The Present End
K Hanna Korossy
They were leaving the diner when Dean stopped in his tracks. Sam almost ran into him, blurted admonishment quickly stifled when he realized Dean was staring at the wall next to the door.
Sam studied the same space to see what had caught his brother's interest. There was a "today's date" calendar, a rack of pamphlets on local attractions, and a first aid kit mounted under a wall sconce. Sam ran an eye over the pamphlets, but apparently northern Iowa had little to offer besides parks and the usual assortment of small museums and heritage centers. Nothing that set off his brotherly radar, even if something was clearly pinging Dean's.
"Dude?" he finally asked, when Dean didn't seem to plan to keep moving.
"Hmm? Oh, yeah." Without a further word or backward glance, Dean continued out the door and to the waiting Impala.
Sam gave the wall one more suspicious glance, but still nothing. Even the date was innocuous, none of the growing list of anniversaries and birthdays of loss they tiptoed around. Thoughtful, Sam followed his brother out. He didn't like a mystery, liked it even less when it involved Dean, especially these days.
But Dean offered no clues as they climbed into the car and turned out of the motel lot, and Sam's stare, usually effective in making his brother squirm and eventually talk, was ignored. No, not ignored: from the distant way Dean was staring at the windshield, Sam would have bet money his brother hadn't even noticed he was being watched. That he probably wouldn't have even noticed if he'd left Sam back at the diner.
The morning had been normal. The case they'd finished overnight, with the "ghost in the machine" killing teens, wasn't anything unusual for them. They'd had a talk after about Dean continuing to fight the Mark even though he was giving up on finding a cure. Sam had been disheartened and encouraged at the same time, but his brother had seemed at peace over breakfast and Sam had been glad. Maybe it wasn't even the wall that had snagged Dean; maybe he just had a lot on his mind. God knew he had reason.
So Sam kept his silence. Until Dean slowed at their exit, then continued on 71 heading south into Missouri instead of veering west toward Kansas.
"Where're we going?" Sam had pulled up their location on his phone, checking to make sure he was right because Dean knew the highways far better than he did. But, yeah, he was pretty sure they weren't heading to Lebanon.
Dean roused himself. "Kansas City. I wanna check on something."
Check on something, right. Because that was only several hours out of their way. Sam frowned. "What?"
"Just something." Then, apparently realizing he couldn't highjack his brother on a lengthy detour without more of a reason, Dean added more quietly, "I can't explain it, okay?"
Sam narrowed his eyes. "Is it the Mark?"
"No." The answer was without hesitation, almost as if Dean were surprised at the thought. "No. Not heading out to kill anyone, I swear."
If it was meant to be a joke, it fell flat. Dean had killed, and most likely would again, until Sam figured out how to get that damned Mark off him. But his brother wasn't fidgeting with the nervous energy that made Sam nervous these days, nor was he scowling or tense, other telltale signs. No, this was more…preoccupation. And maybe something he truly couldn't explain.
Sam subsided into his seat. They'd gone farther on less. And, perhaps foolishly, he still trusted his brother. He yawned, beat from the all-nighter, and sank against the cool window glass. "Wake me up if you wanna switch off," he murmured. Dean had been up all night, too, and was the one who'd been tossed around by the ghost, but he'd turned down Sam's offer to drive.
Normally, his brother being secretive would have worried Sam's brain awake. But Dean seemed okay, more or less, and that was better than they had most days of late. Sam barely heard Dean's assent before he was pulled under into sleep.
As it turned out, Dean didn't want to switch off. Which wasn't so surprising on a five-hour trip, but Sam was pretty sure that wasn't why. He'd woken when Dean had turned the music off, and watched as his brother straightened as they neared their mysterious destination, wired not so much with Mark-fueled drive as…maybe bracing himself for something? Sam couldn't quite get a read on him, which bothered him more than the unknown destination.
Pulling into the hospital parking lot didn't help.
"Did someone call while I was asleep?" Even as he asked, he knew the answer: Dean wouldn't keep it secret from him if one of their few friends was in trouble. "Are you okay?" came next, even though he also knew the answer to that. But this was no supply-restocking mission, booty call, or hunter meet, and Sam was drawing a blank on other options.
"It's fine, Sam," Dean answered absently, taking corners as smoothly as if he knew his way around. But Sam was pretty sure he hadn't been there before, which meant Dean hadn't been there anytime lately. Unless with Lisa…
But no, she was nowhere near here. Sam kept an eye on her and Ben and was sure of that.
The Impala pulled up in front of the small hospital garden. Sam's confusion only deepened as his brother got out of the car and headed into the greenery. Maybe it was a meet? He hurried to follow.
There was no one else there, however. And Dean wasn't looking for anyone. If anything, he was staring at the bushes.
Then, so quietly that Sam barely heard it, he muttered, "You son of a bitch." And there was such pain and revulsion in his tone that Sam's automatic question died unspoken in his throat.
Raging curiosity joined with equal worry now. Maybe there was some memorial here to someone Dean had lost? Again, though, why wouldn't Sam know about it? But he swallowed his questions and just stood and silently waited.
Several minutes passed. Maybe even more. It was chilly, and the breeze cut through Sam, but Dean seemed to stand oblivious. His head lifted as he scanned the hospital wall on two sides, then returned to the square of earth that had enthralled him.
"He was standing right there."
Sam blinked, almost startled to realize Dean was actually talking to him. He stepped closer, at his brother's back now. "Who?"
"Lucifer. Wearing this stupid white suit. And you." Dean's voice deadened. "He was wearing you."
Sam blinked again, and started sorting through the ridiculous amount of timelines and realities they'd lived through. But nowhere could he find that memory, certainly not in the brief time he'd been Lucifer's host on earth. Had Dean had a dream? Or…a vision?
Sam swallowed. "What…?"
"When Zachariah jumped me forward five years." Dean finally turned, and his eyes were bright and haunted. "When you and I split up after Lucifer got out." Not after you let him out—that was long forgotten and even longer forgiven. "The Croatoan apocalypse."
Sam was starting to remember now; Dean had told him about that future when Sam first considered saying yes to Lucifer. He'd managed to say he'd met a Sam-faced Lucifer, but not much else after that, the memory clearly a terrible one. There'd been no mention of a rose garden, though, or the hospital Dean kept darting looks at like it held its own awful secret.
"He killed me—future-me—right there," Dean waved vaguely. "Cas an' the others were ambushed inside." Another glance at the impassive hospital wall. "And then he just stood there and…he said…no matter what I did, what choices I made, we'd end up…here." Staring at the ground before him. "Five years ago today, he said in five years he'd see me right here."
The diner calendar.
Sam swallowed, trying to find the words through spinning thoughts and his own horrific memories.
"I told him he was wrong. But I didn't think he was." Dean's voice and gaze fell at that last. There might have been tears, but Sam didn't try to see.
He crowded into Dean's space instead, puncturing the bubble of the past—present? future?—and spoke low even though it was just the two of them. "But here we are, five years later. And he's not."
Dean huffed a bitter laugh, shaking his head at the dirt.
Sam felt himself calm, the way he often did now when Dean was the one flying apart. He hadn't known for a long time how to do that, to be the strong one, not having grown up to it like his big brother had. But Hell, and being a prisoner of his body, and losing the one person who knew him, had taught him the hard way. "Lilith said I'd never see you again after she sent you to Hell."
Dean's head cocked, off-guard, listening.
"The angels said we'd play hosts to the Apocalypse and tear the world apart. Everyone stronger, smarter than us said we wouldn't be able to stop Eve, or the Leviathans. That there was no way out of the Trials, or Purgatory, or the Cage. And, man, we did it. Every. Single. Time."
Dean peered up with longing so sharp, it made Sam's throat ache.
"So screw Lucifer. And Cain, and the Mark, and everything else we're supposed to do, all right?" He finally touched Dean, hand on one corded shoulder. "You're the one calling the shots, remember?"
Dean rubbed his face, his eyes, and turned away again. As appalling as it must've been to witness his own death, Sam was sure that wasn't what he was seeing.
Then Dean shook himself, shedding the memory and the mood, and turned to Sam with a deliberate smile. "Pizza?"
"Dude, we're in Kansas City," Sam pointed out with a nascent grin.
"You're right, what was I thinking? Barbeque it is. I know a place…"
"Of course you do," Sam laughed as they turned back to the car.
But Dean stopped, turned back to look.
"Never happened, man," Sam reminded him. "And it's never going to."
Dean nodded, first slowly, then surely. He bounced the keys in his hand and got into the car.
Sam was the one who paused now a moment, looking over the winter-dead garden that meant nothing to him but had haunted his brother. So close… But Zachariah's future hadn't taken into account brotherly determination and love.
The Mark wouldn't win, either.
New steel in his spine, Sam climbed into the car, and the Impala carried them away.