A/N: Well, I thought I was done with this. But darn it all, those seven seconds of new previews on Tuesday night helped to spawn a little plot bunny (can plot bunnies be spawned?), and so I give you Chapter Two. Hm. I think it really is done now . . . .
Here's a big "thank you" for all the lovely reviews on my first posting! You guys made my day!
Dean Winchester inexplicably found himself wandering in a barren landscape of dim twilight and shadows and swirling fog. Neither moon nor stars were visible – or much else, for that matter. He could barely see ten feet in front of him. He strained all his hunter's senses, but he could hear little beyond a high, keening wind that rose and fell around him as he walked. Or stumbled, rather – he felt strangely weak and tired, and his legs did not seem to want to obey him. It didn't help that the ground was proving to be rough and rocky.
He tried shouting, calling Sam's name. But the sound fell into an abyss of darkness as though swallowed. He staggered doggedly on. Part of his mind wondered how he had gotten here, wondering just where "here" was, but for the most part he just had an itchy feeling between his shoulder blades that told him to keep moving.
The moaning wind had begun to grate, like an insistent mosquito he couldn't smack. He thought he was beginning to hear voices in it, snatches of words, but they whirled away before he could make any sense of them. The force of it had even grown strong enough to buffet him about, keeping him off balance, and kicking up dust that soon had his eyes tearing.
Where was he? Where was Sam? Where was anybody? He'd been walking here for hours – why hadn't he seen anything besides shadows and dust on this grey, featureless plain? He stopped for a moment, hands wearily braced on bent knees, and searched frantically in his mind for the last thing he could remember before showing up here. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, he straightened, and realized with an unease that was quickly verging on panic, that he hadn't noticed himself breathing before this.
"Calm down, just calm down, don't lose it. Don't have time for that," he whispered to himself. "Take it easy . . . ." He forced himself to stand still, concentrated on the simple act of taking in air through his nose and letting it out his mouth. "See, you can do this," he murmured. "Quit acting like a scared little girl." Then he had another horrible thought, and he very slowly raised one hand and splayed it against his chest for what felt like several long minutes.
"Shit," he whispered. "This is not good."
He didn't have a heartbeat.
Okay, what the hell did that mean? He was here, somewhere, walking (all right, staggering) around, no one in sight, and he felt like shit. Something had happened to him, something bad, and why couldn't he remember?
Gradually, as he stood there trying not to indulge in a fight-or-flight action (against what? he berated himself sarcastically, to where?), he noticed the diminishing of the wind. The relentless wail slowly died to an anguished whisper and disappeared completely. Only to be replaced by the sound of steady, measured footsteps. Drawing closer.
They'd been there all along, he realized; that itch between his shoulder blades hadn't lied. He forgot about breathing, or not, or whatever it was he was doing, ignored his non-beating heart, and spun around in a defensive crouch reaching for his knife.
A laugh like dry sticks rubbing together greeted his efforts, and he whirled again. A tall, cadaverous old man dressed all in black stood there, eyeing him with obvious amusement. His pale face was a mass of wrinkles and his white hair hung like straggles of cobweb.
"Oh, my dear boy, that won't do you a bit of good." The voice was as dry and scratchy as the laugh. "Why don't you just let go of that nasty old thing right now." The old man made a slight gesture with one hand; suddenly the knife in Dean's grip burned, and he threw it away with a startled, agonized yelp.
Clenching his hand against the pain, he glared at the old man. "What the hell?" he snarled. "Who are you? Did you bring me here? Where is this?"
"Dear boy," he smiled, like an overly fond uncle, "my dear, dear boy. You are in my domain now. I've had my eye on you for quite some time, yes, indeed, and now that you're finally here, I have to say, I am ever so pleased. It's taken quite a bit of work, but I can see that it was definitely worth the effort. You will be so much happier here, trust me." He rubbed his hands together, smiling, and as Dean began backing away he saw a flare of red in the man's eyes.
"You're a demon!" he spat, moving further off, putting more distance between them. "How did I get here? What do you want?"
"A demon? Oh, no no no." He laughed again. "Hardly that. Nothing so simple. Haven't you figured it out yet? You're dead, my boy, you're dead, and you are all mine."
"No!" Dean shouted. "No. You're lying." But he felt that quick insidious niggling of doubt – why the hell else wasn't he breathing? "Get away from me," he yelled, even as Death was suddenly close, his hand reaching out to touch Dean's forehead and then twine cruelly tight in his short hair. That cold touch would have driven Dean to his knees, but the iron grip that had imprisoned him held him upright. He fought to get free, but discovered to his horror that he could not move at all. He could only stare helplessly into the red eyes, unable to even look away or blink. Death smiled at him in mocking triumph. The hand eventually loosened its hard grip, brushed through his hair and down the back of his neck. The horrible caress was almost loving in its tenderness, but Dean felt his skin crawl as the old man's thin, leathery fingers brushed across his cheek, his mouth, finally stopping to cup his chin. A shudder swept through his entire body. The cold in that hand was that of a million winter nights, of the far side of the moon, of the dark beyond the stars, and Dean's strength failed. His eyes closed even as the grip on his face finally let go. He fell to his knees, then slowly toppled over on his side, curling up in gasping pain.
Death loomed over him and said, "Welcome to my kingdom, boy. I know we are going to get along just fine. Why, you won't even miss that brother of yours. I'm sure he's not missing you at all, is he? Or your father, either. They both left you, didn't they? Why would you want to stay with people who don't want you? But I want you, Dean, here in my lovely land with all the unhappy dead. You belong here."
"No, I don't!" he ground out between his chattering teeth. The cold had settled deep in his bones, numbing his soul. He opened his eyes and managed a glare, wishing he could get up enough spit to hurl in the old man's face.
"Well, it's not as if you have a choice, is it now? Dead is dead. Where else did you think you'd end up? Meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates? Please. With the life you've led?" Death gave him that fond uncle smile again, and Dean thought if the old bastard reached out to pat him on the head, he'd rip his arm off. As if reading his mind, the old man just chuckled. "Oh, accept it. You're here to stay."
"Like hell," he gasped.
"Exactly. Now you've got it. Really, Dean, what have you got in that sad little life of yours that you want so much to go back to it? Your brother left you, don't you remember? He left you to take off on his own; he left you to die, Dean. It's his entire fault you're here in the first place."
Dean glared again, but there was something, a memory he couldn't quite reach. Sam. Sam had left. Dean had followed orders, had done what he was supposed to do, but Sam . . . Sam had walked away. And left him to die. Hadn't he? What had happened after that? Dean forgot about Death standing over him as he feverishly ransacked his failing mind for a hint of what had happened next.
"Sam left," he whispered. "Sam left. I was supposed to die. But Sam wasn't there. I was alone." His body curled up even tighter, and he let out a cry. "Sam left me!" He felt the telltale sting of tears at the back of his eyes.
"Yes, he did, the ungrateful whelp. Why would you want to go back to that? I won't leave you, Dean. Ever. I promise. In fact, I think we might even find your mother somewhere around the place." A malicious, gloating note entered Death's voice at the next words. "Would you like that, Dean? Would you like to see your mother again?"
His mother? But she was dead, burned. He saw it happen. And then again, back at the old house. Why would she be here? She was gone, Dad didn't want to be found, and Sam . . . . Sam had left him, wanting Dean to drive away. Alone.
He was so tired. Why not just give it all up? Was there any point to chasing their father's mystical coordinates all over the map? He had nothing. No home, no family – not anymore. He had a car, the clothes he could stuff into one duffle bag, and an impressive number and variety of weapons in said car's trunk. One crummy hotel room after another, a blur of highways, small towns and truck stops, always on the move – what kind of life was that? No wonder Sam had taken off. Pathetic. Isn't that what Sam had said? Christ, he was pathetic. Little brother was right. It would be so easy to lie here and not go back to that. All he had to do was close his eyes and surrender to the dark and the cold. It would be over. Forever.
Easy . . . .
Dean drifted off, relieved that someone had taken the responsibility away from him. He was tired of making decisions, of sacrifice, of getting hurt for complete strangers. It was all he'd ever known. Didn't he deserve a chance to rest?
He frowned, puzzlement creeping into his mind. Something about that didn't feel quite right. Where had those thoughts come from? Since when had he ever done anything the easy way? What was wrong with him? He wasn't thinking straight. And Sam wasn't here . . . . But if Sam had left, he shouldn't be here anyway, right? What if something had happened to Sam? Was that why Dean was here alone?
Oh, shit, he had to find Sam.
He had to get up off his completely pathetic ass and find Sam.
Dean focused on Sam, and caught a wisp of memory, as he lay huddled there; he slowly teased it out, ignoring the continuing cajoling voice above him. Sam had left. But he came back. Sam had saved him from the scarecrow. Sam came back, untied him from the old tree, and together they had escaped. But there was something else . . . . Dean caught his lower lip between his teeth and frowned some more. If Sam had saved him, what was he doing here? What had happened to him to land him in this place?
It didn't matter, he decided. The trick was getting out. Think, think, think.
You can do this, Dean. You've been in tighter spots before. Just think it through . . . .
He lay there and shivered, his scattered thoughts slowly coming together; he shoved the pain aside, just like he always did, and got the panic and fear under control.
Opening his eyes, he rolled onto his back and stared directly up into Death's wizened face. "I'm not dead yet, you scrawny old son of a bitch," he said with a sudden and absolute certainty. "If I were, you wouldn't be trying so hard to convince me to stay. You can't keep me here if I don't want to be." And he knew he had the bastard when he saw the beaming old uncle expression turn into one of snarling rage. "Gotcha!" he crowed, scrambling to his feet. He did it without his usual lithe grace, but he was standing – swaying, but standing, and he wasn't going to let this old bastard get him without a fight.
With a maddened howl, Death flung his hand out toward Dean, and the invisible blow knocked him through the air for a good fifteen feet. He landed hard, and he wondered if he could break ribs in the land of the dead. Sure as hell felt like it. He grunted as he hauled himself back to his feet. The wind had returned with a vengeance, the wailing louder than ever, and now Dean could hear the voices within the maelstrom, crying out, calling him to join them.
"No!" He shouted back at them, throwing Latin scripture and rites of exorcism into the whirling fog, anything and everything he could remember. He thought of clear blue skies, and sunshine, and Sam, and before he could get any more warm and fuzzy, he thought, Hell with that, and was pleasantly surprised as he managed to conjure up a double-barreled shotgun loaded with rock salt. Would it work on Death the way it did on vengeful ghosts? Well, only one way to find out . . . .
Death stalked toward him, mirroring Dean's backward shuffle, and started to raise his bony hand in another gesture to send Dean flying.
"Take this, you sonuvabitch!" Dean yelled, letting loose with both barrels. And with a fleeting thought that since it was a magic shotgun, and therefore he'd never have to reload it, he just kept blazing away, hitting Death again and again, turning his black frock coat into tatters. He saw the old man stagger, still howling with rage, his hands clutching convulsively at his chest.
Just another hunt, that's all it is. Keep firing. Now, turn tail and run.
With one last echoing boom, Dean dropped the shotgun and suited action to thought; he hared off in a clumsy run, not caring about the direction, knowing it would hardly matter. He struggled and fought his way through the unchanging twilight, expecting at any second to feel Death's hand on his shoulder, or another shocking jolt of power to knock him into next week.
He had no idea of how long he pushed against the fog and the wind; time had long ago (or was it long at all?) lost all meaning. Had he slowed Death down enough to find his way out? A mirthless laugh escaped his lips. When hadn't he tried to slow down Death? Cheating him all the way. And he'd keep on doing it, just as long as he could. As long as he had breath in his body.
Uh, maybe that's a bad analogy there, Dean. Not breathing here, remember? Ah, hell. Quit thinking and keep moving.
He couldn't help the occasional glance he tossed over his shoulder. The old bastard had to be out there somewhere. Maybe he was just playing with him, letting Dean get as far as he thought he was safe, only to snatch him back again. But . . . he still figured that he had gotten it right. He couldn't be held here against his will. His will just had to be stronger than Death's. He pushed on, footsteps dragging, but moving, always moving.
A gradual awareness of a change in the surroundings brought him to an exhausted standstill. He squinted. The twilight was no longer quite so grey and murky. The non-sky had brightened enough for him to see further ahead than a few feet. The fog had thinned. For the first time, he noticed that the wailing wind had quieted down.
Oh, please, please, please, let him find his way out of here. But, oh, he was just so freakin' tired . . . . His bones ached with the cold. His fingers had grown numb, and it seemed to be creeping up his arms. He almost wept. He was getting close; he knew it. Gritting his teeth, he hugged his arms around his chest, and forced himself onward. One staggering step at a time.
It wasn't long before he fell. He just stumbled and failed to catch himself in time. His legs gave way and he sprawled awkwardly on the unforgiving slagheap he'd been crossing. His ribs reminded him about the earlier toss through the air. He tasted blood in his mouth.
Oh, Sammy. Not sure I can get out of this one. Sorry, Sammy. I'm sorry . . . .
"Boy!" The dry voice slithered out of the silence. "You can't run, boy. You can't leave. Don't you see that? There's nowhere for you to go that I won't find you." The chilling, mocking laugh sent another shiver down Dean's spine.
"Fuck off!" he yelled back. "I've had just about enough of you!"
That's right, Dean, piss Death off even more. That's real smart. What would Sam say about that, huh?
He got to his hands and knees, finding blood. Numerous cuts and scratches marred his skin, courtesy of the sharp black rocks he had fallen on. Weird. No heartbeat, but he could bleed? He'd have to ask Sam about it if – when – he got out. With one last effort, he dragged himself vertical and slogged wearily forward.
All too soon he found himself facedown again on the ground. Blood seeped into his eyes from a cut on his forehead. He wiped it away and started to crawl.
"You can't keep me here," he whispered. "Not dead yet. Kick your ass if you try anything, just you watch . . . ."
"Oh, Dean, Dean, Dean. This is most unsatisfactory."
Shiny black shoes appeared in Dean's line of sight. Head hanging, he stopped, wiped more blood out of his eyes, and squinted up at Death.
"Yeah, well, that's just too fuckin' bad, isn't it?" he gasped out. "Sorry to disappoint you. I mean it, I'll kick your scrawny ass if you try to stop me."
"Yes, the shotgun trick was highly ingenious, I will admit. But I don't believe I'll have to do a thing, Dean. You're in rather bad shape at the moment. I think I'll merely sit back and enjoy the show. I'll come get you when it's over, shall I?"
"Ain't over yet, you bastard. Get outta my way."
With a fondly malicious smile and a little farewell wave, Death did just that.
"Bastard," Dean muttered. "I am so getting out of here."
But he was growing weaker by the moment. The cold continued to steal his strength and he knew he didn't have much time. Damned if he was going to just let the old bastard win so easily, though.
Hands scraped nearly raw, Dean dragged himself up a slight incline that had somehow turned into a mountain. If he wasn't dead already, this was surely gonna kill him. A slightly hysterical giggle greeted that thought. I'm going crazy, or this is all a really, really bad dream. Why didn't I think of that before? Yeah, I'm dreaming. And bleeding all over the place . . . . Just wake me up, Sammy. Please.
The hysterical giggle turned into a stifled sob.
I'm not gonna make it. Sorry, Sam. I tried. But I'm so tired.
When he felt a hand on his head, in his hair, he buried his face in one arm, knowing he'd lost. Death had come to claim him once and for all.
But the touch that settled on him was feather-light, gentle, and, curiously – it was . . . warm. He reached up a hand, found nothing, but the touch was still there, stroking through his hair and across his forehead.
What the hell?
It felt familiar. It felt like Sam.
The warmth grew, slowly suffusing through his body, easing the bone-chilling cold that had so weakened him. His limbs tingled, all pins and needles. He groaned at the sudden sharp pain, but just as quickly it vanished. Heedless of his bleeding hands, he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, knowing he had to make use of the gift he'd been given before it could fade.
He moved out again, his hunter's instincts somehow knowing he was heading in the right direction, even though it had been a thoroughly random choice when he first ran. But maybe it hadn't mattered, maybe all he had had to do was walk with a steadfast determination to leave. He snorted. So why'd he have to take the hard road out? Couldn't have had a nice, straight road leading out of Death's kingdom, oh no, not Dean Winchester. Never the easy way . . . . He shrugged, sighed, and kept climbing.
The shining archway appeared out of nowhere at the top of the hill, and Dean raised an eyebrow as he stopped and stared.
"Well, I'll be damned. There really is a bright light." Head tilted, he pondered that for a moment. "But," he murmured, "isn't that for when you're dying? I'm trying to get out of here, not somewhere else I'll be just as dead . . . ."
Shit. Not like he had a whole lot of choices here, right?
He picked his way up the rocky slope, sending down small avalanches with every footfall. The going got steeper the closer he got to the top, and his hands bled more and more as he was forced to use them to pull himself up. Then, precariously balanced, reaching for an outcrop of rock, the howling wind descended upon him with a fearful violence and plucked him up to send him careening down the slope in a shower of rocks and dirt.
He screamed out in rage, in defiance, swore a blue streak, and dragged himself back up again. It continued to swirl around him, shrieking, but he gritted his teeth and clung to the ground, inching his way forward. He kept his eyes on the doorway that still stood shimmering ahead of him.
Close, so close. His vision blurred. He heard Death's cruelly mocking laughter, behind him, all around him, and he fought for every bit of ground he gained. Despair hit him like a brick wall. But that familiar touch came again. This time he could swear he felt a warm weight on his shoulder, and Sam's long fingers wrapped around his own, gripping tightly.
Almost there, Sammy.
Closer. The wind tried to pull him away again, Death's voice rose in a malevolent shout, but Dean tuned it all out to gather his remaining strength. With a cry and a mighty shove he threw himself forward and upward. His fingertips grazed across the threshold of the doorway and the spark of energy that leaped into him from the contact gave him all he needed to pull his weakening body through the door.
It was abruptly silent, except for his harsh panting breaths. He laid still, eyes closed, savoring the thump of his hard-pounding heart. Then he lost awareness of even that.
Hearing and smell returned at about the same time. He couldn't move, not yet, but he could hear quiet beeping from somewhere, and the antiseptic odors of a hospital were unfortunately all too familiar.
The warm weight was back on his shoulder – or maybe it hadn't ever left – and yes, those were Sam's fingers clinging onto his hand. He could feel Sam shaking, his body sending tremors through Dean, and a soft voice kept saying the same words over and over.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Dean, oh god, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left. I'm sorry . . . ."
Dean decided he'd better open his eyes. With a massive effort that felt as though he were back on that damned mountain, he managed to peel one eyelid up, and said, "Sammy."
It came out as an awful croak, raspy and faint, but it did the trick. Sam jerked upright, yelped, and stared down at him. Shock, disbelief, joy; Dean didn't know quite what to make of it all.
"Dean?" Sam said faintly, wide-eyed. "Dean?"
He got the other eye open. "Uh huh." He studied his brother. Sam looked terrible. Pale, unshaven, eyes red and bleary. The poor kid must've really been worried.
"Dean." Sam gulped. Several times. The grip he had on Dean's hand tightened. Then he let go to take Dean's face between his hands and leaned over.
"Uh, Sammy?" Dean winced at the weakness in his own voice. "You're not gonna kiss me or anything, are ya?"
Sam stared at him with a frightening intensity, but he didn't let go. "You were dying," he enunciated with severe precision. "You died. You flatlined." He gulped again. "Don't ever do that to me again."
"I died?" Well, damn. "When? How long? What happened?"
After another long search of Dean's face, Sam finally let go to reach up and scrub his fingers through his hair. "You died," he said again, somehow going even paler and looking like he was going to throw up. "Just a few minutes ago. The doctor called the time of . . . death . . . at 12:08 a.m. They left me alone with you, and then . . . and then you woke up." Now he looked like he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "What happened?" he added, echoing Dean's words.
Dean shuddered, and Sam caught it. He was back to hanging onto Dean's hand. "Sam, I . . . I'm not really sure." How to explain it? Parts of it were starting to blur a bit already. Dream? Nightmare, more like. But no, that evil had been all too real. He could still hear the shrieking wind and thought perhaps he would for the rest of his life. "I'm sorry, Sammy," he said, hearing the exhaustion in the words. "I tried, I really tried, but it was so hard, and it took me so long . . . ." God, he was babbling. He reined himself in. "I decided not to stay," he said slowly. "I wanted to come back."
Sam's eyes went wide again, and Dean knew with an inward cringe that his little brother would want to talk about it later. But for now all he did was give Dean a shaky smile. "Well, thanks. I'm glad you did." He lurched to his feet. "I'd better call the doctor, before they haul you down to the morgue." The attempted joke made Dean smile a bit, but he could tell Sam was close to losing it.
"Nah, that can wait."
Sam stared at him, unsure, but sat down again.
Dean just knew Sam was waiting for him to make some smartass crack about the dreaded "chick flick moment" that had just occurred. His little brother had that resigned, kicked-puppy-dog expression about him, and Dean felt a smile curving up one side of his mouth. Oh, this would so mess with Sammy's head. Besides, Dean might be alive, but that deep cold from Death's touch still lingered in his soul, so he decided it wouldn't hurt this once to give in.
"Hey, Sammy," he said, barely able to keep his eyes open a moment longer. "Give me a hug."
Sam, with a last sniffle and a growing smile he failed to hide, leaned in and carefully slid his arms under his brother's shoulders. A warm, fierce hug drove the last of the cold and darkness from the corners of Dean Winchester's soul.
"Sammy?" He was nearly asleep, but he had to make sure. "Stay, all right?"
The hand was back in his hair, and the words drifted quietly over him. "I'm not going anywhere."