A/N: So here we go guys! The big(ish) finish! Thanks so much for reading - and a special thank you to everyone who reviewed! And a re-run thank you to everyone who already read it over on the VS but took the time to read it again - that's real dedication!
Disclaimer: Sam and Dean might not be mine, but Jared and Jensen ARE! Hah, you think the writers are on strike but really I have the boys locked in my basement. Unfortunately I don't have a basement. But a girl can dream.
It may have been an unfair comparison, but after years of feeling the Impala's mighty V8 engine beneath him, Dean couldn't help thinking that Pete's ancient little Jetta seemed to have all the power of a hairdryer.
Still, time was of the essence, and he realized that he needed to get Pete to hospital as fast as he could if the kid was to have any hope of avoiding becoming the next statistic on Emily's score card.
He cursed as he tried to overtake a tortoise-paced RV, barely able to draw alongside even with the gas pedal floored, finally ducking in front just in time to avoid a potentially life-altering encounter with an approaching truck.
The RV and truck drivers honked at him simultaneously as Pete slid sideways in his seat, head slumping against Dean's shoulder.
Rather less delicately than he'd intended, Dean shoved the kid back towards the passenger door, shaking him slightly until his eyes fluttered open.
"You still with me, kid?"
"Mmm…" Pete moaned. "Tired."
Dean shook him a little harder. "Don't you go to sleep on me, man," he ordered. "You think this is what Craig would have wanted?"
Pete managed to keep his eyes vaguely focused on the luminous green rubber alien dangling from the rearview mirror, words slurring slightly. "Craig was nice to me…"
"Sure he was," Dean agreed. "Which is why if I were him, I'd be mighty pissed off at you for doing something as dumb as this."
"Not my fault," Pete slurred softly. "Had to…"
"That little bitch," Dean muttered, grinding his teeth together as he tried to focus on the fact that Sam should be burning Emily's bones right about now. That'd teach her. At least Pete would be the last of her victims.
He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out his cellphone and hitting Sam's speed-dial number.
The phone rang once, twice, three times, before Sam's recorded voice sounded in Dean's ear, "Hi, this is Sam. I can't get to my phone…"
Dean snapped his cell shut distractedly, figuring Sam was probably too busy with the fire to pick up.
"Hey, Pete?" he glanced sideways, to where Pete had slumped back against the door. "Pete?" Dean grabbed the kid's jacket, pulling him upright again.
"Pete?" Dean barked. "Hey, work with me here, buddy. We're almost there."
Swinging the Jetta into the hospital parking lot, Dean tried to ignore the little twinge of concern in the part of his brain labeled Sam. "Pete?" he turned to his passenger. "Are you seeing her? Are you seeing that little bitch?"
Pete frowned. "Huh?"
Dean brought the car to an abrupt halt across two parking spaces, yanking the keys out of the ignition. "The little girl," he clarified. "You're not seeing her, right?"
Pete continued to stare at him vacantly, before finally confirming, "No. No I'm not."
"Good," Dean said, jumping out of the car and hurrying around to the passenger door. "Consider yourself out of business, Emily."
He hauled Pete to his feet, one arm hooked around the kid's waist as he grabbed his wrist and slung his arm over his shoulder, desperately trying to convince himself that the clerk's blissful smile was all to do with the drugs and absolutely nothing to do with his being manhandled by Dean.
Sometimes you just gotta take one for the team…
"Shut up, Sam," he muttered, somewhere in the back of his head figuring he'd call his annoying kid brother later, just to check everything went down okay.
After all, if Pete wasn't seeing Emily, then the salt n' burn must have worked, right?
The same male nurse who had treated Dean earlier met them at the ER's entrance, frowning at Pete as he noted the drooping eyelids and the way his head hung limply against Dean's shoulder. "Back again, huh?" he said to Dean, lifting Pete's chin and peering into his eyes, before muttering, "Aw, Pete, what did you do?"
"Can't stay away from the place," Dean said weakly, shifting Pete's weight to relieve some of the strain on his own battered body. He nodded in the kid's direction. "He took a bottle of Advil washed down with a six pack," he explained. "Found him half passed out in – in the park." For some reason, telling the nurse he'd found Pete in the graveyard didn't seem such a great idea.
The nurse took some of Pete's weight then, managing to maneuver him onto a nearby gurney where he went down like a sack of potatoes. "Pete, you promised me," he muttered, motioning for a bored-looking orderly to come help him move the clerk into the treatment room down the hall.
"Sorry," Pete mumbled, as the orderly started to move the gurney. "Mike, I'm sorry…"
"You know him?" Dean asked, rubbing at his sore shoulder as he began to follow the nurse towards the treatment room.
Mike looked up briefly. "Went to school with my kid sister, Krista," he explained, a brief shadow passing over his startlingly blue eyes.
Krista… Krista Page. Victim Number Four.
Dean nodded his understanding, tossing Mike Pete's car keys. "He gonna be okay?"
"Looks like it," Mike replied with a shrug. "Thanks to you."
"Hey, I figure one good deed's not gonna ruin my reputation."
Mike smiled slightly as he wheeled the gurney into the treatment room, the double doors swinging back after him with a thud, a big sign stating, "Authorized Personnel Only" barring Dean's entrance.
Dean shrugged, figuring this was as far as he went. He stood looking at the doors thoughtfully for a second, before digging his cellphone back out of his pocket. "C'mon, Sammy…"
Ring, ring, ring, voicemail.
"Dammit." He shook his head, trying to ignore the tightening in the pit of his stomach and the voice in the back of his brain instinctively urging him to Go find Sammy. Right now. Sam was fine. Probably on his way over here. Would chew Dean out for mother-henning him if he kept calling…
Devoid of transportation for the time being, Dean ambled back out into the hospital lobby, glancing over at the elevators. Wouldn't hurt to check in on Caitlin and Ashleigh while he was here.
Tuning out the elevator muzak, he glanced again at the cellphone still clutched in his hand, opening it up and letting his finger hover over Sam's speed-dial for a couple of seconds before closing it and stuffing it back in his pocket with a shake of his head. Sam was twenty-three for crying out loud. Didn't need Dean babying him now any more than he had when he was thirteen. He was fine. Dean was sure of it.
Bur he wasn't sure of it. He wasn't sure of it at all. And therein lay the problem…
The elevator doors opened at floor six, and Dean stepped off absently as he concentrated on trying to ignore that annoying little voice: Go find Sammy.
Dean may not have been psychic, but when it came to his baby brother, he had a sixth sense for knowing when he was in trouble. And right now, he just knewsomething was… off.
Gritting his teeth, he barely noticed that there was a different nurse at the nurses' station. She eyed him warily, and he caught the look just in time to flash her one of his most dazzlingly disarming smiles before heading down the hall toward Caitlin's room, noting with relief that Ashleigh wasn't sitting out in the corridor this time.
He shuddered as he passed Esther Haywood's room, unsure whether he was picking up on Sam's vibes from earlier, or whether he genuinely felt the chill himself. He glanced briefly inside, noting with a start that the old lady's eyes were closed, eyelids fluttering furiously as if she were in the throes of some graphic nightmare.
Dean didn't know enough about comas to fathom whether this was normal behavior, but he was pretty sure if Sam were here he'd be freaking out right now. Although he couldn't help feeling some sympathy for Esther Haywood now that he knew her history – he couldn't imagine how the hell he could have kept it together had Sam ever done what Emily had done to herself – he had to agree with his kid brother on this one: There really was something "not right" about the old gal. And he couldn't put his finger on exactly what that was any more than Sam had been able to.
Turning hesitantly away from the old lady, Dean absently fingered his cellphone again, drawing it half out of his pocket before letting it go.
"Hey," he said quietly, poking his head through the door of Caitlin's room.
Ashleigh and Gina were still sitting exactly where Dean and Sam had left them earlier, Ashleigh's head resting lightly against her mother's shoulder. They looked up as Dean entered the room, smiling politely but not convincingly.
"Any change?" Dean asked, moving hesitantly into the room.
Gina shook her head. "Not yet," she said, the forlornly hopeful tone of her voice tearing at Dean's insides. "Maybe soon."
"Where's your brother?" Ashleigh asked, glancing over Dean's shoulder expectantly.
Dean smiled awkwardly. "He's – uh – finishing up something. Something that should stop this from happening again."
Ashleigh's eyes lit up. "You – you found a cause?"
"Lady next door," Dean said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Her little sister killed herself way back when. Thought she was a burden and her big sister would be better off without her. We figure she's been trying to convince little brothers and sisters everywhere of the same thing. You know – to punish her big sister. Or to punish herself, maybe. Who knows? Spooks aren't exactly big in the logic department."
Gina's eyes briefly flitted to Caitlin. "Why would she think herself a burden?" she asked softly, and Dean wasn't entirely sure whether she was talking about Emily or her daughter.
Ashleigh's cheeks colored. She knew who her mother was talking about. "Because I told her she was," she admitted, voice thickening again.
Gina opened her mouth as if to speak, but Dean cut her off. "This isn't your fault, Ashleigh," he assured her. "Siblings fight. It happens." He shrugged. "Hell, maybe it's genetic. Caitlin might have been upset after what you said to her – you might have hurt her feelings – but do you really think she would have done – " he gestured vaguely to the young girl on the hospital bed, " – this if it hadn't been for Emily? Emily's the one who's responsible, Ashleigh. Not you."
"Emily?" Gina said, brow furrowing. "She's the one – ?"
"The girl who killed herself, yeah," Dean confirmed. "Back in the '30s."
"Her name's not Emily."
The unexpected sound of a fourth voice in the room startled Gina and Ashleigh enough to make them jump, while Dean's eyes darted instantly in the direction of the hospital bed.
Caitlin was still looking up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly, fingers tightening convulsively on the bedclothes.
"Catie?" Gina was on her feet, hand pressed against her younger daughter's pale cheek, while Ashleigh stood a little more slowly, unsteadily clutching the back of her chair for support.
Dean took a step forward, his relief at the sound of the girl's voice for the moment secondary to her actual words.
"Catie?" Gina repeated, head buzzing as Caitlin's eyes finally found her face.
The rest of the girl's words were lost in a tangle of her mother's hair and soft arms hugging her neck.
Mom was crying. Caitlin didn't like to see Mom crying.
She noticed Ashleigh for the first time then, peering out over Gina's hair to see a look of shamed terror frozen on her big sister's ashen face. Gingerly, she held out a hand towards her, and Ashleigh took hold of it with a strangled gulp that may have been a relieved laugh but may equally have been a sob.
"Catie," she whispered. "I'm so, so sorry. Don't ever think…"
Gina had pulled away from her youngest, giving her room to breathe as she smiled tearfully at Ashleigh.
"I know," she said. "It wasn't your fault." She managed to glance at Dean then, almost as if she knew who he was.
Maybe she had been listening earlier…
"It was her," Caitlin said. "She made me do it."
Dean took another step towards the bed.
"But her name's not Emily. Her name's Esther."
Dean felt as if all the breath had been knocked from his body, his fingers closing unconsciously around the cool metal of his cellphone.
He'd left Sam alone. Left him alone to burn Emily's bones. Alone and unprotected.
But if Emily wasn't the one… If Emily wasn't the one doing this…
Then it didn't make a scrap of difference whether Sam had burned her bones or not.
Esther would still be at large.
And Sam would still be in danger.
Dean stood rooted to the spot, white spots popping in front of his eyes while his heart seemed to hammer loud enough to wake the dead.
His first instinct was to run next door and salt n' burn the old woman in her bed. But he couldn't kill a person. And whatever Esther had done, she was still living, still breathing. Dean wasn't sure how she could be doing what she was doing – maybe she'd found a way to "wander" while her body was dormant. He really didn't care: the how and the why had always been Sam's territory.
All that mattered was stopping her hurting Sam.
"I have to go." Dean exited the room so fast he skidded as he took the corner out into the hallway.
Glancing into Esther's room, he could see her eyes moving rapidly beneath closed eyelids, and now he knew this could only mean one thing: Esther was stalking someone.
Hightailing it down the corridor, Dean ignored the startled look from the nurse as he pounded on the button to summon the elevator – once, twice, seven times – but the digits above the metal doors seemed resolutely stuck on twelve.
Looking around in desperation, his eyes lighted on the stairway opposite, and he was through the badly painted green door like a shot, taking the stairs two, three at a time, heart continuing to hammer in time with the pounding in his head.
Stupid! How could he have been so stupid? How could he have left Sam so exposed, so unprotected? So vulnerable.
Snatching his phone back out of his pocket as he barreled into the door at the bottom of the stairs, he dialed Sam urgently, praying for his little brother to pick up.
"Please, Sam, please…"
Ring, ring, ring. "Hi, this is Sam…"
"Dammit!" Dean almost threw the cellphone against the lobby wall, but stopped suddenly as he caught sight of a familiar black shape in the parking lot beyond the hospital's glass doors. Tentatively, he took a step forwards, to where bright yellow lights illuminated the Impala, abandoned and askew in a disabled parking zone.
Sam wasn't there. He knew it. He didn't need to go out there and check.
He spun on his heel, racing down towards the ER, his mind almost completely blank but for the all-important imperative, Protect Sam, which seemed to be stuck on perpetual repeat in his brain.
"You're back again?" Nurse Mike seemed truly surprised as Dean slammed through the glass doors and back into the ER.
"Need to speak to Pete," Dean explained breathlessly. Then, almost as an afterthought, "He's okay, right?"
"Sure, yeah," Mike replied. "He's sleeping though."
"This is important."
Mike could tell from the wild look in Dean's eyes that he wasn't lying. "This way."
He led Dean to one of the curtained cubicles to the left of the ER's reception desk, where Pete was curled up on a narrow bed.
Not quite asleep, he looked up as Dean entered the cubicle. "Hey," he said, smiling sheepishly. "Didn't expect to see you back here." His voice sounded raw and scratchy, no doubt from the tube he'd just had down his throat.
Dean tried to smile back at him, but didn't quite get there. "Pete, I gotta ask you something."
Dean ran a hand through his hair, still unable to process the fact that what he was thinking might actually be true. "When I asked you earlier if you were seeing the little girl any more," he said slowly. "Did – did you ever see her? Or was this – did you – did you just take a truckload of pills because…" he trailed off, unable to finish the question.
Pete just lay there blinking at him.
"Pete? This is kinda urgent, man…"
"You asked me if I saw a little girl," Pete replied. "And I said 'no.'"
"And you never saw her?"
"Dude," Pete said, voice lowering in what was either embarrassment or shame. "I made a mistake. I did something really dumb, just like you said. No little girl involved. Just me and my stupid unrequited broken heart."
Dean felt as if a tablecloth had just been pulled out from underneath his world and his head started to ache. "You don't have any older siblings, do you?"
Pete shook his head.
See? This is why I leave the thinking to Sammy…
Dean screwed up his eyes and rubbed at his forehead as the little tumblers in his brain slowly began to click into place.
Pete had never seen Esther. So the fact that he wasn't seeing her during the car ride to the hospital was not, as Dean had assumed, an indication that Sam's salt n' burn had successfully neutralized the threat.
Dean continued to rub at his temples as he let the implications of that sink in: Esther's soul, spirit, consciousness – whatever – was still on the loose and still hell bent on cleansing Clifton of the scourge of younger siblings everywhere.
Which meant that Sam was still in danger.
And Dean really had to go.
"Pete, you've been a great help," he said, spinning to leave and nearly slamming straight into Nurse Mike, who was just then re-entering the cubicle.
"Everything okay?" the nurse asked dubiously, frowning at the dazed and confused expression etched onto Pete's features.
"Everything is so far from okay…" Dean muttered, pushing past him.
"Did you see your brother?"
Dean froze, turning back slowly. "My – you've – ?"
"Yeah," Mike nodded in the direction of the glass doors leading back into the main hospital lobby. "Saw him through there a couple minutes before you arrived. Figured he was looking for you, but he seemed real spaced out. More-or-less abandoned that cool car of his. I'll be amazed if he doesn't get a ticket…"
"My car," Dean muttered, distractedly.
"Where'd he go?"
"I don't – "
"Where. Did. He. Go?"
Dean hadn't realized he'd grabbed hold of the front of Mike's blue scrub top until out of the corner of his eye he caught a nearby security guard moving towards them, hand hovering instinctively over the handgun at his hip.
Letting go of the hapless nurse instantly, Dean took a breath.
Eyes wide, Mike mumbled, "Elevator."
That didn't help a whole hell of a lot.
"You see where to?"
That helped even less.
Another deep breath.
"Thanks for your help."
And with that, he was off, haring out towards the lobby, almost colliding with a bike messenger clutching at least twenty ridiculously garish balloons before skidding to a halt in front of the bank of elevators.
Hammering the call button, Dean glanced over at a little buck-toothed kid with his leg in plaster, sitting in a wheelchair and looking bored to death. He was almost through a huge packet of Skittles, and had a beautiful purple tongue to show for it.
"Hey kid," Dean said. The kid looked at him warily, pulling his bag of Skittles to his chest protectively. "You been here long?"
The boy sighed. "Since birth," he said seriously, resting his chin in his hand. "Or it feels like it anyway."
Dean's eyes lit up. "You see a guy get on the elevator just now – freakishly tall, crazy hair…?"
The kid nodded slowly. "He got a real cool black car?"
Dean gritted his teeth. Sammy in danger, Sammy in danger… "You see where he went?" he asked, pointing vaguely in the direction of the elevators.
"Up," the kid replied, shrugging. When Dean scowled at him, he added, "All the way up, I think. Only one in the car, and it went right up to floor twelve, so…"
Dean glanced up at the floor indicators above the elevators… which all seemed stuck on twelve, just like when he'd come from Caitlin's room.
"I think they're busted," the kid commented. "All been stuck on twelve ever since."
Dean glanced back at the kid, back to the frozen elevators, back to the kid. "I owe you a pack of Skittles," he said, heading for the stairs. "Though you should really try switching to M&Ms…"
"Hey, don't think I won't collect!" Dean heard the kid yell after him as he took the first four steps in one leap. "I'll probably still be here when I'm old enough to get my driver's license anyway…"
Trying to ignore the pain in his leg, Dean began to struggle up the stairs.
By the third floor, he'd decided that ignoring the pain probably wasn't an option after all.
By the fifth floor, concentrating on breathing helped him forget the pain in his leg.
By the eighth floor, he was reaching for his cellphone.
By the tenth floor, he'd hit Sam's speed-dial.
By the twelfth floor …
…He could hear Sam's cellphone ringing in the distance.
Shouldering the emergency exit door, Dean charged out onto the hospital roof with no regard for the pain in his leg, the burning in his lungs, or the cellphone hanging limply from his fingers.
Hi, this is Sam…
Even from behind, there was no mistaking the gangly figure standing opposite him.
On the wrong side of the three-foot security railing running along the edge of the roof.
With his sneakers hanging half off the edge of a twelve story building.
And a little girl in a black dress standing next to him, smiling as she whispered into his ear.
And Dean without a salt gun.
Not bothering to wonder how the hell he could see her, Dean barreled across the roof as if his life – or a life infinitely more important – depended on it. "Esther, I swear to God, you touch my brother – "
"I don't need to touch him – "
"Make it stop!" Sam's anguished cry cut her off, hand grabbing at his head as he swayed precariously. "Please make it stop!"
"Please, I just want it to stop!"
Dean wasn't entirely sure how he covered the last eight feet separating him from his brother in a single lunge.
All he knew was that all of a sudden he had a fistful of Sam's jacket, and was yanking his kid brother back against the railing.
"Make it stop. Please. I just want it to stop."
Dean's head swam for a second as he found himself suddenly looking straight down at a twelve-story drop.
Bracing himself against the railing, Dean convulsively tightened his grip on the back of Sam's jacket, regaining his own balance before fastening an arm around Sam's waist.
Taking a deep breath before releasing it very slowly, Dean's voice came out much louder than he intended. "Sam, you really don't need to be showing me how gravity works again 'cause I got it the first time!"
"Dean?" Sam was staring straight forward, as if completely oblivious to the fact that he was inches from plummeting to his death. His hands hovered over his ears, eyes screwing up suddenly in obvious pain. "I'm sorry!" he yelled. "Dean, I'm so sorry! Dean…"
"I'm right here, Sammy," Dean said, glancing sideways at Esther, who continued to glare at him, but made no move to interfere. "I gotcha. I'm not letting you go…"
"You've got to, Dean," Sam's voice was suddenly calm, stoic, almost emotionless, but the tears escaping his dark glassy eyes told a different story. "You've got to let me go, Dean," he whispered. "You've got to let go."
Dean tightened his hold on his brother, screwing his eyes shut as he tried to slow his rapid breathing. "Not like this. Never like this."
"You're gonna have to let me go my own way."
Dean's eyes opened at the words, those words he'd heard his brother say months before, back in Chicago, but which still cut him like the sharpest of knives. "Back to school," he said quietly. "Maybe. Maybe I could handle that – better – this time. But not like this…"
"I'm not a kid any more." Sam blinked rapidly. "I don't need you to protect me. I don't need you to make my decisions for me – "
"This isn't your decision, Sam," Dean spat, glaring at the spectral little girl who was grinning malevolently at him. "It's hers!"
"I have to do this. It's the only way. The only way I can save you."
"I don't need saving, Sammy." Dean tightened his grip again, as Sam started to pull away.
"Yes," Sam insisted, trembling hands returning to cover his ears. "You do. I can hear it. It's all I can hear…"
Daddy, the baby's crying. Daddy, I don't know what to do…
Sam shook his head, trying to dislodge the noise, the anguish, the fear.
Dean was there. He knew Dean was there, standing behind him, hanging on to him as if the very fabric of the universe would somehow unravel if he let go.
But all he could hear was a scared little boy and a terrified infant who didn't know any better.
"The baby? You're hearing the baby again, right?"
Sam heard grown-up Dean's voice, but he wasn't sure which Dean was real. There was a hand gripping the front of his shirt. That was real. And an arm wrapped around his waist. That was real too. But the voices… The voices were all jumbled up in his head and he didn't know which he was supposed to be listening to.
Daddy, the baby's crying…
"She's doing that to you, Sam," grown-up Dean's voice broke in on the sound of his younger self echoing in Sam's head. "It's not Emily. It's Esther. She's punishing her little sister, over and over. She's punishing her for leaving her…"
"It's the only way to make it stop," Sam breathed, trying to open his eyes, trying to see as hard as he was trying not to hear. "I have to go. I have to. It's the only way I can make it stop…"
"It's the only way I can make it stop. For you."
It was then that Dean realized his mistake. He'd gotten it all wrong. He'd gotten Esther all wrong. She wasn't punishing Emily. She wasn't punishing Sam…
He glanced over at her, standing scuffing her foot against the loose gravel covering the rooftop, placid features completely devoid of anything approaching emotion.
"Sam, I can't hear the baby…"
"I do. I hear it all," Sam said, as if all he heard now were the sounds reverberating through his skull. Sounds from so long ago that it shouldn't have mattered. Water under the bridge. Ancient history.
But it did. It mattered. It mattered too much for Sam to ignore it any more. "You shouldn't have had to do it, Dean," he said. "You were too young. You shouldn't have had to do it."
Dean took another breath, resting his temple against Sam's shoulder blade with a sigh. He knew what Esther was doing. He knew exactly who she was trying to punish. And he knew the answer to his question before he even asked it. "Do what, Sam?"
"You gave up everything for me. I can hear it. I can hear the baby crying. It's me. I can hear me, Dean. I get it now. I get it. It's your memory. I'm hearing your memory…"
"You didn't cry that often, Sam," Dean said, trying to go for the literal in the forlorn hope that that was really all that Sam was talking about.
"No," Sam started to pull away, teetering forward as Dean's feet skidded on the gravel beneath him. "That's not it. That's not it, Dean. It just took me this long to see it. To hear it. You gave up everything. You gave up everything for me. To protect me. To keep me safe."
"And I'd do it again too." The words were out of Dean's mouth before he even knew he'd said them. "Don't think I wouldn't." He jammed one foot against the lowest bar of the railing, leaning back so that Sam was pulled back with him. "Don't think I won't. Don't think I won't do it again, Sam. You jump off this building, don't think I won't follow you, because I will. I mean it, Sam. 'Cause I meant what I said. I can't do this alone. I won't."
"Dean – " Sam was still staring straight ahead, but his hand had moved to cling to the one his brother had wrapped around his waist. "You sacrificed so much for me. Now I have to do the same for you." He tried to pry Dean's fingers away from him, but the older brother wouldn't let go.
"Don't, Sam," Dean's voice was decisive. "You won't save me by throwing yourself off this building. 'Cause that'd kill me as sure as if I jumped off after you."
"I didn't mean to be a burden," Sam whispered. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"You never hurt me," Dean insisted. "And you were never a burden. If there was ever a reason I was put on this earth, Sam, it's you. You're the reason. From the minute Dad put you in my arms and told me to get you away from the fire, you became my responsibility. And I never regretted that for one second. Not ever. Because that was what I was meant to do. You understand that, right? Because you could go off to Stanford – hell, you could go off to the Moon – and I'd still be right there with you. Always. So don't think I'm letting you go. Not as long as I'm breathing. Not as long as you're breathing. You got that?"
"But it's not right. What happened. It's not right – "
"No it's not," Dean agreed. "Life sucks. Get over it. The universe may have dealt us a crappy hand, little brother, but we gotta do the best we can with what we got. And what we got is each other. And Dad. And a kickass set of wheels that you're gonna put one helluva dent in if you step off this roof right now – "
Sam surprised Dean by laughing then, a shaky, watery laugh that almost made him sound like his old self.
" – 'Cause I'm not kidding, my car's right underneath you, Sammy."
Sam half-turned, smiling awkwardly as he tried to pretend there weren't tears escaping down his cheeks. His hand covered the one Dean had gripping the railing, and Dean relaxed for just a second…
…Which was when Esther saw her opening, and Sam's world suddenly lurched sideways, the incessant bawl of the baby's screams – his screams – reaching a level of intensity so great that without realizing what he was doing his hands jerked instinctively to protect his ears, one hand letting go of the railing…
…While the other let go of Dean.
Dean found himself slammed into the metal fencing, the impact knocking all the air from his lungs as his brother lurched away from him, all Sam's sense of up and down lost in the excruciating cacophony splitting open his head and blurring the world into a swirling mass of formless color.
Dean felt himself skidding, feet sliding under the railing and fingers beginning to lose purchase on Sam's shirt as the younger brother toppled forward. Even as he fought to keep his balance, fought to keep Sam's balance, Dean could see Esther grinning.
"Make it stop!" Sam cried plaintively. "Please just make it stop…"
"Let him go, Dean," Esther whispered. "It's what he wants. It's what he needs. It's what you need. Just let him go."
"No!" Dean gritted his teeth, wedging his knee against the railing as he leaned out and caught hold of Sam's shoulder. "That's what you want. Not what he wants. And it's sure as hell not what I want! Just because you lost Emily, it doesn't give you the right to take Sam. He's not yours to take. And I'm not yours to punish. I'm not you, Esther! Because that's it, isn't it? You're not out to hurt the people you kill. You're not trying to punish them. It's the ones they leave behind. The older ones. You're punishing them because you don't know how to punish yourself. And you're doing it over and over. Because you didn't save Emily. Because you didn't protect her. Because you let her think she was a burden to you. Because you let her think you'd be better off without her…"
"Shut up!" Esther yelled suddenly, stamping her ghostly foot and causing a plume of dirt to rise up off the concrete beneath her. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
Sam cried out anew, the pain, the noise, the anger and the anguish threatening to rip his consciousness away from him as Dean tightened his grip and just held on to him for dear life.
Daddy the baby's crying… Daddy the baby's crying…
"Make it stop! Dean, please…!"
"Esther. Please stop."
The voice was as calm and as unexpected as Caitlin's had been earlier. Dean's attention was drawn momentarily away from the dizzying plummet looming beneath his kid brother to the small figure suddenly standing in front of Esther.
She was remarkably similar in appearance to the taller girl, the same long blonde hair, the same waxy pallor. But, despite having been dead for over seventy years, Emily's eyes held something Esther's didn't: Life.
"Emily?" Esther's voice was small and, for the first time in Dean's hearing, she actually sounded like a lost little girl. "Emmy?"
Sam blinked once, twice, shaking his head and suddenly grabbing hold of the railing as his world once again became vertical and the baby's wailing stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Turning to stare at Emily, his gaze briefly met Dean's, concern obvious in his big brother's wide eyes. A sluggish realization dawned on him that the older man still had one hand wrapped around his waist, while the other gripped his shoulder so hard it might actually have hurt if Sam hadn't felt so completely numb. He nodded slightly, trying to assure Dean that he was okay, but making no effort to push him away or loosen his grip. It was somehow comforting that Dean was still hanging on to him.
Esther was staring at her little sister, big blue eyes brimming with tears unshed for some seventy years. "Em?" she whispered. "You came back."
The younger girl nodded. "I had to," she said quietly. "I couldn't let you do this any more. To them. To yourself."
"I'm so sorry, Em," Esther shook her head, hands clutching at the folds of her skirt. "I'm so sorry I made you – I made you – "
"You didn't make me do anything," Emily countered. "Not like all of the people you…" she trailed off, and Esther just gazed at her, clearly not seeing any difference. Emily sighed. "Remember Grandma's favorite book?" she asked.
Esther looked taken aback by the question. "Jude the Obscure," she replied instantly.
"'Done because we are too many,'" Emily quoted sadly. "Remember that? The oldest child killed his siblings and then hanged himself because he thought that might save his parents from poverty. Remember?"
Esther nodded, a single tear sliding down her marble cheek.
"But in the book, the deaths of the children destroyed the parents," Emily continued. She sighed again. "I was too young to understand that then," she said. "I thought I was making your life easier. I thought I was helping you to live. But I killed you as surely as I killed myself, didn't I?"
"I shouldn't have let you…" Esther muttered through muffled sobs. "I should have protected you better… I was supposed to look out for you. You were my responsibility…"
"Es," Emily took a step towards her sister, holding out a ghostly hand towards her. "Please forgive me," she whispered. "Forgive me for leaving you alone."
Esther looked away, not even able to meet her sister's gaze.
But Emily wasn't to be deterred, slender translucent fingers catching the hand hanging limply at her sister's side. "Please forgive me."
Esther merely shook her head, still not looking up. "There's nothing to forgive. It was my fault."
"No," Emily said, catching hold of Esther's other hand. "It wasn't your fault. You have to let go of that guilt or this will never be over. You can't go on making other people suffer, making other people feel your pain, sacrificing innocent lives to teach people a lesson they never needed to learn in the first place. Because forgiving me is only the first step, Es. You have to forgive yourself too."
"It hurt so much to lose you. You were all I had. When you left, I died inside."
"I'm sorry it took me so long to see that." Emily placed a hand on her sister's tearstained cheek. "And I'm sorry it took me so long to come back. I never expected you to hold on to me for so long. I never expected…"
"I couldn't let you go."
"And you don't have to." Emily tightened her hold on Esther's hand. "We've got forever now. Come on." She tugged at the older girl's hand. "I want to show you something."
Esther took a tentative step after her little sister. "What do you want me to see?"
Emily turned back, grinning broadly. "What comes after," she said. "Come on. It's time. You don't want to miss it."
Emily squeezed her sister's hand, and Esther followed, her face lighting up as she caught sight of something neither Sam nor Dean could see.
"That's for me?"
"That's for us."
Hand in hand, the two girls took a step towards the railing. Emily looked briefly up at Sam and Dean, smiling as she and her sister took another step – straight through the railing and right off the roof.
And then they were gone.
No fireworks. No tunnel. No bright light.
Just like that, they were gone, and all Sam could hear was the faint hum of air conditioning units, loud in his suddenly quiet head as he stared at the spot where the ghostly sisters had just been standing.
He hesitated before meeting Dean's gaze, an awkward silence stretching out to fill the space between them as he finally began to feel his brother's fingers digging into his shoulder.
Sam would never tell Dean what else he'd heard besides the baby's wailing, how Esther had forced him to play unwitting spy amidst his big brother's earliest memories.
Baby Sammy's pitiful sobs had been the least of it.
Dean started to fidget under Sam's intense scrutiny. "Sammy," he said. "Not that you'd make a lousy gargoyle or anything. But are you planning on getting off of this roof any time soon or are we here until Doomsday?"
Sam mustered up a tiny flicker of a smile. "I'd climb on over this fence if you'd let go of me…"
Dean released his death grip on Sam's shoulder instantly. But didn't let go of the fistful he still had of his kid brother's jacket. Just in case.
Sam clambered over the railing, leaning back against it for a second, luxuriating in the solid feel of the metal, the quiet in his brain, and the comfort of his big brother standing right there in front of him.
Dean just looked back at him for a second. "Baby's stopped, huh?"
"You knew all along, didn't you?" Sam said. "You knew what – who – I was hearing."
Dean averted his gaze. "Car. Motel room. Notthat hard to figure out."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"Sam, you really didn't cry that much. Esther was just trying to guilt you…"
"And she did a pretty bang-up job." Sam straightened, brushing at the wet patch lingering on his cheek. He took a step towards his brother, who looked up at him with that skittish expression he got when Sam was about to do the unthinkable.
"Sam – "
"Dean, I know you don't like this emotion stuff – "
"Okay, that's it," Dean turned as if to leave, but Sam caught the collar of his jacket, pulling him backwards. "Hey – !"
"Thanks, big brother."
Dean turned and just looked at him. "Sam, all this saccharin's starting to make my teeth hurt."
"I'm serious, Dean." Sam still couldn't bring himself to tell his brother what he'd heard – the little boy's voice whispering, I'm here, Sammy. Don't cry. I won't let anything hurt you. Ever.
Some things were best left unsaid.
But some things weren't.
"You sacrificed a hell of a lot for me, Dean. I just want you to know that – that it's appreciated."
Dean held Sam's gaze for a brief instant, before rolling his eyes. "You are such a girl sometimes," he said, trying to shrug Sam's hand off his shoulder.
But Sam wouldn't be shrugged.
"Sam," Dean warned. "I swear to God, you try and hug me and I'm throwing you off this building myself."
Sam nodded, making as if to let Dean go before suddenly pulling him into what Dean would definitely avoid describing later as anything approaching the dreaded 'h' word.
"Aw Sam, would you just quit it – ?"
"Thanks, man," Sam said, despite Dean's protests and his squirming to get away. "I mean it."
For one fleeting moment, Dean stopped trying to push his little brother off. "Yeah, well," he muttered, examining his feet intently. "That's what I'm here for, right?"
The door to Esther Haywood's room was conspicuously closed when Sam and Dean passed by on their way back to see Caitlin.
Sam didn't shudder as he passed the threshold, didn't feel a chill in the hallway. Something had changed almost imperceptibly since the last time they were here. He glanced sideways at Dean, who was pretending not to have noticed. But Sam could tell he felt it too.
"So how's Sleeping Beauty?" Dean forced some lightness into his tone as he entered Caitlin's room.
She was sitting up now, still pale and drawn, but smiling. Smiling at her sister, who was perched on the edge of her bed, one hand gripping the younger girl's fingers as the other jabbed at her constantly vibrating cellphone.
"Justin Ross," Ashleigh muttered. "Honestly, I don't know what I ever saw in that loser."
"He has a Porsche," Caitlin pointed out succinctly.
"Porsches are over-rated," Dean commented. "You can't beat the classics."
Caitlin grinned at him, and once again he got the eerie feeling that she had heard every word he and Sam had said to her mom and her sister while she was still supposedly unconscious.
"You found your brother," Ashleigh said, nodding in Sam's direction.
"Yeah," Sam said. "I had some – stuff – I had to deal with."
"But you got her, right?" Ashleigh cut him off. "That girl? You got her?"
"We did," Sam confirmed. "We got her."
"So it was the old lady next door?"
Dean and Sam shared a look. "Sort of," Dean replied cryptically.
"Yeah, that's how we knew," Ashleigh said.
"Knew what?" Sam asked.
"You'd got her."
"She died," Gina put in suddenly, realizing her daughter wasn't explaining too well.
"She – who died?" Dean asked.
"Esther Haywood," Gina replied. "About ten minutes ago. Nurse went in to check on her, and she'd gone."
Dean was almost tempted to say "good", but refrained. He could kind of see what had driven the old gal to do the things she'd done. Hell, hadn't he killed for Sam? Who was he to judge her?
Sam's brows drew together pensively, and Dean could tell that he wasn't in any mood to be as forgiving. "She killed a lot of people," he commented, glancing briefly at Catie. "And hurt a lot more."
"It's going to take a long time for those families to come to terms with this," Gina said, shaking her head. "If they ever do. They'll never see anyone punished for taking their loved ones away from them."
"Esther's been punished plenty, believe me," Dean put in suddenly. "She's spent the last seventy years being punished. Talk about a life sentence."
Sam just looked at his brother appraisingly for a second, surprised to hear him say something so unexpected.
Dean picked up on Sam's scrutiny immediately, staring right back at him before finally caving. "What?"
Sam shrugged in that way he had. "Nothing," he said, the shrug saying just the opposite.
Dean frowned at him before turning his attention back to the Newtons. "Well, I guess we should be going…" he said awkwardly, trying to cover the fact that spending so much time in this goddamn hospital was finally starting to get to him.
Ashleigh stood suddenly. "Thanks," she said simply, still clutching Caitlin's hand. "For everything."
Dean smiled, nodding. "Take care of your sister."
Ashleigh understood the import of that sentence. "I will."
And Dean had no doubt she meant it.
Dean plucked the parking citation off the Impala's windshield as he and Sam finally returned to the car. Sliding in behind the wheel while his brother slumped into the passenger side, he shoved the ticket over at him with a grin. "Memento of Clifton, Connecticut," he said.
Sam took the proffered piece of paper, but didn't return Dean's smile. "I don't even remember getting here," he said quietly, shaking his head. "Last thing I remember was the graveyard…"
"Yeah," Dean said, Led Zeppelin's Kashmir blaring from the Impala's speakers as he gunned the engine. "You must have been really out of it to leave Zeppelin playing…"
Sam ran his fingers through his hair. "You're not kidding."
Dean adjusted the volume to a less ear-shattering level, before glancing over at the ER entrance thoughtfully. "Guess I really oughtta have gone and checked Pete out before we left…"
"Yeah, give him another chance to check you out, you mean," Sam sniggered.
"Hey, don't hate me 'cause I'm beautiful," Dean said, wincing as he bounced the Impala off the sidewalk where Sam had abandoned it. "Sammy, I swear to God, if you screwed up my car – "
"I know, I know," Sam said, having heard the threat a million times before. "You'll kill me."
Dean turned to look at him, for a second deadly serious. "Not in this lifetime," he said quietly.
Sam didn't know how to respond to that. Another uncomfortable silence followed, before he ventured, "Would you really have jumped off that roof after me?"
Dean considered. "Not in this jacket," he said, guiding the Impala out towards the exit of the parking lot.
Sam snorted despite himself. "And not onto the car, yeah I get it."
"Hey," Dean said, not quite managing to hide the wistful look in his eyes as his gaze lingered on his kid brother. "At least I got my priorities straight."
Because, as far as Dean Winchester was concerned, some things would always come first.
There you go ladies and - er - probably more ladies! (Although any gents out there are welcome to read too!) Thanks again for reading, thanks again for reviewing. Once I get a new computer I'll hopefully be posting the other episode I wrote for season 1 of the sn.tv VS... Always supposing my hard drive didn't fry, Graven Images coming to a computer near you soon...!