Our Beginnings Never Know Our Ends
Summary: Dean wasn't sure when it all started up again—somewhere between Kentucky and Maryland, maybe—but when Sam awoke screaming her name, he knew they had a problem.
A/N: This one is for JJ on her birthday. I hope it's somewhere near what you were thinking when you requested it :) Much thanks to sendintheclowns and pointofview for their input and encouragement. I needed the other set of eyes when mine were weary. And ultimately thanks to Gem. I know there were issues with this piece and I so appreciate your honesty. You are my beta and you always will be, but more importantly, you really are my friend.
Disclaimer: I doubt I could even make a good case for owning my own mind, so the boys are definitely beyond me.
Our Beginnings Never Know Our Ends
Dean always felt like he should have known, like he should have seen it coming, and on some levels, he supposed he had. But the Winchesters were not the type to dwell in the past or to worry themselves over what the future held. Because it was all the hunt, one evil thing after another, until they finally found the lead that took them to the Demon and the end of all of it.
They had a goal, a purpose, a journey; nothing else really mattered.
The dreams had always been something they'd dealt with, something Dean had worried about, because they were a connection to the Demon, another sign that something was after his baby brother, something that Dean couldn't control.
More than that, he hated what they did to his brother. He hated that they foretold a future, that they made Sam feel culpable for things he couldn't always control, that he shouldn't have to always control.
He hated that they tormented Sam. That they robbed him of his peace of mind.
There had been moments when Dean hadn't thought Sam would get over them, that Sam would ever get over Jessica.
But the dreams had dwindled, and Sam had rallied, and Dean dared to hope that maybe it would be okay again.
The death of their father hadn't helped, but it was Sam who had been strong then, holding them both together with an unexpected solidity that Dean had never seen but had come to always rely on.
The demon was still out there, and the tension to find it seemed to mount with every passing month. But Sam was with him and Sam seemed fine.
So Dean couldn't think of any reason for the dreams to start again. Sure, they had cropped up from time to time. Dean could always tell; there were nights when he woke to find Sam crouched low over the laptop, nursing a cup of coffee in the dim fluorescent lights from outside.
Those were fewer and further between, though, and Sam had been pretty good at not letting them bother him.
Until now. After nearly three years and countless miles, for no reason either of them could discern, they were back. And they were back with a vengeance.
Dean wasn't sure when it all started up again—somewhere between Kentucky and Maryland, maybe—but when Sam awoke screaming her name, he knew they had a problem.
It wasn't exactly a new problem; it had cropped up from time to time in the three years since her death, but Dean had never really found a way to deal with it in the first place, and he certainly didn't have any more of a clue now.
Because Dean never dreamed.
Well, he never dreamed like Sam. Dean hardly ever remembered his dreams, except for vague surreal snippets. Girls and bars, guns and knives, ghosts and killing. His dreams never made sense and they certainly didn't mean anything except maybe that Dean had had nachos a little too late that night.
So it was hard to understand why Sam's dreams made him thrash in bed, why they ripped him from his sleep with such ferocity that Sam refused to drift back off afterwards.
Unlike Dean, Sam dreamed in HD, his dreams abnormally vivid and frighteningly tangible. Dean didn't need to ask to see that.
But Sam didn't like to talk about them, and Dean didn't really like to talk about anything. Besides, Sam was pretty good about telling Dean the important things, the life-and-death things, and Dean figured that everything else would fade away as the insubstantial mess that it was.
Sam was usually quiet with his dreams, a skill born from many painful nights of practice. But now, he woke with a scream garbled in his throat, and Dean could never stop himself from waking with his fingers curled around the knife under his pillow.
When it happened for the fifth night in a row, Dean sat up, looked at Sam through the hazy darkness, and he ventured the question. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Sam shook his head, his jaw muscles tight.
Sam didn't reply, didn't blink, barely even breathed. A tight minute passed before he finally said, "Go back to bed, Dean."
He sighed and flopped back onto his own bed. "Someday," he said, closing his eyes, feeling the familiar mantra come to his lips. "Someday, we have to talk about this."
Sam didn't acknowledge him—not even a nod—and Dean drifted back to sleep while his brother stared blankly into the darkness.
Dean was shoveling eggs into his mouth, and Sam was nursing his second cup of coffee, poking at the pile of pancakes on his plate.
The eggs had been unusually good--not too runny, not too congealed, and there was a balance of salt and pepper and some spice Dean couldn't identify that made them just right.
He'd been so enthralled in his eggs, that he didn't noticed Sam until the kid's face hit the plate.
Dean's eyes widened and he reached out a hand without thinking to shake his brother.
Much to his relief, Sam roused easily, blinking more than a little blearily at him. Sam mumbled something incoherent and Dean cocked his eyebrow, glancing around the diner in embarrassment.
"You okay?" he asked.
Sam's eyelids were barely half way up and his jaw was slack. Syrup clung to his face and dripped toward his chin.
For a minute Dean wished he had a camera. "Man, you are out of it," he said with a grin.
Sam just stared at him, still uncomprehending.
Dean resisted the urge to laugh, then discreetly moved out of the booth and shifted in next to Sam. Feeling like they'd regressed about twenty years, Dean dabbed a napkin in his glass of water and cleaned off Sam's face. Even that couldn't rouse Sam from his stupor.
Dean sighed, looking longingly at his eggs. But brothers before breakfast, he supposed, as he scooted out of his seat. He left a 20 on the table before guiding Sam out of the booth and out the door.
By the time they reached the car, Sam was more or less asleep, head rolling against Dean's shoulder, while his feet tripped and stumbled. He was malleable as Dean positioned him in the seat, so out of it, he was even drooling.
He could be a good brother and still gain a little ammunition, Dean thought with a grin.
They pulled out of the parking spot five minutes later, Sam zonked on the seat, face still tacky but cleaner, and Dean's phone was a few pictures fuller. Dean couldn't control his glee.
Two weeks later, it wasn't funny anymore.
Every moment of solace Sam found in unawareness seemed thwarted by some recurring nightmare that he refused to talk about.
That was why he ran smack into the door while making a bathroom run late one night and sported a black eye for days afterward.
That was why his hand slipped while shaving and he'd needed two stitches to stop the bleeding.
That was why Sam had missed the step down from the motel room, tripped over the doorway and had to have his wrist put in a cast. Again.
That was why the whetstone had jarred suddenly while Sam was sharpening, resulting in a clean slice that nearly took of Sam's right pointer finger.
Considering how little Sam slept anymore, it wasn't exactly a surprise. Someone living on only three hours of sleep a day can only function so well.
But Dean looked at his brother's bruised eye, the nick on the bottom of his chin, the casted wrist, and the bandaged hand, and wondered if this was a little more than bad luck.
There was never much to do in rundown motel rooms, but Dean had spent a lifetime finding ways to keep himself entertained.
There was always the phone book and prank calls. And when he felt industrious, there were always weapons to keep in order. And there was always a TV.
No matter how dingy the motel, there was a TV, and that was truly the saving grace.
It was nearly midnight and Sam was curled on his side, finally asleep after avoiding it for days, face buried in his pillow, and Dean was watching an infomercial on a food processor. The lights were off and the glow of the TV was the only illumination in the room.
He was fully immersed, just as the smiling host was demonstration the ease in which it processed a piece of fruit when the TV flickered.
When it cleared, the host was still smiling, but now over the finished product.
It flickered again, this time for longer.
The flickering did not go away.
With a sigh, Dean switched the TV off. "We've got to stay in better rooms," he muttered, pulling the blankets higher over him with a shiver, as he rolled onto his side to go to sleep.
He would always remember that, know that as the time he should have known, beyond anything else, he should have known. A lifetime of training and he had missed the most basic signs.
Dean woke with a start. His eyes blinked rapidly as his heart pounded in his ears. His fingers were curled around the hilt of the knife under his pillow.
Dean's heart slowed marginally and he sat up.
He wasn't exactly surprised to find Sam in the same position. His kid brother was straight as a rod, upright in bed, still half covered by the blankets.
But his eyes were wide and fixed and Sam looked as white as the sheets he was under.
There was no response.
Dean's throat tightened and his heart rate increased again. He still gripped the knife in his hand and pushed his legs over the edge of the bed. "Sam?"
Sam didn't look at him, didn't even move.
Dean's felt his own breathing catch in his throat. Catatonia was a new one. "Say something, little brother."
A shiver shook Sam and he finally blinked and swallowed hard. He let out a sobbing breath and his body relaxed back against the headboard. "Dean."
Relinquishing his hold on his knife, Dean moved gently to Sam's bed, perching carefully on the side. "You okay?"
Sam trembled visibly, and he seemed to retreat into himself, his eyes shadowed by his too-long bangs.
Dean's stomach flipped uneasily. Sam was terrified. "What's wrong?"
Finally Sam looked up at him through the wisps of hair. Shades of horror and terror washed through Sam's eyes before they hollowed. "Nothing."
It was too obvious a lie. "Sam--"
"A nightmare," Sam said quickly. "Just a nightmare."
Dean wanted to push him further, push Sam to finally tell him something, because this was much more than a nightmare and they both knew it. But Sam had a look Dean had seen many times before--sweaty, pale-faced blankness, and Dean knew that Sam himself probably didn't know what was going on, so nothing would coax the truth out of the vacant expression in Sam's eyes.
Dean lingered at his bedside a moment longer, but when Sam rolled away from him, curled once again around his pillow, he gave up and made his way back to his own bed. Sleep came more quickly for Sam this time than for Dean. He wanted to question Sam further, doubted his brother's too-quick response. But the bed was warm and soft and Sam had always told him when things were important. He lay back and let himself be drawn into sleep.
Dean prodded, but Sam refused to talk. And though Sam tried to hide it, Dean suspected that his little brother still wasn't sleeping.
Some days, Dean thought they could handle this; they could ignore this like the rest of their problems and it would go away on its own.
Other days, Dean didn't have that option.
They were at a library, getting books off the shelf when Sam simply crumpled and went down, the book he had been reaching for falling hard on top of him.
Dean scrambled, fumbling his own books, trying to catch Sam, who seemed to hit everything on his way down.
Sam was bleeding from where his head had clipped the lower shelves and Dean could only imagine the book-shaped bruise that Sam would sport on his chest from the hardbound annals that had collapsed on top of him.
Quietly, Dean tried to rouse his brother, knowing that if Sam didn't walk out of there on his own, then there would be no chance the maternal librarian would let Dean carry Sam out, and Dean did not want to make things more complicated by a hospital visit.
"Sam," he whispered forcefully, kneeling by his brother's side. "Sammy."
Sam didn't even flinch.
Dean glared. "Now is not the time or place, little brother."
It took some time and more work than Dean would have liked, but thankfully the library was large and empty, and eventually Dean had Sam propped against the shelves, blinking lethargically up at him.
"'m tired," Sam said, slurred and soft.
"It's called sleep," Dean quipped sharply. "You may want to try it."
Sam shook his head with sudden vehemence, still too tired to be considered truly coherent. "She's there," he said, his words smushed together. "She's always there."
It was cryptic, but suggestive, and Dean felt his heart flutter. The only woman Dean knew to frequent Sam's dreams was Jessica. But it had been nearly three years since her death, and Sam had been nearly free from the dreams of her demise for quite some time. Besides, even in the early days, Sam had been moody and withdrawn, but he hadn't passed out in public places.
Dean glanced around nervously--they could deal with this better in the privacy of a motel room.
He looked back at Sam, whose eyes had drifted shut again.
"This whole nightmare thing is going to have to change," Dean muttered. "And you better believe after you've slept, we will talk about this."
It was clear that Sam didn't really hear him, but Dean was relieved when Sam came to enough to stand mostly on his own. He took Sam's face in his hand and turned his brother's head to look at him while stringing his arm around Sam's waist.
"You're going to have to be awake here," Dean instructed. "Just for a minute."
"I don't want to sleep, Dean," Sam said, his voice earnest and his eyes plain.
Dean resisted the urge to glare. "You ready?"
Sam nodded, and they began out, one slow step in front of another.
By the time they reached the entryway, Sam was looking awake if a little bleary, and a slight smile and a roll of his eyes got them passed the librarian without anything more than a concerned stare.
He loaded Sam into the car and made the way back to the motel in resignation, hearing Sam's voice in his head, echoing from a memory. "You're my brother and I'd die for you, but there are some things I have to keep to myself."
It hadn't really been enough then, and it really wasn't enough now, but Dean knew of no way of breaking Sam's silence except through sleep and patience.
Sam took a turn driving through Pennsylvania and put them in a ditch. Dean had been sleeping and had awoken with a headache and an up-close-and-personal view of a cornfield.
Things were blurry for a moment as he blinked the stars away. "Sammy?"
There was no response.
Dean stretched his neck, testing it, groaning as his body ached. "Sam?"
Sam still didn't say anything, and Dean's heart skipped a beat.
Shifting uncomfortably, he finally looked over at his brother.
Sam was sitting upright, and Dean could see blood smearing down his face.
"I'm sorry," Sam apologized. His words tripped over each other. "I thought--I mean--I saw--"
Dean shook his head, motioning for Sam to slow down. "Breathe a minute, Sam. What are you talking about?"
Sam's eyes were round and his face colorless. Sweat dampened his bangs and his hands still gripped the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles were stark white. His mouth trembled as he seemed to look for something to say. "I thought I saw something." His voice was tight, pinched, wrong.
"Something? Like what?"
Sam looked at him, a sudden pleading in his eyes, and in the afternoon sun, Dean could see the uneven size of Sam's pupils.
Dean felt bile rise in the back of his throat but wasn't sure if it was his head injury or Sam's that was making him sick. He smiled, and felt worse when Sam didn't see through it. "Okay," he said slowly. "I'm thinking maybe we need a hospital."
But somehow he doubted the hospital would fix whatever was really wrong with his little brother.
The hospital ran some tests, said Sam had a concussion, and kept them both overnight.
Sam had passed out again on the way there, and when he awoke several hours later he claimed to remember nothing of the accident.
Dean was short with him as he camped out in Sam's hospital room, shooting his kid brother perturbed glances.
Sam smiled nervously. "I'm sorry about the car," he said. Then he laughed uncomfortably. "I guess I should try to sleep more, huh?"
Dean just clenched his jaw, willing himself to stay calm. Because he wasn't upset about the car.
By the time Sam managed to sign out AMA, it was late, and later still when they found a shoddy motel room. The events of the day had worn heavily on both of them, and when Dean ordered Sam to sleep, his kid brother didn't protest.
The TV was on the blink, flickering in and out, but Dean was too tired to really care.
Dean didn't remember falling asleep. But he remembered waking up.
He wasn't sure what sparked it, because he awoke to silence.
Then he saw the glow.
They weren't alone. There, at the edge of Sam's bed, was an iridescent form.
A ghost. A flowing dress. Long hair. A woman.
And Dean stopped breathing.
She was practically unrecognizable. But Dean knew. Just one look at the terror on his kid brother's face, and he knew who this was without a doubt.
She was eerily translucent, wearing a white dress that was singed brown on the edges, with a slash of red across the middle. Her lips were red and full and though her complexion was waxy, she was still beautiful.
Then Dean saw her eyes. Once honest and provocative, they were now clouded with a glint of a flame that sent a chill up Dean's spine.
Dean breathed a curse. This was one ghost he'd hoped never to face. The one that'd be hardest of all to kill.
And she was advancing on Sam.
Dean yelled, but Sam didn't move, just sat there, looking like a deer in the headlights.
Tumbling out of bed, Dean stumbled toward the weapons they'd brought in. He fumbled through them, looking for one that was usable.
Knives, blades, silver bullets--useless, all useless, he needed something, he needed--
Dean tore open the bag, grabbed a handful and ran full speed towards his brother's bed.
She was almost there now, hovering, reaching a hand out toward Sam.
It never got there. Dean flung the fistful of salt at her and she screeched and flickered, disappearing quickly.
"Are you okay?" Dean demanded, his heart pounding as his eyes traversed his brother.
Sam shook and his voice was broken and uncertain, his eyes still transfixed on the empty spot next to his bed. "I think so."
Dean surveyed the room, still tense, waiting for a sign that she was coming back.
Then he looked again at Sam, who had not moved, and decided it wasn't worth the risk. "Come on," he said, going back to gather their weaponry. "We're leaving."
Neither of them spoke as the Impala chased the horizon. Dean drove fast and hard, eyes kept forward, as if they could outrun what they had just seen.
She had disappeared in a flash of rock salt, but Dean could still see her, as if she was standing right in front of them.
Dean shuddered, trying to remember the girl he'd seen at Stanford--long legs, tan skin, blonde curls, Smurfs shift.
The girl his brother had loved.
The girl who had died because of his brother.
Dean forced a breath out of his lungs and tried to relax in the seat. This was a nightmare.
He spared a glance at Sam. Sam was slouched, and there was something defeated in his posture.
And it hit him.
This was a nightmare—Sam's nightmare. And this wasn't the first time Sam had seen her.
Sam should have been shocked, terrified, numb. But Sam simply looked sick and broken.
Dean's stomach twisted with betrayal and rage. He stared at his brother in disbelief. "How long have you known?"
Sam didn't even flinch. His eyes focused hard on the floor.
Sam merely clenched his teeth.
"Sam." His voice was sharper now, demanding.
Sam swallowed hard against it. "A few weeks," he finally said, his voice low and toneless.
Dean's mind reeled. A few weeks... All the little things that had happened...all the accidents, all the malfunctions. It had been her. "A few weeks?" Dean exploded. "Were you planning on telling me anytime or just wait until I find you dead?"
Sam paled. "It's not your problem."
"Sam, she's trying to kill you, so I think it's my problem."
Sam's eyes flashed up at him for the first time. "It's not, Dean. Now drop it."
Dean was going to speak, to tell Sam that there was no way in hell he was going to sit around while the vengeful ghost of his dead girlfriend not only threatened Sam's life, but his sanity as well, but he found himself mute. Because when he looked at Sam--really looked at him, beyond the bruises and the cuts--he saw a brokenhearted boy, clinging to the hope that it would never come to this. The hope was unrealistic, fleeting, and dangerous, but it was so raw, so desperate that Dean's mouth shut involuntarily and he pressed the Impala harder away from the sunrise.
They managed to finish a hunt in Michigan with only a few bruises and some Latin. Sam found a lead on something back in Florida, but Dean wanted to follow up on some cattle mutilations in Missouri instead.
Driving was tense and silent, and stops were awkward and short.
"Maybe it's not her. Maybe it's something that's making itself look like her."
Sam's denial was creative, Dean had to give him that. But it was denial nonetheless; Dean had spent a lot of time in his life in and out of that, and so he recognized it immediately.
"I mean, it's possible," Sam continued. "All the freaky stuff out there."
Sam had a point, but Dean wasn't ready to concede it. "Sam," he said slowly. "It is possible. But you of all people should know that the most obvious answer is usually the presumption we have to go with."
The glimmer of hope in Sam's eyes faded and he stared stonily out to the road. "It's not her," he insisted softly. "It can't be."
Dean could only wish that was true.
Sam nearly lost his hand when a flare exploded prematurely.
Dean wrapped it carefully, cleaning it, disinfecting it, and he couldn't stop himself from saying, "We should really take you to the hospital."
Sam didn't even look at his hand, didn't even act like singed limb were attached to him at all.
Sam was still looking into the distance, and he spoke as if Dean wasn't there at all. "The way she died," he said softly and his hand flexed unconsciously. "To feel your flesh burning off of you."
Dean swallowed painfully and had to pause, unable to look at the charred flesh on Sam's palm.
"It has to be the worst way to die," Sam concluded. He seemed to deflate somewhat.
Dean felt his jaw trembling and he took a deep breath before turning back to the gauze in his hand. "Stop," he ordered gently. "Let me finish wrapping your hand."
They didn't talk about it.
Sam talked about the weather, about music, about the virtues of fast food chains, but he didn't talk about Jessica.
Sam was in denial; Dean was in shock.
It was the Winchester way, he supposed. Avoiding the real issues for as long as he could, hoping that they would go away on their own.
Dean awoke to a shatter and a scream.
His reflexes had been honed since his childhood to respond to crisis and the past weeks had made him even more alert. He was on his feet, shotgun in hand before his mind was even fully awake.
He found himself in the bathroom.
There. Her white dress tattered, her eyes of fire; she hissed and glared, saw the shotgun and flashed away in a blaze of fire.
Sam cowered in the bathtub, legs tangled over the side, holding his wrist in front of him. Blood dripped from the appendage, staining the porcelain. Sam was breathing heavily, eyes open and fixed blankly at the wall behind Dean.
Dean shook as he turned to see what Sam was staring at, knowing he didn't want to, but knowing he had no choice.
It was a message.
His eyes burned and blurred and he could barely make out the red letters. You will burn.
Dean didn't want to know, couldn't let himself think. Instead he turned, shaking, back to his brother. "Sammy?"
Sam didn't acknowledge him, didn't even look at him, and Dean grimaced in spite of himself.
When Dean finally got close enough, he could see an array of gashes trailing up Sam's forearm. He pried the limb from Sam's grasp, inspecting it.
He could feel Sam's fast breaths falling on him. "They're not that bad," he said softly. "Just one that really has me concerned."
If Sam understood, he made no indication.
Dean tried to situate himself in front of his brother, hoping to get Sam's attention, to break his kid brother from his shocked reverie. "Hey, Sam," he tried again. "Can you hear me?"
Sam didn't even blink and his breathing was uneven.
Dean cursed, following Sam's line of sight again to the red smears on the wall. He needed to get Sam out of here--there was no other thought. Just getting Sam out.
Sam may have been catatonic, but he was compliant, and Dean easily maneuvered the younger brother into the other room and deposited him on the bed.
Squatting, he tried to look Sam in the eye, but the same glazed over look was still there.
With a sigh, Dean knew he had to take care of the bleeding--blood loss certainly wouldn't help Sam come back to the world of the living.
Patting Sam's leg, he stood. "I'll be right back," he assured his brother.
Once back inside the bathroom, the letters on the wall mocked him and Dean felt his stomach turn. His calm detachment evaporated, and he suddenly felt claustrophobic, confined, terrified.
His breath hitched and his eyes burned. She was going to kill Sam. She was going to take his brother away from him.
You will burn.
The message was written in Sam's dripping blood, clear and undeniably.
Somewhere between nausea and rage, Dean wanted to hurt something, wanted to hurt everything. It wasn't fair. None of this was fair. Sam had been through so much, lost so much--what else would Sam be expected to endure?
What else would Dean be expected to endure?
To be stalked by a demon, to be tortured, mocked, tested. All of it, only to lose it in the wake of ghost neither of them had the willpower to fight. They could conquer hell and evil and everything in between, but neither of them had it in them to finish this.
But they had to. If they were going to survive...
That was what they did. Survive. Dean would have to make sure of that.
With a deep breath, Dean tried to steady himself, keeping his gaze averted from the lettering on the wall.
He grabbed a washcloth, wet it, and forced himself to calmly return to Sam.
Sam was still shell-shocked, but his eyes focused on Dean when he kneeled in front of him again. He didn't make any moves, didn't say anything, and didn't fight Dean as he cleaned the cuts. He was even complacent when Dean pushed him to the bed and told him to sleep.
"It's her, Dean," Sam said softly. "It's her."
"I know, Sam."
"I love her."
And there it was. Dean bit his tongue so hard it bled, and he was more than a little relieved when Sam's eyes drifted shut and stayed shut.
He patted his brother's shoulder absently, before stumbling back to a nearby chair. He sprawled over it, trying to catch his breath.
He had to end this. He couldn't just let her kill him. He protected Sam. From everything. Even her.
But as he watched Sam settle, shifting under the covers, his brow creased, Dean knew it wasn't that simple.
This was a thin line he was walking. Sam's mental state wavered precariously with Jess' ghost. It would just get worse, and the guilt would consume Sam just as quickly and thoroughly as flame.
But Sam wasn't ready. Sam couldn't let go. Facing Jessica's remains would deconstruct whatever semblance of sanity Sam had left. In some ways, a vengeful ghost meant that Jess was still there; once they finished it, Sam would truly have nothing but memories.
I love her. Sam still loved her. Sam would probably always love her.
Even if Dean burned whatever was left of her, even if he destroyed every trace of her, Sam would still love her.
She would still be dead.
And nothing could make that better.
Dean sat there for a long time. When Sam was finally sleeping, Dean went back into the bathroom and cleaned it meticulously, wiping up the blood and rinsing the towels white in the sink.
They were still over half a country away from California, but Dean drove there as quickly as he could.
He abandoned the hunt, didn't even scan the headlines, just kept driving.
He would have driven straight through, but he couldn't stay awake that long--this was as draining for him sometimes as it was for Sam.
And he certainly couldn't trust Sam behind the wheel. There was no telling if Sam could even stay awake, or what havoc Jessica could inflict when Sam was behind the wheel, or if Sam would even drive at all.
Sam existed in degrees of brokenness, sometimes resigned, sometimes desperate, sometimes a little unhinged. Because her true damage wasn't physical. Her real haunting didn't even require her presence.
Dean hated stopping each night, but he needed the rest, and he knew Sam did too, so he checked them into cheap motels by the edge of the highway and Sam followed him, head down, inside.
He made sure Sam ate and showered, even that he laid down, but nothing he could do could make either of them sleep.
She was getting better.
Dean used to be able to repel her with a quick round of rock salt or a slash of an iron object and then she'd be gone for the night.
But she was coming back faster and faster, and her strength was increasing.
Usually he could pull Sam from whatever impediment she was throwing at him. But her force was increasing, and Sam was harder to pull from harm's way.
She was learning.
For a spirit, she was young. Only three years since her death and she was already after justice with a vengeance in the misguided, sadistic way only a spirit can.
It took most spirits a decade at least before they made their first kill. Probably took them just a few years to even lose their sense of self, their sense of why they stuck around at all.
But Jessica's death--it had been more violent than most, probably more traumatic than he could ever realize. To be pinned on the ceiling and never know why...
He could hardly bear thinking about it.
But she was still new at this, almost...inexperienced.
She didn't know yet the best way to get revenge, so she was trying them all, trying to figure it out.
On some level this was fascinating to Dean--the process of how a spirit forms, of how they determine their method of operations.
But the science of it is lost in the reality that Jessica would be solidified only when Sam was dead.
And that wasn't something he could let happen--not for any of them.
"Why didn't Mom become like this?"
The drive had been all but silent. Sam hunched into himself and looking more at his battered arms than anything else. Dean, on the other hand, gripped the steering wheel so hard that his own arms hurt, and kept the pedal to the floor, chewing up the miles as quickly as he could.
The sound of Sam's voice sounded almost foreign, but that wasn't what made Dean flinch.
This wasn't a question he wanted to answer, but one he'd asked himself again and again. There was no answer the Sam wanted to hear, no answer that would make this reality any less painful.
"You can't explain spirits," he said. "Some stay, some don't. Some get angry. Some get angrier faster. Who's to say?"
Sam wouldn't let it drop. "But Mom died the same way. And 22 years later, she was still in the house, as beautiful and loving as she'd ever been."
Dean just shook his head. "Don't do this, Sammy," he said, his voice serious and strained. "This won't get you anywhere. You can't compare ghosts, and what's happening now has nothing to do with how good of a person Mom or Jess was."
Sam looked down and forced a nod. His gaze turned back out the windshield, and the car once again lapsed into silence.
Sam nearly drowned in Colorado.
Right there. In the bathtub. Held under the water by an uncontrollable force.
Dean had been getting a can of soda, some fresh air, anything, something, nothing important.
He came back in time just to hear the splashing. He stood behind the door with a curious look. "You got someone in there with you?"
When the splashing stopped, Dean almost chuckled, figuring he must have embarrassed the kid. And then it fell silent.
Dean's heart skipped a beat. Then another.
The next thing he knew he was charging in, busting the door off its hinges, to find Sam lying face down in the bath water.
Sam hadn't been breathing, but he still had a pulse, and after a few encouraging breaths, Sam had gasped on his own, spewing water down his already wet cheeks.
Dean couldn't feel anything—not the sweat that dowsed his body, not the flush that laced his cheeks, not his brother heavy and alive in his arms.
She hadn't been trying before. Before she had merely wanted Sam's pain.
Now she wanted his life.
She wanted it--but she wasn't strong enough. Yet.
Dean didn't want to admit it, but somewhere inside of him, he knew. He knew it was only a matter of time.
Their options were running out faster than their time.
Sam nearly stepped in front of a car, and Dean's heart stopped beating while the tires squealed. He didn't start breathing again until he saw Sam staring at the black sedan, the bumper mere inches from his knees.
Dean didn't know if Sam was suicidal or just sloppy or just too sleepy to know up from down, but none of those were good things.
Jess was upping the ante every time she had access to Sam, and Dean knew that the day was coming wouldn't Dean wouldn't be there, when he wouldn't be fast enough, when Jess would finally be successful.
And that was something Dean knew he couldn't accept.
Dean couldn't let Sam die, especially not for some misplaced burden of guilt. Sam was all he had left. And even if Jess didn't kill him, Sam was retreating into himself, and eventually the guilt would destroy anything good inside his brother.
The driver had been more upset than anything else, and tried to take Sam to the hospital because he sure looked awfully pale.
Dean thanked him and apologized before dragging Sam back to the motel room.
"Sam, I don't want to make you do this, but it has to be done."
Sam just shook his head. "No, Dean."
Dean's frustration began to boil. "She's going to kill you. That's what she wants. And I can't just let that happen."
"Maybe I deserve it," Sam mumbled.
Dean prayed he misheard him, even though he'd known all along that Sam felt that way. "What did you say?"
Sam's eyes flashed up at him. "Maybe I deserve it," he said again, stronger now. "I did this to her. Why shouldn't she get to punish me?"
Dean gaped. "She wouldn't want this—"
"How do you know what she would have wanted?" Sam asked, his brow furrowed. "She never would have wanted to die like that either, but she didn't really get a choice about this one. So why should I get a choice now?"
Sam stood, looming dangerously, and for the first time since Dean could remember, he was scared of his brother. "You don't get to decide any of this, and neither do I, because we're not the victims here. I don't care what she does--she's still the one who died pinned to the ceiling and no matter how much we think we know, we'll never really get that."
Shaking, Dean kept his ground. "She is the victim," Dean whispered. "And the longer we let this go on, the longer she suffers." Dean's voice dropped with a timbre of compassion. "You know that."
Sam seemed to shrink, pulling away from his brother and dropping his head.
"Come on," Dean cajoled, trailing after his brother. "I'm right."
Sam couldn't look at him and shook his head. "I can't, Dean," Sam said, finally as a sob broke him. "Please. Don't make me."
Sam's eyes were red, pleading, desperate, and Dean stood there, mouth open, hoping to find the words. But there was nothing left to say but, "Sam, there's no other way."
Sam was getting a cup of coffee when Dean saw her next. He was filling up the car when she appeared before him, eyes blazing and dangerous.
She was only there a minute and Dean barely had time to register her presence before she vanished once again.
Dean's heart pounded as the gas pump clicked and then Dean's stomach dropped.
He sprinted as fast as he could, flinging open the door and stumbling toward the line of drink dispenser when he saw it happening.
The coffee machine was jumping, bouncing, and the lights were twittering on and off.
Sam looked confused and cocked his head and Dean prayed that he would be fast enough.
He tackled Sam right as the machine exploded, flames erupting on its burnt hulk.
The store employee was yelling and someone was spraying a fire extinguisher but Dean didn't acknowledge them, just looked at his brother.
Sam was pinned beneath him, and Dean could see the beginning of defeat in his eyes.
Dean was almost too shaken to drive, so he pulled them off at a motel a few miles down the road. Inside the room, both boys were quiet, each seated on a bed, looking for the words to say.
"Sam." Dean's voice was even, low, and sure.
Sam clenched his teeth, keeping his eyes unblinking to ward off the tears.
Sam shook his head vigorously, desperately trying to keep Dean from speaking.
"You know we have to."
Sam's entire body trembled with the tension. "No." His voice grated, coming out raw.
Dean licked his lips and willed himself to keep on. "Sam--"
The emotion broke through and Sam turned fierce eyes on his brother. "No," he said.
Dean winced in sympathy. "You know--"
Sam's grief turned to rage in a split second. Before Dean knew what hit him, he was on the ground, Sam's weight on top of him, a flurry of fists raining down on him.
He curled in, bringing his hands over his face, trying to keep Sam from doing damage.
But no matter how much Sam hurt him, Dean knew it was Sam who was damaged in all this.
The rage ended as quickly as it began, and the fists lost their focus, lost their intensity, and soon Sam was sliding off his brother, falling hard against the wall, sobbing.
Dean's face hurt a little, but he sat up quickly, mouth hanging open as he tried to find something to say.
The sobs were hard, loud, broken, and Dean found himself by his brother's side without thinking, his arm around Sam until Sam's head rested on his shoulder while he cried.
"We'll make this better, Sammy," Dean whispered fiercely. "I promise, we will make this better."
The closer they got to California, the more desperate Sam became.
"What if it's like a curse?"
Dean crammed a French fry into his mouth and scrunched his nose. "You think she cursed you?"
Sam shook his head. "No, not like a curse curse. But what if she's tied to some object which is why she can follow me where I go?"
Dean chewed and swallowed, considering. "So you're thinking we find what she's connected to, torch it, and hope that she moves on?"
Sam's look was pathetic, hopeful and naive. "Maybe."
It was a possibility, but far fetched. And Dean knew that as long as there were remains, Jessica would always be a threat. "I guess so, but to be safe—"
"It's worth a try," Sam broke in. "We need to try."
Dean took a measured breath. "It has to be everything, Sam," Dean said, his voice carrying a gentle warning. "You know that, right?"
Sam's resolved wavered. "I know."
They burned everything.
All of Sam's clothes, his favorite jacket, even his favorite pair of sneakers.
Sam was stoic throughout it all, even a bit detached. He stood by, just behind his brother, away from the heat of the flames, watching. It wasn't until Dean pulled out the small assortment of photographs that Sam broke down.
He took them from Dean, standing over the small blaze, tears streaming down his face as he held each pictures, looking at it, studying it, committing it to memory.
Then, one by one, he let each one go.
Sam's heart wasn't the only one that was breaking.
Sam was burning his memories, his connection, his only tie to the life he'd had with her. It was killing Sam, hurting something inside of him that Dean couldn't understand, couldn't even begin to fathom, and Dean had no idea how to help.
He'd always protected his brother, always kept Sam safe, but he had no help for Sam, now, no refuge. All he could do was stand nearby, standing strong, letting Sam know that he would always be there.
There wasn't a lot to burn, really, but it seemed to take painfully long for each item to crumble to ash in the flame. When Sam was finally on the last picture, a small row of pictures taken at a carnival booth, Sam and Jessica's faces both squished in the frame, Dean saw Sam hesitate, choked by a sob.
He fingered the pictures, four of them, taken in succession. Both of them, laughing. Making faces, kissing. Both so vibrant, so alive, and Dean swallowed back his own sob when Sam let it go.
And together they watched the flames lick the sky, dancing in a thousand shades and colors, so bright they had to squint in the blackness. They stood there until all was burned, until the fire dwindled and died, until there wasn't a speck of light left glowing in the embers.
It was quiet for four days, and they both dared to hope, but neither dared to speak of it.
But they both felt the difference like a breath of fresh air.
By the end of the week, Sam had slept the whole night through and didn't wake until noon.
Dean really should have known.
The Winchesters had never caught a lucky break in their life--they had done nothing the easy way, and this situation shouldn't be any different.
But he'd been so glad to sleep, so glad to see Sam sleep, that he'd willed himself into submission.
He would live to regret that.
He awoke to the sound of choking.
His sleep had been deep and dreamless and he struggled to awareness, blinking the room into focus.
And there. Jessica.
She was on top of Sam. On top of Sam, strangling him.
By the time Dean could even grab his gun, Sam's fight had lessened. His brother was still moving, but sluggishly, his eyes never leaving Jessica's angry, burned, wispy face.
His heart skipped a beat. It was happening too quickly. He had to move faster. He had gotten lax.
His fingers fumbled as he traded out the standard rounds for rock salt, cursing himself for not being prepared.
Sam stopped moving, his hands limp by his sides. His body was slack under the pressure of Jessica's all-too-real grip.
She was sneering, watching as the life began to slide from Sam's eyes and the tension dissipate completely from his body.
Dean didn't hesitate. He fired two rounds at her, one right after another and watched with satisfaction as she disappeared in to a burst of light.
He had barely made it to Sam's side when she was back, flinging him hard against the wall.
His vision dimmed and his ears rang; he tried to move, but it was like being underwater.
Hazily he saw Sam, semi-conscious on the bed, unable to offer any defense against her, though Dean doubted that Sam would have even if he could. Jessica straddled his brother, her hands roaming over him. "He's mine," she hissed, with a sideways glance full of flames at Dean.
Then she leaned down, letting her lips grace Sam's.
Sam shifted, maybe moaned, and Dean tried again with new vigor to move. But his head swam and his vision tunneled so severely that he fell back against the wall uselessly.
His vision cleared in time to see the bed burst into flames. Jessica was still seated on his brother, looming possessively over Sam like he was her prize. She was now nearly complete opaque, but truly deformed, hardly recognizable as the girl she'd been.
Sam was writhing slightly, almost pathetically, as she lorded over him. Flames licked up the comforter, nearly reaching Sam and she smiled. "Burn with me." Her voice was unnatural, too low, too ethereal.
Dean's throat clutched, and it had nothing to do with the sudden swell of smoke.
She had arrived. She had come into her own. This was the time she would kill Sam.
He couldn't let that happen. He wouldn't.
He'd pulled Sam from the fire twice before. He'd do it again.
He didn't know how he ended up on his feet. He didn't even know how he'd managed to get the gun in his hand. But he remembered charging, and screaming, almost in the flames when he finally fired.
The salt shook her, more visibly than before, and there were no words for the venom in her eyes as she vanished again.
But Dean knew it wouldn't be for long. She was in her prime, fully developed as a spirit, and Dean knew she would be back quickly, that she was not about to leave Sam alone this time.
Dean coughed, stumbling away from the flames. It wouldn't matter when she came back if he didn't get Sam off that bed--now.
Obscured by the orange glow, Dean couldn't see if Sam was awake, but it was pretty clear that Sam wouldn't be moving on his own any time soon. The fire was teasing Sam's feet and arms, and Dean knew there wasn't much time.
That left it up to Dean. Unless he wanted to see his little brother burn alive, he had to act, he had to do something.
He didn't have a plan, and he certainly didn't think it through, but it didn't matter. If Sam died, he died, so there was no other option.
Mustering his strength, Dean leapt through the flames, landing hard on top of his brother.
His arm singed, but he swatted it out quickly, pulling Sam's own wayward arms under him, stifling the embers that had taken root on them.
The heat burned him, and he willed himself to move. Keeping Sam cradled tight against him, he stood, dragging Sam up with him, until they were both vertical in the rapidly burning bed.
Sam's head against his shoulder, Dean tried to find a gap in the flames that he could exploit.
Nothing. The flames were growing higher, closer and he yelped when a tendril caught on Sam's sleeve.
He smothered it, but felt the panic rise in his throat. They were going to burn together.
Then he heard a cackle, so grotesque that Dean shivered in the heat. Through the dense air, Dean could see Jessica standing just beyond the flames, a sadistic smile on her face. "Burn with me," she said again, in a voice that penetrated the crackling of the flames.
Dean's awareness splintered in defiance. No. He would not burn with her. Sam would not burn with her. He'd be damned if he was going to let some ghost take either of their lives.
He jumped blindly, yanking Sam with him, and they tumbled to the floor, Dean's arms still tight around his brother.
Rolling them both, Dean quelled whatever fire had taken hold, though Dean could feel the tingle of his skin where his clothing had been chewed through.
But there was no time for analysis. No time for anything.
Jessica appeared in front of them and he felt something tug at Sam, trying to take him away.
Dean screamed, a guttural, desperate scream and clung tight, stumbling frantically away and toward the door.
But she appeared there too, in front of them, fire for hair. "Burn with me," she cooed maliciously, just before the entryway erupted into flame behind her.
Dean stumbled back, tripping over Sam's feet and they both went down. Hastily, he pulled them both to their feet again, moving at a tripping gait to the window.
The flames were gaining strength, spreading through the room. Dean hacked as he moved as quickly as he could, Sam still dragging in his arms.
She met them at the window.
Dean looked at her and grunted. He hadn't come this far to back down now.
Without waiting for her to speak or act or anything, Dean stepped up on a chair, shoved the curtains back, and flung himself, Sam still in his arms, out the window.
There was a horrific shatter, and Dean shut his eyes tight as they crashed hard to the ground.
His vision was hazy and doubled, but as he tried to push himself up he caught glance of Jessica through the window.
Her glare was ominous and Dean felt a renewed need to move.
Sam was still limp, sprawled next to him, and Dean didn't even spare a moment to assess Sam before gathering him in his arms and running.
The flames exploded behind him as the fire consumed the room.
The smoke had Dean wheezing, but he didn't stop, not until he was clear of the motel. Then, he dropped hard to his knees, Sam falling to the ground with him, flopping bonelessly on the grass. Dean hovered, to busy watching for Sam's breath to notice his own labored pulls for air.
He was barely conscious when the paramedics found them, and if he had been more alert, he might have tried to keep them from taking Sam to a hospital.
But as the medics assessed Sam, all Dean could see was the stillness of his brother's body. A mask was placed over Sam's face, and Dean received a matching one, and Dean ignored the medic by his side while he watched them try to rouse Sam.
Sam didn't respond, and in the fog of his mind Dean could tell that Sam looked terrible--he was a mess of injuries, from tonight, from the long weeks of Jessica's haunting. It would be hard to explain that to the hospital staff.
Someone cut away his clothes but he didn't shiver until they did the same to Sam. His skin looked almost as translucent as Jessica's in the pale moonlight. "He's cold," Dean tried to say. "Get him a blanket."
"Quiet," someone said to him. "We're taking care of you."
Dean wanted to sit up, wanted to go to Sam, but he found himself weak, and when he tried to breathe, his breath caught violently in his throat, ripping through his chest until he melted into darkness.
Sam was unconscious for the better part of the next day. They both had smoke inhalation, Sam's more severe, not to mention a myriad of bruises and cuts. Sam also had three broken ribs, which Dean felt guilty for, knowing the dive from the window had probably not gone well for Sam.
The miracle was the lack of burns. Sam had some on his arms and some on his legs, but they were minor, and the doctor believed they would heal without a problem. So while the doctor was optimistic about Sam's outlook, he kept Sam in ICU as a precaution.
Dean hated that and knew that the precautions the doctors were taking would do nothing to save his little brother from the real dangers out there.
They let Dean sign out, though he had nowhere to go. His motel room was destroyed, not that he would have left Sam's side anyway. Not after all that.
He barely managed to keep himself from getting security on his tail while maintaining a vigil by Sam's side.
The stark white pallor of Sam's face wasn't exactly new, but as he'd tried to lie away the multiple injuries to the doctor, Dean realized just how severe the cost had been of their mutual denial. The doctor said that Sam was medically fatigued, that it was amazing Sam was still functioning at all. Sam had been neglecting himself, and Dean had been so concerned with keeping Sam from getting killed that he'd let his brother waste away.
He sat by Sam's bedside, mindful of the IVs, and promised his brother this would end. One way or another, this would end.
Sam was moved to a regular room that night, and though he was sleepy from the drugs, he forced himself awake to talk to his brother. "Are you okay?"
Dean grunted and rolled his eyes. "I'm not the one who just spent the night in the ICU."
Sam's concern did not abate. "This should have never involved you," Sam persisted, his voice scratchy from the smoke.
"It's always involved me," Dean replied back, sounding shorter than he wanted to. "She's going to kill you. You know that, right? It's just a matter of time."
Sam opened his mouth to protest, but the words died on his tongue. "Dean..."
"Sam, she's a sadistic spirit who is after you. She's going to burn you alive."
"That wasn't who she was, Dean. She would never..."
Dean felt the ache, the need, and shifted uncomfortably. "Sam."
"I mean, she was, she was--" Sam's voice trailed off and his eyes seemed to focus on some distant, undefined point in the past. He almost smiled as tears filled his eyes. "She was beautiful. And smart. Always ready to help anyone. People--people just flocked to her, loved her, trusted her. Everywhere she went, she lit up the room. But she never let that change her. She was never conceited, just..." Sam looked down and wiped his nose before looking up again, a single tear stringing down his cheek. "And she was funny. You should have known her, Dean. You would have liked her. She was--she was--oh, God." His voice cracked and he dropped his head to his hands.
Dean's throat was tight and he leaned forward. "She was, Sam. And that's why we have to stop this. Because this wasn't her."
A sob seemed to shudder through Sam before he forced it down and met Dean's eyes. And there—Dean saw it. The thing he'd been waiting for hoping for. The thing he needed—utter relief spread through Dean. But as he held Sam's eyes, his stomach roiled and he suddenly prayed that he would never have to see this again.
Resignation. Sam was in pieces, and was no longer trying to keep it together. His eyes were dull and plain, his face drawn and sunken. Sam took a shaky breath that seemed to rattle him before speaking. "I know."
Dean expected a showdown.
It was far less climactic.
The graveyard was empty and the night was warm. A full moon graced the sky, lighting their way as they found the grave.
The gravestone was easy enough to find, and Dean watched as Sam approached it, dropping his shovel to the ground and falling to his knees before it.
"I'm sorry," Sam said, his voice low, and Dean felt suddenly very out of place. "I wish there were another way. This never should have happened. None of this. But..." Sam's voice broke and trailed off, and it took Sam a moment to recompose himself. "But I'll make this right."
They worked silently and determinedly, shoveling the mounds of dirt over the edge, moving farther and farther down, until the walls of dirt surrounded them.
It was Sam's shovel that hit the coffin first. The thwack seemed to rattle Sam and he paused in his movements, paling dramatically.
"You okay?" Dean asked.
Sam looked startled at the sound of his brother's voice. "I don't know if I can do this," he said.
Dean swallowed hard. "You don't have to do it alone."
It had been over three years. There was nothing left to recognize, not that her body had been intact from the fire.
When Dean opened the coffin, he wasn't sure why she hadn't just been cremated to finish the job.
All that was there was a charred pile of bones, arranged carefully in the lined box.
They had seen more bones than anyone should, and some corpses far gorier.
Sam retched anyway, long and hard in the grass, while hot tears streamed down his face.
But Sam wordlessly collected himself, ordering Dean out of the grave.
Dean gave him a skeptical look.
"I have to do this, Dean," Sam said.
But Sam wouldn't budge. "This is my duty."
Dean didn't think Sam should carry this alone, worried that Sam would fall apart, but somehow he knew that if Sam wasn't the one to do this, they'd both regret it for the rest of their lives.
Sam was slow, methodical, almost religious in his actions. He requested that Dean stand on the lip of the grave, watching for trouble, he said.
In the grave, Sam kneeled by the remains, pausing for a moment. His fingers trembled as he reached out, touching the bones lightly, almost caressing them. Then he took the salt, and poured it liberally, but slowly, reverently.
Bowing his head, a sob seemed to shake him, and when he turned back up to Dean, his eyes were bright.
Dean offered him a hand, and he pulled Sam out. Sam leaned over and lifted the gasoline, spreading it in even strokes across the coffin.
Reaching in his pocket, Dean pulled out the matchbook. Sam had never been fond of fire, and in the years since Jessica had died, Sam had refused to light fires, and though they'd never spoken as to why, Dean had always understood.
So he was surprised when Sam pulled the matches from his hand. Dean cocked his head, questioningly, and Sam just looked at him, the pain etched in his eyes.
"I can do this, Dean," Sam said, almost as a promise, and Dean relinquished his place, and eased back, keeping a watchful eye on Sam's movement.
Sam was trembling so bad that Dean didn't think he'd ever be able to light the match. His fingers fumbled and stuttered, but when he struck the match, it gave birth to flame.
For a moment, Sam seemed mesmerized, staring at the flame in his hand as it slowly began to devour the match. Dean was about to step forward, to keep Sam from burning his hand, when Sam let the match drop.
When the match hit the coffin, the flame expanded instantaneously, spreading rapidly over the length of the box.
Sam watched, his eyes unmoving, as the flame grew and consumed, his face bathed in the glow of the firelight.
Dean watched too, but his eyes stayed on Sam, and he watched for a sign that Sam was about to crumble, a sign that he might be needed.
They both watched as the flame devoured everything, including a piece of Sam that Dean knew they would never get back.
They reburied the casket in silence.
It was slow and tedious work, shovel full after shovel full, and the morning air was brisk.
When the dirt was all in place, Sam took care arranging the top layer of grass, which he had carefully dug up when they started.
He made sure everything was in order, that everything was immaculate.
When they were done, they were sweating and exhausted, and if Dean hadn't pulled Sam up from the ground, he was pretty sure his little brother would have fallen asleep on the moist grass before Jessica's headstone.
They drove east almost without stopping and almost without talking.
Dean scanned the newspapers for hunts, and Sam nodded at his musings, but Dean knew it'd be awhile before they'd hunt again.
It'd be awhile before they could do anything again.
Because, in reality, very little had changed.
Jessica's ghost was gone, the grave in California was filled with ash, and Jessica was finally at rest.
That made one of them.
Sam still didn't sleep. He stayed awake stubbornly, trying to avoid the pain of dreams.
Because the dreams were painful, more painful than ever, and they were still there.
When Dean closed his eyes, he could still see the pile of bones, could still see Sam's face shadowed by flame and night, and felt his own heart wrench in restless sleep. And the apparition of a girl, scarred and deformed, fire in her eyes, shaking her head repeating again and again, "He still burns."
She haunted him, so painfully, so real, and Dean hadn't even known her.
He couldn't even imagine what she was doing to Sam.
Dean finally decided on a hunt.
He doubted that Sam was ready, but they would never be ready. It was just a matter of choosing to move on.
Sam didn't protest, but he didn't say much, and barely even touched the laptop for research. He spent most of his time sitting, thinking, and sometimes Dean caught him crying when he didn't think Dean was looking. He was stoic most of the time, his face pale but purposefully drawn into nothingness.
Dean always looked away.
Dean played the music loudly in the car, and they chose noisy restaurants, almost to try to hide the growing silence.
Then, on a stretch of highway between Kentucky and Tennessee, Sam turned off the radio.
"Did we do the right thing, Dean?" His eyes bored into Dean, demanding an answer.
Dean kept himself cool, trying to hide his own doubts. "Of course we did."
And he meant it. There had never been another choice; Dean had known that from the beginning. But right or wrong, it didn't make it easier to live with, knowing they had disturbed Jess's final resting place, that they had defiled the only pieces of her left.
Sam didn't need his doubts, his ambiguity. Sam needed his strength.
He smiled and looked steadily at his brother. "Without a doubt, Sammy. We did the only thing we could do to honor who she was. It was hard, but that's what makes it more noble."
Sam turned his head, let his eyes peruse the passing landscape. He didn't look surprised--he'd known Dean's answer all along--but that didn't make it any easier to believe.
"I'm proud of you, Sammy," Dean said. "And she would be too."
He saw Sam flinch, his lower jaw trembled, but he didn't say anything, just kept his gaze out the window.
They made it to the North Carolina coast before Sam broke.
They'd spent the day doing preliminary research, asking around, looking things up. Sam had been tense and jumpy, terse and jaded, and Dean, despite his compassion, was getting frustrated.
Dean had pulled the Impala off in a parking lot by the beach. The weather was too cold for beach goers, so they found themselves alone, screaming at each other in the car, fighting about whether or not to rip off Laundromats.
"If all you're going to do is sit around and grieve all day long, then you don't get any say in how anything goes!" The words were out of Dean's mouth before he could stop them, and he looked stricken.
Sam recoiled, flinched back, and then he was fumbling with the door and out of the car.
Sam ran along the shoreline, the waves sweeping over his feet as he moved, stumbling and splashing toward an end Dean couldn't see.
Dean did the only thing he could, the only thing he could ever do, and ran after his brother.
Neither knew how long they ran or how far, but they ran until Sam's legs gave out and he fell to the ground, gasping and crying, while the surf washed over him.
Dean fell next to him, arms draped around him, supporting him. "Sammy," he whispered, squeezed out of his tight throat, pulling his brother closer, tucking the shaggy mop of hair beneath his chin.
Sam didn't have the words, but he didn't need them. They just needed each other, the comfort and stability of their brotherhood which neither separation, time, or danger had ever truly severed.
The sound of the ocean did not drown out Sam's sobs, which were wrenching and painful. Dean whispered nonsense into his hair, rocking him, as the surf broke over them, the cold water seeping into their bones.
Sam was mostly asleep when they left, still tucked securely in Dean's grasp.
Dean probably would have sat there forever, but he could feel the chill working unpleasantly through Sam's body, and knew they both needed to get warm and dry.
His joints were stiff as he rose, pulling Sam's arm over his shoulder. They walked slowly back toward the car, their paces even and united.
In the car, Sam came to, shivering while Dean wrapped his body in a blanket.
"Dean?" he asked, sounding confused.
"Yeah," Dean said softly.
And Dean almost laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. So much had happened, so much had transpired, so much had led them here.
Instead he smiled, letting his hand rest on Sam's shoulder. "Nothing we can't handle, little brother."
At that, Sam smiled and his eyelids drooped, and he slipped back into sleep.
Turned out they were hunting a poltergeist, and they destroyed it without much trouble. It was stubborn and defiant, but they were strong and united, and nothing really scared them anymore.
They packed their meager belongings into the trunk, and Sam waited while Dean returned the key.
When Dean came outside, he found Sam leaning against the trunk, eyes cast outward at the day. In the sunlight, Dean could see the fading bruises on Sam's face. They'd cut off the cast from his wrist in Ohio, and all the stitches had been removed. Sam still looked tired, weary, but the long hours of sleep Sam had gotten recently had served him well.
Dean joined him, leaning casually, but eyeing his brother uncertainly. "You ready to go?"
Sam acted as if he didn't hear him, his hands in his pockets, eyes cast outward.
Dean tried again. "Sam?"
Sam took a breath, deep and long. "I first met Jess at a bus stop, just east of campus," Sam said. "It was raining. I didn't have an umbrella." He smiled. "I had a secret arsenal hidden in my closet, I had more books than you could shake a stick at, but I didn't have an umbrella. I don't think we've ever had an umbrella."
"Not exactly a priority on a hunt," Dean conceded.
Sam nodded, a small smile on his lips. "So it's pouring and I'm standing there. I'm soaked, my backpack is soaked, and I can barely see through my hair plastered over my eyes. And I'm just standing there. There's no shelter--not a tree, nothing, just waiting. Everyone else has an umbrella and they're just giving me this look--pitying, humored, like I was nothing. Everyone except her."
Dean watched as Sam paused, his head cocking and his gaze so far off, like he could almost see it.
"She just walks up to me and says, 'You want to share?' And I look at her--I see her, and I swear to God, that minute I fell in love with her. She was beautiful. There was just something so pure about her, so right. And I'm just staring and she's smiling at me like I'm nuts, then she says, 'You'd rather get wet?' And I finally remembered to speak, but it all came out mumbled and wrong and awkward. Most girls would have walked away, thought I was a freak, but she just smiled and raised her umbrella. And we stood there, together, under her umbrella and it was like we were lost in our own world. The rain drowned out everything else--we couldn't see, we couldn't hear, nothing but each other. It was meant to be. We both believed that from day one. We were meant to be."
By the time Sam ended, his voice was quiet, a little raw around the edges, and he dropped his head. Dean can hear the pain behind the memory, the question that maybe the beginning was as wrong as the end. "You would have been very happy," Dean said, surprised by his own voice. "She was...she was special. What you had was special."
Sam shook his head and swallowed. "I lied to her."
"Not about the important stuff."
"I didn't tell her who I was."
"You told her exactly who you were," Dean said. "You're not a hunter at heart, Sam. You never were. She knew the real you."
Sam bit his lip, his eyes full and watery. "But I killed her, Dean. She would be alive if she'd never met me. If she'd never walked over to me and offered her umbrella, she would still be alive."
"Stop it," Dean ordered, feeling the sting behind his eyes. "Sam, I saw you two together. She loved you. She loved you. And I promise you, if she could do it all again, I know she wouldn't have changed a thing."
Sam looked like he wanted to believe, so hopeful. "How can you be sure?"
Dean winced a little, his throat tightening involuntarily. "Sometimes," he began, his voice scratchy, "you just have to believe."
That had been a lesson Dean had only learned through Sam. Theirs was a life of loss, and Dean had faltered in the face of that more than once. But Sam had always been there, always seen him through, with a tenacity only borne of love. Sam had been strong, persistent, even when his own heart was breaking.
Dean owed Sam that now.
Pain flashed across Sam's face, and he looked down again, his eyes wet. "I love her," he whispered. "I think I always will."
The pain called to Dean, and he edged closer, longing to assuage it. But he knew--knew far too well--that there was nothing that would ever make it go away. It would always hurt, some days more than others, because while Jessica would never hurt his brother again, feelings didn't burn quite as easily as human remains. Her legacy would linger with Sam, hang on him, saturate his skin like a film of smoke. "Of course you will."
Because Jessica wasn't just Sam's girlfriend, she'd been the one he wanted to marry. She was the epitome of all Sam's hopes and dreams, the last vestige of Sam's desperate hope for normalcy and happiness.
She'd been his shot at another life, a life outside of hunting, and that loss was one that Sam would never truly get over, no matter how many miles, how many years, or how many things they killed.
Dean had his brother back, but it came with a price, and as Dean watched his brother, head low in the sunlight, he renewed the promise he had made when he was four years old: that he would always keep Sam safe, he would always protect Sam, always be there for Sam, always put Sam first.
He wasn't sure what that always meant, and he wasn't sure what it would mean in the future, but they'd both come too far to turn back now.
Sam was nearly shaking, tears running off his nose, and Dean's heart broke and his hand went out, touching Sam on the shoulder.
Sam leaned into the touch, and they stood there, leaning up against the hood of the Impala, feeling the weight of a lifetime of grief finally existing between them.
It wouldn't be easy. Dean knew there would be more dreams, more nightmares, and probably more crying than either would ever admit to.
After three years and countless miles, Dean figured maybe they were ready to start again.