A/N: Holy crap. After five years, this is finally over. I can't believe it. Holy crap. It's been both difficult and exhilarating, and I learned so much more than I ever expected. (Mainly, that the best plot twists come either in the shower or as you think you're writing an ending, only to discover you've complicated everything beyond belief)
I have to thank all my readers and reviewers over the years - all those who stuck with me, those who read and reviewed, and those who just now are discovering this and making themselves heard. It has been so rewarding - when I first started out I had no idea it would turn into this huge monstrous story. I couldn't have gotten here without that support.
It feels amazing to be done, even if I will miss having it constantly open on my computer. When all's said and done, I'm pretty proud of my monster.
So. Here's the last chapter of the obeisance of memory, my wistful AU of season four. As is my way, there will be an unexpected guest, and a twist. I hope you'll enjoy.
Now, where were we?
...Oh yes. Dean's dead.
Off you go.
He comes to in the middle of the woods.
Yeah. That's right.
It's eerily quiet, but the sky is blue and the sun is cheerful when it does manage to make its way through the thick foliage overhead. All around him are thick trunks of – some sorts of trees. Oak, probably. Or pine. Pine, that's a woods sort of tree, he thinks.
Maybe. Dean doesn't really do woods.
"Okay," he remarks out loud, after bewilderedly turning in place a couple of times. "That's bizarre."
What's bizarre, aside from waking up in the middle of nowhere – again – is that on the second pirouette there's a cabin that definitely wasn't there before.
It raises in him mixed feelings. No, it's not exactly Marriott, but it's also not a tent. There's nothing that really sets it apart from any other creepy wooden cabin lit up by creepy yellow sunbeams Dean's ever been to, which means it probably has a bed and a bathroom.
Maybe even a fridge. One can hope.
"Bizarre," he repeats, but then shrugs to himself. This seems to be where he's meant to go – really, all it needs is a pointing sign with his name in flashing lights – and it's probably the closest thing to civilization there is for miles around.
Might as well.
At the door the absurd urge to knock surfaces, but considering that this is a creepy-ass cabin in some creepy-ass woods, Dean figures he's probably fine. Wherever this is, it sure as heck ain't Kansas.
He hasn't even touched the door when it opens for him soundlessly.
"Do come in," someone says. "And close the door, there's a terrible draft."
The blue couch is familiar. So is the dusty TV, as well as the light-bulb, half out of its panel. When he looks out the window he sees a street lined with shabby one-story houses and yellow yards dotted with dying gray leaves and smudges of snow. There's a smell of something savory baking.
He remembers now. Alma, Illinois, 1993. End of winter.
That's what it was.
"Are you quite finished gawking?"
At the dining table, which Sam and Dean had never really used but is now set for two, sits a gaunt man with sharp, unnerving eyes, each like a gaping black hole.
Dean closes the door slowly. "Uh," he says, wondering why he has the distinct sense he should be terrified when there's objectively nothing more ominous here than a tray of mac 'n cheese.
Although there was that door opening by itself thing.
"Come." The man beckons. "Sit."
The man serves him a large square piece, still piping hot. "Eat."
He nods, heart thudding like he's running a marathon. Somehow, despite not wanting anything less, he follows orders, and for a while, there's only the clanking of forks and knives. Dean's honestly too scared to actually enjoy anything.
"Delicious," the man says at last, wiping delicately at his mouth with a napkin. His face is deeply lined but strangely ageless. "Though not the best I've had, if I'm to be completely honest. Which, of course, I always am."
Dean nods wordlessly again. He shoves another forkful into his mouth.
The man arches an eyebrow, looking only very vaguely amused. "I was paying you a compliment. You were the chef, after all."
He sounds expectant.
Oh God. "Thank you." Was that sincere enough? "Thank you a lot."
A regal nod. The man returns to his food.
Is he expecting dessert? Please let him not be expecting dessert. Even with his memories back, Dean has no idea what fourteen year old him might have made. Although... there's definitely no way they had wine, and yet the man is still sipping at his glass as though he found a bottle of red in their nonexistent underground wine cellar.
Well. It's far from the craziest thing going on here.
The man glances up from his plate. "Oh, you seem confused," he observes.
Dean shrugs helplessly.
A sigh. "Well, I suppose introductions are in order," the man remarks, making a wry face as though that's something regrettable before pursing his lips and taking a long sip of red.
Once he finishes he neatly sets the glass aside, intertwines his fingers and rests his chin on top.
"Hello, Dean," he says mildly. "I'm Death. You may have heard of me."
That's a thing?
"So," the man – no, not man, the farthest thing there is from one, Dean sees it now – says. "Now that we're properly acquainted, I think it's time we talked business." He nods with his head at the dishes. "Put those away so we can begin."
He doesn't even think to question the grim reaper's words. At least Dean finally knows why he's frightened out of his wits. "I," he says, staring at the sink, then clears his throat. "Business?"
"Well." Death's thin lips curl faintly. If it's a smile, it doesn't reach his eyes. "I say business. Sit."
Dean sits again.
Long, wrinkled fingers wrap around the stem of the glass once more, lift it delicately. "I've been wanting to talk to you."
He sweats, pastes on a nervous grin. "Gotta say, mixed feelings about that."
Those dark eyes peer right through him. "Then you're more intelligent than I gave you credit for." A pause. "…Which isn't saying much, admittedly."
"I don't understand," Dean says. "What could you want with me? Why are you," he gestures aimlessly the room, "…here, of all places? I mean, Illinois?"
Another sip, but the glass doesn't seem to be any closer to empty. "I'm not really here, just as you're not really here. But wherever we may be, trapped as we are, only a fool would think us out of the game."
Which doesn't actually explain anything at all. "But I am out of the game," he points out. "I mean, I'm dead, aren't I?"
Right. Well. That wasn't as much of a blow as he'd expected, really. "So, yeah. What do you expect from me?"
"Expect from you?" Death lowers his glass to the table. "Expect from you?" he repeats, voice deepening. "Do you expect anything from the grain of sand in your shoe? I am Death, Dean, and you are no more than that to a thing like me. I expect from you nothing more than the very fact of your existence."
He keeps his shaking hands under the table. "I don't invite grains of sand to dinner," he says.
It is terrifying.
The long fingers tap idly against the glass. "I'd been forced to take heed of your inane mortal affairs long ago." His expression darkens. Dean gulps. "Lucifer's spell bound me to his will, compelling me to take orders from the mouth of a spoiled, squeaking child. I don't suppose you know how that grates, when one is as old as God himself."
"Not exactly," Dean answers hoarsely, after a moment.
Death peers at him, reads the question on his face. "Oh, yes. Our births and paths are intertwined, me and Him. One day, I will reap God myself."
Big. This is big. This is way too big.
"So as you might imagine," Death continues, "I wasn't too thrilled when plans were made to release the infant." Infant being the freaking devil here? "Nor when those plans failing hinged on one mortal."
"Sam," he says in understanding, but the other man – being – shakes his head.
"You." Death studies him. "The righteous man. Plaything of angels and demons."
He shivers, remembering being played with all too well. "Let me get this straight, you… wanted us to win?"
"Did I want my captor to stay where he is – that is to say, conveniently sealed in the very depths of hell?" Death's expression betrays nothing but a slight condescension. "Of course, you imbecile."
Dean ponders that. "I see."
"Do you?" Death murmurs softly. "I wonder."
He closes his mouth and doesn't let himself blurt out anything stupid.
"Indeed," Death says, as if in answer to that. "More intelligent than you seem."
His spine is shivering. Monster, monster, his gut tells him, but goddamn it, they've never faced anything this huge. Dean hadn't even considered ganking this one – is pretty sure it must be impossible. The thought alone seems laughable.
He's not the one to try, at any rate.
"So what do you want with me?" Dean says hesitantly. "You, uh. Don't need to say thank you."
"I want an answer. And in exchange, I will offer a boon."
He frowns. "A boon?"
"Whatever is within my power to grant."
"Dude," he exclaims without thinking, "that's crazy." All that power... just for him? Even if it's just once, there's no way that's a smart move.
Death just looks at him, not blinking.
Dean wilts. "What's the question?" he mutters, and hopes it's something easy, like math or soap operas.
"Do you regret it, Dean?"
He frowns at his dinner companion, fork stilling. "Regret what?"
It takes him aback. He gapes.
"I assume you remember which deal I'm referring to," Death tells him archly.
And yeah, of course. Of course he remembers. That dark, dusky dawn, the bitter taste of the crossroads demon's mouth. Sam's baffled, hopeful expression when Dean returned to find him alive. Those memories had been there ever since the wish he'd made, to be honest, but the power of denial combined with the PTSD from hell is a pretty potent thing.
It was never a conscious decision to repress it, but it might as well have been, the way he'd run away from everything. And the truth of the matter is that when it came right down to it, he simply hadn't wanted to be Dean Winchester. Not the Dean Winchester who'd gone to hell. He couldn't even fathom starting to reconcile his memories, who he was, with what he'd done, or what was happening.
"I remember," he says quietly.
But then Sam went after Lilith on his own, and suddenly, none of it seemed all that important anymore.
I will do my best to fix it, Cas had said.
"I was supposed to be dead," Dean finally says, looking down. "Sam wasn't. I'm glad he got to live."
"Poorly," Death comments acerbically.
There isn't much point in disputing that. "But he saved the world, like he always wanted," he argues. "So all that crap he was always going on about, that destined to be evil bullshit, none of it is holding him back anymore. He can start living for real this time."
A moment passes. "Perhaps," Death then allows.
"And he promised," Dean goes on. "He won't try to bring me back." He stares blindly at the table, swallows. "He won't let anyone bring me back."
He traces the lines in the wood. The old whorls and faint grooves are exactly like he remembers, all these years ago.
"I'm… I'm dead for good this time."
This is it. Really now.
It's all over.
Death watches him. "You didn't answer my question," he says finally, eyes narrowed as he taps his glass again. "Do you regret it?"
Dean thinks about hell, and Lilith, and Alistair. He thinks about coming back, about the strange freedom and despair that comes from not knowing who you are. He thinks about Bobby, freely giving what no one else would offer. He thinks about Jo and Todd and Audrey, accepting him exactly as he was without question. He thinks about Zachariah. Ruby. Those guilt-free months crossing the country, all the people he met and befriended because for once, there was nothing holding him back from putting in the effort.
And he thinks about being toyed with, being pulled apart. About Cas redeeming himself in the end, about his hand on his shoulder, at the last moment reorganizing the chaos in Dean's mind and forcing him to acknowledge who he's always been. He thinks about stopping the end of the world, about breaking, about losing everything that made him who he was, and getting it back.
He thinks about Sam.
Does he regret it?
"I see," Death says, and stands up with a small sigh. "Well played."
His head comes up. "Huh?"
Death carefully plants a hand on his arm, fingers right over where the angel's handprint had been before it faded. His expression is a strange mixture of the absent affection Dean remembers from his father and the look Sam gets when forced to touch something dirty. "This is a one-time deal," he says. "Remember that."
Dean frowns in puzzlement at Death's white, wrinkled hand. "What?"
"Next time," Death tells him, "it will be for good."
A dark ceiling. Dim gray of dawn. The scritch scratch rumble of wheels on asphalt. A faint smell of leather.
But it's the familiar crackling of the A/C that tells Dean where he is.
"Baby," he sighs, and fondly pats the seat beneath him. "My baby."
Someone yells. The tires screech. Dean's head abruptly slams against the door as he's thrown against it.
He sits up with a wince. "Damn it, Sam!" he exclaims, rubbing his aching head. "Handle with care, how many times do I have to tell you to handle with care –"
The Impala lurches again, cutting him off and throwing him against the door in an unpleasant déjà-vu-of-what-happened-just-a-second-ago sort of way.
They come to an abrupt stop. The driver – Sam – turns in his seat.
It starts to get worrying around the fifteen-second mark or so, but Dean bears it for longer than he would normally because, let's be honest, Sam is well-owed a freakout here. He scratches the back of his neck, clears his throat.
"So hey, I'm alive," he says, and as it slowly sinks in, he starts to smile. "I'm alive, Sammy."
And then –
"You're alive," Sam blankly echoes him. His eyes are red-rimmed and dry, underlined with dark puffy circles. Sam's hair, meanwhile, looks worse than that first time he'd picked Dean up from the diner – which is still, needless to say, a whole lot better than when Dean had swapped his shampoo for Nair. Or that one time Dean trimmed a sleeping tenth-grader Sam's hair into a pretty retarded-looking Mohawk. Or that other time he'd accidentally (well, sort of accidentally) got gum right over four-year-old Sam's right ear and Dad had to shave a whole section right off.
…Maybe there's a reason Sam doesn't like haircuts.
"Alive." Sam repeats, with no intonation whatsoever.
Dean's smile turns awkward. "Hooray?" He'd really thought Sam would look happier to see him this time.
But no: "You're – you're alive," his brother says again, and nope, there's no change in expression now either.
Dean frowns. "Yeah, dude, what's the matter with –" he begins, when Sam promptly throws open his door and leaves the car.
Dean follows suit, frown deepening.
"Sam?" he calls out worriedly. His brother is standing a few feet away, his back to Dean, hands slack at his side, head tipped towards the sky. "Sam, it's really me, I swear, I'm really back this time. Go ahead, do your tests. I'll prove it to you."
Sam doesn't move.
"I'm serious, man, I'm back," he says desperately. "I remember everything now. Mom and Dad, Bobby, Ellen and everyone. I remember getting you from college, shooting Yellow Eyes. Meeting Jess."
Still nothing. Dean swallows.
"And – and stuff from before that, too, when we were kids. Like that time I told you clouds were made from stuffed animals, remember that? You cried so hard I panicked and spent all Dad's money on Cornettos and Reese's Pieces." He tries to chuckle. "Dad got so mad, I thought he'd –"
Sam turns, and then Dean's not being hugged so much as crushed against his brother's chest. Another deja vu.
But this time, Dean returns the favor.
"I prayed," his brother chokes into his neck. "I prayed to Cas, to anyone. No one came."
Cas. "I think he's in trouble," he starts to say, but Sam doesn't listen.
"Just like – just like last time. I screwed up again. I couldn't save you."
"You made the right call. You trusted me when I needed you to," Dean tells him roughly. "I'm so friggin' proud of you, you know that? You saved the world, Sammy."
Sam shakes his head, his nose bumping against Dean's shirt. "That's not enough if you're dead."
His throat tightens. "Sam," he says helplessly.
Sam pulls back. His eyes are wet but he doesn't even remotely looks like he cares about that. Dean clears his throat, lets his arms fall to his sides, averts his gaze. Tries to feel like a man.
Which is when Sam hits him like a motherfucking truck.
"Don't you dare ever pull something like this again," Sam snaps down at him, all snarl and hair and attitude. "I've had it with this crap, Dean, I'll drag you back to life myself if I have to."
"No worries, man," he says, massaging his jaw. Bitchin' right hook, little bro. "I promise, I'm done with dying for a good long while."
Sam doesn't look convinced. "Yeah?"
He bites his lip. "Look, Sam," he says at last. "I'm sorry for dyin' on you." Both times.
His brother doesn't meet his eyes. "It's okay."
"No," Dean says. "It's really not."
Sam shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, but something about him solidifies. Softens.
"You trusted me to save the world," he says, looking vaguely embarrassed and a little bit shy. "I'm thinking that counts for something."
And somehow, in spite of it all, Dean finds himself smiling.
Sam clears his throat manfully. "Didn't get to talk to Bobby yet. He's gonna want to hear details." He pauses, dryly arches his brow like the royalty he goddamn isn't. "I'm gonna want to hear details, actually. How the heck did you get to the convent before me?"
"It's a long story."
"And I'm going to hear all of it," Sam half-promises, half-threatens.
This is going to take so much time. Dean sighs long-sufferingly. "Sure, yeah, whatever."
Sam smiles, eyes crinkling.
"So." He offers Dean his hand. "Let's get going."
They still have a lot to talk about. To explain to each other. They still need to find out whether Cas is really dead – Dean won't believe it until he sees proof – and check on the kids, meet up with Bobby and Jo and Ellen and Rufus and have a whole powwow about what just happened. At some point they'll have to deal with Zach and all the other angels who won't be happy about the apocalypse being put on hold, as well as the demons that'll really have it in for the both of them now that Lilith is sealed in hell again. Not to mention that they've seriously got to stop soon to refuel and check the oil on the Impala, because Dean hasn't looked yet but that's definitely something he'd count on Sam to neglect.
…And, of course, there's always the family business.
Dean Winchester lets himself be pulled to his feet, and grins.
"Yeah," he tells his brother. "We've got work to do."
("Dude. Still not a zombie."
"Oh come on, Sam. Let a man dream.")