Tree Hugger

Summary: Sam listens to the trees.

A/N: Written as a (really late) fill for the prompt: Sam developed psychic abilities at a younger age. Telekinesis, visions, seeing the dead, whatever you choose, whatever age. But how does the Winchester family deal with it? Is the hunting community aware? And what sort of toll do these abilities take on a young Sam? over at the OhSam Comment Fic Meme. It... kind of got weird.

XXX

Sam listens to the trees.

Dean shivers and huddles further into his jacket, blowing out an, okay, kind of obnoxious sigh that has his brother bitch-facing him from the forest floor, but seriously, how freaking much can a tree have to say? It's four in the damn morning, they've been here all night, and the freaking rain hasn't let up for one damn second. It's not a downpour – no, that might be enough for Dad to consider heading back and trying again in clearer weather – but a constant, miserable drizzle that drips steadily through the canopy and always, always seems to find it's way down the back of Dean's neck and in his eyes and he's soaked and freezing and he just wants to burn the bitch that's killing hikers before they all get pneumonia.

"Pay attention, Dean," Dad snaps, as if Dean isn't scanning the darkness around them with the meagre beam of his flash light, held on top of his shotgun, loaded with rock salt rounds and ready in case he somehow manages to see something through all the stupid trees and rain and Jesus, this sucks. What he wouldn't give to be warm and dry right now. Maybe with a girl for company...

"That way," Sam says finally, unclasping his hands from the tree roots and nodding towards the east. "We're getting close."

"Good," Dad says briskly, already heading off in the direction indicated – apparently Dean isn't the only one growing impatient – and leaving Dean to deal with the increasingly snappy Sammy. (He gets it, none of them want to be here, it's taking longer than they thought it would, but it's not like it's Dean's fault the trees are so damn chatty.)

"I'm fine," Sam mutters, shaking off Dean's attempt at assistance. He uses a low branch to drag himself from the mud at the base of the talkative tree and leans against the trunk, just for a moment and he tries to play it off like he's just getting his bearings before heading off but the motion makes Dean pause. He moves the flash light beam over, illuminating the pinched look on Sam's face, the dark circles bruised beneath his eyes, and suddenly Dean's thinking about how this is the fifth tree Sam's worked his mojo on and they've never pushed Sam's talents so far before, maybe this is a bad idea...

"You wanna rest for a bit?" he asks, and gets another bitch-face for his concern.

"I said I'm fine. Dad's waiting." The kid heads out after Dad – who is definitely not waiting – and Dean has no choice but to follow his infuriating brother. He consoles himself by muttering a few choice words about pig-headed teenagers as he walks, just loud enough for Sam to hear.

"What took so long anyway?" he asks finally, when he gets sick of talking to himself (it's no fun if Sam doesn't react). He drags his boot out of the mud it's trying to stick in and swipes rain out of his eyes for the millionth time.

"The tree was old, Dean." Sam sounds breathless, more so than he should be from the hike. "It's seen a lot of stuff." He goes to duck under a low-hanging branch, loses his balance and almost face-plants on the forest floor before Dean manages to holster his gun and grab the kids jacket.

"Fine, my ass," Dean mutters, pulling Sam upright. "You need to rest."

"I am fine," Sam insists, "I just got dizzy for a second." Which would be a whole lot more convincing if Sam wasn't blinking like he can't quite get the world to focus or if the colour wasn't draining from his face faster than Dean downs shots.

Dean gives him a moment to realize what a moron he's being, then tugs at his arm, gentle but insistent. "Sammy, come on."

Sam glances up at him, damp bangs plastered to his forehead, eyes dark in the moonlight. He looks haunted, fragile, and finally – stubborn kid – he swallows and nods, probably because he knows he's going down whether he accepts Dean's help or not. Dean guides him over to a semi-dry patch of moss and pushes him down. Immediately, Sam drops his head between his knees and abandons all pretence of being fine in favour of breathing deep and deliberately. Dean crouches behind him and rubs his back.

"Dad's pushing you too hard." The realization stings. It's not just Dad. Dean's been taking for granted that Sam could talk to as many plants as he wanted without consequence, too. Obviously there are limits. And obviously Sam's not going to let on that he's reaching them when they're in the middle of a hunt, in the middle of a forest, when the task of finding the body rests solely on his shoulders.

Sam shakes his head wearily. He presses his fingertips to his temples without looking up. Water drips from the tips of his bangs to the forest floor. "We have to find her. I just need a minute."

"You look like you're about five seconds away from eating dirt," Dean observes. "How long has your head been hurting?"

Sam is quiet for long enough that Dean starts to worry that he's messed up his hearing with all this plant talk but eventually he shrugs a little. "Since the third tree," he admits. "It only got bad with the last one."

"You should've said something." You should have noticed, Dean. Should have paid less attention to the rain and more attention to Sam. But Sam's been talking to flowers and grass and shit since he hit puberty and Dean's never been happy about Dad dragging the kid on hunts like he's just another tool in their arsenal but somewhere along the line he must have just got used to it, which is wrong wrong wrong, what the fuck, Dean?

Sam's eyes flick up to Dean and back to the ground, exhausted. "I'll feel better when we find her," he says quietly. "I just want to find her. She needs to be put to rest."

Dean probably wouldn't word it quite so kindly – the body count had been climbing steadily for decades before Dad caught wind of the case, and this endless trudge through the forest hasn't improved Dean's opinion of the late Clara Miller; burn, baby, burn feels more fitting. But Sam has always been more forgiving of lost souls and he's been following her desperate flight through the woods in the technicolour memories of the trees all night; an 18 year old girl whose pregnancy created a problem for the wealthy man with whom she had started an affair. She was a victim, too, Dean tries to remind himself, but he just finds himself picturing the crime scene photos of her latest victim instead.

"What's the hold up?"

They both jump – great, this will definitely turn into a lecture on vigilance – and look up. Dad looms above them, his silent approach a warning that Dean is not paying enough attention to his surroundings. The disapproval on his face is obvious even in the dim moonlight and suddenly Dean is mad as hell because hello? Can Dad not see that Sam is pale enough to be at risk of being mistaken for the ghost they're hunting, and how can he not know that those lines around Sam's eyes mean that the kid's in pain, is he completely blind or is it just more important to him that he kills the monster?

Dean draws himself to his feet, planting a hand on Sam's shoulder when he tries to do the same. "Sam needs a break," he declares, in a tone that hopefully leaves no room for argument, and stares Dad down because no. Just no. Enough is enough.

Dad stares back at him for a long moment like he's not sure what he's seeing, like maybe his eyes and ears are playing tricks on him, before finally he looks down at Sam, actually looks at him for what might be the first time since they stepped foot in these damn woods, and maybe Dean would be less angry if he didn't seem so surprised by the state of his own son, but Dad's softening expression just pisses him the hell off because why weren't you looking after Sammy? (Why weren't you, Dean?)

"I'm okay," Sam says, because he's an idiot who apparently needs Dean to explain the meaning of the word 'okay' and how it doesn't involve huddling on the forest floor because you're too wiped out to move without the world spinning.

"It's not usually this bad," Dad says, like that's some sort of legitimate excuse for not noticing sooner. Dean grits his teeth.

"Most things I talk to are younger," Sam explains wearily, pressing his fingers to his temples again like he wants to burrow through his head and tear out the pain. "These trees... there are decades of memories. And I see everything; everything that's crossed their paths, every bird and insect and person, every storm, every drought, every clear day. I see every branch grow and every leaf fall. And I have to look through all of that to find Clara, and she's only a few minutes of memory out of years and years of memories. It's just... a lot," he finishes, which sounds like the understatement of the century. Dean tries to imagine being able to see the lifespan of one of these huge, towering trees, everything that's happened around them, from the tiny sapling pushing through the earth until now. It's enough to make his head ache and he doubts his imaginings even come close to what Sam actually experiences.

Sam presses his palms into his eyes, then drags them down his face and braces himself to push up off the ground. "I still know what way to go. She's not far. I just want to get this done."

Dean wants to argue because Sam still looks pale and pinched and he's moving far too slow and far too shaky when he forces himself to his feet. His shoulders are hunched and he's squinting like his head hurts too much to even open his eyes properly, but Clara isn't going to salt and burn herself and there's no way Dad – or Sam – would let them turn back after coming this far. So he bites his tongue and positions himself at Sam's side so he can catch the kid if he falls. Sam gives him a look that can't decide if it's annoyed or grateful.

"I'm okay, Dean, really."

Dean just rolls his eyes – seriously, he's going to have to sit Sam down with a dictionary – and stays right where he is.

END