Thanks to all you wonderful readers. Many thanks to my awesome betas Maygin and Mizpah!
Sam was safe.
He knew it as soon as he'd woken up. He didn't have to wonder, or think about it, he knew it for fact. The first sensation trickling through to his subconscious was a sound. The sound of utter and complete safety. Lifting his head just enough to look around the room, Sam blinked in the dim light. He still had that 'flash going off in your face' vision, but it was fading fast to normal. More of his senses talked to him, none urgently, but enough to know he was unharmed. Warm and comfortable in the chill spring air, still drowsy, he took a lazy look around the room.
A fire crackled happily in the fire place, a Dean-sized speed bump between it and Sam. Smiling warmly, big brother was nothing if not consistent. Sam kept his movements slow and contained, so he wouldn't wake Dean. This was probably the first good sleep either had had in six months. Valkyrie curled between them. She lifted her head, gave him a sleepy look and a single thump of her tail before resting her head against his leg, going back to sleep. Dean's arm across his shoulders, a reassuring heavy warmth. Watching the steady rise and fall of Dean's chest brought a comfort so deep it reached all the way to Sam's soul he was sure.
They'd wanted Dean, wanted revenge, blamed him for their deaths. Sam could only feel so much malice. If he'd lost Dean he'd be just as vindictive. Probably even before he'd been freed from them, the McCreedys and Redding knew Dean's only true weakness was Sam, his Achilles Heel. The only way they had of hurting Dean was through Sam, literally. They'd wanted Dean to suffer in the most horrible way imaginable. What they hadn't counted on was Dean understanding, and deciphering a way to make retribution.
Sam was still a bit angry Dean had apologized to those monsters. He'd done nothing to be sorry for, but Sam had to admit it had done what they needed, separated the ghosts from demon control.
After being hit full force by the blast Sam's memory was hazy at best. He remembered Dean frantically grabbing at him, and sometime later Bobby saying his vision would come back in a day or so he was sure. The stone destroyed, smashed to bits by Bobby's sledge hammer, mixed with salt from the ring then locked securely in an iron box. They'd return to the McCreedy property later and bury it, then cover it with cement.
Eyelids heavy, Sam gave up on being awake. One final yawn, Sam let his eyes slide shut and drifted off to sleep to the sound of his brother's heartbeat.
Dean woke up slowly. For the first time in six months there were no screams, no frightened brother grabbing him, no wondering if it was a nightmare or some kind of possession…infestation as Bobby called it. No wondering what damage he'd done. Most importantly to Dean his brother was safely tucked under his shoulder, snugged securely against his side. He knew now how much he'd not been sleeping either these past months. It was amazing how a few hours of honest to goodness deep, uninterrupted sleep made him feel so much better.
He'd realized, far too late, the spirits of the dead men most likely had been with them since leaving South Dakota the first time. They'd hammered at Sam. They'd hammered at Dean through Sam. They attacked the kid's subconscious, then conscious every way they could devise. It was only a matter of time before either Dean killed Sam or Sam killed himself during one of their attacks.
The idea for righting the spirits' wrongs, or perceived wrongs all of a sudden came to Dean. They wanted to be recognized, their pain, loss acknowledged. It wouldn't stop them completely, that's what the other rituals were for. It was enough to end the demon control. What type of demon Dean still did not know, but with separation from the spirits it too was gone.
Seeing Sam hit with the white haze from the spirits, watching it surround his young brother completely, knocking him cold immediately was something that would send shivers through Dean for a long time to come. He'd tackled the kid, shielding him as best he could from the spirits' onslaught until Bobby destroyed the stone finishing their hold on this existence. They were gone, gone for good, Dean felt it.
Dean was mostly grateful he and Sam could finally move on, put themselves back together. For now he was still tired, and Sam slept peacefully for the first time in months, seeming terribly content using Dean for a pillow.
There was only one glitch in Dean's perfect little world right now. Sam's pillow seriously had to pee.
After his shower Dean was surprised to see Sam wasn't in their room, snoozing, waiting for him. He'd spent the last three days mostly watching Sam sleep. He'd had more boring days, but he couldn't readily recall when. Sam still woke up if Dean got too far away, especially at night, but now he'd merely go back to sleep. Dean and Bobby had the daily pleasure of watching Sam wake up, find a new spot, settle in and go back to sleep. Wherever he sat down for more than three minutes, Sam dozed off, making up for months of not sleeping. Twice Dean found him snoring on the porch, woke him up and herded him inside, only to watch Sam drop off in the first chair he came to.
Dean faired slightly better than his brother, after the first day or two he was refreshed and feeling more himself than he had in months. The biggest change he saw in Sam, even after this short time was the clinginess dropping off more and more with each passing day. That was turning into the most difficult part for Dean, letting Sam let go of him when his every instinct and drive said hang on tight. He knew he had to, it was best for Sam. So, he clenched his teeth against his own inner turmoil and forced a pleasant expression whenever Sam wandered off by himself. Those little forays never lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes, and Sam never seemed to even notice them. Dean did though.
Making his way downstairs, Dean was drawn by the smell of fresh coffee and the promise of breakfast. His eyes skimmed the room, not even trying to conceal his worry, his agitation from Bobby when he asked, "Where's Sam?"
Bobby barely gave him a glance up from the paper he was reading, "Took the dog for a walk. He should be back soon."
"How long has he been gone?" Dean was doing some fast calculations. He'd been in the shower nearly twenty minutes, of all the damn times to take a long shower. He had to work hard to keep the panic from his voice and knew Bobby heard it anyway by the slight shift in his shoulders.
"Fifteen minutes or so, not sure. He won't be gone more than an hour." Bobby set the paper down and gave Dean an unreadable look. "Besides he's got the killer fuzz-ball with him."
Dean snorted, "That dog couldn't fight her way out of a paper bag." Extracting his phone from his pocket he flipped it open. Before he could do anything else Bobby's hand reached up, took the phone, folded it gently closed and slipped it into the breast pocket of his flannel. "Bobby!" Dean tried to stop the sputter, but it left his mouth too fast.
"No Dean." Twisting in his chair to face Dean, Bobby pointed to the counter. "Now, get your happy ass over there, get a cup of coffee and some of the food I made you boys, sit and relax." When Dean didn't move Bobby snapped out an annoyed, "Now."
Reluctantly Dean stalked to the coffee maker, poured the demanded cup of coffee, moved to the stove to fill the demanded plate. He set them down on the table; sat in the chair beside Bobby, but defiantly refused to touch either food or coffee. "Bobby, you don't understand, Sam's out there alone." He was having a difficult time keeping his anger tucked inside, his breathing even.
"Yes, Dean, I do understand that's why I told him to go."
"You told him—what if he gets lost, or hurt?" Dean started to get up.
"He won't. I told him to take the dog for a walk, to not come back for an hour. He'll be back in," Bobby flipped his arm over to peer at his watch, "Thirty-eight minutes. He's got his phone. In the mean time you are going to sit here and relax. I promised Sam you wouldn't be angry, you would be proud of him and happy. And you will be or boy I'll beat you with a two by four until you are. Now sit your ass back down."
Dean sat. "There has never been a time I haven't been proud of Sam." He grumbled.
"Dean," Bobby sighed heavily, folding both hands in front of him on the table. "You don't have to let go, you don't ever have to let go. Just loosen the grip. He's not going anywhere, he's not leaving. You'll always be his big brother and he'll always need you, no matter what. He won't get better, completely better until you let him, tell him it's ok. Sam's a sweet kid, because you let him be that, you'll always have to watch that."
"What am I supposed to do Bobby, abandon him at the roadside so he toughens up?" Dean snapped.
"No. Of course not. But there are certain things he'll always be vulnerable to. Things like what happened because you shelter him; protect him from a lot, you have his whole life and he's used to it. You're both gonna have to be aware of that, be on the look out for it. That's all I'm trying to say."
Dean was silent for a few minutes. Bobby let him alone. When he looked up, met Bobby's eyes the older man smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Well, I am sort of happy to be able to take a shower without a guard."
"Yeah, what happened at that lake, might take a bit more effort." Bobby sounded sympathetic. "Remember you can hold on, don't smother. Toss him out of the nest once and a while."
Nodding, Dean glanced out the window at the sound of Valkyrie's barking and Sam's voice. Bobby's hand on his arm kept him seated, though every nerve in Dean wanted to jump up, run out the door and make sure Sam was fine. Bobby's eyes crinkled even further when he took a look at his watch again. "Twelve minutes early, did better than I thought he would actually."
That made Dean smile. He watched Sam take the steps three at a time, the dog bouncing along beside him. "Hey." Sam's voice was a bit breathless, as if he'd run the distance to the house. Maybe he had. Would Sam ever be comfortable alone? Dean doubted it and knew he wouldn't, but they had each other. They weren't alone and didn't need to be. Valkyrie puffed small breaths out the sides of her mouth. She sat on the floor in the space between Dean and Bobby, sitting up, eyes shifting from one to the other.
Bobby chuckled, "You're such a tease." He held a piece of egg for her. She slipped it from between his fingers into her mouth, tail pumping.
A sharp jab from Bobby's foot against Dean's leg under the table made him straighten a bit. Sam stood looking at him, his face a mixture of apprehension, guilt and some unasked question. The accuracy of Bobby's words hit home with a resounding crash, he was right. Sam was there, wanting Dean's approval, to know what he did was right and ok by Dean. He might never have had the ability to deny his kid brother anything, but he sure did have the ability to read him, care for him.
Smiling at Sam, letting the warmth of his own emotions shine through Dean cleared his throat, took a sip of coffee and made sure he kept his voice casual. "Have a nice walk?"
Sam's face nearly split in two, dimples working overtime. "Yeah, I did." Sitting he reached over, pulled Dean's plate closer, snatching a sausage and swiping it through the egg yolk before gulping it down.
Smacking at Sam's hand, Dean grinned, "Get your own you brat."
"Boys." Bobby's hand hit the table. He laid Dean's phone beside him. "When you two are done screwing around maybe we could go bury that box?"
They packed the car first. He and Dean would be heading out after burying the box containing the broken stone and salt. The two of them took turns digging until Bobby deemed the hole deep enough and placed the box at the bottom. Holding a bucket while Dean mixed the cement, they poured it in the hole, covering it with a six inch layer of dirt.
Already Sam noticed grass starting to peek through the soil where before there'd been nothing but black, charred earth. The occurrence didn't go unnoticed by Dean or Bobby either. Judging by the content expression on his brother's face neither did the fact Sam felt more at ease, safe, secure, freer than he had since crossing a parking lot to fix a flat tire for an old man. He would never be that person again, but he wouldn't be the person Dean liberated from the cage six months ago either. His brother loved him for who and what he was…always, and that's what truly mattered to Sam. As long as Dean was there beside him, often clearing the path for him Sam would do fine, he'd be fine. It was the first time in a long time he truly believed it.
Bobby set them on the trail of something interesting back east, they'd head there. Three nights on the road, and Sam had slept peacefully through every one. He made an effort to not sit and stare hatefully at the bathroom door when Dean showered. Dean didn't drop the not so long ago established habit of driving only so far, and keeping a schedule, but that was ok, Sam liked the schedule and it obviously made his brother feel better.
Somewhere just east of the Mississippi river they pulled into a town for supplies. Sam was surprised when Dean bumped the keys into his chest, asked him to gas the car up. He was heading across the street where there was a store. Twenty minutes later Dean sauntered back to the car, arms loaded with bags. Sam couldn't help the warm feeling spreading through his middle when Dean's fingers wound around the back of his neck for a minute, leaning across him to drop the bags in the back seat.
"Ya did good Sammy." Was all Dean said. It was all he had to say. Sam could tell by his brother's tone, Dean knew full well Sam spent the entire time intently watching the store, waiting for his brother's return.
"Thanks." Sam's voice soft, almost a bit embarrassed as he glanced at his feet, but that didn't stop his lips curling up. Dean nodded, he understood too. His brother's praise was precious to Sam.
"Hungry?" Dean asked, folding his long legs into the driver's seat.
"Yeah." Sam folded his longer frame in the far side of the car.
Nodding, Dean started the engine, pulled back onto the highway. They drove a few more miles, getting farther from the town, "There's a good spot." Dean pointed to a rest stop, it was quiet and shady; there were grills. Sam suspected Dean had purchased burgers and beer, probably some cookies or cake too. Dean never forgot dessert it was one of his strong points as far as Sam was concerned.
It was still too early in the year to have many travelers. Another few months the roads would be crowded with families on vacation. But today it was just them, a few truckers and a young couple. The rest stop was big enough even though they saw the other people they couldn't hear their conversations. Sam tossed a ball for Valkyrie while Dean grilled.
Sam watched his brother for a few minutes, if Dean was aware of it, he didn't let on. Without warning, Sam was awash in overwhelming guilt, drowning in it as Dean nearly had in the water. How could he ever think Dean had been joking? "Dean, I'm really sorry."
Dean turned at Sam's blurted out words. He looked around, down at the ground, squinted at the sky for a few beats then raised one hand and let it fall to his hip. Quirking an eyebrow, looking utterly baffled.
"I thought you were messing with me and you could have died."
He expected some rebuff, instead Dean's face softened. "It really is ok Sammy."
"You wouldn't have thought that if it was me." And that was it, Sam realized. Dean would have never thought to be annoyed, or to question that Sam was in danger.
A small smirk and a shrug of Dean's shoulders, "Yeah, but I'm better." He piled a plate with burgers, setting them on the table and dipping his chin down in a 'come eat' motion. "You figured it out Sam. I know you'd never let me down." Dean said between bites of burger.
Sam's appetite flared at the smell of freshly cooked meat. He felt instantly better, because Dean had hit it exactly. It wasn't the event; it was Sam thinking Dean might not have faith, trust in him.
"I still wonder why me? What did I do?"
"Me too Sam. Maybe a more accurate question would be why them? Why did they feel the need to hurt so many people, was it all some kind of evil influence? We'll probably never know. I'm just happy they're gone now, it's over and my little brother is in one piece. Maybe it's time we both let it go and accept the fact we might have to live without answers."
"Do you think it'll ever go away, really go away. Seeing the fire, how I feel being alone?"
Dean took a deep breath, met Sam's gaze steadily. "I don't know Sammy. What I do know is you're fine the way you are. There isn't a damn thing wrong with you."
Sam was more grateful for that than he had words to express. They fell silent again, eating in the warm, late afternoon sunshine. Dean opened a beer, handed it to Sam; opened another for himself.
"I have a question," Dean said around bites of burger, "when the spirit hit me, knocked me out in the house; Bobby said you knew right away it was me. How did you know?"
He stopped chewing, giving his brother a look that read the answer should be painfully obvious, and swallowed. "Your heartbeat."
"My heartbeat?" Dean blinked, sounding as if that surprised him.
When Sam looked up he realized Dean really didn't get it. "Yeah doofus, your heartbeat. I've spent three quarters of my life falling asleep to your heartbeat, think I can't tell when it's right or wrong? Pick it out of a line up?"
Dean fell silent. Sam could tell he was digesting that piece of information along with his food. When he finally met Sam's gaze again his eyes, entire face had taken on a warm, content glow. Dean had a hard head, and getting things through it was a challenge on the best days, but something had finally gotten there and stuck. How important Dean was to Sam.
"You know," Dean stared at the sky for a minute while he spoke. "The day you were kidnapped, I walked out of the store, and you weren't there." He dropped his eyes to meet Sam's. "And I," a deep breath, "I thought you'd taken off on me again, it wasn't for more than a minute or two, but the thought crossed my mind. Just like you thought I was fooling around in the water."
"I'm sorry I ever gave you a reason to think that."
Dean shrugged, "It's over. We're past it." Sam nodded in agreement. "How do you think I felt Sam when I walked out and you were gone? How it feels to let you walk away, go somewhere I can't see you're safe, never knowing if someone, or something, will take you again?"
The ground at Sam's feet blurred. He'd never thought how it must have been for Dean, be for him now, probably be for him always. "I guess we'll have to deal with it as it comes." It certainly added to Sam's understanding of his brother, how he ticked.
Dean nodded, "Yeah." He smiled, smacking Sam's knee, "We will."
"Ya know Dean, you think I think you're too overprotective, but I don't, not really. I get it—why, I do. Honestly the way our lives are, it's not such a bad thing. For the record I worry about you when you're not with me too."
Collecting the remains of their dinner, dumping their garbage in a nearby trash can Dean smiled over his shoulder, "I know you do Sammy."
Whistling for Valkyrie, Sam ran to catch up with Dean as they headed for the car. Yawning as they left the rest stop, Sam heard the rustle of Dean's clothes, felt his movements as he reached in the back for a blanket. It never ceased to amaze Sam how Dean could drive and bundle him up at the same time. The radio was toned down, Valkyrie curled against his leg. Sam was home, so was Dean. Together they made a safe, secure place for each other, and whatever came along? They'd deal, together.
Two souls bonded together through eternity. Without one there truly would not the other.
I'm still alive
Must've been a miracle
It's been a hell of a ride
Destination still unknown
It's a fact of life
If you make one wrong move
With a gun to your head
You better walk the line
Or be left for dead
I'm a runaway train on a broken track
I'm the ticker on the bomb that you cant turn back
This time that's right I got away with it all and I'm still alive
Let the end of the world come tumbling down
As long as hot blood runs through my veins
I'm still alive
Lost in the night feeling so invisible
A dead man walking the wire High above the devil's net that's made of fire
And it's a long way down from the top of the world
You'd better look around or you're gonna get burned
Let the end of the world come tumbling down
I'll be the last man standing on the ground
And as the dust clears look in my eyes
I'm still alive
The darkest night ain't black enough
To keep the morning light from shinning
The highest wall ain't high enough
To keep the smallest man from climbing
The more that you resist the tide
The more it pulls you in
The more you hang on for your life
And if my shadow's all that survives…I'm still alive!
"Alive" by Meat Loaf