K Hanna Korossy
"A phantom cat," Dean said with a grin at the windshield, hoping it didn't look as forced as it felt. "That just doesn't get less funny."
"A phantom wildcat," Sam amended, "that's probably already killed six people over the last dozen years."
"Maybe we should've brought some catnip."
Sam just shook his head. He consulted his laptop again before continuing. "The last victim, the one that was just in the news, was Lester Morris, a forty-four year old accountant from Urbana. Witnesses say the wildcat, which looks like a large panther or cougar, attacked Morris and clawed his face and body while a few men tried to scare it away. It finally started running away and just vanished. Morris died on the way to the hospital."
"Morris," Dean chortled in earnest amusement this time.
Sam made a face at him. "Could we please focus on the dead, eviscerated victims here?" He didn't seem too annoyed, though. He was trying for normalcy just as hard as Dean was.
Dean tipped his head contritely. "Okay, so, why's everyone so sure this isn't your ordinary, run-of-the-mill wildcat? I mean, besides the vanishing part."
"Uh, well, it's Illinois. Not just the state with the most haunted town and a lot of paranormal history and Native American lore, but also a place where panthers and cougars have been extinct for the last hundred years."
"Zoo?" Dean offered.
"No reports of escapes."
Sam huffed. "Dean, I checked, all right? There's no reason a wildcat should've been roaming Champaign County, in the middle of the suburbs."
"Suburbs?" Dean glanced over at him.
"Yeah, that's the other thing. Morris was killed in his own back yard while barbequing, in front of his neighbors and his wife and two sons."
Dean winced. "That sucks. But then why are we headed out into the boonies? Shouldn't we be looking for this thing in town?"
Sam shook his head, rubbing a hand lightly over his chest as he scanned his notes. "No, it's already hit three different towns. We could be looking for it for weeks without any luck. We have to go to its source instead of its hunting grounds."
Dean sighed. "Yeah, okay. Phantom felines. What did Dad's journal say?" And, wow, he'd almost managed to say the name without pain.
Sam picked up and flipped through the leather-bound book. "He never actually faced one, but he did some research one time when he thought he might. There haven't been any successful attempts to kill one—bullets and an axe haven't worked. Dad thought maybe sanctified iron or," he raised an eyebrow, "a cleansing ritual might destroy it."
"Dad, a cleansing ritual?" Their dad had usually preferred tangible, physical weapons to the far less-reliable spells and rituals. Which was not to say he hadn't done exorcisms, blessings, and a host of rituals as needed, but for a phantom cat?
Sam shrugged, sharing his reaction. "We're gonna need to do a summoning ritual to draw it out, anyway. I guess we can start with the iron, keep the cleansing as backup." He was still rubbing at his chest.
"Yeah, sounds good," Dean said, distracted, casting him sideways glances.
His brother seemed to realize a second later what he was doing and dropped his hand.
"Still sore?" Dean asked evenly, own chest a little tight.
Sam's nose wrinkled. "Mostly itches now."
"You still putting that cream—"
"Dean, I can take care of myself, all right?" He didn't have to add, I'm not the one who caused this in the first place. Maybe he was thinking it, but Sammy had never been deliberately cruel.
"Yeah," Dean mumbled. Because he was well aware his brother was doing this for him. After three and a half days of mostly sleep, Sam was clearly still exhausted and sore, but Dean had been quietly going crazy with nothing to do but sit and think. And remember. Sam had finally just started looking for their next hunt.
Dean was grateful to him for that, but far more so for the fact that in the days since his visit to Hell, courtesy of Dean, Sam had never once thrown it in his face. He'd downplayed his physical pain, swallowed the emotional, and soldiered on in the Winchester way. It was, frankly, the only way Dean had been able to live at all with what he'd done.
But just barely. He knew Sam was still reeling from the betrayal and whatever he'd gone through while he'd been gone. The nightmares that plagued his rest, the haunted look that lingered sometimes in his eyes, the cautious way he spoke, as if he had to think about everything he said: Sam was far from over it. And that was on top of his pain at Dean nearly making the earlier deal with the crossroad demon, and then of having a wraith influence Sam to push Dean until he pushed back.
No, Dean wouldn't be forgiving himself anytime soon. Sam had, almost instantly, but he hadn't forgotten, either. And Dean didn't know what else he could do besides look after his brother and hope he hadn't broken him irreparably.
Perfect time for a hunt. With Dean still struggling, too, they were both in great shape for this. Par for the Winchester course.
Sam slanted a look at him, while Dean stared straight ahead. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Dean grimaced. "You've got nothing to be sorry about, Sam." He turned his head. "You hear me? Nothing. I'm the one who screwed you, remember?"
"Dean, don't," Sam said, sounding weary and old.
Dean scowled at the empty road. "Why don't you get some rest? We've still got a few hours to go."
Sam hesitated, then nodded in unconvinced silence, sliding down a little to pillow his head between the seat back and the door. Before he let his eyes slide shut, Dean caught a glimpse of pained hazel eyes staring at him.
Yeah, they were doing just fine.
He woke to gravel crunching as the Impala pulled off onto a tree-lined shoulder. Sam sat up with a stifled yawn, dislodging Dean's jacket from where it had spread over him. Dean reclaimed it without a word and shrugged into it as he climbed out of the car. Sam quickly followed him.
"Where are we?"
"'Bout a half-hour out of Urbana. That's where the last attack was, right?"
"Morris, yeah." Sam glanced around, seeing only flat land, water, and the occasional tree. "I guess it's as good a place as any."
"Better than that, actually." Dean looked back at him with a small grin. "You're standing on sacred ground, Sammy—Illini tribal lands go through this whole area, but the river," he pointed, "was used for a lot of their rituals."
Sam found his own mouth curving up. For all the history and symbols and lore he knew, Dean could easily match him with practical knowledge. He'd always been quick and willing to learn anything he deemed useful. "And you didn't mention this before because…?"
The grin broadened. "Can't show all my cards."
"Right," Sam drawled, shaking his head. His hand was straying up to his chest again, and he made himself drop it. It felt too good to forget a little bit, to see Dean smile and to smile back. "Okay, so, set up by the water's edge?" Consecrated ground often strengthened rituals, making them work better.
Dean nodded, and they both headed back to the trunk.
Sam had already packed a satchel with what they needed, but Dean was picking through the weapons with serious consideration. He handed Sam his curved axe, which Sam stowed in the bag, and the Taurus 9 mil. He slipped that one into the back of his jeans. Dean only picked up a shotgun for himself, but Sam knew he had at least a handgun and a knife on him somewhere, probably a flask of holy water and who knows what other odds-and-ends. His brother would've made a good Boy Scout. In the juvenile delinquents troop, anyway.
They left the car on the edge of the empty road and headed out toward the water.
It was farther than it looked, maybe a mile, and Sam felt the strain in his abused chest and sore muscles. He stumbled at one point on a loose rock, making his neck jerk back and his pecs tighten, and for just a second he was back in pain and darkness and horrible solitude. And then Dean was in front of him, hands on Sam's biceps, staring worriedly into his face, and Sam shook the flashback away. "'M all right," he murmured. Dean let him go and stepped back, looking not at all reassured.
Sam was grateful to finally reach the water's edge. Neither of them commented when he sank down on the grassy bank and stared at the water, recouping his strength, while Dean puttered and set up around him. There was a circle to be drawn, candles and herbs and fresh water to be prepared, and Sam let himself coast for a moment on Dean's sure motions.
He didn't even realize how far or long he'd drifted until the next thing he knew, he was stretched out in the cool grass, Dean sitting next to him. His brother was chucking rocks into the water and chewing on a sprig of the mint growing wild on the banks. Dean's eyes were distant, fixed across the water on something only he could see.
Sometimes Sam almost forgot how much Dean was hurting, too. He'd been trying so hard to forget the hours—days weeks months—he'd spent in a virtual if not literal Hell to satisfy a bargain his brother had made, how easily Dean had made that deal, how close he'd come to making one for his own life the week before. It was easy for Sam to get lost in his own pain; Dean had betrayed him, no matter how unwittingly. And the information they'd received in exchange, that their father was, indeed, consigned to Hell, hadn't helped at all.
But Dean had already been reeling from their dad's death, far more than Sam was or would ever understand. And if his ashen face upon Sam's return and subsequent extreme gentleness had been any indication, Dean had amply regretted his "bargain." There was no point in dwelling on the mistakes of the past, nothing to do now but put it behind them and go on and try to help each other heal. The memories were all vague, anyway, darkness and blood, despair and pain. Formless terror.
Sam's chest still hurt, though, his muscles tired and sore. He jumped at sounds and slept in nightmares. They'd both pretended Dean hadn't spent most of the night before in Sam's bed, curled around him after he'd gone to sleep, leaving before he woke, but obvious in his presence because Sam had only slept well the few hours he'd been there. His heart still knew his brother meant safety even if his head was a very messed up place right now. And that was a seed of hope Sam clung to.
"You should've woken me up," he said fuzzily, pushing himself up.
Dean shrugged, his attention sliding back to the here-and-now but his gaze still cast far. "No rush. We've still got a few hours of daylight." A handful of seconds trickled by before his head turned halfway toward Sam. "I'm sorry, Sammy." Only then did he meet Sam's eyes, briefly, before looking away again.
Sam swallowed a sigh. He knew that, he really did. Dean had been saying it all week, sometimes in words, more often in Sam's favorite foods or the sudden tolerance for Sam's music or the ruined and missing shirts that had been quietly replaced. It wasn't proof of his brother's contrition Sam needed. "It's fine, Dean, I'm all right," he answered, even though it wasn't and he wasn't and they both knew it. But there was nothing else he could say, either.
Another minute, then Dean rose fluidly and pulled him to his feet, expression bland. Sam went to set up the last few steps of the ritual with slow, focused movements.
This wasn't serious or dark magic. Summoning spells ran the whole gamut from innocent summoning of memories and directions, to the playing-with-fire demon-summons they suspected their Dad had done before his death. Summoning a phantom feline was definitely on the lighter end of the spectrum, drawing a previous manifestation to them like iron to a magnet. The blessed ground would just cast the net for their prey wider and stronger.
His set-up complete, Sam nodded at his brother. Dean nodded back and pulled his Colt from his pocket, holding it firmly in his right hand while the shotgun hung from his left. Both loaded with consecrated iron, Sam had no doubt, as his own handgun was. Confident his brother had defense covered, Sam lit the candle and concentrated on the ritual.
It took no more than five minutes, ending with the flame guttering. Sam quickly stepped back and slipped his own weapons free, catching Dean's swiveling head out of the corner of his eye. They waited, ready.
It was then that Sam realized his mistake. Summoning something was one thing.
Making it visible was another.
Dean's barked, "Sam," was his only warning, and Sam dropped like a stone at the urgency in his brother's voice. Three shots rang out in rapid succession, bullets whistling through the air above him. There was an angry animal screech just a few feet away. By the time Sam rolled to his back, there was only air.
He traded a wide-eyed glance with Dean, whose face had gone hard and angry. They'd just summoned a creature that could be invisible at will and that wasn't vulnerable to their ammo. Not good.
This time he was the one who caught the flutter of movement beside him, and Sam whirled, blade already slicing. It hit…something, teeth and fur flashing before vanishing again. Sam glanced at his blade, noted the absence of blood.
"Nothing's hurting it," he called to Dean.
"Yeah, kinda got that. How long for the cleansing ritual?"
"Too long," Sam said tightly, especially with the unpredictable attacks of the creature. He risked a glance over to see Dean frantically reloading his shotgun. Which was strange since he hadn't shot it yet. "What—?"
"Salt." Dean's eyes raked him even as his hands didn't slow. "Phantom, right? Maybe we're missing the obvious."
It wasn't a bad idea. Sam jogged toward him, senses on high alert. If Dean had the only weapon that could kill the thing, Sam was safer at his back.
The cat beat him to it.
"Dean!" he hollered, seeing the low, sleek shape materialize behind his brother. Dean turned as he snapped the shotgun closed.
Not fast enough.
The phantom cat struck with an enraged yowl, tackling Dean and driving them both to the ground. Sam saw shining claws rise and slash downward. He heard Dean grunt right before the shotgun fired, shoving the cat off Dean and onto its side.
It was bleeding, screaming in anger and pain.
Dean wasn't finishing it off, though, nor getting up, and Sam barely had time to catch sight of the blood as he covered the last few feet and yanked the shotgun out of Dean's loose grip, aimed, and fired.
It took three more rounds, but the cat finally dispersed like a cloud of demon smoke with a last screech, bubbling blackness fading away into late afternoon light.
Sam gulped in a burning lungful of air, dropped the shotgun, and turned back to Dean.
And felt his heart stammer and stop at the sight.
The cat had gotten him low, down the hip and thigh, just missing the groin. But not the femoral artery. Blood spurt in weakening arcs with each beat of Dean's heart. His jeans were already saturated, red puddling around him faster than the ground could soak it up.
"Oh, God," Sam murmured as he dropped to the ground next to his brother. Dean weakly cursed as he scrabbled at his pants leg, trying unsuccessfully to rise, to find and stop the hemorrhage. Sam gently shoved the cold fingers aside and pressed the heel of his good left hand against the torn blood vessel. The spurt became a trickle.
It had all happened so unbelievably fast. But he knew, had known from the moment he'd laid eyes on his brother. Dean had lost too much blood already. His skin was translucent, his eyes glassy as Sam looked him over, biting his own lip to keep from crying.
Just like that, Dean was dying.
"I'm here, Dean." He yanked his belt free one-handed, sliding it under Dean's leg, then threading it through with shaking hands and pulling it tight. Dean groaned gutturally, and Sam wondered for a moment why he was doing this, why he was making Dean's last minutes painful when he knew nothing would help. Dean was dying, and…
"'S it dead?"
His eyes burned. "It's dead." He laid his casted hand on Dean's chest, feeling the racing heart struggling underneath.
His obvious distress seemed to bother Dean, who frowned faintly at him. "Sammy…"
"Don't try to talk, Dean, all right? You've…you've lost a lot of blood. I need to get you some help, all right?"
Dean's eyes fluttered as he mumbled something.
"What?" Sam leaned in close. "Dean, stay with me. Dean!"
The bruised-looking lids jerked open. "Cold," Dean said clearly before sagging again.
Sam shucked his jacket off with a snap of the body, letting go just for an instant of Dean's leg to pull it off. Despite the tourniquet, fresh blood continued to well from the wound; how much more did he have left to lose? Sam's throat was closing, his face hot, his hands freezing as he pressed again into the warm liquid. This couldn't be happening.
It was said with such affection, he knew instantly that Dean knew, too. Which should have made it better, but only made it so much worse when Sam dragged his gaze back up to his brother's face, threaded his bloody fingers through Dean's limp ones. "You shouldn't talk, Dean—save your strength."
Dean's other hand found his shirt and clutched weakly. His body trembled with the fight to hang on. "Tryin'…" It was just a shadow of his former voice, but it had Dean's determination behind it. "Sammy, sorry…don't think can… keep promise."
"Shut up." His eyes were swimming. "You're not getting out of this that easy, Dean."
"Sammy," Dean whispered. It looked like it took a lot of his energy just to keep his eyes open. Sam bent over him helplessly, resting his forehead against his big brother's, trying to will him to live and feeling like he was the one dying.
The new voice snapped Sam's head up.
They weren't alone. He stared at the newcomer with wide eyes for a moment, speechless. And then murmured a line under his breath that would have made Dean laugh to hear.
"Son of a bitch."
Dean knew he was dying.
He'd been here before, more than once. The weightless, detached feeling, the cold body that didn't seem to be his anymore, the distant pain. None of it hurt, and the warm light beckoned invitingly.
But then there was Sam bent over him, trying so hard not to cry.
It was why Dean was clinging to those last few minutes of life now, fighting for his brother's sake. Because even though it hurt worse than any mortal wounds to see the fear and misery that twisted Sammy's face, Dean had to do this one last thing for him. He had to be there as long as he could, tell Sam one more time what he already knew but Dean couldn't let him forget. I'm sorry, you can do this, I love you.
God, I love you.
Sam's fingers slipped into Dean's just like when they'd been little, and he tried to squeeze back. You're strong enough for this, kiddo. You are. He couldn't say half of what he wanted to out loud, so he tried to do it in silence.
And then Sam suddenly stiffened. And instincts that were already shutting down flared to life again, still trying to protect even though Dean didn't have the means. What's going on?
Sam pressed his fingers hard, then slid free.
A shadow fell over Dean. He tried to focus on it, but he couldn't see that far. The light was too bright, and he didn't know if it was sun or that big shiny tunnel or just his brain's last few gasps. There was a rumble of voices in the distance.
Then Sam leaned over him again, his breath warm on Dean's chilled face, a new urgency in his voice. "Dean, it's an Old One—the Ghost Wrestler. I don't know—I think the summoning spell drew him, too. If I wrestle him, he'll grant a wish, Dean—he'll heal you."
It was hard to think, almost impossible to sort out Sam's desperate, hurting voice from the content of his words. What, Ghost Wrestler? The memory tickled, but it was on too high a shelf to reach and he was tired. Granting wishes—heal him? But he was dying…
Dean tried to roll his head, not liking this unknown. Fighting and wishes and bargains—they came with price tags, sometimes invisible ones. The last one had nearly killed Sam, in spirit if not in body. And nothing was worth that. "No," he whispered. "No. Sam…"
Sam's fingers dug into his arm hard enough for Dean to feel. "Dean, I have to. I can't…" His voice broke. "I can't lose you, man, all right? Don't worry, I can win this, Dean. It's safe if I win."
Safe? Winning, safe…and Dean remembered. The Ghost Wrestler, from Native American lore. It would appear to braves, invite them to fight, and grant them a wish if they won. But if they lost… Dean struggled to bring his brother into focus and speak. "Sammy, no—"
A hand patted his shoulder, eyes deep with understanding. "I'm going to win, Dean. I promise. Just hang in there, all right?" Broad hands lifted his calves and slid something under them, elevating his legs and clearing his head fractionally. Then a hand rested warm again over his heart, and was gone.
A wave of cold washed over Dean, prickling his skin from scalp to soul. He was losing his grip on life, and soon any bargain Sam made would be worthless. Dean doubted even a Ghost Wrestler could bring back the dead. But he would do his best to stay at least until Sam was safe.
In life or death, it was always for Sam.
He hung on, worried, and waited.
Just when Sam thought he'd seen it all, something new always turned up.
He should have considered that the summoning ritual would attract anything else in the area, too, and in the paranormal-rich Illinois flatlands, the candidates were many. They'd probably been lucky it was a Ghost Wrestler and not Piasa Birds or a baykok or something. A being that was neutral in intent, that could give and not just take. And if that wasn't an answer to prayer, Sam didn't know what was.
He just had to beat it.
The Ghost Wrestler stood impassively opposite him, silent since his offer to wrestle. His stance was loose, ready to fight. He was dressed in what looked like an animal-skin loincloth, his long black hair tied back. Thick arms hung by a powerfully muscled torso, but he carried his strength with casual ease. He would be a formidable opponent, and Sam would never have accepted his offer to wrestle were not the stakes so high. If he won, the Wrestler had the power to heal Dean. If Sam lost, he forfeited his own life, and Dean's by extension. So he couldn't lose, simple as that.
Dean was dying, and Sam was wrestling a Native American spirit. Yeah, seemed about right for them.
The Wrestler advanced soundlessly. He had power and bulk on his side, while Sam had speed and flexibility. And desperation. He was still tired and healing, but the sleep earlier had revitalized him some. He could do this. He had to.
His opponent tested his skills and reactions at first, feinting, jabbing. Sam let himself go slow, the hits almost grazing him and his avoidances clumsy. Can't show all your cards. Dean cheered him on even in absence, and Sam's gaze automatically darted to his brother for a fraction of a second, noting the surprisingly lucid gaze. He was holding on for Sam.
The Wrestler took advantage of his momentary distraction and closed in. One blow made Sam's head ring, while another plowed the breath out of his body for precious seconds.
Sam lowered his chin, cleared his head of everything but the fight, and let loose.
He might not have been the attentive, submissive pupil John Winchester had wanted, but that didn't mean Sam hadn't learned his lessons. All the times Dean had sparred with him, patient where John had been brisk, encouraging where John had bullied, had helped, too, and it was his brother's voice Sam heard as he immersed himself into the fight, into lunge, kick, hold, twist. His long limbs were his best advantage, even with one casted arm, and Sam pressed their advantage: armbar, underhook, scissors. He lost ground, regained it, pushed a little further.
The Wrestler wasn't supernaturally strong, just powerfully built, but he did have the advantage in both bulk and energy. He wasn't tiring or sweating, seeming to just be biding his time while the wear of exertion and latent injuries took their toll on Sam, grinding down his strength and reaction time. His torn chest cramped, a vicious twist made his back creak and ache, and repeated blows to the face made him dizzy. The Wrestler fought impassively, betraying no joy at each success, no frustration at each setback. Sam gritted his teeth and concentrated.
Dean smashing Bloody Mary's mirror, thumb rubbing away the trail of blood on Sam's face.
His hands unwinding the cord from Sam's neck, catching him and holding him close as Sam fell.
The Wrestler pinned Sam, pressing hard on his chest until spots danced in his vision. He bucked his hips, managed to get enough leverage with his legs to free himself, but he was moving more slowly, gasping for air. His chest felt like lead as he circled his opponent grimly, not daring to look at Dean now.
A warm grip on his arms anchoring him while visions took over his mind and body.
Dean's quiet admissions of his fear about things he'd do for his family, about what the loss of his family was doing to him.
Sam knew more moves than the Wrestler did, half of what he was doing probably from way after the spirit's era. But the Wrestler had good instincts, and time was on his side. As Sam ducked under the massive arms, going for his unprotected torso, the Wrestler dropped at the last moment, too. Sam couldn't react fast enough, and found himself flipped around so he was back-to-chest, the air squeezing out of him. Sam barely managed an over-the-shoulder flip, but the Wrestler pulled him down with him, then mounted his hips again.
Bargains weighed, made, grasped at in desperation, and regretted so much later.
Dean dying, a whispered apology on his lips for leaving Sam.
Sam moved to buck him off once more, but this time the Wrestler was ready. Two brutal blows to his ribs made Sam curl up as much as he was able on his back. Before he could recover, the Wrestler's full weight pressed down on his raw chest and upper ribs, lancing agony through him and stealing the last of his air and strength.
Dean was depending on him. He had to win.
But he couldn't.
"Yield," came the quiet command.
"No," Sam gritted out, tasting blood, barely able to see. He twisted in place, writhing like a beached fish to dislodge his opponent. But the Wrestler had had the advantage from the start. Weary, wounded, and mortal, Sam hadn't stood a chance. Not even fighting for Dean.
He sobbed a breath through compressed lungs, reared up frantically one more time without effect.
"You fought well," the spirit said with unexpected warmth. "Yield."
The weight on his chest pressed harder. His vision grew hazy, his breathing tortured. Sam's legs bucked uselessly, then slowly stilled.
He didn't realize the weight was gone until air drove painfully back into his lungs. Sam sucked in sharp, greedy breaths, ignoring the burn, and opened eyes he didn't know he'd closed.
The Ghost Wrestler
stood above him, watching him impassively. Waiting to close their
deal and take Sam's life.
Desperate fear flowed through him, but it wasn't for himself.
Sam pushed himself up, collapsed back into the grass on rubbery limbs, then forced himself up again. He staggered that way, on all fours, back to Dean and dropped there, his deep wheezes matching Dean's weaker ones. He was still alive, but his body was fighting for each breath, eyes half-open but unseeing. Sam swallowed hard and lay his hand on the struggling chest as he looked up at the Wrestler. "Please. I'll keep my end of the bargain…but, please. Heal him."
The spirit's eyes narrowed, but he didn't move, just waited.
Sam's face crumpled. "Please. He doesn't deserve this. Do whatever you want with me, just, please…"
But that wasn't the deal, and it was too late to change the rules now. Maybe it always had been.
Sam closed his eyes a moment, then opened them to look down on Dean. Dull hazel watched his every movement, uncomprehending but naked with emotion.
Sam pulled himself together, shutting out the Ghost Wrestler, ignoring everything else around him. He just smiled and reached down to pull Dean to him.
It had taken him a minute to realize that was really Sam wavering into his line of sight. His head felt kind of floaty, like he was drunk, his body no longer his own, and Dean could only lie there and look through dimming eyes.
Pain lanced through his chest, and Dean gasped himself back to awareness. Sound returned, Sam's voice rising and falling like water. Waves on a beach. He loved the beach, the few times he'd gone. They should have gone more—
Sammy, upset. Dean hooked insubstantial fingers into his failing body and focused.
The voices sounded like they were coming underwater. "keep…bargain…"
Bargain? Deals. He'd hurt Sammy so much with that. Been gutted by the promise he'd made Dad. Was breaking the one he'd made to Sam to keep him safe. All for nothing. Did Sam know how sorry he was?
God, he was trying. He didn't want to go. He really didn't. Not even though it hurt so much to keep going.
"…doesn't deserve this…"
Sam deserved so much more.
I tried, Sammy, I did.
Sammy was smiling. Finally, he was happy. Dean felt another tie in him give way, another obstacle to that light overcome. Those stupid bangs were dripping into Sam's face, and if Dean had had the strength, he would have moved them so he could see the kid's eyes. But he couldn't, and then Sam read his mind and shoved them aside. He was happy; Dean was forgiven…
And then hands were sliding under him, pulling him from the cold ground against a warm body, rocking him like some helpless baby. But it felt good and it didn't feel alone and, God, he didn't want to die alone. He didn't want to leave Sam alone. He wanted…
No more bargains.
There was music. Humming. Dean floated on the notes, smiled in recognition, or at least wanted to.
"Knew you…liked…my music."
"Dean, stay with me."
"…feel better," he whispered. Maybe the wish had been…
"That's good," Sam was murmuring low into his ear. "That's good, just…hang on. Don't leave me, all right, man? Please, Dean."
"Bitch," he breathed.
Another wave of cold took him away before he could hear his brother's benedictory Jerk.
Dean's heartbeat was slowing. Sam kept his two forefingers jammed against the pulse-point as he held his brother's head against his chest, and each beat was slower. Any one could be the last.
"Jerk," he whispered roughshod against Dean's hair. "Jerk."
It was a stupid, pointless end to a hero's life, bleeding out from a phantom cat attack in the wilds of Illinois. Sam had really thought the Ghost Wrestler had been their godsend, and his body ached with fresh damage from the deal he'd tried to make this time. But Winchesters only struck devil's bargains, it seemed. He didn't much care about his end anymore, not anxious to face life without Dean. But he'd wanted so hard to save his brother, and some part of him finally, miserably, understood too late.
It didn't matter. The mistakes, the ordeals, the struggles: none of it really mattered in the end. Just this.
Dean was cold and limp, and Sam cradled him a little closer, trying to share his own warmth. It couldn't end this way. They couldn't end this way. He tried to go back to humming Metallica, but the notes wouldn't push out of his throat anymore, so Sam rested his cheek on the top of his brother's head, held on, and prayed, waiting for it to all be over.
Oh, God, why couldn't the Wrestler just give him this much at least, the last moments of Dean's life? They'd lost everything else. Sam buried himself a little more against Dean and whispered, "No."
He heard the Wrestler move, felt his shadow as he crouched over the two of them. "Evil-Hunter," he said more quietly.
"I'm not leaving him," Sam growled. Dean gasped in his arms, arching slightly off the ground, and Sam clenched a handful of his bloody shirt at the back.
"Some debts can be paid by another," the Wrestler said solemnly, almost gently.
It took a moment for the words to sink in, and for one horrible second Sam thought he meant Dean. Not that it really mattered: Dean had seconds left now, not even minutes, panting horribly against Sam's shirt, his face chalky. But Sam couldn't, wouldn't sacrifice even that much of his brother.
Somehow, he didn't think that was what the Wrestler meant, though.
Sam looked up with blurred eyes to stare at the spirit, trying to make sense of the kind look on its face. He murmured a protest when the Wrestler reached out with one hand and laid it over Dean's chest, but didn't have the strength to pull his brother away. His fingers tightened spasmodically around flannel and cold flesh.
Which…seemed warmer now. Less lax.
Dean stirred faintly against Sam, a worried murmur pushing past his lips.
Sam jerked back, nearly toppling his brother in the process. He grabbed Dean before he could fall, handling him like a newborn as he propped his lolling head, curved an arm around his back. The Wrestler drew back, and Dean jolted, too, chin snapping up for a moment as he dragged in a deep breath, coughed, then breathed deeply again. He wasn't gasping for air anymore, his chest no longer rattling with each inhalation.
It couldn't be. Really.
But as Sam flattened a palm against Dean's chest, he could feel the deep throb of his heart, fast but not racing. He craned around to see the soft flush of pink infuse waxy cheeks, lips passing from blue to red. Even as Sam watched, his eyelashes fluttered.
He gaped at Dean, then up at the Wrestler, whose mouth softened.
The spirit shrugged. "Your brother has a purpose, Evil-Hunter, and still has need of you." He pushed himself to his feet and stepped back. "Do not give up, Samuel, son of John."
Dean lurched again, trying to suck enough air in for his oxygen-starved body, and Sam glanced down at him, his hands soothing the way before he even thought about it. He looked back up again.
The Wrestler was already gone.
The weak and utterly incredible voice brought him back to what was really important, and Sam adjusted his grip so Dean could see him. "Hey. I'm here, Dean," he said warmly. "You're okay." He had no idea how, but God help him, he meant every word. "You're going to be fine." He fumbled for the buckle on the makeshift tourniquet and loosened it, slipping it free, but no bright red blood bubbled with the release.
Dean hissed from the relieved pressure and shifted, trying to get more comfortable. But if he thought Sam was going to let him go, he was mistaken. "Deal?" he asked. "Wrestler? Sam—"
"He healed you." Sam shook his head, still disbelieving. "I…I guess I won." He couldn't understand it, couldn't even take it in that that was Dean's chest pushing against his hand and his warm skin under Sam's fingers. He was in shock. And just…grateful. Deeply and profoundly.
"Still shouldn've, Sammy." Dean's voice strengthened with every word. "Stupid deal."
Sam swallowed hard and pulled him in for a quick, rough embrace, his forehead against Dean's shoulder.
Dean didn't fight him on it, but when he pulled back, his brother was blinking up at him, expression shifting into something more understanding. The hand that had kept trying to rise and touch him made it this time, reaching up to pat his chest. "I'm okay, Sammy. Really. I'm good."
Oh, God. Sam couldn't even make it past that to the thank-you. He felt like he'd just been frozen, waiting for time to start running again and the anvil to fall. Sam dragged air into his starved lungs. "So, you ready to get out of here?"
"Dude, I look like Carrie after the prom and you're hugging me in front of God and everybody. What do you think?"
Sam laughed. It felt weird, hoarse and hollow, and he saw Dean twist to give him a hard look. But then Sam was pushing to his feet, and Dean was helping him. Together they managed to get upright, leaning on each other, and Sam swept the ritual artifacts into his bag while Dean swayingly bent down to get the weapons.
Dean turned toward the car, and Sam moved to follow but paused, eyes inexorably drawn to the patch of blood-painted grass.
Dean paused with him, followed his gaze. Then he reached over and gently snagged Sam's arm, tugging him along.
They made their way drunkenly back to the car without speaking. Sam couldn't even think anymore, not past he's alive.
The bags were tossed in the trunk, then Dean headed for the driver's side.
And Sam jerked to a stop. "You can't drive."
Dean's brow furrowed. "What? 'Course I can drive."
"Dean, twenty minutes ago you were dying."
Dean brushed uselessly at his blood-soaked clothing, the tears that hid what only looked like oozing scratches now. "And now I'm fine, while you look like you're about to kiss the road. Get in, Sam."
It was absurd. Literally the funniest thing he'd ever heard. One minute Dean was dying in his lap, the next he was arguing about who drove. The sheer surrealism cracked Sam up.
And once he started, there was no stopping it. He'd been arrested, been compelled, been to Hell, and nearly lost Dean twice in two weeks. There was only so much space he could cram the feelings into and lock them away, and the lock had just been sprung. He couldn't hold it back anymore, not even when laughter took a sudden left turn into hysteria.
Sam turned away before it became sobs that seemed to well up from his deepest places and shook his whole body.
He barely noticed Dean coming around to stand in front of him, the hand that gripped his arm. "Sam? Don't make me slap you, dude."
Sam heard the warning faintly, and tried to turn away again. No emotional scenes, don't be a girl, don't be weak. Everything inside him had crumbled, hopelessly tangled and messed up, and he didn't even know where to start fixing it.
A hand on the nape of his neck pulled Sam down and close, offering him a place.
It was all the invitation he needed. He hooked his arms over Dean's shoulders and cried.
A hand first helplessly patted his back, then settled into a little more certain rub between his shoulder blades. That seemed to make it a little easier to breathe, and Sam pressed his face into his brother's neck and let it all go.
"I'm sorry," Dean murmured. "God, I'm sorry, Sammy."
And for the first time, that really meant something.
Sobs eventually shifted into quiet, exhausted tears, and still they didn't move. Some part of Sam knew Dean still had to be weak with blood loss and shouldn't be holding so much of his weight, but he couldn't seem to pull away, and his brother wasn't rushing him.
He cried until he felt hollow and thick-headed, and the cooling night breeze sent a shiver up his spine. Until the emptiness the pain left behind refilled with a quiet peace.
"You done?" It was said quietly, almost gently.
"Sam? You know how much I love the cuddling, but what do you say we take it inside at least, huh? At least one of us still has a reputation to keep."
Sam sniffed, nodded against his brother, and let himself be lifted and guided and folded into the car. There, he flopped over, hearing Dean's faint grumbling about too-long brothers and feeling his legs bent, then his feet dropped into Dean's lap.
It was a good thing Dean was driving, because Sam was asleep before they even pulled back onto the road.
The next time they stopped, they weren't in Illinois anymore, for which Sam was unreasonably glad. He rallied enough to stumble after Dean into the room, waited until his brother collapsed face-first on the bed, then followed his lead.
At one point, he heard Dean rise and bring their stuff in from the car, pausing by Sam's bedside to check his bruises, his chest and ribs and head. Then Dean went to shower and returned to bed. Sam stumbled out sometime later to do the same, and also triaged his brother's injuries, finding only healing slashes that weren't even worth stitching.
The next time Dean was up, he brought in their emergency food stash. Sam rose with him long enough to eat a few peanut-butter sandwiches and drink some soda, then went back to sleep. Dean didn't last much longer.
By the time they could both keep their eyes open, Sam had no idea what day it was, just that it was dark outside. And that for the first time in forever, he didn't feel hollow with exhaustion.
Dean lay on his back staring at the ceiling, stray beams of light from the parking lot reflecting off his eyes. Sam had given up his bed for a chair, found even that too far, and finally sat on the floor at the end of Dean's bed, eyes tracing the gloom of the open bathroom door.
Dean finally cleared his throat. "Sam..."
"I didn't…" He hesitated. "I mean…don't think…"
"It's okay, I know," he said softly, earnestly.
There was a rustle as Dean shifted on the bed.
Sam took a breath. "Well, at least we kinda know one thing."
Sam snorted a laugh, tipped his head back. "I don't think I'm the only one with a purpose."
He could almost sense Dean roll his eyes, but his brother hesitated, then just said, "Yeah, mine's to protect yours."
Sam chewed his lip. "Would…that be really bad?"
There was a pause. "No," Dean said roughly. "I could live with that."
"Yeah. I could, too." He paused, hesitant. "But maybe we're not as alone in this as we thought."
He could feel Dean struggle with his disbelief and wanted to say so much more: that there was good out there, too, not just evil; that Sam was pretty sure he believed in angels now; that maybe escaping death so many times meant Dean was meant to live, not that he should be dead; that all of those were more reasons to stick around, and not just for Sam's sake. And that even if it was just for him, he hoped to God Dean would stay.
But he'd said and asked enough for now, and so Sam sat silent, waiting.
Dean's foot abruptly jabbed the back of his head. "I'd kill for some pancakes—how 'bout you?"
Sam frowned, answering the first thing that came to mind. "Uh, at…three-twenty in the morning?"
Dean was already up and pulling a shirt over his head. "Dude, pancake houses are always open twenty-four hours. It's like a law or something."
Sam couldn't help but laugh, nothing hysterical about it now, just amused. He let Dean pull him to his feet and reached for his jeans. "Yeah, I could eat. I think there's a place across the street." Something was glowing the neon red "EATS" across their blinds.
"See?" Dean said, smiling. Really smiling. "Things always work out, Sammy."
It wasn't exactly what he'd asked for, but it eased the knots the crossroad had tied inside him. And Sam clung to that assurance in the months that followed.