Three down, one to go.
Takes place a year or so after "Cold Fire."
Snippets of song cut through Dean's dreams. It takes a few minutes for his brain to sift through all the music tucked away in the back of his head and inform him that the repetitive song is a ringtone. Half-awake, he reaches for his phone. It's buried on the nightstand, in the debris of a week-long stay. By the time his hand closes over it, his brain has catalogued the ringtone as the one assigned to the Roadhouse's main line. "Ellen?" he croaks.
"Naw, man, it's Ash."
"Dude. It's the middle of the—"
"It's noon in California," comes the prompt answer. "Figured it was safe."
Dean swears and squints at the window. Sure enough, there's daylight out there. "What—"
Dean sits up, completely awake. "Talk."
He has everything packed by the time Sam wanders in, humming to himself. Dean doesn't pry for details. It's two in the afternoon and Sam never came back last night, just like he said he wouldn't, which means the date went well and for once Sam managed to find a girl who wasn't a tragedy waiting to happen. "I thought you said we wouldn't be leaving for another couple of days," Sam says, regarding their packed bags. "And why are you packing my stuff?"
"Remember Ash's little program for tracking the yellow-eyed bastard?" Sam nods. "Recognized a cycle. Northern Minnesota. If we leave now, we can get there before he actually appears and maybe just once—" He stops, not wanting to commit that hope to words. Every time he does, something bites them in the ass. "How's the arm?"
"Good as new." Sam picks up his bag without favoring his right arm at all. Not bad, considering that two nights ago he gave himself a hairline fracture of the wrist. "Or so my doctor tells me."
"Ha." They haven't seen an actual doctor in over a year, ever since Sam found out about Dean's sinking; haven't even had to dig out the suturing kit. Makes things easier, to be honest. No more skulking around, waiting for Sammy to fall asleep before he heals him, and Sam, realizing how important it is to Dean's mental health, gives him quiet time in the car without complaining or asking. Not to mention the money they save. "Just remember, I can't fix it if you break your neck." If the injury had been from a fight, Dean might not have teased. But Sam had tripped over a shovel and his own feet and fallen arm-first into a fresh grave, and that's just too good to leave alone.
"I know." He heads for the car.
They don't talk much on the drive. Sam leafs through Dad's journal, like he might find something new, something the two of them haven't read a dozen times over.
Remembering Salvation, they start out in the county records office. Dean's just glad that it's a sparsely populated county. That limits the number of possible six-month-old infants for the demon to target. "This would go a lot quicker if you'd quit slicing your fingers," Dean grumbles, before sinking for a few seconds to fix Sam's seventh papercut in as many minutes, channeling the pain into a cabinet. It wouldn't be so bad, except that Sam has a talent for giving himself really deep papercuts. "Don't lawyers have a lot of paperwork?"
"They also have secretaries."
Turns out they don't need to keep going through the records. Right after papercut number eight, Sam keels over with the worst vision he's had in months, a stab of pain that sends him crashing to the floor in a shower of papers. It thoughtfully provides not only an image but an address.
Dean wonders if the demon is toying with them, but pushes that to the back of his mind and helps Sam stagger out of the records office to the safety of the car. They find the house that afternoon, spend a few hours making final preparations. The sun sets, and they wait.
"Jesus, it's cold out here."
"Wuss." It doesn't seem cold to Dean, but then, he's seldom cold in the car. Not when the weather is just merely chilly. "There's a blankie in the back," he adds, absently.
"I do not need a blankie," Sam protests.
"Whatever, dude." Dean leans his head back against the seat. He hates stakeouts.
"Dean, can I ask you something?"
Dean stifles a sigh. And this is why he hates stakeouts. A bored Sam is a thoughtful Sam is a nosy Sam. "Have I ever been able to stop you?"
"You don't need the car to sink, right?"
Son of a bitch. God knows life's been easier since Sam found out about the sinking, but the questions are about to drive Dean insane. It's not fair. He doesn't pester Sam about how the visions work, after all, just knowing that he has them is enough. "You ever hear what happened to the curious cat?"
"No. I don't. Just something that's not alive."
"So what's the deal? Why are you so insistent on—" Dean reaches into his jacket and pulls out a gun. "Or you could just tell me to be quiet."
"Shut up. This is a visual aid." Sam gives him a look. "This is my favorite gun, right?"
"I know how this gun works. I know it pulls to the left, I know how much to compensate for that when I'm aiming, I know that if I don't keep it perfectly clean it jams. I can shoot any gun. But I'm used to this one. That's how it is with the car."
"It's easier." Sam is using the Skeptical Voice. He's not going to be satisfied with that explanation. "Dean, you went out in a snowstorm, in your socks, to get to the car so you could sink. There's got to be—"
"It's hard to explain, Sammy. The car—" He hesitates, searching for words. "It's like— When I'm sinking—" He stops. "Change that. It's impossible to explain. So quit asking."
Sam just looks at him. He hates that look. Sam's capable of just sitting there looking at him for the whole fucking night, knowing that eventually Dean will cave.
This time is no different. "Fine." He puts the gun away. "It's like— It's like I'm part of the car. Or she's part of me. There's a—a bond, I guess. A link." He runs his hand along the door. Sam can't feel the life in her, the gentle warmth lurking beneath the vinyl even on the coldest day. Sam thinks she's just a machine, and Dean pities him for that. "That's why I had to fix her. Keep as much of her as possible. Losing that much of me..." He lets the words trail off while he traces random patterns on the door with his finger.
"How much?" Sam asks quietly, breaking the trance before Dean can sink too far.
Dean laughs, and it sounds forced and bitter even to his own ears. "Too much. Too damn much." He sighs. "Sam, I've been channeling pain into this car for twenty years. Mine, yours, Dad's, a couple dozen random strangers. That— There's been a lot, you know?" Sam gives him his best No shit, Sherlock expression, but at least he doesn't demand that Dean go into the details. "Sometimes, it—" He stops again. There aren't words for this stuff. Anybody who wasn't named Sam Winchester would accept that as a sign that it's not supposed to be talked about. "Sometimes, I'll be sitting here, in the car, and I can feel the pavement."
"Under the wheels. Under my wheels." Sam's eyes widen. "I don't find scratches in the paint, Sammy, I feel them. I can tell if the wonky sound on the tape is the tape wearing out, or if the deck's trying to eat another one. I never run her out of gas because when she gets close to empty, I get really hungry. When it gets like that, I can tell you where every gun in the weapons compartment is just because I can feel them against the upholstery in the trunk."
"Dean," Sam begins.
But Dean can't stop, now that he's started talking about it. This is why he's avoided the topic so long. "And one day, Sammy... Some day I'm going to sink, and I'm not going to come back up. I'm going to sink into the car and never find my way back to me, because so much of me is in this." He smacks the door lightly. Feels the echo of it along a nerve in his arm.
"That's not going to happen."
"You don't know that. You can't know that. I don't know that."
"Then maybe you shouldn't sink anymore."
Dean shakes his head. "That's like telling you not to have visions. It's not something I can help. I just have better control than you do. Hell, in twenty years, you might be able to control the visions."
"You don't have to fix every papercut!" Sam protests. "You could save it for the—"
"I seem to remember you not liking the taste of reality you got last time I couldn't fix you all the way in one session. You want that after every hunt?" That shuts Sam up. "You don't take pain well, Sam. You never have." Dean looks at his watch, then out at the window at the sleeping house, wishing the damned demon would just show up already, before Sam comes up with any other questions.
"And you do?"
"I've got a place to put mine."
"That can't be healthy."
Dean shrugs. "Never said it was." The security lights start to flicker. "Finally," Dean mutters, and they climb out of the car as quietly as they can. Shadows thicken on the house's porch, solidify into a man with glowing yellow eyes. Dean edges across the lawn, circling to the other side of the porch. He can hear the man swearing. The words aren't in English, but their tone is plain.
"Locks changed?" Dean asks, and the man whirls around and an invisible fist knocks him backwards.
"Dean Winchester," he snarls. "I thought I smelled you two."
Dean scrambles to his feet, but an invisible wall keeps him from advancing towards the house and the demon. He glances across the yard at Sam. He's stuck in place near the Impala. "What can I say?" Dean asks. "I just love making your life miserable."
"How did you do it?"
Dean grins. "Gas leak. Company paid for them to have a nice hotel room and everything." Sam makes a damn convincing gas company employee, and he's fully capable of using the puppy-dog eyes to manipulate strangers as well as family.
Now, what that family was going to think when they got home and found their house salted and warded with every spell he and Sam knew... Well, they hadn't noticed the salt and wards in their hotel room either. It was a gamble, Sammy's idea that more might be better, that a combination of spells might work where holy water and salt alone don't, but it seems to have paid off.
He's reasonably sure the only reason he doesn't get thrown into a wall is because there's not one nearby. "You can't keep me from taking her," the demon growls.
"Then why are you standing on the porch instead of her nursery?" Sam asks.
The demon's eyes glow brighter. He looks pissed.
"We've got no problem chasing you around the country warding you out of every house you want to try to get into," Dean tells him. "You're not getting anybody else for your war."
"I already have them."
"The hell you do."
"You Winchesters just never got it." His voice has the same weary frustration that Pastor Jim used to exhibit when Dean composed naughty limericks instead of properly conjugating his Latin verbs, and that triggers a flare of rage. The demon has no right to sound like that, like a family friend, like he's part of their lives. "They're mine. Before they're born, before they're conceived, they're mine. They were promised to me."
"Not me," Sam says.
"Oh, you're mine too, Sammy. Just like all the other children." He smiles—not at Sam, but at Dean. Taunting him. "Sammy's mine until he dies."
Dean looks from the demon to his brother. Sam's hand, the hand holding the gun, moves. Dean reads his intentions in his eyes, even before the barrel of the gun heads for Sam's temple.
No you don't, little brother.
"I can fix that," Dean says, and fires.
Sam falls against the car, slumps to the ground. There's no blood but a slight trickle. His expression is slightly surprised.
The demon freezes mid-gloat. They both watch Sam's eyes glaze and dull, the blood trickle down his nose, the gun fall out of his hand, his head loll to one side.
"Let me know when he's dead enough." Dean aims again.
"You really are your daddy's boy." He can't tell if the demon is impressed or disappointed. "I never thought you'd have the balls to do that."
"He's better off dead than yours."
"He might have disagreed," comes the easy retort, "but you've had your way. Done Daddy proud." Before Dean can reply, black smoke boils out of the man's throat and dissipates into the atmosphere.
Dean dives for Sammy. He doesn't have to check to know Sam's not breathing, to know there's no pulse. Sam's eyes stare into nothing and the blood running down his face is already beginning to dry.
He doesn't dare move Sam, just stuffs the fingers of one hand into the Impala's grille and slaps Sam's chest with the other and hurls himself earthward, sinking faster than he's ever dared. The energies around Sam are fading, dissipating like the demon-smoke, so fast, so damn fast, but as long as there's some energy, he can do this, he can pull it off, he can bring Sam back, he knows Sam's ghost hasn't moved on, he just got shot by his brother, for fuck's sake, you don't get more betrayed or violent than that, if nothing else his spirit should be confused as all hell—
Nothing survives without blood. Nothing survives without breathing. That's the first thing to focus on, despite instinct shrilling at him to go straight for the bullet—squeeze the heart, make it pump, send orders to the diaphragm, make him breathe, make Sammy breathe—
The blood is cool and sluggish in Sam's veins. How long has it been, how long has he been dead? Too long?
No. It won't be too long. He won't let it be too long.
Once it's started, Sam's heart staggers along on its own, it will as long as he can convince it that the brain's still alive, as long as something's giving the orders, and that's the easy part.
Hearts are fairly sturdy. Lungs, a little less so. Brains, now, brains are fucking delicate, not as delicate as minds, but still, one wrong move and Sam will be blind or deaf or never come back at all. There can't be any scars, not the tiniest, not one cell out of place. Now all those years spent channeling torment into the Impala pay off, because now she channels energy into him, not actively of course, she's a car, but nature abhors a vacuum and all that shit, and when you take away the pain, something has to come flooding back in to replace it.
Every nerve is firing randomly in its death throes, causing a chaotic overload. They're too confused to listen. Even when he takes the pain away, they won't revert to normal functioning, won't mend, won't heal— If he can get just one to work correctly, just one, the rest will fall into place, he can impose order on the chaos...
A hard lump of darkness is lodged in the middle of the chaos. It doesn't respond to anything he does, and he belatedly realizes it's not part of Sam, it's the bullet he just put in Sam's brain, it's making the chaos worse, it's the core of the pain, the cells around it too terribly distracted to accomplish anything, it just sits there and generates more pain than he can channel just by being there.
Dean's read more than people think, knows the current theory is that most cells can't feel pain, that pain's just a message sent by special nerves to tell the brain that something's wrong. Bullshit. Doctors and researchers, for all their education and fancy Latin, never heard a cell scream.
He can't reach into Sammy's head and pull the bullet out. But he can give the cells directions, channel the pain into the Impala until he can convince them to force the interloper out, to rebuild their cozy little network, put it back just the way it was, not a neuron out of place. It's slow and agonizing, and five times he has to stop them because the screams are too much and Sam's confused heart and lungs try to stop again and he has to restart them but damned if he's going to stop now, not now, not this close, not when he can almost see the skull from here—
Bone. Solid, sensible, nothing like those hysterical neurons. Easier to patch together, too. And skin, skin is nothing, skin's easier than darning a sock—
Dean comes up far enough to see the hole in Sam's forehead spit out a bullet and then close.
He takes a deep breath and dives again.
Sam's brain is taking over, his heart beats and his lungs expand, all his organs are working again, but the body's a shell, nobody there, nobody home; this is a breathing corpse, fit for nothing but organ donation. He's still got to bring Sam home. Put Sam back. None of this means anything if he can't somehow grab Sammy's spirit and shove it back into his body where it belongs.
There's places he's never gone, depths he's never reached, depths he's never even tried to reach; places beyond sharing awareness with the car, places beyond sinking into the car. He doesn't know how, but somehow he sinks out of himself, out of his body and out of the car and out into that place where ghosts are real and solid and everything else is a specter.
Sam stands there, not five feet away. He's saying something, but Dean can't hear him.
No, he's not saying anything. He's screaming, crying, undoubtedly trying to tell Dean to quit this, to have some sense and let him go.
Yeah, well, he's never listened to Sammy before and there's no reason to start now.
He reaches out to his brother, but can't grab hold. They're not in the same place, Dean's just visiting and Sam's supposed to be here, there's some final barrier keeping them apart, a shadow of the barrier that prevents him from healing others the way he heals himself, that prevented him from healing his own electrocuted heart.
There's always been a limit. Mortal wounds are not meant to be healed by mere humans. Not even ones with the gift.
He can feel the pain building in his own head, an echo of Sam's injury, disturbingly physical. Pain is never this sharp in the sinking, no matter how deep he has to go. It's pulling him back, dragging him back to his own body.
There's always been a limit.
Fuck that. This is his brother. This is Sammy.
Dean hurls his rage and grief and building pain at the barrier keeping him from pulling his brother back, and it shatters.