For months after his father makes a deal with the yellow eyed demon and dies to keep his son alive, the smell of plastic and hospital disinfectant will remind Sam of really terrible coffee spilled across the floor outside his brother’s hospital room, his father not responding no matter how hard he shook him, and the sound of a flatlining EKG readout.
The smell of salt and fire will remind Dean for months of stacking wood into a pyre, a splinter dug into the pad of his left thumb while he watches his father burn into ash in front of him and knows that it was his fault. That if he had maybe done something different, his dad would still be there for him. That’s the ideal, anyway. Dean would have been okay with dying if it meant his dad didn’t have to go to Hell.
But time heals all wounds, as they say, and Sam and Dean spend so much time in hospitals and salting and burning things that after a while they become just the smell of the hospital, just the smell of another spirit laid to rest.
Time heals all wounds, they say, but who the fuck are they? They clearly don’t know anything.
No, that’s disproven in their simultaneous flinch at the sound of shattering glass, in the subtle, unspoken avoidance of semi trucks and their drivers, in the occasional nightmare where they can’t save their father--and then they jerk awake only to remember all over again that it wasn’t just a nightmare. It’s real.
Their unhealed wounds are written in the nights where Sam crawls into Dean’s bed and wraps himself around him, pressing his hand into the skin under Dean’s shirt, and Dean lets him, closes his eyes and breathes in Sammy, and they both try to forget, just for a little while.
Dean knows it’s not right, this entire world, with the pretty girlfriend and his mother alive and his dad passed away in his sleep, nice and peaceful and ideal. He can feel something off, he knows intellectually that this isn’t his life, this isn’t how it’s meant to be.
That fact is only cemented for him when he sees the memorial for the flight that he stopped from crashing, the flight that shouldn’t have crashed because he stopped it, all the headlines of people who died because there wasn’t anyone there to save them.
Even then he’s reluctant to give it up. He doesn’t want it to be his responsibility, doesn’t want to feel guilty for things he shouldn’t have any control over. Why should it be up to him? Why should he give up his mother and his father and his normal life?
The worst part, though, the worst part of the entire thing, is that Sam thinks it’s weird when he calls him Sammy, when he calls him a bitch, when he acts like they’re friends.
It’s the worst because Sam is his brother, is his best friend, is the person that knows him better than anyone else. He shouldn’t be someone who doesn’t know him at all, thinks that they have nothing in common, even if that means that he can be happy and engaged and going to law school.
It’s the worst because even though Sam looked so happy standing next to his car when he arrived in Lawrence with his fiancée, squinting in the sunlight, even though Sam looks so terrified of the monster upstairs just like a normal person would be, even though Sam can’t fight to save his life and tries to ward off intruders in the middle of the night with a baseball bat, even though Sam has his perfect life here, Dean has to make it end.
Because this isn’t real. This isn’t their real life. This isn’t an option.
Dean has bruises on his wrists from where the djinn strung him up; Sam can see them from where he’s sitting. They’re light purple at the edges, a maelstrom of pale shades of blue looping around his brother’s skin and blending into the steering wheel of the Impala where Dean is gripping it.
Dean inevitably notices Sam staring, tells him off. Sam makes a face. “Where are we going?” he asks, because he’s been wondering for a while, actually.
“Dunno,” Dean says. “Haven’t got anywhere to be.”
“Should we be looking for a hunt or...” Sam trails off, looking at Dean in question. It’s mid-morning, they’ve only been driving for maybe an hour, and the way the morning light casts shadows on Dean’s face makes him look almost ethereal.
Dean glances at Sam, tightens his knuckles around the wheel. “Nah. Kinda like going nowhere.”
“Okay. I guess we should put even more distance between us and the last place the cops knew we were, anyway.”
“Sure, Sammy,” Dean says idly. He puts his foot down on the gas, relishing the rev of his baby’s engine as she speeds up, twenty, thirty, forty miles over the speed limit on a deserted back road, and Sam grins and rolls down his window to let the crisp spring air in.
Dean chooses his route by the town names on the signs, makes bad puns about Logansport, insists they stop in Gas City for gas, and laughs when he sees Winchester on a sign. They stop for lunch in Versailles, Ohio, and Sam breaks out a terrible French accent that makes Dean roar with laughter and tell Sam to shut up, please, before my ears bleed.
“We should go to Philadelphia,” Sam says, trailing a finger across one of their beat up road maps laid on the table top.
“What for?” Dean asks through a mouthful of burger.
“Because it’s the city of brotherly love,” Sam says, waggling his eyebrows. It’s not a new joke, but it still makes Dean grin and kick him too hard under the table.
Sam asks if he can drive after lunch, and Dean says no, and Sam huffs about it but gets into shotgun without trying to insist or steal the keys like he would sometimes. Dean starts the car and looks over to Sam, who is flipping the folded up road map over and over in his hands. “Where to?” Dean asks, and Sam shrugs.
So Dean just drives, going wherever with his brother, and it ends up being one of those perfect days where they don’t think about demon blood or the possibility of Sam being evil for more than a passing moment, and Dean thinks that his life would be flawless if he could just have this all the time, every day, forget picket fences with rose bushes and all the responsibility on their shoulders.
They were too late.
Dean clings to his brother, blood seeping between his fingers where they’re pressed against the stab wound, mud soaking into his pants, begging for Sam to come back, to not do this to him, to not be gone. Sam doesn’t respond, dead weight against Dean’s shoulder, not breathing, lifeless.
Later, Dean stares at Sam’s face, peaceful and serene and wrong, and wants to tear the world down and apart, would do it even if it wouldn’t bring Sam back if it would make this go away.
He thinks of all the times he almost lost Sam, all the times they got away by the skin of their teeth, all the times Dean let Sam down, let his father down.
He had one job, and he screwed it up.
He thinks it, he stares at Sam’s still face and thinks it again, he leans his head against the wall, punches it, can’t stop thinking it, turns and tells Sammy one job, and I’m such a fucking failure I can’t even do that god Sammy why do you even put up with me.
Dean kneels next to the mattress that Sam’s body lies on, his hands folded above him, his cheek pressed into the coarse fabric, tries to pray but doesn’t remember how or to whom he’s supposed to do it, can’t move from that spot for a long time, probably hours, and the entire time he’s talking to Sam, begging him to just come back, man, come back, because I can’t do this by myself.
All he had to do was keep Sammy safe, keep Sammy breathing, and Sammy’s not safe, was never safe because he was always dangerous underneath his skin, and Sammy’s not breathing because Dean didn’t get there in time, couldn’t stop it.
If he couldn’t do that, what the fuck is the point of him?
There isn’t one, he thinks, and in that moment he decides exactly what he’s going to do.
Dean cuts the tip of his finger on a sharp rock while digging the hole in the middle of the crossroads to bury his tin can in. It’s barely there, like a paper cut, but it bleeds like a bitch. Dean doesn’t notice until later, when he’s in the Impala again and wraps his hands around the steering wheel only to see that his hand is stained with his own blood.
He stands at the crossroad, stares around, waiting, yells until the demon shows up, and he doesn’t have time for her stupid games, Sam is dead, but he plays along anyway because she’s his ticket to getting Sam back. He doesn’t have time for her stupid games, and she knows it, because she turns down ten years, eight, five, and tells him he can have one, and he takes it because he knows she’ll never give him Sammy back if he doesn’t, and that just isn’t an option.
When he kisses her she tastes like sulphur and heat and promise.
He drives back to where he left Sam, barely breathing, fingers tapping on the wheel and toes tapping inside his boots, terrified that she was lying, that when he gets back Sam will still be lying motionless on the dilapidated mattress and Dean will still have failed, will still have lost everything he’s spent his entire life trying to keep.
She wasn’t. Sam is standing, looking in the mirror, breathing, alive, and Dean grabs him and hugs him, squeezes too hard because Sammy is alive, he didn’t let Sammy down this time.
The first time they have sex after Sam finds out about the deal, it’s hard and angry, Sam’s teeth marking up Dean’s body and Dean pushing him against the wall, fucking against him like it’s the last time he’ll ever get to do it. It makes every inch of Dean’s skin sing, his brain overload until nothing’s left but Sam, Sam, Sam, and he holds on to the fact that he’s still got a year left, an entire year, and his baby brother will keep on breathing long past that, and everything is okay because of that, because of the way Sam’s hands grip him too hard, the way Sam is clearly claiming him, making him entirely Sam’s, and Dean wants to tell him that he doesn’t have to do that, that it’s already true, but he can’t make himself choke out the words, so he stays quiet, lets Sam touch him however he wants to, leave whatever marks he wants.
Sam is angry--he wants to lay bruises all over Dean’s skin, beat him up for being such a stupid fucking idiot, hold him close and never let him go, mine, mine, mine. He can’t forget, no matter how hard he tries to focus on Dean and only Dean, only the skin laid out in front of him. He can’t stop picturing a demon hiding, just out of sight, waiting to snatch Dean away from him and take him to Hell, where Sam can’t get to him. Even counting Dean’s freckles doesn’t help, the numbers turning into seconds that Sam has left to save his brother, has until he’s lost everything.
Fuck that, he thinks, lying next to Dean, fingers still tangled up in his hair, legs still entwined with his. Even if Dean does go to Hell, and he won’t be if it’s up to Sam, Sam will still be able to get to him. He won’t rest until he’s broken into Hell and dragged Dean back out, he won’t stop until they’re together, they’re okay.
And that’s only his last resort. If there’s something on this Earth that can break the deal, Sam will find it, no matter how much Dean begs him not to try, tells him not to try, tells him he’ll die if he does. Sam doesn’t care. Nothing is more important than saving Dean anymore. Nothing. The world can fucking burn for all Sam cares.
Dean walks into a motel room lit up with colourful strings of Christmas lights, soft warm lamp light behind it, and Sam’s smile shining brighter than all of it.
It’s the perfect Christmas for a Winchester--in a motel room, cheap decorations and presents from the gas station, eggnog that’s more whiskey than eggnog. Anyone else would think it a terrible holiday, but the Winchesters don’t get holidays, they don’t get to celebrate things. They can’t, like Sam said, they’ve got too much going on, they’ve got too much weighing on their shoulders.
But for one moment, they shed all of that, clinking plastic cups together and wishing each other a merry Christmas, settling back to watch the game. It’s Dean’s last Christmas, he thinks, and it’s perfect, it’s exactly what he wanted--nothing extreme, just an acknowledgement, just a moment out of their lives to sit back and breathe.
Sam is still in denial. This won’t be the last time he tells his brother merry Christmas, because he’s not going to let his brother die.
They’re not pretending everything is okay. They know that it’s not. It’s just that for now, for right now, it doesn’t matter.
The first time is at night, in the dark, bullet through the chest, and Dean is bleeding out, dead too soon, and Sam is lost, he doesn’t know what to do, and then he wakes up.
The last time is in the morning, broad daylight, bullet through the chest, and it doesn’t matter how many times Sam has seen Dean die by now, he’ll never get used to it, never stop clinging to his unresponsive body and trying to bring him back.
Sam closes his eyes, waits to wake up, opens them to see Dean’s face, closes his eyes again, waits. He opens his eyes again. It’s Wednesday. He thought it was over.
Dean is still dead.
Sam gets up off the parking lot pavement, packs the car, drives away to bury his brother.
Then he starts hunting.
For six months, Sam thinks of nothing but the Trickster. He organizes the weapons, he makes his bed with perfect hospital corners, he counts his brushstrokes when he brushes his teeth, he eats meticulously and only because it’s necessary to keep hunting. He charts everything, he studies the lore on Tricksters until he’s memorized the exact wording of he doesn’t know how many books. He stitches up the wounds from hunts he only does because they’re in his way and why not, why does it matter.
He encounters other hunters sometimes. He sees the way they look at him, knows what they must think of him, and he doesn’t care. He can hear them whispering about how he’s gone off the deep end, won’t be around much longer, and once someone, a tall man with shaggy hair who’s new to the business and therefore doesn’t know the Winchesters, tells him you must have been in love and Sam looks at him and thinks if love feels like pain I’m still in it.
Bobby calls and calls and calls, leaving message after message, and Sam ignores them all until he doesn’t.
It’s not Bobby, of course. Sam knew it wouldn’t be. He begs the Trickster, considers curling up in the ball on the floor and sobbing like he hasn’t in six months, ultimately doesn’t have to.
He wakes up, finally, I gotta get back in time ringing in his ears like trumpets at the gates of Heaven, and he walks straight to Dean and clings to him, breathes him in, and thinks it’s not over yet.
The Impala is parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere northern Wisconsin. It’s the dead of night on a little used back road, the stars spread out like tiny holes in the velvet black blanket of the sky. Dean and Sam are sitting on the hood of the car, beers in hand, nowhere to be, and it feels just like every other time they’ve parked the Impala somewhere and looked at the stars, except this time Dean is going to die.
It’s not just an inevitable thing that will happen sometime in the distant future. It’s got an expiry date, a calling card in the form of the howls of hellhounds, a countdown clock that continues to tick constantly in the back of Sam’s mind.
Sam knocks his shoulder against Dean’s to reassure himself that his brother’s still there and takes a drink of his beer. Dean glances over at him. “We’re not far from a national forest,” he says. “Wanna go camping in the woods, Sammy?”
The Chequamegon covers nearly one hundred thousand acres of land. It’s a lot of forest, and Sam has a fleeting thought that if they hide themselves deep enough in the trees, stay quiet and out of the way, the hellhounds won’t be able to find Dean. It’s stupid, obviously, but Sam’s chest hurts with how much he wants it to be possible.
“Remember when we went camping in Washington that time?” Sam asks.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “You were a whiny little bitch about it, and Dad had to make a deal with you that you’d be in a town by the time school started.” He snorts a laugh, takes a drink.
“It was fun, though,” Sam says. “You threw me in the river.” Dean had jumped in after him, too, pinned him to a fallen tree that stretched across the rushing water, kissing droplets from Sam’s face while Sam laughed.
Dean smiles. Sam stares at him, considers that there will be a time (less than five months from now, his clock helpfully provides) that Dean won’t be there to smile at shared memories with him, wants to cry. He takes a drink instead, looking away from Dean’s face.
“It’s January, Dean. We’re crazy enough to sit out in the cold like this.”
Dean shrugs. “The winter sky beats the summer one.” He waves his free hand at the stars. “And I like the cold.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “We’re still not going camping.”
“Spoilsport,” Dean says. “C’mere.”
Sam raises his eyebrows, gestures to the press of their upper arms and thighs together. “I’m here.”
Dean huffs, sits up and leans toward Sam, one arm propped against the windshield behind him, balancing his beer bottle against the glass. “No,” he says. “Come here.” Sam leans in, lets Dean kiss him, cold press of lips against lips. “Stop thinking about it,” Dean whispers into the space between them.
“Thinking about what?” Sam says, tone teasing, and kisses Dean again, deeper this time. Dean smiles against his mouth, and Sam tries to forget about it, tries to block out the imagined sound of seconds ticking by, tries to pretend that this moment can last forever, that he’ll never have to let Dean go, but the seconds slip past, the stars shrink into nothing, and Dean is going to die.
Dean crawls into Sam’s bed one night, lies on his back next to him until Sam shifts, rolls over and opens his eyes.
“Dean?” he asks, voice sleep hoarse. “What are you doing?”
He looks over at Sam, closes his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “Sammy,” he says, “I’m going to die.”
Sam’s eyes widen.
“I don’t want you to think that I regret my decision, because I don’t. I don’t, because you’re alive. But Sam...” He trails off, turns on his side and grabs Sam by the collar of his shirt, fists his hand in it and feels the warmth radiating off his brother, so different from how cold his body had been on the mattress in that motel room almost a year ago.
“You don’t want to die,” Sam says quietly. Dean doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move. “That’s normal, Dean, that’s--”
“Shut up, Sammy.”
Sam shuts up, studies his brother’s face for a moment in the dark, shifts closer and wraps his arm around Dean’s waist. Dean lets out a shuddering breath, lets go of Sam’s shirt and moves his hand to Sam’s back, buries his face in Sam’s neck.
“What do you want me to do?” Sam asks.
“Nothing,” Dean says immediately. “Don’t do anything. Just stay still. Keep breathing.”
Sam can do that, that’s easy, easy as long as Dean is next to him, touching him, breathing as well. He thinks it probably won’t be as easy without Dean, thinks that it would be fucking hard, actually, and he knows that from experience, six months of it, six months that never really happened except for how they did. That’s why he’s determined to do something, anything, to stop it from happening again.
“I don’t know what to do,” Sam says. He’s not referring to what he said before, and Dean knows it but pretends not to.
“Just kiss me,” he says. “Make me stop thinking about it.”
Sam can do that, that’s easy. It’s the idea that, someday, soon, really soon, there won’t be a Dean to crawl into his bed and kiss him anymore that makes it hard.
The clock is still ticking. Sam is still trying to make it stop.
You have to kill me, Sam says, like it’s an option, like it’s something Dean could actually do, like it’s not the thing that he hates his father most for saying. Promise me, Sam says, and Dean promises, but he can’t mean it, he can’t.
Of course, he doesn’t have to. Jake does it for him, and Dean can’t even take that, has to make a deal to bring Sam back, give up his soul for his baby brother and he doesn’t even feel an ounce of regret, except for maybe the look on Sam’s face when he finds out Dean only has a year to live, the look on Sam’s face when he realizes that this is it, this is the moment that Dean dies and there’s no way to stop it.
Somewhere in the four months that Dean is in Hell, Sam sits in the front seat of the Impala, on the right side, closes his eyes so that he can’t see the iPod jack he’d installed, and breathes in the last traces of his brother left on the jacket he’d dug out of the trunk, out of the bottom of Dean’s bag. It barely fits Sam, would probably be big on Dean, but it smells just like him, leather under Sam’s fingers the ghost of Dean’s skin.
You have to kill me, Sam had said, and maybe Dean had actually fulfilled the promise, because Sam doesn’t feel like he’s living anymore.
Sam has never really blamed other people for being dead. It was never Jessica’s fault that she died, that was Sam’s fault if anyone’s. It wasn’t his father’s fault that he died, he was just trying to make up for all his faults by keeping Dean alive. It was never any of the ghosts’ faults for dying in the first place.
It’s not Dean’s fault he’s dead. It’s Sam’s, because he’s the one who died first, he’s the one Dean made the deal for, he’s the one who couldn’t save Dean.
Sometimes, though, sometimes he catches himself thinking that it would be all right if Dean hadn’t made the stupid fucking deal, had just let Sam be dead, and then he’d still be alive and Sam wouldn’t be alone. Sam doesn’t know what Heaven’s like, doesn’t even know if there is a Heaven that he went to, but he thinks that if there is, it was probably fine, and he could have just waited for Dean there.
So he doesn’t really blame Dean, except when he does, and those times are the times when he gets particularly crazy, the times when he tries to make a deal with a demon, the times when he tries to kill Lilith by himself, the times Ruby has to show up and stop him, has to hold him until he stops trying to destroy himself and everything else, and then she offers him fries with a side of demon blood like that will make him feel better.
Sometimes the things Ruby says remind Sam so much of Dean that he has to stop for a second to catch his breath. He’s not quite sure whether he loves those moments or hates them, thinks that maybe it doesn’t really matter because it’s not like he’s being reminded. He hasn’t forgotten. There isn’t a single moment that passes that Sam isn’t thinking about Dean, trying to figure out how to bring him back, trying to figure out how to keep on living without him, trying not to think about him and defeating the purpose.
He tries not to think about Dean when he’s having sex with Ruby, when he’s drinking the blood from her veins and watching it smear over the sheets of the motel room bed after she pulls away, when he feels like the world has been laid at his feet since he was six months old and Azazel dripped those first, fateful drops of blood into his mouth.
He thinks about Dean anyway, thinks about how everything is for him, everything is so that if he can’t bring Dean back, he can at least do what they were trying to do, save the world, stop the apocalypse.
Sam was cursed from the beginning, destiny written in blood, and he feels like it’s got him wrapped up tight while he struggles at the bonds, tries to use the ropes against themselves in order to slip through their grasp, like if they just get tighter, they’ll snap and he’ll be free.
Ruby tells him that what he’s doing is right, is how he’s going to live up to his brother’s memory, is how he’s going to strike back against Hell for what they did to him, took from him. He believes her because he wants it to be true, he wants to be doing the right thing, he wants to be good enough for Dean.
Mostly he just wants his big brother back to tell him what to do.
Sometimes Sam sobs into motel room pillows. It's usually when he hasn’t seen Ruby for a while, when the taste of her blood on his tongue is all he can think about, the need for it crawling under his skin.
He never cries, because he knows if he lets a single tear out, he won't be able to stop.
He feels like the worst kind of failure, the kind of failure that has failed because he didn't know how not to. He is a failure, he knows it like he knows the sound of Dean's sleep heavy breathing from the other side of a dark room, the sound he won't ever hear again because Dean is in Hell, because Dean sold his soul to keep Sam alive.
Sam wishes Dean had realized what it would do to Sam to live without his brother. It tears into him that Dean probably didn't realize because he didn't think he meant the same thing to Sam as Sam does to him. But he does, he means safety and home and knowing what his place in the world is. He means knowing how to live because his brother was living too.
The world without Dean may as well be a world with water for air, slowly drowning Sam, filling his lungs one desperate breath at a time. In that world, Ruby is driftwood, the thing Sam's grabbed onto to try to keep his head above water, her blood the oxygen he craves. But there's never enough, it's never right, and Sam doesn't know, he doesn't know, doesn't know.
So he sobs into his pillows in the dark and gets up at daybreak. Continues to live because Dean asked him to, trying to carve himself a new place in the world with a blade against Ruby's skin because she offered him this and he desperately, desperately needs to somehow make it okay.
The first thing Dean knows after the Hellhound ripping him apart like a particularly good steak dinner is darkness and the smell of dirt in his nostrils, heady and overwhelming.
He fumbles for his lighter, flicks it on, realizes where he is. He yells for help, pounds on the wooden boards above him until his hands are scraped raw and he can feel the dirt falling over him. He pushes through it, strategic displacement so that he can breathe what little oxygen there is and dig his way out until his hands emerge from the ground, warmed by the light from the sun.
Dean drags himself out of his grave and onto browning grass, lies there panting because digging your way out of your grave is fucking hard work, stares at the red light glowing on the inside of his eyelids.
He forces himself to his feet and blinks his eyes open, squinting against the light, and surveys the felled trees circling his grave. Demons, is his first thought, and then he’s angry, rage against the inside of his skin, damn it, Sammy, I told you no.
It is a novelty, though, being alive when you should be dead and buried. Dean thinks about that as he walks down the first road he’d come across, dust bursting up in clouds behind his feet, and while he stares at his scar free skin in the mirror, and when he finds a handprint on his shoulder, and while he’s collecting the essentials for life from the abandoned gas station, things he’d never thought he’d have again: a body and food and water and porn and money.
It feels familiar and satisfying and terrifying to line the dirty windowsill with salt, weird and unsettling in the best way to listen to the high pitched screeching of who knows the fuck what try to destroy his eardrums, shattering glass falling around him like an attempt to compose a symphony. For a second he thinks it was all a trick, like maybe he’s in Hell and Hell thinks it’s funny to make him think he’s still alive four months later, but then it stops and he pushes that thought from his mind.
Suddenly all he wants in the entire world, all he wants from being alive, is to see Sam.
Of course, the fucker’s changed his number, and Bobby won’t believe it’s him and Dean has to drive to South Dakota from the middle of fucking nowhere and convince him that he’s back, and all in all he’s been alive for more than a day by the time he finally gets to see Sam’s face.
And then, of course, Sam tries to attack him, but in the end Dean gets to wrap his arms around his brother again, and in comparison to the birds he’d seen flying outside his stolen car that he had been so enamoured with because he hadn’t ever thought he’d see birds again and the taste of a shitty energy bar that had been like gourmet food, Sam’s hands are like magic, like the force of a waterfall at the end of a river dropping him into real life, into believing that he’s alive, that this isn’t a dream.
Sam is standing at the bottom of a six foot deep hole, clearing the last of the dirt away from the top of the wooden coffin. It’s still shiny underneath the dirt, brand new, only put in the ground maybe a month ago.
“I am not looking forward to opening that,” Dean says from above Sam, crouching next to the hole in the ground, looking down at him, his face streaked with dirt. “I swear, we should get paid for this shit.”
“We do get paid,” Sam says. “Sorta.”
“I’m not seeing the money rolling in,” Dean says. “Just a whole lotta pressure to save the world. Man, I miss when salt and burns were all we really had to worry about.”
“No,” Sam agrees, propping his shovel on the dirt and leaning on it, looking up at his brother. “But we save people, right? There must be hundreds of people that are alive because of us, tons of people that have told us thank you, that they can’t ever possibly repay us.”
There’s something constant in the way the people they save say thank you, something commonplace about their heartfelt thank yous. Dean shrugs. “I guess.”
“What,” Sam asks, “you don’t think it’s worth it?”
“Nah, I think it’s worth it,” Dean says, getting to his feet. “I just wouldn’t mind rolling in piles of cash. It’s normal, I hear. Now, how about we crack this bad boy open and set this spirit to rest?”
Sam rolls his eyes, wipes at his forehead, makes a face at the dirt it spreads on his hand, and tosses his shovel out of the grave. “I finished digging,” he says. “You get to open it.”
Dean shakes his head. “Bitch.”
“Jerk,” Sam says.
Dean has no idea what the fucking point of this is, why Castiel keeps showing up and telling him to stop it and then disappearing again, but if he can save his parents, if he can stop the yellow eyed demon, then he’s damn well going to try his hardest to do it.
At first it’s kind of fun, seeing his father’s young face, weathered a bit by the war but not nearly as much as Dean is used to. He convinces him that the Impala is a much better choice than the Volkswagen because it’s true, because Dean could never imagine his life without the Impala in it.
He’s enamoured with his mother, with her gorgeous waves of shiny blond hair, this young woman he barely recognizes except when she smiles across the table at John, and then there’s no mistaking who she is. They look happy, this couple in this diner, and he vaguely wants to cry when he thinks about how unhappy their future is, sets in steel how much he wants to change it for them.
He never knew that Mary was such a fucking badass, either, but it somehow doesn’t surprise him.
Of course, in trying to save them, he discovers the point of this. The point is that he can’t. He can’t save them. He can’t stop their lives from becoming exactly what Mary didn’t want them to be, growing up in the life, knowing that there are monsters out there in the dark and that one of them got its hands on them, got its blood inside Sam, ripped their family apart by the seams.
And while Dean is in the 1970s trying to stop it before it happens, Sam is with Ruby, still on his downslide into no one knows what, still playing into the game that Azazel was setting up the pieces for, even though Azazel is dead now.
Sam’s mouth tastes like dirt and metal, his throat burns with thirst, and he thinks he can smell blood somewhere, maybe his own, maybe a hallucination like Alastair and his younger self and his mother.
He’s starting to think maybe Dean is right, maybe he should be locked up, maybe the demon blood really isn’t a good idea, even if it’s the only way he can see to kill Lilith. Maybe embracing the monster side of him, the side that’s been plaguing him since as long as he can remember, wasn’t the right idea. Maybe it made him something to be hunted rather than a hunter.
Except how can that be? How does that make any sense? It’s the fucking apocalypse, and Sam has the key to stopping it, the powers that can defeat Lilith and stop Lucifer from rising, save the world, save Dean. He has the power to win this, the only thing that makes him feel complete, feel right.
So when the door opens, Sam leaves. Hotwires a car, leaves Bobby knocked out in the salvage yard, drives off. He’s going to save everyone, damn what anyone else says. Dean says he’s a monster? He’ll fucking be a monster if that’s what it takes. Even if Dean thinks of him as nothing, Sam doesn’t care. Dean is everything, and Sam is trying his best.
The angels want Sam to say yes, of course. They want him to let Lucifer possess him in order to have their big apocalypse prizefight, and they want him to die, because they want paradise.
Yeah, well, what about paradise for me? What about what I want? is what Sam has to say to that, what he doesn’t bother saying because it’s not like douchebag angels or anyone else give a fuck.
Sam was possessed once. He knows what it’s like. He’s not keen to experience it again. With Meg it was like darkness controlling all his limbs, listening to his own voice laugh mockingly, being stifled and blind and trapped within himself. Wrong, bad, wrong, and somehow familiar. With a fallen angel, he imagines, with the worst kind of evil inside him, he thinks it would feel like blinding light drowning him out, like being frozen and feeling himself move at the same time, like pain and pain and pain and knowing that it was his own fault. Like coming home, like being complete, maybe, but he would be screaming the entire time, because without Dean he is nothing and trapped inside his body he can’t have Dean.
Like being strapped to a comet, Jimmy Novak had told them. Who would choose that? They would need a good fucking reason.
The angels think that playing to the Winchesters need to save the world will work. They think that they can make the Winchesters agree that destroying only half the world, only a few million people, is better than Hell on Earth, everyone destroyed, demons, demons everywhere.
That’s not good enough. The Winchesters want to save everyone.
Well, really, they want to save each other, because without each other, what’s the point?
There’s gotta be a better way, they say, and they won’t take no for an answer.
Jimmy said yes because he wanted to serve the beings he’d had so much faith in his entire life, wanted his life to mean something, as long as he was promised that his family would be safe. He said yes again because he didn’t want his daughter to suffer, despite the fact that Castiel had broken his promises and lied to Jimmy.
Save the world, the angels say. You can save everyone. You started this, you can end this.
Sam thinks that maybe if they said Save your brother it would sway him a little.
He wonders if that makes him a bad person, that one person means more to him than seven billion.
Dean knows how this ends. Well, he knows how it’s supposed to end.
It’s supposed to end in metal springs where there once was a mattress, red spray paint graffiti spelling out nightmares a story high, a beaten up car, and a drugged up ex-angel. It’s supposed to end in torture, in worthless sacrifice of friends, in a world torn to pieces containing only those it’s chewed up and spat back out. It’s supposed to end with another scorned angel in an impeccably white suit standing amid the wreckage wearing the skin of Dean’s little brother and smiling at Dean like he thinks the teensy weensy human is so stupid it’s cute.
True to his nature, if there is one thing Dean Winchester wants to do, it’s prove that son of a bitch wrong. And hey, while he’s at it, he might as well screw what Zachariah says, too.
Dean Winchester is out to create an ending that he approves of. An ending with Lucifer rotting in his cage, Castiel fully mojo’d up, the world in one piece with little children running around playing in the park, not attacking humans in dirty back alleys. An ending where Sam is alive and whole and himself.
A lot of Dean’s life hasn’t so much been based on choices. He didn’t choose for a demon to kill his mother and his father to raise him like a marine. He didn’t choose to love his brother more than he loves anyone or anything else. He didn’t choose to be Michael’s vessel. He did choose to go to Hell for his brother, but he didn’t choose to be pulled back out again.
He won’t choose to kill his brother, and he won’t choose to be Michael’s prom dress.
So he calls Sam, hands over Ruby’s knife instead of stabbing him with it, puts him back in shotgun where he belongs. They are going to make their own future, because now they have a choice.
All that matters is trying to make the right one.
Dean is driving the Impala toward their next case, a new lead on the Colt that will probably turn out to be nothing because the universe hates the Winchesters, and it’s dark outside, cloudy, the only light the headlights illuminating the road and bouncing off the road reflectors in the center of the highway.
It’s quiet, too, quiet except for the sound of the engine and of Sam breathing in the seat next to Dean, his eyes closed and his hands folded on his lap, clearly not sleeping.
I’m glad you’re here, Dean thinks. He doesn’t say it because he doesn’t want to break the quiet with the sound of his voice, doesn’t want to hear it grating against the smooth harmony of the road. He doesn’t say it because it doesn’t need to be said, not really, and because he thinks that if he sits here and listens hard enough, he might be able to hear Sam’s heart beating, that steady sound that signifies how very alive Sam still is.
It stays the same for the next twenty miles, and just when Dean thinks he might actually be hearing Sam’s heartbeat, Sam says, “I can hear your heart beating.”
Dean blinks, startled, says, “That’s not creepy at all, Sammy.”
“Not really,” Sam says. “If your heart is beating I know you’re alive.”
Dean can’t argue with that one, can’t argue with it at all, really, since he hasn’t got a leg to stand on except his stubbornness. “Whatever.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Sam says, looking over at Dean. Dean glances at him out of the corner of his eye, steadfastly looks back at the road. Sam smirks a bit. “You were totally thinking the same thing.”
“Shut up, I was not. I’m not a girl like you, Samantha.”
“Yeah, okay, Deanna.”
“I hate you.”
“I know. I hate you, too.”
On their last night on Earth before they go up against the devil, Bobby forces them all to line up for a picture. They’re all smiling and laughing at first, but when the reality of the situation hits them, straightforward words from Castiel’s mouth, their smiles disappear.
The result of their suicide mission is two people dead, neither of them the devil, and their faces stare out at them from the photo, sullen and dull and nothing like what they looked like when they were alive.
The fire burns the photo, curls it up at the edges, and Sam thinks of the hardware store exploding, the feel of the heat even from where they were, yards away.
Later, when they’re up in the room with the two beds, the one they’ve shared since they were little, they walk toward each other and meet in the middle of the room, Sam gripping Dean’s biceps while Dean’s hands wrap around the back of Sam’s neck, their foreheads pressed together. Sam squeezes his eyes shut, tries to forget about Lucifer jeering at him, telling him that he’s going to say yes, it’s not a question, it’s an inevitability, about all the people in Carthage, Missouri who died so that Lucifer could raise Death. Dean holds on to his brother, thinks about Lucifer falling to the ground, bullet through his skull, and then getting back up and laughing at them, laughing at everything they’ve been through, everything they’ve lost, everything they continue to put themselves through.
He thinks about Ellen, determined to stay with her daughter, sacrificing herself so that Sam and Dean could have a chance at the devil, about how that sacrifice was practically worthless in the grand scheme of things, but infinitely priceless in regards to how much she was worth to them.
He thinks about Jo, thinks about her laughing in his face and telling him she has a little self-respect, thank you, about when he first met her and she held a shotgun to his back, about the last time he saw her, bleeding out on the dirty hardware store floor and still, still fighting, still telling them to keep on going.
And they will, Dean thinks, tightening his grip on Sam. They’ll keep on going because this is what they do, this is how they live, this is all they know.
But that’s tomorrow. Right now they’ll hold on to each other and recenter themselves in the world, stare into each other’s eyes and hope all they see there is each other and not their monsters. Right now they can take a moment to scream silently together, and tomorrow they’ll get up and keep on going, just like Jo and Ellen would want them to.
Dean can remember the first time he helped patch Sam up--it was when they were younger and living in a trailer on the bad side of town. Sam had convinced a kid next door to let him borrow his bike, except he didn’t know how to ride one, so he’d barely even gotten on it before he fell off, scraped his knees raw and bloody, ran crying back to his father.
Dean had sat anxiously beside his father, handing him wet cloth torn from old shirts to wipe up Sammy’s knee with, had held Sam’s hand while John applied antibacterial gel and a band-aid to the wound.
It’s routine by now, fixing up their various cuts and bruises, gunshot wounds and concussions. They don’t usually have antibacterial gel anymore, preferring to just dump a bit of whiskey on their particularly bad open wounds, use the rest as a painkiller.
This time they were in a cemetery when Sam got thrown into a headstone, tore his wrist open on the sharp edge of it, hit the dirt groaning. Dean killed the demon who did it, stabbed him with Ruby’s knife, and then gathered Sam up, drove him back to the motel room and parked him next to the bathroom sink with orders to hold this towel to your arm and don’t fucking move, you hear me?
“You gotta be more careful,” Dean says, pulling the stitches through Sam’s skin. “Don’t wanna have you ruined completely. Anymore than you already are, I mean.”
Sam snorts, rolls his eyes. “I’ll try, Dean, thanks.”
“Damn straight,” Dean says. He finishes up the last of the stitches and takes the bottle of whiskey Sam is holding away from him, dumping a generous helping of it over Sam’s arm before taking a drink himself and handing it back to Sam. “You think you need a bandage, too?”
Sam squints. “Probably. At least for a bit.”
Dean nods, gets out the white gauze and starts wrapping it around Sam’s arm, once, twice, three times before cutting it and taping it on. “And don’t scratch,” he says, a parody of all the times he said the same words to Sam when he was little and loved to pick at his scabs.
“‘Course not,” Sam mumbles. “Thanks.”
“S’my job, Sammy, not a problem. Just don’t do it again.”
“I won’t,” Sam says, an obvious false statement, considering their lifestyle, but the intent is there for what it is, and when Dean smiles at him, Sam smiles back.
Sam’s swimming in the motel pool because why the fuck not, they never do anymore and he’s got fuck all to do while Dean hangs out at the bar and picks up a chick or something. He drifts in the water, dunks his face in and shakes the water off, then lets himself sink.
He opens his eyes when he’s on the bottom, stares up through the blue tinted water at the dark sky spread above him. He thinks about the first time he’d done this, how he’d been secretly hoping Dean would pull him out and yell at him so that he would know that Dean was still paying attention. He hadn’t been disappointed, if he remembers correctly, only Dean had been so mad he’d stopped talking to Sam for a good few days, so it hadn’t worked out quite how he’d wanted.
His lungs start to burn with the need for oxygen, and he thinks about how Lucifer had promised that even dying wouldn’t stop him, that if he died Lucifer would just bring him back. No way to escape, and isn’t that a depressing thought, that Sam doesn’t even have that much control over his own body, his own destiny.
He doesn’t even know why he still expects it after all this time being denied it.
Sam closes his eyes, stops holding his breath, breathes in the water.
The next thing he knows he’s spitting the water on the side of the pool and Dean is yelling at him, telling him no, no, Sammy, you don’t get to check out on me, you don’t get to leave me alone, and Sam hacks a weak chuckle, says I can’t, he won’t let me. I don’t get to stop even if I want to, clutching to Dean’s jacket and soaking Dean’s clothes with water from the pool.
He apologizes for that. Dean tells him to shut up. Sam understands.
Sam is screaming. He’s not making any noise, but he’s screaming, screaming for Lucifer to stop. He’s been screaming since he said yes, been trying to get control, trying to move Lucifer toward the pit and then just trying to move, trying to see through the frosted haze, trying to breathe through the stifling cold taking up every corner of his body even though he doesn’t need to breathe, souls don’t need to breathe, and Lucifer is taking care of his body, keeping it in pristine condition to traipse around and destroy the world in.
To kill Michael in, and Sam doesn’t want that to happen, feels a pang at the sight of Adam’s face looking not like Adam at all even though Sam doesn’t even know Adam that well, at the sight of his face going up in flames, at the sight of Castiel bursting into pieces, dead because he chose his own path.
And then Lucifer is beating up Dean, Lucifer is killing Dean, and what the hell is Dean even doing here? Why is he here, why did he bring the Impala, Lucifer is only going to destroy him, destroy the only home Sam has ever known, his brother and that car with vents that rattle and an engine that still runs like a dream despite having been destroyed time and time again because Dean always fixed it, Dean always made everything right again, Dean has always been there, Dean is telling him everything is okay... Dean is telling him everything is okay.
Sam stops his fist mid-air, slowly unclenches his fingers, ignores Lucifer’s protests, pushes the cold away, thinks of warm summer nights curled up in the backseat of the Impala with Dean as his blanket, the heat of the hood of the car after it’s been sitting in direct sunlight. He knows what he has to do. He tells Dean that it’s okay, because it is, this is what they planned, it just didn’t go quite right, but it’s working now.
He opens the door to the cage. And then he jumps, Michael grabbing onto him at the last second so that Sam has to drag him down with them, drag his little brother down into the pits of Hell when he should be spending eternity in Heaven, and it’s terrible, it’s terrible that they’re going to be stuck in a cage for the rest of forever, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because he finally did something right, and as he hits what serves as the ground in the cage, permafrost that’s been building up since Lucifer was cast down, part of him thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’ll be rewarded for it. Maybe he won’t have to stay here forever. Maybe he’ll see Dean again someday.
Sam and Dean. Dean and Sam. The Winchesters. A package deal, always have been, always will be. Growing up in each other’s pockets and learning to live with each other every second turned into not being able to live without the other for more than a day. Stitched clumsily together with fire, blood, sweat, tears, salt, dirt, alcohol--and most of all love.
Theirs is a love that has saved the world time and time again, a love that has defied millennia of carefully laid out plans, been to Hell and to Heaven and back again.
It’s their love, more than anything else, that makes them so strong.
Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, wendigos, demons, angels--all of them fear the Winchesters at least a little bit. And for good reason: when you’re a monster, when you’re older than the dawn of time, what the Winchesters have just doesn’t make any sense, and the unknown is terrifying.
No matter how many times they tried to go their separate ways, how many times Sam decided he needed out, how many times Dean decided they were only bringing each other down, they always found their way back to each other. No matter how many times it seemed like everything was lost, they prevailed.
Not even throwing themselves into the deepest circles of Hell can stop them from finding their way back to each other. They belong on the road together, and fuck whoever thinks they can get in between them, good intentions or bad.
Rubber black skid marks on the roads crisscrossing the States, towels stained with blood on motel room floors, salt lines and devil’s traps and banishing sigils drawn on walls in various buildings, diner waitresses that marked down the bill for those two cuties by the window, bar pool tables with gouges from guys that lost all their money slamming their cues down, cemeteries with freshly dug graves marked with stones dated decades ago--these are the things that the Winchesters leave behind. These are the things that the Winchesters will always come back to.
Sam and Dean in the Impala. Saving people, hunting things.