Prompt: ohsam by phreakycat: In "The End" when Dean tells Sam that they should stay away from one another, Sam takes it to heart. He cuts off all ties with Bobby and any other mutual acquaintances.
Summary: You've seen isolation before, but not like this.
Notes: This fic got out of hand. It got long and it got weird and it didn't end up like I expected and I'm not sure I like it. But it still happened, and there are some things that might be okay about it, and I did write it. So - proof that I am still doing things with my keyboard. I apologize about the kind of weird layout/formatting; that's just how it happened. And my comfort is awkward. And - I'm done, yep.
“What do you mean, you haven’t seen him? Hasn’t he come by?”
Bobby shrugged. “Not for going on nine months. You haven’t exactly been a regular visitor either.”
“But you haven’t seen him at all?” The younger man paced, expression tightening. “Not even once?”
“Not a word.” Bobby paused, and paged through a book, watching his visitor warily. “Been nothing but quiet.” Across the room, and back. Across and back. Bobby cleared his throat awkwardly. “You don’t think…”
“He’s fine,” Dean snapped. “Don’t talk like there’s any doubt about that.”
After getting back from the future, Dean needed some time to work things out. That was what this break was supposed to be for, right? Working things out? And with that possible future still spinning in his head – Dean didn’t think he could face anyone.
And then time was slipping by, and between Castiel asking for his help with this and that and the other and the apocalypse and maybe, just maybe the fact that he was avoiding making the call because he wanted (needed) Sam to call first…
Should have known better than that, really. It hadn’t worked at Stanford when Dad had told him to get out. Now when Dean had told him to stay out – yeah, Sam had called back once. He wasn’t going to do it again.
He’d still kind of hoped, though. Apologies were never easy. Dean wasn’t looking forward to making his.
And somehow three-quarters of a year had gone by, the apocalypse was moving as sluggishly as ever, and Dean braced himself around the back of a gas station and made the call.
We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service…
Dean frowned and dialed Sam’s cell again, to the same response. Fine, so maybe he’d lost that one. Dean tried the secondary number.
We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service.
The third. The fourth. The first one again.
We’re sorry…we’re sorry…we’re sorry…
It was then, standing in a dirt lot with a series of dead phones and the dull realization that he had no idea where to look for Sam, that he started to feel the first seeds of panic.
“Dean? Been wondering about you boys…”
“I need to know if you’ve seen Sam.”
A pause. “He’s not with you?” Another pause, and an audible swallow.
“No. He’s not.”
Ellen’s voice changed, all business. “How long has he been missing?”
An even longer pause. “Nine months. Look, Ellen, can you just tell me if you’ve seen him, talked to him-”
“Nine-” she swore. “What’s going on with you knuckleheads now?” She fell silent a moment, then said, “Sorry, Dean. I haven’t seen him. I’ll ask around…”
“Maybe better not to,” Dean cut her off. “I don’t know…thanks. If he calls…”
“I’ll let you know straight off.” He could hear it in her voice. Nine months was a long time for a hunter to drop off the radar. If they were still alive.
“Yeah,” Dean said, “I appreciate it.” He hung up.
Sam had vanished off the face of the earth.
Or that’s how it seemed, anyway. Not a word, for nine months. He checked with every hunting contact he could think of, but none of them seemed to know a thing. He called the cell company and asked for their records, but they refused to release them to him. When he offered a federal ID and a badge number, they apologized but insisted that they’d purged those numbers anyway.
And all the time he kept thinking of what he’d said: Pick a hemisphere, Sam. We’re not stronger when we’re together. We’re weaker.
Those words left standing for nine months seemed to have grown huge. So did the country. Sam could be anywhere.
Dean had always bragged that there was nowhere Sam could go that Dean couldn’t find him. That he knew his little brother too well for that.
It seemed that he was being forcefully proven wrong.
But Sam was somewhere out there, he thought stubbornly. Not dead. Not buried or burned or eaten or – worse. Sam was somewhere out there. He wasn’t gone.
Dean widened his net. Asked other hunters casual questions. Slid gradually around to Sam. And noticed little by little that no one would meet his eyes when his brother’s name came up.
The news was cold by the time he found it, but the names weren’t. It was a start, anyway.
“What did you do.”
“Dean Winchester? What are you-”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Tom. My brother. What’d you do?” Silence. He grabbed the front of the hunter’s shirt and shook him hard. “What did you do to him?”
“Nothing,” yelled the man being shaken, more angry than scared. “Just roughed him up a little-”
“Uh-huh. You know where he is now?”
“Just answer the question!”
Nobody knew where Sam had gone. He went to Palo Alto. Nothing. To Lawrence. Nothing. Even to Sarah Blake in fucking New York, who shook her head and bit her lip and asked if she could help.
“I need to find him,” he said desperately to Bobby. “I don’t know what the hell – what do I do now?”
“He’s a Winchester,” Bobby said, something heavy in his voice. “He don’t want to be found, I don’t know that even you will.”
“No,” said Dean, “No.”
He got his lucky break in Nebraska getting drunk and wishing he’d called sooner. Wishing Sam would pick up his damn phone. Wishing that he hadn’t let the kid go in the first place.
“Girl getting you down?” The bartender asked. Dean glowered at him, but when the guy didn’t go away he shook his head.
“Nah. M’brother. You seen him?” He pulled out the picture, old but still recognizable, and slid it across the counter.
“Yeah,” said the bartender. “Yeah, actually. There was a big brawl a couple weeks ago. He was right in the middle of it. Cops said he skipped town, though.”
“Do they know which way?” Dean said, and felt the whiskey start a slow burn in his belly.
The road ended about a half mile into the woods. He had to walk the rest of the way.
The trees were thick here, enough that the light filtered down as green. The road, such as it was, was narrow, uneven, and full of potholes. It started steeply uphill a couple miles in and didn’t let up, winding through the trees.
It was quiet except for the periodic squirrel, and was among a thousand dark and spreading forests he’d been through one of the most bleak and lonely and isolated.
He walked until noon and paused to look back. Everywhere was far behind. Getting here wasn’t easy. You had to know where you were going and exactly how to get there. He wondered how often his quarry made the trek down.
He kept climbing.
Dean ended up in Colorado, in the mountains, about as far from civilization as anyone could get. It wasn’t until he was standing on the porch of the cabin (and it really was a cabin) that he realized he didn’t know what he was going to say. He couldn’t hear anything from inside and wondered if Sam was even there.
He stood there waiting and even as he raised his hand to knock, finally, the door opened and there was Sam, standing looking down at him.
“Come in,” he said, in a voice so flat and neutral it was as good as a condemnation. Dean cringed. He stepped inside as Sam moved away from the door. His brother looked both taller and thinner, like he’d been spun out at the ends. There was a shadow around his jaw and he looked tired and ragged.
“I was looking for you,” Dean said.
“Were you.” Still no inflection. That didn’t seem right and it didn’t bode well. Dean hesitated.
“Yeah. You were pretty hard to find.”
“Uh-huh.” Sam was shuffling around the cabin, rearranging things. Finally, he stopped and turned around. “What do you want?”
Dean blinked. “What?”
“What do you want?” Sam repeated, inexorably. “Something I have that you need? The bag’s in the bedroom, go ahead. Something you forgot to say? Just get it over with.”
Dean was beginning to think someone had started a conversation and dropped him in the middle of it. “I was looking for you,” he said, hoping that would somehow…get something through. Sam shrugged. There was something brittle about him, Dean realized, like if the wind blew the wrong way he might end up in shards of Sam on the floor.
“I gathered,” Sam said. “Pretty hard to get here if you’re not looking. I’m going out.”
“Just out,” Sam said, voice dropping further. “I won’t be long.” He picked up a pack Dean hadn’t noticed and slid out through the door before Dean could stop him.
“Wait,” he started to say, but Sam didn’t even acknowledge his voice. Dean stared after his brother’s back, feeling an empty and growing coldness in the pit of his stomach.
“How did you find this place?” Dean asked, staring at the beer he’d been offered instead of the back still turned to him. Sam shrugged again. It seemed to be the only gesture he could remember.
Silence ensued. Dean cleared his throat.
“It’s fine.” Sam cut him off before the whole thing was even out of his mouth. “I get it. You wanted to know where I was, now you know. Just don’t tell anyone else. I don’t want any hunters turning up.”
Dean couldn’t even find the words to speak. He gaped, almost disbelieving. Sam twitched his head to get some hair out of his face and didn’t even glance around. “Thanks,” he said, apparently taking the silence for agreement. It was still that monotone, nearly eerie, dead voice.
“You don’t need to stay,” Sam went on. “If you don’t want to walk down, go ahead and call Cas. I don’t mind.”
He looked around the cabin while Sam was gone. The place was bare. It had been furnished, but not by Sam; the furniture was old and some of it barely holding together. He glanced in the bedroom and found that the bed had collapsed; there was a heap of blankets and a pillow on the floor. He checked the closet and found the duffel bag Sam had left with, open and empty. His clothes, such as they were, were in the dresser. There were a few books on the shelves, again none of them Sam’s. The kitchen looked like it probably had little more use than the bed in the bedroom.
Dean stood in the middle of it all and murmured, “Jesus Christ.” He checked his phone, meaning to call Bobby, but there was no signal. In case that answered the question of the missing cell phones, he went to look for them, but none of them were there.
There weren’t any IDs either. He found Sam’s wallet, but it was empty. Fake IDs, Stanford ID, everything.
He’d left everything behind and vanished.
It’s not quite another hemisphere, but it sure is the next best thing, a snarky voice in the back of his head murmured, and Dean felt a sick twist of shame start in his gut. There was no beer in the refrigerator. There were several bottles of hard liquor above it.
Every step he took just seemed to make things worse.
Night fell and Sam didn’t come back. Dean started to pace by the time the stars came out and the moon rose. It wasn’t until midnight that Sam opened the door and staggered back in, sweating and panting for air. “You’re still here,” he said to Dean.
“Where were you?” Dean demanded, instead of answering. Sam shook his head.
“Running,” he said, simply, and then slipped by Dean again without a pause and into the bedroom, where the door closed with finality.
It wasn’t locked, but Dean stared at it as though it were impenetrable anyway. Maybe you shouldn’t have come, that same voice from before said. Maybe he doesn’t want you anymore.
He sat down heavily in a chair and tried to think straight. He was still going in circles by the time he registered the fact that there was a sound like an animal whimpering in the extremity of agony somewhere in the cabin.
It took him a moment too long to realize that it was from Sam’s closed bedroom door.
“Leave me alone,” he heard abruptly. “Leave me alone, leave me alone, you can’t, you can’t make me…”
Screw waiting and trying to understand. Dean opened the door and took in one look of Sam curled up tangled in his blankets on the floor, twisting like someone had a fist in his guts. “Sam,” he said, already reaching out, grabbing his shoulder. “Sam!”
His brother lashed out, fists and feet striking with bruising force as he scrambled backward, panting and wide eyed. “Damn you, Lucifer,” he said, “I won’t. I won’t, you can’t make me.” Sam was trembling like he was trying to shake himself apart. Dean’s stomach tried to heave.
“Sam,” he barked. “It’s me. Dean.”
Sam looked up, and Dean realized that he wasn’t yet awake, was still submerged, or halfway between, or else simply thought that he was still sleeping. “I may be stupid,” he said, “But not that stupid.” His smile was more of a rictus. “Dean’s not coming.”
“Come back with me.”
“I’m serious. You’re not helping anyone up here.”
“Was I helping anyone down there? It didn’t look like it. –no, don’t…never mind. Look, it’s fine.”
“Didn’t look fine to me last night.”
“It’s just dreams, that’s all.”
“The Devil is hounding your ass, and ‘that’s all?’”
“He can’t find me. There are hex bags for demons, and I’ve still got those sigil things. It’s fine.”
“Look, just because you feel guilty or whatever – it’s fine, okay? I’m fine.”
Sam was strange. He was distant and awkward, and it took Dean a day and half to realize that it was because Sam hadn’t spoken to another person in going on a couple months. He took his food via delivery. There were no phones. No computer. No method of possibly connecting with anyone else.
He’d met Rufus, and Daniel Elkins, and thought they were completely cut off.
They weren’t. Sam was.
He probably could have fooled anyone else into thinking that he wanted to be here. Dean could tell better. Every hour that he stayed Sam seemed to get more tense and edgy, shooting looks in Dean’s direction that were both hesitant and wary. Like he wanted to ask something but was scared to.
Was creeping around waiting for the blast.
Sam was expecting some kind of beating, verbal or otherwise, and that realization hit hard and sunk deep. He knew that about his brother, that he took things to heart and forgot nothing, but he’d never felt the impact of it before. Even in the years of separation at Stanford, it hadn’t been anything Dean had said standing between them, and when they were back together there were no words that needed to be forgotten.
What had been said had been said, and it wasn’t going away. It was like Dean had a twin following him around and repeating rash words meant to wound and divide, and it was those words that Sam heard. It probably didn’t help that Dean still didn’t know what to say for himself.
Not that he didn’t try. It just didn’t seem to matter. Sam was done and Dean still hadn't managed to make a real apology.
And Sam was just going to stay up here with Lucifer in his head for company for as long as this apocalypse thing took.
And yet just the same, for all his flat voice and non-expression and nearly fearful posture, Sam made food, made up one of the couches into a kind of bed (Sam himself, of course, stayed on the floor) and generally played the benevolent host.
Except at night, when he would disappear for an hour and come back sweating and breathing hard, trying to run himself into dreamless sleep, and then locked himself into the bedroom for a night of pleading brokenly to be left alone.
Dean felt guilty for sleeping through it, but sitting outside the door and trying to soothe did nothing.
“I need you to leave,” Sam said finally one evening, quite suddenly, voice still flat and quiet, and Dean would have given anything to hear any other tone but that and the fearful begging of the middle of the night, even if it were rage. Especially, he thought, rage at himself. That he could have handled.
All this quiet, internalized, suppressed feeling – that he wasn’t sure what to do with.
“Okay,” Dean said, “When you come with me. I told you-”
“It’s nice,” Sam said, cutting him off. “It’s – nice of you to offer, whoever asked…but you don’t need to. I told you. I’m fine. I just need-”
“Need what?” Dean could hear the start of bitterness in his own tone, edging toward frustration, toward anger. “To be alone? Why? So you can fight a futile battle every night, so you can hide up here, from everything-”
“From everything I did?” Ah, there it was. And Dean suddenly wished for the neutral tone back, not this brittle, tense and fragile edge. “There isn’t anything you can say I haven’t already. And you said it best. It’s just better if – here I can’t do any harm. You don’t need to say it again.”
“What do you want, Dean?” Sam said, voice rising. “First you want nothing to do with me because it’s all my fault. And now I’m just supposed to – what? What can I do? All I’m going to manage is weighing you down. You’ve been doing fine on your own.”
He’d thought he could handle anger. Dean suddenly discovered that he really couldn’t. “I didn’t mean,” he started to say, feeling the same deep, sinking feeling in his gut that he’d had when first realizing that he’d lost his brother and didn’t know where to find him. Sam snorted.
“Didn’t mean,” he said, and Dean looked at him and for the first time could see the hollow space in his eyes, the pale quality of his skin. “You didn’t mean it? Don’t tell me that. We both know better. You meant it, and now you feel bad about meaning it. You don’t have to. You were right.”
“I wasn’t,” Dean started to say, but Sam cut him off, his whole body jerking.
“You were right,” he said, and then turned for the door. “I have to go.”
“Sam,” Dean started to say, and took a step toward his younger brother. Sam shied away. “I have to go,” he repeated, this time with a note of desperation, and fled.
Dean stared after him, wondering if Sam was going to come back at all, and finally beginning to understand just what he had done.
“What do you want from me? Why are you here?”
“Because I missed you.”
“Don’t think I’m just going to-”
“I missed you, dammit. When I realized I couldn’t get any of your phones-”
“If I’d picked up, would you be here?”
“I would have asked you to come. Meet me somewhere.”
“You don’t need to-”
“I was wrong. I was really – really wrong.”
Time heals all wounds.
Stupidest saying ever, Dean decided. Time didn’t heal anything, at least not the real wounds. Time just expanded them, deepened them, exaggerated and infected them. And now it wasn’t just a divide between him and Sam, it was a great big gaping chasm, and maybe he’d carved the first mile but Sam had dug out the rest and hollowed himself right along with it.
He’d been alone here, utterly alone, not because he wanted or needed the solitude, but because being around others put them at risk. Because he’d helped bring on the end of the world and the one person who mattered had cast him out on his ass.
And so he was alone with the Devil in his head whispering who knew what, trying to exhaust himself into sleeping, and unwilling to even start to believe the possibility of coming home.
Dean didn’t know how to fill in that chasm; wasn’t sure it could be filled or mended, at least not right away. But if he’d started it, he needed to help fix it. Not the world. Just one little brother.
He went through the house and found everything that belonged to Sam, packed it all in the duffel bag, and sat out on the porch with it, waiting.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Sam came back and stopped dead, staring at Dean on the porch. His eyes were sunken in, dark circles heavy underneath. He held very still, seeming exhausted and confused now. Tired and sad, not angry, and all of it hidden under the flat mask that he’d found again.
“We’re hiking out,” Dean said. He knew he needed to step carefully and wasn’t sure he knew how. ‘Carefully’ wasn’t exactly his strong suit.
Sam sighed. “Dean,” he said, “I know I – said some things. I don’t want you to think you have to-” He sounded resigned. Dean didn’t want resigned. He frowned.
“Okay,” Dean said, “Let me put it this way. Come with me. Please.” It didn’t sound right. It wasn’t the way he was used to talking.
But right now he didn’t think that way would work. Didn’t think ‘gruffly affectionate’ would come across how it needed to. Sam hesitated, and Dean stood up and held out the bag. “I just want you to come down and sleep in a real bed and hear me out. If you still want to come back up after that I’ll – drive you up, or let you go on your own, or whatever.”
In point of fact, he was pretty sure if he couldn’t do this right on the first time he’d just keep trying and not let Sam go anywhere until the point was most definitely across, but –
It sounded good, anyway.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked tired; more than tired, he looked weary. “Look,” he started to say. Dean held up his hands.
“Just hear me out.”
It seemed to take an age, but Sam nodded. Very, very slightly. There was a glimmer of something way back in his eyes, maybe hope, and Dean was tempted to hold his breath and breathe a sigh of relief at the same time.
But he knew that much was the easy part.
There was still a long way – maybe too long – to go.
“I know what I said.”
“Okay, maybe not. But I know what it meant.”
Sam looked up through his eyelashes, almost warily, and the tone of his voice changed very slightly. “Do you?” he asked again.
The motel room was small and dirty and familiar. Dean offered Sam first shower, but he shook his head and just sat down on the other bed, hands folded in his lap. Perfectly still and waiting. The hope was gone, and when he said, “Can we just do this?” There was a note of near pleading in his voice.
Dean sighed. “Can you sleep first?” he asked, with the same note of pleading, but Sam shook his head. He looked away and rubbed his face, trying to decide where to start.
“I shouldn’t have said what I did,” he said, finally. Sam started to shake his head, and Dean held up a hand. “Remember? Hear me out.” If you stop me I’m not sure I’ll get the important stuff out of the way. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” Dean repeated, “Because I was wrong. When have we ever been better off apart?”
Sam’s eyes went down. “The past nine months, for one,” he murmured. There wasn’t quite a note of accusation there. That was worse.
“I wasn’t doing any better than you were, Sam,” Dean said, after a moment of struggling, and it was strange to admit that to himself. “And don’t – try to tell me you were fine. I know better than that.”
Sam’s eyes closed, very slowly. “You don’t have to,” he started to say, “Feel…”
“I know I don’t have to feel,” Dean said, and suddenly his voice was rough on the edges, almost harsh. “I know I don’t have to feel anything, you don’t need to tell me that. That doesn’t change the fact that when I realized I didn’t have a clue where you were or if you were okay or-“ He stopped, and turned away, and took a deep breath. “I panicked,” Dean said, with an effort. “I felt like such an – idiot, and worse. I just…”
“Dean,” Sam said, and there was something in his voice, but Dean steamrollered right over because if he stopped now, dammit-
“I’m sorry,” he said, finally. “I screwed up. I was wrong. And worst of all, I let you down. And that’s something I always told myself, after – Cold Oak…I’d never do again.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected. But it wasn’t Sam’s faintly anguished “Stop. Just – stop.”
Dean blinked, and looked up. Sam wasn’t looking at him, was looking anywhere but him. “What,” he said, or started to say, and Sam was shaking his head.
“You don’t need to – make yourself less. It’s not right and it’s not true. Look, I screwed up and I get that I can’t make up for it, and just because you were worried doesn’t mean you-”
Dean kept feeling worse, and smaller, and more and more like he’d screwed up in a way that couldn’t be fixed, and he just wanted it to stop.
“Listen,” he said, trying to stop the tide, “Just listen, okay? I’m sorry. I want you to come back. I’m asking. Even if it's just a trial run or whatever-”
For a long moment he thought the silence was going to kill him. And then finally, finally, he seemed to have said something right, because Sam looked up and around very slowly and said in a voice so painfully uncertain, “Really?”
And he wasn’t happy, and things weren’t okay, but whatever Sam had heard had put the hope back in his eyes, and that was enough to work with for now. “Yeah,” Dean said, and found a tentative, weak smile, tried to make it his best. “You game?”
And Sam’s eyes were huge and not quite wary, and he shifted uncertainly, but he said, “Yeah. I’m – game.”
The room was small and smelled weird and there was still an apocalypse going on outside. They still weren’t okay and there was still everything wrong.
But it was a start, and goddamn, but Dean could be happy with a start.