K Hanna Korossy
Dean wasn't stupid.
Yeah, so he'd only just managed to finish high school, and had no idea when the Berlin Wall came down, or what the chemical symbol for boron was, or where a gerund belonged. Only math and some of the sciences had held any interest for him, and more than one teacher along the way had labeled him hopeless. He could rebuild any engine, recognized each plant in lore, knew every inch of every weapon in his trunk, and could mix an explosive cocktail out of kitchen cleaners better than MacGyver, but there were whole libraries of stuff he didn't know.
He wasn't stupid, though. He knew all the useful things. Learned all he could about what he cared about. What mattered.
Which meant he was the world's foremost expert on Sam Winchester.
"Check the map, dude. See if we should be taking 84 or 10."
"Route 84," Sam replied without hesitation.
Dean's eyebrows shot up. "Since when are you Mapquest?"
"I looked it up already."
"Oh." Dean chewed his lip, glancing over at him a few times. "You wanna listen to something?" he finally, generously asked, hand hovering over the radio knob.
Sam shook his head.
The end of another sparkling Winchester conversation.
It had only taken him about two minutes to realize that, overnight, Sam had become profoundly different. Not get-the-holy-water-out or check-for-camera-flares different; it was still Sam under there. But like his colors were darker or he'd gone all Bernhard Goetz or…he didn't know, harder or something. He couldn't explain it. He just knew.
The only reason it had taken him even that long to realize as much was that Sam had just gone through Hell, and Dean was well aware of that. He only had the barest of details, but he did know he'd died repeatedly, often in Sam's arms, only for the Trickster to reset them and have Sam go through it all over again. It must have been terrible; Dean was trying hard not to imagine being in Sam's place. Of course that would change you, starting with the bear hug Sam had greeted him with that morning.
But…this was more. This was down-deep changes, and Dean was more sure by the hour that something else had gone on here than just a string of disastrous Tuesdays.
Not that Sam was talking about it.
"So, these killings, you thinking some kind of swamp creature, maybe Letiche himself?" he tried to catch Sam's eye as he drove.
Sam barely shook his head. "Jack O'Lantern. Draws its prey into the swamps, then drowns them."
Dean looked at him again, but Sam was staring fixedly at the dashboard, and Dean didn't think it was just bad memories from the last time they'd tangled with a Jack-O. He drew his brow together. "How'd you figure that one out from a couple of articles?"
Sam's eyes slid partway over. "I just know, all right?"
"Would it matter if I said 'no'?"
Sam didn't respond with anything more than a shift of the jaw.
"Right," Dean sighed, and focused on driving again. Wasn't like the company was so riveting.
Except, he couldn't seem to keep his eyes off Sammy, his brain worrying at the changes he couldn't explain.
He remembered Sam on Tuesday: scared, exhausted, angry, fierce. The Trickster had told him Dean's deaths were a lesson in Sam not being able to save his brother, and Dean would have happily dismembered the guy, demi-god or no, right then and there. But it had promised to let them out of the loop, and while Sam had been skittish and restless the rest of the evening, Dean had been able to coax him out of it, even draw a couple of smiles. Sam had teared up at midnight, but that had been okay, too; Dean figured he'd earned it. They'd had a massive Hallmark moment, Sam had gone to bed looking about ten years younger than he had that morning, and woke with a frickin' hug for Dean.
So, Wednesday, they should have been mostly back to normal, right? Maybe Sam a little more emo than usual, a little clingy. Fine, Dean could deal with that. Few more days and they'd be back in the groove when his brother realized Dean wasn't dying on him. Well, not yet.
But it was Saturday now, and normal was nowhere in sight.
Yeah, Sam clung, but like an over-protective parent, not a frightened little brother. He went into every room first, made himself a six-foot-four shield in front of Dean if someone so much as looked askance at them, and had insisted so firmly on the outer bed—Dean's friggin' birthright—that Dean had finally given it up when he realized Sam was actually shaking with the need for it. He shadowed Dean everywhere but never touched, and he hadn't smiled since Tuesday, unless you counted those pathetic attempts when Dean made a joke. Crap, he even walked differently, all efficient and fluid and scarily lethal.
"You ready to get something to eat?"
Sam rubbed his forehead like it hurt, the most reaction Dean had gotten in three hundred miles. "We can stop if you want to."
"Not my question, Sam."
"I'm not hungry."
"If I stop, will you let me go in and get my own food?"
Sam shrugged, lapsed back into his deep, dark silence.
Which pretty much meant, not even when Hell froze over. Dean grit his teeth and reached for the radio. If Sam wasn't going to talk to him, at least his baby would.
In the seat next to him, Sam startled from the motion, then quickly looked out the side window.
Dean withdrew his hand again, suddenly not interested in music.
And then there was the flinching.
Sometimes…not all the time, because God knows Sam hadn't been letting him out of his sight that much, but sometimes Dean walked into the room, or said something, or even moved abruptly, and Sam started. Not like he was jumpy, because otherwise the kid was wicked calm. But like he hadn't expected Dean to be there, like he'd forgotten for a moment that he wasn't alone. Dean recognized the reaction from his own reactions the first few weeks after Sam had hit the road with him again. It was the instinctive behavior of someone who had been alone a while and was getting used to another's presence again. And that one really didn't make sense. Sam had said he'd reset as soon as Dean died each time. He should never have been alone.
Yeah, Dean was totally ignoring the hypocrisy there.
Those flinches bugged him the most. The new habits—the anal ordering of their weapons, their room, even the way the food was laid out—that he sorta got. People tended to control what they could when they felt out of control, and Sam had tended toward OCD already. The new way he moved: okay, maybe that was some sort of adaptation, too, after weeks of being on constant alert, even if Dean couldn't remember him being like that on Tuesday. The cold, methodical reactions also made some sense; Sam was trying to deal, to cope with everything, not that differently than Dean usually did. But the flinching was a mystery, and Dean didn't like mysteries where his brother was concerned.
Sam's phone rang. He pulled it out, looked at the caller ID, then with a nearly invisible cringe, handed it to Dean.
Bobby? Dean glanced at his brother, wondering why he was avoiding their friends now, too, and answered the phone.
The conversation was brief, and Dean took the next exit after he hung up. "Bobby's got a lead on Bela."
Sam looked for a moment like he was going to say something, then just nodded, slipping down a little in the seat.
Dean threw him another look, wishing the tousled bangs were the only thing hiding Sam from him. He softened his voice. "You know you can talk to me, right? Whatever happened, however I…died—" Another flinch there, although he totally got that one. "—I can handle it, I'll believe you."
Sam was breathing slowly, like it took effort, his eyes bouncing across the front of the car to everywhere but Dean, and his knuckles were white on the edge of the seat. He swallowed hard. Then, "Just drive," he said very, very softly.
Right, business as frickin' usual here. Nothing wrong at all.
Yeah, Dean wasn't the least bit worried.
He thought getting Dean back would make everything all right again.
There was no question that was joy and relief that stirred sluggishly in his heart every time he turned and saw Dean. Especially every time he turned not expecting to see Dean and found his brother there. Of course he was happy, relieved, grateful. This was what he'd asked for.
Sam just hadn't expected the terror, the rage, the deadness inside him to linger as well, often drowning out the joy. Dean was back. Sam would fix the looming deal just as he'd fixed Dean's death this time. He had his brother again; why couldn't he just let the past go and enjoy the present, the real present?
Of course, the present right now wasn't all that shiny wonderful, either.
"I'm going out."
Dean's voice snapped Sam back like a rubber band, and he couldn't help the recoil. Sometimes he simply forgot Dean was there. He didn't mean or want to, but Dean had been dead for over six months and back for a fraction of that. Sam still had to fight the habits he'd learned while alone: the single room, the full armament each night, the military precision with which he did everything. For the first time, he understood some of Dean's reactions after Sam had gone back to hunting with him. You didn't unlearn being alone overnight.
Sam was starting to wonder if he ever would, though.
He straightened a little. As if the showdown at the police station hadn't been enough, Ruby's visit had shaken them both up, left them reeling. Dean had gone positively ashen at the news about Nancy and Henriksen. Sam was trying not to think about it, personally; he'd gotten good at that the last few months. But he spoke now because he knew he should. "I haven't checked your shoulder yet."
Dean was carefully pulling his jacket on, and Sam couldn't help frown over the way his brother's face paled from the simple action. "It's fine," Dean said briskly.
"You sure? I thought you said it'd started bleed—"
"Dude, I said it's fine."
Dean's snarl froze them both for a few seconds, unmoving, silent. Two strangers stuck with each other, and Sam wondered absently if Dean had been in Hell before Sam had brought him back, or if dying earlier had given him some kind of reprieve. If Dean hadn't wanted to return any more than Sam had.
If Dean still thought Sam had come back different, because the way his brother had looked at him in the station…
"I won't be long," Dean said more quietly, and still didn't move toward the door.
He was waiting for permission, Sam realized with a rush. Because Sam had not been taking well when Dean disappeared on him. Waking one morning to an empty bed when Dean had gone for coffee had sent Sam into a full-blown panic attack, and Dean had been more careful since then.
They both had been. And Sam was completely exhausted from the effort.
"Okay," he pried the word out of his mouth. Because the only thing more draining than dealing with Dean now was existing, being, holding on to sanity without him. But Sam knew his brother; Dean would go crazy without a little slack. And one of them crazy was enough.
Dean nodded, face full of all kinds of things unspoken, then moved to the door. He leaned against it long enough that Sam almost asked him again if he was all right, before he slipped outside.
Sam lay back on the bed and looked for that deadness inside to slip into where he didn't have to feel. It got a little harder to find each time, and he knew absently that it worried Dean when he spent too long there or let it speak for him, like he had at the station. But Sam had an idea his brother wouldn't have liked the alternative better.
Had Ruby been right? Were wars only won by the sacrifice of lives and standards? He wouldn't have thought so once. Sam had convinced himself Dean always saw things that way, but his brother had been horrified by Sam's pragmatism. Sam snorted humorlessly into the quiet of the room. Funny, here he'd been trying to be more like his brother, and now Dean was taking over Sam's role as the conscience of the team. Dean's death—Dean's deal, really—had left Sam struggling to find his balance as a solo act, and now that he had, he couldn't seem to find his equilibrium as one of a pair again.
His hand slipped off his chest, down to the duffel by his bed, unconsciously seeking one of the few sources of comfort he'd had those long months alone. The notebook Dean had filled with memories of Sam's past had become dog-eared and well-paged over time, but was near-pristine again now, its last six months rewound as it had for everything…except Sam. He drew his thumb over the edge of the pages, tiredly blinking. No one shared those months of memories with him now. Sometimes he wondered if he'd actually gone crazy already; how else could he remember a half-year that had never happened? But the grief was too real to just be in his head. It had happened, all of it.
He was just out of step with the rest of the world.
Sam closed his eyes, hand relaxing, slipping farther, past his journal that he'd torched in a Georgia parking lot one night but that was safely in his bag again, to settle on the soft cotton of a t-shirt tucked into his bag. Dean's AC/DC one, a recent gleeful find at a secondhand store. It had stayed in Sam's bag during six months of solitary hunting, one of the few sentimentalities he'd allowed himself, and he'd reclaimed it that second Wednesday night. Either Dean hadn't noticed or just hadn't asked, but Sam didn't care. He needed something good from that time. Something to prove to him he wasn't as lost as he felt. His fingers bunched in the material, and his eyes squeezed shut.
He fell asleep quickly, another pragmaticism learned when he had no big brother to shoo him off to bed.
Sam's eyes snapped open some time later, and he lay still, trying to figure out what had woken him.
The room looked unchanged except for longer shadows, and its silence was broken only by the tick of the clock next to the bed.
And something slowly scraping against the door, followed by a thump.
Sam rolled smoothly to his feet despite the aches of his body, hand dipping under his pillow and coming out with his handgun. Gripping it, he stalked toward the door.
There was nothing to see out the window beside the door, but it was really too high for a good angle, nor did the peephole reveal anything but distorted parking lot. Sam's fingers flexed on the doorknob as he gave a mental count of three. He flung the door open, hand already bringing up his gun.
Then sweeping down to catch the weight that tumbled against his legs.
A second later, the gun was set aside, Sam's hands quickly roaming the huddled body of his brother. "Dean?" He got a soft moan and tried harder to peel the curled legs away from his chest. "Dean, let me see what's wrong."
Because something was very wrong. Dean's skin was far too cool and pale, his clothes damp with sweat, and his back shaking. He was nearly fetal at Sam's feet, and the longer he went without responding, the higher Sam's panic ratcheted. This was not happening again. It wasn't.
"Dean, hey, answer me." Sam forced his knees down. "Let me see—"
It was the shoulder. That stupid shoulder they'd dismissed as a minor injury. He'd guessed it had started bleeding again from the careful way Dean was holding it and refusing to let Sam see it, but Sam had figured it would just need a few stitches, some painkillers and rest. Not this. This was…
This was Dean's shirt soaked in red, a puddle on the motel sidewalk, a trail of blood to their door. This was Dean bleeding out.
This was Tuesday all over again.
His brother's eyes had found him, hazy but comprehending. "Coul'n't…" He coughed, his whole body shuddering, hand fumbling up to catch Sam's shirt. "Didn' mean…S'm."
"No no no no no," Sam whispered, pivoting back to grab the covers off the bed and bunching it against the shoulder that was leaking blood like a faucet. There was no way there should be this much blood, hadn't been before, but if Dean had hit the shoulder against something, maybe shaken a clot loose, torn an artery, jarred some shrapnel…
The numbness, the walls and distance was sloughing off in huge chunks. Sam's mind groped for answers even as his mouth tried to find words, his hands a way to make it better. He pressed hard on the wound, and Dean barely reacted, eyes blinking low and long, seeking Sam out each time.
"Dean, stay with me."
"S'm…I tried…I did…didn' want…"
"Shh, shh, it's okay," Sam rushed out. "It's okay, Dean, we're gonna get you some help. Just a shoulder wound, right? The hero gets it there all the time and keeps going." He pressed harder, wound the rest of the blanket around his brother's bloody body. How much volume had he already lost—four pints? Five? The body couldn't afford to go without more than that. Sam's hands shook as he scooped them under his brother's body, remembering too many other times.
"No." He pulled Dean up to him like he was nothing, climbed to his feet. "No, don't say that. Everything's gonna be okay—I fixed this before, I can fix it again." He hurried over to the car with his burden, tilting Dean toward him while he wrestled the keys out of his pocket. There was a brief juggling act, then Sam was laying him onto the front seat, on his right side. "Hang on," Sam ordered tersely, then slammed the door and raced around, sliding in under Dean's head.
The engine roared as he gunned it. "Nothing to be sorry for, man—you're gonna be fine. I'm not losing you now to a stupid shoulder wound. Not this way."
Dean murmured something he couldn't catch, head rocking forward against Sam's hip.
Sam reached down to grip his hemorrhaging shoulder, feeling the slowed blood flow. He still had time, and the idea dragged a dark chuckle from him. He could do this, wasn't about to let the hero of the story die of a lame shoulder shot. Dean would be mortified. Sam wouldn't allow it. This wasn't Tuesday, it was…
Sam snapped his teeth together and pressed harder on the gas.
There was a scrape of fingertips against his jeans. A soft sigh. The wound stopped pumping blood against Sam's clutching fingers, as Dean's head relaxed against his thigh.
"No." Sam had seen this too many times, from every different angle, not to recognize it. He screeched off the road so fast, he had to catch Dean from tumbling off the seat, then twisted around to bend over his brother. "Dean, c'mon, man, wake up." Sam shook him, patted a cool cheek. "C'mon, Dean, don't do this, not now." He rubbed his brother's sternum, pinched the skin inside his wrist where no pulse beat. "Don't you do this," Sam panted, finally going back to the shoulder and digging his thumb into the wound with a déjà vu that made his throat hurt. He didn't even wait for a response before climbing to his knees until he was perched over his brother, then leaning down to start CPR. "Don't you dare friggin' do this to me!"
He breathed and pressed, praying, begging, yelling. Kept going until he had no air left himself, and black spots at the edge of his vision threatened to send him keeling over Dean.
Over Dean's body.
One hand clamped around his brother's shoulder, Sam crumpled against the door, gulping in air as he stared at Dean, expecting any moment to see his chest rise. "No," Sam whispered, or maybe screamed. But it didn't move. "No." It didn't. "No…"
He was dreaming.
He knew that without a doubt, and yet…it felt different. Like a memory, only hazier. A memory he was watching from the outside.
Except, Dean was pretty sure he'd never lived to witness this.
It was all Sam, just Sam. His little brother hunting with ruthless efficiency, cleaning the guns, doing research. Questioning people blank-faced, digging a bullet out from under his ribs with barely a grimace. It was Sam alone, and it was a stranger.
But not, because Dean realized he recognized this version of his brother. He'd been seeing it the last few days, ever since that freaking Trickster had messed Sam up in Florida. There'd been no time for him to go all Rambo like this, but here he was, slowly becoming cold, hard, dark. Dean felt the echo of his own anguish as he watched the transformation.
But it had to be a dream. This couldn't be the past, and wouldn't be the future. Right?
He gasped awake, blinking dazedly at a night-dimmed ceiling. That told him absolutely nothing, so Dean tilted his head a little, finding it surprisingly easy and wondering why he'd expected anything different. A clock came into view, 12:01 shining in LCD display. Midnight. Huh.
He was in bed, no question, laid out on top of the covers, but had no memory of how he'd gotten there. In fact, he was pretty sure the last thing he remembered was taking a walk, trying to get his thoughts in order. Sam's new behavior, the events at the police station, the Trickster, the deal: there was a lot to sort through. And then…
The wave of dizziness that had sent him lurching hard into a tree. The warmth that had started cascading down his shoulder, and the sinking feeling he was screwed. No phone, the motel a half-mile down the road, but he'd set doggedly off back toward Sam, back to his brother and help.
Dean winced. He'd probably passed out right in front of Sam and given the kid a scare. It was the last thing he'd wanted to do to his brother after the Trickster, but then, he hadn't exactly meant to open up his shoulder again, either. Sam must've really freaked out. Dean was kinda surprised he wasn't hovering even now, eyes either all dewy or carefully shuttered like they'd been since Florida. He didn't even care right now, just wanted to make sure Sam was there and okay. He lifted his head and looked around, licking his lips in preparation to speak.
Sam was there, seated at the nearby table, and did seem to be okay. Dean breathed out in relief and took another look.
The sasquatch was sitting in the dark. One hand was stretched along the tabletop, the other loose in his lap. He wasn't looking at Dean, his eyes fixed vaguely on the wall, and his shirt was bloody, but Dean was pretty sure that was from him, not Sam, even if the sight made his stomach curdle.
"Sam?" He pushed himself up in tiny increments, expecting a flood of pain from his shoulder at any moment and surprised to feel none. The bandage Nancy had wound around it was stiff with dried blood, the two shirts over it also saturated and crusted. But the joint moved easily and painlessly, and Dean frowned with incomprehension as he sat up and swung his legs down, arm rotating and stretching. "Sam, what the—?"
Sam didn't move. Not even to look at Dean, not even to blink.
Dean's bewilderment deepened, curdling to something dark and frightened inside him. He quickly glanced back to make sure his body wasn't lying behind him, a shell bereft of spirit, but no, he was all there. "Sammy?" Dean pushed himself up, riding out a moment of lightheadedness but otherwise apparently none the worse for wear, even if his clothes looked like he'd been in a slaughterhouse. Dean glanced around the room, confirming it was the one they'd checked into before, and a glance at his watch showed the right date. He'd been out of it for a few hours but clearly was okay.
And Sam clearly was not.
"Sam?" Closer now, Dean could see the hand on the tabletop was moving a little, fingertips tracing random patterns on the flaking wood. That and Sam's lips were the only signs of movement, and as Dean leaned into his brother's space, he could hear the murmur of words over cracked lips.
"…not Wednesday it's not Wednesday it's not Wednesday it's…"
Fear solidified in Dean's gut, and he dropped the arm he'd been curling protectively to himself, grabbing Sam's shirt with both hands and giving him a little shake. "Sam! Sammy, snap out of it!"
Sam's eyes fluttered shut and open, then wandered lazily over to Dean. He blinked again, gaze seeming to sharpen a little, to actually see Dean for the first time.
Dean stared intently at him. "Sammy?"
Sam sputtered a laugh.
Not out of amusement or irony or anything that was remotely, in this reality or any other, a positive thing. This laughter was high and uncontrolled and like nothing Dean had ever heard come out of his brother's mouth before, but one he'd heard from a lot of ghosts. The insane ones.
"Dude, don't make me slap you," Dean snapped, shaking Sam again.
Hysteria continued to bubble out of him as if this were the funniest thing in the world.
Dean growled, then reared back and struck him hard across the cheek.
It always worked in the movies, but never like this. Sam went still, gaze focusing again on Dean. But his too-calm voice weirded Dean out almost as much as the laughter. "You're alive again."
"I didn't die."
A tiny, horrible smile. "It's Wednesday, right? He never broke it, Dean. You die, and then you're alive again." Sam laughed shrilly. "Don't you get it? This is part of my lesson. It never ended, man. It never ends."
Forget fear; Dean was utterly terrified. "Sam!" he barked, Dad's voice, and he shook his brother again until Sam's teeth clacked. "Sam, stop it! I'm right here, dude. I'm not dead—I didn't die."
"You stopped breathing," Sam continued blandly. "CPR didn't work, I tried—all that blood." He tilted his head. "Kinda like when the dog attacked you. Or when I got you with the axe. Yeah, that one was bloody. You can't lose more than forty percent of your body's volume, did you know that? Not until you reset, anyway. Then you can lose it all over again. You'll just keep dying."
Oh, God, oh, God. Dean let go of Sam's shirt and swiped a hand over his brother's forehead, down the sides of his face, cradling cold cheeks. "Sam, listen to me. I don't know what's going on here exactly, but this isn't the Trickster. It's Thursday, and I'm not gonna keep dying, you hear me, little brother? I'm staying now. I'm not gonna die."
Sam gave him a polite smile. "You said that before."
The blood was running cold through Dean's veins, his heart crowding his chest. His shoulder didn't hurt; he was soaked in blood. Maybe Sam was right…and that was something Dean couldn't think about just now. But it didn't matter, none of it mattered while Sammy looked at him like that, like he was nearly gone, too. Dean stared into the vague eyes, willing them to lock with his. Then he spoke slowly and firmly. "Okay then, fine. If you think that's what this is about, that I'll just die again and we'll start all this over, then here." He twisted around, searching for the weapons bag and finding it tucked neatly against the end of Sam's bed. Dean pulled out a handgun—his own, as it turned out—and shoved it against his brother's chest. "Why wait for it to go down? Let's just skip to the punch line and find out what happens."
Sam stared at him blankly.
Dean cocked an eyebrow at him, working hard to keep his voice from trembling. "I mean, you're sure this is another one of the Trickster's games, right? Well, I'm a little tired of always playing by somebody else's rules, dude—I think it's time I made up my own. If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die my way, not wait for some bolt out of the blue."
Something stirred in the murky hazel.
"Thing is, man," Dean tapped Sam's chest with the butt of the gun, "I want you to do it."
Sam sucked in a breath.
Every word was like broken glass in his mouth, and Dean's eyes pricked even as he continued almost casually, "Hey, you asked me for this once, too, right? If someone else started calling the shots, you wanted me to take you out? Well, I'm just asking for the same thing, Sam. Let's stop this ride and get off before we give that son of a bitch any more entertainment."
Sam's eyes filled. Dean prayed desperately that he was doing the right thing, not just pushing Sam further over that precarious edge. But nothing else was getting through.
He leaned an inch closer. "But if you're gonna do this, you'd better be sure, and I mean absolutely freakin' positive that that's what's going on here, Sam. Are you that sure? Totally, without-a-doubt confident I'm gonna die on you again?"
Streaks of wetness trailed down Sam's cheeks and his throat bobbed, but otherwise he still didn't move.
Dean nudged him with the gun again. "Sam? If you're willing to bet my life on this, then do it. I want it to be you. I'm ready, man."
Sam's gaze flickered, and his hand, visibly shaking, rose to wrap around the gun.
Crap, was he really going to do it? Maybe Dean had underestimated just how far gone he was and the shock value of trying to bring him back. Dean tensed, ready to snap the gun away if it came to that.
Sam tilted the weapon sideways in his hand, and Dean's stomach gave another lurch as he realized there was another alternative. If Sam was ready to snap, who would he be more likely to take out, after all? Dean's body vibrated with anxious anticipation.
Then with faster reflexes than he would've given his brother credit for, Sam's hand whipped back, and the gun went flying, clattering off the far wall, to the carpet.
Dean saw the wash of grief break over him, right before Sam curled over and started to sob.
"Sam, kiddo…," Dean whispered, pulling his brother off the chair and onto the floor with him, wrapping his arms around him. Not sure anymore if he was scared or relieved, his heart going crazy and his head light with panic. This was better than the awful, crazy laughter of before or the dead monologue; this was an emotion that made some sense, at least, and that he could do something with. But Sam's keening physically hurt, worse than any bullet or blade.
And this was no simple catharsis. Sam didn't cling, didn't taper off. His cries rose to near howls, muffled in Dean's shirt but felt down to his soul.
"I'm sorry. Don't, Sammy," Dean said over and over. "It's okay. It's okay now, shh." He rocked him like he had when a small Sam had been inconsolable, turned his face sideways into Dean's neck so his little brother could breathe and smoothed a hand over his back. Held on tight while Sam cracked and splintered and fell apart, in grief for him.
And prayed he'd be able to put all the pieces back together after.
Sam lay still, looking for a long time before his brain finally processed what he was seeing.
The weave of denim, an inch from his face.
The proximity should've probably startled him, but he couldn't seem to find the energy to do more than stare at it, blinking occasionally what felt like swollen, gritty eyes.
Other senses slowly checked in. The smell of sweat and old blood. A rancid, salty taste in his mouth. The rub of old carpet under his cheek and the weight that curled over his ribs and rested on his shoulder. The soft snuffling of slumbered breathing above him.
Dean. Alive and well propped against the bed next to him, and that was enough information for Sam's brain to take in right then.
He drifted off again.
He was pretty sure he woke up at a few other points, long enough to drink from the cup pressed to his lips, to let himself be lifted and jostled some place softer and warmer. Nothing seemed real except for the vivid dreams of waking to Dean dead, falling asleep to Dean dead, sitting next to Dean dying. Nausea and tears wove through nightmare and waking, as did Dean murmuring words he couldn't make out.
The next thing he was really aware of was sitting half-propped against a hard surface, wrapped in blankets. His head rested against cool tile, and Sam blinked wearily at the silhouette of a figure sitting in the doorway an arm's length away, back leaned against one jamb. He knew the bowed form immediately even if he couldn't see anything but the dark outline. The long, thin shape of a knife slipped through its hands methodically, hypnotically. The knife Sam had been keeping under his own pillow, he was pretty sure, but couldn't seem to muster any more interest than that.
The head of the silhouette turned his way, and the hands went still. "Sam."
Not asking, really. Sam's gaze wandered to the curve of the nearby toilet, the towel bar just above his head.
A soft snort. "Waking up in your bed was freaking you out a little."
Sam closed his eyes tiredly, breathing in the faint smells of vomit and lemon cleaner.
"It's not a loop," Dean confided, voice hushed in the small bathroom. "It's been two days since the whole demon siege thing, Sam—I checked the TV. We're not stuck in Groundhog Day again."
His eyes were gritty with sleep, but he couldn't seem to muster the energy to rub them. Or find his buried hands to do so, for that matter.
"My shoulder, though…dude, it's like Indiana Jones's dad or something—it's totally fine. You can barely see anything where I got hit. So…near as I can figure, maybe the day didn't reset but…I did."
Sam blinked, gravity pulling his face into a soft frown.
"Maybe…that year left to live was literal? I mean, can't welch on their end of the deal, right? Or, I don't know, maybe our friend the Trickster just had one more Get out of Jail Free card tucked away for me? All I know is, midnight rolled around and, bam, the date changed and I'm back. And that was…twenty-six hours ago, so no repeat performances."
The silhouette turned from profile to face him, so he could see the spread of Dean's shoulders and the spikes of his hair but little else. Still, he could feel the weight of his brother's eyes on him, and closed his own. When a hand settled hesitantly on his leg, it felt like he could breathe for the first time, like he wouldn't fall as soon as he dared moved.
The hand squeezed, and Dean cleared his throat. "How long was I dead, Sam?"
It didn't even occur to him to wonder when Dean meant, or dissemble. "One hundred eighty-nine days," he rasped.
Dean muttered a curse. His grip constricted, breath pulling in sharply in the quiet of the room. Then he slid closer to pull the blankets more warmly around Sam and stared at him, eyes glinting in the meager light. "Tell me."
Sam did. He'd been breaking under the weight of the secrets, and it was less forcing them out as loosing his hold and letting them go.
He talked until his throat hurt and beyond, forgetting sometimes where he was until Dean's grasp brought him back. Told Dean everything, from burning his body to finding the money he'd been putting away for Sam, from learning to hunt alone to learning to live alone. From Bobby to the fake Bobby, and everyone in between who'd tried to help him and failed. He talked until the words ran out and there wasn't anything left inside him.
Dean was next to him now, hand was on the nape of his neck, fingers brushing underneath his hair. "It won't happen again," he said as hoarsely as if he'd been the one talking, thumb tracing Sam's spine. "We'll find a way, okay?"
It was a fool's promise, of course. But it was the first time Dean had said it, and Sam needed to believe it just then. He nodded, dropping his head forward a little to make room for his brother.
They sat in silence, nothing moving except for Dean's fingers, until Sam finally succumbed to sleep once more.
Knowing what had happened to Sam helped, but only so much.
Dean got it now, all of it: the new habits, the hunts Sam knew inside-out, the protectiveness. The lingering darkness in his eyes and the occasional flinch. Six months changed a person, let alone on top of months of Tuesdays. In some ways, Sam would never again be the Sam of that first Tuesday. Dean mourned that lost little brother, then let him go, embracing the new and moving on.
Sam's grief ran far deeper and was much harder to ease.
He cried sometimes now at least, if usually in private, emerging from the shower with red-rimmed eyes they both pretended not to be aware of. There was one time Dean had found him bent nearly in half in the grass behind the motel, and just sat down next to him, not saying a word, arm around Sam's shoulders until it passed. They didn't talk about it, to Dean's gratitude, but it was some relief Sam was letting it out.
Other parts were…harder.
Like Sam still having trouble letting Dean out of his sight. Like the raw fear he saw in his little brother's face whenever Dean was in peril. Like the nights he knew Sam was awake into the early hours, just watching him sleep.
Some part of Dean's head knew this was normal adjustment and mourning and that it had to run its course. The rest of him wanted to grab Sam and shake him and yell, I'm not dead! I'm right here! Except, well, it didn't work that way, and also might not be true for much longer, right? They still didn't even know what had happened to bring Dean back, and although Dean suspected the deal—a year, nothing more, nothing less—Sam, for once, seemed totally disinterested in the whys. Since Dean wasn't about to suggest testing his theory, he'd reluctantly chalked it up to not looking a gift horse in the mouth and let it go, but he was pretty sure that was his last reprieve. And who'd be helping Sam through this the next time? Bobby?
Moments like that, Dean really felt like taking off again, going for a long walk, finding some space to breathe a little. But after the panic in Sam's eyes the first time he'd mentioned as much, and considering how well that had worked the last time, Dean had done the next best thing and retreated to the Impala instead. Taking his phone and pretending not to notice the flutter of curtains as Sam regularly checked on him.
That was still his hurting little brother in there underneath the mighty hunter, and the thought, like so many those days, both ravaged and consoled Dean. Just like how each time he didn't think he could love the big geek any more, Sam did something like survive six months alone when Dean hadn't even been able to go a day, that made him even more proud of his little brother.
"Earth to Sam."
Sam blinked, returning from wherever it was he went sometimes these days and looking at Dean. Offering a bare smile, which was also progress. "Dude, I'm not the one who's been mesmerized by NASCAR for the last hour."
Dean's mouth curved up. "Hey, better than those stupid cooking shows you watch. When're you gonna be able to use that, huh? At least good driving skills might get us out of a tight spot someday."
"Right. If we're ever being chased around a racetrack."
Dean waved him off with an exasperated look. "Forget it, man, you're hopeless."
Sam honest-to-God chuckled at that, then went silent again. Dean was just debating whether to call him back once more, when Sam leaned down and pulled his duffel out, plucking out the slim volume on top. He looked at it a moment, then turned and reached it over to Dean.
His journal. The one he'd been working on in great secrecy for months. Dean swallowed, flicking the TV off with one hand while he took the book with the other, holding it carefully. "Dude, you sure?" he asked quiet. Sam had said he didn't want to share whatever he was working on until it was done.
Sam nodded. "It's done for now. And one of the things I regretted…after?" After was what they were calling it. Beat when you were dead. Sam chucked his chin toward the book. "Was not having a chance to show you that. I finally burned it, but…" His smile was tight this time. "Guess what?"
Dean scoffed lightly. Yeah, right. Reset. He dropped the remote, holding the book in both hands. Then with a last glance up at Sam, he opened it.
It was a list. The names caught Dean's eyes first: Andrea Barr. Lucas Barr. Steven Meyerhoff. Alicia Lindsley. Amanda Walker. They went on, page after page, some well-known, some kinda familiar, some complete strangers.
That wasn't all, though. Beside each name was a date and location, and a single phrase in Sam's most careful script: November 2005, Lake Manitoc, WI. Spirit in the lake. January 2006, Eureka, MT. Goblins.
Dean looked up again, baffled. "What, are these all our cases? What…?"
"No," Sam said, shaking his head. He licked his lips. "They're all the people you've saved."
Dean blinked. Looked down again, starting to flip through the pages. Practically the last half of the journal was filled, every line another memory.
Sam cleared his throat. "I used Dad's journal and, uh, borrowed yours to get some of the ones from when I was at school. And I had to guess on a few from when you first started hunting because I don't remember them that well. But I figure if there's anyone on that list who isn't alive because of you, well, there're a lot more we'll never even know about who aren't on there."
"Sam…" Dean coughed, his throat tight, and shook his head. "I can't…this can't be right. I mean, I know it's what we do, saving people, but…there's gotta be a couple hundred—"
"Nine hundred fifty-two," Sam said quietly.
Almost a thousand. Dean's vision shimmered. No way. "This was…a lot of these were Dad," he said thickly. "Or you. I mean, you were at least as much—"
"Dean." Dean's gaze flicked up, in time to see the most honest smile he'd witnessed on Sam since…long before. "This is you, man. This is your life, what you've accomplished."
Dean rubbed abashedly at his eyes, paging to the end, then freezing at the last name on the list.
He grimaced at Sam.
Sam winced, too. "You saved her, too, Dean. It wasn't your fault Lilith came by after. At least we didn't…" He looked away.
They hadn't really talked about what had happened at the police station. Finding out what Sam's mindset had been going into that whole mess had explained a lot, and Dean couldn't bring himself to blame him for having considered Ruby's offer. He knew from experience how much tougher you had to be when you hunted alone, and Sam had been really alone for a really long time. He also knew Sam regretted it now, saw his brother's eyes go dark whenever the mention of demon-girl or the station massacre came up, and had quietly shelved all his arguments about this is what separates us from them, and, would you have been willing to sacrifice me, too? For better or worse, Dean knew the answer to that last now.
"I just…," Sam was continuing, subdued. "I wanted you to see. You know, in case you ever doubted."
Doubted what, that his life had had meaning? His brother sitting next to him was proof of that already. But this… Dean's fingertips moved reverently over the pages of writing. Could it be his life had been worth this much? Unfamiliar pride welled in him. Surely this would've pleased their mom…Dad…
Dean had to swallow twice before he could say it, and even then he couldn't meet Sam's eyes. "Thank you," he said roughly.
He could feel Sam's nod. But his brother just thumped his leg finally, then got up. "I'm gonna get some sodas, all right?" Without waiting for an answer, he left the room.
Dean paged a little further, names and dates blurring. It was…unbelievable, but… He didn't have to read it all to know who was missing. Even if it was a good life's work, he had one more thing to do, and not quite four months left to do it in.
Before he was gone, he had to make sure Sam Winchester was on that list, too.