Sam was already slumped in the passenger seat, staring out the windshield blankly. Dean could tell by the tightness around his brother’s eyes that he was exhausted; all the adrenaline burned out of him and the grief was about to catch up.

He carefully walked around the nose of the impala to the driver’s side, avoiding the dark shape stretched across the back seat.

Glancing back one more time before he opened the door, he saw for the first time the full extent of the ash wings spread against the sand. Tears pricked fiercely behind his eyes and his stomach roiled, but he clenched his jaw so hard it hurt and turned away. There’d be time enough to… deal with all this later - right now he had Sammy to look after.

Dean yanked open the door and lowered himself in, suddenly desperate to leave this place behind.

“We’re going to Jody’s” Dean spoke lowly, as if their third passenger was simply asleep.

There was no reaction. Dean had to say Sam’s name three times before the younger one managed to drag his eyes away from nothing and turn towards his brother.

“Sam. We're going to Jody’s, all right?”

“Right.” Sammy’s eyes were still glassy and Dean understood.

“Okay Sammy. Close your eyes now.”

Sam stared at him for a bit longer until he finally said “M not tired, Dean.”

“Humour me.” Dean slid his keys into the ignition and listened to Baby’s familiar purr. Yeah, she was alright.

They pulled out smoothly, quickly making their way toward the main road. He fiddled with the dial trying to find a station that wasn't static and Dean let the familiar rhythm and rumble of the impala wash over him. Everything was going to be okay. He had his brother beside him and the open road in front of him and --

Dean’s routine glance in the rear view mirror became frozen as he saw the figure in the back seat. Castiel: definitely dead and definitely not sleeping.

The nausea was rising again and before he could get a grip on himself, Dean was again thrown back in time, blinded by the light streaming from the angel’s eyes and mouth, ears ringing from the scream of dying grace and dying Cas.

Fucking --

Dean didn't even finish the curse in his mind, just grit his teeth and stopped thinking, filling his head with as much desperate white noise as he possibly could. After a few minutes, when he felt he could breathe again he tried very meticulous thoughts: Drive. That's all you gotta do. Drive. He repeated this to himself until he felt his stomach relax. He could do this.

The radio had landed on some soft rock, the kind of stuff that had always managed to put Sammy to sleep. Sure enough; when he glanced over at his brother his eyes were closed, head tipped back against the shotgun window and his shallow breaths were making small clouds against the cold glass.
Sam. He still had Sam.

Three more times Dean found himself gasping for air, seeing his friend's face lit by passing streetlights and speeding traffic.

The fifth time was so strong that Dean lost control of the car. Only the sound of ricocheting pebbles and the frantic “DEAN!” from his brother startled awake by Baby’s rattling as her unseeing driver steered her onto the shoulder, snapped Dean out of his waking nightmare.

Goddammit.

Dean hauled the steering wheel over, straightening the Impala out before braking hard, spraying gravel up against her undercarriage.

“Dean! What the fuck?” Sam stared at him, his shock quickly turning to concern and Dean began to panic.

There was no way he was going to sit here and talk things out with his brother - not yet anyway - and the combined realisation that he had almost driven them off the road, [almost fucking killed the only good thing left in his life: his goddamned little brother,] and the knowledge that he was doing a godawful job at being strong for Sammy, brought the nausea back in full force and he was not going to upchuck all over Baby, especially not in front of Sam.

“Gotta take a piss,” Dean managed to grit out, already halfway out of the car.

“What?” Dean could hear Sam calling after him, “Dean!”

But he blocked it out. All that mattered was getting to the treeline twenty paces in front of him. As soon as he was reasonably out of Sam's sight, he broke into a run; legs pounding beneath him with abandon. The trees blurred past, whether due to tears or speed Dean couldn’t tell. He kept on running, desperate and unseeing until his chest felt like exploding from exhaustion instead of heartache. He doubled over suddenly; legs collapsing and hands reaching out to catch himself against a tree trunk, as he heaved up bile. Dean felt like screaming, but he was breathless, opting instead to press his back against a neighbouring tree and slide down onto his haunches pressing the heels of his palms into his wet eyes until there were stars bursting behind his eyelids. He had to get himself under fucking control. This was ridiculous. A sharp sob burst out of his mouth before he could stop it. His throat felt raw from the combination of vomit and cold air and Dean zeroed in on it. He focussed on the acidic taste around his teeth and the tacky pain of his tongue against the back of his throat as he worked to swallow and even his breaths. He’d dealt with this kind of shit before; panic attacks, waking grief dreams, PTSD, whatever you wanted to call it. Dean doesn’t have a damn psychology degree so why spend time analysing the minutiae of his fucked up psyche? Maybe this was a some horrifying mix of all three, some mutated monster sent to haunt his soul. Dean felt vaguely hysterical. What the fuck was he doing? This was absolutely ludicrous. How was he supposed to keep his brother safe if he can’t get his emotions under control. Man the fuck up, Winchester.

He had no idea how long he’d been sitting against this tree, but his gut told him long enough. Long enough that Sam would get suspicious, long enough that his younger brother could come looking for him, and fuck all if he was gonna let Sammy see him crouched next to his own puke. Dean pushed himself away from the tree, trying to gather enough saliva to spit the bad taste out of his mouth.

Dean jogged back the way he came, slowing as he emerged from the line of trees and making a show of adjusting his pants. It didn’t matter though, as Sam was looking down, fiddling with his phone, and he didn’t even look up as Dean walked around the nose of the Impala. Relief washed over Dean and he felt a swell of affection for his baby brother, who somehow, after all these years, continued to put up with Dean’s weak-ass bullshit. Putting on his best nonchalant attitude, he pulled open the door and ducked in, flashing Sam a small smile as he said:

“So we’re what, four hours away from Jody’s?”

Sam opened his mouth to respond, but Dean continued, avoiding his concerned gaze by leaning over the steering wheel to turn the keys that had stubbornly stayed in the ignition when he made his escape. Baby rumbled awake again and Dean gave a soft pat on her dash before leaning back to continue:

“I think we should be able to make it in three, whaddya s--” Dean was abruptly cut off by the sight of the backseat again in the rearview mirror.

“Dean --” Sam started, but Dean was furious.

Fuck Sam! What the - you think a motherfucking blanket is going to make this better? Yeah sure like a goddamn flannel is what we need to fix this fucking mess --”

“Of course not! Dean!” Sam’s voice was angry and defensive and Dean knew - he knew that Sam had the right idea, that Sam was only trying to do his best for Dean and he knew that, really - but he was trying so hard to fight against the unrelenting hopelessness of the entire situation that his blood was boiling. He snapped his gaze to Sam’s and saw the echoed desperate anger and hurt and he suddenly deflated.

“Goddammit, Sam,” he grit out, jaw still working against the unexpected well of tears, hands shaking as he unclenched his fists. Sam looked back out the front windshield, blinking back shining wetness of his own and trying to shake off the abuse of his brother.

“Sam, I’m --”

“Look, Dean --”

They spoke at the same time, but Sam barreled on.

“I can drive.”

“Sam --” Dean began to protest, but as soon as he started he stopped. It was probably for the best.

“Just get out,” Sam’s voice was tired and forgiving, and Dean answered him just as quietly: “Yeah.”

Sam was already sliding across the bench and nudging against him as Dean hauled himself out of the car and shuffled over to the passenger side.