Title: The Ashen Apple of These Days
Pairings: none (gen)
Warnings: Character deaths
Spoilers: through 3x01
Word Count: 3,521
Disclaimer: None of the Winchesters belong to me, alas.
Summary: In the years after Dean's death, everything goes to Hell for Sam and the other hunters.
Notes: This was written for spnhalloween. The prompt is at the end of the story to avoid spoiling the plot. The title is from the poem "Prisoners" by Denise Levertov. Thank you to elanurel for the excellent beta. Thank you also to pheebs1 for letting me bounce things off her.
It took Sam a few years to notice the pattern. He knew he should have been sharper, should have seen it sooner. Dean or Dad would have--
Sam had to stop himself, sometimes, because that kind of thinking could turn his brain in a circle and suck him down for days. He could forgive himself for missing it the first year, not even six months gone since Dean died at that crossroads--walking straight into the demon's hands rather than being dragged there like a piece of meat, run to ground like a deer by her hellhounds. He spent that first Halloween laying low, even avoiding all the horror movies on every TV channel because they reminded him of the delighted way Dean would cackle when Hollywood got everything wrong.
A couple of weeks later, he heard that Gordon Walker died in prison--stabbed in the heart Halloween night. A malfunctioning surveillance camera left a prison full of suspects, but the fact that his cell door was locked made it look like he'd gotten on the wrong side of the guards. People died in prison all the time, and Sam couldn't find it in himself to mourn the loss of Gordon Walker.
Sam just kept his head down and continued hunting--methodically, joylessly, carefully--cleaning up more of the mess they'd made back in Wyoming. He kept in touch with Ellen and Bobby, always taking calls from their numbers even when he wanted to crawl into the hole left by Dean and avoid the world. Two days after the next Halloween, he woke to his cell ringing by his head. Before he was even sure which state he was in, he heard Ellen's voice, gasping with a desperate grief that wrenched him into wakefulness.
"It's Jo," Ellen choked out before Sam could speak her name. "Oh God, Sam, my baby girl."
"What--Ellen?" Sam sat up in bed, his hand tight on his stomach.
"The police called from Duluth, they found her body in a warehouse. She fell--fell off a high--" She broke off, her breath shuddering over the line.
"I'm so sorry. God, Ellen, I don't--"
"I need you to find out what she was hunting, Sam. I need you to kill it; she didn't-- Jo was climbing around on the roof of the roadhouse from the time she was eight years old. She could run along the top of a fence like a goddamn squirrel. There's no way she fell off of a walkway two feet wide unless something pushed her."
"Okay." Sam swung his feet out of bed and started sliding his jeans on one-handed. There wasn't anything he could do to bring back Dean or Jo, now, but he could do this for Ellen. "I can be there in a day."
"You take care of it, Sam, and then you come to the--the funeral."
"I'll be there."
Sam broke into the warehouse where Jo's blood still stained the cement floor and burned the remains of a man who died trapped in a shipping container. He'd been causing accidents, sometimes fatal accidents, involving heavy containers falling on workers, but there were no reported incidents around the walkways before Jo. Sam drove hard from Michigan to Nebraska with the ash of the dead man still on his hands and arrived in time for Jo's funeral.
The normalcy of the service startled Sam.
The funeral home was shabby and plain compared to the glistening-white, richly furnished place where he'd sat by Jess's side at her grandfather's funeral, but it was nothing like the solitary funeral pyres he'd lit for his father and brother. There was no fire to heat up his face until it was almost burning, no covering darkness to make him feel like he was one of the only people left in the world. He stood on one side of Ellen, Bobby on the other, and the rest of the room was half-full with people from the town that lay just past the remains of the roadhouse, kids Jo must have gone to school with.
They buried Jo in the ground five months shy of her twenty-fifth birthday. He and Bobby tried to stay but Ellen wouldn't have it. She stood outside the door of the trailer she put up on the empty lot that was left of her property and watched until they drove off down the road, the Impala just behind Bobby's pickup. Both of them moved in a single cloud of dust kicked up off the road until they reached the highway where Bobby headed north back to his place and Sam went south.
The next hunt he'd found was a dust devil down in Texas.
He didn't know what else to do.
Sam wondered if solo hunting had been like this for Dean or Dad--days sometimes spent without speaking to another human being, months without using the name his mother gave him. He would have stopped hunting if he could see any other future for himself.
The FBI didn't know that Dean was dead and Sam wanted it to stay that way, needed for Dean to be alive in their world if not in his. Sam knew had enough charges in his own name to send him to prison and he'd fallen far in his life, far from the place in society where he'd once worked towards--but he hadn't given up enough to be willing to fall all the way.
Running had become a habit, a way of life, and in the rhythm of the road he could feel the ghost of Dean's presence.
In the aftermath of Dean's death, Sam had turned up on Bobby's doorstep with Dean's body still fresh in the backseat of the Impala. He'd begged Bobby for help, for a spell, a conjuring, for something other than dealing with the crossroads demon. Even if she'd been willing to bring Dean back, Sam knew his brother wouldn't survive having another family member sacrificed for him. But there had to be another option because Dean didn't deserve to be dead, and Sam didn't know how he could live in a world where he wasn't somebody's brother.
Bobby just shook his head sadly and walked over to open the back door of the car. He crouched down next to Dean's head, ignoring Sam until his rage tapered off into rough breathing on the edge of hyperventilation. As the evening tilted and spun around Sam, Bobby pushed himself up to his feet and wrapped his arms around Sam's chest, holding him in tight.
"There ain't nothin' you can do," Bobby had whispered in Sam's ear. "Nothing you can do but live the years he gave you."
Sam spent that night in the car, cramped up in the front seat while Dean lay still in the back. The two of them had slept in the car more times than he could count--slumped together in the back while Dad drove, parked somewhere waiting for Dad to finish a hunt or a scouting expedition. There had been a bad week, back when Sam had been too young to really understand what was going on, when they'd spent every night in the car--Dean curled up in the back, Dad sitting up in the front seat, and Sam stretched out with his head in Dad's lap.
"Never again," Dad had said, and back then it felt like a promise. Now it was a certainty.
They burned Dean's body and buried the ashes near Dad's, out in the back of Bobby's lot. Sam stayed at Bobby's until he could drive the Impala without tearing up so bad he couldn't see, and when he left he took with him the thought of the Colt.
Bobby kept the Colt, unwilling to put the key to Hell in Sam's hands. That key had let out two hundred demons, but it had also let out the spirit of John Winchester. Dean had spent his life following in their father's footsteps, so if any other man were capable of scrabbling up out of the pit of Hell to stand near the door it would be Dean. But Sam had to wait, had to be patient to give his brother's spirit time to crawl out.
He drove and he hunted; he waited for a sign.
There was another call from Ellen on the morning of November 1st, nearly a year since he'd seen her in his rearview mirror back in Nebraska.
"Sam." Her voice sounded husked out, too hollow for any tears. "You have to come to Bobby's."
She'd come to stay in Bobby's spare room, too worn out by a year of grieving to be alone on the anniversary of Jo's death. She and Bobby had spent the evening with a bottle of whiskey and overflowing armfuls of memories. She fell asleep on the couch and woke to find the house quiet, Bobby out on the back stairs leaning against the side of the house--cold like he'd been dead for hours.
Heart attack, the local coroner said. No sign of foul play. Sam closed his eyes and saw Jo's death, Gordon's death lining up behind Bobby's. One hunter every Halloween, and not just any of the loose network of scores of full and part-time hunters spread out across the country--hunters the Winchesters knew.
And Bobby was as much a Winchester as anyone could be without sharing Winchester blood. Bobby'd helped carry Dean and Dad's dead bodies to the pyres, and Sam knew Bobby had carried him, too, in the days that were lost to him.
Sam and Ellen and a dozen other hunters stood at the service to honor him. The man from the Army handed the flag to Ellen, and then they all watched the burial. Sam didn't think that Bobby would come back as an angry spirit, but he'd always know where the grave was.
Just in case.
Bobby left his house and his land, his salvage business and his books to the best of Sam's aliases--the one that had a birth certificate, a school record, and a credit history. Sam asked Ellen to stay, to help keep Bobby's business running while Sam looked for answers. Ellen was the only person left from the family and friends Sam had lost, and Sam knew he was the same for Ellen. It was a good enough reason to stay put, most of the time.
Sam lost himself in Bobby's books for a few months. Bobby's spirit--or something that felt like it--permeated the room and Sam could sometimes feel the man's shadow leaning over his shoulder as he read. He'd spent a Summer like this, when he was fourteen, gorging himself on books while Dean lost himself in the car yard.
When Sam would crawl out from under the books and step outside, the sunshine would flare so bright in his eyes that sometimes that he thought he could still see Dean out there, bent under the hood of some old car trying to trick it into running again. He'd walk out among the old cars and close his eyes, feel the crunch of snow under his feet and the heat of sun-warmed steel under his hands, and he could have been fifteen years back, chasing after Dean. They'd run headlong through the maze of junkers, sidling between bumpers and jumping across rusty hoods.
Sometimes when he saw Ellen walking around the lot, she looked like just another ghost, but it was the two of them - restless, displaced spirits haunting the place. Sam read everything he could find about the Christian and Pagan traditions of Halloween, Samhain, All Hallow's Eve, The Day of the Dead, and all the other names that cloaked the day when spirits could more easily slip across the border between worlds.
Sam put it down to Winter winds slipping in through cracks in the window casings when he would step away from the books and come back to find the pages turned from where he'd left them. But still, he read those pages, and they always reminded him of Dean--creatures they hunted together, bits of Latin Dean had struggled with.
Sam had thought it was getting better, the way he missed Dean. Nearly three years gone from his death, and no matter how much the house--the wind even--felt like Bobby, the name on his mind everywhere he turned was Dean.
When the Spring thaw came, Sam took the car back out on the road. The urge to drive, to hunt, moved in his veins and the hum of wheels over the road felt good after a Winter of stillness. Late Summer was drying into the crispness of Fall when the chase after a pair of rogue vampires led him to Lawrence and he stopped to visit Missouri.
"You look like four years of hard road, boy." She opened her door, nodding him inside.
She brought him a sandwich and lemonade and waited until he was done with them to touch his hand. He met her eyes for a second and then looked away.
"Oh, Sam." She sighed, voice heavy with regret. "You already know, don't you?"
Sam nodded and swallowed hard. He turned down the offer of a night in her guest room. He finally tracked down the vampires in Iowa, beheaded them with the machete he inherited from his father. The blade gleamed red in the moonlight and he remembered that only five years ago he'd been the youngest of three, protected from this kind of killing.
He made his way back to South Dakota in the last week of October. Fifty miles from Singer Salvage, he pulled off the road when he saw a farmer's market set up in a vacant lot. He found a stall selling apples, a half-dozen different varieties. They felt heavy and smooth in his hands, cool with the touch of Autumn air. He examined enough of them to make the woman behind the cash box purse her lips at him in annoyance and, finally, he bought just one--perfect, round, dark as drying blood.
Back at the house, he shared two days of quiet with Ellen--stillness and whiskey and the truths in their eyes that they couldn't speak.
Halloween was a gorgeous day--the gold of dead leaves against the empty blue sky. In the middle of the patch of earth that had held the funeral pyres for two Winchesters, Sam dug a hole in the dry ground and buried his apple. He thought of Dean, crouched in the middle of two crossroads, burying his box of offerings. He smoothed the mound of dirt over the apple and stood to look around himself. With a fallen branch, he scratched a Devil's Trap into the ground and stepped outside the circle.
He sat down on the dry scrub grass and watched the sun set through the trees. He and Dean had spent a few Fourth of July evenings in just about the same spot, watching over the trees for the fireworks display at the local high school. Sam remembered the rough blanket they sat on to keep the bugs in the grass from biting at their bare legs. A bag of M&M's between them and bottles of Coke. Dean's hands, when they were staying at Bobby's, were always beat-up and grease-stained from messing around with the cars, but his limbs looked loose, reclined on the blanket.
The last rays of sunlight shining over the hill stung Sam's eyes and he squeezed them closed, blinking them open to find himself in full dusk. He unfolded his legs and stood, staring at the Devil's Trap in front of him. "It's time," he said to the growing darkness.
He turned his head at the crunch of leaves behind him but it was only a squirrel.
Sam jerked back around to see Dean, looking just as he had the day he died, standing in the middle of the circle. He took a bite of the apple, raising one eyebrow over eyes bright with fire. "Dean."
"Seriously, Sammy, you couldn't do any better than an apple?"
"It--it's traditional," Sam whispered, the words hurting his throat.
"Yeah, yeah, food for the dearly departed, all that. I gotta tell you, some of us departed would rather have a cheeseburger, you know?"
"Dean." It sounded so much like his brother, that Sam just wanted to close his eyes and listen, pretend they were together in the front seat of the Impala again, trading barbs. "How could you--"
"How could you do these things, Dean?" Dean sneered, his voice mocking and harsh. "How could you make deals with demons, Dean? I'm just following in the family footsteps, bro." He held up the bitten fruit in his hand. "Apple doesn't fall to far from the tree."
"I understand Gordon, but--"
"But sweet, little Jo? Nice, old Bobby? What did they ever do for me? Sure, Bobby tried to help but I still ended up in Hell, dude. And after a few months as that bitch's favorite toy, you bet I was willing to make a new deal. A night out, killing Gordon Walker and the promise of new digs when I got back? Four years of that, and I could get all the way out, move on to--to wherever it is that's left. Damn straight I took it."
"Dean." Sam pushed the word out past the ache in his chest.
"Turned out, I didn't read the contract all that well. You always were the smart one in the family."
Dean continued as if Sam hadn't interrupted. "'course it's a little hard to read the fine print when you've got blood in your eyes, but Dad never would have accepted that excuse. Turned out it was one for me, three for her. Three hunters."
"Three hunters." Sam saw Jo's face, Bobby's strong shoulders. He thought of Ellen back at the house mourning two years without her daughter and wondered if she had been next.
"I spat in her face when she told me that. Can you believe that?" Dean shook his head, smirked joylessly. "I was stupid. She kept me with her for another year. 365 days, Sammy, and every day--they don't call it Hell for nothin' you know?"
"And then Jo."
"Yeah, that next year rolled around, and she gave me another chance. Three hunters. Lots of hunters out there but I can't get to them unless we had a connection back when I was up here, and you know as well as I do that our network of friends took some heavy losses. Not a lot of hunters left I can find."
"Yeah." Sam thought about Pastor Jim, Caleb, Eddie, Ash, Tamara. "But, how could you--I mean Bobby?"
"Every part of me that ever gave a shit burned away a long time ago." Dean gestured at himself and the image in front of Sam flickered, giving Sam a half-second glimpse of something charred and wrong and no longer human.
"No Jesus involved here. Just you and me and our friend back there at the house." Dean stalked to the edge of the circle closest to Bobby's house.
Sam thought of waking up in the morning to find Ellen dead and shook his head, his stomach churning sick at the image. "No. I can't let you do that."
"So what are you going to do?" Dean crossed his arms over his check and cocked his head to the side. "Exorcise me? You do that and I go back down all the way, don't know if I could ever get out. I don't think you can do that, little brother, not when I came here to save you."
"Where did they go? Gordon and Jo and Bobby? Their spirits?"
"Don't really know." Dean shrugged. "Wherever they would have gone if something else had killed them."
Sam nodded and looked at the ground, the edge of the circle etched in the dirt just a few inches in front of his feet. "You're right, I can't send you back down there, but I can't let you kill Ellen, either." Careful not to scuff the lines, Sam stepped inside the circle and stood in front of Dean.
"Sammy?" Dean took a half-step forward, and something in the lines of his face made Sam believe that there was something there that was still his brother, that not all of Dean had been burned away.
Sam nodded and held out his hand. "I want us to be a family again."
Ellen found him there in the morning, cold and still with a blistered burn on his hand and the grief of the past four years smoothed from his face. She built the pyre and burned his body there as the sun went down on All Saint's Day.
As the years went by, out of the hard-packed dirt an apple tree grew to overlook the lot full of rusting cars and the house and the road beyond.