Dean thinks he's imagining me whenever we have these talks. He pulled off the interstate onto a dead end country road. Sam's asleep in the front seat and Dean walks far enough way that Sam won't see him looking like he's talking to himself, but he stays close enough to still be able to keep an eye on Sam.
Some things even hell can't strip away.
He leans against a tree. I lean against it too.
"You should tell him," I tell him.
"I can't tell him Dad. He doesn't need that on top of everything else."
"Not knowing is worse for Sam. It always has been."
"Yeah, I know. I just - he's just -."
"What? Delicate?" I laugh. "Because you and I have both been on the receiving end of Sammy's delicate."
"That we have." Dean agrees, with a grin full of pride. "I don't know, it just seems wrong. Even after everything that's happened, Sammy still has some innocence, I know he does. I can handle this on my own, he doesn't need one more thing to feel guilty for."
"You know Dean, thinking you're not worth other people's help is it's own kind of innocence." I tell him. He looks confused, then annoyed, then embarrassed. "Dean if you knew what you're worth - to me, to your mother, to Sammy - if you could realize even one tenth of what you're worth - well, you'd be more full of yourself than you are already."
"I am not full of myself."
"You are a little."
"Well if I am, I know who I got it from, Mr. 'I can walk on water I just don't feel like it right now.'"
"I never said that." I argue.
"Maybe not but you sure acted like it a lot."
I want to dispute that too but I laugh.
"All right, I'll give you that."
"I guess you will." Dean laughs too. He doesn't say anything then, he keeps looking at the car and his brother sleeping.
"Hey Dad?" He asks after awhile.
"Yeah?" I know what he's going to ask.
"Was hell the same? For you?"
"Hell is exactly the same for everyone. And it is completely different for everyone."
I get "The Look", the 'somebody just flashed a bright light in my eyes' look.
"Yeah. Shoulda seen that coming." Then he sighed. "How do I tell him? How do I tell him something like this?"
"How do you ever tell him something like this?"
"Usually? He forces it out of me."
"Yeah, sounds about right." I say. You might not know it by looking at him but that kid asleep in the car can be a force of nature when he chooses.
"It's different this time." Dean says. "He's asked a couple of times but -."
"But he's not pushing."
"No, he's not. So maybe he doesn't want to know."
"He doesn't always push for what he wants." I say and Dean looks at me like I just turned purple.
"Dad - this is Sammy we're talking about. When hasn't he pushed? Remember when he started solid food? We had to have two spoons loaded and ready to go or he'd holler because it took too long to reload a single spoon."
"Yeah I remember. He had quite the roar."
"I got news for you - he still does. I don't have proof but I'm sure his 'pissed off' voice has set off seismographs."
"I remember the first time he turned that voice on me. I think it surprised him more than it did me. But a half hour later, he was a regular teenager again, needing help with his homework."
"Oh yeah, Sam Winchester Terror of Demons still asks my opinion on razor blades and thermal t-shirts."
"Of course, you're his big brother. Well, his older brother anyway." I have to jibe Dean.
"What d'you mean? Sammy's not taller than me."
"Dude he's been taller than you for eight years easy."
He gives me a blank look for a few seconds, like he's deciding whether to believe me.
"Hunh." He finally says. I think he's choosing not to believe me.
"Anyway..." I say, trying to get back to our last sane conversation. "Sam not pushing doesn't mean he doesn't want to know. It just means he understands what you need."
There's a long pause. A couple times Dean starts to say something and doesn't. When he does finally say it, he sounds like he's crying.
"I can't tell him Dad. Do you know what it'll do to him? He already blames himself that I made the deal, that we couldn't break the deal, he couldn't kill Lilith, he couldn't save me. If I tell him what it was really like, if I tell him forty years, what I did -."
And that's everything isn't it?
"What?" I prod him as gentle as I could. "What are you afraid of?"
"I'm afraid what Sam'll think of me. He'll think I'm a monster. He'll think - he'll hate me."
"Dude, that is so stupid, I don't even know how to answer it."
He gives me a look; I'm stealing one of his lines.
"Dean - what would you think, what would you say if Sam told you what you need to tell him? What would you think of Sam?"
He doesn't even have to think about it.
"I'd think he was the bravest person I ever met. I think that already."
"And why do you think Sammy would think any different about you?"
"Because - because."
"Because you're Dean Winchester." I say it with no small pride.
"Says John Winchester." He comes back at me, and I'm glad to hear pride in his voice too.
"You need to tell him Dean. You need to let him help you."
"Yeah - did you see him last year after I told him what being in hell would do to me? He went on a bender."
"Two whiskeys at two o'clock is hardly a bender."
"It is for Sammy."
"You know Dean, Sammy might've got old and hard on the outside, but he hasn't changed underneath."
"What d'you mean?"
"There's one thing Sammy needs from you, one thing he has always needed from you. He needs you to believe in him. Now more than ever." I can see that I'm getting through to him. "And you need to remember that he believes in you. Now more than ever."
He takes a deep breath and shakes his head. "Not once I tell him. He'll never look at me the same again."
"You'll break his heart, but you know what - he won't break yours. I mean this is Sam. He may not know what to say at first. Or second. Things will probably feel awkward -."
"If he so much as tries to hug me, I will end him."
"I think you're safe on that one. Sammy likes to hug even less than you do."
"Ha - yeah. Dad? Does Sam ever - you know - talk to you?"
"No, he never has. He talks about me, when he prays."
"He does? What does he say? Pray? Whatever."
"Usually he prays that I'm in a better place."
"And are you?"
"Of course." I grin. "I'm with my boys."
Dean grins too, then looks scared.
"What - do you mean - constantly?"
I fold my arms and cock an eyebrow.
"I hear you're a hell of a P.A."
His expression is priceless, wide eyed, stammering, he even blushes.
"What - what - you mean - you - even -." Then he gets a self-conscious grin. "Guess I'm glad I'm only imagining you."
"Guess you are." I let him believe. He looks back to Sam.
"He should talk to you."
"He will when he's ready. In the meantime, he thanks God every single day that you're safe."
"I can't imagine where he gets his faith."
"From you." I tell Dean. He looks at me. And I'm turning purple again. He doesn't believe me. He doesn't know how to believe me.
"Sammy believes in a God he can turn to because he's used to having a father figure that he could always turn to. And I don't think that was me."
"You were there." Dean defends me.
"You were always there, Dean. You still are. Sam gets his faith in God from his faith in you."
"Well ain't that something." He answered in a mix of awe and disbelief.
"Yes it is."
Dean watches Sam and I watch Dean. My boys. My precious boys.
"I love you." I say to Dean.
"I love you too Dad." I'm pretty sure he says it only because he thinks he's imagining me.
"Do me a favor, will you? When you get the chance, give Sammy a hug and tell him I love him too."
"Why don't you get him while he's still asleep?" Dean offered instead. "Make him think it's a dream."
"You just don't want to have to hug him."
"You're right, I don't." He answers immediately.
"C'mon - wouldn't it be worth it just to see the look on his face?"
"Okay." I push myself off the tree. "I'll go say 'hi' to Sammy. You think about how you're going to tell him, okay? You gotta trust him and you gotta give him the chance to help you."
"Yeah, I know."
"All right kiddo. I'll see you."
He waits at the tree while I walk to the car and Sam, who is still asleep in the front seat, head on his arm and resting against the door. The window is down and so I crouch next to the car.
"Hey Sammy, how're you doing? I want you to know you're doing a good job taking care of Dean since he's been back, and you did a really piss-poor job of taking care of yourself when he was gone. And you know it too. Listen kiddo, Dean really needs you now. He needs you to be strong, and you know what? He needs you to be vulnerable too. That might not make sense right now, but it will. Just trust me."
Sam surely is sound asleep because he never reacted well to those words from anyone but Dean.
"All right Sam, I've got to get out of here so Dean can talk to you. I just want you to know that I'm here and I love you. No matter what, no matter how old you get or how big you get, you will always be my baby boy." That should've gotten me a bigger reaction than 'trust me'.
I decide against ruffling my fingers through his hair, and I really decide against planting the suggestion that Dean needs a hug, and as I stood up I fade from Dean's vision but I'm still there when Dean stands at the car window, watching Sam, watching until Sam blinks himself awake and looks around.
Then Sam winchester, Terror of Demons, covers a yawn, stretches his arms and rubs the sleep out of his eyes with fisted hands.
"Where are we?"
"Just taking a break. C'mon, you want a beer?" Dean claps him on the shoulder and heads for the trunk of the car.
"Yeah, sure." Sam gets out and follows Dean around back.
As Dean pops the trunk, he look up at Sam.
"What?" Sam asks.
"You're taller than me."
"Uh - yeah. You're just noticing that now? Dude, I've been taller than you -."
"Hunh." There's that non-committal answer from Dean again. He hands up a beer to Sam and takes one for himself and shuts the trunk. Then they go to the front of the car.
They toast themselves on surviving, again, and sipp some beer. It's a good moment, they're alive, they're together, they are everything good that Mary and I could possibly have brought to life. My boys, our boys. Our precious boys.
Dean takes a deep breath and gives a look to Sam out of the corner of his eye. Then he steps off into something more terrifying to him than hell - vulnerability.