As I was going up the stair
"As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away."
Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)
"Sammy!" Sam wakes with a gasp and his brother's hand on his shoulder. He blinks, and that seems to adjust his eyes to the TV's aimless flicker as well as to chase the last black threads of dream away.
"What?" he asks, still not quite there yet.
"You were having another nightmare," Dean says. His eyes linger a bit too long on Sam, asking him if it was the same one again, but then he turns his head to the TV and his fingers continue to zap.
"What did I do this time?" Sam asks sitting up.
Dean's mouth tugs downwards, the equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
"Not much. Just the lights flickering for a bit. And the TV zapping on its own."
Sam props the pillow better against his back, combs with his fingers over his head.
This is a discussion they've had for some time now. After dad died they both started having nightmares, Dean first. They wouldn't have talked about it, except Sam started dreaming too, and when it's about Sam and dreaming, talking becomes somehow compulsory.
Recurring dream. Over and over again, only the details changing. He knows it's not a vision, knows it's not just a dream.
"Anything changed this time?" Dean asks.
Sam tries to think. It's always been the same dream. Sam is in a hallway, at the bottom of a flight of stairs going straight up. It's dark, as if the sun has almost set and they've forgotten to turn on the lights. The dark wooden railing under his left hand feels smooth and worn out by hands touching it over the years. He wonders who stood there before him, who started walking the same stairs, whose house this is.
There is a thud as his foot touches the first step.
He tilts his head to the left, glances at the wallpaper. In the shadows he thinks it's a faded sepia colour, like memories giving up.
All feels silent and slow somehow, as if in this house time stands still. He can only hear his blood pounding loudly in his ears, and more silence. And yet…and yet…in this stillness he thinks he can hear something awake. A heartbeat. A rushing of air. Something waiting. Waiting for him. Something calling out in a voice that seems to come from far, far away.
This is when fear grips him, fear mixed with sorrow, and he knows he has to keep on, keep on, so he takes another step, and another, looking up at the landing, even deeper in shadows. He climbs slowly, each leg heavy as a mountain. He feels like walking through jelly. There's sweat breaking on his forehead. One more step. He knows he has to reach the top. Doesn't know why, but, like in all dreams, it makes perfect sense. But the feeling of unease, of sorrow and fear becomes more intense.
There is crackling…hissing…greed… he thinks it's fire. Somewhere around the corner, cowered at the ceiling, waiting for him, skulking. He wants to turn his head, look at it peek like a lurking animal, but his head won't move. His eyes can't stop looking at the landing ahead, and he needs to take those steps, needs to take them before the fire gets to him, before the warmth at his back becomes unbearable, before the feeling of grief becomes so heavy it crushes him down, before he somehow falls back, falls back and back…
…and wakes up with a gasp and cool sweat over his body.
But the details change.
At first, there had been no voice, just the feeling that something was there, waiting for him. Then came calling his name. Always calling his name. Or so he thinks.
"No. Same deal," Sam says. He lets his body slide down the pillow. Turns to look at his brother. Asks him the same question he always asks when this discussion is about to end.
"Dean? What have you been dreaming about?"
And he knows he won't take a straight answer, because so far he hasn't.
"Hey, I'm not wonderboy," Dean says. "I'm not the one that makes the lights flicker when I'm having a dream. So… not important. But hey…You sure had timing."
Sam looks questioningly at him and Dean cracks a light smile.
"I mean, I missed some very instructive scenes of Layla and her friends. Jerk."
They don't talk after that.
Dean is playing with his zippo. They've just had a burger that is bound to clog the arteries, and Sam is looking out the window on the street and Dean is somehow…not there again. Just turning the zippo on the shiny surface of the table, and then flicking it on and off, all the while watching it, watching it, and something that is elementally Dean-ish seems to drain from his eyes bit by bit.
Sam doesn't have to look at him to know what goes on in his brother's head, and it's not the waitress's long legs in her hot pants. No. Sam would have given the world for that thought to be actually his brother's, because that would mean that Dean is still Dean, not a pale shadow of himself, burning along with the pyre that was once their dad.
Sam knows alright. Doesn't take a psychic to figure it out (ha, ha, pun intended), Dean watching the flame, mind weeks backs, when John died and they had to salt him and burn him because that's what he would have wanted, and that's what he deserved. Peace, at last. And, deep in his heart Sam hopes, a happy reunion with mum.
He glances stealthily at his brother. Remembers how composed and structured Dean's grief was, but so thick he thought it somehow drowned out his own sorrow. Remembers how concise his brother's moves were, how constrained but accurate in all the fine details. Straightening out his father's clothes…caressing the ring on his left hand. Sam thought that maybe Dean would have kept it and worn it, worn it to have something of John on him (something palpable, because God knows, Sam thinks, how much of John Dean already carries) and he had told him so in a voice that trembled slightly, but Dean, without looking at his brother, had simply said in a voice that didn't tremble but was so hollow it was actually scary, that dad would never have parted with that wedding ring when he was alive, so he'd be damned if he'd be the one to do the parting after death. Sam had merely gulped.
And, ironically enough, death was the easy part, Sam thinks. The hardest part was watching their father burn, burn up, not against a ceiling, no, that would have been bad beyond belief but this had been bad too, listening to the sound the salt made as it slithered over his clothes –dead man's clothes he's thinking, and tears fill his eyes-, that sound of salt the loudest noise he'll recall for years, listening to the fire catching on greedily, claiming another one of the Winchesters. And this time, Sam had been thinking, this time we did the burning, and there is more burning, burning pain in him, salt water burning in his eyes and his throat and his heart, watching John Winchester, Mary's husband, Dean's and Sam's father being claimed by the flames. That was the hardest part of all, Sam's thinking, and if it was hard for him he wonders how much harder it would go down on Dean, and he knew, knew that John Winchester wasn't the only one that was burning on the pyre that night.
But Dean doesn't talk. Dean asks and cares for Sammy, but doesn't talk, not about what has him awake night after night, making him do strangling noises in his sleep whenever he manages to fall asleep, and twisting and turning, hands clawing wildly against sheet and air and pillow and Sam, when Sam tries to wake him up. So Dean doesn't talk, and Sam can only guess, and he's thinking that maybe fire is a curse upon every member of the Winchester family, or anyone close enough to get burned by them.
That night the dream changes.
It's still the same corridor, and the feeling of the fire waiting out for him like a predator is still there, and again there is fear and anger and hurt in him and he can't breathe, but this time Sam manages to reach up half the stairs. The world doesn't feel so dark anymore around him, save for the landing, still in shadows. And in this shadows, a shadow somehow more dark.
Sam… the shadow says. Sam… He can't make out who it is, but something goes tight in his throat and he's falling again. This time, with a slight shout and shatter.
"Dude, you scared the piss out of me," Dean says looking at him. Dean has always been a tough boy, resilient somehow, but Sam can already see where the black circles under his eyes are starting to form. He wonders if that's what he had looked like when he was dreaming about Jess dying 24/7. Can't keep his worry out.
Dean's look falls on the floor again. He carefully picks up the biggest shards of glass and tosses them in the bin. Then uses a wet towel to pick up smaller shards lying around, and tosses it in the bin too.
"Good thing you didn't break the lamp, man," he says. "At least we don't have to pay for the beer bottles."
Sam massages his temples. There's the faint beginning of a headache forming.
"Dean," he says. "This time it was different."
He tells him about the man.
"Shit," Dean says. "Shit shit shit."
"It's just a nightmare," he says, though a bit lamely, but Dean has already started pacing up and down and that is never a good sign.
"Nightmare, my ass," he says. "You know damn well that your nightmares aren't simply nightmares, Sammy."
"Jesus, Dean, will you stand still for a moment and tell me what the hell's got you wound up?"
Dean obliges. Crosses his arms. Looks old, much older than he should. Much more tired than his age justifies.
"A shadowy figure. A mysterious voice calling your name. And every time the dream gets more detailed your powers manifest stronger. Shit, Sammy… Didn't it even cross your mind that it's the Demon?"
The worst feeling Dean can recall aside from grief...and fear…and eh…pain and…well…strike that one out. One of the worst feelings Dean can put a finger on in his whole god damn pile of bad feelings, is that of helplessness. He is the more stoic of the two in certain aspects, but in this case…somehow it all comes crumbling down. And when Sam looks at him almost serenely for fuck's sake, it makes him want to beat him up and yell at him to simply stop taking it so goddamn easy.
Because they read through dad's journal and searched the net and carved all sorts of protecting runes and wards, and Dean said they'd sleep in shifts, and Sam had actually joked, joked goddammit how maybe coffee would be the solution to all problems and Dean feels like he's made of little paper cards and the slightest huff and puff will blow him apart…because Sam…he can't afford to lose Sam. The demon has already claimed mum, and dad and Dean'll be damned if he let him claim Sam. And the worst of it all? The thing that makes him curl his fists when he thinks Sam is not watching him, the thing that makes him clench his jaw and grind his teeth and makes something flutter wildly in his chest like a bird trapped, till he thinks he's either going to hit his head on the wall or start yelling or break something up or he'll explode in myriad little pieces… is the fact that deep down he knows, simply knows what Sam has already accepted: there is nothing they can do about it.
Dad is gone. The colt is gone. The demon has won. And is stronger. Always has been.
Dean has never been one for school, Sam was the one for that, not for lack of skill, but simply because for Dean home was being behind the wheel or helping dad out, and so he wasn't patient to learn anything that wouldn't help him out with his hunting, and he sure as hell isn't the type that goes for pretty words or good language unless they are getting him laid. He thinks that certainly is John Winchester shining through him in all his glory, cuz dad's strong point had never been words. Mum…mum had been different, Dean remembers and then sighs. And that part of mum, he didn't get. Still, he does remember one poem they'd done in high school. He had liked it so much he even remembered that the poet was Dylan Thomas and for the first time he had actually listened to young Mrs Winters (bomb shell, newly wed, dressed like a nun to be which only made her hotter somehow) reading it, not merely look at her pretty rosebud mouth move and imagine how she was putting it to real good use along with other bodyparts of her on him. So he had listened, and remembered, and that line…that line somehow stuck:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Mrs Winters and her pretty mouth (and eyes. And tits. And legs.) had insisted how it was a metaphor for man's struggle against death and aging, how it could stand for any sort of struggle. But what Dean remembers (Dean, who by the time he was 16 and reading this poem had already a few killings under his belt, and even more good lays), what Dean recalls and sometimes brings back in his mind tasting it over and over like sucking on a lollipop is exactly that: to rage against the dying of the light. To fight the night.
It was the first time he ever got an A in a literature test.
So now he's thinking of it again, thinking of it, and all the helplessness in the world is not enough to back him down. Because if it's the Demon (and since all has gone oh so fucked up so far he can only expect the worst really) and if it wants to go after Sam, somehow testing or binding him through dreams or whatever, even if Dean is gagged and buried alive (like in his dream. That's what he's always dreaming. That he's in a coffin and hears the earth fall on him, feels it weigh tons on him and he knows he's down there and he hits with his fists against the coffin and screams till his lungs bleed, till his fists are one big sore but nothing breaks and nobody listens and suddenly, like in all dreams, he finds himself above the grave, watching and knows that it's dad in that coffin, ridiculous really since he saw him burn but it's dad nonetheless in that coffin beating and screaming and he is above, looking at the gravestone and what the gravestone says is DEAN WINCHESTER in big bold letters and by God, by God, he'd rather never fuck another woman again before he actually tells Sam this dream) so even if he's buried alive or dropped at the bottom of the ocean or whatever…if it's the demon…and if it wants to go after Sammy…there'll be rage alright. Rage, rage and he will certainly not go gentle.
Nothing happens for a few days. Nothing at all. There is no Demon going after them, or minion sent by him. Maybe he bides his time, Sam thinks, but knows with a gut feeling as strong as his premonitions that he's missing something. Missing something crucial. Dean thinks maybe they should try find Missouri, or Ellen, but Sam already knows that there is nothing they could do about it. And he doesn't intend to spend the rest of his life within a guarded circle.
Dean's already paying the toll of so many accumulated hardships. There's a hollow in his cheeks that wasn't there before, but the worst thing for Sam is the hollow in his eyes. The only time Dean is Dean again is when they try to figure out what Sam's dreams mean, what the Demon wants. He sees rage in his brother's eyes, raw and hungry and blazing, and knows that it's what keeps Dean together.
"Maybe I should face him," Sam says. "Maybe that's what my abilities are for, maybe I could confront him in my dreams and…kill him."
"Yeah, right," Dean scoffs. "Cuz the bastard would definitely pick a turf you could win in, Sammy. Get real. No, we have to figure out what it is. How are you feeling?"
Sam shrugs. He doesn't feel drained, he feels perfect, and he doesn't have vision dreams anymore.
"Maybe that's what he does," Sam suggests. Dean is sitting cross-legged on the bed, guns spread around him, cleaning them, knives and machetes next to them to be sharpened. He looks thinner. More vulnerable.
"Maybe he interferes with my actual visions so that we can't save the people we're supposed to."
Dean's hands stop their methodical routine work. He tilts his head upwards, ever so slightly. Looks at a point beyond Sam, not directly at him. Then resumes his work. And Sam is smart, always has been, and though he's always been good with words, courtesy of Mary, growing up with John and Dean has made him quite sharp with body language too. And he can translate. Oh, can translate this momentary lapse in Dean's methodical cleaning. Can't save the people we're supposed to save? Shit, Sam. I couldn't even save dad.
"Dean," Sam says again, slowly, softly, oh so carefully. "What are your nightmares about?"
But Dean goes on cleaning as if he hasn't heard him, and Sam knows how to translate this as well.
That night the dream changes again. Maybe because Sam is so fed up and decides to stop fighting it anymore. Stop thinking of the fire, stop thinking of the fear and anger and pain in the dream, stop trying to do what…the dream tells him to. This time Sam, as stubborn as Mary and double so as John, decides to simply…go with the flow. Or the burn. Or whatever. So he is halfway up the stairs, hands on the same worn out railing and the light isn't so dim anymore and he forces himself not to think about the fire, forces himself not to care about anything save that figure on the landing. Till he reaches it. Simply reaches it.
It isn't lighter up there and the figure of the man is still in the shadows. But suddenly the figure's hands move and there is a glint. It is not the yellow glint of the eyes that Sam expected to see. That glint he knows.
For a moment his eyes shift to the wallpaper and for the first time he makes out the pattern…it's a sepia background like he guessed. But the pattern is made up of hundreds, thousand little devil's traps one next to the other.
He knows that shine.
The voice calls him again. And again. And sounds closer and closer. And with a bright illumination, like massive lightning cutting through a dark cloud, or like the fire suddenly blazing all around him, pushing him out of the dream and into reality seconds later, Sam realizes that he had been wrong all along.
The man had not being saying Sam….but son.
"No," Dean says. He isn't fidgeting, he is dead still in his chair, but his eyes tell Sam that he's about to bolt.
"No." There is a stiff line where his mouth is and at that moment reminds Sam of John more than ever. "What you're dreaming…it's not dad. It can't be dad."
Sam doesn't say anything. Merely looks at him, without even blinking, giving him enough time to talk without being spurred. Dean is the first to lower the gaze.
"It's not dad. It can't be dad. There was salt and there was fire. Maybe your dreams are just dreams, Sam. Dad's…" There is a pause and Dean's voice comes out like a whisper. "…gone."
"Maybe he's been trying to find a way to get back. Dean, we need to try out the Ouija board."
Dean shakes his head. His voice is hushed no more and there's a fierceness to his eyes Sam has only seen in hunting.
"It's not dad. Look, Sammy, I'd be the first to want dad alive and with us, I'd be the first to pray and hope for that but Dad is gone. It's not him. It's a trap and if we hope it's dad we fall right into it."
"Did you ever think that maybe all those lights flickering and objects moving and breaking wasn't me? That he tried to get our attention?" Sam says, still holding on to the reasonable approach.
"Why would he do that, Sam?" Dean slowly says. "And if it was really him, why would it take him so long? And why through dreams? Dad's not exactly Mr Subtle."
Is, not was, Sam's thinking, Dean's use of the present tense not escaping him.
Sam wishes that Dean would be walking up and down right now, moving his arms frantically like when agitated. He doesn't like Dean's stillness. It doesn't feel like Dean, this slow slithering tone, the blade glinting in his eyes.
"Maybe because this place is fucking fortified against anything supernatural," Sam says, leaving patience behind. "Runes and wards and spells…that's why he had to use the back door, had to get stronger and find.the.back.door. And I'm the back door, Dean, because goddammit I have those fucking visions! And I was blocking him! I was afraid and didn't know and I was blocking him! That's why it took so fucking long for him to come forth! So right now we need to take down those wards and get the bloody Ouija board, okay? Unless you have a better idea."
This time Dean does get up, starts pacing. Sam welcomes it with relief.
Then Dean leans against the wall like a tree ready to fall and looks at him.
"He burned, Sam," he says and his voice isn't steady. "How can it be him?"
Sam gets up, slowly approaches his brother.
"Mum burned too," he says. "She was back when it mattered."
"Not the same. There was no salt."
Sam's palm cups Dean's shoulder. Stillness reigns for a little while. Sam's hand slides down, dangles on his side freely.
"Listen," he says. "It could be dad and it couldn't be dad. Either way, we'll have to follow through. And whatever it is you have been dreaming about…let it go. That's all we can do, Dean."
He doesn't see it coming but even if he had he wouldn't have done anything about it, would have simply let Dean grab him by the T-shirt and push him against the wall shouting.
"We burned him, Sam, I burned him, I threw salt on him and burnt him when fire was the one thing he hated most! We burned him, burnt him like any odd bag of bones we ever come across and he's not coming back. Can't come back so I don't want to hear about any fucking Ouija board again!"
"You're not the only one grieving!" Sam finally shouts back, tears of agitation in his eyes. "Remember the Hookman? Maybe dad hung on to an object we missed, like his ring! His ring that glittered in my dream! I recognized him from that ring, Dean, maybe he found a way back because he wouldn't leave us alone with the demon alive!"
Dean's fingers dig even deeper. Dean is furious, Dean is mad, Dean can't cope.
"It's melted, Sam. It burned! We saw to it that it burned, we burned him and he burned like mum except not on a ceiling! We burned him and your anxiety dreams won't bring him back! He's dead! So I don't want to know. I don't want to know! He's dead!"
There's an unsaid And it's all my fault hovering like a black cloud in the air. Dean takes a small gasp as if remembering himself, lets go of Sam's T-shirt as if he's burned. Grabs his jacket muttering and slams the door behind him.
Sam doesn't run after him. He hears the Impala's engine roar furiously and drive off, and then he sits on the bed, elbows on his knees, face cradled in his palms, and, head down, lets his own tears finally, finally fall.
There's a small flicker in the lights, a small hush of air through the room, but his face is hidden behind his fingers and his long hair, and he doesn't notice.
That night Dean goes to a bar and drinks himself sick. The bar is called Joe's and has a blue neon light but Dean doesn't give a shit. What he gives a shit about is the fact that there is plenty of liquor.
He doesn't know how to cry, feels like he's in that damn coffin and the world is on him, doesn't know how to dig out like a mole. Doesn't even think about raging against the dying of the light or Mrs Winters, the only thing he has is rage and sorrow that can't vent. So he drinks. And drinks. It's stupid and it's not something he's done since he was 14 or so, knowing (because John had told him so) that control is important. He wouldn't even be driving, but grief dad's dead can't be him all my fault deserves peace can't be him he's dead I burnt him all my fault is a bad companion for booze. He doesn't remember when he is back in the Impala, but knows his baby blindly and knows even in his drunk stupor that he's safe to steer, his car more part of him than his own hands. Dean feels like it steers herself most of the times but it's raining, raining so bloody hard, and he hasn't slept for days, and he's been drinking and he's tired. He doesn't realize how he starts skidding until he sees the tree in front of him, and he's too tired and too drunk and too resigned to react and not even the thought of Sam is enough to jolt his brain back to survival, so he simply closes his eyes and waits for impact…and a reunion.
He never crashes.
The wheel turns and the car swerves back to the road and comes to an abrupt halt and Dean knows, knows, adrenaline pumping high finally making him Dean again, that it wasn't him who did it. He takes a trembling breath, sighs it out in a small foggy cloud. That's when he hears a small whisper, like a tiny caress pass over his ears.
I got your back, son. I got your back.
The headlights flicker for a second. The rain keeps falling. Dean drives back.
He is pale when he reaches back. He smells of liquor and cheap smoke and rain and a general mess, but his eyes are clear when he sees Sam reading.
"It's Dad," he says, watching his brother's eyes glimmering. "It's dad, alright, Sammy."
"How," Sam asks. He wants that stubborn pout on his chin, but what comes is more despair and frustration. "You said it yourself, we burned him. There was salt and we burned him. And the ring."
"I don't know, Sam," Dean says, rubbing his eyes. "But it was dad alright."
Sam digs in his shoulder bag.
"Maybe he has a reference somewhere that I overlooked," he says, opening the journal. "Why there are exceptions to the rule. And then we can do the Ouija board."
He starts leafing through methodically, with the patience of every good student. Feels Dean's stare heavy on him, and looks up. Realizes that Dean is not staring at him…but the journal.
"Dean," he says. His fingers tremble on the journal in small frail spasms of caress. He swallows hard. His voice trembles. "Dean."
Dean walks slowly and sits on the opposite chair. Leans his arms on the table. Reaches with a trembling hand to touch the leather cover. Closes his eyes. He thinks that a wind must have blown because his hair is standing on ends. He looks at his brother.
"Yeah," he whispers.
"Dean," Sam says.
The lights flicker.
They both look around them. Then at each other, their posture changed as if the weight of the world has for a moment been lifted. Or possibly a coffin lid.
Dean smiles tiredly. Then closes his eyes. And listens.