Sam leaned against the wall of the study, his eyes pinned to the sleeping angel on the couch. A few days had passed since Carthage, and Cas was still down for the count. It didn't look like he was any closer to waking up either. Not even a twitch in his sleep.
Sam had been keeping an eye on him. He had wiped the blood from his nose, but there were still crusty rings of red just inside his nostrils. The bags under his eyes had lightened, but still weighed down his face even in sleep.
Sam had never seen Cas so roughed up before. He was worried. He didn't want to lose him, too. So, he threw himself into the task of looking out for him. He reported when he could, but it wasn't like anyone was around much to report to. Dean made himself scarce since they got back. Since…
And Bobby did what Bobby did best: kept his head in the game and his heart behind closed doors. After the failure that was their mission to kill Lucifer, Bobby forced himself back into his work. He immediately threw himself into searching for another solution to the apocalypse.
He had hope.
Sam and Dean on the other hand… well, they were less hopeful. The Colt was all they had. If that couldn't stop the Devil, it was beginning to seem like nothing could.
Lucifer's words from that night still poked at him like a kid with a plastic sword. Sam tried to shrug off his words as manipulative bullshit, but he had a lingering worry over one thing he said. What did he mean by Detroit?
Sam swallowed down the disquieting memory as Bobby's cane clicked down the stairs. He pushed off the wall and turned to meet eyes with the older man. Just before stepping off the stairs, Sam noticed him shoving something into his pocket. He had already forgotten the gesture when Bobby hobbled over to him with a sigh.
"She's ready," he muttered.
Sam faintly winced. He knew someone had to do the job, and with Dean nowhere to be found half the time, he dreaded that it would have been him. But Bobby had elected to prepare her, and Sam had not held back on telling him how grateful he was.
"Are you?" Bobby asked in a gentle voice.
Sam dryly snorted and shook his head, stopping his eyes from moistening for the umpteenth time. "No. But we've waited too long."
Bobby slowly nodded, his eyes briefly falling to the floor before looking around the room. "Any idea where your brother is?"
"Out working on the car, probably. Haven't seen him anywhere else."
Ellen had the Impala and Bobby's truck taken back to Sioux Falls. She never made an appearance. They hadn't seen her since they were zapped out of Carthage, but they had no business trying to reach out to her. She wouldn't have answered anyway. She had her own funeral to get through.
Since then, Dean had thrown all his time into working on the Impala. He didn't seem to want to come inside the house. At times, it seemed like he avoided it completely. Sam would see him pop in to get something and almost rushing to get back outside. He suspected that he was sleeping in the backseat.
"Alright," Bobby sighed. "I'll go get 'im. We'll set up the pyre out back."
Sam ignored the twinge in his chest at the word. He turned towards the back door, but before he could take a step into the kitchen, the front door opened and Dean strutted through.
"Dean," Sam instinctively greeted as his brother moved towards the kitchen.
"How's Cas?" he asked, not sparing a single look in their direction. He began searching through the cabinets.
"Uh, still down. I don't think he'll be up anytime soon."
Dean gave a frustrated grunt. He took out a canister of salt and shut the cabinet door a little rougher than usual. He turned on his heels and moved straight to the front door to disappear again.
"Not now, Sam," Dean mumbled.
"Hold it, boy." Bobby stepped in front of the door, forcing Dean back with a stern look.
Dean huffed and held his arms out, the salt canister rattling like a maraca. "What? I'm busy." He moved to round Bobby.
"Yeah. Right. That's the fourth can of salt you've packed since yesterday."
"Since when have you had a problem with being overprepared, Sam?" Dean threw a sour glare over his shoulder. "Hm?" Sam crossed his arms over his chest.
"Don't start," Bobby grumbled. "As much as I'm glad to hear you two actually talkin' again, the last thing I want to be subjected to is your bickerin'. Especially today."
Dean crossed his arms. "Why? What's so special about today?"
Bobby pressed his lips into a thin line, scrunching his beard. He shuffled his good leg as he battled for the right words to say.
Sam sighed. Even with all the brashness one man could have, it still upset Bobby to give bad news of a personal nature. Dean cocked his head, impatiently waiting for an answer.
Dean's eyes snapped to Sam, his brows tugging together.
"Bobby's got her ready to go. We just gotta… y'know. Take care of the rest."
Dean was still for a long moment, his eyes set on Sam, but not seeing him. He stared far beyond his brother, scowling at something unseen – and unwanted to be seen – by Sam and Bobby.
His back finally straightened, his head turning away from the study. "What about Cas?" Sam's eyes shut as a sigh whistled through his nose. "They were pals, right? He'd wanna be there." Though it seemed like a thoughtful sentiment, bitterness flicked off his tongue.
"I know, Dean, but…," Sam stepped forward, opening his eyes to the side of Dean's glower, "it's been a few days and she's… she can't… stay up there in that room. She deserves better than that."
Dean resentfully snorted with an unspoken remark.
Sam's eyes found the floor. The dark cloud that had tethered a rope around his neck that night tugged on the knot against his throat. He swallowed in a vain attempt to loosen the tautness blocking his breath.
"You wanna see her?"
A dense silence fell over the three. Sam studied Dean with solemn eyes. He stood resolute, firm eyes pointed at the door beyond Bobby. He had barricaded himself from any sorrow since the night Cas beamed them back to Sioux Falls. He did this every time they had to burry a friend. He poured cement into every crease of his face, refusing to give more than a dour frown. His shoulders were bolted so they could never droop. Mauve bags sagged under his eyes, turning his green irises gray with imprisoned grief. He had practiced this many times, and he had become a master of coming off as coldly as the bodies they hauled to the fire.
Sam's arms loosened over his chest as a sigh swirled up from his heavy lungs. "I'll get started on the pyre. You can hang back if you need a minute." He turned to the kitchen.
"We're not burning her."
Bobby's head snapped to attention. His curious eyes flicked across Dean's face.
"What?" Sam muttered. "Why not?"
Dean's chest raised with a silent breath, his chin lifting in defiance to the impending grief. "She wasn't a hunter. I'm not sending her off like one." He inched his head over to Sam. "It's not like she's coming back anyway."
Sam clenched his jaw. He didn't need the reminder. He shrugged to brush off the remark. "Any idea where you wanna lay her down then?"
Sam watched the callous mask waver on Dean's face.
"There's a nice spot in the pasture down the road. Good and sunny," Bobby muttered, looking off to the side.
"Pasture?" Dean spat glaring at the older man. "She's not going out there. Some random patch of dirt in the middle of some random field, she wouldn't want that."
"Well, alright then," Bobby huffed, crossing his arms, too. "You don't like that idea, so let's hear yours. You know someplace she'd approve of?"
Dean's throat bobbed with a swallow. His eyes fogged over with fortified pain like a kid breathing on a cold bus window, fading a mere moment after it formed.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know a place."
Sam walked behind Dean as they meandered through the woods. He rolled his shoulder to adjust the shovel perched next to his head.
He'd walked with a shovel many times, each heading to the final resting place of some sorry soul or a monster or two who made the mistake of crossing paths with the Winchesters. But this time, like so few other times, he wasn't about to break ground to burry an unknown face. It was always harder to dig a grave for one you cared for. One you couldn't have saved, but should have.
He didn't know where Dean was leading him. They were a good distance away from Bobby's house, and he hadn't spoken a word of this special place she would've preferred to rest in. Not that she'll do much resting.
Sam forced his molars together and gripped the shovel tighter. Every passing reminder of where she truly was at that moment tossed him into a spiraling mess of disgusted grief.
Sam knew, he just knew that her quick recovery at the hospital was too good to be true. He had a deep feeling that she did something she would later regret, and she did.
He still didn't know how she did it. Crossroads aren't usually too hard to come by in a busy town, but when would she have had time to leave the building? How did she make it passed all the security?! Worst staff ever.
But it wasn't just the staff's fault, was it? Why wasn't anybody in there with her? Any of them? He and Dean, they had that shit in Colorado to take care of with that Horseman, but Bobby should've…
Should have, could have, it didn't matter anymore. Blaming wouldn't bring her back. Blaming wouldn't save her soul.
The dirt thudded louder against his heavy steps. His feet droned a prayer of apology and the ground ignored it.
Dean slowed to a stop. Sam lifted his sagging face to the small clearing around them. It was a nice little spot. Peaceful. A brook babbled off to the left, a mossy boulder sitting right above its bay. There was a large twisting tree awning the stream. A few of its branches had shed, and were beginning to sprout new limbs. Otherwise, it was a plain clearing.
Something off to the right caught Sam's eye. A dimly gleaming blue in the middle of greens and browns. Giving the peculiar misplacement of color his full attention, he noticed that it was a label to an empty water bottle that sat abandoned in a pile of leaves.
It was the brand Frankie drank.
Now Sam really looked at the space around him. Deep cuts and markings at roughly eye-level in nearby trees. Large, round rocks arranged in a line, almost as if ready and willing to be picked up and tossed somewhere else. Signs of mankind among Mother Nature.
Finally, Sam figured out why Dean knew Frankie would approve of this place. It was her training grounds.
He righted his eyes to the back of Dean's head. Sam was blind to the look on his face. He wondered what was going on behind his far-off stare, wondered what kind of memory he had of this place. What experiences did he have with Frankie, experiences Sam will never get to have with her? What happened under these trees that bonded them in a way Sam would have to go on never sharing?
Dean's head turned to a spot to the right at the base of two trees. He lined up his sight with the brook across from the spot and tightened his jaw in lieu of nodding. He swung the shovel off his shoulder and speared the dirt at his feet.
Sam lowered his shovel and glanced down to the dent Dean made. He dropped the blade to the ground and stomped it with his foot. He zeroed in his hearing to the quiet whistling of the stream nearby, hoping that it would orchestrate his mind to carry out the task without any thought as to who the hole was for.
It just didn't work.
Guilt was marching under his skin like a colony of ants. He was saying goodbye to the only sister he ever had, and he barely knew a thing about her. Dean had been the last bit of family he had, by blood, at least. Then, fate gave him a chance at having a sister by his side, and he chose a demon instead.
All that time with Ruby, being led on and manipulated, could have been spent getting to know her, befriending her. Knowing every little thing about her. What her favorite movie was, what she dressed up as for Halloween… He missed his chance to know the sister he never knew existed.
At least one of them took advantage of her brief time here.
Sam lifted his head to shake his bangs from his eyes. He looked across the deepening hole at Dean. He was working away at the ground, stormily scooping up dirt and tossing it towards the trees, with a faraway glare in his eyes.
At least she had Dean. She got to spend time with one of her brothers. He hoped Dean wasn't too hard on her. As a teacher, he would be merciless. Sam should've been there at the house, waiting for her to get back so she could vent, so she could let out the frustration from Dean's strict mentoring. But he wasn't.
Sam blinked. He pressed his lips into a thin line, forcing his attention back to his shovel. But she was still there in the corner of his thoughts.
Sam softly shook his head with a frustrated sigh. He gave a quick glance to Dean as he stomped on the blade of his shovel.
"Dean?" No answer. Dean cut another dent into the hole. "What was she like?"
His back stilled. The dirt that was in his shovel flew off into the pile by the tree, but his tool paused, frozen in his hands. He blinked under his awning brows and turned his head to Sam.
"Frankie," Sam clarified.
The muscles along Dean's cheeks twitched as he clenched his jaw. "Geez, Sam, let's not do this," he groused as he continued digging.
Sam frowned and stabbed the ground an inch away from his foot. He leaned his arms on top of the handle, pointing his weary eyes at his brother. "Dean. I wasn't there for her. Not in the first twenty years of her life, not in the last few months…," he swallowed and dropped his eyes, "… not when she died. The only sister I ever had, and I know next to nothing about her. And I know that's my own fault, but…"
Dean stabbed his shovel beside his foot and dropped his head with an exasperated sigh, rubbing his forehead.
"I don't wanna bury a stranger. Not this time."
Dean's hand dragged along his face, pulling at his cheek and tugging his frown into a deeper slope. He met Sam's gaze, pinching his brows together. "You know what she was like. She was naïve and stubborn and argued and never listened to you or me." He angrily snatched his shovel, spraying his boots with grains of dirt. He kept digging. "She had the potential to really be something great. She didn't listen to reason or her conscience, if she had one!"
He tossed a clump of dirt onto the pile, his mouth tightly shut.
Sam swallowed passed the faint lump in his throat. He reminded himself that this was just Dean's way of coping. He didn't mourn. He hadn't since they were young. He liked to think Dean mourned over his death, but he wasn't, well, alive to see it for himself.
Despite it, though, Sam would have thought maybe things could have been different this time. This wasn't just anyone they were burying. And he deserved to know something about her. It wasn't fair that they were both putting her down and Dean was the only one who had a real connection to her! He should at the very least know something about the girl she used to be. Just so he can move on. Just so he can stop the guilt from keeping him up at night.
He was too engrossed in frowning into the hole to noticed that Dean had stopped digging, that he was looking him over. He didn't notice the resigned frown on Dean's face, and he didn't notice the tension in his brows slackening as memories flashed behind his eyes.
"But…," Sam's head perked up as Dean continued, "if you told her she wasn't punching right, she'd fix her form. She listened then. She was a fast learner. She whined, but listened. And… and she had such potential!" He sharply jabbed his shovel into the hole. "She coulda been a great hunter, Sam! If she hadn't ended up in that hospital and sold her soul, she coulda been great."
Dean paused to wipe his glistening forehead on his sleeve. "But I guess… much as I hate to admit it, it was inevitable. It was gunna happen eventually. Written in the books, right?" Sam ducked his head, avoiding the onset of anger at Chuck and their future gospel. "No matter what I did, she woulda wound up right there at the crossroads. Ready to sacrifice herself."
"You don't know that."
"I do, Sam. I really do." Dean dryly snorted as he shook his head. "She's got too much of Dad in her."
Sam's lips parted. Whether the breath that would follow would be words of denial or consolation, or simply a scoff of indignation, they would never know. He closed his lips and settled for a quiet sigh.
"No amount of time away from him or us was gunna change that," Dean nonchalantly commented, still digging away. "She never even met the guy and yet…" Dean caught the cynical words before they formed. A brief slate of regret forged on his face before he cleared his throat and went back to callously digging. "I don't know what else you're expecting. It's not like I was her confidant or anything. She barely told me anything."
Sam thought about all the moments he saw of Dean and Frankie and their closeness. Those smiles and laughter weren't forced. They must have had meaningful exchanges of some sort.
A memory quickly appeared, a memory of their time on the pier of the lake. He recalled Dean playing her music from a cassette he bought for her.
As if reading his mind, Dean straightened his back and held the shovel in front of him. "There is one thing I know, I guess. She liked country, being the hick she was. A Johnny Cash fan. But her favorite music was, uh, it was Big Band, she said. I know, pretty dated, right? Never asked her favorite song." He shoveled a clump of dirt. "She was a decent cook, too. You know that one. When you were gone, she made me and Bobby this pie. Pecan, I think it was. Wasn't for anything, either. She just felt like making it. Nearly ate the whole thing."
Sam blinked his eyes up to Dean. The stony glare had softened, the remaining tension in his brows melting away.
"A lot of stuff she did wasn't for anything. Organizing Bobby's books? No reason. Just wanted to clear up some space. Cleaning the dishes? Someone had to do 'em. Laundry? Suddenly she's a housekeeper and she doesn't even mind. Enjoys it, actually." The corner of Dean's lips twitched. "There was this time when she was doing dishes and I asked her why. She said she liked it. Said she liked the routine. 'In a world that's constantly changing, at least washing dishes stays the same'." A ghost of a laugh passed his lips. "Wannabe poet."
Dean quieted. Sam watched the flurry of emotions flash in Dean's eyes like headlights sprinting across a wall. Memories clawed up from their graves where he had buried them.
"She was stupid," he muttered. "Always running into danger, not giving a single second to think of a plan. But she was brave. In her own scared way." He angled his shovel to dig, but it stilled the moment it tasted dirt. "And when she held that machete…," he shook his head with a snort, "she scared me. With a few years of training, she woulda been amazing, Sam. She woulda been…"
He shut his eyes and grunted a stifled huff. He kicked the blade of his shovel and dug deeper into the hole. He irately huffed as he tossed the clump into the dirt pile. His movements became sharper, fueled by anger.
"I wanted her to be great. I wanted her to be able to stand in front of a monster or a demon and hold her own. I wanted her to look them in the eye and know she was the one walkin' away, not them. I wanted her to be-" A cold jolt dashed up his spine when his shovel struck a rock. He hissed through bared teeth, shaking his hand of the tremor. His lips twitched with a frown.
"Well, it doesn't matter what I wanted her to be, does it? She's dead. She's dead 'cause she didn't listen to me, and that's her fault." He forcibly speared the hole. "It's not my fault that I pushed her hard. Maybe a little too hard, but I knew she could handle it." He shoveled with exasperated gestures. "It's not my fault I wanted the best for her. But she didn't wanna do things my way, no. She wanted to run off with Cas and do things her own way. And that worked out great for her, didn't it? Now she can't listen to her favorite music, or do the dishes, or cook, or-or sing way outta key, or take her shoes off in my car and stink it up! Now she can't point a gun like it's a toy and make freakin' laser noises, or talk with her mouth full like some kid."
The back of the shovel's blade thudded against the ground. Dean's eyes pointed far beyond the forest. "No. She's in Hell." He thickly swallowed, his eyes filling with distant fear. Memories that were buried far deeper in his head rose from the fresh pits opened by his grief.
Sam could only stand and watch as Dean's experience in Hell no doubt replayed in his mind. His brows twitched and cinched, his lips scrunched up in an apprehensive frown. His nostrils flared as his jaw tensed. His pupils faintly darted through the trees, like his eyes were tracing invisible dangers in front of him.
He blinked hard, clearing his throat as he looked to the ground. He jabbed the blade of his shovel in the dirt beside his foot. "I, uh…," he rubbed his forehead, pushing the memories to the back of his mind where they belonged. "I'll be back."
Sam watched Dean walk out of the clearing and deeper into the woods. His hand never stopped rubbing his head.
He found a fallen tree and sat on the trunk, hands linked, elbows on knees, head lowered. Wisps of autumn air chilled his skin, bristling the hairs on his neck. The hairs on his arms, however, prickled not for the cold, but for the fear oozing through his skin.
His shoulders could still feel the rusted hooks serrating flesh. He felt the phantom rips, the ghostly incisions, that had pulled him apart until there was nothing. And that brief nothingness, oh how he cherished it. The slightest moment of relief, of peace. For a moment he didn't exist. And it was bliss. And then he was whole once more, and it all started over like it was the first time he had ever been in their paws. It never got better. Never got less horrible.
It was bad enough going through it himself. How the hell was he supposed to just go on with a swing in his step and a snark on his lips knowing that a young girl with a short but good life ahead of her was where he was just over a year ago?
Dammit. Had it only been a year?
And look where he was. Sitting in a forest, sunlight gleaming through trees to kiss his cheeks, chilly breezes replacing skin-melting heat. He got out. He was yanked from the pit because he was one lucky fucking soul, wasn't he? So, what about her? Now she gets to suffer while he strolled right out?
The shrill screams cut the lining of her throat as it puffed into the night air, rasping her cries. It turned his stomach, ached his teeth, to have her shrieks of torment violate his ears. The memory of her pained bawling nestled itself just beside those other screams of suffering that were left behind in Hell, so much that he almost couldn't tell them apart.
She was suffering. Just like he was. And he couldn't do a damn thing for her anymore.
His hands lifted to his face. He rubbed his fingers into every aching crevasse.
"Why'd you hafta do it? Huh? Why? You coulda had a life. Not with us, but it'd be better."
Oh, this was stupid. It wasn't like she could hear him.
"We're not good people. Why should the fact that we're blood make you wanna ruin your life?"
At least while talking the screams couldn't be heard that well.
"If you hated your home so much, you coulda just moved to the next town over. You didn't have to travel across the country to find the worst people on the planet and center your life around us. Make your own family. Forget about Dad. Forget about us."
His hands dropped off his face. They hung off his knees as his head drooped.
"I knew you were gunna be a problem. The minute I knew Sam took a liking to you, you were gunna be trouble. And things got worse when I took a liking to you. You get attached to something, it'll be even harder when you gotta let it go."
He tightened his molars together, harder and harder as the wave of grief crashed into him like high tide. He shut his eyes, forcing them to stay dry.
"And it's hard. But I can't… I can't let this go. It'd be easy if you were in Heaven, but you're-" He squeezed his eyelids tighter and cleared his throat of its growing tautness. "It's harder. You made the wrong choice, I don't know what else to tell ya. You screwed up. And you gotta face the consequences, 'cause that's life." A weary sigh fell out of his nostrils. "That's life."
He shook his head, clenching his fingers until tight fists shifted his knuckles beneath skin.
"I'm so disappointed in you," he exhaled, voice lined with anger. "You wanted to be my best student? You were far from it! You lied to me- you don't lie to your teacher! You don't keep things from me and expect everything to come out hunky-dory! I coulda saved you!"
He snapped his head up, glaring at the trees before him.
"You jumped right into selling yourself to Hell, but if you just waited 'til morning, you woulda found out that I had a kidney for you! Nice and ripe, just like I promised! Guess I coulda decided to get sliced open a little sooner – that's my bad, I'm not perfect. But if you'd just waited!"
He puffed out an irate grunt. The fire in his chest had reduced to mere embers, doused by shrouding misery. His eyes fell to the damp leaves nestled on the dirt trail. He wetly swallowed, grimacing at the sizable lump in his throat.
"I was supposed to keep you safe. But I couldn't do that if you never listened to me. How could I save you if you didn't trust me? I mean, I trusted you!"
He pinched the bridge of his nose, swallowing the bitterness on his tongue and leaving behind only sorrow.
"I trusted you."
His hands cupped his face again, and he rubbed even deeper. He tried to massage all the grief away, doing as much good as locking her in the panic room did.
Cold tendrils of defeat constricted his throat and weighed down his chest. He wanted to keep his fury, he wanted to be mad at her. She deserved it! But each time his brain manifested an image of her, he only saw blood. Blood and immeasurable pain, the likes of which she was engulfed in as he sat there yelling at the trees.
What good was scolding her when there was no way for her to learn from it? What good was sulking in the forest when there was a grave to be dug?
He dropped his hands to the trunk and pressed against the bark, but he didn't lift. He felt too heavy to walk back to the clearing. He shut his eyes, tightened his lips. His head sank with a sigh, the final push of defeat nudging him off his pedestal.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry this happened to you. If I could make things right, I would. But I… I-I can't. Cas can't. I-I just don't see a way. And I'm sorry." He sighed a feeble breath. "I wanna fight for you. But I… can't. I'm sorry. I wish you knew I was."
With a loud huff, Dean slowly morphed back into Dean. He swallowed and tightened his cheeks, furrowed his brows. Any hint of sadness dripped off, invisible to the human eye. He rose from the log and walked back to the clearing.
Sam was gone. In his place was a hole, six feet deep. Two shovels were speared at its edge. Dean ignored the lump in his throat battling for his attention. Sam was off to bring her to be buried.
All Dean had to do was wait. He busied himself – lest he delve into those memories again – by slowly pacing around the clearing. His feet stopped by the tree.
She was shaking like a chihuahua. She could barely do a single pullup, the weak thing. She did look funny, though, he had to admit. He smiled. He even quietly chuckled to himself. And then she shrieked, freaked out by who knows what, and there she went. Falling to the ground with a guttural "oof". His laugh wasn't as quiet this time.
He remembered that day so clearly. He remembered the day he followed her there. He made that damn deal, that fucking proposition. Now he had been digging a hole right where they stood. Right where she said yes.
Right where he ruined her life.
He willed the thought away with a heavy blink. He had his little moment of expressing his thoughts. He was done for the day. For the week.
He stepped forward, examining the mossy boulder where she used to sit.
A crunch crackled under his foot. He looked down and found a large branch. He raised the front of his foot and pivoted his heel to get a better look. Just a branch. No big deal.
But then he realized where it had fallen from. He realized that it wasn't just any ordinary branch, but the branch she was practicing pullups on when he found her out there. The branch she used every day when she came out there to practice.
He picked up the branch, now in two pieces. He stroked a thumb over the smooth patches along the limb. Her hands had buffed them until the bark flaked off, leaving behind an almost polished surface.
Dean didn't want to part with it. Broken and discarded, it didn't matter. It was a part of her life. It didn't belong among the fallen leaves.
His brows pulled together. He looked up to the hole lying across the clearing, his brows pulling closer. He adjusted the limbs in his hands, holding them close.
He set his lips in a line. Leaning against the mossy boulder, he stripped away the rest of the bark and tore out their fibers.
'Don't look down. Just don't look down.'
Just as he'd dug many graves, he'd carried many bodies. Unrecognizable faces on unknown people, each one without a breath in their lungs. But the toughest body he had to bury, to no one's surprise, was Dean.
Only a year ago, he was walking with his arms full, summoning all his strength to not look down at the lifeless corpse that replaced his brother and staring ahead towards the freshly dug grave made especially for him. Bobby trailed behind him, shovels ready to lay Dean in his final resting place.
Now, he was walking back to the clearing with heavy arms, summoning all his strength to not look down at the lifeless corpse that replaced his sister, staring ahead towards the freshly dug grave made especially for her. Bobby trailed behind him, tugging a wagon that held a pine box fashioned for her and her only.
Bobby had wrapped her in a white sheet and secured her neck, waist, and ankles with twine to make sure she was snugly swathed. It was the only thing that made Sam feel less horrible than he would have, but horrible he still felt.
He had only held her one other time. After Zachariah fled without healing her, he carried her out of the building and into the Impala to rush her to the hospital. Her arm had been slung around his neck, holding on tight to him. She was limp now. Her head rested on his shoulder peacefully. She was so light now, like a frail old woman. She almost didn't feel human. He supposed she wasn't anymore.
Luckily, the clearing appeared before he could slip into any more distress. Dean was squatting at the head of the hole, jabbing something into the dirt. He twisted a small cross, sinking it deeper into the ground. Getting a closer look, it looked like two sticks tied together.
After giving the cross a forceful pat, Dean raised his head to greet Sam and Bobby. His eyes landed on Frankie's body. Nothing in his face changed, but Sam knew that behind his stony eyes there was a blizzard.
Dean ripped his eyes away from the white sheet and stood up. He walked past Sam, never giving him a glance, and stopped at the wagon behind Bobby. He hoisted the pine box and carried it to the grave, just like he had practiced many times before. Lowering it into the hole and lifting the lid was as mechanical as brushing his teeth. As was holding out his arms to receive the body.
But the moment his gaze returned to the white sheet, his autopilot failed. His brows twitched as they worked in overdrive to stay callously furrowed. His lips creased his cheeks from pressing so tightly to keep his frown. Sam finally saw the pain Dean was trying so desperately to drown. He had learned long ago that it was best to let him grieve in his own way, so he let him be.
Sam instead turned his eyes down to her small form. He felt a piece of his chest cave in. A painful ache began behind his ribs and throbbed up to his throat. The backs of his eyes prickled.
He lowered himself onto a knee. Gently, he eased her head off his shoulder and slowly held her out for Dean to take. He wanted to look away, but he couldn't, knowing it was the last time he would see her with his own eyes.
Dean hid a swallow. He slid his arms under Sam's and relieved him of his mournful burden. Dean cradled her delicately as he turned in the hole. He lowered her into the box, slowly placing her down so she didn't thump against the wood.
It may have just been Sam, but he thought Dean seemed to hurry out of the grave the moment the lid was closed.
They stood over the hole, staring down, barely breathing.
Sam gave a few calming breaths to ease the fragileness of his voice. "Anyone wanna say anything?"
Sam glanced over at Dean. His cold glower reflected his quick answer. Sam's gaze lingered before glancing over at Bobby. The older man had a knowing look in his cinched brows.
Bobby looked back down at the pine box, his whiskers scrunching under his frown. "So long, Kid." Sam sighed at the brittle tone of the older man's voice.
Now it was his turn.
Did he have any words to say? What would he say to her if she were right in front of him? Oh, he didn't have time to unpack everything he wanted to say. But he had to admit that this was more about what he could say to make himself feel better. She wasn't there. She wasn't even lurking in the shadows as a spirit. So, what would make him feel better?
"Frankie. You weren't around very long. With us. And if I could change that – if I could go back and find you – I would. So you could be a part of our family." Dean quietly groaned. Sam ignored him. "But even if we knew you for such a short time…," he took a deep breath, swallowing through his tight throat, "you'll always be a Winchester."
Bobby slowly nodded his head.
Dean grabbed a shovel and began filling the hole. Sam and Bobby snapped their heads over to him, frowning at his swiftness to get it filled. Couldn't he give them a second more to mourn?
Sam quietly huffed and grabbed the other shovel.
The hole was filled faster than it was dug. Sam and Dean smoothed over the top of the dirt with the back of their shovels, flattening any hills. When the job was done, they tossed the shovels in the wagon and looked back at the grave. A patch of loose dirt with a branch cross at the head lay at the edge of a scenic forest clearing. Better than any random spot a decent walk from the nearest highway.
"Before we head back, uh…," Bobby muttered, limping to the head of the grave. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small trinket, a long silver chain slinking up behind it. He opened his palm. The tammatuyuq tooth glimmered in the soft sunlight. He rolled her necklace in his hand with his thumb, revealing a new polished and pressed band wrapped around the top of the tooth and a bail attaching it to the chain. He looked sheepishly over to Sam and Dean.
"Thought about keepin' it for myself. Little piece of her to keep around." He sighed and looked down to the grave. He grasped his cane and lowered himself to the ground with struggled grunts. Sam moved to help him, but knew he'd get a lecture if he did. Bobby managed to kneel, but the strain in his voice revealed his discomfort. "But I think it should stay with her."
He hung the chain around the top of the cross and looped the tooth through the twine that held it together. Puffing out more pained grunts, he pushed himself to his good foot and stepped back.
A weak smile loosened Sam's broken face. Dean merely stared in solemn silence.
They reached the edge of the woods. Dean was grateful to not have the wagon hit every root in existence as their feet met gravel and grass.
The trio were exhausted in more ways than one. Sam and Dean's aching muscles yearned for a rest. Had their legs not been burning, they would have jogged the last several feet to the house.
The creak of the back door brought their eyes to attention. The door swung open, slamming into the wall, the sluggish form of Castiel going with it.
"Cas?" Dean gasped, and he and Sam ignored their screaming calves to run up to the woozy angel. He stretched out a hand to the railing of the porch just as the brothers reached his side.
"Cas, what the hell? W-What're doing out here?" Sam sputtered, clasping Castiel's shoulder.
"Looking for you two." Cas opened his mouth to say more, but he merely grunted as his body went limp. Sam caught his other shoulder and held him upright.
"Oh, o-okay, let's get you back inside." Sam led Cas through the kitchen and into the study. He puffed out strained grunts as the angel went in and out of control over his legs. Cas was able to catch the arm of the couch and felt confident enough to steady himself. He waved Sam away, which the man did cautiously, and slowly sat down on the couch he had awakened on.
"How long have you been up?" Dean asked, crossing his arms.
Cas took a moment to collect himself. "Six minutes. When I awoke, I found that I was alone in Bobby Singer's house. Not even the man himself was here. Naturally, I see that as a bad sign." Sam nodded his head in understanding. "When I saw that Dean's car was still outside, I got up to look for traces of anyone in the backyard. I soon found myself in worse shape than expected."
"Yeah. How you feeling by the way?" Sam asked, eyeing the angel's tussled mess of black hair.
"Weak. But better than I was, I assume. I should be in stable condition soon. An hour at most."
"Good. We need you back on your feet," Dean said, giving a nod to his friend.
Cas met his eyes. His brows furrowed.
Dean's shoulders stiffened. He knew that look. Cas noticed something off in his face, and he knew exactly what the angel was picking up on. He could erase the grief from every pore in his body, but Cas would always be able to see passed the physical barrier. The last thing he needed was for him to bring it up.
"Cas, how much do you remember?"
Castiel kept his softly narrowed brows, but blinked his eyes to the wall behind Dean. He sat in silence for a moment, recalling all that he could. "The Devil succeeded in his mission. And we failed ours."
Dean clenched his jaw against the fresh memories of that night.
"Yeah. That's one way to put it," Sam sighed.
"I remember…," Cas's thoughtful stare deepened into an apprehensive frown, "the demon Meg mentioned that Lucifer took Frankie prisoner." There was a faint twitch in his eye, and then he lifted his grim gaze to Sam and Dean. "Were you able to rescue her?"
Sam's throat bobbed with a gulp. Dean sharply averted his eyes, causing Castiel to linger his stare on the older brother.
"Um… Cas, don't you remember… y'know, getting us outta there?" Sam carefully asked. "There were three of us."
Cas's icy eyes softened, his stern face easing. "Yes. It's coming back to me. Slowly. That would explain the impact on me. Is she alright?"
Sam's shoulders drooped with a deep sigh. He hoped he would remember. He hoped he would remember just how bloody and mangled she was so he wouldn't have to recount it for him. Giving bad news was always his least favorite part of the job.
Cas was picking up on the grim meaning behind their silence. He switched his gaze between Sam and Dean, his face hardening once more.
Dean walked towards the window behind Bobby's desk. "She didn't make it."
Cas's brows yanked together. His eyelid twitched twice, thrice, as his pupils flicked back and forth.
"Lucifer," Dean spat, glowering out the window.
Cas's hands clenched and unclenched.
"What did he want with her?"
"What does it matter?" Dean glared at Cas. "She's gone. It doesn't matter what he wanted to do with her!"
"Then why would he take her prisoner?" Cas bit back, his voice raising. Sam's brows lifted at sight of the matched glare on his face. "If he simply wanted to kill her, he would have done so from the beginning. But he held her hostage. He was saving her for something."
"Yeah, probably to wait to kill her in front of us! Maybe wanted to dangle her in front of Sam until he said 'yes,' which is exactly what he tried!" Cas clenched his jaw at the raving man. "Like I said, she's dead. In Hell. End of story. And we got bigger problems now that Death is loose, so maybe we should worry about that instead!"
Sam shut his eyes with a heavy sigh. "Dean has a point, Cas." His eyes opened to the frosty glare of the angel. "Frankie… it's-it's tough. Really tough. But another Horseman is free, and it's a big one. We got a lot more problems heading our way and fast. We've already lost a couple days waiting for you to get better. The sooner we jump on it, the closer we'll be to finding some other way to stop Lucifer." Sam tensely shuffled his feet under Cas's glare. "How's the search for God going?"
"Not well," Cas grumbled, and Sam confusedly blinked at how sarcastic it sounded. "And I suppose that's my next mode of action."
Castiel's voice was almost a growl. He seemed… offended. At what was what Sam tried to figure out. He parted his lips to comment on his off behavior, but Cas was instantly gone, the fading sound of flapping wings echoing off the walls. Sam huffed at the now empty couch.
"You didn't have to argue with him," Sam muttered, rubbing his forehead in frustration.
Dean turned away from the window and walked towards the kitchen. "Go pack your bag."
Sam whipped his head around as Dean passed him. "Wait- what?"
Dean snatched the Impala's keys off its hook. "I picked up on a possible case in St. Louis. We can stop somewhere tonight and get to work first thing in the morning."
Dean passed Sam again, and the younger man shook his head in disbelief. "W-What? You wanna work a case now? Don't you think-"
"Don't I think what?" Dean pinned Sam with a blank stare. "That I need a day or two to 'mourn'? The world's on fire, Sam, and right now we're the only two with buckets. And last I checked, having a funeral and hunting things in the same day were not out of the ordinary for us."
Sam could not rebuttal. He no longer had the strength to fight Dean on anything.
Dean huffed in resignation at Sam's weary expression. "Life sucks now. We lost two in our party and the embodiment of death itself is schmoozing around the planet. I get it. But a good case is something solid. It's something we can do now instead of waiting for God to show his mug. We just gotta keep on our feet. We gotta keep working." Dean pressed his lips together. He looked around at the stacks of organized books with a grimace, the slightest glint of pain in the corners of his eyes. "And I gotta get the hell outta this house."
Dean walked out the front door and lightly slammed it behind him. Sam stood alone in the study, frozen as his body tried to right out how he felt.
Frankie and Jo were gone. Ellen hadn't said a word to them since Carthage. Cas was up in the air, and by the look on his face before he left, they might not get a word from him for some time. And Dean… well Sam had been dealing with his emotional distance his whole life. But this time around – after losing Frankie and Jo on the same day and so violently – it took a bigger bite out of him than usual. Now, Sam felt just as much an emotional divide as when they reunited after he freed Lucifer. It felt like everyone around him was drifting away, leaving him. It didn't feel so good on his end.
At least there was a tiny, dim light in the near future. Dean was right. A case was solid. Small victories would add up, and along the way they may figure out a new way out of the mess they'd created. And maybe they would make new messes. Well, they'd cross that bridge when they came to it. They just needed to keep on their feet and keep working. They needed to stay busy, looking ahead, leaving behind all that would drag them down.
It was the only thing they could do now. It was all they had left.