It starts in his dreams, in the great chasm between real conscious thought and sleeping. At first he thinks Sam somehow infected him with the shining, but no, the flickers he sees and the sounds he hears seem more like memories, except for the fact that he can't, well, remember them. As the weeks go by they becomes clearer, but no less confusing, and he feels a sort of desperation clawing at him. But the mind is a fickle thing, only unlocking certain random pieces of the puzzle, and just when he feels that he knows, that he's got it all figured out, it slips away from him like a receding tide, and he's right back where he started. It's on the tip of his tongue, a thought hovering frustratingly just out of reach.
And then, one night, at a motel on the outskirts of Tulsa, he bolts upright from his sleep and rasps, "Tessa."
His heart is fluttering madly in his heaving chest, and he looks over to Sam to see if he's woken him. But Sam, for once, is sleeping peacefully, left arm thrown above his head, mouth open. Dean pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to calm his breathing, ignoring the ringing in his ears.
"Tessa," he whispers again, trying the word out on his tongue, feeling the heaviness in each letter.
He knows. He doesn't remember, because his spirit self was just an imprint, not necessarily a conscious being, leaving no traces of memory in his brain, and yet… he knows. Dean doesn't get it, because that's not the way things work, or should work but, then again, how often had rationale ever lent them a helping hand during their lives?
He lets out a long breath he wasn't aware he was even holding and slides quietly out of bed on to shaky legs. The light from the sodium street lamps on the highway filters in dimly through the shabby curtain, and Dean makes his way over to the window to press his forehead on the cool glass.
The night is quiet, except for the occasional car or truck barreling down the highway. Dean closes his eyes, watching the not-memories play out before him, a deluge of thoughts and emotions and noise and damn near everything rushing into him, intensifying with each passing second, until the only thing holding him upright is the sheet of glass he's leaning into and oh God, he brings his hand up to his chest and moans. It's been nearly four months, and only just now is his literal resurrection that no one could explain finally unraveling itself out in Dean's mind.
You're already living on borrowed time.
The words echo through Dean's head, the voice soft and full of pity, making him nauseous. Borrowed time. Wasn't that just a hell of an understatement.
"Hell," he mumbles, trying somehow deep within to pull himself together.
Today's your lucky day, kid.
"You are the biggest, stupidest idiot of all time," Sam says somewhere above him. "God, I could kill you."
"Good," quips Dean, and pops an eye open to see Sam in intense concentration, threading a needle with fine black thread. "'Cause then I wouldn't have to listen to your bitching anymore."
"Shut up," Sam retorts, sounding twelve years old again. And then: "Hold still."
Hold still Dean does, except for his yelp and the flinch when the needle enters his skin. The pain meds must be starting to kick in, because with eyes closed it feels like Dean is flying through the empty space, albeit at a surprisingly sluggish speed. Well, it could be that, or the blood loss, whatever.
"'S pretty deep," says Sam while wiping away a trickle of blood from Dean's upper arm.
"Dude, really? I had no idea." Sam huffs, but says nothing until twenty-one neat little stitches snake their way up Dean's shoulder, just next to his collar bone. Sam cleans around the wound once more, the needle, his own hands, jaw clenched, shoulders stiff, and then finally sits back down on Dean's bed and says, "Why."
There's an unnatural grit to the word, like sandpaper on brick, as if Sam was literally forced against his will to say it. Dean tries to open his eyes again to look at his brother, but when everything starts spinning faster than a freaking fair ride he keeps his eyes closed, forcing back the impending nausea and lies still, spread-eagle on top of the cheap motel sheets.
"Why did—" Sam tries, and Dean's eyes nearly fly open again, except for the fact that he really doesn't want to repeat that particular sensation, so he waits. "Why did you have to do that? I mean, God, Dean…."
"He was just a kid, Sammy. Couldn't… you know. Couldn't just let it happen."
"You didn't have to throw yourself in front of him!" Dean wants to shrug, but can't at the moment, seeing as how his shoulder's got a good chunk of itself nearly flapping in the breeze, and would have been, if it hadn't been for Sam's patch-up job.
"I did what I had to do."
"Did what—did what you had to do?! Shit, Dean—" And there, right there, Dean can damn near feel Sam's fear, the same suffocating presence that he felt earlier that night, witnessing an armed and really pissed off spirit baring down on a helpless kid who just so happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The machete was angled for decapitation, and it nearly hits it's mark, except for the fact that Dean had, in a split second decision, thrown himself in front of the teenager, the blade nicking his shoulder even as he tried to roll his upper body backwards. As it was, "nicking" constituted a half an inch deep laceration, but it's a hell of a lot better than decapitation in Dean's book.
"No," Sam's saying, knuckles kneading his forehead. "No."
"You're not invincible, okay?! Despite what you might think, you don't always have to play hero! Because that was stupid, Dean, really, really stupid!"
Dean's head is swimming, and his stomach is rolling, and, oh, he so does not need this lecture right now. He nearly bites a retort back at Sam just to shut him up, but, dammit. He knows Sam would worry about Dean's safety no matter what, but underneath it all Dean cannot deal with the fact that it is his own fault for making Sam a nervous wreck. But that is what he does, that is what they both do, for a living, in fact, so why the hell can't Dean "play hero" when (and Dean's stomach churns again) Sam, too, has done it more times than they both can count?
Dean swallows, and tries to keep the shakiness out of his voice.
"I didn't— "
"Yes, you did. You're not—"
"Invincible." Dean's fingers find their way to the cord of his necklace, absently moving along the thin, black material. "Yeah, Sam, I get it."
When Dean was twenty-three, and Sam halfway through his third semester at Stanford, Dean and John get wind of some kind of entity wreaking havoc just outside of White Rock, New Mexico. Eight deaths and one damn near close call that leaves that victim institutionalized; it doesn't take a genius to find the pattern, but while they have their guesses on what it could be, there's still nothing concrete. Upon reaching the city and doing some further digging, it finally clicks into place.
"Dad. A Native American spirit?"
"Apache," replies John, not looking up from his journal, where he scribbles a few words into the margins. "Yeah."
"Oh. Good. Great. You know, while we're at it, let's go to Egypt and graffiti the tombs, 'cause I don't think I've met my quota of curses for this year."
"Curses can be undone," John says evenly. "Dead people can't."
But the next night, when they stand just off the deserted stretch of highway where the spirit supposedly haunts, Dean is more than a little wary, though he doesn't let on. The weight of the shotgun in his hands is a slight comfort, at least. With it he feels in control, or as much in control as one could possibly feel in a situation where a dead Indian tries to kill your ass.
The half moon gives off just enough light to distinguish the shadows in the dark; there's not even a hint of a breeze, so when a shimmering something appears a good hundred yards away they both tense, bringing shotguns up to aim.
"Stay here," John murmurs. "Get down." And slowly, quietly, he slides off to Dean's right, beginning in a wide circle around the entity. Dean clenches his jaw to keep from frowning at the command, but he complies, and crouches down, balancing his trigger arm on his knee.
For a full minute it's completely quiet, the shimmering in the distance not appearing to get any closer, when suddenly there is a whoomph, and Dean falls backwards, reeling as though he's been punched square in the chest. But he's been punched before, knows what it feels like, and this, this does not feel anything like a punch. He lies flat on the ground and he cannot breathe, and if he could just sit up—.
"Wha…" he says.
There is an arrow, nearly half an inch in diameter, complete with small brown and white striped feathers sticking out of his chest.
For a few moments all he can do is stare at it, the arrow moving in and out with his body as it becomes increasingly harder to draw a breath, and contemplate the complete irony and absurdity of this situation with a fucking arrow coming out of his fucking chest what the hell.
Sound suddenly becomes muffled and his vision begins closing in, and just before he crumples forward his last rational thought is that this stupid fucking thing is going to get further embedded inside him if he doesn't catch himself—and then he feels two strong hands grip his shoulders. Dean can't hear his father's urgent voice, and only barely can he see his panicked face before everything slips into darkness.
He can hear again before he can get his eyes to function correctly and open, but even then everything is just a confusing mess of sensations and thoughts. All Dean wants to do is push through the haze and find some grasp on consciousness but he feels as if he's being dragged down by a billion weights into the… bed.
"Huuunh," is all the bewilderment he can voice for the moment.
There's a rustling to his right and a few warbled words being spoken, and then some chick in sky blue scrubs appears above him saying, "Mr. Williams? Hey there; you awake?"
"What?" his tongue feels thick and his throat hurts and frustration and panic start seeping into his clouded head and he's… in a hospital. Okay. A hospital. Why or how eludes him at the moment, but right now all he seems to be able to focus on is the shiny stethoscope dangling from the nurse's neck and… huh.
"How are we feeling, hm?" the nurse asks him while pouring a glass of water. Grateful, he attempts to sit up a little straighter, but the moment he moves his upper body he feels like the wind has been knocked out of him and his eyes water.
"Easy, now, easy," she says as unconsciousness threatens to drag him under again and hell if he's going to let that happen, so he wheezes and groans and lets her steady him, as much as his pride protests.
"Why'm'I here," Dean slurs once he's had a sufficient amount of water to ease his aching throat. The nurse looks at him with a sidelong glance.
"Well, you, ah. You don't remember? No?" She chews on her lip for a moment. "An arrow," she finally says, a look on her face that clearly says she won't forget it as long as she lives. "You had an arrow in your chest."
Dean's face screws up in remembrance, oh yeah, that ghost. Oh, that son of a bitch was so going down once he was out of here. For a fleeting moment Dean wonders, would he had died, if it were possible to haunt him. A ghost haunting another ghost.
Dean's more surprised than the nurse at the giggle that escapes his lips.
"Uhm," he tries. "Arrow. Yes. It was… a thing. We were doing. And, yeah. Accident."
"I see," the nurse nods.
"Hey, know what? Um, my brother? He wasn't there, he's at college right now, kind of far away, but if he was there, he wouldn't have let it happen. 'Cause he's my brother, 'cause he's Sammy, and he's really good at that stuff. He wouldn't have let it happen, okay, he wouldn't, I promise. I promise. He's… he…" Dean needed this woman to know this more than anything. Why didn't she understand? She needed to understand!
"Please," he says, desperate and aching, unable to stop the tear from sliding down his temple on to his pillow. "He's my brother. He would have done something if he was there. But he wasn't."
The nurse's lips are pursed in a thin line, matching the concern in her furrowed brows. She takes his hand and squeezes it.
"I understand," she says softly. "It's okay, sweetie. I understand."
Dean gives a ragged sigh and falls deeper into his bed, somehow now more content, but as he lets the morphine slowly take him under he keeps his hand in hers.
It's fall in Virginia when Sam and Dean investigate a string of deaths connected to what the local paper said was, "severe night terrors." Sam's the one who suggested they check it out, and Dean really wants to smack him for it - like he doesn't have to keep an eye out for Sam and his freaking night terrors - but if Sam wants to play Captain Empathy, fine; Dean keeps his mouth shut and his hands on the wheel until they reach the hospital morgue. They lie and bluff their way by the staff up front, easy as pie, and somewhere in the back of his mind Dean thinks, ain't that a shame, but then, Pastor Jim did always say that God casts a blind eye over those who fibbed just a little when helping others. Dean hopes he was right.
They pull back the sheet to find the body of the latest victim: a middle-aged male, short but muscular, leftover yellow-green bruises on his neck and arms from the attack still present.
"Huh," says Sam after a beat. "And how exactly did they explain the bruises in correspondence with a simple 'night terror' attack?"
"Flailing around and fell on his dresser or some crap," Dean replies, poking at a rather nasty bruise on the guy's wrist. "The report mentioned a lot of blood, too, but I don't see any cuts…."
"Well, something was holding him down, at least. He looks like he could have put up a pretty good fight." Sam stands in thought for a moment, and then he looks up at Dean with a hint of a grin on his face. "Hey, uh… you don't think it was a succubus, do you?" Dean snorts.
"Hey, if you wanna check, be my guest," he smirks, lifting the sheet up a little further.
"God, no, never mind! It wouldn't, uh, explain all the intense bruising up here anyway."
"That, and the fact that there's been two women who died the same way," Dean says and then stops short. "Oh, hey, unless—"
"What! I'm just entertaining the possibility that—"
"We should get out of here," Sam interrupts him, rolling his eyes.
They split up, Dean to the victim's apartment to check things out, Sam to the library to research the town's history for anything that would lead up their alley. At the apartment, Dean detects a faint trace of sulfur smell and blood stains splattered on the carpet and bedpost, but nothing more. He drives back to the library and finds Sam right where he left him, though Sam's had even less success than Dean.
"Sulfur, though," says Sam as they settle into their motel room a short time later. "But nothing on the EMF…. No burn marks around, or anything like that?"
"No, no burn marks, nothing rotting, no freaky symbols anywhere," Dean says, not looking up from sharpening his Bowie knife on a whetstone. "But I don't think we should rule out the idea you had at the morgue."
"What, a succubus?"
"No, Sammy, as stuck on them as you are—maybe it is a demon of some sort. All of the victims were asleep when they died, right? So maybe it somehow gets inside their head, sending them on full-on freak-out mode, and strangles the hell out of them for good measure. It would explain both the 'night terrors' and the injuries."
"But," Sam says while flopping on his bed, "one of the first couple victims, his wife was right beside him in bed when he died. She didn't know anything had happened until she woke up the next morning. It's gotta be something incorporeal, or, at least, something that does it's job pretty damn efficiently without disturbing anything else around it."
"Ever heard of a demon, besides the obvious, that attacks someone like that while they're sleeping?" Dean asks.
"Nope," Sam sighs. "I checked Dad's journal, too. Nada."
"Fantastic," Dean mutters, throwing down the whetstone and sheathing his knife. "All right. Well. On that note, I'm going to bed." Dean can nearly feel Sam staring at him as he puts his things away.
"You—you don't think…." Sam starts.
"No," Dean says abruptly, though he doesn't quite believe himself. They took enough chances as it was, and if anything did happen to Sammy, magnet for the paranormal….
"Throw some salt down if it makes you happy," he grunts, relenting, and climbs into bed.
Sam watches his brother for only a moment, frowning. Taking the salt canister, he lines the window and door, and places a pentagram on his bedside table for good measure. Scrounging for ideas on what attacked those people left Sam feeling uneasy, but maybe, just maybe it was all just in his head, concerned as he was. Still, with their luck…. Sam shakes his head, and plunks down into one of the two chairs the motel provided, determined to keep an eye on things even if Dean didn't think it necessary.
A guttural noise jerks Sam awake; his neck hurts like a bitch, the position he was in, and—wait. When the hell did he fall asleep? He was supposed to be keeping watch, supposed to keep an eye out….
Sam snaps to full awareness, and looks for his brother in the dark, but no, there he is; Dean's still here, still sleeping, and there's nothing else in the room. Sam nearly sighs in relief until he hears the noise again, a throaty groan, and his stomach does a horrible flip.
Blood is running out of Dean's nose, streaming down his chin and cheeks. His face is contorted, brows working furiously, lips slightly parted, hands clenching and unclenching in obvious pain.
"Dean! Oh, God, Dean!" Sam's at his brother's side in an instant, trying to still him as Dean tries to arch his back off the bed, but each and every one of his muscles is taut beyond being able to move. He's choking, gasping, and somewhere under Sam's barely-controlled panic he hates himself for falling asleep and not keeping watch, hates himself for failing one of his father's most important disciplines, if you say you're going to keep an eye out, you make damn sure you keep an eye out.
"Dean, come on man, wake up, please, come on…." Sam shakes him, hard, but stops when he notices a thin trickle of blood now coming out of Dean's mouth as well. "Oh God—shit, Dean, please!" Dean's arms are still clamped at his side, and now, at least, Sam understands where the bruising comes in. But there's nothing around them, nothing corporeal, not even a blip on the EMF, and how the hell are you supposed to fight something you can't even see?
Guided by God-knows-what and letting sheer adrenaline take over whatever control Sam has left, he falls to the floor on his knees and places a hand on his brother's sweat-soaked forehead, his fingers accidentally brushing the amulet Dean always wears. And that feels right, and Sam cannot explain it other than that, so he takes the amulet in his other hand and closes his eyes, willing his mind to calm and body to still.
He delves deep into the darkness, trying somehow to disassociate himself from the pain, but it is consuming, a suffocating haze infused with anger and hate and utter wretchedness. Dean is here, somewhere; Sam can feel his presence despite the smothering of whatever the hell this is suddenly taking up residence here (and Sam very well knows where here is, but incredulity can be saved for a later time.) But Dean is slipping farther and farther away, quicker than Sam can follow, and no, no, he will not let this happen, he won't let it, he won't—
There is a jolt of contact, and the overflow of desperation he's clinging to just seconds before is enough to pull them up and through the haze, and then there is light and the rushing of sound, his own heartbeat filling his ears.
With a cry, Sam's hand loses contact with Dean's forehead, and he falls backwards, his head smacking into his own bed behind him on the way down. For a second he's afraid all he can hear is his own labored breathing, but then he hears Dean, sounding as if he's just run a marathon. Sam's head is pounding, and pinpricks of relief at his tear ducts threaten to spill over, but he just rubs his eyes and licks his lips and says in a quavering voice, "Dean?"
"Sam," Dean groans out, eyelids fluttering. "S-Sammy?"
"I'm here," Sam says, and he is, grasping Dean's forearm, avoiding the areas where impossibly red grip-marks will no doubt give way to bruises later.
"How—how did you…."
"I don't—I don't… know. I…." Sam is gesturing, a loss for words, and that's when he notices he's still clutching Dean's amulet, the black cord dangling from his closed fingers. Dean's staring at it with a look Sam can't quite decipher, and Sam swallows, shakily opening his hand to give it back to Dean.
"I put down salt," Sam chokes out, not sure what else to say. "And a pentagram. I don't know what happened. I don't know."
"It's okay, Sammy," Dean breathes, eyes closed again. And there, Sam grimaces; as if hating himself for falling asleep while on guard wasn't enough, Dean's the one reassuring him.
"Are you all right?" Dean asks.
"God, Dean," Sam whispers, the heel of his palms digging into his eyes, trying to rid himself of this stupid, excruciating headache. "Yeah. I'm fine."
Dean attempts to get out of bed to wash the blood off his face but nearly falls face-first into the floor, so Sam gets a cloth from the bathroom and does it himself, much to Dean's chagrin. Dean's blood is already soaked into the sheets and pillows of his own bed, and as used to as they are of wearing their own blood, sleeping on it is another issue entirely, no matter how much Dean wants to just collapse. Sam moves Dean, stumbling and pale, into Sam's own bed, and there they sit, shoulder to shoulder, both exhausted beyond words, but not yet willing to give in to unconsciousness.
"Well," Dean finally says, his voice light but pained. "as for 'freaky shit that happens to you while you're sleeping', I think I got you beat for once, dude." Sam knows Dean doesn't mean that in the slightest, but he laughs anyway, and feels only slightly better for it.
"I didn't think that you…." Dean says after another moment of silence, but it's apparent he can't go any farther, as he just swallows and shakes his head. Sam waites.
Dean doesn't know how to say it, or if he should say anything at all, and he thinks, hopes, Sammy should have figured it out already. But Sam is just looking at him with that damned look, eyebrows drawn together, the crinkle of worry on his forehead, and Dean knows he's going to have to spell it out for the kid if he's going to get anywhere, but he can't. He just can't.
"You were here," Dean murmurs in a strained voice. "This time it was you." Sam gives the faintest of nods, both confusion and concern now visibly apparent on his face.
"Well," Sam tries, forcing a smile, "you know I always got your back, right?"
But instead of the kind of retort Sam was hoping for, Dean turns away, a frightening sort of intensity on his face. His voice is barely a whisper, so hoarse that Sam almost doesn't make it out.
"Don't I know it."
Despite what Sam would have probably thought, it wasn't a split second decision. It was a resolution he'd come to over the years, each passing day solidifying his thoughts, becoming more concrete, until he was more sure of it than anything he had ever known. So, when the endgame finally comes, they're only slightly more prepared than the Demon. This suits Dean just fine, as he knows - and feels - he's more prepared than he'll ever be.
Sam once told him he wasn't invincible. Dean's not a fool; he knows when to keep his mouth shut, but there are times when he just wants to grab hold of Sam and shake him, saying, "Remember when I died? Twice?" But that would rank off the charts on the scale of Stupid Things To Do, and Dean knows better.
It takes a hell of a lot more than just an exorcism and banishment to smoke the son of a bitch. At the last possible second, Dean throws off the plan he and Sam had so carefully devised and pulls out a Latin text, the pages yellow and crumbling, the words barely legible, and begins to read. At first Sam just gapes at him, confused and, underneath it all, slightly miffed, but then the words finally start registering in Sam's head and a look of abject horror sets into his features. No! he shouts. No, Dean, don't you do this! DEAN! But Dean can't stop now, even if he wanted to; he is bound in with his words and he barrels forward, the words becoming quicker, ebbing and flowing with a powerful cadence, and he watches as the Demon writhes in the skin of the poor soul he's taken for the just the occasion.
Sam once told him he wasn't invincible. Dean's hands are shaking and his head is pounding as if it's going to split in two, but he feels the ever-present weight of the amulet around his neck, and Sam is here, Sam is here. Dean has complete faith that, despite what's going to happen next, it's okay, because Sam is here, and when it's all said and done Sam will be the one to make sure everything turns out all right.
The air is thick, pulsating as if charged, and Dean's voice carries throughout the night, rising with the finality of his words. And just before everything goes, just before everything because nothing, he feels himself smirking madly at the Demon, a last second thought forming in his head.
Third time's a charm.