Summary: Jessica talked to him most nights. Her choice of conversation seemed normal. They were the kinds of things he would have expected from his brother's girlfriend, and sometimes Dean almost forgot she was dead at all.

Rating: PG-13, gen Sam/Jess, sort of Dean/Jess, spoilers throughout season 1

Disclaimer: Can you imagine if I really did own Sam and Dean? Oh the things I would do... Then again, it's probably better that I don't.

A/N: This fic and I really haven't gotten along so well. So I need to post it--and soon. I'm leaving on Wednesday and won't be back for ten days (and the idea of not being near the internet for that long is nearly paralyzing, so we won't talk about it). The idea fascinates me--how much Dean and Jess are alike and what role they each played in Sam's life. It seems a shame they never really got to meet, and I wondered what would happened if they did. Gem was infinitely helpful and encouraging--she beta'ed this more times than she should have had too and never complained. She is just that awesome. And she made this fic NOT a total disaster (though I suspect it's still a bit disastrous, which is not a reflection of her, but me). And a thanks to Brenna who gave me some great feedback and encouragement. She knows more than she gives herself credit for.


On the Other Side of You

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or woman

- But who is that on the other side of you?

-from The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot

OOOOOOOOO

The first time Dean saw Jessica, he didn't know who she was. He didn't even know her name was Jessica, not then, anyway. He was lurking across the street, outside of Sam's apartment. It wasn't an unfamiliar trip for him, and for a moment he had thought maybe this would be the time he got out of the car, that this would be the time he wouldn't just watch Sam, but that he'd talk to him.

Any plans he had of moving, though, were thwarted when she came out the door. He couldn't see her very well; she was too far away. He barely caught a glimpse of blonde curls cascading down her shoulders. At first he didn't know quite what to make of her, this young woman walking down his Sammy's front steps, but when Sam appeared a beat later, an arm around her slender waist, he figured it out.

Sammy had a girlfriend. Sam hadn't just left for college, he had left for life, for a new life and, after months on his own, she was the first real sign that he might make it without his big brother by his side.

In that moment, Dean wanted to hate her, to resent her for taking his little brother's attention, for being someone who would take care of Sam when he felt that job was his and his alone.

But then he looked at Sam, even from his obscured position, he could see the way Sam smiled, how he looked so happy, so peaceful, almost complete.

OOOOOOOOO

The second time he saw Jessica, he didn't really see her at all. He had followed Sam home from class, watched him stop at a coffee store and buy a drink, watched him drop a book off at the library, and finally head home.

He lingered across the street as Sam went in the apartment and closed the door.

The light was on in the kitchen and that's when he saw her, her lean body silhouetted against the shade. Sam joined her and the shadows merged into one as they embraced.

He felt suddenly alone, alone and ridiculous, standing outside his brother's apartment, checking up on him. Sam seemed fine, he always seemed fine. And he was with her.

Sam's tall figure leaned as he kissed her, and she melted into him, her back arching as her hair fell back.

Dean watched as Sam ran a hand up her thigh and he turned away in a mixture of pride and disappointment.

OOOOOOOOO

The first time he talked to Jessica was the night he went to Sam for help. He had never intended to talk to her, just to Sam. Maybe he didn't need Sam's help, but he wanted it, and he knew without knowing that it would be much harder to convince Sam to go with her around.

But Sam was quicker than he gave him credit for and more resolved than he had anticipated. The skirmish he had intended to use to subdue his brother had awoken her.

She was more beautiful than he remembered, and far more likeable than he wanted to admit.

But she was not necessary to his goals. She would only hinder Sam, only remind him of everything Sam had left for, only keep him from being able to sway his little brother the way he knew he probably could.

She was in the way. It was that simple.

So Dean played the only card he had—counted on the fact that Sam hadn't been able to reconcile his past with his dreams and exploited his kid brother's obvious insecurities to separate him from the one obstacle Dean could see: Jessica.

He'd been right. Sam had acquiesced. He hadn't gone back in with Sam to say goodbye, and in retrospect, he almost wished he had. In fact, he almost wished he'd never asked her to leave the room at all, thought that maybe, somehow, if he hadn't tried to keep her from Sam, things might not have ended up just the way they did.

He wondered, now and then, if Sam felt the same way. But he couldn't bring himself to ask.

OOOOOOOOO

The last time he saw Jessica--alive, anyway--she was on the ceiling of Sam's apartment. At first he didn't see her there, he just saw Sam, cowering beneath flames, looking up, looking horrified.

He had followed Sam's gaze, and there she was, in the center of the flames. And he knew, in a moment of painful deja vu, that it was too late for her. Too late for her, but not for Sam, and he had a job to do.

Take your brother outside as fast as you can. Go, Dean, go!

There was no time to spare a second glance.

When he finally got Sam outside and safe, he thought fleetingly of the girl who was now nothing more than a char on a crumbling ceiling.

He would think of her more in the days to come, when Sam was hollowed by her death. Most of the time Sam's face was vacant in shock, but sometimes Dean could see the anguish and the rage building deep within his kid brother.

When Sam turned his angry and bereaved eyes upon him, sometimes Dean swore he could see her reflection in his eyes, lingering in a haze of fire and smoke and beauty.

OOOOOOOOO

He had never expected to see her again.

Then, one night, he woke with a gasp, his eyes searching the darkness for the reason of his rude awakening.

Standing by his brother's bed was a softly glowing form.

He had his gun in hand before he had a chance to think. But he didn't shoot, not right away. Instead, he hesitated, taking a moment to study the apparition more carefully.

He recognized her golden hair first, the curly locks that had glistened in the sunlight the first time he saw her.

Jessica.

The same girl he'd seen come out of the apartment with Sam's hand around her waist, the same silhouette on the window shade, the same one in the Smurfs shirt, the one who died on Sam's ceiling.

Now she was standing still, looking down, studying Sam's sleeping face with a look of love and concern.

"He doesn't sleep well anymore," she said quietly, not moving her eyes from Sam.

Dean still held the gun in front of him, tense and ready. "He has nightmares."

"He used to have those before I died, too. Sometimes for nights in a row. He never thought I knew, but I did."

Cautiously, Dean stood, moving closer to the bed, letting his aim drop, but keeping the gun in his grip. He glanced tentatively at his brother, who was curled up on his side, facing away from Jessica. His hair was unruly in sleep, sticking up and splayed more than it usually did. Sam's lips were parted slightly and his hands were curled around the blankets. Sam resisted sleep recently, as though he hated the vulnerability that accompanied it, the powerlessness to stop his demons from torturing him. Suddenly Dean understood why. His kid brother looked so young, so open, so innocent in sleep. He had no defenses.

Dean resisted the urge to touch Sam, to smooth his hair, to simply feel his heart beating, to reassure himself that Sam was safe. "He had them when he was younger, too."

"He never talked about them," she said. "Sometimes I asked, but he looked so scared to tell me that I stopped."

Dean swallowed, letting his gaze move back toward her. "Why are you here?"

He could see her clearly now, all the details of her face. Beneath the glow, her features were paler than he remembered, but just as beautiful as when he'd first seen her. She was forever preserved in youth and beauty.

But her eyes--which had once sparkled with life intelligence--were shadowed. "I don't know."

OOOOOOOOO

The next time she came, it still made Dean flinch. His hand nearly reached for the gun, but lay still on his lap, as he sat up to face her.

Again, she stood by Sam, her eyes endlessly tracing his sleeping features, just like the time before.

"Sam told me that once you actually pulled that old trick—you put shaving cream in his hand then tickled his face. He said he woke up with shaving cream in his nose, his mouth, his hair. He didn't talk to you for a week."

Dean watched her, the way her cheeks stretched with a gentle smile. He didn't know how she knew he was awake, that he would wake up at all, if she was there all the time and he just didn't know it.

She looked up at him, meeting his eyes so steadily that Dean could not look away. He waited, cautiously, listening.

"I was never sure about you, Dean," she said with a mischievous smile on her face. She continued, looking back down at Sam. "I asked him once if I could meet you. He said that he'd like that a lot, but that things hadn't gone so well and he didn't know how to fix them." She paused then looked up at Dean, her head cocked thoughtfully. "What did he mean by that?"

Her tone was so conversational, so sincere, so natural, that Dean knew he was giving into her questioning without a fight. "Family stuff…you know."

"Tell me." Her voice was simple and entreating.

As if it was that easy. He had spent the years since Sam left trying desperately to make sense of why his family had fallen apart. And he couldn't tell her everything—that didn't seem to be his place. Who was he to tell the secret his brother had so clearly spent so much effort keeping?

But he could tell she would not take nothing as an answer. So Dean offered her what he could. "Sam wasn't like my father and me. He wanted different things. When Sam said he wanted to leave for Stanford—they had a fight, Sam and my dad. Neither of them knew how it ended up that way, but Sam was told to leave and never come back, and that's just what he did."

Her eyes studied him, seemed to reach into his soul, and Dean felt his heart quicken. For a moment, he thought she would prompt him for more, call him on his carefully selected truths, force his hand. But she averted her gaze back toward Sam, and Dean let himself relax.

Silence buzzed a minute more, marred only by the soft breathing of his baby brother. Jessica's ghostly fingers wavered near Sam's head and he shifted in his sleep, a sigh escaping his parted lips as he turned toward her. Her face seemed to soften, basking in some indescribable glow.

Dean suddenly felt out of place, an uninvited witness to the unconscious display of love passing between his brother and his dead girlfriend. He had always known it, but he had never felt it—the depth with which Jessica was connected to Sam. He remembered that feeling of awkwardness as he spied on Sam at Stanford, witnessing something so private but so important, wanting to look away but completely unable to.

She said nothing more, made no more moves to interact with Dean. Her focus was singular.

Dean watched her, hesitating, but soon the bed was too soft and his eyelids were too heavy. Part of him did not want to leave his brother unattended with a spirit in the room, but he knew from the look on her face that she could never hurt him.

OOOOOOOOO

On the bad nights, Sam was wrenched from his sleep by nightmares, haunted by visions of her, and on the good nights, it was Dean who couldn't sleep, kept awake and haunted by the ghost of the same girl.

Jessica talked to him most of the nights, though sometimes she seemed unable to pull her attention from Sam. Her choice of conversation seemed normal—questions about Sam's childhood, insights into what Sam kept secret, memories that still made her smile. They were the kinds of things he would have expected from his brother's girlfriend, and sometimes Dean almost forgot she was dead at all.

But one night when he found her by Sam, her choice of topic changed--drastically. Her eyes were steady, unblinking, and unnervingly deep. "Do you know why I died, Dean?"

Dean swallowed hard, his throat tightening nearly uncontrollably.

"I want to know. I want to know why I died. I don't remember everything, but I remember being on the ceiling looking down. I prayed and prayed that Sam would never open his eyes, that he wouldn't find me like that, but he did. It was just like a dream, a nightmare I couldn't stop."

Her words cut Dean, tore his insides up, and he ached. He wanted to turn away, to run away, to not have this conversation, but she would never let him leave. "It was a demon," he said quietly. "A demon killed you."

She didn't look surprised, but thoughtful. "That may be what killed me, but you didn't answer my question, Dean. Why did it kill me? Why did it put me on the ceiling?"

Dean shook his head, his heart catching in his throat. It was a question he had asked himself a thousand times, a question he saw reflected into Sam's eyes as they traveled together, a question that was so close to them, but so hard to answer. "I don't know."

It was almost the truth.

OOOOOOOOO

"Dean, wake up."

It was an order, and Dean had always responded well to orders. He was upright and alert before he realized who said it. "Jessica?"

She looked different, her face was worried. "You need to help Sam."

"Sam? Why?" he asked, already moving around Jessica's lighted form to Sam's bedside.

She said nothing, let Dean do a cursory examination of his brother.

He swore as his hand felt the heat on his brother's forehead.

Sam had been under the weather since they had left their last hunt--a trying encounter with Bloody Mary. Sam tried to hide it, but he had not bounced back from that experience--not completely--and he had been more sluggish and tired than usual. Though Sam didn't admit it and Dean didn't pry, Dean had noticed a sudden degradation in Sam's sleeping habits since leaving Ohio. Dean had tried to assess if Sam needed some time off, but Sam had merely shook his head, his jaw jutting in a brood.

Dean had trusted Sam to tell him if he was really sick. Apparently he shouldn't have.

"Sam, why didn't you say anything?" he asked angrily. He was already moving toward the first aid kit, retrieving the thermometer.

Sam didn't respond, and still showed no signs of consciousness when Dean cajoled Sam's mouth open and molded it shut around temperature gauge. He barely noticed Jessica as he stormed to the bathroom, quickly wetting a washcloth.

"It's too high," she said.

Dean didn't look at her. "I know."

It was silent as Dean smoothed the washcloth over Sam's forehead and he let it linger there as he pulled the thermometer out of Sam's mouth. He stifled another curse.

"What is it?"

"103.1."

She didn't say anything. Dean refolded the washcloth over Sam's brow. He had to think.

He could take Sam to the hospital. Or he could wait it out. Fevers lingered and raged, but then often fell just as mysteriously as they came. Hospitals were messy. Paperwork could be dangerous with the trail of aliases they had following them. They were a last resort.

But Sam's fever was crossing into a dangerous zone. And he was still unconscious.

"What's wrong?"

In the flurry of his thoughts, he had almost forgotten about the girl, glimmering on the other side of the bed.

He clenched his jaw. Vulnerability was not something he dealt with, but there was something about her that made it easier. "I don't know what to do." His voice was tight and small.

She offered a small, half-hearted smile. "You always take care of him."

He nodded grimly at her words. "Yeah. I do."

The night wore on. Dean refused to sleep and Jessica's image never faded. He checked Sam's temperature periodically—wavering just about 103—and bathed him with a cool washcloth, forcing Tylenol in his mouth to try to nip the fever. Sam slept, but fitfully, moaning slightly as the fever wracked his body.

Jessica hovered just on the other side of Sam, sometimes watching Dean as he worked, but mostly watching Sam as he slept. She looked worried—tiny lines creasing her brow and a frown tugging at her lips. Dean would have sworn she looked tired, worn out, frayed, but he wasn't sure ghosts could show emotion like that. They were emotions and expressions he recognized in himself.

Sam's bedside seemed crowded with both of them flanking either side, and Jess showed no signs of moving. So Dean took to pacing an awkward path about the cramped room, from Sam's side, to the window, to the bathroom. Jessica said nothing, offered no words.

She didn't seemed fazed by Dean's restlessness. She seemed so natural there, as though it was a post she had often kept.

Thinking of Sam sick and someone else's hand on his brother's brow was nearly too much. He felt a surge of frustration and anger. He was Sam's protector. Not her. It had never been her. At least it never should have been.

"Why don't you show yourself to Sam?" he asked abruptly.

She jerked her head upwards, a mix of surprise and fear flashing across her face. She was silent for a moment, then her eyes distanced themselves, fixed on some undefined, faraway point. "I did."

Dean opened his mouth to reply, but then her answer hit him. "You did?"

She nodded solemnly. "Two days ago. As you left Ohio."

"You mean...you mean...he saw you?"

Her head nodded again. "Only for a moment. That's all I could do."

Dean's mind worked, trying to process what she was telling him. "But Sam didn't say anything."

"I'm not even sure he believed I was there. That maybe I was in his head or something. I don't know," she said, letting her hand rest on Sam's shoulder. She turned wide eyes back to Dean. "I think I did this to him."

"What?" Dean's defensive spiked.

"I think seeing me--it made him worse. His nightmares have been so real. He hasn't really slept. Not since he saw me."

Dean had noticed Sam's waning energy but he wanted to curse his brother for hiding everything so effectively.

"I just wanted to talk to him so badly. I didn't know--I thought he could handle it. But I can't hurt him. Not like this." She shook her head resolutely. "He's not ready."

Dean sunk down to the bed. He turned his eyes to his brother, who was mumbling something inaudible, and knew how often Sam tried not to talk about Jessica. How many conversations he had avoided, how many topics he had deemed off limits, just to keep her name out of the conversation. There were moments he thought to push Sam, that he knew Sam needed to grieve, but it was always easier to put it off until another day. "He doesn't know how to deal with the fact you're gone. Not really."

"I know." She turned her attention back to Sam, her hand running across Sam's forehead, feathering through his hair. "I'm sorry."

Her voice sounded so broken that sympathy welled up in him. "For what?"

"For doing this to him. I never meant for this."

Dean almost wanted to pounce on her blame, but there was too much guilt, too much love in her voice. "It's not your fault."

She looked half-stricken, half-hopeful.

"It's the demon," Dean continued, letting venom fill his voice. "And that's why we have to hunt him down. That's why we have to kill him."

Jessica licked her lips, nodding. "Sam can't see me again. I can't show myself to him."

It killed Dean to agree, to keep her from Sam, to keep Sam from her. He didn't know if he even had the right to make this decision for his brother. But he couldn't bear to see Sam self-destruct, couldn't stand to see his health decline. He swallowed, forcing himself to say the words that would keep her from Sam. "I know."

They lapsed again into silence, both drawn to Sam, bound to him. Sam slept on, obliviously, his fever tormenting him as much as the nightmares usually did. From time to time, Sam would whimper, but he could not buck the fever's hold on him. Dean had no way to assuage the fire inside of him, but offered what he could, pacing back and forth while he waited for a change.

Still, Jessica did not move. She kept her eyes on Sam with a reverence and determination Dean could not quite place. It was as if she willed Sam to keep fighting, willed the fever to go away by the sheer steadiness of her presence.

He hated watching her. He hated the longing in her eyes, the love that was written so clearly on her features. She loved his brother. That was his job, and she had shared it, still shared, might forever share it.

Glancing back at his brother, Dean couldn't exactly blame her. He had always known Sam was special. He'd taken charge of that at a young age, trying to protect it, shelter it. He hated to think about how many times he'd failed.

But he was Sam's brother. Love came with the territory. Jessica was a stranger. She knew nothing of Sam's past, of his life as a hunter. She couldn't know everything he was capable of--both good and bad. He could not fathom what she had seen in him that bound her to him still.

"Why did you fall in love with Sam?"

Her eyes didn't leave Sam's face. "His loyalty," she replied, as though she'd been expecting the question all along. "The minute I opened up to him, the moment I loved him, he loved back without reserve."

Dean didn't know why he was so surprised, why her answer took him totally off-guard, but he could find no response. Sam had never been the loyal son--Sam had been the one who questioned, the one who pushed, the one who didn't follow orders.

Why would Sam be loyal to her, a girl he barely knew, and rebel against those who had cared for him his entire life?

The minute his mind ventured the question, the answer came with resounding clarity.

She had loved him openly, and openness as never something that epitomized the Winchesters. Briefly, he wondered just how much would have been different if it had.

He swallowed hard, moving back to Sam's bedside. Truth was too difficult, too dangerously condeming. Instead he merely refolded the washcloth on Sam's forehead, waiting and hoping.

Hours passed. Dean had tried sitting, standing, even laying. But as the morning approached, he found himself pacing again.

He hated waiting. He hated not knowing. He hated not being in control. The loss of power made him restless. He needed some kind of distraction, something to keep himself from running his mind ragged over what he should have done different, what might come

The what-if's were haunting. More haunting than Jessica.

Jessica had not moved all night. Though she could not move the washcloth on Sam's head, Dean knew her touch was cool and soothing.

Her actions seem borne more of devotion than haunting. They were so practiced, so gentle, so pure. He suddenly thought of her the night she died, waiting for Sam to get back, milling around the empty apartment, anxious for Sam's return, never knowing just what tragedy lay ahead of her.

He wondered if she understood it yet, after everything.

Dean shook his head, clearing the thoughts. The silence was overwhelming; conversation seemed easier. "That night," Dean said, "when I came to get Sam at Stanford. What were you thinking?"

"That I was finally going to figure out just what Sam was hiding."

Dean cocked his head.

"Sam was very evasive about his family." She looked briefly at Dean, a shadow of a smile on her lips. "He talked more about you than anything else, though. He told me stories about pranks you used to pull, mischief you got into. He said that you were the one thing that kept him grounded his entire life, the one thing he had counted on more than life itself. He never said it, but leaving you was the hardest thing he ever did. He always felt guilty for walking out on you."

Guilt tickled the back of Dean's mind. He couldn't deny that resentment hadn't filled him in the time Sam had been gone. He could still remember seeing Sam leave, seeing Sam walk out, and even if it hadn't been because of him, Sam still left him behind with the rest of it.

But the separation had not been easy on Sam either. He had always known that on some level, but his wounded pride had never let him admit it. But hearing it from her—it was something he couldn't deny.

"Why did he come with me?"

She looked surprised. "Don't you know?"

"He loved you, he promised to be with you. So why did he come that night?"

She smiled. "You really don't know, do you?"

He looked at her, begging for an answer.

"He went with you, Dean, because you asked." She paused, as if considering saying something more, but then just repeated, "You asked."

Dean felt an unfamiliar lump in his throat as he looked back at Sam. Too many thoughts were running through his mind, too many emotions to settle on just one. He reached out a hand to his brother, laying it gently against his cheek. I asked.

Eventually, sunlight broke the darkness, creeping around the closed window shades.

Dean was exhausted. He hadn't slept all night, and the worry was wearing on him. All he wanted was to sleep, but he would never be able to until he was sure Sam was getting the rest he needed too.

It was Jessica who broke the silence next.

"Why did the demon kill me?"

The question was so simple but it sliced through all of Dean's facades and defenses. "What?"

Jessica's eyes were on him, mercilessly. "Why did the demon kill me?"

She had asked similar questions before, all slightly different, but all wanting to know the same thing. Dean's mouth opened for his automated reply.

"Tell me the truth, Dean. What haven't you told me?"

He didn't know why he was still lying to her, still holding back. After everything, after all she'd told him, after all she'd meant to Sam, she deserved to know. Something had changed over the night, something between them he couldn't identify and couldn't explain.

But the words were so hard to say. "The demon—it killed our mother. It killed her just like it killed you, on the ceiling above Sam's crib."

"Is that why you hunt?"

Dean bristled, feeling himself reverting back to his father's soldier, feeling the words so familiar in his mouth before he spoke them. "It doesn't deserve to live. Not after what it did to us. Now that we know what's out there, we need to help them. Help as many people as we can. To make sure that what happened to us, doesn't happen to anyone else."

She was quiet for a moment, looking pensively back at Sam. "That's noble," she said finally. "Very noble."

Dean waited, but she didn't continue. He eyed her suspiciously. "Yeah. It's just what we do."

"I have to wonder, though," she said. "If it's worth it."

"What kind of question is that?"

"The hunt won't bring me back. It won't bring your mother back. You don't hunt for us, and I don't think you really hunt for them."

"How would you have any idea—"

"Is it worth it," she interrupted, letting her eyes turn back to Dean. "If one of you dies. If you die. If Sam dies. Is it still worth it then?"

Dean clenched his jaw tightly. "It's not going to happen," he said, his voice confident, sure. "I won't let that happen."

Her smile was sympathetic. "And you think you get a choice?"

His first instinct was to contradict her, but her position was unbeatable. He had had no choice in saving her. He had had no choice in saving his mother. He didn't like to think about that, didn't like to face his own helplessness, the fact that he was just as subjected to fate as the rest of the world.

"Just don't forget what matters, Dean," she told him, her voice airier than usual, and when he looked up again, she was fading. He started to call for her to stay, but then she was gone, lost in the slivers of light piercing the room.

Then he heard a noise, a small sound, somewhere between a moan and whimper.

"Sam." Dean was on his feet, pulling the blankets down to get a look at Sam's face.

Sam was blinking blearily, his head rolling slightly as he tried to rouse himself.

Dean's hand pushed back Sam's too-long bangs, and a smile lit his features. He didn't need the thermometer to know that Sam's fever had broken.

He couldn't contain his grin. "Hey, little brother. You awake?"

Sam swallowed dryly, his breath coming in soft wheezes over his lips. "Dean?"

"Yeah, Sammy. I'm here," Dean assured him.

Sam would never really remember that night—only the heat and the gentle touch on his brow. Dean would never tell him that the touch he remembered was probably Jessica's, that he was sure of that, because when Sam slept the whole next day, there was a smile on his face that Dean had never seen before.

OOOOOOOOO

Jessica always came at night. And she always came when Sam was sleeping. He had thought about that a little—pondering the reasons why. Nothing quite made sense, not yet anyway, but the pattern was still in place.

Patterns were made to be broken.

She was the last thing on his mind when it happened. The hunt had gotten dicey, and they'd barely escaped alive. Sam was banged up, but intact, and this time it was Dean trying to stem the flow of blood from his side.

Back in the motel, Sam was stitching him up, a hint of worry still on his features as he carefully closed up the cut on Dean's side. He felt lightheaded and hot, which was unnerving, but not as unnerving as the way Sam's hands shook as he pulled the thread taut against his skin.

"Sammy, you doin' okay there?"

He blinked, glancing uncertainly at his brother. "Of course. I'm not the one with a six-inch gash in my side."

"You look pale," he said, noting also the sheen of perspiration on his brother's forehead.

"I'm fine." Sam's voice was flat, devoid of expression.

Dean let it slide like most things and turned his eyes back to the ceiling. That was when he saw her, just behind Sam's shoulder.

If she hadn't been popping up so frequently, the vision of her might have made him panic, but as it was, she was looking down at him with concern and empathy.

"Okay. All done," Sam said shortly, taping a bandage to his torso.

Dean looked down and fondled Sam's handiwork. "Good work, little brother."

Sam wasn't ready to accept praise, though. "I shouldn't have let you get caught by that thing in the first place. I didn't watch your back like I should have."

"It got the jump on both of us, bro. Nothing you could have done."

Sam looked unconvinced. "You should get some sleep. I'm going go run out and get some more bandages and disinfectant. We're almost out, and I'll need to change your bandage in the morning."

"No big deal," Dean replied, trying not to wince as he sat up.

Sam's hands were reaching to him without hesitation.

Dean pushed them away. "Dude, I'm not an invalid."

"I just don't want you to overdo it," Sam said quickly. Then he pulled away, blushing. "I mean, I don't want to redo the stitches."

"Right. Whatever," Dean said, settling back against the headboard.

"Okay," Sam said, hands on his knees. "Anything else you need?"

"Nope. I'm good."

Sam looked like he wanted to say something, to do something, but the moment passed. With a sigh, he pushed himself up, grabbing the keys off the nightstand. "Okay. Well, I shouldn't be long. I'll have my cell on if you need something."

"I think I can manage without you for a few minutes, Sammy."

Sam didn't respond.

He watched Sam leave, saw the way his shoulders seemed to slump more than he remembered. There was a weariness inside of Sam, a tiredness that was so pervasive, that Dean wondered how Sam ever managed to hide it. His kid brother was too young to look that old, to act that old.

"He needs you."

Dean let a small smile cross his face, his gaze still on the door where Sam had exited. "Not like I need him."

"You really don't know, do you?"

Dean looked at her quizzically. "Know what?"

"If anything happened to you, Dean, he'd fall apart."

Scoffing, Dean shook his head. "Sam has never needed anyone but himself."

Her eyes were piercing. "Everything good in him comes from you. And he knows that. He may never say it, but he knows it. And now, after everything, you're the only one he has left."

Dean had always been so worried about losing Sam that he never considered how Sam felt about possibly losing him. That just wasn't the way this family was structured. Dean was the protector, Sam was the one protected.

"You hold him together. You have to know that."

Dean didn't get a chance to reply when Sam came bursting back through the door. "I found some in the car. Didn't know we had any extra. I'll still have to stock up in the morning, but this should get us through the night."

Dean just nodded as Sam tossed the extra supplies on the dresser. His brother then paced nervously to the bed, settling on the edge. "You feeling okay?"

"Just peachy."

Sam placed a worried hand on his forehead. "You're a little warm."

Dean pulled away. "It's friggin' sauna in here. You're sweating yourself."

Sam attempted to smile, but failed. He studied his older brother for a moment longer. "I thought I'd lost you."

Dean's stomach twisted, but forced himself to laugh. "You're not getting rid of me that easily, Sammy, so don't you worry about it."

There was a flash of dimple, but Sam's eyes still looked distant. He'd never realized how young Sam looked when he was scared and how well Sam could hide his fear. Sam hid a lot of things. Dean had a flair for hustling and scamming, but Sam had mastered a subtler form of subterfuge.

In that moment, Dean studied Sam with Jessica's eyes, and realized what she'd been trying to show him. Sam was on the cusp of self-destruction. He'd lost so much; to lose more would be impossible to survive.

"I'm okay, Sam."

Sam looked startled, caught in Dean's gaze. Slowly something registered and he laughed nervously. "Yeah. I know. You've still got, what, four lives left?"

"At least five."

Sam smiled slightly, letting himself collapse back onto his own bed, picking up the remote and flipping on the TV. Dean eyed Sam a minute more, then looked around. Jessica had disappeared again, though he wasn't sure when it had happened. She seemed to always be there, but not quite, just like in Sam's memories.

With a sigh, he let himself relax against the pillows, zoning out to the sound of the TV.

OOOOOOOOO

Usually Jessica didn't show up when he was hunting. In fact, he could not remember a time when she had. So when she appeared on the deck of the small skiff during their hunt for a selkie, Dean was so shocked he nearly fell right off the edge.

He didn't, though—didn't have time to. In the moment of his stupefied inaction, the selkie attacked.

They had barely gotten to the middle of the lake--and neither of them were prepared, Jessica's appearance or not. Dean scrambled, trying to find some way to fight back. But before Dean could do anything, it had taken Sam underwater without giving him so much as a chance to yell.

Dean tripped toward the edge of the boat, watching the ripples tremble across the lake's surface. He waited, too stunned to move, waiting for Sam to resurface.

But the water began to still and Dean could see no trace of his baby brother. His heart thudded painfully against his ribcage and he could barely breathe. His eyes searched frantically.

He felt her hovering behind him. He turned to her, eyes pleading. "Jessica. Where is he?"

"He's so close to me," she breathed, closing her eyes. "I can feel him."

Dean shook his head. "No. Jessica, you can't take him. You can't have him. Not yet."

"I've forgotten how much I missed him..."

"Jessica, no! Help me save him!"

She opened her eyes and looked at him. She sighed, and a sad smile smoothed across her face before she disappeared.

"Jessica? Jessica! Where is he?"

He spun around, searching for a sign, for something, anything to go off of, but the night was silent and the water had fallen deathly still.

Giving up on her help, he kicked his boots off, flinging them to the bottom of the small boat. Without hesitating, he dove overboard, swimming out in the approximate direction he had last seen Sam.

He sucked in a deep breath and dove under, feeling desperately as he searched. He came up when his lungs burned before taking another ragged breath and going under again. And again.

His vision wavered and he treaded water as he realized that he was almost out of time.

Then he saw her again, hovering on the water to his left. Without questioning, Dean swam to her.

She was gone when he got there, and Dean dove beneath the surface again. Almost immediately, his groping hands hit something solid. He pulled, catching his brother's wrist in his hand. Wrapping his arms around his brother, he kicked toward the surface.

He broke the surface with a gasping breath, too aware that Sam did not stir in his arms. The swim back was long and arduous, Sam a dead weight in his arms. But the colorless hue of his brother's face in the moonlight kept him moving and he nearly cried when his feet found ground.

Panting, he stumbled ashore, dragging Sam with him. They collapsed together to the ground and Dean did not pause as he moved his head to his brother's chest. He had not expected to find a heartbeat, but the absence of life in his brother was numbing.

"Not yet, Sammy," he panted. He leaned in, tilting Sam's head to offer two breaths.

He worked on autopilot, breathing, compressing, hoping, praying, begging. His vision blurred, his fingers felt numb. It does not end like this, it does not end like this, it can't end like this.

He was crying now, sobbing openly, barely able to maintain the meaningful motions of CPR.

Time seemed to stand still, though Dean knew it was slipping by far too quickly. He was running out of time.

"Come on, Sammy," he screamed as he went for another set of compressions.

But Sam's face was tinged with blue and there was no response. No. Sammy, please.

It was then that he saw her, standing over them both.

"He's so close to me," she said again. And Dean could feel her longing, sense her desire, exuding from her palpably.

"Please," he said, breathless and desperate. "Don't let him die." I need him.

A curious looked played across her features.

Her inaction stunned him and he looked down again, terror and denial gripping him. He looked back up at her. His pride would not keep him from begging for his brother's life. "Will you save him?"

With that, she knelt across from Dean and placed a gentle hand on Sam's forehead. She leaned down, her hair flowing around Sam's limp body, and kissed him.

She leaned back, that same forlorn smile on her face, before she disappeared. He tried to see where she went, almost called for her to come back, when he heard a choking gurgling below him.

"Sam?"

Sam didn't reply, merely coughed, spewing lake water. Dean pulled him up, wrapped his arms around Sam's chest, relishing the heaving of his brother's ribcage as he gasped for air.

"Just breathe, Sammy. Okay? Breathe."

Sam made no verbal response, but continued to struggle for air, and Dean could feel Sam's heart beating beneath his hands.

He choked back a sob as he held his brother, letting the rhtyhm of Sam's heart soothe the pounding of his own. This had been close--too close.

He whispered a quiet thank-you to Jess. He knew he hadn't saved Sam on his own--not this time. She had given him back his brother; she had given up her chance to be with him again. Had the tables been turned, he was not sure that was a sacrifice he could have made.

OOOOOOOOO

Dean had seen Jessica more times than he could count, but he still hadn't figured it out. Jessica watched Sam, protected him, divulged the secrets of Sam's life away from him, but Dean still didn't understand why she was here. He knew ghosts haunted places and sometime people, lingering among the living, unable to leave. He rarely heard of happy hauntings, didn't know many examples of peaceful ghosts—usually just the violent ones, ones who died before their time and unjustly, sticking with their killers to make what was wrong right.

He couldn't have blamed Jessica for being a malevolent spirit. He wouldn't have been surprised if reports turned up of suspicious fires in an apartment back in Stanford. But she remained almost at peace, bound to Sam, maybe even to him, for reasons he still didn't fully understand.

She didn't come every night, and sometimes went several days without making an appearance. Then a week lapsed without her presence, and when Dean finally realized how long it'd been, his stomach churned uneasily. As he lay awake at night, wondering where she was, he came to understand what bothered him so much.

He missed her. He missed seeing her, he craved her company. There was something about her--something more than just being Sam's girlfriend, something more than just being another lost soul in the war. There was just something about her. And there were so many questions, so many things he needed to ask her. But the week turned into two, and he had almost convinced himself she'd finally moved on.

It was just past midnight when he felt her coming, the smallest shift in the temperature, just before she appeared. These were signs of any spirit, but over the months, he'd noticed the nuances that were specifically hers. He knew it was her when the temperature dropped, not enough to be cold, but just to be cool, like a breeze on a humid day. And there was always a murmur, like leaves rustling, before her glow filled the room.

He was up in his bed by the time she had fully materialized. Part of him was relieved, but another part felt the urgency, knew that there time was shortening. There were some things he still needed to know. "Why are you here?"

She shrugged, seemingly unaffected by his abruptness. "You're the supernatural expert. You tell me."

"Most ghosts haunt for revenge—to get back at those who wronged them."

She just looked at him. "Do you think I blame Sam for what happened?"

"Are you giving him the dreams?"

She shook her head. "You know he had them for days before I died. You told me yourself--he's always had nightmares. I would take them away from him if I could."

"Then I don't get it. Why haunt him? Why haven't you crossed over or whatever? You were burned beyond recognition, there was nothing—"

Dean stopped as she cocked her head at him curiously.

He swallowed hard, suddenly feeling awkward. He hated how she could communicate so much without saying anything. "I don't understand."

"I don't understand it either, Dean," she said. "But I'm here for a reason. I've figured that much out. There's something I have to do."

"But why me? Why come to me?"

"Dean, I've told you before, I don't know. I can't control it. I'm just here. For better or for worse. I'm here."

"But it doesn't make any sense!" he said, his frustration surging to the surface. His voice hitched above a whisper, shattering the quiet. He glanced guiltily toward Sam, who was curled up on his bed. He waited, making sure Sam was still asleep, before continued in a softer voice. "I never even knew you, so why are you haunting me?"

She sighed, chewing on her lip. "As much as I loved Sam, he was never complete with me. There was always something missing, something inside of him that my love could never fill. That part of him was you, Dean, he didn't exist without you.

"Sometimes I wanted to resent that, wanted to complain because I didn't have all of him, because he would never tell me why the one person he really needed was the one person he refused to call. But I loved Sam, loved him enough to stay with him while he figured it out."

There was a pause.

"I never got that chance. I think that's why I'm here."

She'd offered so much, but Dean needed more. He'd spent his life looking for answers, and she was the first person who seemed like she could give him any. "So why talk to me?"

"You're the missing link, Dean. The one thing that can save Sam from himself. You always have been. There's no one else I could get to help Sam except you."

"But save Sam from what?"

She sighed. "You have so many questions, Dean, that you're not listening. You've just got to trust me on this one."

There was a murmur and a shifting, and they both turned, stricken, as Sam turned in his bed. But he didn't wake, merely muttered something unintelligible before drifting back to sleep.

Dean's jaw was set tight and he refused to look at her.

"Sometimes when we save someone else, we save ourselves, Dean," she said, her voice dropping to that pitch he figured only ghosts could achieve. "Don't forget that."

Dean had no response, no comeback. Her honesty was paralyzing. All he could do was look at her, studying her vibrant blue eyes, and, for a moment, saw her as a person, a woman—not the ghost of the person she was. He could feel her presence, hear her voice, and wished he had known her before.

She seemed to sense her power, Dean's acquiescence. "Dean, you have to tell me now. Why did I die?"

Dean opened his mouth to protest, to beg a reprieve, but she didn't let him.

"You know, Dean. You've known all along. Why did I die?"

He could no longer deny her anything. Not now, not ever. Not after everything she'd given him. "You died because of Sam," he finally said, admitting what he wouldn't tell Sam, what he wouldn't let himself think. "You died because something is after us, after him, and you loved him."

"You've never said that before. You tell him it's not his fault. That this isn't about him. You lie to him. Don't you?"

"Of course I lie to him," Dean said quickly. "I'd lie to him every day if that meant I could spare him from all this."

"You can't though."

Dean's eyes flashed as he looked back up to her.

Her face remained impassive. She had known all along. "You can't spare him from any of this. It's already happening to him. You need to help him through it, not pretend like it didn't happen."

"I…I don't know how. I don't know how to save him when it comes to this."

"You will."

She said it so simply, so purely, that Dean wanted to believe her, hoped to believe her.

"Jessica," he said, his voice pleading, his eyes beseeching. "If you can help me do this, then you've got to. I mean, if you can help save him—I mean, please."

And her mouth widened to a smile, and it was only a shade less than the one he had first seen on her at Stanford. And he remember her, then, alive and happy, alive and hopeful, alive and at his brother's side. "That's why I'm here," she told him. "And that's why I died. I didn't die because of Sam. I died for Sam. I died so neither of you would have to."

OOOOOOOOO

It had been a year since Dean had last seen Jessica alive. It was already a date they would never forget, a memorial emblazoned in their minds 23 years ago when their mother died. And they had missed their mother, mourned her, commemorated her as best they could, but it was nothing like this year.

As the date approached, Dean felt the change in Sam. He could feel his brother's abrupt withdrawal, a shaded brokenness he tried to hide in silence.

He had never told Sam about Jessica, that he had seen her countless nights while his baby brother slept, and sometimes, when Sam seemed to be a mess of rawness waiting to implode, he felt guilty, as though he should let Sam in on their midnight rendezvous.

But he didn't know how. Nothing sounded right.

Hey, Sam, your girlfriend visits me at night.

He could see the look of horror on Sam's face before he could backpedal, Not like that, Sammy.

But most of all, he knew that when the shock wore off and the anger faded, Sam would blame himself that she was still here, feel responsible that she wasn't at peace. Jessica believed there was a reason for her presence, and until he knew what it was, he figured it was best that Sam didn't know.

They hadn't had to talk about where they'd go. They were between gigs, and the last one had been a haunted lighthouse on the Oregon coast. Dean had taken them south without a word, retracing their steps back to the night Jessica died.

Such silent trips of homage were not foreign to them. Growing up, they had spent numerous anniversaries by their mother's grave, watching their father's face threaten to crumble, before hardening again, more stony than before.

But now there were two. And while both losses hurt, one was fresher.

It wasn't even a question. Sam needed this. Hell, Dean needed it.

The brothers drove in silence, and Dean knew where Sam's thoughts were, but doubted that Sam had any idea where his were. It had been a year since she'd been alive, but, to Dean, she seemed more vivid than she ever had before. A year since he had only resented her, distrusted her, wished that she didn't exist—and his heart tore at that.

A year ago he hadn't understood. He had known that Sam loved her, but he had never fathomed just how deeply, how passionately, how importantly. But talking to her, seeing her, knowing her--he caught a glimpse of just how much Sam had lost, and it was enough to make him immobile with grief.

A year ago he only wanted his brother back. Now he had him, but the price had been great.

Sam hadn't said a word all day, hadn't as much as looked at him. He looked paler than usual, and paled even more when Dean parked the Impala outside the cemetery.

"Do you want me to come with you?"

Sam almost seemed startled by his voice, and he jittered nervously in the passenger's seat. "No," he said haltingly. "That's okay. I'll go alone."

Dean nodded. "Okay. I'll be here."

Sam got out of the car, and Dean watched him walk stiffly and slowly through the graveyard.

"Go to him, Dean."

He didn't even jump at her voice. "He said he wanted to be alone."

"He needs you. He needs you more than you'll ever know."

"What will I say to him?"

"Nothing."

"Then what will I do?"

She smiled. "Hold him."

Dean almost said he didn't know how to do that, that Winchester men didn't do that kind of thing, but he saw the look on Jessica's face and glanced out at his brother again. Sam stood before the tombstone and Dean could see his head hanging and his shoulders stooped.

"Dean." Her voice was strong, sure. Real. "You know what to do."

And, suddenly, he did.

OOOOOOOOO

The last time he saw Jessica was when he was standing by her grave. Sam was shaking by the time he had reached his side, and had flinched when Dean placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Sammy."

Sam tried to sniffle discretely, wiping his nose in embarrassment. "I thought you were staying in the car."

"Sam, it's okay."

Sam looked away desperately, his jaw clenched. "She never should have died. I should have saved her. I had the dreams, I knew what was out there in the dark, but I never told her. I never told her and she's dead."

"It wasn't your fault, Sammy."

"It doesn't matter. She's still dead. And she'll never--I mean--I should have saved her."

Dean rubbed his hand on Sam's back, trying to smooth away the tension in his shoulders. "She understood. Trust me, she understood, and she never blamed you."

Sam was too grieved to think about how Dean knew any of this, too lost to question the comfort. He let out a strangled sob before finally looking at his brother. "I miss her, Dean."

Dean could see Sam's resolve crumbling, could feel the tremors as they threaten to overtake his younger brother. "I know you do, Sammy," he said, pulling Sam into him and folding him into his arms. "I know you do."

Sam stiffened momentarily, stunned by the contact, but as he felt Dean's steadiness, he let himself melt into his brother's arms. The tears came violently and the sobs came hard as he buried his head into his brother's shoulder.

Dean didn't know how long they stood there on the manicured lawn, but it didn't matter. As he held his brother, stroking his hair and whispering soft words of love and encouragement, he let his eyes peruse her tombstone.

Jessica Lee Moore.

He had never really known her, not while she was alive, but he did now. She had been there when his brother needed her. She had given his brother the one thing he had always wanted and the one thing Dean had never figured out how to show to him: unconditional love and acceptance, displayed day in and day out, verbalized and made real.

The last time he saw Jessica, she was standing on the other side of Sam in front of her own tombstone. She was smiling, the truest smile he had seen from her since the first time he had seen her coming out of Sam's apartment all those years ago. She let a ghostly hand linger on Sam's back, so light Sam didn't acknowledge it. Then she looked up at Dean. "Thank you."

He looked at her, curiously, uncertainly.

"For making him whole."

For a moment, he didn't understand, didn't know what she meant.

Before he could ask the question, before he could search for more, she was gone, dissipated in the fading sunlight.

Dean wasn't sure how he knew, but he knew she was gone for good that time, that she would never come back. He knew that when Sam's tears dried up, they would walk away from this together, not leaving it behind, but moving on.