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The Argument

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     The first time Dean realized Sam convinced him to be somewhere he didn’t want to be, he was seventeen. It was also the first time Sam taught him something unintentionally, something he hadn’t understood until lifetimes later. Sam could do things like that. Say something innocuous and render the memory a trapdoor of hidden, excruciating meaning. He hates that about his brother—how someone can have that much control over him, have that much control over the things inside his head like it isn’t fully his own. 

     It was inconceivable to reckon with abstractions past the immediate back then. On some level, he comprehended the visceral tethering of their relationship. On all the levels that mattered, he hadn’t in the slightest. It takes a lot of blood and death for the emotionally illiterate to see the light. Too much blood and death. Most days, Dean wishes he’d stayed that seventeen year old, who could pick and choose so freely between the things he’d wanted to feel and the things he’d wanted to ignore without consequence. He doesn’t have that luxury anymore. Sam will humor him, will let him pretend, leaving Dean utterly unprepared, inadequately equipped, when the inevitable is upon them. When pretending won’t do it. When pretending won’t help his brother.

     He contemplates all the things he has in common with that seventeen year old version of himself. He’s rougher around the edges now. Sam isn’t. In fact, Sam is softer. Sure, Sam was a naive, sensitive teen, but he had an angry streak like no other. He’d lost that anger, been robbed of that anger. After Lucifer. After centuries in Hell. It was as if the anger had been sucked dry out of him, as if the motivation behind it had withered. Dean hasn’t much self-introspection, but he can armchair psychology that one until he’s beating a dead horse. Sam’s not angry anymore, because he doesn’t think he has anything to be angry about. No matter how his brother rationalizes, Dean will forever recognize a man who believes he’s gotten exactly what he deserves. 

     Sam’s watered down, diluted. 

     Dean looks at his brother in the stark fidelity of morning, at dark circles and one thousand yard expanses of torture, and perceives nerves flayed to the raw ends. It’s hard not to take it as an accusation, like it isn’t everything he’d promised to protect Sam from, being thrown in his face. On those mornings, Sam always has a cup of coffee waiting for him, as if nothing’s wrong. In defiance of any number, that’s one aspect of Sam that remains intact—his ability to be burning alive and say to Dean, “I’m fine.”

     He thinks about that seventeen year old version of himself, envies his ignorance. He thinks about that thirteen year old version of Sam, envies his safety. That’s the curse. Dean, confident the turn of the clock gave him more power to keep his family safe, when in reality, every minute was a countdown pulling his brother further and further into the jaws of the enemies. Sam, never as safe in this minute as he was in the previous minute. They didn’t know that then. They couldn’t have. Those are artifacts made visible by the window of retrospection—like kaleidoscope collages of tragedy. Or destiny. Same thing, in Dean’s mind.

*

     “This is stupid.”

     “Yeah, you made that pretty clear.”

     Sam doesn’t even look up at him. He’s got his overly earnest face pressed against the butterfly display case, his breath fogging the glass and an open journal in his hands, taking scribbled shorthand notes. So exasperatingly studious. Dean wonders how they’re related. He leans on the railing next to Sam, hands buried in the pockets of his leather jacket. He sighs, eyeing his little brother—fresh off a growth spurt, all gangly arms and legs, and knobby elbows and knees. His jeans are excessively short for him, so are his sleeves. A ridiculous sight.

     “Stop staring at me.”

     “Well you're hogging up the whole view so what else I’m supposed to stare at?”

     Sam glares at him, classic bitchface. “There’s dozens of other exhibits.”

     “And get caught at a flower conservatory without you as an excuse? I’d rather die.”

     “I bet the girls would love it, you being all sensitive.”

     Dean’s jaws clicks, humor quick to abate, “Shut your mouth.”

     “You chose to come.”

     “I didn’t sign up for this.”

     Sam rolls his eyes, “You wouldn’t let me go alone, so yeah, you kinda did.”

     Dean sneers, but Sam’s unfazed, all smug and self-righteous. His brother scoots over nonetheless, pulls Dean closer and lower in an encouragement to join the observation vigil. Dean peers into the warm lights of the display, taking in the vivid greens of the plants. “This new attitude of yours ain’t gonna fly,” he mutters, as effective as a death throe.

     “Where you think I learned it from?”

     “Touche, smartass.”

     They fall silent, Sam enthralled and fascinated. Dean doesn’t get it. This is the kind of assignment he’d put no consideration into. Sam isn’t like that. He takes everything so seriously, so intensely, like if he does anything by half it’s a direct strike against his character. Admirable, but annoying. Especially if Dean has to be the chauffeur.

     “What are we even lookin’ at?”

     Sam points with the end of his pen, directing his gaze to the right side of the exhibit. There, hanging from a sturdy stem, are a row of bulging chrysalises. He stares, blinking, and almost imagines it when a few of them shake.

     “Whoa, dude, they’re hatching.”

     Sam beams, saucer orbs and genuine. Dean forgets in that instant everything else. He can’t help himself. He knocks Sam’s arm, mildly, and whispers, “Like that scene in Alien .”

     Sam laughs, “You covered my eyes, remember?”

     “You heard it, though.”

     He pokes his brother in the ribs, where he’s ticklish. Sam squirms away, smacks his hand, “Cut it out! This is important.”

     “Whatever, geek boy.”

     Dean settles, the lack of space between them companionable. He knows how to try when it comes to Sam. His brother knows how to let him go at his own pace, so it usually works out. Sam flips a page in his journal, starts fresh on a blank canvas. He rotates it so it’s landscape style, and begins sketching. Something tugs in Dean’s stomach. A sickly sense of nostalgia for something that never was. Sam, ever perceptive, sneaks a peek at Dean from beneath his bangs. Dean shifts, explicitly projecting his attention back to the gradually emerging butterflies.

     “You’re disturbingly into this, you know.” The complaint’s dispassionate at this point, performative.

     Sam’s pen scratches in the hush. Eventually, it pauses. Dean sees the hazel in the glass. He’s too stubborn to glance over now. “It’s just...don’t you think it’s kinda cool? The whole cycle of it?”

     Dean shrugs, “I think cars are cool. This…,” a vague, dismissive hand motion, “boring.”

     Sam chews on his lip; Dean hears it. Dean also hears the wheels spinning. Sam does this, ceaselessly pulling Dean into his shoes without asking for permission. Inviting Dean into places he has no business being. His thinks his brother will probably never stop doing that—daring him to be better, to be smarter, to want to be those things.

     It’s rare that Dean breaks the ice first in this dynamic. Today is that kind of day. Sam laughed, Dean has to stay at that level. “Why do you think it’s cool, then? Let me in on the secret, what am I not seeing?”

     The simultaneous inflation and deflation of his little brother is palpable. Sam’s so easy sometimes. That’s what John just doesn’t understand. It’s so easy. Just be interested. Just care a little . Sam’s voice conveys a reverent quality, a tone strictly reserved for subjects taboo in the Winchester household. This is trust. Sam’s trusting him. “There’s this word…‘instar’.”

     Dean supports his forehead on the window, angling to monitor Sam once more, to show, to prove, he’s really listening. Sam writes the term out at the top of his work-in-progress sketch—resolute lines, black ink. A clean getaway. Dean nods. Sam swallows, considering. God forbid he be ineloquent. “It means the phase between two periods of molting. See, take these Monarchs here. There are obvious lifecycle stages—egg, larva, pupa, adult. But they don’t just spontaneously transform into those things. The process is slow, and sort of violent. It’s constantly splitting its skin, over and over again. Caught in these half-crippled, half-versions of one stage or the other. Most of its life, actually, is just that painful in-between. That’s what ‘instar’ is, what it means. To be...living in oscillation.”

     Dean’s fairly sure he’s not breathing. Sam’s hard, too. Way harder than a thirteen year old has any right to be. Uncompromising in his depth. Dean opens and closes his mouth a few times, grappling for verbal footing. All that comes out is, “Shit.”

     Sam chuckles, sadly, weepy. “Yeah...that.”

     Dean wants to leave now. Wants to go back to the beginning of this—insults are comfort zone territory. Sam deserves more. Sam deserves effort. “I guess that does make it a little cooler. A little more R-rated, more my style.”

     He ruffles Sam’s hair. Sam doesn’t even try to duck. After a few beats, Sam adds, “Thanks for bringing me here. I know it sucks.”

     “Nah...it’s not so bad.”

     They spend another half-hour waiting for the Monarchs to totally emerge from their shells. Sam watches. Dean watches Sam watching.

     That night, they order pizza, and Dean does his best to distract Sam from writing up his report. Ultimately, his brother falls asleep at the motel table, cheek plastered to the pages of his science textbook. Dean carries him to bed, pries off his shoes, pulls the covers over him. In the security of the dark, he allows his mask to fade. 

     He’d missed a party to go to the conservatory. He could have gone after, when they’d gotten back. But he hadn’t. There’s this itch, this claw at his spine, this worm in his brain. It feels like Sam is leaving, walking in a direction Dean can’t follow. Dean doesn’t know how to tell his brother to stop. Dean doesn’t know how to tell his brother to make a choice.

*

     It’s years later, mounds of dead bodies later, that Dean thinks about that day again. Sam, gift wrapping old conversations to him like some twisted variation of the Christmas Carol . One of the unpleasant things about how far they’ve come is how much more adept Sam has gotten at maneuvering Dean. Sam’s habits are like levers inside Dean’s chest—like his brother installed a control panel while Dean was sleeping and wreaked havoc on Dean’s capacity to navigate an environment where Sam has an opinion worth fighting over. Through the miles, more and more levers pulled, switches flipped, keys turned, passcodes unlocked. Dean can’t even count the number of times he truly agreed with Sam over something, or Sam tricked him into agreeing, or he tricked Sam into tricking himself into agreeing because his resistance was all for show to begin with. Right? That’s how screwed up this dance is.

     Before Dean knows it, he’s in the middle of the Oregon wilderness—weary, freezing, irritable. Because Sam wanted this gig, because Sam thought they should be here, thought it would be worth the 20 plus hour drive, thought it was “their responsibility”. So dutifully masochistic, his brother. All the levers, one fell swoop. Dean hadn’t been able to intelligibly counter. They’ve completely redefined button pushing. That’s always been second nature for them—poking at their issues until the other explodes. This is more difficult, so of course Sam has managed it. Rigorously reprogramming Dean’s buttons to win an argument that hasn’t even started yet. Entirely unfair.

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

     Sam got him here like it was as easy as breathing. No one should be able to get Dean to do things he doesn’t want to do as effortlessly as Sam does. It’s embarrassing.

     “One more time, what’s this thing called again?”

     Dean sees the back of Sam’s shoulders heave in an inaudible sigh. He hears it in his head though—that’s a ubiquitous sound. If it weren’t for the surging river below them, he’s positive everyone within a ten mile radius would have heard it as well.

     “A Katshituashku , Dean.”

     “A what?”

     “A Katshituashku.”

     “A what?”

     “Kat - shit - uash - ku.”

     “A what?”

     Sam spins around, only to be met with Dean’s triumphant, eating grin. There’s that line between his eyebrows, the ‘Sammy’s not happy’ line.

     “What are you, three?”

     Dean claps him on the shoulder, moves to take point. The last time they were in the woods like this there’d been werewolves, a rogue gunshot, and a lot of bad memories . So...Dean first.

     “Lighten up, little brother. So Kat-shit-whatever. You positive fire’s the way to go?” 

     Sam falls in line behind him, their boots squishing into the mud, rocks skittering yonder the boundary of the overgrown path to disappear over the cliff edge and hurtle into the swirling rapids. They’re a handful of hours outside of nightfall, and deep inside the throngs of winter—two odds not stacked in their favor. Typical, Dean can identify all these valid objections when it’s already far too late to get out of this. All of it, conceptually incoherent—an obscured accuracy. Dean cleans their guns after a kill, yet also before a kill. In astronomy, they call it an occultation.

     “Yeah, pretty sure. Like I told you, distant relatives of Wendigos. Just…”

     Dean throws him a glance, noting the shades of hesitation. “Just?”

     A half-shoulder shrug, another lever pulled, “Just a bit nastier.”

     “Wow. Fantastic.”

     “You chose to come.”

     “I didn’t sign up for this.”

     “You agreed to a hunt, so yeah, you kinda did. Well,” Sam throws his arms up, encapsulating the vacuous forest, “here it is.”

     Dean rolls his eyes, flips him off, and pushes onward. “How much farther, anyway?”

     “Power plant is just up the ridge, on the other side.” Sam’s voice is cutting, a knife through the atmosphere. Dean picks up on the provocation immediately. It takes two minutes of sustaining their ascent before the designation registers.

     He grinds to a halt, his brother nearly colliding with his back. “What do you mean, on the other side ?”

     Sam smiles, the ultimate lever, “Exactly what I said.”

     “As in the other side of the goddamn river ?”

     “Yeah...that.”

     “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re on this side of the river.”

     “Yeah.”

     “So how we gonna get to the other side, genius?”

     Sam’s still smiling, aggravating and assuaging. He manhandles Dean until they fracture the corner, and there, on the opposite bluff of the raging waters, is the abandoned cobblestone power plant. More troublesome is what is stretching out between the cliffside at their toes and the cliffside in the distance—an undulating, wooden rope bridge. Despite the vacating light, Dean can make out the missing planks, the frayed knots, the barely enduring cables. Last legs, manifested.

     He stares for an obscene amount of time. Sam is already testing it out, tapping the wood, putting weight on the first couple of meters. Dean peers over the brink. The drop has to be a hundred feet or so. The river is distilled tumult, thundering, white capped, and decorated with angry rocky outcrops—the hammering of heavy artillery. He’d fallen from a bridge once . He was a lot younger then. That can’t be an option this time. Dean interprets one thing, in the water, in the ghost of a fall, in this sorry imitation of a crossing...execution.

     “I think our best bet is one at a time. Should hold, but no reason to take any unnecessary risks.” Sam ruptures through the reverie, as he often does. Dean backs away from the precipice, comes nose to nose with a graffiti laden sign nailed to a post: Danger: Do Not Cross.

     He raises an eyebrow at his brother, nodding to the inscription. Sam squints. Dean watches the options play out on his face. Sam’s stepping up to the control panel, Dean can discern him prodding around, foraging for the best course of action. Incredulity. “What, don’t tell me this is your line.”

     “That sign’s here for a reason.”

     “And that’s your argument? Dean...I’ve seen you blow through hundreds of stop signs.”

     “That’s different.”

     “How?”

     “It just is.”

     Suddenly, Sam’s smiling again. “Look…I know you’re not a big fan of heights. But—”

     “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Take that back. I’m not scared of heights.”

     Sam, committed, champion variety of dimples. It’s too placating, too condescending. “I didn’t say you were.”

     Dean’s molars sink into the back of his tongue. Sam’s found the switch and key, the right combination. Damn him.

     “Shut up.” Dean shoves past, stands at the threshold of the bridge. “I’m going first,” he barks, “And wipe that smirk off your face.”

     “Better take this.” Sam presses a flare gun into his palm. He nods at the power plant, looming and ominous. “In case it makes a move before I get over there.”

     “For the record, this is stupid.”

     “Yeah, you made that pretty clear.”

     Dean regards him, acute, studying. He needs to compartmentalize, figure out the pieces on the board in this moment in order to get through the next moment. Sam seems to be leaps and bounds ahead. The problem arises when Dean forgets that’s an illusion. Sam’s right here, beside him, occasionally falling behind, and if Dean doesn’t pay close enough attention…

     The setting sun reflects in the hazel, meeting his gaze, unflinching and steady. No one else looks him in the eye like Sam does. No one else possesses the stamina. Dean searches for the red flags, for the pitfall susceptibilities. He can’t glean much beyond the surface. No one can lie to Dean like Sam does either, so it balances out in the end anyway. What Dean really needs to figure out before he steps onto this bridge is if his brother is suicidal or oblivious.

     There’s a macabre metaphor here. Dean, Sam, and this warped death vessel with a monster at the end.

     Sam fidgets, concern bleeding into his expression. “Dean,” he murmurs. Not a question, but nevertheless a question. A disorientation slithers. His brother is unspeakably breakable sometimes, unpredictable in what splinters him and what fortifies him. Strong, without doubt. A persistent tender soldier, triaged on the front lines, tempered as celestial brightness.

     Dean almost catches it, a glimpse of what he was fishing for. 

     That’s far enough.

     He’s a coward—fitful, then fastidious. 

     He stuffs the flare into the waistband of his jeans, nestled in the small of his back. Not as cold as a gun, but the familiarity of the contour and pressure grounds him and reminds him who he is. He doesn’t do this—linger in the before and after. He lives and dies by the essence of a split second. He lives and dies by making a series of choices, and pretending the fallout of those choices doesn’t exist. Clean slate, move on, next. Dean suspects there’s a word that comes close to unpacking that behavior. A word Sam taught him once.

     It’s morosely surprising that he makes it to the other side without issue. He paces like an idiot while Sam subsequently crosses, promptly regretting every decision that led them here, hating Sam even more for putting him in this position, resenting Sam because Dean is a professional, and this is a job, and this is the kind of shit they have to do, but one look at his brother, and his knee-jerk reaction is this.

     But Sam’s fine, as he always is, always claims to be. Cheerful, kid-gloves. “See, wasn’t so bad, was it?”

     “I thought I told you to shut up,” Dean grumbles. He’d wanted Sam to be right, but this whole process is setting off all of Dean’s alarms and he’s not pleased. 

     They retreat from the drop-off. The sun dips behind the bare trees, casting long shadows and encroaching cold. An overgrown chain-link fence runs the expanse of the perimeter of the plant, starting approximately ten feet from the mouth of the bridge. Coils of barbed wire perch at the top—scavenging sentinels.

     “What is this, an obstacle course?”

     “You love a challenge.”

     “Not a Fort Knox level challenge.”

     “Relax, hikers have been getting in somehow.” Sam prowls along the barrier, scouring for a weakness. Finally, he reaches downward, tears spindly, wieldy vines aside to expose a jagged hole—narrow, but ample room to wiggle through. Sam blinks away the sunset, intuits Dean’s apprehension, and offers, “Some of us actually listen when we interview witnesses.”

     Sam, nauseatingly infallible with the “ actually ”. 

     Dean can’t summon the energy for a comeback. That’s not the right lever, not right now. They’ve crawled through before Dean collects sufficient bravery to do what he should have done when they were still on the other side of the bridge, when they were still on the highway somewhere in Wyoming, when they were still at the bunker picking out a case. This should have been a straight up veto on Dean’s part. “Sammy,” he gasps, almost out of breath.

     Sam shifts from one foot to the other, startled, confused. They don’t do this when they’re in the starting box, seconds away from a firefight. “I don’t have a good feeling about this. Something’s off.”

     Sam’s head tilts. He’s probably thinking about how he managed to get Dean this far and is having so much trouble this close to the finish line. He’s at the control panel again. Dean knows better, they both do. “When do we ever have a good feeling about anything?”

     “I know.”

     “Well we can’t just leave it.”

     “I’m not saying that.”

     “Then what?”

     “I’m sayin’ I don’t like it.”

     “Okay?”

     “So...just stay close, all right? Be careful.”

     Sam softens then, and Dean doesn’t like that one bit either. He’s about to say something overly sentimental, so Dean squashes it quick, “Shut up, you heard me, let’s just get this over with.”

     He swivels, detects Sam’s burning appraisal. “Yeah, got it.” 

     Dean leads the way to the yawning entry of the abandoned plant, serrated brick and creeping moss—a tunnel into the belly of the beast.

*

     Of course, of all the hunts for Dean to be on the money, it’s this hunt.

     Things hit the fan faster than either of them expect.

     The Katshituashku is a smart sucker. Dean, and Sam by extension, has been lulled into the mentality that their targets are just going to automatically appreciate that they’re the prey this time around. Foolish. They’re predators, and they’ll attack like predators. You wouldn’t guess such a giant, bear-like creature could get the drop on anyone, much less move so fast. Like every hunt, it reaches its tipping point by sheer force of will, brutal strikes, and reckless abandon. Dean winds up knocked on his ass in the muck, watching helplessly as Sam lures the monster into the open in order to line up a clear shot, ensuring Dean is out of the firing zone. Logical, rational, unpalatable.

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

     What Sam doesn’t anticipate is the Katshituashku to charge him full strength when they’re practically tangoing on the edge of a cliff. It may be unerringly incensed, but where’s the self-preservation? 

     So perhaps it’s not that smart. 

     Dean yells his brother’s name, the only thing he ever has time to do, as if Sam can’t see the writhing mass of murder barreling toward him. Sam dodges, but it’s not quite enough.

     The mammoth brute plows into the fence, tossing Sam violently back, almost crushing him between its front claws and the chain-link. The barrier crumples forward immediately, ripped from the ground like a weed and folding in on itself like a wilted flower. The Katshituashku squeals, trapped in the lacerating metal and coils of barbed wire. Sam’s thrown, a passenger on a hazardous ride, unable to extract himself from becoming intertwined. Dean finally gets vertical, shaking the white spots loose. The monster is rolling closer and closer to the bridge, to the steep, treacherous fall. Sam almost yanks his body free, but one of his arms is caught in the barbed wire. 

     Bad. 

     Worse.

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

      “Sam!”

     Somehow, Sam’s managed to keep a hold of his flare gun. With his free arm, he raises it, and shoots without hesitation into the animal’s open mouth. Its caterwaul echoes—categorically eardrum shattering. Dean has a brief experience of relief, his mad dash for his brother lessening, before panic and dread lodge their talons that much deeper. 

     The Katshituashku, burning flesh and mindless terror, drags them forcibly onto the bridge. It's just too big, too destructive, for the rotting structure to accommodate. The creature abruptly tips over the side, rows and rows of the tangled nest of fence vanishing as it drops out of sight, into the abyss—a sick, maniacal unraveling. Sam’s scrambling with his one hand at the slippery wood and ropes, his other arm thoroughly ensnared in the barbed wire, pulling him down, down, down. “Dean!”

     Dean arrives just in time, throws himself bodily forward on his stomach to latch onto Sam’s wrist. Sam repays the favor—pale, willowy fingers wrapping around Dean’s forearm. The bridge swings back and forth, creaking and groaning with their weight...and the weight of the Katshituashku below—a flaming cradle of dangling carcass and melting metal. 

     Sam screams, the magnitude of it a slap across Dean’s cheek. He tries to get a glimpse at Sam’s other arm, at the embedded barbed wire, but can’t. “Hey, hey, hey. I gotcha, ok? I gotcha. Just, just hold on, all right?”

     Dean’s shoulder howls, his brother slipping—an uncanny hourglass. He grinds his teeth, squeezes tighter. Sam stifles another scream, chest heaving, sweat pouring on his forehead. “Sammy...listen,” Dean grits, “You gotta, we gotta get your other arm free. I can’t pull you up unless we get it out.”

     Sam glances back, straining, at what Dean can’t see. How sharp? How much pressure? How much longer? When his brother refocuses up at him, Dean recognizes that look. The ‘ I’m gonna jump into the cage, I’m gonna close the gates of hell, I’m gonna make a choice and you can’t stop me ’ look.

     Something on the bridge cracks, plenty loud to snatch at their awareness in all the chaos. It can’t hold them like this. It’s a miracle it didn’t snap into pieces the second the Katshituashku stepped onto it. Sam’s thinking the same thing, obviously. “Dean, it can’t hold us.” His voice is threaded together by agony.

     “Shut up.” Dean’s said that a lot today, this is the first time he truly means it.

     Then, as if the universe hadn’t gotten the memo that they can’t possibly get any more screwed, a shriek pierces the night sky from the direction of the power plant.

     Another Katshituashku. A second one. Arrived home to death and murder, even if deserved.

     “Motherfucker!” Dean spits. He risks a peek over his shoulder, close to dislocation, and identifies the massive, lumbering silhouette. It won’t take long for it to be on them, for it to in all likelihood bust the bridge, send them all crashing to their timely and untimely ends. His flare gun presses into his side, the side with his occupied grip. He can’t shoot without letting go of Sam. 

     “Dean,” hovering just above a whisper, “it’s okay.”

     He whips his attention back to his brother, perceives the reverberations of every other moment like this in Sam’s eyes. 

     Dean doesn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be here, never wants to be here. 

     “No,” he growls, shakes his head. “Don’t you dare, don’t you think about it.”

     “You’ve got to let go. We’ll both fall. Either way, we’re both gonna fall.”

     “Shut the fuck up!”

     “It’s okay, it’s okay.” There isn’t anything quite as horrifying as when Sam releases him. Dean snarls in frustration, trying to make up for the lost effort, but their skin is slick and Sam’s multiplied by the burden of a cannibalistic freak of nature tugging him under

     “No, Sam! Don’t! Stop! Stop, goddammit !”

     Sam doesn’t stop. He wriggles from Dean’s grasp like it’s not the absolute worst thing he can do to his brother, like this isn’t the thing that will condemn Dean, like this isn’t the one thing that won’t save Dean’s life. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” in a litany. It’s not.

     And then Sam’s free, falling, plummeting, shrinking through the air and slamming into the rocky rapids. “Sammy!” He almost throws himself after, wants to throw himself after, but that’s not rescue this time. If the fall didn’t kill Sam, if Sam doesn’t drown…

     Another shriek of the prevailing Katshituashku reminds Dean why the surreal nightmare he’s found himself acting out is even happening to begin with. He snatches up his flare gun, shoots the approaching beast with the precision of a man who might have nothing to lose. It flounders around in the soil, in the grooves where the fence used to be implanted. Another few steps, and it would have indeed been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

     He won’t watch the thing burn. Dean takes off, reaching the other side in a blur of desperation and grief. He retraces their path, the side of the cliff tapered and winding, the riverbed growing larger and larger, more attainable, faster, yet implicitly slow. Dean’s half-falling, half-running, branches lashing at his skin and stones at his ankles. He can’t tear his eyes from the water, hunting for the slightest sign of his brother, of the body of the first Katshituashku, a head, a coil of barbed wire, something .

     “Sam!” He calls, once his boots sink into the marshy bank. He picks up his pace, almost as swift as the current, the roar overpowering. He doesn’t think he’d be able to hear his brother even if he answered, if his brother could hear him in the first place. Dean refuses to acknowledge any of this. There’s no proof. This is nothing. They’re fine. Sam’s fine.

     “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

     There’s a hand around Dean’s throat, or a hand impelling itself inside Dean’s throat, rooting around the nucleus, muddying up the careful, legitimate order. There are objective standards Dean has in place, for this very reason. This sound, this dual pulsation of pounding steps and pounding heart, this is the sound of a man about to come apart at the seams. An innate implosive ability. 

     A kill switch. 

     Of course Sam would be in charge of that. It’s an intimate ache. No matter how many times Dean escapes it, he’ll always return. It deceives him, changes the rules, makes Dean’s standards inconsequential. Why does he let Sam do this to him? Dean’s so uncritically certain he gets it—this is live and die by type of living, this is make a choice type of living. That’s easy.

     Sam’s easy.

     But Sam’s hard.

     Sam makes this hard.

     Sam makes the hard things hard, because it should be hard, and Dean should treat them that way.

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

     Liquefying the veneer of acquiescence that restrains the flood of denial. A tenuous balance between the promise of progress and the actuality of regression. Molten lava from his pores.

     “Sam!” He bellows again, puffs of air billowing. It’s penetrating. Close to total darkness. Their flashlights are stranded somewhere on the bloody floor of the power plant. There’s graveyards worth of things they’ve deserted in the heat of a hunt. What’s two more?

     It’s tiny. Faint. His name, in the distance, garbled and strangled. Dean can’t believe it at first, won’t let himself believe. He pauses, suppresses his wheezing. Listens.

     “Dean!” Again. Definitely real. 

     Dean’s hell for leather, basically hyperventilating.“Sammy! I hear you!” He rounds the bend, almost skids into the water. The sight that greets him isn’t so much a relief as it is a lesser sort of nightmare.

     Two panels of the chain-link fence are jammed in the rocks in the middle of the river, pronged ends and jutting wire. And there’s Sam, half-submerged, perilously striving to maintain his head above the water, buffered savagely by the unrelenting rapids. “Dean!” He calls, one hand flailing out to signal.

     “I’m coming, hold on!” Dean sheds his jacket, not wanting the extra weight, and jumps into the torrent. John taught them how to swim in situations like this, how to avoid being completely torn asunder. Dean uses the flow to his advantage, propels himself at his brother. It’s pure ice, immaculately lung freezing. Dean coughs, blinded and consumed. Finally, he reaches Sam’s side and grabs the protruding rock to hold himself firm.

     Sam’s repeatedly pulled below the surface, the fence wavering back and forth, sinking deeper and deeper. He sputters, thrashes, reaches for Dean, “My arm. Can’t...caught.”

     The barbed wire. Dean captures Sam’s free wrist, tries to haul his brother up to grant him more air. Sam screams, and Dean nearly releases him, like he’d been electrocuted. He’s on the bridge again. He doesn’t want to be there either.

     “Hey, hey, I’ll get it out. Just keep breathing, okay? Sammy?” Dean grips Sam’s chin for an instant, seeking out lucidity in the hazel. Sam’s pupils are blown wide. There’s blood in pink streaks, sticking to his temple. He’s a mess. No telling what his arm…

     “I’ve got to cut it out. I need you to stay as still as possible. Sam?”

     Sam’s shivering, teeth clenched, blinking over and over again at him, as if he’s doubtful he’s awake or not. “‘Kay. Got it.”

     Sam’s not exactly instilling a lot of confidence, but he’s alive, and that’s more than Dean could have hoped for after the past twenty minutes. He reaches and clumsily pulls his knife from his left boot, thankful it stayed lodged in place. Keeping one hand on the stone to avoid being swept away, Dean dives without vacillation. He tentatively touches the length of Sam’s trembling right arm. Halfway, wrapped around the meat of his brother’s bicep, is everything that went wrong about this hunt.

     He tries to disregard the unmistakable suffering of torn flesh as he carefully and quickly works his knife through the wires, slicing them in small acts of vengeance. He comes up for air once, plunges back. The required rigor is agonizing. When he at last pulls each piece off, Dean sturdily links his arm around Sam to keep him in place, to keep him from continuing right along on his journey to drown another mile or so downstream, or to smash his skull open on the rocks, or to…

     Dean breaches the surface for the final time, abandons the knife since he can’t very well juggle all three of them, and gathers Sam close. “I gotcha, you’re out. It’s done. Just work with me a little here, all right? Almost over.”

     Sam nods, movements jerky, emitting primordial tales of shock. His cold, stiff fingers dig into Dean’s shirt, boots clanging versus Dean’s own. It’s virtually impossible to get back out. Dean coaches and systematizes their movements until he can partially engage the uneven bed on his heels. He struggles the last few meters, clothes like saturated sandbags, grunting with the herculean endeavor. Sam’s limp, boneless, vulnerably pliant. Dean hooks his elbows beneath his brother’s armpits and drags him backwards, out of the water determined to be his tomb, onto the dry, safe ground.

     They collapse there, on their backs, exhausted, shoulder to shoulder. This is literally being put through the wringer. Drenched, vacuuming oxygen, stars above. 

     Dean composes himself. He can’t afford not to. Sam can’t afford him not to. 

     Dean bullies his knees stable, not yet able to fully stand. Here is his locus of power, this posture—simultaneously the shape of his heaviest burden and his holiest salvation. He’s just in time to intercept Sam trying to get a view of his mangled arm. Dean quickly turns Sam’s head away, “It looks worse than it is.” If he could speak any louder, he would. He’s tamped, strapped, butchered. They’d won. He feels beaten.

     Sam stares back up at him, searching for something in Dean’s face. Not about his arm. Dean expects Sam to take him at his word—his brother always does when it comes to his injuries, even when Dean’s blatantly lying. He’d said something similar when Jake had severed Sam’s spinal cord . Sam probably believed him that time too.

     He doesn’t want to relive that particular hit right now. He can’t resist it—Dean’s always trapped there, will always be trapped there. That’s who is. That’s everything he shouldn’t be, because he was everything he couldn’t be. Dean is doomed to live a life of eternal reaction, of ricocheting misery, of painting on a mask of amnesia in order to do it all over again and have the proper emotions, like the emotions are being unpackaged, used for the first time.

     He doesn’t want to be here.

     Here...this place is shame.

     His hand is still on Sam’s face. Sam still searching. His brother reaches, uncoordinated and sloppy, and pats Dean twice on the chest, “I’m fine.”

     Dean smacks Sam’s hand away easily. Too easily. “Yeah Sammy, you’re a picture of health.” 

     Streams of rank river water snake down Sam’s neck, forehead scrunched beneath soaked bangs. Barely with both feet in the land of the living, and Sam’s at the control panel once more, puttering away, incorrigible, without mercy. “I’m not sorry.” 

     Dean shutters. Sam does this. Sam always does this, always when Dean’s not ready. “You’re a stupid son of bitch, you know that?”

     “Saved your ass.” Sam attempts a smile, weak and undermining.

     Dean clutches his collar, is justifiably inclined to shake some sanity into him. “You lost your goddamn mind? What the hell kinda stunt was that!”

     Sam’s blinking again, but sluggish. He’s drifting. He put in the effort. Now he’s passing off the reins to Dean. “Not sorry. Not stupid.” Delivered, gentle finality. Of course, Dean didn’t know what else he expected, instigating an argument with a concussed, half-drowned, half-dead Sam. They could do this later. They would. Plenty of opportunity to come up with precisely everything he’d say to his brother.

     “Shut up.”

     “Yeah,” Sam mumbles, “you said that.”

     He’s done, surrendered to unconsciousness. Dean wraps Sam’s bleeding arm in a tourniquet, persuading himself not to obsess, to boil over. No use in wasting patience he didn’t have. Getting Sam back to the Impala is not fun. Fireman carry, wrenched shoulder, and a dangerously low body temperature. No other option, not up for debate. This was simpler once. 20 years ago. Sam was smaller then. He was only carrying Sam to bed then. It was easier to pretend—like Sam wouldn’t have to make choices like this, like they wouldn’t be existing in this state of…

     “...splitting its skin, over and over again.”

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

*

     Dean remembers to knock when he’s already midway in Sam’s science classroom. Mr. Stahl isn’t one to be offended by the Winchester penchant for barging in unannounced. He’s folded up behind his desk behind stacks of papers. For an academic man, he appears wholly unorganized, so he most likely hadn’t even noticed the breach in social etiquette.

     “Mr. Winchester! Good to see you.” Mr. Stahl stands up, chair scraping the tiles. He’s shorter than Dean—round face, balding, and glasses he rescued from the last bastion of the 80s. The first time Dean met him, he’d cracked a joke in Sam’s ear that the man would probably look exactly the same in another ten years. It was during a parent-teacher conference, and his little brother hadn’t appreciated Dean’s finely honed wit at all. 

     John had been on a hunt, a Rawhead in Alabama. Dean was the ‘parent’ that day. Most days. All days, if they dwell too long on what really counts.

     “Hey, man,” Dean greets. “Just picking up Sammy’s stuff.”

     Stahl smiles, a wholehearted gesture. He means all of his smiles. These are the type of people who never recover when men like Dean or John pull back the curtain. “Ope, I heard. Sam had a tumble, yeah?”

     The skin on Dean’s face is stretched taut, tight over his cheekbones. He gathers a liberal amount of wherewithal to nod. 

     A ‘tumble’. 

     No. 

     A poltergeist crushed Sam’s leg underneath a bookshelf.

     Can’t say that.

     So...yes, a normal, wholesome, Norman Rockwell ‘tumble’.

     Dean takes note of the trashcan, providing the urge to puke wins out. Mr. Stahl digs through the various, chaotic stacks, a constant stream of small talk filling the air. Dean listens, polite, anxious. He surveys the classroom, imagining Sam in front of one the Bunsen burners, disguised as the kind of kid he should be in an oversized lab coat and tinted goggles. Dean sighs, spins back to Stahl. Beyond the teacher, something snags his eye.

     A sketch.

     Sam’s sketch.

     From the conservatory.

     Dean grins, approaches, his index finger tracing the lines. “He worked really hard on this.”

     Mr. Stahl positions himself, expression slackening from concentration to a benevolent pride. “He did. It paid off. Best report of the bunch.”

     Dean runs his calloused thumb beneath ‘instar’. “Gave me a whole speech about this. Such a nerd.”

     Stahl’s leather shoes squeak on the linoleum as he pivots closer to press a document into Dean’s hands. “Tell Sam not to worry about any assignments until he’s back. He’s already ahead.”

     “What’s this?”

     “His report, about the Monarchs. I’m glad you're here—was hoping to call you in anyway.”

     Dean swallows the bug of worry. “What’s up?”

     The teacher pushes the glasses up the bridge of his nose, the epitome of nonthreatening. “Your brother’s a talented writer. Never had a student do this project like he did.”

     “That’s good, right?”

     “Of course. It’s just, he makes this comparison. In the report. How the concept of ‘instar’ outside of zoology is similar to the experience of a combat trauma survivor.”

     Silence. Dean white knuckles the pages, not certain where to look, waiting for his cue to react. Stahl clears his throat, solicitude, concern, things Dean usually doesn’t touch with a ten foot pole. The man rifles the typed paper and points to a specific paragraph, guiding Dean’s curiosity. “He makes the argument that trauma survivors subsist as ‘instar’ in the human lifecycle, and that their continuing survival hinges on negotiating the thin line between oscillation and stagnation. Between coping and not coping.”

     Dean doesn’t want to be here. Yet, Sam got him here. Always Sam. Always places he doesn’t want to be. How is it that his little brother has found a way to continue this conversation without even being present? Dean brought him to the conservatory. Obligation over.

     Stahl is watching Dean, gauging. Finally, “Sam routinely has insights of this calibre, but...I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if everything was all right at home.”

     Dean steels himself. At the very least, he’s a liar, so this is supposed to be effortless. It feels like betrayal. “Sam’s great. We’re great. Everything’s great.”

     The teacher’s eyes crinkle at the corners, accepting the relief. Dean’s not stupid though. The older man hears the lie, but has no recourse. 

     The need to exit, to extract himself, to surrender without it seeming like surrender, is imperative. Dean withdraws, folding up the report and safely tucking it in his inner jacket pocket. “Well, thanks and all. Gotta get going. Sam’s waitin’.”

     Stahl nods, tracking every inch of Dean’s flight. “Hope to have him back in class soon.”

     Dean veers away. Sam won’t be back in class soon. He’d insisted Dean collect his homework, just in case, but they’re packed up, ready to hit the road in the morning. Sam won’t be coming back here. There will be another science classroom. Another teacher. Then another, and another. Sam’s leg will heal. It’ll break again, eventually. Maybe, when it happens next, Dean won’t get there in time, and they’ll have to amputate.

     “...splitting its skin, over and over again.”

     Dean halts at the threshold, fixates on the toes of his boots. Without changing direction, he asserts, “Thanks for looking out for him.”

     Before Mr. Stahl can answer, Dean’s gone—an apparition imprinted on the membrane of the halls.

*

     Dean’s on his second glass of whiskey when Sam stumbles into the war room. He glares at his brother over the top of the crystal—at sunken sockets, at frail pallor, at livid, mottled black and blues...at the bandaged, frankensteined arm cradled in a sling.

     He suffers a jolting image of the last time Sam wore a sling .

     Wishes he could forget that too.

     Sam sizes him up for a solid twenty seconds, swaying minutely on his sock clad soles. Dean emphatically sips the alcohol, swirls the remaining amber. Waiting. Sam’s gaze flickers to the container, near empty.

     “Macallan 25. Bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

     It was Bobby’s. They only drink it when someone dies, or when they stop the world from ending. It’s historically both at the same time. Two birds, one bottle. 

     Dean, dismissive, “You should be in bed. It’s late.” 

     “By that logic, so should you.” 

     He answers Sam by draining the last sip, slamming it down, and pouring another.

     Dean reclines in his seat, stretches out his legs in a deceptively casual sprawl. There’ve been numerous nights like this. There’s nothing Sam can say that Dean isn’t prepared to slash to smithereens. He’s right. Sam’s wrong. Sam thinks he can push Dean somewhere right now, push him into a place Dean doesn’t want to be again. He’s not getting his paws on the control panel tonight. Not this time.

     Sam places a steadying hand on the table—his free hand, his one free hand, the hand with Dean’s finger shaped bruises around his wrist—and sighs. “How long is this going to last?”

     “How long is what going to last?” Dean’s voice is whetted, crackling. This is the fight he’s been craving since he hauled Sam out of the rapids.

     Sam visually tames an eye-roll, gesturing to indicate Dean, the liquor, the room, them, everything. “This. The moping. Being pissed off.”

     Dean sucks in a breath through his nostrils, a calm of red clarity descending. “I guess until you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t be.”

     Sam sags, strings cut. Odd. New, or newer. A new lever. “I didn’t come in here to argue.”

     Dean sits up, props on his elbows, poised. “Shouldn’t have come in here then.”

     They stare at each other. Dean knows it’s all there, in his face. He knows Sam is seeing it. It’s just a matter of what Sam’s up to dispute. He’s already acting infuriatingly off mark. He endures at the control panel, obstinate. But it’s belated. They’ve blown way past the stage where Sam can trick Dean into not having an argument. This is it.

     Sam licks his lips, looks away, looks back. Fits and starts, a silent equivocation. “Okay, fine. Want a reason? According to Dad, I was ‘minimizing the collateral damage’, right? You always quote that one.”

     Dean punches the map with the now empty glass once more—the unsheathing of a weapon.

     Another sigh. Sam leans heavier into the surface, pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, Dean, I don’t know what you want me to say. What else was I supposed to do? It was going to collapse, either way. There wasn’t a choice.”

     “That’s bullshit ,” Dean hisses.

     The first spark of anger lights in his brother, “What are you really pissed at? Huh? Me, or the situation? I made a call, you didn’t like it, and now you can’t handle it.”

     In a flash, Dean’s on his feet, chair tipped to the floor behind him. The dramatic smashing of the lowball against the far wall resonants throughout the entire bunker. “You let go! You made me... ” They fill in the blanks. Fact is, no one needs to explain themselves here.

     Sam hasn’t moved one iota, hasn’t even flinched. Sympathy, empathy, sorrow. Not anger anymore, not even frustration. “Dean…” conciliatory. “I’m fine. It worked out. I’m alive.”

     Dean’s fingernails dig into his palms. The single, fragile crystal wasn’t adequately satisfying. “You didn’t know that.”

     Sam shakes his head, “No. I didn’t.”

     “ Christ . You’re a real piece of work.”

     Sam steps closer, giving the scattered shards a wide berth, “What are we even arguing about here?”

     Dean wants to pull away. Sam does this. Reroutes them to the starting line, seizes authority, like he has a script for this, like he has the correct answers. “You can’t do that again. I don’t care if I’m about to be decapitated, you hold the fuck on .”

     Sam’s directly in front of him now, indubitably compassionate, unfaltering, fiercely open. “You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”

     “What the hell are you talking about?”

     Dean doesn’t want to be here.

     Sam holds his gaze, too sincere, too discerning, a spotlight chasing Dean from every viable hiding place. “Stop pretending I can or will make a different choice next time. It won’t make it easier. We’ll end up right back here, saying things we already know. Arguing about nothing.”

     All the levers. All the switches. All the keys. Dean thought he was ready. This is be better Dean, this is be smarter Dean. He clenches his jaw, chokes on his tongue—tastes the acid of responses he doesn’t mean and the bitterness of responses he’ll always mean, but will never say out loud. 

     Sam, misty, head canted. He’s dry, and safe, and breathing. Dean’s looking at him, but all he sees is a drowned corpse. He’ll always see some incarnation of that in Sam now. It will be added to the pile of almost, of undone, of resurrection. A victim pile.

     Sam taps his arm, senses the spiral. “Aren’t you tired? ‘Cause I am. You want this, you’ve always wanted this. This is our life. Stop taking it out on me.”

     Suddenly, Dean’s seventeen, looking down at his brother for one of the last times before Sam claims the status of tallest Winchester. This is Sam, thirteen and grown up too much, defining words to Dean as if they’re a cure-all, talking to Dean about Dean without Dean even realizing, understanding Dean without Dean understanding himself.

     “...between oscillation and stagnation. Between coping and not coping.”

     “...splitting its skin, over and over again”

     “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

     Sam helps him clean up the mess. Dean closes the whiskey, stows it, and observes his brother dumping the dustbin of broken glass into the trash. He’s had to do that a lot—rectify the physical ramifications of Dean’s misplaced fury. Every time Dean forgets, he tells himself it won’t happen again. Yet, here it is, laid bleakly within reach. 

     Dean’s crooked. 

     There’s an irreversible bent, gradually beating him to submission. 

     Yeah...he’s tired too.

     They don’t say anything, moving in synch, unspoken communication. He helps Sam back to bed, dims Sam’s desk lamp, and hovers longer than necessary. It’s painful, like that’s an excuse. Dean doesn’t want to be here, but he will always be here. In the places Sam forces him to be. The version of this where that isn’t so is the version where Sam never made it out of Oregon.

     At four AM, Dean’s laying paralyzed in his own bed, hallucinating patterns on the ceiling. He thinks about chrysalises, about Monarch butterflies, about molting, about trauma, about coping and not coping.

     He thinks about the difference between oscillation and stagnation, about who he is and what he is.

     He thinks about choices, about arguments, about levers and control panels.

     He thinks about pretending, and what that costs (the cost of war).

     He thinks about the definition of insanity.

     “...splitting its skin, over and over again.”

     Dean closes his eyes, and listens to the sound of a roaring river.

     In his dreams, Sam’s sketching in a journal, and teaching Dean about the word ‘instar’.

 

END