This story first appeared in Hunting Trips 1 (2006), from Neon Rainbow Press

The Mourning After
K Hanna Korossy

Death came fast and unexpectedly, like it always seemed to in Sam's experience.

The patch of Oregon woods they were exploring had been the site of several disappearances of late, and they'd rolled into town to check it out with little more to go on than that. Dean had thought it was a relative of the Yeti, northwestern woods and all, while Sam had held out for something more natural, a bear or a wildcat. Par for the course for them, Dean excited about another supernatural for them to hunt, Sam figuring it was another dead end in their search for Dad but game to check it out. Dean was usually right, anyway.

And so they'd split up when his brother had suggested it, both of them armed and ready and staying within shouting distance. That was what had brought Sam running, when he'd thought he'd heard Dean's muffled cry. He arrived back to the spot where they'd entered the woods to find his brother jogging out, calling to him.

"Sam, I found—"

That was when the creature had jumped down on him from the trees above.

There was already too much blood when Sam had screamed his brother's name. He raised the rifle, aimed, and fired without conscious thought, dropping the creature about a second after Dean fell. After Dean's body fell.

Sam had seen death enough to recognize it.

Still, he ran up to Dean with desperate haste, steps faltering as he got a good look. Dean's neck had been sliced clear through to his spine, his heart pumping a few more times before it ran out of blood and stopped. Sam watched the light go out of his big brother's eyes, Dean's mouth partly open as if he'd wanted to finish what he was saying.

Then Sam turned aside, went down on his knees, and threw up his breakfast.

He was used to death. He knew what to do. He went back to the Impala and got a blanket, gently wrapping the body in it. The creature was dead, and Sam barely gave it a glance, not recognizing it and not caring. Dean would have known what it was.

He carried the body back to the car, staggering under its weight, and laid it on the back seat. A hand slipped out, and Sam lifted it to slip it back under the blanket.

It was already cooling, with all that blood loss, as chilly as the silver ring on one finger, and callused. It was a hand that was used to hard work and a few blisters, despite the lack of gratitude or glory or even pay that went with this job. The same hand that had carefully cleaned his blood and wrapped his wounds and patted his arm more than once those last few months.

Sam's own hands started shaking then, and something inside him broke open. The first sob welled up then, and he sank to the ground beside the Impala and cried for his brother.

00000

They drove back to town in silence.

Dean's music had started blaring the moment Sam turned the key, and he twisted it off viciously. Dean was all over that car, and Sam could barely keep driving. He'd exchange it for something else before he left town, although he had no place to go now.

He left Dean in the back seat when he reached the motel and stumbled into the room. It would be dark soon and then he could move the body, although his mind couldn't seem to formulate a plan beyond that. Take him back to Kansas to be buried with their mother? Or try calling Dad again and seeing if maybe his eldest son's death was important enough to show up for?

Overwhelmed with choices, Sam slid down against the wall by the door and drew his knees to his chest.

Dean was dead, and the idea seemed to bounce around in the hollowness inside Sam, not taking root anyplace. He was in shock, he knew that, but couldn't seem to pull himself out of it for all the knowing, or decide what to do next. Dean's dead. Maybe if he thought it enough, it would sink in.

Maybe he should stop thinking it.

Packing. He needed to pack, and Sam pushed himself urgently to his feet to do so. His bag was still half-stuffed anyway, as they'd only arrived in town that morning, and he folded the clothes he'd shrugged out of before and put them inside. No, that wasn't right. He dumped the whole thing out and folded everything again. Now it wouldn't fit. He started over.

Dean's stuff would need packing, too, but he didn't even look toward the other bed.

Midway through folding, Sam realized he hadn't called Dad yet, and stopped, fishing out his cellphone. Dean didn't know it, but Sam checked Dad's message every day, wanting to hear if it had changed, but it never did. This time he didn't even hear it, just swam in a moment of bitter homesickness at the sound of his dad's voice, then cleared his throat when the voice mail beeped.

"Dad, it's Sam." He sounded strange, cleared his throat again. "Dean's dead. I don't know what to do." He stopped, not knowing what else to say. "Bye," he finally whispered, and snapped the phone shut.

Oh. He should probably have said where he was. Sam stared at the phone a moment, then finally stuffed it back in his pocket. Dad would call if he cared.

Sam tried packing the bag twice more before giving up.

The sun was almost down and he'd have to decide soon what to do, but nothing he considered made sense. Sam did a slow turn in the room, taking in his side, avoiding Dean's. When had things gotten so complicated? Stay or go, and if go, then where? And if stay, do what? Sleep? He suddenly laughed, startling himself.

He needed a drink, alcohol. It wasn't how he'd ever dealt with anything in his whole life, but once the thought occurred to him, it seemed imperative. Sam hurried back out to the car, carefully not looking in the backseat, and dug out the bottle of whatever it was Dean kept in the trunk, for "medicinal purposes." Even he didn't usually touch the hard stuff, preferring beer to liquor. Preferred,past tense. It was all past tense now.

Sam shut the room door behind him and stood, bottle in hand, for a long minute before he realized he didn't really want a drink. Like a bottle would solve his problems. Like anything would solve his problems and bring Dean back. He set the bottle carefully on the table and turned away.

He was too tired to make a decision now. The tears had left him husked out and numb, too drained to be doing anything more than strenuous breathing, and Sam finally gave in to the inevitable and sat heavily into the chair by the far wall. No, that seemed too confining. He moved back to the floor instead, and drew his knees up to his chin again.

He'd felt like this when Jess had died, too, aimless and inundated and empty, but Dean had been there to start filling the emptiness and give him purpose again. That first week especially, his brother had guided him, supported him, would have even bled for him if he'd been able to. Sam was still mourning Jess; how was he supposed to go without Dean, too?

He pulled his legs a little tighter against his chest, wrapped his arms around them.

No more teasing. No more gentle nudges when Sam got too wrapped up in himself. No knowing with a look what the other was thinking or reviving an old memory with a word to be shared again. Nobody shared his memories anymore.

His eyes, swollen and gritty, burned, and Sam swallowed hard. He wasn't going to cry anymore. Didn't know what he'd do instead, but he wouldn't do that. Dean would've never let him live it down.

The thought of not seeing him again was unbelievable. Unbearable.

Sam's throat worked hard. And then he just…sat.

The door rattled.

Sam's eyes slid over to it, not really curious but figuring he should look. Maybe it was the cleaning lady, because it seemed to be light outside now. Then that activity exhausted his brain and it fell silent.

Dean walked into the room.

Sam's eyebrows rose.

Dean was dusty and limping and, as he glanced around, looking for Sam, his mouth was drawn in irritation. Finding Sam on the floor, he glared at him. "What's the idea leaving me out there while you bring the car back? You know how far I had to walk to…"

He stopped, blinked. Sam idly wondered why.

Dean's eyes skipped away from him, moving to the unpacked bag on the bed, the bottle on the table, then back to Sam. His brow furrowed, but not in annoyance this time. "Sam, what's going on?"

Sam stared at him silently. He probably should have been mentally thumbing through the list of things that could be standing there in the doorway looking and sounding like his brother, but he was too tired.

Dean shoved the door shut behind him and crossed the distance between them, face changing in subtle ways that Sam couldn't seem to read. Which was funny because he could usually read Dean just fine; even the years they'd been apart hadn't changed that. Dean crouched in front of him, and Sam did know the look on his face now: concern. Not even hidden, for once. "Sam?"

He smiled despite himself, happy to hear his brother's voice again even if this couldn't last. His reaction didn't seem to reassure Dean, though, who reached for him.

"Sam—"

He jerked away before they touched, though, because hallucinations were one thing but he didn't think he could stand anything more real than that.

"Okay, Sam, you're scaring me here. What's the matter with you, what happened? Is it Dad?"

Sam leaned his head back against the wall, grimacing at the utter absurdity of the question. "You're dead, okay? I know that, so just…stop pretending." He was croaking, and not in the wouldn't-be-unwelcome dying kind of way.

Dean's face was comic confusion. "What? What're you—?"

"That thing jumped down and killed you, sliced your neck open." And the weather's been really nice today, hasn't it? "In the back seat. I put you in the back seat."

He got another hard stare, then Dean pushed himself to his feet and headed for the door.

Which meant leaving. And Sam suddenly found himself scrambling to his feet to join him.

Dean glanced at him again but led the way, out to the car, which Sam had left unlocked. For once, there was no lecture, Dean just opened the back door and leaned in. Sam hung back. Really, he'd done this already, and if the situation wouldn't have been quite so surreal, he might have given in to the new wave of nausea that rose in him.

"If you're trying to tell me this things looks like me, either we need to get your eyes checked or I'm really insulted." Dean backed out of the door, one hand still holding the blanket he'd raised.

Sam reeled away.

"Sam." Softer this time, almost kind. "Look." But definitely a command.

He always listened to Dean. He turned and looked.

He could still remember where the gash was, how muscle and blood vessels and windpipe had gaped open, the blood that soaked the leather jacket underneath and sprayed the lax face above it, and those lifeless eyes. But only the gash remained, on the neck of a wasted, grey-skinned creature wrapped in the blanket. Sam stared at it, uncomprehending.

The blanket dropped from Dean's hand, and closed the door. "Back inside," his brother ordered, and Sam side-stepped the hand again that reached for him but obeyed, woodenly walking back into the room.

The room door shut behind them. "Okay, let me get this straight. You saw me get killed yesterday?"

Sam nodded, arms pressed tight to his side.

Dean circled around to stand in front of him. "It's probably some kind of shapeshifter, Sam, looking like it was me so you'd let your guard down."

Okay, if they were going to pretend to have a normal conversation, he could do that. "Where were you?" He even almost sounded normal.

Dean's obvious chagrin was so severe, it almost made him smile. "I fell, okay? Some kind of underground cave or something. It took me a while to climb out, and by then, sayonara, you were gone."

"Did you see the thing?"

"What, out in the car?"

Sam shook his head. "The thing that killed you—it. I shot it."

Dean's eyebrows climbed. "There was another one? You think they were working together?"

He so didn't care, didn't even want to be having this conversation with his dead brother. It was making his head hurt after hours of pleasant numbness. Sam turned away again.

And Dean followed, stubborn as he'd always been, before. "But you know I'm okay now, right?" he asked cautiously. "That thing out in the car wasn't me—I'm fine. Well, banged up my shoulder a little when I fell, but…Sam?"

He was nodding, agreeing with everything his brother was saying, but Dean hadn't seen that hand, callused in all the right places, fitting perfectly into Sam's. Even the memory of it was enough to make his eyes prick, and he rubbed at them furtively, knowing Dean hated that sort of thing.

"Jeez, Sam." But he sounded exasperated, not mad. And then he or it or whatever it was, grabbed Sam's arm.

The unexpected contact jolted him out of his numbness. "Let go of me," Sam spat, trying to wrench himself free. He'd let his guard down and he knew it, but it looked and sounded and even smelled like Dean—well, a long-overdue-for-a-shower Dean—and the relaxation had been automatic.

"Not until you listen to me. I'm not dead, Sam."

"So the shapeshifter pretended to be you long enough for it to get killed by its partner. That doesn't make sense." He twisted in the grip, using his other hand to try to free himself and his eyes cast around for the weapons Dean usually left lying around the room.

His other arm was grabbed. "Stop it, Sam. I'm not gonna hurt you!"

Which was really funny because he'd been wandering the motel room leaving a virtual trail of blood those last hours. There were many ways to hurt the ones you loved, and right now Sam felt eviscerated.

"Sam!" It was a growl now, but it still sounded like Dean, and Sam felt panic steal the air from his lungs.

His rage exploded. Sam gave up trying to pry himself free and started fighting dirty instead, clawing and kicking. He heard a startled grunt before he was expertly flipped and grabbed from behind in a bear hug that trapped his arms at his sides. He kept kicking back, but then a leg hooked around his, tripping him, and before he knew it he was on the ground, Dean wrapped around him.

You lose. But he knew that already.

Chest heaving, Sam finally gave up the fight. He didn't know what was what anymore, but visions of undead coming back to claim loved ones gave way to visions of Dean lying lifeless on the ground and the awful grief that followed. What was he fighting for, anyway?

He choked out a small, miserable sound.

The iron grip loosened and he was turned again, unresisting this time, a collarbone against his check, ribs against his ribs, arms still wrapped around him but leaving him free to move. But he didn't. He could smell leather and sweat now, and the memories of his brother's corpse were giving way to the lub, lub against Sam's chest and the hand roughly clasping the back of his head and, oh, God, this really was Dean, alive. Albeit a more tolerant version, not seeming to mind Sam burying his face in Dean's neck or clutching double handfuls of his jacket as if he were five again and his brother had the power to make everything right. Except, he had.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut and held on for—to—dear life.

"You pick up a few new moves at school?" Dean asked mildly.

He wasn't ready to talk yet, but he almost smiled and shook his head helplessly.

So…" His brother cleared his throat. "I take it we're clear now on me being not dead?"

Sam flinched, thinking about the blanket-wrapped body on the Impala's back seat.

Dean heaved a put-upon sigh, gave Sam's hair a rub. "You'd think for all that college learning, you'd know living when you see it. I mean, what threw you, the moving around part or the talking?"

Sam's face contorted in some mix of pain and joy. "Yeah, 'cause we've never met anything dead that walks and talks," he rasped.

A pause, and he could feel Dean's head drop back to the carpet. "Okay, you have a point. Still, I think you out Scully-ed Scully this time, Sam."

"And you're just the hugging type."

"This isn't a hug, you pansy, this is me keeping you from tearing my head off or me having to return the favor. I kinda like all my body parts intact."

Sam winced his eyes shut again.

Dean sighed for real this time. "I knew I should've asked for a sister," he muttered. He began untangling himself with careful motions, tugging Sam up onto the corner of the bed. He braced Sam with one hand on his shoulder while pulling his jacket off. Which was a good thing because he felt as exhausted as if he'd suffered a physical wound the day before, healing but still weak.

Dean released him, let him fall over onto his pillow, and pulled his shoes off. Sam watched his every movement intently. Which couldn't help but catch his brother's notice, and as Dean dropped his feet onto the bed, he lifted an eyebrow. "What?"

"I'm comparing."

He got a hard look for that. "Make sure you get my good side, then."

"If it hadn't gotten killed so fast, I would've known it wasn't you."

"Oh, yeah? How's that?"

"Even if it looked and sounded like you, it wouldn't have acted like you."

"Yeah, I think luring you into the woods to kill you might've given it away."

"That's not what I mean." God, he felt tired. Even the euphoria of Dean not being dead had ground to a halt from sheer fatigue, although Sam couldn't pull his eyes away from his brother.

Dean nudged him to move over and Sam tolerantly did. His brother sat down on the edge of the bed to pull his own boots off and shrugged out of his coat with a tired groan.

"Did I hurt you?"

"Not more than an eight-mile walk back to town."

"Sorry."

Dean pulled a face. "Right, 'cause even if I'm dead, you should still ask to borrow the car." He gave Sam a speculative look. "You gonna be okay for a minute?"

His managed at least a partial smile. "Are you asking me if you can go to the bathroom?"

Dean grumbled something that made Sam smile for real, and shoved him as he rose and disappeared into the bathroom.

Sam sat up in bed, barely resisting the urge to follow because how twisted would that be? And yet Dean's being back felt ephemeral, not impressed into his memory as deeply as the sight of Dean's body, still subject to doubts now that he no longer had proof in front of him. He stared holes in the door that wasn't even completely shut between them.

Dean started singing in the other room.

Sam blinked at the bathroom door, felt the tension in his muscles slowly melt. If anything should have made him question whether it was really Dean who'd come back, that slightly off-key rendition of Ride the Lightning was it, and yet it was oddly reassuring. Probably because he knew why Dean was utterly embarrassing himself like that. Sam lay back down again, watching the door with heavy eyes.

Dean didn't even look at him when he came out, just shut the blinds and drew the curtains, then grabbed the pillow and blankets from his bed and hauled them over to Sam's.

"You don't have to—"

"Shut up. I'd rather have you keep sticking your elbow in my ribs than watching me all night to make sure I don't disappear. We'll both get more sleep this way."

"It's ten in the morning," Sam pointed out.

Dean glared at him. "You get a lot of sleep last night?"

Sam moved to the far side of the bed, feeling five again and not caring too much.

"Yeah, I didn't think so." Dean stretched out next to Sam, looking up at the ceiling, Sam still watching him although the dim light made him sleepy. "It wasn't me, Sam," he said quietly.

He closed his eyes, seeing the body. "It felt like you."

He fell asleep while Dean was still trying to come up with an answer for that.

00000

Sam woke in that moment of confusion where every motel room looked the same and he didn't know where they were or why. Then he felt the echo of pain and remembered, and turned over to make sure Dean was still there.

But, he wasn't.

Sam jolted up, gaze sweeping the room. He was alone. Dean's bed sat neatly made, his bag spilling out onto the covers, his pillow tucked in at the head instead of beside Sam, just like when he'd first come back to the room.

Sam rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom, where only one towel sat on the floor and the tiles were dry. No sign of use, no sign of anyone else having been in there since the morning before. And no Dean.

Sam rocked back, one hand on the wall for support. Could he have dreamed it? Wishful manifestations of a grieving heart? Or a finally unbalanced mind?

Like a twisted case of déjà vu, the lock rattled again, the doorknob turning. Sam stuttered a step that way.

And Dean walked in whole and healthy and definitely alive, pocketing his keys. His gaze swung from the bed to Sam, and he could see a flash of guilt in it.

Sam's jaw set, and with the next step he took he was already swinging.

Dean wasn't easily caught off-guard, or maybe he knew he deserved it, but he took the punch and bounced off the open door with it, just catching himself on the doorjamb. With one finger he dabbed at the blood on his split lip, then looked up at Sam. "Feel better?"

"No." He shook his hand, bones ringing with the pain of the impact even though he'd pulled his punch, just a little. "Where were you?"

"Out getting rid of the thing in the car and checking the one you shot. I thought I'd be back before you woke up." It was a Dean sort of an apology, followed by a disarming smile as he held up a bag. "I brought food."

Sam glared at him, stomped into the bathroom, but hurried to return as quickly as possible. From the way his brother eyed him when he came back out again, Dean knew it, but Sam was through being embarrassed.
Dean silently offered him a breakfast sandwich and, thawing slightly, Sam took it. He sank down on the edge of the bed across from his brother, their knees nearly touching, and tore into the food. He'd nearly forgotten about eating, but his stomach hadn't.

"You wanna hear what I found?" Dean asked pleasantly around a bite.

"Not really."

"Good, glad we're on the same page. The thing you shot—it's not a Wildman or a Yeti but probably the same family. Carnivorous, judging by the teeth."

"It was carnivorous," Sam said darkly, the food in his mouth suddenly hard to swallow.

Dean gave him a considering look. "Shapeshifter wasn't carnivorous. Either the two of them were working together or else it was just wrong place, wrong time for the shapeshifter."

Sam nodded dully.

Dean watched him while he ate. "I'm kinda thinking they were working together. I mean, what are the chances of the two of them ending up in the same woods, woods that locals who should have known better kept disappearing into?"

"Dean?"

"Yeah?"

Sam rolled up the empty sandwich wrapper and pitched into the trashcan. "Let's get out of here."

Dean looked at him, then half-shrugged. "Okay."

They packed in silence, and Sam didn't look at the back seat as he threw his duffel in.

He didn't start relaxing until they put some miles between them and the motel, and the woods. Until Dean's music had settled over his brain like a familiar blanket and he could just sense his brother's fingertips a few inches away as he stretched his arm over the back of the seat. Until Dean glanced over at him and Sam saw instant recognition of what he was thinking, his brother giving him the bare bones of a smile before turning back to the road because that was how they handled things. And Sam knew that when they stopped for the night, Dean would find him some hot tea and maybe some Chinese and they'd eat it while watching some brainless comedy on TV, because that was how they handled things, too. And eventually, the part of Sam's brain that had kept murmuring "what if" went silent.

For now.

00000

Sam was still watching him.

Dean had rather hoped that crossing a state or two would be enough for that to wear off, but apparently he'd be under observation for a while. Not that he minded so much, except for what it said about Sam's state of mind.

It had been different, hunting with Dad. They were both passionate about the hunt, willing to give it their all, even to die for it. Which had led more than once to one of them dragging the other's bleeding body home, not certain if they'd be hunting solo now. And it had hurt…but not the way it had seeing the devastation in Sam's face when Dean had walked in that morning.

The fact of the matter was, the hunt had changed. And not because Sam was more thoughtful about it, researching and analyzing and planning when Dean would have just jumped in. It was because Sam giving his life for it was unacceptable in ways it hadn't been for Dad and him, and with Sam relying on him, Dean couldn't just check out any time, either. Taking care of his little brother apparently meant taking care of himself, too, and that…that would take some adjustment.

It would be worth it, though, to never see Sam look like that again. The memory of it still shook Dean, even as it didn't surprise him. It wasn't far from how he'd felt a few moments when he'd thought Sam might be dead.

He glanced over at his brother again, found Sam finally turned toward the window, watching the passing scenery instead of Dean. Far more interesting view, probably, and it made him feel better. At least until he cleared his throat, about to ask if they should go to Ohio to look into a strange death there or turn south to check out some Indian legends, and Sam turned back to look at him, eyes still shadowed with too much loss in too little time.

And Dean found himself improvising. "You remember how you always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore?"

Something sparked in Sam's eyes. "I thought we were going to Ohio?"

Dean shrugged. "We can go the long way."

His baby brother smiled. "That would be cool, yeah."

A very different kind of hunt, but that wouldn't be so bad. What mattered was that they kept going.

It was what they did.

The End