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the island of conclusions

"What Will Sustain Us Through The Winter?" (fic)

the island of conclusions

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"What Will Sustain Us Through The Winter?" (fic)

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Title: "What Will Sustain Us Through the Winter?"
Rating: PG-13
Pairings: Gen, no pairings (Dean, Sam, Ruby, Castiel)
Word Count: ~3,500
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit
Warning: Set immediately after 4.12, vague spoilers for of all of S4

Summary: The situation at hand is this: Ruby had called him to say that Sam was asking for him. And there were two things about that right off: 1) Ruby called him to tell him Sam was asking for him—-which was so far outside her standard operating procedure that five-alarm sirens started going off in Dean’s head the minute Sam’s name came up on his phone and he heard her voice instead; and 2) Ruby called him to tell him Sam was asking for him—which meant that Sam was too hurt, too sick, or too otherwise fucked up, to make the call himself. And it was that that had sent Dean hurtling three hours south, one hand turning the Impala’s keys while the other was still buttoning his shirt, not bothering to find out more than the address of the motel they were holed up in. Old habits die hard.

Step into the light, poor Lazarus
Don’t lie alone behind the window shade
Let me see the mark death made
I dream a highway back to you
I dream a highway back to you

What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last year’s lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow
I dream a highway back to you

Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway”

“What the fuck, Ruby?” Dean barks as soon as her head pokes around the peeling motel room door he’s been banging on.

“I told you, he was asking for you.” She opens the door a bit wider, but Dean still has to shoulder past her to get into the room. He bites back all the names he wants to call her—bitch is the most socially acceptable of them, and it goes pretty steeply downhill from there—because he know, he knows, that the only way he’s going to get through this, the only way he has been getting through the clusterfuck that is his life these days, is to focus narrowly on the situation at hand.

The situation at hand is this: Ruby had called him to say that Sam was asking for him. And there were two things about that right off: 1) Ruby called him to tell him Sam was asking for him—which was so far outside her standard operating procedure that five-alarm sirens started going off in Dean’s head the minute Sam’s name came up on his phone and he heard her voice instead; and 2) Ruby called him to tell him Sam was asking for him—which meant that Sam was too hurt, too sick, or too otherwise fucked up, to make the call himself. And it was that that had sent Dean hurtling three hours south, one hand turning the Impala’s keys while the other was still buttoning his shirt, not bothering to find out more than the address of the motel they were holed up in. Old habits die hard.

It had occurred to Dean once, briefly, that Ruby might be setting a trap of some kind. He’d put the thought away, though, since even if it were true, it wasn’t going to stop him. But when he gets into the room, and sees Sam, he knows she was telling the truth: she called because Sam’s messed up. His brother is sprawled across one of the beds in just a t-shirt and boxers, asleep or unconscious. One arm is flung across his face, and the sheets are tangled around his ankles. The curtains are drawn against the mid-day sun, so there’s very little light in the room, but Dean can still see rings of sweat round the neck of his shirt and under the arms. He crouches by the bed; he can’t see Sam’s face, but he puts a hand on his neck, two fingers along the pulse point—it’s too fast, and Sam’s skin is way too hot.

“He’s burning up.” Dean turns accusingly to Ruby, “You do know he’s running a fever, don’t you?”

“Yes, Dean, I know he’s running a fever,” she replies, voice dripping with sarcasm, “Demon here, not moron.” She relents a bit. “I got him to take some aspirin last time he was awake, but I think he threw it up.”

“Okay,” he says, letting out an exasperated breath, “You gonna enlighten me?” Without his really thinking about it, Dean’s hands have been running over Sam’s ribs and arms, but he can’t feel any bandages or breaks. Sam hardly stirs under his touch, and Dean files that fact away to worry about later. “I’m guessing you didn’t call me to hold his hand through a stomach bug. So you wanna tell me what’s going on?”

Ruby crosses her arms over her chest, lowers her gaze a bit. “He’ll be fine, Dean. It’s just a—a bad reaction. It happens sometimes—headache, fever, nausea. I guess we didn’t realize how out of shape he was for this stuff. He just needs to sleep it off.”

“Bad reaction? Bad reaction to what?”

“Sorry, Dean-o, wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. Little brother’s going to have to tell you that himself.”

Dean drops it, because as much as he wants to strangle Ruby, he’s also pretty sure he doesn’t want to hear this sparkly new bit of information about the joys of Sam’s demon hunting powers from her right now. As if all the angelic warnings weren’t enough, this evidence that those powers are actually hurting Sam is playing jangling, painful patterns along his nerves.

“Right,” he says, pushing past his worry to the practical, “I’m going out to the car to get the first aid kit and some clean clothes for him. So, unless you have any more pearls of medical wisdom, I’m thinking it’s going to be easier for everyone involved if you’re not here when I get back.”

When he returns from the car, Ruby has indeed vacated. Dean is relieved, even if part of him is a little disgusted that she can bail on Sam so easily. Makes him wonder if Sam really was asking for him, or whether Ruby just wanted some chump to take over when things got messy and boring. But he pushes that thought down too, and focuses his attention on his brother.


Dean hasn’t seen Sam since they finished up that miserable thing with the magicians. After Sam turned down his offer of a beer, Dean had drunk himself as close to falling down as he could while still being able to walk home, but Sam hadn’t been in the room when he got back. Hadn’t been there, either, when he woke up with a hangover pounding behind his eyes the next morning. No note, all Sam’s stuff still in the room, and the Impala parked where they’d left her. Dean hadn’t really been worried about him—he’d seen Sam in action recently, and he didn’t think there was much in this world or the next that could get the drop on his brother, undead magicians notwithstanding. If Sam was gone, it was under his own volition, and he’d come back, or get in touch, when he was ready. The case had freaked them both out, he knew; seeing friends killing friends was always a punch in the gut. Maybe Sam just needed time to process it alone. Even so, the thought of Sam out there on his own tugged at him, went against habits so old they seemed like instincts.

The possibility that they’d go their separate ways had been dogging them for months. Certainly since their little run-in with the Rugaru, maybe ever since he’d come back. Dean had been scared it would be Sam who walked away, but maybe more scared that it would be him. After all, what kind of man goes to Hell to save his little brother’s life, gets pulled out again, and then walks out on that same brother when things got rough? Dean wasn’t sure how long he could live with himself if he turned out to be that kind of man. So maybe it was a good thing Sam had split; spared Dean the possibility that he would give in to the impulse, and better to deal with a concrete reality than the constant fear of it hanging over his head.

There was no way he could stay in Sioux City, though. So he packed their stuff, drove a couple of hours north, checked into another motel. Sam knew how to find him if and when he wanted to. He cleaned the guns, watched TV, tried to sleep, and tried not to start drinking again. He only called Sam twice: once that first night when he was shitfaced, and once when it was either that or crack open a beer. Both times, it went straight to voicemail. He’d done better with staying away from the booze than he had with sleeping, and after a night of restless dozing in the gray light of the TV, he’d woken to Ruby’s phone call.


Dean sighs. He’s not sure how he feels about Sam right now—how he feels about the trouble he’s clearly gotten himself into. He moves in the familiar patterns regardless: sorts through Sam’s stuff ‘til he finds a clean shirt and sweats, fishes some Tylenol and the thermometer out of the first aid kit, gets some water and a wet cloth from the bathroom.

“Hey, hey, Sammy, hey.” He pries Sam’s arm off of his face, and pats his hot cheek as gently as he can. “Wake up for me, kiddo. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.” He drags the washcloth across Sam’s face, until Sam finally blinks blearily, then squints, as if the dim light in the room is hurting his eyes.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice is weak, raspy.

“Yeah, it’s me. Ruby called me, said you were asking for me.”


“She, um, stepped out, kid. She’s not here right now.”

Sam seems to accept this state of affairs. He’s barely with it enough for Dean to coax him into swallowing the pills, and drinking a little bit of water. Dean hopes everything will stay down this time. Sam stays awake long enough for Dean to get him into dry clothes, even if Dean has to do most of the work, but as soon as he slides into the fresh sheets on the other bed, he falls asleep again. Dean manages to take his temperature, and it’s high, but not high enough that he feels he needs to do anything dramatic about it.

There doesn’t seem much else he can do for Sam except wait it out. There’s nothing to eat or drink in the motel room (that’s what you get for hanging out with demons, Dean mutters), and he doesn’t want to leave Sam alone, but he finds a local grocery store willing to deliver for a fee, and has them bring over soda, juice, soup, stuff he can microwave.

Sam sleeps through the afternoon. Once or twice he calls out, tossing his head on the pillow, putting his arms up as if to ward something off. He quiets under Dean’s touch, though--Dean’s disjointed words of comfort, Dean’s palm on the nape of his neck. It’s always been that way. Dean remembers the thrill he used to get out of it, making his baby brother’s tears vanish, just by picking him up. It had seemed like magic, like he, Dean, was magic. He huffs out a silent laugh, because it’s pretty funny these moves still work. It’s not like either of them think he’s magic these days.



Dean wakes to the sound of Sam’s voice, lifts his head from the pillow of his arms on the flimsy motel table. The room is dark, and he squints at the digital clock between the beds—almost 2am.

“Yeah, right here, Sam. How’re you doing? “ Dean moves to sit on the side of Sam’s bed, flicking the bedside lamp on as he goes. Sam groans, flinging an arm over his eyes. “Oh hey, sorry, hang on.” Dean wrestles a pillowcase off one of the thin motel pillows and drapes it awkwardly over the lamp. “Better?”

“Uh-huh, yeah.” Sam pushes himself up a bit to rest against the headboard. Even by the dim light of the shaded lamp, he looks awful—sallow, haggard, shadows under his eyes and under his cheekbones, around his mouth. Dean passes his brother some water; Sam’s hand is still far too hot when he helps him close it around the bottle.

“Try to drink something, okay? Small sips. You’ve been out for a while.” Sam complies. When he’s done, Dean takes his temperature with the tympanic thermometer again, grimacing at the reading. Wordlessly, he shakes out a couple of pills, and hands them to Sam, who swallows them. They sit there for a few minutes in exhausted silence, Sam with his head tipped back against the headboard, Dean looking down at his hands. He’s pretty sure Sam has drifted off, when his brother says,

“I know what you’re thinking, Dean.”

“I’m thinking if your temp doesn’t come down a few degrees by morning, I’m dragging your ass to the nearest urgent care. That’s all I’m thinking, Sam.”

“No—I know you, and you’re thinking I brought this on myself, running around with Ruby, after you’d warned me, after the fucking angels warned me. You’re just waiting ‘til I can stand up without puking to lay into me again, tell me what a monster I am--

Sam’s voice is a husk of its usual self—thready and fretful. Dean tries to remind himself that his brother is running a 103-degree fever, but Sam’s words pick the scab off the same old wound, and he’s halfway to yelling before he even notices.

“Jesus, Sam—what do you want me to say? You want me to feel good about this situation? You leave without a word, without a note. Then your demon girlfriend calls me, tells me you’re half a state away. I find you flat on your back from what whatever demon-killing ninja moves you’ve been practicing this week; and then she fucks off, leaving me with the usual incomprehensible demon bullshit about you having a bad reaction to something. But I’m here, right? I’m still fucking here. So, the way I see it is this: either you tell me exactly what’s going on, for once, or we both shut the fuck up, and get on with the job—“

Dean gets up abruptly and walks away from Sam, bracing his arms on the bureau and bowing his head. Because he doesn’t want to be yelling at his brother, not now, not like this.

“I know it looks rough, Dean,” Sam’s voice is steadier now, low and intense, “I never wanted you to see this part of it. But it’s the only thing I can think of that’ll give us some hope of coming out the other side of this thing. I know you think it has to end bloody, but it doesn’t—I’m not ready to believe that—I want to think we can end up somewhere better—both of us. I was going to tell you—

He stops suddenly. Dean turns around just in time to see Sam lunging for the waste paper basket next to the bed. “Shit,” he mutters, moving back to his brother and getting an arm around his chest to support him through a long wave of vomiting—dry heaving, really, since there’s not much to come up except the water and Tylenol. “Guess that’s the end of that little heart to heart.”


After he’s done throwing up, Sam collapses back onto the bed, spent. He lies so still Dean thinks he’s passed out again. The meds probably didn’t have time to do any good, and Dean hopes the fever doesn’t go any higher, breaks on its own, otherwise he really is going to have get Sam to a doctor. He wets another towel, and runs it over Sam’s face and neck.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice is even fainter than before, and he sounds young. His eyes are closed.

“Yeah?” Dean leans closer to hear.

“I don’t really remember…but, I…I think I did….”

“Did what?”

“Ask for you, like Ruby said….Knew I shouldn’t…but I felt so bad…scared I guess. Sorry….didn’t mean to drag you into this….”

“Sshh, sshh,” Dean whispers, “You did good, Sammy. I’m here. I’m here.” He pushes Sam’s damp hair off his face. “Get some rest, kid.”


After that, Sam’s down for the count. But Dean can’t sleep. He strips the used linens off the other bed and lies down under his jacket, but he just ends up staring at the ceiling. Another sleepless night, and he’s at the back end of exhaustion, eyes aching, limbs stiff.

Finally, he can’t stand being in the room any longer. He opens the curtains so he’ll be able to see Sam from outside, puts on his shoes and jacket, and eases through the door. It’s just before dawn, the coldest part of the night, and the chill feels good. A fluorescent light over the door casts a harsh light on the walkway in front of their room, but the highway beyond is dark and quiet. Dean leans against the rough concrete wall of the motel, sliding down til he’s resting on his heels, tips his head back, and closes his eyes.

When he opens them again, Castiel is standing in front of him.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” Dean would be furious if he weren’t so tired. He hauls himself to his feet. “If you’re here to give me a lecture on Sam and his dark paths, all I can say is that service window is closed for the day—place your inquiry another time.”

Castiel doesn’t say anything, and after a bit Dean figures he’s not about to start haranguing him or tossing out vague directives. He’s just there. That happened too sometimes. In the end, it’s Dean who breaks the silence.

“You know, it’s like this time when we were kids. I was about 15, maybe. Sam just had a cold when Dad left, but then one night he spiked this crazy fever—worse than now, really—he was kind of out of his head with it all night—had to hold him down a couple of times, stop him trying to climb out the window. And I did all the things Dad taught me, but they didn’t seem to help. So I just sat up with him all night, trying to decide what to do next. Should I call Dad? Should I call an ambulance? Should I just sit it out?”

“What did you do?” The angel asks, voice cool and level.

“Nothing, that was the funny thing. While I was still going around in circles trying to figure it out, the fever broke, just like that. Then, you know what kids are like, he slept for a few hours, and by mid-morning he was sitting on the couch, eating popsicles and hogging the remote. Never even told Dad about it when he got back—didn’t seem any point in worrying him about something that had turned out fine anyway.”

“Did you tell Sam?”

“Nah. If he didn’t remember, why give him another reason to be mad at Dad for being gone? And if he did remember, why go over it again?”

“Dean.” Dean’s eyes have dropped to the pitted concrete, but he looks up again at the sound of his name. Castiel’s eyes are as clear as ever, unclouded by any of the fuzzier human emotions—worry, resentment, indecision. “I know you have always felt alone with your brother. But you are not. You weren’t alone then, and you are not alone now.”

The angel’s words are as opaque as usual, but Dean’s throat constricts painfully nonetheless. He’s not sure whether Castiel means that he’s not alone in some general, God-is-everywhere kind of way, or whether he means something more personal. But either way, it’s too much. It’s been the habit of a lifetime to think of Sam as his responsibility, and his alone. No one, especially after Dad died, but before that too, has ever helped him out much with that job, and he’s taken a fierce pride in his willingness and determination to carry it out, even when he’s failed spectacularly. The idea that someone might have been looking out for him all the time he was looking out for Sam tears at his foundations a bit, even as he feels himself yearning towards it. His eyes sting, and he breaks away from Castiel’s gaze, sagging back against the wall.

Castiel doesn’t seem to expect a response to his little bombshell about Dean’s life, something for which Dean is profoundly grateful. The angel just moves to lean beside him on the wall, close enough that their shoulders touch lightly. The contact is oddly reassuring, and after a while, he’s able to get himself back under control.

“Um…” He mumbles, finally, because he can’t not ask, “is there anything you can…ah…do for Sam now?”

“About the choices he’s making, no. You know that, Dean.” They are standing so close that Castiel, too, pitches his voice low. “About his current condition—I don’t think I need to.” He nods his head towards the window. Dean turns. Through the open curtains he can see Sam sleeping, and even from this distance it’s clear that the lines of pain on his face have eased. Dean knows that when he goes back in and lays his hand on Sam’s forehead, he’ll find it cooler. He turns back towards Castiel, but the angel is gone.


When Dean gets back from the store, Sam is already dressed and toweling his hair dry.

“Where’d you go?”

“Get supplies. Here—want a popsicle?”

Sam’s face breaks into a grin, and he reaches eagerly for the box.

“Thanks, man,” Sam says, and Dean could swear, just for a minute, that there’s more in his smile than just fleeting delight. That maybe Sam, too, is remembering that time when he was a sick eleven-year-old and Dad was gone, or maybe not that time, but the countless other times like it.

For a moment, it’s as if Dean can see the complex pattern of all their memories and habits laid out in front of him, a time-worn edifice scoured bare by the elements. From where he’s standing, he can’t tell whether what lies before him is the ruin of something sliding ever farther into the past, or whether it’s a scaffolding upon which they can build something new. All he knows is that he’s not ready yet to tear it up.
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