Title: Somewhere from Ashes
Category: AU gen oneshot
Word Count: 4481
Characters: Dean, Sam, and Bobby
Spoilers: S1: "Pilot" and mild "Phantom Traveler." S2: "In My Time of Dying"
Summary: Dean has always measured time by Sam until the day comes that Sam changes that measurement.
Warnings: Character death—more or less
Author's Notes: This story takes place before the season two finale and is an AU in the fact that—among other points—the demon is assumed dead before then. I'm sure that this idea has probably been written by far more talented people, but as I've never read any such story, I thought I'd give this my best shot. If I have stepped on anyone's toes however, I apologize and assure that it was not intentional.
Disclaimer: The following characters and situations are used without permission of the creators, owners, and further affiliates of the television show, Supernatural, to whom they rightly belong. I claim only what is mine, and I make no money off what is theirs.
Dean measures time by Sam.
There was Before Sam. These are the years that Dean cannot remember vividly, but what little treasures he has are filled with bliss. Family and warmth. His dad laughing and mom reading bedtime stories. The smell of fresh cut grass from the lawnmower and the feel of his mom's stomach with Sam inside. The naïve sense of infinite happiness.
There is the time During Sam. Dean remembers these moments more clearly and files each memory away carefully. He records time by Sam's first step and elementary school report cards. The year Sam broke his arm and the summer he learned to swim. When they separated for California and dreams and came together for Dad and brotherhood.
Dean knows the years of his own life because he knows them by Sam.
But this. This right here.
This is After Sam.
- - - - -
Later, once he has drunk himself into a near blind stupor, Dean will only find solace in knowing the end was quick enough that Sam did not see it coming. That Sam did not suffer. Dean will remember and replay the final moments where he runs for Sam, tripping over slaughtered monsters and screaming Sam's name madly to their only witness of the moon.
When Dean finally reaches him, Sam is already dead. Dean dizzily collapses next to his brother and buries his face in Sam's torn shirt, and his sobs give way to unintelligible hysteria. He remains in that desolate swamp all night until Bobby finds him the next morning covered in mud and blood.
In the days that follow, Dean tries everything possible to bring his brother back from the dead. But the reapers do not heed his call, the demons refuse his offered soul, and the hunters turn him away without answers. Dean's foothold on any hope begins to crumble, and he topples further into anguish.
Bobby, a gruff hunter like the others, is gentle and quiet in the times like now that matter. He holds his own grief for telling the boys about the creatures in the swamp, and he lingers near as if to assuage the guilt. He never says much, but Dean has learned to recognize Bobby's silence nonetheless.
Finally Bobby offers to take Sam away. The small cabin on the outskirts of the Rockies is beginning to smell of decay, and Sam's cold skin has acquired an inhuman tinge. Denial is so hard to find now.
"I can take care of it," Bobby says, head bent and eyes hidden beneath the brim of his cap. "You don't have to, Dean. Nobody expects you."
Dean, who has not moved in days from the chair beside the bed where his brother rests, looks up at Bobby through blurred vision. He has been able to stop Bobby's attempts at paternal ways through violent outbursts and irrational behavior; the sudden assertiveness of Bobby surprises Dean.
"I'll do it," Dean whispers, tasting bitterness on the swell of his tongue. His voice is rusty with the absence of words in the time that has led up to this day.
"Dean—" Bobby begins, approaching. The floorboards creak beneath his feet.
"I said I'll do it," Dean bites back. He sighs raggedly, the closest to an apology he can muster, and grinds the heel of his hand into his eye. "No one should have to. He's my brother. I should—have to be—the one to do it."
Bobby doesn't object any further. Dean thinks that all the years spent with John have taught him well about the stubbornness of Winchester men, and Bobby only turns away. "You know where I'll be," he tells Dean.
A fly buzzes and lands on Sam's finger. Dean holds his breath, waiting, but Sam does not move.
- - - - -
Dean considers getting so magnificently wasted that he won't be able to stand upright, but he knows he needs to remember this. This is his brother and the last of his family. Sam deserves more than a drunk's cheap fire on a cold autumn night.
Alone, Dean builds the pyre from fallen trees in the area and old beams gathered from an abandoned warehouse. The jagged, haphazard nails in the boards pierce his hands and scratch his arms. He ignores the blood because he can barely feel the pain. His body swims with so much grief that he is suffocating in it.
When he is finished and Sam's body rests atop the crude structure, Dean touches his brother's hand one final time. His split thumbs leave bloody streaks on the puffy skin over Sam's cold knuckles.
"Sammy," Dean chokes out. It's Sammy, I didn't know and Sammy, don't leave me. It's an apology and a good-bye. Broken agony tangled up in a single word.
He lights the match and throws it onto the base where crumpled newspapers bloom into glowing petals next to thin sticks. Once the flame catches the wood and begins to burn with enough strength to finish its task, Dean sits down on the grass. The dew is slippery cold beneath his hands, and it seeps through the fabric of his jeans.
As the fire crackles and hisses when it licks at the sleeve of Sam's coat, Dean buries his face in the crook of his elbow. The smoke, thick black, floats into the night, and Dean tries not to breathe in the fragile ash of his dead brother.
- - - - -
His first drink is casual enough, but once he starts, he cannot stop. Even if he could stop, he wouldn't want to anyway. He drinks until he can no longer feel the sharp bite of grief. His thoughts swirl together in a myriad of fragmented pain, and he floats between reality and dreams.
He assumes Bobby must continue to visit occasionally because someone leaves new food in the refrigerator and brings thick blankets when the nights grow cold. But Dean never sees anyone. He is too far blinded by alcohol and pain to notice much of anything beyond the worn top of his pillow. The numbing sensation is strangely comforting, and it is a world in which Dean feels himself sinking deeper every day.
Outside his window, the sun rises. Dean closes his eyes against it and buries his face into the blankets. There can be no time without Sam, and Dean refuses to face a day without his brother.
He wishes for Sam.
He wishes for death.
- - - - -
"Dean?" someone is saying. "Dean, wake up." A hand rests on Dean's shoulder and shakes him gently.
Dean groans. "Go 'way, Bobby," he mumbles into the rank fabric of his bedsheets. Dean is not sure how long he's been like this. Time has a way of moving at a different pace now that Sam is gone, and for all Dean knows, years may have passed him by.
"Dean, please, get up."
Dean swears. His obscenities are muffled, but his intonation makes the message clear enough.
Still the voice persists. "I'm begging you, please get up, all right? Just get up so I know you're okay."
"I swear to fucking God, I'm gonna—" Dean begins. His voice lurches, stops and breaks when he rolls over and lifts his head to see the man sitting on the mattress beside him.
"Dean," Sam breathes, and his contorted face of worry relaxes.
"Y-you can't be here," Dean stammers, trying to push himself out of bed and finding himself twisted in the blankets. "I burned your body. I was right there. You can't come back as a ghost. No, no, I made sure of that…"
"I'm not a ghost."
"Goddamn shapeshifter, then." Dean staggers to his feet on the floor, and his legs wobble as he stumbles backward. His hands fumble blindly behind him for a gun so he can shoot this bastard of a monster who came to mock him with his dead brother's face.
"Dean, listen to me." Sam stands, and the mattress creaks under the sudden loss of weight off its springs. He comes around the other side of the bed and grabs Dean's trembling hands in his own.
Sam's fingers are warm. Real. He smells like that bad aftershave he liked in high school, and he wears a coat that Dean hasn't seen in years. His cheeks are padded by baby fat, and his hair is cut awkwardly short.
"Dean," Sam repeats. "I'm here, all right? I'm here. Me. Sam. I'm here. It's going to be okay now."
Dean doesn't move for a moment. When Sam makes no attempt to attack him as an assumed shapeshifter would, Dean tentatively reaches out to touch Sam's shoulder.
"Sammy?" he whispers. His voice cracks on the syllables he thought he'd never say again.
Sam smiles, and the expression lights up his face. "Yeah. Yeah, it's really me."
- - - - -
Sam pushes Dean toward the bathroom and refuses to answer any questions until Dean's cleaned himself up. In the shower, Dean keeps banging his elbows against the walls, and at the mirror, his hands shake when he shaves his face and brushes his teeth. With steam clouds trailing behind him, he exits the bathroom with flushed red skin from the water's heat.
Scanning the area he's spent so much time in, he notices that the bottles of alcohol are gone, the sheets stripped from his bed, and the windows opened to allow a warm breeze to permeate the stench. It seems like an entirely different room.
Sam sits at a now cleared table that was covered in vodka bottles and Styrofoam containers of molding food. There is a mug of coffee in front of him and an old newspaper beside him. He glances up as Dean approaches cautiously, bare feet soundless across the carpeting, and Sam slides the cup to other empty seat at the table.
They remain in silence with Sam's lowered eyes skimming the newspaper rapidly and Dean's attention focused on his younger brother. Dean feels wonderfully hung over, and the hot liquid of the coffee burns his tongue, but he doesn't stop. It's a relief to know he can still feel. He's been drunk so long that his body has practically forgotten how to be sober.
"I died, didn't I?" Sam says at last, folding the newspaper and lifting his eyes to Dean.
Dean nods mutely.
Sam accepts this without argument as if it was what he had been expecting Dean to say anyway and just needed confirmation. He shifts in his chair and clears his throat. "Well, go on, you can just ask it already. I know you want to."
Dean wipes a hand over his face before he speaks. "All right, then. How. You're not like Sam when he died. You're…well, dammit, you're different."
Sam smiles, but it is soft and sad. His eyes appear sympathetic for Dean. "We can wait until you're ready. You sure you can handle this?"
"Won't know if you don't tell me."
"You sure haven't changed at all," Sam replies with a chuckle. "Same old stubborn Dean." Then he sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "Okay. So, um, I guess I'll just get right to it. I was on the bus out to Stanford. You had just told me good-bye about two hours ago or so. At the next stop, this woman sits down next to me—"
"Drink your coffee and let me finish," Sam tells him. Dean doesn't touch the coffee, but he does not interrupt again. "She said that you needed me. That you were in a lot of pain." Sam pauses and looks away, out the window where the afternoon sun is bright. The autumn leaves are brilliant red on the trees in the distance, and the faded plaid curtains snap in the breeze on the window frame. "She told me I could come to you if I wanted because of, well, what happened. She could do that. Send me here."
Dean narrows his eyes. "You're coming here from when you left for Stanford? That—that doesn't…You'd have to be…"
Sam nods, confirming Dean's unspoken words. "Yeah, eighteen. I'm eighteen years old."
- - - - -
As Dean slowly starts to accept the possibility that Sam has just traveled through time into the future, Sam tells him, "I don't have forever to be here, y'know."
Dean looks up from where he's paging through Dad's worn journal and searching for information on time travelers. "Then how long?"
Sam sighs and stops digging around in his duffel bag. It's the same bag that Dean remembers going out to California. To see it now, all these years later, in its brand new condition is disorienting but only validates Sam's words even further.
"Somewhere around four years. The woman on the bus said that you'd come to Stanford to get me and that's when I'd have to go back to my own time."
"You're still going to leave me then. What the hell kind of a deal is that?" Dean spits.
Sam doesn't answer at first. When he finally does, his words are quiet but strong. "It's the kind that at least gives us four years to say good-bye this time."
- - - - -
With only one bed in the cabin, Sam sleeps next to Dean. They'll have to move eventually or buy another bed, but for tonight nothing needs to change.
Sam sleeps on his side, curled up with a fresh pillow tucked protectively against his face. The only light in the room is the black and white flickering of the television. The sound on the old movie is muted, and Dean reads the captions to allow Sam to rest. At a commercial break, Dean looks down and brushes a piece of hair away from Sam's face.
Sam stirs but does not wake. He is still too young for visions to torture him as nightmares, and he is still small enough to share a bed.
Sometime during the night, Dean casts his doubts aside and allows himself to believe fully in what Sam has told him.
This is his brother. His Sam.
When the movie has ended, Dean turns off the television and the room is thrown into blackness. He rolls over and closes his eyes. With their backs resting together Dean can feel the steady rise and fall of his brother's breaths.
Sam's returned. That is all that matters.
- - - - -
They don't go back to hunting. Not after Dean tells Sam the demon's dead in this world and they can sleep safely at night. With the subject of the demon opened, the questions about Dad are the most natural thing to ask. Wherever the demon has gone in life, Dad has always been right behind.
Sam wonders about Dad and how he must feel now that the demon's dead. Dean swallows something painful, and he tells Sam the truth.
The words rest heavy in the air, and Sam goes to stand by the window. He tries not to cry even though he'll say later that he already suspected.
"I wish I could have told him I was sorry," Sam says, and Dean has to remember that this Sam just fought with Dad a few weeks—possibly only days—ago. The angry words must still be loud and clashing in Sam's mind.
"He knew," Dean reassures him. "He knew you didn't mean it. He didn't die angry at you, trust me."
Sam glances over his shoulder to Dean, who is making lunch at the counter. "Did he really hate me for going away to school?" Sam's face is so young and eyes so wide with his childhood.
Dean shakes his head. "No. No, he was, God, he proud of you. Hell, he had to tell every person we met." He laughs under his breath as he spreads mayonnaise on the bread just the way that Sam likes it. "Some of Dad's friends had to stop him. 'Yeah, John, we already heard a million times how smart your goddamn kid is'."
Sam grins and comes forward to take the sandwich Dean has finished putting together. "Thanks," he says, and they both know it's not for the food.
Mouth full, Dean smiles back. "Yeah?" He swallows. "Right back at ya."
- - - - -
Together, they travel across the country. They see the things they never got the chance before but always wanted. Occasionally they rent an apartment for a few months and consider a world of normalcy as Sam so desired. Dean gets a job, and Sam enrolls at the local community college, but they both find the road beckoning and they disappear yet again.
Dean thinks that this is how they should have been living all those years ago, and he is happy that he can give Sam this much before they separate again. Dean knows what life will bring for his brother after they reunite at Stanford, and he is determined to make the best of their time together now.
One morning when Sam is in the kitchen making coffee, Dean staggers in, still half asleep. "Where d'ya want to go today?" he asks around a yawn. His back cracks when he stretches his arms above his head.
Sam doesn't look up. "Disneyworld." He drops another scoopful of coffee grinds into the filter. It's going to be a strong pot today.
Dean nods. Doesn't argue. "All right. I'll get packed."
- - - - -
They get soaked at Niagara Falls and Sam curses when Dean steals his raincoat. A week later, Sam finds revenge by hiding Dean's car keys in the ball pit at McDonald's during a four-year-old's birthday party.
At the Grand Canyon, they play blackjack at midnight beside a campfire so they can see their cards. They wrap themselves in blankets from the Impala's trunk to keep warm while they stretch out on the flat desert land and lie together in silence.
They go to a carnival during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Sam laughs so hard he can't breathe when a group of drag queens throw their beads at Dean and call him "sugarbaby sweetest." That night, Dean encourages a flock of girls to flash him at the bar by showing them all his beads they could have.
On the Fourth of July, Dean enters a hotdog-eating contest only to end up in front of the toilet five minutes later with Sam rubbing his back. Sam spends the evening watching the fireworks from their motel room while Dean rolls on his bed and moans whenever his stomach contracts spasmodically.
In a restaurant beside the ocean where Sam eats fresh lobster and Dean orders the seafood platter special of the day, Sam puts down his fork. Looks up from his meal. "It's getting closer, y'know."
Dean stops chewing. He swallows because his mouth is full and he doesn't want to spit shrimp at Sam. "What do you want to do?" Outside, rain is beginning in a soft roll over the choppy water. A flock of seagulls rises into the air, shrieking terribly.
Sam shakes his head. His hair is longer now, and the shaggy cut makes him look like the person Dean lost. "It's not what I want anymore, Dean. We've got to go back to hunting. You've got to be able to go on when I leave."
"What if that's not what I want?"
"What do you want then?"
Dean doesn't answer.
- - - - -
The guns in his hands feel clumsy at first, and it's been so long since he's done this that he spends more time hitting everything but the target. Dean quickly becomes frustrated, knowing that he was so much better than this. He swears and kicks the tree where the target board rests.
But Sam, who has grown into his limbs and doesn't look like a gangly kid anymore, stands beside him, loads another gun and says, "Try it again."
Begrudgingly, Dean tries it again. And again until he's as good as he was before, and he doesn't flinch at the sound of a gunshot and the blade in his hand no longer wavers.
Sam drags Dean from bed in the early morning hours so they can run the graveled roads together. He tapes over the blisters on Dean's hands, and he sharpens their knives while Dean cleans the guns. Sam spars with Dean whenever he requests. Dean knows that Sam will need to be ready on that Halloween night when they meet again and the Dean of the past foolishly believes Sam to be out of practice in his hunting skills.
At twilight on what feels like the hundredth day of practice, Sam slaps him on the shoulder and says, "I think you'll be okay."
"And what about you? Will you remember any of this when you go back? Maybe you can stop yourself from getting killed again? Save my past self from going through all that?"
Sam shakes his head. "I don't think I'll remember anything. See, the woman on the bus told me that there's another version of me back in California in my time right now, doing whatever it is I will do—did—during those four years you didn't see me."
When Dean senses that Sam is searching for a comment, Dean sets his gun down on the ground and scratches the back of his head. "Look, I don't know what happened back then. I really don't. You didn't talk about college a lot. I think you had a few close friends. You aced some big lawyer test. I know you fell in love. Her name was Jessica, and you were going to marry her."
"But we didn't get married, did we?"
"No, you didn't."
They fall into silence, and Sam turns away to face the disappearing sun. "Dean?"
"If I do remember, I'll let you know somehow. That way you won't have to worry that I'll die again. I don't want that on your mind after I leave."
"You gonna time travel and tell me?" Dean says sarcastically. "Because I promise I won't be so trashed next time when you find me."
"Maybe," Sam replies with a shrug. "Maybe I will."
- - - - -
The last day is quiet. They walk the sidewalks of a small town where glowing pumpkins smile at them and children scamper past in Halloween costumes. Sam eats a candied apple and Dean tosses back caramel corn by the handful. Somewhere in time, another Sam is out at the bar with his girlfriend celebrating his chance at law school and another Dean is driving across the country with his heart in his throat at the thought of seeing his younger brother again.
Now, Dean takes the Impala out to a meadow to watch the moon rise. They sit on the hood together as the sky fades from dusky purple to absolute black, and the birds' songs give way to the silence of the stars.
Dean glances at his watch. They do not have much longer if he correctly remembers the time he broke into Sam's apartment.
Sam, recognizing Dean's tension, speaks. "Say something."
"Anything. Tell me a story."
"I think you're too old for stories."
"I'm still your little brother. Tell me a story, bitch," Sam replies stubbornly and elbows Dean in the ribs.
"Pushy asshole," Dean grumbles but not unkindly. He looks up to the sky where the moon is a sliver of light against a star-speckled canvas. A red light of an airplane blinks as it passes overhead, and Dean says, "Once upon a time there were two brothers, and they stopped a plane crash from an evil demon, but neither brother got laid so it was a shitty day. The end."
"We did? Stop a plane crash?"
"We do," Dean answers. "At least, for you we will." Dean begins to tell Sam memories of what is to come for Sam when he returns. Next to Dean, Sam leans back against the windshield of the Impala and loops his arms behind his head. He closes his eyes and listens as Dean tells him about his future.
After he has told all the stories he can remember, Dean stops. He looks over to the spot beside him. Sam is gone, but the metal is warm where he rested and the windshield fogged from his body heat on its cool glass.
"Good-bye, Sammy," Dean whispers. He climbs off the hood of his car, turns on the engine and drives away into the night. Alone.
- - - - -
On his own, Dean doesn't hunt as much as he did with Sam, but he doesn't disappear from life either. He saves children from an angry spirit and fights off a pack of vampires without any help. At Bobby's, he drinks beer and listens to stories of his father from days past, and he goes to the Roadhouse where Ellen welcomes him with a hug and offers him a bed for the night. When he visits Palo Alto, he stands outside Sam's rebuilt apartment and wonders how the other Sam is doing in his correct time.
During a hunt after a bizarre water creature, Dean is eating breakfast at a picnic table in the park and reading his father's journal. He chews on his stale bagel and flips idly through the book, not expecting to find anything. Dad was never known for hunting water monsters, but the journal is the best that Dean has right now because the libraries aren't open yet.
Sighing, Dean turns the pages. On the last blank sheet, neatly printed handwriting that is not his father's makes Dean stop.
It's one in the morning, and you're asleep. We're in the middle of nowhere—one of the Carolinas, I think?—and it's early 2006.
I told you when we were together in the future that I'd let you know if I remembered what you told me so that you wouldn't worry. I remember everything now. I remember the end for me, and I'll make sure that you don't have to go through all that again. I won't let this Dean suffer like you did, all right? It'll be okay this time, I promise.
I guess if we think that I didn't really leave it's not that bad. Maybe that I'm just sort of displaced? If I can find that woman again, you won't have to be alone forever.
Take care of yourself, Dean.
We might be seeing each other again sooner than we know.
Dean lifts his eyes to the sky where the sun crests over the tops of the swings and shines on the curve of the slide. As Sam's final sentence lingers in his mind, he allows himself to smile. Sam's words roll together until they form images and until the images become memories that Dean had wanted to put away to prevent pain. The images do not bring him pain now; they lead him through time where he was once lost before.
This, Dean realizes, this right here is not an after. This is just a time waiting. This is just time Before Sam.