In a minute, Dean. The voice wasn’t that urgent, not enough to lever off the warm weight of sleep induced by 36 hours awake and the low rumble of the moving Impala. Sam snuggled deeper against the door.
Until the car jolted under him. “Sam.” Dean’s voice was no louder, but choked with panic.
Sam jerked upright as the car swerved again. It rattled along, no longer smooth, at least one wheel grating on the gravel shoulder. Trees whipped past the windows, darker shadows in dusk; they were still at speed, and Dean. . . .
“Dean!” Sam leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel. His brother’s left hand was locked around it, tugging the car out of a straight path, into the opposite lane. Where there were a pair of headlights approaching. Sam yanked on the wheel and the Impala swerved back. Not far enough. “Dean, let go. I’ve got it. I’ve got it."
Dean didn't make a sound, but his fingers slid away. The wheel gave, and Sam pulled the car back to the right side of the line. The oncoming headlights rushed past them. Sam blinked at the dim, straight stretch of road ahead; they were slowing a bit, even on this downgrade. Dean must have taken his foot off the gas. He risked a glance at his brother--what he could see of him, crammed so close under Sam's left side. "Hey, you okay?"
Dean was curled into himself, right arm hiding his face, the heel of that fist tight against his temple. He didn't answer.
Fine. Sam squinted through the gloom, trying to spot a widening of the shoulder where they could pull off. The speedometer showed a good 45 miles per hour, still too fast to pull over. No way could he reach the brake pedal, or the damn foot-operated parking brake. He grabbed the gearshift instead and forced it down a notch, dropping the car into the high hum of neutral. It slowed, though not by much, just as a "sharp curve ahead" sign flashed by. Oh, you've gotta be kidding me.
But there it was, the turn visible as a sudden wall of dark trees looming ahead of them. He could steer, but at this speed, without control of the brakes, the gas, they'd slide right off the road. "Dean, hit the brake!" Sam slapped his brother's knee with an open hand. "Now, Dean!"
Sam was thrown forward as the car jerked and skidded against the blacktop. For several long moments, it was all he could do to keep them on the road, keep the car from spilling sideways. The wheel juddered beneath his hands. Finally, as their speed dropped to nearly nothing, Sam nudged the car off the side of the road. Just enough space to get most of her out of the lane. She rolled to a stop and idled for a second, until Sam reached for the key in her dashboard and turned it.
The engine died. For the first time that night, Sam could hear the sighing of wind in the trees nearby.
And he could hear Dean, very softly repeating a single four-letter word to himself, like a mantra. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck..."
"Dean?" Sam eyed his brother; the daylight was rapidly fading, but still enough to see by, and there didn't seem to be blood anywhere. At the sound of his name, the swearing trailed off, but Dean didn't move. Just sat there, curled against the door, fist pressing into his forehead. Sam reached over and touched his shoulder; it was stiff with tension. "Hey. What happened? You okay?"
Dean shied from the touch, and turned blindly, fumbling for the door handle. He got it open, swung both feet out, but then bent double, his back to Sam, head dropping into his hands. Sam froze for a moment--that was a classic don't-puke-in-the-car move--but there was only the harsh, deliberate push and pull of breath.
Sam opened his own door. By the time he rounded the Impala, Dean hadn't moved, boots planted on the blacktop for balance, elbows braced on spread knees and his head bowed into both hands. Sam knelt, trying to get a look at his brother's face. "Hey." Nothing. No response at all. "Dean." That at least got a grunt. "Dean, look at me."
Dean kept his forehead pressed into the palms of his hands. "I'm okay, Sammy." The words were clear, but very, very quiet.
Sam dropped his own tone a little, despite the urge to yell. "Yeah? Maybe I'd have believed you five minutes ago. Before you almost crashed the car."
"Shit." Dean sounded more than a little dismayed, but he still didn't look up. "She okay?"
That question knotted itself at the base of Sam's spine. How disoriented was Dean, that he had to ask that? That he hadn't realized what was going on? "Yeah, she's fine. Dean, what happened?"
"Headache." Dean lifted his head a fraction, staring at his hands. "Thought my head was gonna fly right off."
Sam frowned to himself. Dean didn't get headaches, not as a regular thing anyway. "What, just like that? Out of nowhere?"
Dean shrugged. "Lack of sleep?" The suggestion was anything but convincing.
There were other possibilities, though. Likely ones. "Did you hit your head? Back in that warehouse?" This time Dean lifted his head all the way, squinting at Sam. "You said that mattress broke the fall. You said you were fine."
Guilt trips always got a predictable response out of Dean. "I did not hit my head! Dude, I know--" His raised voice dropped back to a near-whisper, and he looked back at his hands. "I know what a concussion feels like. Okay? This, uh, it's different than that."
"Yeah? Different how?" Sam got to his feet, leaned over his brother, and put a hand to the back of Dean’s skull, feeling for lumps or tender spots.
“Sam.” It was a warning, although Dean didn’t make a move to stop him.
Sam felt the tension in his own shoulders ease a little. Annoyance was a lot easier to deal with than that non-responsive attitude. He kept going, brushing aside bristles of short hair. “This’ll only take a minute. Come on, tell me how this is different from a concussion.”
“We drove outta Columbus over an hour ago,” Dean pointed out, reluctantly tilting his head so Sam could reach the right side. “Unless a rock just appeared inside the car and beaned me, no way this is a concussion.”
“We’ve seen stranger things,” Sam protested mildly. “And you’re showing all the classic symptoms—headache, nausea, confusion, sensitivity to sound and light—“
“Fuck that.” The muscles at Dean’s temple tightened under Sam’s fingers; the tension showed in his voice. “I’m not confused. I just . . . wasn’t all here for a minute.”
Sam swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. After a second he made himself continue the exam, and said slowly, “If you weren’t here, where were you?”
“Well, it was dark,” Dean began, and then stopped. Probably realizing how strange his description sounded, and starting to think better of trying to articulate it at all.
But any information was better than none, especially about something that had so easily incapacitated Dean. “Like you were about to pass out?”
Dean moved his head slightly, as if trying to shake it, then stopped and spoke instead. “No. Not like that. I could. . . hell, I could still feel the seat and the steering wheel and the gas pedal. But it was dark, and . . . .” He paused again, one hand coming up to rub against his forehead. “Something stank, like rotten meat. Like a dead body. And something wet, on my face. Like rain.” He wiped that hand across his face and looked at it. “Fuck. I sound like a crazy person.”
For a long moment, Sam couldn’t think of any reply that wouldn’t freak Dean out more. He tapped his brother gently on the top of the head, and leaned back against the side of the Impala. “Well . . . it doesn’t look like there’s any physical damage.”
“Told you. You should listen to your big brother.” Dean’s attempt at snark fell rather flat.
“How’s the headache now?”
Dean, staring at the ground, head still in one hand, didn’t answer for a minute. The knot of fear at the base of Sam’s spine started to blossom towards panic. “Better,” Dean finally said. “A lot better.”
Night was closing down around them, and neither spoke for a couple of minutes. Sam cleared his throat. “Look. Ruling out a concussion, or some random road poltergeist taking a shot at you, there’s a couple different things this could be.” Something was nagging at the back of his mind, and he paused, trying to pin it down.
Dean sighed. “Couldn’t it just be a one-time freaky thing?”
“Yeah, if you want to risk that.” Sam patted the Impala lightly, and Dean, getting the hint, glared at him. “It could be some other kind of brain issue. Aneurysms have been known to cause sensory hallucinations.”
"Whatever." Dean's tone was flat and final, rejecting that suggestion completely. "It'd be getting worse, not better."
Sam didn't want to say this, didn't want a replay of that first time he'd stood by Dean's hospital bed alone. "Dean, we don't know that for sure."
"Yeah we do," Dean told him, the shadow of his head still turned towards the ground. "It's not nearly as bad as it was."
Sam absorbed that, weighed the different ways his brother's determination would shape what they did next. "You okay to be driven?"
Dean didn't move. "Sure."
"Scoot over." Sam waited until Dean pulled himself up straighter, edged into the car, and eased himself over towards the passenger side. Sam swung into the driver's seat and pulled the door shut. For a moment, they sat there, and Sam wrestled with possible destinations. Finally he reached for the key, let the engine turn over to a hard rumble.
"Where we headed?" Dean slouched against the door, not looking at Sam.
"Back to Columbus." Sam checked the road for headlights in the dark, then flipped on the left blinker.
"The hell we are." Dean leaned across, slapped his hand onto the steering wheel. Sam couldn't see his face, but his voice was pissy in the extreme. "And I don't care why, either. Winchesters plus desecrated graves? Usually you're the one who's bitching about Hendrickson finding our trail."
Sam was tempted to simply pull out. Unless Dean was feeling a lot better than he had been 60 seconds ago, it wouldn't turn into a fight. "It's the largest nearby city. Larger city means better equipped hospital, which means they'll have their own MRI machine."
"Big city means gangs, and police at the ER," Dean pointed out. When Sam didn't say anything, didn't make a move, Dean slowly let go of the wheel and settled back against the door. "We'll hit a little town somewhere in the next few miles. Let's find a motel and crash. Okay?"
Sam shifted into drive and pulled out into the same lane they'd been in, heading north. "Okay. But we're not done talking about this."
Dean snorted softly.