Sam hasn’t been hunting long when it happens - just a few years, actually, with the seventh grade finally under his belt. It takes him a long time to admit to his father that something’s wrong, because his dad usually turns his own fear into anger or disappointment; when he shows him the scratch, John does what Dean calls ‘stitching and bitching’, something that gave Sam a kick when he was red-eyed and crying into scratchy motel sheets weeks before, just after they’d moved from Arkansas. Dean’s still joking a little while Dad loops the black thread through Sam’s forearm again and again, poking fun at Sam being nearly taken out by the equivalent of a witch whose house woulda’ probably been made out of candy.
The wound itches. A lot.
Sam pulls down his sleeve over the bandage and goes to school with a bruised forehead and a tingling in his fingers.
“You alright, Sammy?” Dean asks, adjusting his coat. He’s gonna be going out with a girl tonight. Sam can tell because he’s sneaking cologne, and he always has the foulest smelling cologne that makes Sam’s nose practically recoil into his face. Sam wipes at his forehead, sweat dotting his hairline, and grumbles pitifully. It’s just hot. Summertime, bad AC. He’s stripped down to boxers and a T-Shirt by the time night rolls around and the smothering air loosens into something a bit nicer.
John finds him warm, warm like a furnace. The gruff exterior lessens, turns into something that is a ghost of a normal father as he tucks his boy into bed, gives him some medication, has him drink more water; Sam just can’t get enough of the stuff. Sam swallows, and his throat feels rough, sandpaper rough, the taste of dirt in his mouth. Dean returns in good spirits, which shatter into a million little pieces when he sees John’s long shadow at Sam’s bedside.
“It’s just a fever,” John says, but he’s got his eye on that cut on Sam’s arm like a hawk, his fingers pressed to Sam’s pulse. That’s all it is. Just that. Probably just an infection. Dean takes over the warmed seat while John sneaks into a clinic and steals away what he needs.
“Dean,” Sam says quietly, “I don’t feel so good.”
Dean promises they’ll get it worked out. They always do.
When he peels back the sweaty, dirtied bandage to replace it, a soft green leaf springs forward in freedom, connected to a thin, jagged branch. Dean figures he must be dreaming, because it’s jutting out between Sam’s strained stitches, and that just can’t be right.
The witch is dead, and they have nothing on what the fuck is happening. All Sam knows is there’s something awful is concocting inside him. John and Dean rub his stiff fingers and mumble about curses and hexes and wizardry (seriously, Dean) and voodoo and – Sam just wants to drink and sleep. Ultimately, they’re empty handed, so Sam elects to just put his hand in theirs since they’ve got nothing better to hold right about now. John goes out into the night for weeks, searching every little ‘witches cavern’ and hoodoo specialist.
“We’ll figure something out,” is Dean’s mantra. He whips up some pancakes and they eat in silence. Truth be told, if you take away the stiffness and the pain in his bones, Sam’s perfectly content that Dean is hardly leaving the motel like he used to every night, to hunt or to go out with girls or to just get away for a bit. The guilt doesn’t settle in until he sees the fear in Dean’s eyes, when another thin, dark branch sprouts from Sam’s neck. Two soft leaves unfurl from the top.
The cramps that follow leave him curled up in Dean’s lap, his brother’s hand carding through his hair as he groans and sobs. How long will this take, he wonders? Should he be ready to die? “I’m not ready to die, Dean,” he whispers, throat thick, rough like bark.
“Not gonna let that happen,” Dean says, fiercely.
They lay in the silence until John returns.
There’s a time where they realize this isn’t a short-term thing.
It’s probably after the first few months.
“You good to go, Sam?” John asks gruffly. Sam pokes his head out from the bathroom, broken free of his lamenting – he’s missed a whole two years of school, and that means he’s gonna be behind, if he ever even gets to go. California has lost it’s enjoyment anyway, because he has to layer on a hoodie to hide the misshapen gray-brown texture darkening his neck and shoulders and collarbone. He picks off the leaves sometimes, but they just come back, sometimes in pairs or more, so he tries not to mess with it. Besides, his left hand doesn’t flex anymore. No use wasting his flexibility on dingy plants.
“Just a minute, Dad.”
“You’ve had ‘just a minute’ an hour ago,” John sighs. Sam’s learned not to take his impatience to heart; Dad still struggles through each day for answers that Sam’s given up finding. And nothing has answered Sam’s prayers just yet, anyway.
“Move over, Pinocchio,” Dean says, sliding himself into the small bathroom with Sam and reaches for the jeans hanging in Sam’s splotched, good hand. “You should just ask, man. You know I got your back.”
Sam jerks the pants from Dean and doesn’t mask the indignation. It’s impossible to stop the blush from burning across his face and ears, either; it’s not like he hasn’t joked about it before, but today if feels like an ugly thing. Anger bubbles up heavy in his chest, which feels rickety, not his own, unfamiliar. “… I can do it.”
“Sorry,” Dean replies, hands up in surrender. “I just–”
“You just don’t get it!” It’s a higher voice, but sharp like a lightning snap, or like thunder on fast-forward, all a rush of vicious air. Sam shoves Dean back with a surge of violence he’s not sure how to control anymore. “I don’t want you help. I want to be okay! I wanna leave without hiding my face! I wanna’ go back to school and see people and – and I – I – I don’t wanna – !!”
“Sammy – “
“Get out!! Get out and leave me alone!!”
Dean doesn’t leave, because this isn’t the first outburst. He just reaches out, and it’s as if his touch relaxes Sam’s body; he crumples forward and cries into Dean’s chest, deep, ugly sobs that make his muscles cord and move like stiff vines across his bones. John sits down beside them, his face a stoic, dark mask while Dean’s goes pale and wet.
Only one of Sam’s eyes cry anymore; he looks up at Dean and John, one of the two eyeballs white and hazel, the other a solid, ugly brown. “I want my eye back. Tell me we’re gonna fix it. Tell me we’re gonna get closer to fixing it.”
Dean pets a hand over his back, trying to soothe. There are lumps and bumps there, small knots.
“You’ll be okay. Me and dad, we’re going out on a lead tonight. And I bet we’ll get something this time,” Dean says, always faster than John’s silent honesty. He plants a kiss in Sam’s hair, the scent reminding him of a wintry forest hunt. “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay, you’ll be okay…”
Bobby’s always found the best leads, but they’ve all lead to… not much. Even so, Sam’s been finding himself limping around the old scrapyard a lot. He’s just had his fifteenth birthday, but he doesn’t eat anymore, just drinks a lot. Going out isn’t much of an option anymore. Really, the only other people that know his existence at the Singer place is Rufus. He showed him how to play a mean harmonica, since he’s no good for guitars now.
His hair’s gone green now, curly and wild, which is nice. In the winter it all turned red and orange and yellow and then just fell out altogether, and at this point Sam’s gotten so used to all of this that he laughed about it for a good hour straight while Dean attempted to look sour about it.
As it turns out, none of this is very funny to Dean now. It’s kind of a role reversal.
It’s a nice summer day when Dean finds him out back, sitting quietly in an old dingy lawn chair. Bobby’s old mutt keeps nudging at him for a pet, but Sam’s really just too tired today for affection.
“What’s up, kiddo?” Dean says with a cheeky little grin, not looking at crown of branches around his brother’s collar bones. Sam motions for him to join him in the next chair, a soft sigh escaping his lips. He lost the ability to talk very well, his voice a croaky sound that reverberates through him. He knows it makes his brother sad, because his blabbering and defiant, grumpy replies to everything was one of the few things that didn’t change up until now.
“Mmn. Not much,” he rasps.
“It’s nice out. You wanna help me work on one of Bobby’s old trucks?”
Snort. He doesn’t help, particularly. He just keeps Dean company.
Which is the same as helping, in Dean’s mind.
He doesn’t speak up for a moment, gathering the strength.
“Dean… You’ll take care of Dad, right?”
Dean’s defenses rise. “Don’t start that shit, Sam. Don’t talk like that.”
Sam’s green eyelashes flutter, and he motions abortively at his legs. When Dean follows the signal with his eyes, he sees where the grimness is birthed, and his breath is a literal sound, a catching in his throat that rips all the gruff bravado from his posture. Something sad takes it’s place, a little seed of doubt that anything will be okay, in the end.
“Can’t move them… they just – um. They rooted. You know?”
They are, too. Rooted into the earth. Rooted deep.
Sam sits with Dean all night, playing the harmonica until the breaths are too difficult to muster. Dean carefully uncurls Sam’s wooden fingers from the instrument and plays it for him instead. Sam’s proud of him – he’s got it down.
Still not better than him, though.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Sam says.
Those used to be Dean’s words, but they mean very different things now.
It’s just… at a certain point, you have to accept.
And Sam’s done denying.
In the daylight, Dean is shielded in Sam’s shade. His jagged arms are cast upward, twisting and winding and forking into new paths. His torso is eating him up, scabbing him over, leaving just his face at the point where the branches begin. It doesn’t hurt as much as Sam thought it would, actually. But he can’t see. He can’t seeanything more. John keeps his hand on his son’s face, though, and Sam can feel that. And Sam can hear Bobby’s voice. And he knows Dean’s there. That, he just knows.
“Dad…” he rasps. “S’okay… I know you tried… I know, Dad…”
“Won’t stop trying,” John says. He thinks he’s crying. Isn’t that something? One of the few times Dad cries, and Sam can’t even see it. “We’ll keep looking. Me and Dean, and even this son-of-a-bitch Bobby. Ain’t any shortage of lore and magic out there.”
Guilt, Sam thinks. He’s feeling guilt. He took Sam into the hunter’s life.
And he got himself turned into a fucking tree.
Sam chuckles roughly. “I know, Dad.” A pause. “… Dean…?”
John’s hand vanishes, replaced with another familiar, warm one. He’ll always know that feeling. The last few years, that hand’s been ruffling his hair and helping him, and no matter how angry it had made him, it was also a reminder that he wasn’t alone. It’s been so difficult. He wishes his brother could just – pluck him up like a flower, joke around and watch reruns of The Twilight Zone with him on Bobby’s old junker of a television.
“I’m – here, Sammy,” is the grim, hitching reply.
“Dean,” Sam’s paper-thin voice whispers, “I’m – kind of – scared – ”
His own echoing voice is the last thing he hears, before the remnants of his face is swallowed whole beneath Dean’s trembling hands. What happens ever, Sam doesn’t know. He thinks maybe he feels the rumble of Dean slapping his hand against the trunk. He hears him screaming, distantly, and then his ears are gone. Everything’s just – gone. All that he has, now, is the sound of his own mind, reminding him that this is all that’s left. That and his prayers, which drift away on deaf ears.
In the days after – at least, he thinks it’s days – he feels the warmth of someone’s back as they lounge against him. It’s his comfort.
“If you let anything happen to him, Bobby, I’ll kick your fucking ass.”
Bobby is aware it’s an understatement, really. But Dean doesn’t leave the residence for a while. He stays put while John carries on their work – stays with Sam, because that’s how it’s always been, even if only one of them can see or talk now, because who else will solemnly mock the nest of birds up there? – and when John goes radio silent, Dean rests under Sam’s shade one last time before Rufus finally learns more, tells him what he needs to know. He doesn’t tell anyone what he’s ready to do. It’s his job, though, to protect his brother. All those years without any answers had driven him half-mad anyway, and if he does something a little insane, it’s not like people couldn’t have seen it coming. Right? Nearly twenty years old. Does that count as a decently-lived life? Sam’s been struggling through his since that awful night while Dean fucking watched, watched and made false promises and – and he can’t fail anymore, because he just can’t take it –
He can hear Sam’s voice still, brittle and raw.
‘I’m – kind of – scared.’
That’s all he needs to know, to do this.
Dean walks away from the Singer salvage yard, aimlessly seeking out a crossroads, and then – he buries his freedom in a small tin box.