Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Dean awoke, one might say, several days later, aching through every inch of his body in ways he hadn’t felt even after the harshest workouts Dad used to put them through. His consciousness came back in fluctuating, grainy resolution, like an old-school TV with a shitty antenna, and he stumbled around – that was the only word he could relate to feeling like this, although really it was more like stepped and flickered and fell through a wall – trying to get his bearings, and realized he was still with Sam, in a new motel room in a new state.
Sam was on his computer, completely unaware Dean had resurfaced from the land of over-achieving ghosts. The moment Dean laid eyes on him, he felt a little fuller, a little more like he could stand and walk straight. Dean approached Sam eagerly and tried to touch him, bracing himself for failure.
His hand fell right onto Sam’s shoulder, just as he’d intended, as a shock of static and Sam spun immediately, the gun by his hand untouched as he looked up and into what would have been about Dean’s neck.
“Dean?” And Dean broke a little more inside, because Sam’s voice sounded wrecked. “Dean is that you?”
But just as Dean was reaching for Sam’s shoulder to try again, a female voice called, “Sam? Who are you talking to?”
Dean’s eyes widened to probably comical proportions as a small brunette with giant eyes emerged from the bathroom, tugging her jacket tighter about her shoulders. She looked at Sam curiously, a little anxiety apparent on her face as Sam stared so deliberately in the other direction. “Sam?”
Sam finally turned around to look at her, though Dean could tell he barely registered her – which, if he was honest, made him feel more than a little smug.
“Ava,” he said, “uh…” His eyes flickered to where Dean stood as he fought with himself over what the hell to do. He pressed his lips together and looked at her. “Remember the brother I told you about?”
“Your dead ghost brother?” she asked, far too flippantly for Dean’s liking.
Sam laughed humorlessly. “Yeah,” he answered. “Well…he’s back.”
Ava looked around owlishly, apprehension obvious in her face. “But I thought…”
“Ava,” Sam interrupted, standing from the table and walking to her. “Dean would never hurt you, okay? We’re safe here, Gordon has no idea where we are, and with Dean back, we may have the upper hand.” He smiled his I-acknowledge-your-pain smile, and she seemed to settle. “Go get us some sodas, okay? Everything’ll be all right.”
She walked out the door, three of Sam’s dollars in her hand, and Sam turned back to Dean, face melting instantly from soothing a victim into scared little boy.
“Can you…?” he asked, hand gesturing vaguely.
Dean looked down at himself, unsure after not being able to touch Sam if he should risk being visible, let alone solid, but tried anyway. For Sammy. And he was amazed by how easy it actually was to bring himself the one, once-impossible step forward into solidity.
Sam was upon him in three strides and was pulling him in for a bear hug. Dean was surprised by how easily he’d become solid, but couldn’t really think about anything but Sammy’s arms around him.
“It’s been weeks…” Sam said, voice cracking a little. “You were just gone. No noise, nothing. I thought…” He buried his nose in Dean’s neck and choked, “God, I thought…”
“Shh, Sammy, it’s okay, I’m right here,” Dean soothed, fingers digging into Sam’s back and petting his hair in reassurance. It was starting to feel natural again.
“You can talk,” Sam breathed, and Dean felt Sam’s cheeks go taut against his neck with a smile. They separated and, easy as breathing, Sam placed a quick kiss on Dean’s mouth. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just kinda sore,” Dean answered, amazed at the clarity of his own voice. “Dunno what happens when I go out like that, but it sucks.”
“Go out?” Sam asked.
“Like a light,” Dean said. “I’m just, gone. I didn’t even know time had passed, I just, woke up with a hangover from hell and saw you.”
Sam clasped his shoulder reassuringly and Dean grinned. Then he nodded at the door and asked, “Who’s the chick?”
Sam looked at the door for a split second like he’d never seen one before, then answered, “Oh, Ava. Ava Wilson. She’s another…she’s one of the demon’s kids.” Sam shifted uncomfortably, and Dean guessed he was remembering Andy. “She had a vision that a hunter named Gordon Walker killed me, so she tracked me down to warn me.”
“Who the hell is Gordon Walker?” Dean asked, heat burning low in his belly at the idea Sam had been in danger and he hadn’t even been here.
“Some zealot vampire hunter.” Sam grabbed Dad’s journal from the bedside table drawer and showed Dean an entry Sam had apparently made himself. “I called Ellen when Ava showed up, and she and Ash told me who and where he was. Apparently he’s a little too extreme for most hunters, only works alone and sees in complete black and white. Good or evil, no in between.”
“So why’s he after you?” Dean asked, voice rising in fear and anger.
Sam hung his head. “Two reasons,” he answered. “One, he found out about the Yellow-Eyed Demon, all the children like me, and he’s been picking them off all across the country. Two…” He looked back up at Dean, lips pressed into a line. “He did some checking up on me, and I don’t know how, but he knows about you.”
The bottom dropped out of Dean’s stomach. Oh, God. Just existing was putting Sam’s life in danger. Fucking figured.
“So…” he tried, but his voice was damnably small. “What do we do?”
Sam shook his head. “He’s a menace, kills everything and anyone he wants and doesn’t care either way. He took out this huge nest of vampires a month or so back, but it turned out they were known to be vegetarians. They hadn’t killed a human in decades.” Sam stood, looking at Dean like a child. “I…I don’t want to, but…Dean, I think I have to kill him.”
There was such pain in his voice, his stance. Guilt and sorrow were weighing down on his shoulders like an almost visible weight. Dean palmed Sam’s bicep and squeezed, going for reassuring and having no idea if he was hitting his mark.
“Sam, he’s dangerous. He’s taking out innocent people, and we need to stop him.”
“But after what happened with Andy…”
“Forget about Andy, Sam.” Dean took his brother by the shoulders and made him look him in the eye. “Yeah, that was wrong. But it’s in the past now, Sammy. All we got’s the present. Okay?”
Sam nodded and leaned into him, all of ten and scared of the thing under his bed. Dean’s hands slipped from his shoulders and cupped his chin, brought his face to his lips, and kissed. Sam pressed back, breathing rhythmically against him, and then opened his mouth against Dean’s, just enough so their mouths fit together instead of just pressing flatly, just so Dean’s long-dormant tongue could taste his little brother’s breath.
Some things are about effort; others are just natural progression.
Gordon was lying in wait in some old house when Sam went in. Ava warned him about the tripwire in the back, so he set it off and drew Gordon out. Then he put a gun to the back of Gordon’s skull and told him to get the fuck down.
Gordon chose to fight. He got Sam on the ground, too, on his back with a hunting knife in his face.
“You’re no better than the filthy things you hunt,” Gordon snarled as he glared down at Sam. “Bad enough you’re some demon’s bitch, but now you’re working with angry spirits, too? How can you just betray your own race like that, Sammy?”
He raised the knife to finish Sam off, Sam dazed from his fall and not quick enough to move, and maybe he would have done it. Maybe Sam would have died, right then and there, at the hands of some black-and-white freak.
But Sam had one thing Gordon didn’t count on: Dean.
Dean was waiting, invisible even to Sam, just inside the door, and while they hadn’t exactly counted on Sam going down, they’d known Gordon would attack and forget all about Dean even being a threat. So as Gordon raised that knife, ready to kill the hellspawn he had pinned beneath him, Dean immediately became as solid as he ever was in life, grabbed Gordon’s wrist and smashed into his elbow with his own fist, breaking his arm. Gordon screamed and crumpled, and Sam sat up, grabbed the knife, and stabbed it into his throat.
There’s a first time for everything. This was Dean’s first violent attack.
Ava went home, then her fiancé wound up dead and she went missing. They searched for her for a solid month and found nothing but her engagement ring on the floor and sulfur in her bedroom. Sam called Ellen and found them a job.
After pushing himself too far in Mississippi, Dean had apparently hit a growth spurt in his development, because every time he tried to teach himself something new, it only took him from about three days to two weeks to master. And hell, compared to the six months it had taken to learn how to become visible, even two weeks was practically instantaneous.
It was still difficult to maintain full solidity for long periods – especially if he had to be particularly active – and he only attempted it when he and Sam needed to hunt. He remained invisible whenever they were alone together, in the car or the motel, stayed out of Sam’s way while he worked and tried to help where he could – freaky or not, it was still much easier to physically interact with the world when he wasn’t trying to be solid, too – cleaning the guns or checking ammo.
He found it quite insulting the first time he unthinkingly grabbed for a bag of rock salt to help Sam pack salt rounds for the shot guns and burned his hand, and he never told Sam how much it hurt.
But sometimes Sammy would look up from whatever he’d been doing and seek him out. Dean would go to him and materialize before his eyes, let Sammy’s loving eyes rove over him like he’d never seen anything so beautiful, and they’d just be together. Sometimes they’d kiss, soft and barely open-mouthed. Other times Sam would just return to researching or preparing and Dean would stay nearby, resting a hand or a foot against Sam’s leg under the table.
Maybe he couldn’t pack salt rounds or touch half the knives because they were made of iron, maybe he couldn’t quite figure out how to work a gun in his current state, but at least he could be here for Sammy. He’d done it all his life, after all. What made Death think it would be any different?
A haunted inn in Connecticut sent Dean for a loop. A little dead girl named Maggie was killing off anyone involved in selling the old place because she didn’t want her playmate, the owner’s daughter Tyler, to leave her. In a last ditch effort to keep her for herself, Maggie helped Tyler jump into the inn’s pool, and it took the owner’s mother trading her life for Tyler’s to end Maggie’s massacre.
Pretty trippy case, would have left Dean with chills from the dolls alone had he been alive, but it was something else that was fucking with him: that little girl had been so obsessed with not being alone that she had been willing to kill for it.
Who knew when he would get that desperate?
He’d killed hundreds of things throughout his lifetime, and a few people, either in the line of duty or just to protect Sammy. And he’d now, as a spirit, officially helped kill a human being to save Sam.
He felt himself sliding down a slippery slope, and much as he tried to cling to the idea that he was different, that he knew better, he knew it was going to start getting harder to keep from falling altogether. His only secure handhold was his Sammy.
And Sammy wasn’t forever.
Sam had a nightmare. Just a run-of-the-mill nightmare, no premonitions for weeks now, and Dean flickered to his side in an instant – a rather handy trick, he had to admit, though it had taken him nearly a week to learn how and a month to perfect – and immediately materialized, pressing a hand to Sammy’s shoulder and settling him on the mattress, whispering and shushing so he’d quiet. Sammy’s breathing returned to normal and he stopped moaning, his eyes cracked open and settled on Dean above him.
“Hey, little brother,” Dean said softly, going for soothing. “It’s just a dream, okay? Go back to sleep.”
“Dean…” Sam muttered, and grasped Dean’s hand. “Stay.”
Dean furrowed his eyebrows, confused. “I’m not going anywhere, Sammy. It’s okay.”
“No, Dean…stay.” He pulled at Dean’s arm sleepily, a little noise escaping his lips. “Please.”
And Dean understood. And he lay down next to Sam in the motel room bed, with its scratchy blankets and hard-as-rock mattress, and curled around Sam. Sammy snuggled down Dean’s torso and buried his nose into Dean’s neck and chest. His hair tickled Dean’s chin and Sam’s nose was surprisingly pointed, but Dean wrapped his arms around him and held him close nonetheless.
This used to happen when Sam was just a kid. He’d get scared of a storm, or a movie Dean shouldn’t have let him watch, and he’d snuggle into Dean’s chest in the bed they shared and they’d sleep that way, tangled in each other, Dean looking out for him. As they got older and Dad started getting them separate beds it stopped, and Dean felt like he lost a piece of himself when it did, one more thing he couldn’t give Sam.
Dean knew they were approaching some kind of line. The first time he’d kissed Sam had been out of desperation, reaching deep into himself and pulling out whatever he could to tell Sam how much he loved him, how much he needed him. Obviously that aspect had escalated, still so careful but he could feel the edge of reason slipping every time it happened, knew it would eventually become too much.
Fuck the line. They’d never really cared about the lines before, in their way of life or how they earned their cash, and their relationship with each other and their dad had been the complete opposite of normal since late 1983. And now, with Dean still hanging around six months after his own death and Sam slowly approaching some fucked up, demon-induced destiny, maybe a little comfort wasn’t the kind of line they really needed to care about.
Dean ran his hand up Sam’s neck and threaded his fingers through Sammy’s stupid hair. Then he closed his eyes and relaxed, listening to Sam breathing cuddled into his side, and thinking that he could definitely get used to this.
In Springfield, Ohio, Sam called Bobby for help. There was weird shit going on around the university – like, slow-dancing aliens weird – and Bobby drove down to see if he could help. Sam had to admit he was glad to see him, they hadn’t even spoken since he lent Sam his Chevelle, but it hurt him to force Dean to stay invisible and quiet while Bobby was there. They’d been so close lately, in emotion and proximity, and he didn’t want to do anything to risk losing that.
So Bobby came into a completely normal, singly-occupied motel room, ready to sort through impossible clues with him. They sat down at the desk in the corner, cracked open a beer each, and began the breakdown. Twenty minutes later, Bobby informed Sam that, not only was he an idjit, but he had a Trickster on his hands.
While they sat together paring wooden stakes, Sam trying to think where the best place would be to get blood to dip them in, Bobby asked, nonchalant as asking about the weather, “So how’s Dean?”
Sam dropped his half-carved stake and paring knife. “Wh-what?”
Bobby gave him a look. “Don’t bullshit me, boy. I’ve known for a while.”
“How long?” Sam asked, voice quavering.
“Not long after the accident,” Bobby answered, sighing and going back to his carving. “Flickering lights, and stuff kept turning up knocked over and broken, and you’re an angry boy but you’ve never broken my things. And if you ever did, it wasn’t without profuse apology.” He slid a sideways smile at Sam.
“Why didn’t you say anything? I mean, why is Dean still alive? I thought you’d…”
“Burn his bones?” Bobby supplied. “I tried. Asked you a thousand times, didn’t I? But you wouldn’t let me, kept saying you’d need time to fix things, and I knew if you were talking like that it meant you knew about Dean, too, and wanted him to stay.” He shrugged, didn’t look up. “I figured, it wasn’t my place, you know? Your daddy, though, I burned him.”
Sam’s stomach turned to lead. He hadn’t thought about Dad’s body once since Dean came back, and he’d certainly never considered what might have happened to his spirit. And it hit him, hard and sudden, that they thought he’d made a deal, Dean’s life for his soul…which meant, if that really was what killed him, his Dad’s soul…
“Dad’s in Hell,” he breathed, so quiet he wasn’t sure Bobby would hear him. He raised his head and met the older man’s dark eyes, and he realized Bobby already understood. “You knew?” Sam asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t want to hear it. You were too wrapped up in Dean, in yourself, as always. You knew he was gone, done your mourning. Nothing good would come of it.”
“How’d you know?”
“After you came over for those summoning herbs, the ones he told you were for protection, I called him up. He told me what he was gonna do, that it was to protect you boys. I must’ve hollered at him for ten minutes, but he never let up. Said he was gonna do whatever it took to keep you two safe.” Bobby swallowed hard, let his eyes dart away for a moment, then brought them back to Sam’s. “Never could talk John out of anything.”
Sam laughed a little, uncomfortable beneath Bobby’s stare, but couldn’t come up with anything to say.
“So?” Bobby asked after long minutes without a response from Sam. “Are you ever gonna tell me how Dean is?”
Sam swallowed and pressed his lips together, not sure how much to reveal. Bobby knew how much time had passed, and he knew a hell of a lot more about spirits than they did so he would know just how much Dean could have progressed, but…
Bobby suddenly leapt from his chair, knocking it over and dropping his stake and knife to the floor with a crash, eyes wide and face slack with shock.
Sam spun to look and saw Dean standing in the farthest corner of the room.
“Heya, Bobby,” Dean said, trademark smirk on his lips but true happiness in his eyes. “It’s been a while.”
Highway 41 was dark and lonely this time of year, especially this late at night, but Sam and Dean knew what they were looking for: two ghosts, Molly McNamara and Jonah Greely, who had been chasing each other around this strip of asphalt since the car crash that killed them both in 1992.
They didn’t expect Molly to come running straight to them, stopping their car and asking for help, not knowing she was dead.
She was looking for her husband, she said. They’d crashed into a tree and he was missing, and now she was being chased by some eviscerated man who wanted to hurt her. Sam talked to her and explained a version of the night’s events to her – humoring her supposed humanity – and together the three of them searched for Jonah Greely’s bones to burn. Greely wasn’t too pleased, stopped their car and tried to fight for Molly, but Sam kept him at bay with a few salt rounds.
“So this is really what you guys do?” Molly asked as they walked through the forest to find Jonah Greely’s house. “You’re like Ghostbusters?”
Dean saw Sam turn to answer her, but apparently noticed that she was talking to what he must have perceived as thin air and stayed quiet. Dean made himself visible for Sammy’s sake, which didn’t appear to change how Molly saw him, and he answered simply, “Yeah, minus the jumpsuits.”
Jonah Greely made a few very violent grabs for Molly, even got her strung up in his hunting cabin once, before Sam found his bones buried by a tree, which was his grave marker, and burned them. Then they took Molly to see her husband – and his new wife. They tried to explain, to tell her she was a ghost and she and Greely both haunted the highway.
“David,” she whispered, looking up and through the window at her husband.
“Molly, we brought you here so you could move on,” Sam said, voice soft and trying to be soothing.
“No, I have to tell him – ”
“What? That you love him? That you’re sorry? Molly, he already knows that.” Sam stepped forward and touched her shoulder lightly. “David’s already said his goodbyes, Molly. Now it’s your turn. This is your unfinished business.”
Molly was crying, looking between both of them with tears in her eyes. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Just…” Sam searched for what to say. “Let go of David, of everything. You do that, we think you’ll move on.”
“But you don’t know where?” Molly met his eyes, pleading for answers.
“No,” Sam admitted. “But Molly, you don’t belong here. Haven’t you suffered long enough?” He kept his eyes on hers, but he felt himself desperately needing to look at Dean, to let him know he wasn’t talking about him in the slightest. “It’s time. It’s time to go.”
Molly nodded, moved from under Sam’s hand, and stepped past him. Her eyes met Dean’s, and she looked like she was seeing him for the first time.
Dean pressed his lips together hard, nodding curtly. Molly looked back at Sam incredulously for a split second before turning completely from both of them and walking forward. Dean watched her watching the sunrise, saw the sunlight turn white and warm over her as a man appeared at her elbow, dressed in a suit. A reaper. He took her hand and she, either unaware or undisturbed by his presence, simply lifted her head and faded into the light.
Dean decided this was one of the most surreal moments of his life.
There was a werewolf in San Francisco, attacking local working girls and, most recently, some lawyer. Sam and Dean tracked down the lawyer’s assistant, a hot brunette named Madison. It hurt Dean to watch her rake her eyes over Sam, flirt with him while he protected her, but it felt good to watch Sam, too. See how he played her attraction up, used it to get better answers to his FBI guy questions.
A false lead on Madison’s ex-boyfriend Kurt found them the real wolf-man – or woman, as fate would have it. They found Kurt with his chest cavity torn apart not far from his apartment with Madison crouched over him, devouring his heart. She took off, of course, but Sam had always been a damn good shot.
Another hooker died the next night, and they tracked the blood back to Madison’s building, but it was her neighbor. Sam took him out, too.
“Fucking things are setting up franchises,” Dean said as they booked it for the stairs before the cops could show up. Sam laughed and kissed him once they got in the car.
Dean was standing, invisible, behind Sam in a diner in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain when the worst happened. The lights started flickering – he’d managed to stop doing that, thank god, so he knew it wasn’t him – and suddenly everyone was dead and Sammy was gone.
Sam woke up lying on the ground in some old, abandoned town. He searched the place and wound up finding Ava locked in a shed, as well as a soldier named Jake Talley who was super strong and a girl named Lily who could stop hearts with a touch. He also found them an Acheri demon, which helped him prove his point that they had all been brought there by the Yellow-Eyed Demon. They set up protection for themselves, salt lines at the doors and windows, whatever weapons they could fashion.
But Sam thought only of Dean.
Dean wasn’t as powerful without Sam. Apparently, just as his own comatose body had grounded his spirit in the hospital, it was Sam who had been grounding him ever since. He could still move fairly freely, flickering around mostly, but talking was difficult and being solid was damn near impossible; but at the moment, panic was making up for his lack of worldly tether, and he flickered halfway across the state to Bobby’s house for help.
At the sight of Dean flickering like bad reception with no Sam by his side, Bobby loaded them into an old pickup truck and headed for the Roadhouse, deciding they needed Ash’s help and Ellen’s connections. It was a burnt husk when they got there.
Sam and Jake were hunting through piles of broken pipes when they heard Ava scream. They ran outside and found her, staring up at a windmill – and Lily, hanging and dead by her neck. Sam held Ava while she cried, then ushered the three of them back inside.
Jake broke the metal pipes into pieces, Ava rocked back and forth, and Sam stared out the window, looking at the engraved tree on a bell in the middle of the town square. He focused hard on it, seeing its every groove and recess, all the detail he could muster. He thought of the Demon, how it must have brought them all here for a reason, and focused on that, too.
Dean… he thought. See this, Dean. I need your help. It was a long shot, but it was all he had.
“Concentrate, son, just think.”
Bobby was convinced Dean’s connection to his brother would be what saved them, that Dean would be able to find Sam if he focused, a map spread out on the hood of the truck for Dean to point to. But at the moment, they were still standing in the shadow of the Roadhouse’s still-hot skeleton, and Dean hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything but Sam for hours and he still had no idea.
“It’s like meditation, boy,” Bobby said. “It’s hard, I know, but you gotta try. You gotta get to Sam.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Dean snarled, glaring at Bobby’s stupid, ignorant face (effective, considering Dean wasn’t visible or audible at the moment). His eyes were shut tight, blocking out the image of the Roadhouse, of Bobby, and trying to see Sam. At his best, learning a new trick took a few days – standing here, scared and without his Sammy, Dean didn’t think he had a chance.
Before he knew what hit him, Dean was on the ground, doubled over as images burst through his head. A bell with an oak tree engraved on it, Sam’s face, and Ava’s, and two other people he didn’t know. Also, an overwhelming sense of…yellow?
Dean grabbed at the pen Bobby had set out for him and wrote “bell, tree” in giant letters over the map and thrust it into Bobby’s hands. Bobby looked at what he’d written and asked, “A bell with a tree on it?” Dean banged the hood of the car. “I’ll take that as a yes. I know where that is, get in the car.”
Sam was dreaming, he knew he was. That’s the only reason the Yellow-Eyed Demon was there, talking to him, calling Sam its favorite. Showing him the night his mother died. Sam watched Mary run into the nursery, slam into a wall and creep up it to the ceiling, watched her bleed and catch fire as she stared down at her six-month-old son who had demon blood on his lips.
It all made sense, everything that had ever gone wrong. It was all Sam’s fault, because Sam had demon blood in him, because he wasn’t even human.
He woke up to Jake shaking him awake, telling him Ava was missing. They found her outside, rubbing her temples as black smoke curled around her into another Acheri demon. It attacked Jake and Sam slashed it with an iron pipe, and before Ava could resummon it Jake snapped her neck.
“Come on,” Sam said to Jake over Ava’s body before heading for the woods. “I think we can make it out of here now.”
“Not ‘we,’ Sam,” Jake said, and Sam turned to look at him. Jake’s eyes were set, wide and a little crazy. “Only one of us is getting out of here. I’m sorry.”
“What?” Sam said dumbly, hardly believing what he was hearing.
“I had a vision,” Jake said. “The Yellow-Eyed Demon, he talked to me. He told me how it was.”
The same dream, probably telling Jake how he was its favorite. “No, Jake, listen, you can’t listen to him.”
“Sam, he’s not letting us go. Only one. If we don’t play along, he’ll kill us both.” Jake made a sympathetic face. “Now, I like you man, I do, but do the math here. What good’s it do for both of us to die? I can get out of here, I get close to the demon, I can kill the bastard.”
“You come with me, we can kill him together!” Sam reasoned, trying to make Jake see the other side.
“How do I know you won’t turn on me?”
“I don’t know that.”
The pickup stopped at the gate of a crumbling ghost town called Cold Oak and Dean started flickering into every decrepit old building he saw, searching for Sam. He could feel him more strongly with every movement, every new landing one step closer to his Sammy.
“Dean!” Bobby called, and Dean flickered to his side. They were at the edge of an empty, overgrown field, across which Sam had just laid some guy out.
As he watched his brother throw away his weapon as he stood over the guy’s limp body, Dean felt his body fill and he materialized, solid as life and everything he’d worked to create in the last six months restored. He saw Sam’s head come up and their eyes met, and Dean grinned so widely just at the sight of him he thought his face might split in two. Sammy started walking toward him, holding his arm like his shoulder might be dislocated, and Dean could do nothing but jog forward, in love with Sam all over again just by knowing he was alive.
“Dean!” Sam called, eyes tired but shining and so fucking happy.
“I’m right here, Sammy,” Dean called back, that weird pressure of unfallen tears welling behind his eyes. “I’m not going anywhere, remember?”
Halfway to each other across the field, Dean registered too late that the guy had risen and was behind Sam, and – was that a fucking knife?
“Sam, look out!” Dean cried, but it was too fast and Dean was too slow flickering over, and by the time he had rematerialized the guy was running and Sam was slipping to the ground. “No!”
Bobby was off after the guy, running into the night, but all Dean could see was Sam, falling forward and eyes rolling back in his head.
“Sam!” Dean screamed, grabbing for his brother as both their knees hit the cold, wet grass. “Woah, woah, Sam, Sam! Hey!” He held Sam up by his clothes and Sam’s head fell onto his shoulder, neck powerless to support it.
“Come here. Let me look at you…” Dean pressed his palm against the wound and his hand came away covered in blood. He could feel the break in Sam’s spine, knew that was why his head was lolling and blood was dribbling from between Sam’s lips, but still he took Sam’s face in his hands, supporting his neck with his fingers, and said,
“Hey, look at me. It’s not even that bad.” He hitched Sam higher into his arms, feeling his own strength fading as Sam’s did. “It’s not even that bad, all right? Sammy?”
Sam’s eyes rolled and his head slumped backwards. “Sam!”
Dean propped Sam against him and held his face steady, forcing Sam to see his eyes. “Hey, listen to me. We’re gonna patch you up, okay?” He pressed a chaste but pleading kiss on Sam’s bloody lips. “You’re gonna be good as new. I’m gonna take care of you.” Another kiss, but he had to hold Sam’s head to keep it from falling away from his mouth. “I’m gonna take care of you. I’ve got you.” He stroked down Sam’s face and pushed his hair off his forehead so he could see. “That’s my job, right? Watch out for my pain-in-the-ass little brother?” Sam’s eyes were glazing over, eyelids growing heavier. “Sam? Sam! Sammy!”
Sam’s eyes slipped shut, the last gleam of recognition in his eyes extinguished as his eyelashes rested finally against his cheeks. His whole body slumped forward, bent awkwardly against Dean so he had to claw at his back and lift him again to look at him.
“No,” Dean whispered. “No, no, no, no.” He couldn’t let this happen. “Oh, god.” His brother couldn’t die. He clutched Sam to him and wrapped him in his arms, trying to support his weight even as he felt his body becoming less solid. Dean’s hands were everywhere at once, not sure where to hold, finally resting one on Sam’s back and one tangled in his hair.
“Sam!” he shrieked, voice breaking as it stopped working altogether. The last thing he felt was Sam’s final breath before Sam fell through Dean and landed face down in the mud. Dean’s arms hung stupidly in the air as he cried, sobbing with shaking shoulders and dry eyes and Dean had never before wished so hard for tears to actually come.
“God, Sam…” he wept, turning to look at his brother’s lifeless body. “I’m so sorry, Sammy. I’m so fucking sorry. I…” There was nothing to say, nothing he could do.
He was just another lost, wandering spirit, misguided and stupid and fucking worthless.
He heard Bobby approaching from behind him, heard his heavy breath and weary steps, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around. Not that it mattered, since he walked right through Dean to pick Sam off the ground and prop him in his lap. Dean could just see the man’s eyes from under his cap, and they were full of tears.
“Dammit, boy,” he was muttering, “we all do our best to keep you safe, and this…this is how it ends?” He pressed a wrinkled hand to his face, and Dean could see how tired he was, of losing people, of hunting. Dean knew the feeling, knew it so clearly and singly at that very moment, and he bowed his head and looked down at his little brother, body splayed across the mud and Bobby’s folded legs and through Dean’s hips.
“Dean?” Dean started and leapt from the ground. That couldn’t…it wasn’t Sammy’s voice?
But it was. And there was Sam, all six foot five of him, standing just behind him and staring down at his own body.
“Sammy!” Dean cried, joy and an intense feeling of failure battling inside him at the sight – because his little brother was on his feet again, but it meant he…
“Dean…” Sam whispered, staring down at himself. “Am I…am I dead?”
“What?” Dean said, grasping for anything but the truth. “No, of course not, you’re – you’re just – ”
“Dean?” Sam’s eyes were begging him not to lie.
Dean swallowed past the lump in his throat, chest caught in a knot, and he could only nod.
Sammy’s eyes went full of emotion and his lips quivered. “So I’m…I’m a spirit? I’m like you?”
Dean felt his heart fill to bursting in his chest and he said, “Yeah, Sammy. But it’s not too late, okay? We can fix this. I can talk to Bobby, I can get him to look for something for us, there’s…there’s gotta be something we can do, okay?” His eyes were wide and he was pleading, praying Sam would listen.
“Dean, I…” Sammy looked down at his hands, must have been seeing the weird way they looked solid and transparent at the same time. “I’m dead. I’m…”
Dean strode forward and grabbed his brother by his shoulders, and he felt the static-shock for just a moment before feeling Sam’s jacket. Sam was new, and Sam was fragile, but Sam’s body was right there, which meant he had to still be a little strong, right?
“Sammy, you have to listen to me, okay?” Dean said, staring straight into Sam’s eyes even though they were still focused on his hands. “There’s still a lot we can do, okay? Everything is about to start freaking out on you, but until the reaper comes, we have time, okay? You’ve got strength still left in you, Sammy, you – ”
Fear and understanding dawning in his eyes, he turned back to Dean and frantically asked, “When does the reaper come? Dean?”
“Don’t worry about that right now, okay?” Dean stalled. “Sammy, I need you to talk to Bobby for me, I don’t think I can, but you – ”
“The reaper’s coming…” Sam babbled, looking up at the sky like the reaper would swoop upon them from it. “What do I say, when the reaper comes, what…?”
There was rustling behind Dean, Bobby standing up and gathering Sam in his arms. He was trying to drag him away, and Sam’s eyes turned wistful as he watched his body being taken from him.
“Sam, you’re not listening to me!” Dean insisted, squeezing Sam’s shoulders more tightly, needing Sam aware, needing Sam here.
“No, Dean, you’re not listening!” Sam shouted, suddenly focused. “A reaper is going to come here and ask me the same question she asked you, and I…” His jaw clenched for a moment, and Dean could tell he was starting to feel how empty his body was. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Sam, you’re gonna say no!” Dean said. “You’re not gonna die, you can’t…you can’t just leave me here!”
Both brothers turned sharply to see a dark-haired woman standing at the edge of the field. Dean recognized her instantly.
“Hello, Dean,” she said, smiling warmly at him as she approached like they were old friends, before turning to Sam. “And it’s nice to meet you, Sam.”
“You…” Sam stuttered. “You’re the reaper?” But she looked so normal, so…not deadly.
She nodded serenely. “Yes. You may call me Tessa.”
“He won’t be calling you anything but gone,” Dean snarled, stepping between her and Sam. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Tessa was unaffected, looking straight past him, eyes trained eerily on Sam, and he squirmed under the weight of her gaze.
“Sam, you have a choice to make,” she said calmly. “You can come with me and rest, or you can stay here. But you cannot return to life. That is the only thing you cannot do.”
“Sam, don’t you listen to her,” Dean said, turning his back on Tessa completely. “Please, Sam, you can’t go, okay? We can keep your body safe and we can find a way, all right? I don’t care what it takes, we can fix this!”
“If I go with you,” Sam said, doing his best to ignore Dean and think straight, “then I’ll be leaving Dean here alone. I can’t do that to him. Not after he stayed behind to protect me.”
“He made that choice, Sam,” Tessa said. “He chose to stay, and he knew the risks as well as you do. Having you to cling to has kept him sane over the past year, has given him purpose. But we all knew you wouldn’t live forever, Sam. And you can’t let his decision cloud what you are going to do.”
“He’s all I have,” Dean said, turning to Tessa, his voice small and scared and nothing like what Sam had grown up with. “You can’t do this, you can’t take him. I’ll go crazy without him, you know that, please.”
“I’ll go if Dean can come, too,” Sam said flatly, holding his head high. “But otherwise, I’m staying here. I…I need him.”
Tessa’s big brown eyes were soft, sympathetic, but unflinching. “I’m sorry, Sam,” she said. “But Dean knew what he was doing when he made his choice, and he cannot go back on what he said now.”
“I did it to protect my brother!” Dean yelled.
“And I’m done needing protecting!” Sam added, though he felt what a low blow it was when Dean turned his hurt eyes on him. But he did his best to stay calm, and turned his attention back to the reaper. “Please, Tessa, you…you know we can’t do this alone. I can’t move on and let Dean stay here.”
“You can stay with him,” Tessa replied coolly. “But the same will go for you. It’s eternity, Sam.”
“And do what?” Sam asked. “Find a house to haunt and start killing off every new owner? No. No, I’m not gonna let myself become some hunter’s latest case.”
“Sammy,” Dean called softly, and Sam tore his eyes away from Tessa’s and looked at him. “Sammy, please.”
But before Sam could speak, Tessa shrieked and fell to the ground, writhing, and Sam and Dean spun. Sam’s eyes landed on an older man walking forward, hand outstretched toward her. The Yellow-Eyed Demon from his dream.
Tessa lifted her head and screamed, “No! You can’t do this!”
“Sorry, sweetheart,” the demon said, smirking at her as its yellow eyes flashed. “But you have an appointment with another kid of mine just a few states over, so I’m gonna need this one back.”
She screamed again and clutched at her chest and stomach, her face a grimace of pain.
“Hey there again, Sammy,” it called jovially, looking up at Sam while it tortured Tessa.
“You?” Sam said incredulously.
“Sam, is that…is that the demon?” Dean demanded.
“I know, I know,” the demon said airily, a look of mock guilt on its face, “you’re not supposed to play favorites with your children, but god, Sammy, did you ever talk to Jake for more than about forty seconds?” It gave a longsuffering sigh and shook its head. “He was so easy to manipulate it was almost sad. He’s nothing but a dumb jarhead, no good for what I need him for.” The demon released Tessa, leaving her gasping on the ground. “Come on with me, Sammy, we’ve got an army to lead.”
“No! I’m not going anywhere with you!” Sam yelled, stepping back and standing beside his brother.
The demon rolled its eyes. “Really, Sam? I’m giving you quite an opportunity, here, you know. I can bring you back to life, right here and now, and all you have to do is come with me.”
“No.” Sam stood tall, tried to feel strong in his make-believe body. “I’m staying here with my brother.”
The demon cocked its head, looked between Sam, Dean, and Tessa on the floor. “Your brother, huh?” it mused, then settled its yellow eyes on Dean.
“Hiya, Dean,” it said. “Funny how you’re the forgettable Winchester until lives are at stake, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you,” Dean deadpanned.
“No thanks, I’m not as flustered by your pretty packaging as some.” It turned back to Sam and said, “Okay, new deal: I’ll bring you, and your brother, back to life, in perfectly healthy bodies, and all you have to do is join me. Whaddaya say?”
“Sam, no!” Dean said, grabbing Sam’s sleeve. “Don’t you do it, Sammy. Dad already tried to deal with this thing and look where he wound up. It’s lying!”
“Actually, I tried my best on that one,” the demon said thoughtfully, “but you were a little too quick with this bitch for me to hold up my end.” It gestured nonchalantly at Tessa, who was still gasping on the ground. “Your daddy, though, he knew what he was getting into, should have been a little more specific.”
Sam glared at the demon, ready to refuse again, when he noticed the Colt hanging from its belt. Sam turned away from the demon and looked Dean in the eyes. This was their only chance, and the war was far from over. Sam couldn’t move on and leave Dean behind, and they couldn’t just stay here as spirits going crazy for the rest of eternity. This way they might stand a chance at winning.
“Dean, it’s okay,” he said, touching Dean’s cheek. “I’m not going dark side. But this is the only way.”
“Sammy, please, no,” Dean begged. “This will never end, Sam. It’s just a big loop, one really shitty CD on repeat. Just…” He held Sam’s jacket in a fist, eyes dancing with need and fear. “Stay here, with me. There’s no going back, and we can stay like this forever.” He stepped forward, moved into his brother’s space, molded their bodies together and pressed his forehead into Sam’s collarbone. “Just you and me, Sammy. That’s all we need.
Sam pulled Dean’s face up with one finger and placed a small, lasting kiss on his brother’s lips, then breathed, “No, Dean.” He pulled back enough to gaze into Dean’s green little-boy eyes and smiled. Then he turned back to face Azazel and said, “All right. Let’s make a deal.”
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