“Maybe this is it,” Sam said, his voice quiet and even, careful and resigned. Like he was trying to find the best way to phrase something diplomatically. “Maybe this is…I had a lot longer than anybody…than I thought.” His eyes blinked closed and then snapped open, jerked to Dean’s right and then back to his face. Dean’s fists clenched.
“Sam,” he said, angrily. “You can’t just – give up. Fight it. Fight this.”
“Can’t,” Sam said, smile thin and awful. “Too tired.” His eyes and skin were dull. The bruises on his skin seemed to have spread and grown darker. He looked half like a ghost already.
Dean wheeled and stormed out of the ward. Part of him panged at leaving Sam behind, but he would be there. Wouldn’t go anywhere until Dean got back with something that could save Sam. Wouldn’t (die) go without Dean watching.
Dead end after dead end after dead end.
His journal, John’s journal, Bobby’s journal, and nothing. A whole bunch of fakes and liars and crackpots, no one with a reaper on a leash or a magic healing touch and Dean even tried fucking praying just in case anyone was listening, off chance some angel up there still cared two shits about the Winchesters.
He sat there in the debris of his increasingly frantic search and felt himself think, maybe this is it. Here’s where the miracles stop. Face the music.
Dean was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he very much wanted to cry and had run entirely out of tears. Sam was dying. And he was pretty much out of options.
He went back to the hospital. The doctor stopped him in the hallway outside Sam’s room, looking frazzled and tired and confused. I’m sorry, he said, I don’t know what else we can do. Dean brushed by him into the room.
Sam was restrained, now, which Dean guessed had something to do with the reddening fingernail shaped welts under his eyes. He was lying back and staring at the ceiling, eyes darting back and forth.
“Sammy,” Dean said, as he stepped inside. Sam’s head turned to the side, and he blinked, once.
“Dean,” he said, after a moment of staring. “You came back.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, hoarsely. Sam looked thinner, like he hadn’t eaten. Weren’t they supposed to feed you in these places? “I did.”
Sam’s head flopped back to looking up at the ceiling. He nodded thoughtfully. Dean cleared his throat.
“Sammy,” he said, carefully. “I haven’t…I haven’t found anything. Yet. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop-”
“Dean,” said Sam, and sounded more alert, maybe. His eyes (dull, almost glassy) met Dean’s. “Do me a favor?”
“Anything,” Dean said, fervently. Sam smiled that strange, stretched expression.
“Stop looking,” he said, quietly. “And just don’t leave me here alone. I don’t wanna…” He trailed off. Dean was grateful. Didn’t want to hear Sam say I don’t want to die in a hospital where the nurses aren’t even hot.
No, Dean wanted to say. No, I’m not giving up on you, I’m not going to do that, you can’t make me. But Sam looked so tired. So thin, like someone was filing him away as sliver at a time. (Sam’s dying, Dean. This is it. This is all you get.)
You can’t just give up. (I can’t just say no.) Maybe they could keep him going longer, here. Give Dean more time- (for what? To find more dead ends?) There’s nothing we can do.
“Okay, Sammy,” Dean said, and choked on the words. “Okay, I won’t leave you here. I promise.”
They wouldn’t let him just take Sam out. Smuggling him off the ward was harder than he’d expected. Sneaking was what they did best, though. Uniforms got you everything. That and looking like you knew what you were doing.
Sam wanted to walk out. Dean let him, even though Sam looked like a stiff breeze might shatter him (or worse). Sam was twitchy and restless and anxious, kept looking at Dean like he might change faces at any minute. (He wondered, briefly, how often Lucifer borrowed his face, and then felt a little nauseous.)
“Wish we had the Impala,” Dean groused as they climbed into the car of the week, trying to sound normal. Sam twitched one shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said blearily. “The car that saved the world.” It had only been eight days. Sam’s nails were starting to come off the beds. Dean stared at them, moridly fascinated. Sam twitched, eyelids fluttering, and made a small noise of pain.
“Sam?” Dean asked, and Sam shook his head, bit his lip.
“Nothing,” he said, “It’s nothing,” and Dean wondered if Sam knew that every one of his smiles was ripping Dean’s heart out of his chest slowly.
They holed up in a cabin on the edge of town. Dean made tomato soup out of a can and pushed it into Sam’s hands, but he just stared at it like he didn’t know what to do with it. The clothes he’d been wearing when he’d been brought into the hospital hung around his shoulders, collarbones jutting from the skin where his shirt sagged away from his body.
“Come on,” Dean said, more harshly than he meant to. “Eat something.”
Sam looked up at him. “I’m sorry,” he said, quietly. “It smells like blood.”
“You need to eat,” Dean said, and hated the slight note of pleading in his voice. Sam looked down at the bowl and nodded a little. Took one spoonful and lifted it up. His hand shook and it spilled back into the bowl, a few drops splattering on the table. Sam dropped the spoon and looked at them, made a small, frustrated chuffing noise.
“Dean,” he said, “I shouldn’t,” and Dean knew the end of that sentence: be here, be a burden on you, take me back to the hospital where they can deal with me.
“Shut up, Sam,” Dean said, roughly. I’m not leaving you there. “Move over. Lemme help.”
Sam’s eyes ticked over to the stove and fixed there for a moment, like he was listening to something. Tilted his head to the side, briefly, and then looked back at Dean. “He’s right, you know,” he said, and Dean swallowed.
“Sam, he’s…Lucifer’s not here. I can’t…what did he say?”
Sam’s eyes half closed and then snapped back open. “You should go out for groceries,” he said, voice strange, almost lilting. “Leave your gun on the table.”
Dean choked on nothing. Wanted to strangle Sam, wanted to grab him and hold onto him and scream at the whole damn world for doing this to them. “Sam,” he growled, and Sam looked at him, directly at him, and his eyes were wet.
“I can’t do this,” Sam said. “Not this, Dean. Please tell me it’s been enough.”
Dean sat down hard and filled the spoon with soup. He held it up. “Eat your goddamn soup,” he said, roughly. “Just that, okay? We’re not done yet.”
Sam was quiet for a moment. Finally he wrapped his hand around Dean’s over the spoon and ate a tiny mouthful, and Dean could see his face burning with humiliation, eyes lowered in shame.
So this was what broke them, in the end.
Dean didn’t sleep because Sam didn’t sleep. Sam curled up on the couch with a ratty blanket Dean found in a cabinet and didn’t sleep, just lay there eyes open watching nothing. “Hey Dean,” he said, sounding more lucid, for the moment, “Remember that time when I was a kid and I made you watch "Watership Down" with me? I couldn’t sleep for like a month, I swear.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, after a moment. “That movie was fucking freaky, though. I mean, rabbits, who’d have thought?” Sam’s mouth twitched at the corner.
“Fiver’s dreams,” he said. “Those were the worst.” Dean looked at Sam sidelong. Sam’s gaze had wandered over to the corner and fixed there, and he was chewing absently on his lip. He tilted his head thoughtfully, and Dean’s skin crawled. He could almost hear the conversation going on without him. “No,” Sam said, like Dean had said something, “I think you’re more of a Bigwig, honestly.”
“Sam,” Dean said, or started to say, and then stopped. “Yeah,” he said. “Okay. Whatever you say, nerd.”
Sam snorted. Just for a moment, it was like things were okay. Then Sam half closed his eyes and murmured, “Stop it,” under his breath, and Dean dug his fingernails into his wrist so he didn’t answer.
Dean fell asleep without meaning to. When he woke up, Sam was pacing back and forth and looked like he’d been doing it for a while. He was nodding, thoughtfully, like he was listening to someone and agreeing with what they were saying. Dean cleared his throat and Sam paused and turned his head to look at him.
The circles under Sam’s eyes were darker. In the shadow of the early morning light, his face looked briefly almost skull-like. “You should have woken me up,” Dean said.
Sam looked confused. “Why?”
The answer that popped into Dean’s head was I don’t know how much time we have left. Saying that would have…he couldn’t say it. Instead he said, “Didn’t you get bored?”
Sam shook his head, minutely. Twitched again. “Not really,” he said, eyes doing that small slide sideways again, and Dean wanted to flinch. Sam looked at him a moment longer and then went back to pacing.
“Uh huh,” Dean said, after a moment. “Should I even ask?”
“No,” Sam said. “Probably not.” He was trembling, Dean noticed. Just a little. Just enough. Oh god, Sam. He shook his head sharply, and grabbed a handful of his hair, tugged at it. “No,” he said, “No. I know it’s not you.”
Part of Dean wanted to bolt, to run, to not see this. To not have to bear witness to his brother who’d fought through so fucking much coming apart at the seams, (dying) fading by inches. Wanted not to feel helpless, to believe that there was something he could do.
He paced over and tried to pull Sam’s hand from his hair. “Dude,” he said. “You’re going to-” Sam let go, and a clump of hair came away with his hand. Sam and Dean both looked at it. It had just…come off. Like hair from a mangy dog.
“Huh,” Sam said. Dean felt his eyes prickle and blinked hard. Coming apart. He started shaking a little more, and stumbled over to the couch, half fell onto it. Dean followed him. Helpless. Useless.
“Sam,” he said, urgently, “What-”
“It’s normal,” Sam said, and then shook his head. “I mean, it happens. Like the fingernails. If you don’t sleep. Your hair starts coming out. And there’s other stuff too, like muscle cramps and a suppressed immune system and psychosis, except I guess I’ve pretty much already-”
“Stop it,” Dean snapped. “How do you even –” Why do you do ths to yourself, was the real question. It wasn’t like this was Sam’s fault, though. He could blame Sam for a lot of things. Couldn’t blame him for this, though.
“I looked it up,” Sam said, with a tight expression that was probably supposed to be one of those fucking smiles. “I was curious, and I had a lot of time.” His head did that little tilt again, like he was listening. “I tried to read something this morning. I couldn’t. It didn’t make sense.” He made a small, hoarse sound. “I’m kind of mad about that, you know?”
Dean wanted Sam to stop talking. He didn’t want Sam to stop talking, ever. “Thank you for being here,” Sam said, after a moment’s silence. “I just. It’s worse when I’m alone.”
Sam was dying.
For some reason, it had just sunk in. Sam was curled up on the couch again. His eyes were bloodshot and three of his nails had come off and dropped to the floor, where Sam was staring at them listlessly. Quiet.
Sam was dying and there wasn’t a fucking thing Dean could do about it, because this wasn’t some curse or wound or anything, it was Sam’s soul eating him from the inside out. This was just Sam, and this was them, out of miracles.
He sat down heavily on the couch next to Sam. It took him a few moments to realize that the small sounds weren’t just Sam’s ragged breathing. He was crying. Fucking crying.
“Sammy?” Dean said, and Sam twitched, violently. Dean edged over and reached out carefully, touched Sam’s shoulder, and like that was some kind of signal Sam turned and curled into Dean’s shoulder, face pressed into his jacket.
He seemed so light. Like a wisp-of-Sam and nothing more. “I can’t,” he said, voice cracking. “I don’t-”
“Hey,” said Dean, and he could feel his shoulder getting damp, how hard Sam was shaking like he was trying to hold in all the sound, and Dean wondered if Lucifer had liked it when Sam cried the way that Alastair had sometimes and then hated himself for wondering. “Hey, Sammy-”
“I don’t want to die like this,” Sam said, voice breathless and broken. “I don’t want to leave you, I don’t want to – I don’t want to be the thing that breaks you, Dean, why does it have to be now, I just want a little longer to help you, I know I’m not enough but I wanted to be something, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-”
Oh god. Oh god.
“Sam,” Dean said, trying to cut his brother off, trying to say something, but it was like Sam didn’t even hear him, just curled against Dean like he had when he was a kid (tiny and scared and brave) and said I’m sorry I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to I didn’t-
“God, Sam,” Dean said, and he could feel himself shaking, eyes itching and spilling over. “God, Sam, just stop. Just – it’s not your fault. This isn’t your fault.”
“Things have been so shitty for so long,” Sam said, and his voice was muffled, wrecked. “I just. Dean. Tell me it was worth it?” And Dean heard the real question, tell me I was worth it.
He kissed the top of Sam’s head. Ran his hand through Sam’s hair and tried not to cry more when more came out between his fingers. “Yes,” he said, without having to think about it. “Yes. God. Yes.” The only thing I’d trade you for is more years with you.
Dammit. Damn the whole world, Sammy, why can’t we come ahead of all of them, just for once? Why do you have to be the price?
On the twelfth day, Sam got sick. Low grade fever kind of sick, with an awful dry cough that made Sam’s whole body spasm, not that there was much to move. Dean couldn’t even get a little soup down him. Sam just lay there, exhausted and burning like embers, and Dean sat next to him and put fucking cold cloths on his forehead.
He wasn’t terribly coherent. Mostly mumbled in a mix of gibberish words and what sounded like Enochian, head tossing from side to side, eyes wide open and unfocused, million yard stare looking where Dean couldn’t see. Seeing what Dean couldn’t protect him from. He stayed anyway, though Sam hardly seemed aware of him most of the time.
Held Sam’s hand (warm and dry like parchment), tried to get him to swallow some pills that didn’t do anything.
Sam didn’t have the strength to scream at his waking nightmares. His litany of please please please was just a soft, ragged whisper, almost inaudible if you weren’t in the same room, weren’t listening. Nothing more than that. Just please please please.
Dean listened to every word. Clutched every moment. A little bit longer. A little bit more time.
Sam had barely been lucid even for a few moments for five days. He was burning up with fever, curled up against Dean’s side and rocking back and forth when he suddenly stilled. Dean froze. “Dean,” Sam said, his voice wrecked, barely more than a hoarse whisper. “Dean. You’ll stay. Right? Stay. Until I go to sleep.”
“Yeah,” said Dean. Swallowed hard and put a hand on Sam’s forehead, warm and dry. “Yeah. I’ll stay. Long as it takes. I’ll stay.”
“Good,” said Sam. “Good. All I want. It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”
His eyes drifted toward closed. His voice faded into mumbling and went silent.
It was five PM on a Friday when Dean realized that he couldn’t feel Sam breathing. His skin was still hot, and Dean counted six more heartbeats.
He didn’t let go of Sam for a lot longer. It was like holding a shell, a husk. All the Samness gone from it between one moment and the next.
It was like maybe, if he held on long enough, Sam might come back. They’d get one more miracle.
Just one more. Please, one more.
He buried Sam on a Saturday. Should have burned the body, but there was hardly anything to burn. Hardly anything left. Not worth it. Not fucking worth it.
He left the grave unmarked. There was no one left who would want to find it.
Sat down on the front porch of the house with a bottle he didn’t feel like drinking and wondered, if he just stayed here, how long it would take for the world to end.
(Too long, he thought. Too long.)