: The Gallows KnotAuthor:
rainylemons Recipient: scarletletter42Warnings:
lynching, language, violence, torture, vague mentions of past sexual abuseRating:
Sam is strung up as punishment for a crime he committed when he had no soul. Takes place between 7x15 and 7x17. Setting heavily influenced by Silent Hill
and the town of Centralia, PA. I also snitched a line from Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman
Special thanks to my beta reader who will be revealed at a later date. This story would not be what it is without her hard work and patience.
Smoke from the forty-year fire washes out the weak light of stars and the fingernail moon. The tree rises up from a fissure in the ground, roots blackened by four decades of smoke rising and falling from vast underground caverns filled with burning coal. It's been burning since a mining accident in the late sixties, spewing noxious fumes up through cracked pavement. The tree itself is near petrified, and stout enough that the strongest low reaching branch doesn't snap when the truck pulls away. There is a fraction of a second of descent, no sense of weightlessness, but rather the inexorable pull of earth – and the fire below it – beckoning Sam back down towards it. Oh, Jesus.
It's all he can do to tighten his neck muscles in that tiny stretch of time before the rope around his neck draws tight and he's swinging. His neck doesn't break. The soot blackened branch of the tree doesn't break and Sam begins to choke.
Below him the remaining population of Higby, PA stares up at him. The men have bandanas across their mouths to protect them from smoke and ash here where the fire burns its hottest. The only woman doesn't. Her mouth is drawn thin, outlined in soot like gothic lip liner falling in the tiny fissures that age and hardship have left on her face.
Her hands worked the knot around his neck, her fingers created the puzzle out of the straight length of rope with an assuredness that Sam himself knows. One escape artist to another, they know one another, speak each other's language. He remembers the feel of her against him, the other Sam, the Sam whose inherent badness hadn't been muzzled by a soul. He supposes her sense of betrayal and outrage is justified, but he still doesn't want to die for it. Deserves it, maybe, for the death of the only child left in Higby whom the other Sam had killed, but he doesn't want it. Refuses to let the muscles in his neck go slack as he gasps and chokes on his swelling tongue as he struggles to do one of the things he knows best – untie a knot.
The gallows knot around his neck is tied expertly, with sturdy machine-woven rope, but his hands are a different matter. Sam's hands were tied while he was being held down by a small throng of men, the only thing that made his capture possible. Sam had, as Bobby might have put it, gotten his licks in, and the men were battered and sporting more than their share of bruises. They were nearly feral, excited by bloodlust, by the thought of stringing him up, and what they used to bind his hands is unrefined, is nowhere near as tidy or well-constructed as Barbara's knot, which has him gasping for air. He only has to twist his hands to free them, use the long fingers God saw fit to give him and get a feel for the rope around his wrists.
It should be easy, it should be a walk in the park for the man dubbed 'a regular fucking Houdini' by his brother who had had more cause to try to restrain him than anyone, but a desperate lack of oxygen and no small amount of panic and pain is an even match for desperation and skill. Sam wheezes. He chokes and he gasps, grows a little frantic as he sees red and orange fireflies dancing in his vision, flitting through the smoke and ash like the tiniest of souls lighting out from hell. He is, he thinks, going to die with Barbara and the rest of the remaining townsfolk of Higby staring up at him. He's going to die, lynched like the murderer his unfettered self had been, because his hands are shaking, fingers sliding uselessly along the rope as he tries to get some sense of the knot in the rope around his wrists. I can't,
he thinks and almost as soon as he thinks it he hears you must.
The other voice in his head, the one he knows isn't his, steadies him, not because it's comforting. Not because it soothes him or gives him the peace to focus, but rather the opposite. He's strangling, life oozing away with each gasping breath as he keeps the muscles in his neck as tight as he can, and Sam knows that if he goes now, if he lets go, lets himself swing until the air is gone that he's going to go with Lucifer in his head and, there – now – before his eyes.
Lucifer's sitting on a branch, another sturdy relic of the petrified thing that used to be a tree, legs dangling in the air, ashes dropping on his shoes as he smiles over at Sam. Lucifer slides a bit of rope, the kind made out of the fine fibers of his own blackened wings, between his fingers, tying and untying knots: the reef knot, the Flemish eight, a hinge, a bowline, overhand, sheet, and studding sail. Sam has tied them all and more; he learned them from his father during the rare, quiet and companionable moments when John Winchester had had something to teach that Sam had hungered to know.
Sam remembers how neither drink nor pain had ever made his father's hands shake, remembers the fine surety in the long fingers that he himself inherited. He can do this. He can almost imagine his father telling him so, can hear him say that there's not a trick of rope that can fool him. It's hard to take a breath, but Sam does it, sucks in a tight, painful wheeze and tries to work the knot. He feels along the rope behind his back, letting his hands work as he tries to think of his father instead of the devil sitting a few feet from him.
He ignores Lucifer as he ties his knots and smiles at him with a leering sort of encouragement. Sam squeezes his eyes shut and plucks at the rope with his fingertips. He doesn't know what he'll accomplish, what the lynching party will let him accomplish if he gets his hands free. He's a strong man, he knows he's capable of pulling himself up the rope, of getting to the branch so that he can get Barbara's goddamned noose from around his neck, but why would they let him get so far? Do they have guns? Will they shoot him instead of watching him hang? Would they risk shooting the rope and could he hope to get to his feet and run if he fell among them? He doesn't know, he doesn’t think – can't think. The bright lights of hypoxia flash behind his closed eyelids as he sucks in tight breath after tight breath, fingers dancing along, feeling, pulling, working the magic that he knows so well.
Loops form. The rope slithers, and he tugs at it with knowing hands until he feels it give. Sam pulls his hands from behind his back, can hear swearing and near guttural snarling from the mob below him as he reaches for the rope around his neck.
Lucifer claps as Sam gets his fingers beneath the noose and pulls. He can't get it over his head, the gallows knot is too well tied, but he earns a fraction of release, enough to suck in one huge, tortured gasp.
"That's my boy!"
Sam peeks. He doesn't want to, but he can't help but glance over at Lucifer grinning at him with almost paternal affection and pride from his perch. "How many times did I string you up, Sammy? How many little tricks of rope did you have to learn as you swung, the crows pecking at your eyes until you fell? There's nothing," he says with a dismissive glance at the townsfolk, "they could have come up with that could outwit you. I taught you too well."
"My father," Sam chokes, "taught me, you son of a bitch. My father did."
"Aw, look who's trying to be a daddy's boy. It'd be cute if it wasn't so pathetic. And here I thought daddy issues was something we had in common. I'm wounded," Lucifer pouts.
Sam's ready to tell him to piss off or just beg him to go away, but the devil holds up a hand and shakes his head. "Save it and get moving, the natives are getting restless."
Sam looks down, sees a man coming at him with a baseball bat. His face is half obscured by his bandana, hair and forehead dusted with ash blowing on the wind as the cursed town continues its long burn. But his eyes are bright, maybe shining because the smoke is making his eyes sting, maybe because he means take a few swings and beat him like he's a fucking piñata.
It's not easy to pull his right hand free from beneath the rope around his neck. His fingers are numb from holding on so tightly, and he panics at the thought of letting go, of risking strangulation. Sam lets go of the rope, feels it draw more securely around his neck until the bright spots are back like a fiery meteor shower in his vision. He claws behind his ear and above his head, fingers sliding over the gallows knot pulled tight from the weight of his body. He'll never untie it, he knows it. He has the skill, but not the time. Sam reaches instead for the rope above the knot, can just barely reach it despite the length of his arm because the angle is all wrong and he's half a second away from screaming.
He knows what it means to choke to death. He knows
. He's been hanged by angels from the mimicry of the great tree in Lucifer's cage and he thinks he'll go flailing and pissing himself if he has to die that way ever again.
It takes near Herculean strength for him to pull his body up once he has hold of the rope. It's almost impossible to curl his legs as close to his body as he can get, but once the tension around his neck lessens, once his body is no longer pulling the stricture against his airway so tight, Sam feels almost weightless, despite the burn in his arm.
Sam lets go of the noose around his neck completely, grabs the rope with his left hand as well and slowly, arduously, starts to climb.
The first swing of the bat catches him in his back, smashing against kidney and tailbone hard enough that Sam loses his grip on the rope. He hasn't climbed far, maybe a foot, just enough for the length of the gallows knot to rest against his shoulder, but he knows he can't risk a second snap of the rope against his neck. It didn't break the first time, but that doesn't mean it won't break now. He claws, the flesh of his hands tearing as the rope burns his fingers, but his right hand catches it, pulls it tight against his neck until his eyes bulge and his feet are twitching spasmodically.
Sam gasps, spit flying from his lips, blood too from the taste of things, and somehow he gets both hands on the rope again.
They're shouting at him, the townspeople. Cursing him and cheering on the man with the bat. Sam kicks before he can swing again, feels a pulpy crunch as his foot connects and knows that he's just kicked the guy's neck in.
There comes a queer sort of quiet then, one punctuated with his sharp breaths and the faint sigh of acrid wind over dead grass. Barbara strides forward through the shocked crowd and looks up at him. Tears have made trails in the ash dirtying her face. It was her hand that tied the rope around his neck, her grief and fury that got him strung up. He doesn't know what makes her cry now, maybe revenge just comes flavored with more bitterness than satisfaction, maybe it's heartbreak and the loss of her only child coming back to overwhelm her, maybe she remembers better than he does what it had been like skin against skin in the shadows of this long dead town.
She glances down at the body at her feet and Sam tries to remember the guy's name, tries to think if he'd been someone close to her. He thinks maybe so, thinks he might have been an uncle or older cousin, but Barbara dismisses him and glances back up at Sam.
"Fast or slow, you're gonna die, Sam."
She picks up the bat, twirls it once in a practiced motion and draws it back grimly. He can kick her. Maybe she'd duck, maybe the others would hold his legs, but Sam knows he could probably get in a kick or two to knock Barbara back.
He doesn't normally consider kicking a woman, especially not one with a valid reason to want him dead. He killed her daughter. Maybe the girl had been full of teeth and claws as she'd slaughtered up and down the barren, burned countryside, but she'd been a child and he killed her just the same. Sam doesn't want to die. Life is one miserable pile of shit – he can't sleep, he's half a step from screaming insanity, he knows it, he does, but he doesn't want to die.
So he kicks when Barbara comes near him, misses, and kicks wildly again as he reaches hand over hand and climbs the rope. His hands sting, throat is swollen and tight like he's trying to breathe around something jagged like the star on top of a Christmas tree. Each breath is a torment, the lights streaking down in front of his eyes growing ever brighter.
"Hold tight, Sam." The voice comes in his ear, Sam can feel the warmth of breath against his skin and the gentle press of a hand on his shoulder. Lucifer stands behind him, lips just behind Sam's ear, chest pressed against his back. How tall must he be now? How long his shadow, how far-reaching his grasp?
Sam groans, panic turning into fear and then full bodied terror. He can't die like this. He can't go without ever knowing if the sensation of being in Lucifer's horrifying embrace is memory, reality, or illusion. He wraps the rope around his right forearm, giving him another six or seven inches of height. It doesn't get him out of the reach of the people below him and prevents him from climbing, but his grip is now sound, secure.
Sam holds tightly to rope, feels the weight of the gallows knot against his shoulder now that there's slack for it to fall away from his neck, and he curls into air, into nothingness, drawing his legs up, feeling his thighs shake against the pull of gravity as he makes himself as small of a target as he can.
Barbara comes with her bat, others with fists and sticks. The crack of wood against flesh is surprisingly loud. Sam takes the blow on his thigh, feels the pain of it, and tries not to think what a tiny little love tap it was. He knows real pain, real suffering. Knows what it's like to hang from a tree for a hundred days, trying to breathe while his tongue swells and hangs out of his mouth as a tempting treat for the devil's carrion. He remembers evisceration, burning, and the degloving of limbs. He remembers his entire soul being fucked until it shattered like glass, remembers Michael picking up the pieces that used to be him and handing them all to Lucifer so that he might be put back together again, the soul of Humpty Dumpty glued together with malice, rage, and agony.
Nothing Barbara can do can come close, nothing anyone on earth could do that would even compare, but the pain, the rope around his neck and the feel of hands and wood pummeling him makes him remember in exquisite, perfect detail – and it's that memory that makes Sam cry out.
The rope burns, digs into his arm as they grab hold of him, clutch at his legs and hang on, making him take their weight. His fingers are slipping, the rope now slick with blood and the shredded skin of his palms. It's agonizing, but none if it feels real any longer.
Coal fires below ground give rise to smoke issuing from cracks in the earth. The road near them has buckled from forty years of heat, and everything smells dead, charred. The houses that remain back in the town are boarded up against the fumes on days when they're at their worst and Sam remembers eating canned green beans and tinned ham by candlelight at Barbara's table months and months ago. But he doesn't see her now, doesn't look down at her red rimmed eyes and grim, thin little mouth. He doesn't take in the sky wiped clean of stars and moon by the ever-present haze.
He's in another landscape entirely, one verdant and alive. Flowers erupt with each drop of spilled blood. Sam spent centuries cultivating Lucifer's garden with his suffering. He tries to shy away from the chorale screech of the angels' true voices, but can't. Sam remembers wandering when they'd let him and weeping because everything in the cage had been so damned terrible, so damned beautiful. It's Eden, recreated from Lucifer's memory and made more substantial every time Sam's bleeds. Lilies bloom in the long line of his guts, lost bones sprout into trees.
Sam's tears never fall down his cheeks, but roll up his face in defiance of gravity to become warm rain. Wherever he goes, wherever he walks, Sam finds something new, something beautiful that's grown lush and thick on his suffering. He would walk forever, leaving buttercups, daisies, and poppies in the wake of his bloody footprints, but he knows Michael and Lucifer won't let him. One or both of them will grow tired of his absence, will remember how satisfying it is make him scream so that each agonized breath becomes the wind. If he stays in the garden, it'll only be to suffer again, perhaps this time forever.
It's hard to pull away. The memory of the cage isn't compelling because it's peaceful, but it's what Sam knows. He thinks that memory has been part of him longer than anything else, but as he blinks, as he sees the green expanse of the garden in one moment and the smoke from Higby's long fire in the next, Sam knows it's not true. He's known Dean longer, he'd had only memory of him for company in the cage, something Lucifer often toyed with and polluted, but when Sam thinks of home, when he thinks of safety, he can't help but think of his brother. He doesn’t think of Dean being particularly comforting or soothing – though there's times when he has been – he just focuses on Dean. Sometimes surly, lately often heartbroken and almost brittle, almost sharp, but somehow constant. Dean bitching at him, pushing him along, getting him back up and keeping him going. Dean pretending his hands don't shake the tiniest bit when it's been too long between drinks. Dean just sitting there a few feet away, somehow comfortable and close despite the distance, because he's had his soul shredded a thousand times in hell and he gets what it means to suffer.
Sam jerks back and forth between realities – the smoky night, Lucifer's blood fed garden, and Dean – as one more person climbs his body and hangs on like a parasite. His hands slip, the knot pulls tight behind his ear once more, and his neck jerks as he dangles from the rope. He has no breath to cry out and no coherent thought left to be thankful that his neck once again didn't snap.
His hands are fumbling, full of pins and needles as he claws at his neck. He can hear the distinctive creak of rope and wood as he swings from the tree, and the sound of his feet kicking air and the bodies of those trying to strangle him with their weight.
His breath is coming in tight, awful sounding wheezes and Sam thinks he's just about done for. He blinks, can see the garden of the cage through the blur of hot tears, and he doesn't find it strange when he feels Lucifer bear him up slightly, when his hands grab Sam under his armpits and lifts him just high enough to keep the rope from crushing his hyoid bone.
There's no argument this time, no back and forth gibbering that Lucifer's not real, he is, he's not, he's always been. There's only the slightest little release from the pull around his neck and Lucifer's breath again in his ear. "Hang on, Sam."
He doesn't think how, it just seems to be one of those things that simply is like the Kansas sky being an endless stretch of blue in the summer. All he can think is why? Why are you helping me?
"Because, Sammy," Lucifer says with terrible fondness, "you're my bitch and I never did learn to share."
Lucifer in the caged garden, a thousand motel rooms, flowers blooming from his blood drops, screams and pain and Dean with his arm around his shoulders and there, just now, just a second before Sam knows without doubt that he's dying – Barbara. She steps back, the baseball bat slack in her hands as she stares at him with wondering eyes.
"Your shadow." Her voice is a harsh whisper, he shouldn't hear it with the blood roaring in his ears and the taunts and shouts of the men trying to pull him down, desperate to snap his neck, but he does. Perfectly.Your shadow. She can see him. He's real.
Later, when Dean's counting bruises on his back and forcing whiskey down his throat while he stitches whatever little lacerations he's accumulated this night, Sam will think of the hundred ways that Lucifer's not really there, can't be. Folie à deux,
he'll think. Remnants of psychic ability. Maybe even the power of the scars on his soul, so violent, so strong that anyone can see them if they know how to look. Later, when he's calm and Dean gets him soundly drunk – and even dying, Sam somehow accepts there is always going to be a later with his brother – logic will creep in.
Now is not the time for logic. It's been his ally, kept him sane in a world populated by monsters, but Sam's incapable of it. Lucifer's here with him. He's holding him up, breath smelling like ozone, blood and crushed roses, hands digging into his armpits. Maybe it's a psychic link to the angel in the cage, maybe his soul really has been stamped with a 'property of' brand, maybe he's slipped out while angels war in Heaven and Leviathans ooze across the earth and he needs Sam alive so he can cram himself beneath his skin once again.
The last of his energy comes from this fear, this realization, this certainty. Never again. Never, never again.
Sam kicks, he twists and he leaves off clawing at the rope around his neck to beat and rip at the hands and faces of the men trying to drag him down into death, down into an eternity of Lucifer's voice in his ear. He doesn't have the breath to scream and shout, can only hiss and wheeze, spittle flying from his lips as he goes mad in this last, desperate attempt to live.
Thunder rumbles in his ears, light blinds him, and Sam kicks and claws and twists as something like cannon shot goes off again and again. He feels Lucifer's hands about his chest, he hears him murmuring threats and praise in a sibilant form of Enochian that Sam had a thousand years to learn. He tries to scream, tries to jerk away from the hands clamped around him, and when the roar of a cannon comes again, he succeeds.
Sam's falling, breathing suddenly easier as he rushes towards the wide expanse of nothingness. He's almost beyond pain, almost outside of Lucifer's reach, and he drifts willingly into a memory that has nothing to do with the devil or his cage. Sam sits Indian style on an old rug infested with silverfish next to his brother. A storm rages outside their tiny motel room that's lit by the glow of a battery powered lantern. The power outage robbed them of TV, they reread the same tattered comics hours before, and since neither of them feel like digging into homework, they practice tying knots to keep themselves entertained. Sam easily undoes every knot Dean ties, doesn't fail to realize that this is something that he's good at, better than Dean. He scratches at his leg absently and watches as Dean tries to untangle the mess he'd made of the knot he'd been attempting to tie. Sam reaches over to pluck the rope from his brother's fingers, smiles a little shyly as Dean scowls at him, and moves his hand over the thin, but sturdy line.No, like this.
Sam ties a gallows knot and loops it over his wrist, pulling the long, free end until the noose draws snugly over his flesh. See? Dad taught me.
Life rushes back into him. He can feel again – pain, all of it pain – and can taste the acridness of dry, scorched earth in his mouth. His eyes are watering, limbs jerking a little like he's being given an electric shock, and somehow, Sam gets his fingers to work. He knows the gallows knot, has since he was thirteen, and now with the end severed, he knows it's useless. He pulls the bulk of the knot and damn near cries when the rope comes free from his neck.
He sucks in a great breath of air and coughs until pinpricks of white and black dots swarm like bees in front of his eyes, breathes again and lets out a ragged, hoarse scream that doesn't quite encompass all of the agony and fear that he feels. Sam's alive, breathing and hurting to prove it, but he thinks he's unraveling, thinks he might shut his eyes so he won't have to look to see if Lucifer's striding towards him, gleeful and terrible, and ready to play.
Sam flinches when he feels a hand against the back of his neck, nearly comes out of his skin, and would shoot to his feet and start punching if he had the strength. He tries to draw away, but the hand is firm, smells of guns and whiskey and it's probably not Dean – how many times has it not been him before? But, there's nowhere to go, the hand remains firm against his flesh, and Sam goes with it, lists towards the feel of human seeming warmth until he feels denim beneath the bruised skin of his cheek.
"I said back off! I'm done shooting at legs, next goddamned bullet goes between someone's fucking eyes."
"He killed her! He used me to get close to her and he killed her!"
"Lady," and that one word sounds like Dean, sounds wearied and pissed in a way that only Dean really seems capable of, "I just don't fucking care. Any of you come close to him again and I'll make such a bloody friggin' mess of you that not even God could sort out who's who."
"Dean." His voice doesn't sound like him, barely even sounds human with the wreck the noose made of his throat, but he's capable of speech and he figures that means he's going to live. "Dean."
"Get up, Sam."
"Lucifer. He, I was choking and he – "
"Not now, Sam. Jesus, just get up."
Sam means to tell him that he can't, that he can barely lift his head, let alone make his limbs work, but Dean squats and loops an arm around him. Sam finds that he can, maybe only through Dean's impetus, maybe only because Dean's there to pull him up, like always, but somehow he gets his feet under him and stands.
The whole world tries to tilt sideways and he sees the tree that they'd hung him from, sees Lucifer leaning against it with arms crossed and an ugly, fey sort of grin on his face, and Sam jerks the other way towards the warmth and solidness of his brother.
"Get me out of here," he croaks and Dean seems eager enough to comply.
Sam catches sight of Barbara on her knees, weeping while the surviving men of Higby stand around her uncertainly. He wants to tell her that he's sorry, wants to say that he doesn’t kill children, not even those that grow teeth and tear people limb from limb, wants to say that it wasn't him, but he's pretty sure that it was really. Why else would he have suffered so long and so terribly if he wasn't flawed and rotten to his core? Maybe his soul muzzles that evil, but it's still there. It must be because he'd jumped into Lucifer's cage thinking that he deserved what he got and found God's two angels only too willing to provide.
He doesn't say anything, and lets Dean get him into the mean-ass, ugly as hell Pontiac that could probably plow through the survivors of Higby without bending a fender. He slumps against the seat when Dean slams his own door shut, works on remembering how the act of breathing goes while they drive around the tree and the fissure next to it. Sam doesn't look to see if Lucifer's still there, just watches the beam of the headlights as they bounce over rocks and dead grass until they reach the buckling road.
Dean hits the gas and the car shoots forward over crumbling pavement. They pass a peeling sign, darkened with ash that urges them to come back soon. Sam knows they won't, can't think of why anyone would.
They're quiet, the need to put as much distance between them and Higby as possible tantamount, and it's not until there's nothing but rocky hills, tall trees that still know how to be green, and the road becomes an unbroken highway, that Dean slams his hands on the steering wheel as he drives.
"I'm going to kill them. Swear to God, I'm going to go murder every last one of those mother fuckers in their sleep! God dammit, Sam! You stay away from anyplace he's been from now on, you hear me?"
"I don't want to hear it. You're going to make a list of everywhere you went when you were a soulless douchebag and we're not coming within sixty miles of it. Do you know how long it took me to figure out what happened? Fucking thirty miles away in Salsburg and you just poof! Fucking vanish. Again. I didn't know if you went on a bender or had one of your 'episodes' and lit out for the fucking territories or what. Jesus fucking Christ, you don't do
that to me, man."
"I know. I get it, it wasn't your fault, but, Jesus, Sammy – you kill someone's kid and thirty miles from the town you did it isn't far enough away, believe me. Not even if the kid was a skin walker with a taste for long pig, from what I gathered from the chatty old bastard that runs the gas station outside of Salsburg."
"Dean!" His voice is barely there and Sam's not sure that shouting is actually any louder than the croak he's been managing, but he grabs Dean's arm for emphasis and finds that he has to go very still keep from having a fit in the car. He's got the remains of his noose in his hands. The rope has gone black from smoke and dirt and though it lacks the fineness of threads of sunlight running through it, it still looks like it was woven from shreds of Lucifer's wings.
Dean looks at him, slows the car from the insane ninety he's driving to something marginally less crazy like seventy-five, and glances at the rope Sam's holding. "You're not okay." He doesn't ask, doesn't reassure them both like he usually does, and, sure, maybe later he'll give him a once over and determine that "you'll live," but now he just lays it out like it is, flat, almost emotionless.He was there and I was dying, fucking choking and I know I was, I know what it's like to die that way, you know I do and I remember, I didn't want to, you didn't want me to and I'm sorry, I'm so fucking sorry but he was there and he held me up and I was dying Dean, fucking dying and he saved me, wouldn't let me die because he's real, he's not in my head, he's not, he's really there and no matter where I go he's going to find me, I let him out when I came back, I let him out, oh fuck Dean I let him out and I can't get away, no one can get away and it's going to happen all over again, I can't do it again, I can't, not again, please please please, not fucking again, what do I do, what do I do –
The crack of Dean's hand against his cheek is a shock. Sam doesn't know he's been speaking until he feels the sting of skin against skin, doesn't realize that the car's idling on the side of the road, until he holds his burning cheek and stares over at Dean wide-eyed.
"Pull it together, Sam." It's Dean's flat tone again, the one that's supposed to squash the sound of his constant heartbreak and cover for the fact that his eyes are overly wet with tears that never seem to fall anymore. "He's not here. You have to believe me, Sam, he's not here. He didn't follow you back from the cage – he couldn't. Not unless Death brought him along for a joyride and I’m pretty sure he likes Lucifer just where he is."
"But…" It was real. I felt him. Barbara saw him, saw his shadow.
"But nothing." Dean's got him by the shoulders, thumbs pressing into the sides of his aching neck gently, but enough to make it hurt, to remind him where he is, who's there with him, and who's not. "Do you trust me, Sam?"
"Do you want to believe Lucifer slipped out of his kennel and has nothing better to do but poke you with a stick?"
Sam shakes his head and regrets the motion when it makes everything hurt.
"Then listen to me and listen good – it's all in your head, Sammy. Doesn't make it not suck, doesn't mean it's not a hard road to keep walking, but he's not there and when you can't tell what's real and what isn't, you ask me, okay? I won't lie to you. You know I won't, not about this."
"You have to keep it together for me, man," Dean says with another squeeze to his shoulders. "I can't do this by myself and I need you to keep going, no matter how hard it gets."
"I'm trying, Dean."
"I know you are."
"But it's getting harder and I’m tired. I'm just so tired."
Dean nods, eyes still dry. He gives Sam one more squeeze, then turns back to the wheel, throwing the car into drive. "Then throw that fucking thing out the window," he says with a glance at the rope Sam's holding, "and try to sleep."
Sam rolls down the window and lets the rope slip through his fingers as Dean pulls back onto the highway. He leans back against the seat, takes the deepest breath he can, and lets the wind – fresh and clean now that it's not laced with the smoke of a forty-year fire – wash over him.
"And if I can't sleep?"
Dean fiddles with the radio as he drives, twists the dial past stations playing songs it seems like they've listened to all of their lives and still turning it off when nothing pleases him. The road spans out ahead of them, empty – promising and maybe threatening – like it always does.
After a mile, maybe two, Dean says quietly, so quietly that Sam almost doesn't hear him over the hum of the tires on the road "then I'll stay up with you for as long as it takes, Sammy."
Sam sighs, closes his eyes.
"Yeah, Sam. Me too
And opens them again.