Sam jolted awake with phantom ache in his chest and a lightning hot pulsing in his head. He breathed rapidly, panicked and keyed up from the nightmare. He dreamt of unseen monsters in a palatial house, tearing Dean apart as he writhed and bled and twisted in fatal agony. He dreamt of demons swathed in sweeps' clothing and a little girl in a blood-soaked party dress. It was all punctuated by sinister flashes of apocalyptic white light. From the way his head simultaneously pounded and burned, it felt like more like a vision even though he hadn't had one in more than a year. Despite how awful he felt, Sam was overjoyed. A vision meant they had a priceless glimpse into the future, a way to stop Lilith, and paramount, a way to save Dean. Sam tried to gain his bearings in the thick darkness. He tried to remember how much time they had left. He struggled out of the bed and wondered why he was dizzy; why he felt like he was swimming through molasses; why like the oldest evil had gutted him and stolen his heart. He never felt this horrible after a vision before.
He shuffled over a dirt floor and saw another bed, the rusted posters illuminated by lamplight from the adjoining room he'd never noticed before. They had to be squatting in another abandoned house. He squinted, his eyes sore and bloodshot, and could make out Dean's prone form. "Dean, hey, wake up," Sam whispered, his voice was ragged. He shook Dean's shoulder. "I had a vision, man, we can figure it out before…" Sam voice died as his hand came back slick and dark.
Screaming, Sam staggered backwards in horror as his eyes finally adjusted to the light, and he could see Dean's face was bizarrely mishapened and waxy, mouth slackened. There were jagged gashes in his neck down to the bone. His piercing green eyes clouded over with the murky gray of the dead. His body was wrapped in a sheet and he had been laid to rest ontop of a mattress that was now soaked through with congealed blood.
Sam swayed as his legs buckled and scrambled away from his brother's corpse, vomiting all over the dirt floor. It had already happened. Dean died. Sam couldn't save him. He cried and shook and raged, not knowing if it was inside of his own head or not. He felt feverish and dying, but at the same time, far too alive, because there, in the corner was his brother's body without breath, without life. Then it all came back, hitting him like the crack of a whip: Lilith possessing Ruby. The hellhounds eviscerating his brother. Sam, pinned to the wall, watching, helpless. Bobby running into find Sam huddled over Dean's body, trying to hold the gaping wounds closed, trying to save Dean even though he was clearly dead. They'd stopped at this house to give Dean a hunter's funeral of salting and burning, but Sam refused to even let Bobby touch him, snarling and snapping and hurling anything he could to keep Bobby away from his brother. When Bobby left, sobbing unashamedly, Sam merely started drinking. The floor was littered with half-empty bottles of whiskey and vodka. His pants and shirt were crusted and stiff with Dean's blood. With soiled, trembling hands, Sam snatched the nearest bottle and bought it to his mouth. He drank until he was full of alcohol, and so anesthetized that he could only stare dumbly. The sun rose and set. Sam heard the rumble of Bobby's truck and barricaded himself on the room, throwing a rickety bookcase and desk against the door, stuffing a blanket over the window.
He didn't think time could pass without Dean. It never had in his lifetime. From his earliest memories, Dean was always there, calling him a pain in the ass, but never hesitating to teach him or push him. It didn't take more than another shift in time, another minute gone, for Sam to decide. He dragged his sleeping bag from his bed and gently covered Dean with it. He brushed his matted hair before sweeping his hand over Dean's unfocused eyes to close them. "I'm going to make this right. I promise."
Dean's possessions were in a plastic grocery bag under the bed. Sam, covered in guilt and tears, sifted through the receipts and fake IDs and candy and found his beloved pearl-handled 9mm. He knew by the weight that it was already loaded. He sat down on the mattress next to Dean and rubbed his face, determined. "I'm coming to get you," he seethed.
Sam cocked the gun and put it in his mouth. He felt the cool metal between his teeth and the sting of gun powder on his tongue. A knot of urging clenched in his stomach and a voice in his head screamed, GO. He'd kill himself, and drag his brother out of hell by sheer Winchester will. He didn't need sigils or spells or magic. Sam grabbed Dean's hand beneath the sleeping bag and let his finger twitch on the trigger. Then, clear as a bell, he heard Dean's gruff, clipped tone. Winchester 's don't quit, Sammy, we don't lie down and die. The smell of the dirt in the air and the iron of Dean's blood jumpstarted the memory of Sam truly understanding what it meant to hunt evil and Sam's first clash with death.
The trees of the forest were nothing more than blurred streaks of fluctuating green. Branches snapped in his face, tearing at his skin, but he ran, jumping over logs, powering through creeks, angling around boulders.
"Go, go, go, Sammy, keep running, don't look back." Dean warned.
Sam was fifteen years old and entrenched in his first-ever encounter with a gremlin. Unfortnately for Sam and Dean, gremlins weren't the small, beer-guzzling furballs like in the movies. They were vicious forest-dwelling monsters with slimy golden skin, black forked tongues and a penchant for snacking on the bones of Washington-state hikers.
Sam could hear Dean behind him, and knew the nineteen-year-old was a faster runner, but he put himself between the danger and Sam, like he always did. He shot over his shoulder, trying to keep the thing at bay. Sam's tripped over a web of vines, and was proppelled forward, landed roughly on his hands and knees over the rocky ground like the stupid girls in the horror movies who always died. Dean wasted not a second, snagging Sam by the collar and hauling him to his feet. "This fucker is fast, Sammy, go."
They ran for what felt like hours, deeper into the forest. Sam heard the gremlin darting between trees, swinging between branches. It was everywhere, over their heads, behind them, in front of them like a golden phantom. Sam's lungs felt like overfilled balloons, ready to burst and legs and feet burned inside of his hardsoled boots. He wanted to stop just for a minute. But if he slowed down for a second, his older brother would drag him by the hood of his shirt or the scruff of his neck.
Sam and Dean kept running, even as the lush green forest floor gave way to jagged rocks, gnarled tree roots and finally sheared off into an abrupt ravine. Even with his bobbing vision, Sam could see it ahead and hear the wild waters churning below. Sam slowed down, even as he heard the gremlin gaining ground. Dean, however, snatched Sam's sleeve, and kept running. Never missing a stride, Dean dropped his gun, hooked his arm through Sam's and they sprinted, leaping off the side of the cliff until they saw sky and the crystalline blue water below. The world, again, was a beautiful miasma of colors and smells. He wasn't scared because Dean held his hand as tight as he could, and whooped at the reckless thrill of freefall.
Sam's stomach rolled and his organs flattened as they plummeted through space for what felt like miles. He tightened his body, locking ankles together. Breaking the surface of the water felt like plummeting into a concrete wall followed by electricution from the shock of the cold water. Sam screamed, but water flooded his mouth and lungs. He lost Dean's hand trying to swim. The sheer force of the water propelled him against a cluster of rocks, where he felt the distinct pop of at least two ribs on his right side before the currents dragged him underwater. Pain gave way to nothingness as the frigid water numbed his muscles and stupefied his brain. With the last of his waning strength, Sam was able grab hold of a knotted cluster of tree roots before he passed out.
Sam woke up to gunfire and a near unbearable pain in his left side as he coughed up mouthfuls of water. Dean was crouched in front of him, firing at the gremlin. Groggily, Sam watched Dean re-load his gun. His older brother's shoulder length hair was matted with mud and there was a blood smeared on his pants. Abruptly, Dean put Sam's gun in his hands, folding his tingling fingers around the butt and making him cup it. Numbly, Sam watched him, unsure of what was even happening. Dean slapped him hard across his cheek. "Get it together, Sam. This thing won't stop until we're de…"
The gremlin swooped down like an eagle and punted Dean across the rocky shore. The creature wasn't enormous. It was smaller than Sam, but a treacherous tangle of muscles and spikes and claws lining its back and shoulders, spiraling from his hands and feet. Instantly sobered by Dean's unchecked screams, Sam aimed and fired three silver bullets at its head. He stood up, walking with measured steps as he fired four more. The gremlin seethed and turned at Sam, bearing eight rows of teeth and narrowing its eyes at him. The bullet wounds were nothing more than innocuous dimples on the mottled surface of its skin.
Sam backed up and shot again as the gremlin advanced. It moved with unearthly speed and threw Sam ten feet into the air, launching him deeper into the woods where it was a dark net of thorning vines and thick trees. Sam's flailed his arms, clawing at branches or anything to break his fall. But once again, he landed with an unforgiving force that reverberated through his entire body. He coughed and watched, dazed, as the gremlin ominously approached, evil crimson eyes idling up Sam's body like a lion eyeing a gazelle.
The fifteen-year-old leapt to his feet. It was so close Sam could feel its breath on his skin. It was a nefarious odor of rotten meat and anicent evil. It was a noxious, maddening scent that made Sam's skin pucker with hives and his throat snap shut. Sam clawed at his neck, wheezing and struggling for air. Frantic, he fired one-handed at the gremlin just to keep it away. Dean, magically appeared, and stabbed it in the back. He grimaced and twisted the knife, pulling upwards to completely sever the spinal cord. Gremlin hissed, making the wet, guttural noises of death. Sam winced as Dean, in that irate, feral haze he went when he killed, slit the monster's throat with his silver hunter's knife. Black, tarry blood squirted from the bastard's peculiar topaz flesh before he heaved its body aside. Dean stumbled, dropping the knife and falling to the ground, spent from fight and fall.
"I think I'm allergic to gremlins." Sam panted.
"I think my leg is broken." Dean countered.
They were quiet as the focused fog of battle faded and the reality of their predicament hit them: they were miles away from civilization, complete soaked and injured, and night, along with the temperature, was rapidly falling. Sam didn't mention that his ribs were probably broken, because he could already feel Dean's rising panic as he tried to game-plan beside him. "Okay, our best bet it to find a place to hole up for the night. We'll follow the river and find help tomorrow." Dean pushed himself up and pulled out his trusty zippo lighter. "First, we're torching this sucker."
The gremlin's body went up like a roman candle and the fire crackled with supernaturally purple and green sparks and an eerie blue flames.
Dean couldn't put any weight on his leg and Sam couldn't carry him. Although he'd started growing like a weed after leaving Indiana, he hadn't put on much weight and was nothing more than long coltish limbs and wiry muscles. At eighteen, Dean was already six-feet tall and as strong as an ox. Sam could never imagine getting that big. So, Dean forced Sam to leave him by the river's edge and scout ahead for shelter. "You be careful!" He shouted.
Sam cocked his head to the side. His brother was pale, filthy, and he had gremlin innerds staining his shirt, coat and pants. "You fly me off a cliff and now you want me to be careful?"
"Hey, saved your ass."
It took him hours, but Sam found a perfect place to hide: a cave with a narrowed entrance that opened into a vaulted cavern, so they could build a fire without suffocating from the smoke. It wasn't far from the river, but high enough that it ensured safety from bears and wolves. Sam helped Dean to the cave and checked the backpack to see what useable supplies they still had. The flashlights were broken, their radios smashed, the matches were soggy. All they had was their knives, two guns, ammo, and a half-eaten Snickers, thanks to Dean's sweet tooth.
As the cave filled with meager heat, Sam knelt down in front of Dean and cut away the ripped leg of his pants. His leg was still bleeding from a nasty wound below the knee and was terribly swollen. Sam's stomach rolled and he immediately began first aid. Ignoring Dean's protests, he took off his sweatshirt and sliced it up to make thick, absorbent bandages. He wrapped rolled up the hood, placed it over the gash and pressed down with unsympathetic pressure. Dean swallowed the pain, lips pressed together. He squeezed Sam's shoulder with bone-crushing strength, but Sam let him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Sam whispered as he maintained pressure.
Sweat bloomed on Dean's forehead and upper lip and he closed his eyes as tears licked down his face. He breathed hard and fast, almost like he was in labor. Sam held pressure for a least ten minutes, giving the wound a chance to clot. Finally, he wrapped the sleeves of his sweatshirt around the leg and the thick branches Dean used to splint it. The bleeding slowed considerably, but it still oozed. Sam cursed.
"Dean, we have to go. This needs more than…I can give you right now. You need help before you lose too much blood."
"It's dark and we're lost. There's no tellin' what's out there." Dean said firmly. He took one of the spare bandages and secured it tightly around his thigh, creating a tourniquet to help stop the bleeding.
Sam frowned. "And if your leg falls off?"
Dean ran his hands over his face in frustration. "Then I'll be a hunter with a bionic leg. Sam, we stay. That's it!"
Irrational anger suddenly overwhelmed Sam. He had plans to study for his biology test with Marisol, a cute Mexican girl with an accent that made his toes curl. Instead he was shivering in spider-infested cave and he honestly didn't know how they were going to escape and all because John had ordered them to bag a gremlin.
Dean waved his hand, beckoning Sam over. "Come here. You okay?"
"I'm fine, banged up is all." Sam licked his lips and ignored his ribs and pounding head. There were scrapes, bumps and bruises all over him, nagging little aches that were a buzz in the back of his brain, and itchy hives on his neck and arms. He showed Dean, who tried to smother a smile.
"I guess this is your last gremlin, Sammy. No one will ever believe this," Dean chuckled, inspecting Sam's arms. The gleam in his eye told Sam that he would never hear the end of it. "Gremlins are going on the top of my Shit List. Right next to witches and that scary-ass co-ed in Texas ."
"She's human. We don't off humans." Sam chuckled stiffly as he gingerly elevated Dean's leg.
Dean scratched his cheek and used a scrap of fabric and a puddle of water to scrub the dirt off his face. "I think she was a harpie. We can totally kill those, right?"
"Not every woman who turns you down is a harpie, Dean."
Dean narrowed his eyes and glared at his brother traiteriously. "I think you might be one too."
Sam laughed and handed Dean the waterlogged, half-eaten Snickers. "Peace offering?"
"Bitch." Dean took it like it was a prize.
Night fell. Cold seeped in through the rocks. Wind blew in through the narrowed opening of the cave. They ran out of brush to burn. Neither of them were strong enough to venture out into the woods to get more, so burned the duffel bag and Dean's tee-shirt ("Layers, brother, that's why I wear layers.") and coupled together for body heat ("The only reason you're touching me is so you don't freeze to death, you anorexic motherfucker"). Gremlin blood, apparently, was incredibly flammable and the small fire burned brighter and longer than it ever would with wet twigs and petrified wood. Dean, gun in his hand, slept like the dead and shivered the entire night. He was weak from the blood loss, feverish from the break, and dehydrated from nearly a day without water. Sam tried to watch over him, but wasn't doing any better. He'd been exhausted and beaten after hunts before, but this was frighteningly different. He felt brittle and empty and a bit delirious from the ever-increasing pain in his ribs.
Throughout his life, he heard about hunters dying from misinformation or bad luck or their own stupidity. The men and women that were the only family Sam and Dean ever had would vanish and leave the tall tales of their terrible deaths in their wake. They were warriors, grizzled and heroic, but they were still human and monumentally mismatched against evil. Sam realized years ago, that he'd always walked around holding his breathe, preparing for the day his father never came home. They'd gone into this hunt completely blind; didn't know that gremlins were large, elusive creatures who moved faster a wild animal and were immune to silver bullets. Now, he wondered if they were going to become one of those cautionary tales hunters told each other over beers and dark faces. He wondered if he'd die, covered with Dean's jacket, his head on his brother's shoulder, hungry and thirsty and aching. He wondered if his life would end without having kissed Marisol or trying sushi or seeing the Lincoln Memorial. As his eyes rolled back and the darkness pulled him under again, like a soft warm current, Sam wondered if he'd ever wake up again.
When he did, he was coughing so hard his teeth rattled and he nearly passed out from the pressure in his side.
"Whoa, Sammy, whoa." Dean patted his leg. His voice was a little more than a feeble whisper.
Sam's hands wrapped around his ribs as if he could keep them from moving as he coughed.
"Are you hurt?!" Dean yelled, tugging at Sam's hands. "You said you were fine! You're such a liar."
"How fine can you be after jumping off a fifty-foot cliff?" Sam croaked.
He opened his eyes and caught Dean's face in the blue buzz of twilight. The gremlin fueled fire still burned merrily.
"Where?" Dean asked. When Sam didn't answer immediately Dean shook him again and he groaned. "I got nothin' but time, Sam. Where?"
Dean hovered over him, staring at him with that ornery determined scowl that usually made girls spread their legs.
"Side," he mumbled in defeat.
"Good boy. Here we go," he gently rolled his black tee-shirt shirt up. It was stuck to the skin. Sam whimpered when Dean tugged it free. "Jesus Christ, Sammy." Dean hissed.
Sam hadn't bothered to look at his ribs. Blearily, he glanced down and saw the purplish-black band over his middle ribs he expected; but there was a serious of deep gashes and shallow scrapes that were smeared with dark dried blood. They were swollen and red and oozing. Dean pushed over the melon-sized blackish bruise, over the bumps of his broken ribs. Sam screamed as stars streaked passed his eyes. Dean's usual poker-face melted into one of grim concern and caged panic. "Why the hell didn't you say something?"
"It wasn't that bad before. I was worried about you."
Adrenaline is a tricky thing. It could mask pain and heighten strength. It was the best weapon a hunter had, if they knew how to use it. But it could easily get hunters killed.
"And now this could be infected." Dean felt his forehead and neck. Sam knew he couldn't distinguish Sam's fever from his own.
"How bad does it hurt?"
"It's bad," Sam begrudginly admitted. He'd never felt pain like this before, and that scared him.
Dean uncocked his gun and tucked it in the back of his pants. He pulled up his hood and pocketed his knife. "Put my coat on, let's go."
Sam didn't have the strength to lift his arms. "Dean, I can't."
"Like hell you can't."
Sam shook his head. He was crying. "Dean, please…" There were tears in his eyes, and he knew he sounded pathetic and pitiable, but he couldn't hide it anymore. He was so tired. His entire body hurt. Maybe the gremlin had poisoned him. Maybe a rib had punctured something. "You can go.." he coughed raggedly, "faster without me."
"Something's wrong, Dean. And I can't…" His eyes slipped closed on their own, energy fading.
"SAM! Sammy, look at me." Dean grabbed Sam's chin and slapped his cheek until he opened his eyes. "You're getting your scrawny ass up even if I have to light it on fire. Winchesters don't quit, Sammy, we don't lie down and die. If I leave you here, what do you think will happen?"
Sam didn't know. The weak, aching, nauseous part of him didn't care.
"Look, I…know your life sucks. I know you're a kid and you should be bangin' that adorable senorita you've been blabbing about or, I dunno, going to the sock-hop, but this is all you got, Sam. This is your hand; I need you to play it." Dean dropped his head and cleared his throat. When he spoke again, he used that deeper, gruff voice that he only used with other hunters, men he respected. "And I need your help. I can't make it out of here on my own. If you don't help me, neither of us will survive," he confessed. Sam focused on Dean's eyes, and how they flashed with the unvarnished truth. "And then I won't be able to tell anyone that your pansy ass is allergic to gremlins. Are you going to deny me that as your big brother?" Dean smiled, and it was soft and patient.
Sam sniffled, "only if you leave out the part where I cried."
Dean wiped the tears off his face. "Done."
Dean helped Sam into the vintage leather jacket he'd never let him wear. Sam flipped up the collar and smelled the soft leather. Dean shifted on the ground until he was on Sam's right side and they draped their arms around each other's necks. Together, they pushed and swore until their were on their feet, swaying, but standing as one. The Brothers Winchester tediously tracked down to the river and followed the uneven banks as the sun began to rise. It took them ten grueling hours to venture four miles to a road where a state trooper working a speed trap found two beaten bloody kids and drove them down to the county hospital. It was that moment that Sam truly realized how much they needed each other; that Dean wasn't blind to the internal battle that was building inside of him; that he understood. With Dean by his side, he could do anything—take the leap, take the plunge, take the pain.
Sam could hear Dean's voice ebbing from somewhere inside of him. His lips were wrapped around the gun and the trigger was half pulled. He remembered how in the back of that police car, after walking miles in utter agony, Sam felt like he could bend steal or move mountains because of what Dean pushed him to do. Take the pain. Sam cried out--a strangled, mournful sound--before he let the gun fall on the floor at his feet. He turned to Dean and laid his head on his chest. There was no warmth. No heartbeat. There weren't many things Sam could do for him anymore. He'd failed him over and over in life, but he wouldn't in death. He'd get him back. He went to three crossroads between Pontiac, Illinois and South Dakota, trying to deal, but the demons giddily refused as if Dean's death was the first step in some grand plot.
Devastated, Sam returned to Pontiac. Dean, a man who saved thousands of lives, was buried at dawn on a Tuesday morning in an unmarked, shallow grave Sam dug that was conveniently close to a main road. He was entombed in a coffin Bobby built and painted every protective sigil he could find in invisible ink thinned with holy water. Sam covered the grave with straw and fashioned a makeshift cross. He wasn't ready to leave Pontiac yet, so they stayed. Every morning, Sam walked the miles to the grave and lay down. He'd been through so much with Dean over the years, he didn't know how to function without his older brother at his side. After a week, Sam sat up. Electrical storms lit up the sky in the weeks following Lilith's departure, but the dark shroud of thunderclounds gave way as the rays of the sun threaded through the clouds. It wasn't a beauitful, inspiring sight. It meant Lilith's trail was growing cold. Sam turned to Dean's grave and pressed his head against the ground.
"Give me the strength to go."
Sam waited and prayed and hoped with every molecule in his body that something would happen. That the wind would pick up or a bird would chirp or a hot girl would walk by. He waited for hours, but nothing happened. Sam knew it was because Dean wasn't in Heaven. His soul, the very essence of him, was in Hell and being tortured in ways Sam couldn't even fathom. Sam gripped the ground, fists in the dirt and he pushed himself up, leaning on no one.
When Jess and the entire safe, fantastically normal life he'd planned for himself burned to ashes in the fire, he could barely breathe, because his dream—the one with the wedding and the wife; the carpools and the court dates—was gone. He was left with anger, revenge and Dean. But Sam had faith and he believed she was in Heaven with his mother, contented in ways the living weren't.
But Sam didn't have that modicum of comfort anymore. The only after-life he was certain about was Hell. His father had been there, and now Dean was, roasting and writhing.
It was excruciating to find the strength to turn around and face his life without his brother and best friend, but Sam welcomed the pain. He deserved it, after all. He looped Dean's pendant around his neck, got into the Impala and drove away, ready to take the plunge.