"You drive a real honey of a car, kid," it said.
It took Dean a moment to realize it was talking to him in his own voice, with his own mouth. His hands on the Impala's steering wheel, caressing it.
"Oh, yeah. A beaut. I think I'm going to enjoy you."
The clatter of his gun sliding across the sidewalk was startlingly harsh and loud. Sam's chin smacked into the ground a second later, his teeth clamping down hard on his tongue. As soon as he could breathe, he tasted the salt and metal tang of blood. He blinked in confusion, uncertain how he'd ended up flat on his belly. His right leg had given out on him. It had just quit working. He couldn't feel it, like it wasn't attached to his body anymore. For a horrifying second, he thought maybe that was precisely what had happened.
Then the pain kicked in, mid-thigh, white hot, stealing his breath away again. Sam flipped over, trying to scuttle back when he saw Dean stalking toward him with a smile on his face. The slightest movement sent bolts of fire through his whole body. His body had a mind of its own, curling him onto his side. He felt something warm and wet on the back of his leg. Reaching for it, his fingers bumped into the handle of a small switchblade he knew Dean always carried. He guessed it was his now. He almost giggled, but the pain was too much. His hand came away bloody, shaky. He turned his head and spit the blood in his mouth out onto the ground, a grotesque piece of artwork. Jackson Pollack with vital fluids.
The car was right there and Sam wasn't going to make it. Pretending Dean wasn't there and closing fast, he turned onto his stomach and pulled himself forward with his arms, pushing off the ground with his left leg only. He couldn't let the agony cripple him. He let it out through whimpers and grunts, too destroyed by it all to care about what Dean would think, Dean, Dean, oh shit. He felt blindly ahead of him. His fingers brushed against the cool metal of his handgun.
"Hey!" a voice called. "Hey, stop right there."
Squinting, he peered up and saw the night manager standing at the motel office entrance, legs spread wide and a goddamned useless baseball bat in his hands. Sam wrapped his hand around the handle of his gun. He managed to get to one knee, a dark smudge of blood in front of him shaped like the butt of his hand. His skin felt on fire.
The night manager inched forward uncertainly.
"Run," Sam croaked. He grunted, the world a burst of red and black.
Instead, the night manager moved closer and readied the bat.
Shitohshit. Sam couldn't spare the guy another second. It wasn't real, but he thought he could feel Dean's breath on the back of his neck and oh he didn't want to do this. Hot blood running down his leg, hot tears in his eyes he refused to let spill. Cold concrete dug into his good knee as he twisted around, barely aiming before taking a shot. It went wild, but Dean (not Dean not) faltered and lost his smile. The distraction provided enough time for the night manager to race in front of Sam, swinging.
The crack of wood on skull thunked loud and awful. Dean went down, but he was already moving clumsily to regain his footing by the time he hit the ground. Not Dean, not human. Sam winced at the sight of blood on his brother's temple. Jesus. Not Dean. It wasn't Dean but it always would be.
Sam scrambled to his feet, tugging at the night manager's sleeve. "Get back inside and lock the door," he barked out.
"The cops are coming," the man said, his skin pasty and eyes wide with fear. It made him seem slightly crazed. "You need an ambulance. Y-you're hurt."
"I'm fine. Go. Get out of here." Sam swayed and tried not to puke all over the guy's feet. He couldn't watch this man get hacked to pieces, but it was going to happen in about a minute. "Please, you have to trust me."
The night manager glanced at Dean and emitted a little squeak, but finally did as instructed, leaving Sam alone. His footfalls were rapid, a racing heartbeat on pavement. The police sirens grew closer. They should be almost there, but they sounded miles away yet. Everything – sight, sound, touch, pain – overlapped, warped and bizarre. For a fraction of a second, Sam debated what he should do. The gun was heavy in his hand now, more like an executioner's ax. His eyes flicked to the car, to Dean-not-Dean.
He was a coward. The choice wasn't a choice at all. He couldn't do this. He almost lost his grip on the gun. He hobbled, nearly falling, to the banged-up tan Riviera and pulled the door open. He heard Dean chuckling. Sam didn't dare look. There wasn't time to think about his brother. He couldn't save Dean if he died here. He crawled into the car, unable to contain a howl when his right leg touched the seat. Not the leg, the knife lodged in the leg. Vomit bubbled into his throat. He swallowed it and shifted his body left. Keys, keys, oh shit they were in the room, in the bag spread out across the parking lot. No, keys in pocket. He'd take the small victory. Sam tossed the gun onto the passenger seat, fumbling with the ignition, still refusing to look at Dean. Not Dean.
The car roared to life. He threw it into reverse, jolting back a few feet. The driver's side front window shattered, but he kept his left foot awkwardly on the pedal and tried to ignore the pain spiking in his right leg. A hand gripped him tight by the throat. Sam jerked aside, but the choking grip didn't loosen. He floored it. The hand came free, and Sam's instinct was the only thing going for him. He put the car in drive and took off, sparing a glance in the rearview mirror only after he was at the motel lot entry. He fully expected to see Dean crouched on the damned trunk or something, but he wasn't. He stood in the middle of the parking lot, watching Sam go.
Even from a distance, Sam could tell the thing was smiling at him. Shuddering, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator. It didn't seem to matter. He couldn't get away. That smile followed him long beyond the point Dean wasn't in sight anymore.
The adrenaline rush didn't last much past the state border, where North Dakota turned into Minnesota. By the time he reached the outskirts of Moorhead, Sam was shaking like a proverbial leaf and barely holding on. Shock and blood loss and oh God, Dean, what am I supposed to do? He didn't allow himself to stop until he'd passed the city limits, but by then he didn't even care if Dean was in close pursuit or if he was letting him get away again.
The pain was blurring his vision too much to drive, and he knew he had to take care of the knife sticking out of him. His injured side was starting to cramp from maintaining the awkward driving position. Sam let the car drift to the shoulder of the road and cut the engine. He sagged forward, nearly all of his weight on his left leg. The steering wheel was sticky with his blood, but he draped over it and rested his forehead. He listened for the roar of the Impala's engine on the road behind him, but all he heard was a faint, insistent whistle. A glob of bloody, thick saliva dribbled out of his mouth, snot out of his nose. Tears out of his eyes. He couldn't stop any of it. For several minutes, his body shook with quiet sobs.
Sam was never going to be able to do this. It would go on forever or until that thing exhausted Dean's body and left him for another, but Sam knew with certainty now that couldn't be the one to kill his brother. He was starting to think it didn't even matter. Even if he could put a bullet into his own flesh and blood, he suspected the dybbuk would simply move onto another host to carry on its murderous, unfinished business.
And then Dean would be dead at Sam's hand and nothing would be better at all ever again.
"You're a sweetheart," Dean heard himself say, voice guttural. He sounded like he'd been screaming forever on the outside as loudly as on the inside. "Such a lovely thing."
In the beginning there were only flashes, moments in time he could only see as if everything was cast under the pulsing of a strobe light. Road signs. Salt Lake City, Omaha, Des Moines. Cincinnati. La Crosse. Always on the run, zig-zagging across the nation. Images that didn't look real but they must be, of death all around him. Smart insanity, leaving no traces of itself behind.
Then later those flashes grew lengthier, and far too clear.
"Oh, life could be a dream, sh-boom," he crooned in her ear. "If I could take you up in paradise up above, sh-boom. If you would tell me I'm the only one that you love, life could be a dream, sweetheart."
It seemed almost strange to him that at first he had fought hard against the dark, self-preservation kicking in and making him try to claw his way out of it when it sucked him under. He'd been a drowning man who needed the air. It hadn't taken him long to realize the dark wasn't the right enemy to be battling. In the light, when Dean could see what it wanted him to see, everything was blood and pain and involuntary supplications for help, from Dad, from Sam. From a god he believed to be no more real than unicorns or vampires.
"Your eyes are beautiful. Anyone ever told you that? Your boyfriend? Your m-m-m-mommy?"
For a while, days or weeks or years, every second Dean was conscious of what was happening to him and because of him, what it was making him do, he longed for the void of consuming, smothering darkness. He wanted to pull it over his head like it was a blanket and he was a three-year-old afraid of the thunder rolling by outside. He indulged in cowardly and pathetic wishes for everything to be dark, so he didn't have to know anything or think anything or do anything.
In the dark he could dream of the good things, the very few memories he had which gave him comfort. His mom leaning over to kiss him good night, her soft hair tickling against his cheek and nose. His dad smiling a rare smile, an actual twinkle in his eye. Sometimes Cassie, before everything went to hell. Her face came to mind more often than Dean would have imagined. He didn't know why, but he couldn't stop picturing her. At first it was welcome. Soon it became unbearable.
"Please," the girl whispered. Choked. "Please, I'll do whatever you want."
"Honey, you're already doing whatever I want," the monster said. "Life could be a dream, sweetheart."
Time wasn't something that could be quantified here in this lonely place. As those hours, months, years passed, it became less confusing to him. The disorientation evaporated, the incoherent thoughts crystallized until he was whole inside himself, captive mind in a body now worthless to him. He was clearer about what had happened. What was happening right now. For this thing the killing was a need, not a choice, and Dean was the vessel by which it could accomplish its single-minded goal. Kill and kill some more.
His gloved hands around her throat, squeezing. She looked like Cassie. Dean couldn't remember when they'd started looking like Cassie, but they all did. The more Dean screamed at the thing to stop, the more its pleasure washed over him.
Dean couldn't avoid seeing it when the girl's tongue protruded from her mouth and the spark of life vanished from her eyes, which still somehow stared at him in accusation until the monster closed them. The scent of a permanent marker as he drew Xs on her eyes was as sharp as ever to his sense of smell. Dean's fingers brushed through her hair. This girl's death was his fault. He was terrified that his Cassie was dead, but he didn't know. The thing didn't want him to know, loving the torture that caused him. He would never know for sure, only be forced to watch Cassie lookalikes die over and over.
After the girl was dead, grayness hinted around the edges of Dean's already limited vision. He wasn't so out of it that he didn't understand the pattern. After a kill, there was a period of dark. He didn't know if the thing he was housing was getting so off on the killing it couldn't force Dean to be up close and personal or if it wanted to give him time to think about what had happened. Either way, Dean longed for the escape, coward that he had become. The dark embraced him as it always did.
He tried hard not to think of Cassie anymore. He tried hard not to think of anything at all. He failed. The angels are watching out for you, Mom said. Too soon the dark dissipated and the location was different but the game the same. Things always started out hazy.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," Dean sang. His hands mimicked an orchestra conductors moves, a Bowie knife his baton. All those weapons in the trunk of the Impala, but he stuck to simple things. "You make me happy, when skies are gray."
Her teeth were coated in red, blood like paint. It ran from her nose and out of the corner of her mouth, tracing tiny deltas across her cheek and into her long blonde hair. Her blue eyes were wide and stricken with pain and fear, palpable to Dean even in his prison. Mom? Oh God, nono. Mom now, how many had it already killed? He could smell the blood and sweat, the dirt and grass they knelt on. The thing looked up, away from its victim. Dean saw a small vegetable garden, sheets flapping gently on a clothesline, a baby screaming its little lungs out in a swing, face pink with distress. Oh fuck.
"You'll never know, dear, how much I love you," his voice sang harshly. It looked back down.
"Ssss," the woman said, her last breaths imminent. There were only moments left for her, and she knew it. "Sammmmm. No, not my baby."
Sam. Sam, Sammy, Dean thought.
Dean felt his head tilt and his neck cracked, offering no assurance to the dying woman. It wouldn't have mattered if Dean could somehow break through his prison, her face was set in a grotesque death mask, eyes turned to look at her baby. Oh shit oh god. His hands reaching out, thumbing the wetness off the child's face, leaving bloody smudges. Big eyes, liquid with tears and innocence lost. The expected smell of permanent marker. A deep, red smiley face on white bed sheets.
Dark, fathomless and welcome. It could sense what Dean was thinking of, so he had to control it. Had to, had to stop it. Flashes again. His thoughts were only confused when he fought too hard. Road signs. You are now entering Minnesota. Blue Earth. Jolly Green Giant. Worthington. Baby Sam staring at him, motherless, just like, just like Sam as a little kid, looking at sunflowers. Sam as a ginormous adult, rolling his eyes and calling him a bitch. It all came back to Sam in the end. His connection, dysfunctional and codependent as it was, was the only real thing Dean had to cling to. The only hope he had. Not Dad (DadhelpDad), Sam.
Only Sam. He had to find his brother, Sam could help him. Sam could do what had to be done. He was certain.
"He took little Susie to the Junior Prom, excitable boy, they all said, and he raped her and killed her, then he took her home," Dean heard himself sing, lowly for his own ears only. "Excitable boy, they all said. Well, he's just an excitable boy."
Jesus. The singing was going to drive him mad. Dean felt himself going numb all over, because he had to. It wouldn't let him close his figurative eyes. He didn't even know what it was after all these days or weeks or years. There was no end in sight. It might as well have been an eternity already. There was no recovering from this. The only thing that kept him remotely sane was the thought of finding his brother, getting help, the idea of dying just to be free.
Sioux Falls smelled like a cesspool, even in the library filled with musty books. Dean choked on it. The thing in him breathed deeply, enjoying it, his eyes intently scanning. Looking for something, watching someone and Dean didn't know why at first. A kid with floppy hair, skinny, late teens, was leaving with a stack of books under his arm. As Dean stepped into the dimming light of dusk, he understood. The kid reminded him of Sam at seventeen. This wasn't what he'd intended. But he should have known. The thick veil blocked his vision again, swallowed him up whole. He struggled, instinct getting the better of him though he didn't want to see.
The thing parted the darkness like a curtain. Dean stood in a comfortable family kitchen all of a sudden. Leaning on the granite-topped island counter as the boy from the library rooted through the refrigerator, a silent watcher but only for a few moments.
"Hey, little brother," Dean said. "Are you home alone like Macaulay Culkin?"
The boy jumped, dropping a glass bottle onto the floor, shouting his alarm. Cold, insidious pleasure washed over Dean. He couldn't escape it any more than the boy could get away from this monster. The kid's eyes darted to the left and right, probably searching for a weapon or a way out. Dean had been in the dark, but he knew neither option was likely.
"I didn't know how much I missed you until a birdie whispered in my ear," the thing said, taunting Dean and freaking the boy out. "But it's true. How I've missed you, you'll never understand."
"W-what do you want? Take it. I won't tell, I swear," the boy said, looking more like a ten-year-old now, so potent was his fear.
The eyes weren't right. They were darker than Sam's. He didn't look like Sam at all. It didn't matter. Sorry, I'm so sorry, Dean said but it was only in his head, and Run, now. As if his thoughts could be heard by anyone but the thing wearing him.
"I'm glad you're being so cooperative. I will take what I want." There was a smile on his face, Dean could feel it. Head tilt, neck crack, finger waggle. "I don't want a fight, now, okay?"
"O-okay. I promise I won't tell anyone what you look like. Just, please, man."
Dean waltzed around the island, trailing a finger along the smooth, cool counter. The kid backed up, elbows jostling against the refrigerator shelves. By the wildness in his eyes, Dean could see he knew what was coming. Dean wondered what he looked like. Psychotic. Scary. Evil.
The kid moved quickly. He threw a carton of sour cream at Dean's head and ran, shooting across the room with speed that for one second Dean believed might be enough. It wasn't. Within ten steps, he was down, face-first on the floor. Dean's hands grabbed the kid by the scruff of the neck, pounded his face into the cold tile floor of the home's foyer.
"I said I didn't. Want. A. Fight," Dean said, punctuating the words with a separate smack of the boy's face into the floor.
It went on long after the boy was incapacitated. Dean wanted to weep, because all he could see now was Sam, Sam, Sammy. All he could feel was the need for his brother to put him out of his misery. He had to let Sam know it was okay, the right thing to do, even. He didn't know how. He was going to spend forever in this hell, butchering and maiming and killing, or forever until his own body gave out. Blackness encroached.
"Whoopsy-daisy. Not much face left," the thing said, twisting the boy's neck and snapping it in order to see the face had been decimated, only then flipping the body onto its back. "Well, that's a damned shame. He was a good-looking kid. Smart, too, I'll bet. All those books."
Dean's gaze landed on the blood puddle and splatter, locked on it in an unnatural stare. Inside his body, Dean shuddered at how good the thing was feeling, a high he'd never experienced. It had the opposite effect on him, nauseating him. He wanted the temporary relief of the darkness now more than ever, relief from this kid whose life was taken so horribly, this kid who could've been Sam, faceless and bloody in front of him.
Sam. Help, help, help.
"Ah," Dean said and was moving. "This will work."
A small table near the door, a large glass vase with flowers. A mirror. His face reflected back to him, gaunt, dirty and unshaven. There was a smear of sour cream on his shoulder. The eyes that stared back weren't his. One corner of his mouth was tipped up in a knowing half-smile.
Dean watched himself pull a sunflower out of the vase. Sam would understand.
"Oh, shit," Sam groaned, shaking hard from adrenaline depletion and relief and fear and pain.
Sam rubbed at the tears and snot with the back of his sleeve, taking a deep breath as he opened the door and swung his legs out of the car. It was too dark to see much of anything, but the glint of the knife handle was distinguishable. He twisted his injured leg slightly, frowning at the spot on his jeans, blood seeping out of him. There was more of it than he'd thought. He gingerly ripped at the jeans to inspect the damage, but like the gash in his side this was a difficult angle to deal with alone. His fingers brushed against the handle, jarring it ever so slightly.
Suddenly lightheaded, Sam leaned his elbows on his knees and breathed through the pain pinballing through his body. He didn't think he was going to start feeling better anytime soon, so he straightened and did what he had to do. Grabbing the door, he hefted himself to his feet. With his bag, first aid supplies included, scattered across the Flying J Inn's parking lot, the only thing he had was the shirt on his back. The things Dean had left behind were still tucked into a duffel in the backseat. Sam couldn't use anything from there. He couldn't stand the thought of it. He rested an elbow on the top of the car for a second, pretending he had the luxury of time. There could be something in the trunk. He clawed like an old man for the keys still in the ignition, turned them and fumbled around for the trunk button. Through the faint hum in his ears, he heard the trunk pop open.
He hobbled to the rear of the Riviera, conscious of every single movement. His attention returned time and again to the stretch of Highway 10 leading out of Moorhead, each passing vehicle making him start. Sam couldn't worry about that. He just needed to get this taken care of and get back on the road, so he could think. He had to think. He had never stopped thinking, and look where it had gotten him. If his brain hadn't come up with anything so far, he doubted it ever would.
The trunk contained one reasonably clean towel and an emergency kit, more than he'd hoped for. Midwest pragmatism paid off. He lurched for the passenger side, away from the road. He collapsed onto the rear seat after barely managing to open the door, almost losing his grip on the emergency kit. Too much blood and shellshock, but most of this was exhaustion and emotional distress. It had to be. Sam felt all the blood leaving his face, but he could not let himself pass out. Dean would kill him if he ended up dead on the side of the road in frigging Minnesota.
Dean was going to kill him anyway, he thought with a hysterical giggle.
The emergency kit contained a lot of stuff. He focused on what he needed – first aid kit, two Power Bars, a couple bottles of water and a pitiful-looking pocket knife. He ate a Power Bar, because he had no idea when he'd last eaten and it had to be a contributing factor to his wooziness as well. He downed one of the waters too. Sam started to feel marginally better, physically, right away. He didn't wait, knowing himself. The longer he sat with the blade jammed into his leg, the more he'd psych himself out and there wasn't time for this. There wasn't time for anything. Toughen up, Buttercup, his dad or gruff old Bobby Singer or Dean oh God Dean told him again in his head. Déjà vu all around. He'd just been here.
Sam cleaned his hands with a tiny antiseptic wipe from the kit, not sure why he bothered. He hoped like hell there wasn't any serious damage. It didn't really matter a whole lot at this point. By the way the wound was feeling, he thought maybe his leg was being amputated right along with his heart. Heartless and legless on the side of a dark highway. Perfect. He clenched his teeth tight and pulled the knife out in one strong yank. For a second he was fine. Then he wasn't. Everything went wonky. Heart pounded, ears rang louder than ever, and eyes saw dim starbursts.
"Oh, shit," Sam muttered again, leaning heavily on the back of the seat in front of him.
He shook his head and dropped the switchblade onto the floorboard. Hands shaky, he prodded semi-blindly at the wound. Now that the knife was out, blood leaked from him faster, but it wasn't that bad. The puncture wasn't gaping. He pressed the towel against it with one hand and tore at his jeans with the other, creating a hole just big enough that he could apply a bandage. Sam moved methodically, mind churning on other things. Things that would help him find a way to not kill his brother.
It had been easier when he'd thought Dean had just disappeared. It had been easier when he'd thought maybe Dean had left him on purpose. It had even been easier to think Dean might be dead.
When the media had leaked information about the killer leaving a sunflower as well as the Xing over the eyes with permanent marker with the first victim in Sioux Falls, Sam began putting it together. He had known instantly the sunflowers were a message. He didn't understand the message, but he knew it was for him and not for anyone else. Once he had a starting point, everything fell into place. The victims had gone from arbitrary, seemingly random people only tied together by the grotesque black Xs drawn on their closed eyes to specific only after Dean had disappeared in Fresno. All of them looked like Dean's ex Cassie at first and then Mom. Jessica. For the last month, it had been male victims who had similar appearances: Sam's, more or less.
With the sunflowers and the black Xs on the eyes … he had narrowed it down to some type of possession. Sam had figured out it was a dybbuk only after fourteen deaths and several attacks on himself, and the one riding Dean like a roller coaster was apparently bent on murder, a serial killer soul. No exorcism Sam had managed to try had worked; all he got out of the attempts was more pain. He couldn't pull ten people into this to try the Judaic rite. No, the only way left to dispel a dybbuk was to help it accomplish whatever it had stuck around for. The unfinished business would never be resolved for a serial killer, each slaughter fueling the need for more. Sam could think of no way out of this.
Except Dean was going to kill him anyway.
Sam blinked and sat straighter. When it had started focusing on him, when Dean had influenced it, the other murders had turned into collateral damage along the way. Incidental, maybe even almost accidental. Somehow, someway Dean had simplified its unfinished, murderous business. What if the answer was so simple and so awful and so obvious? Fear and heartache had clouded his judgment. Even if he was wrong, there was no other choice he could live with. Sam wasn't entirely sure living was that great an option, not if Dean died.
"Hey, little brother."
Vaulting to his feet, Sam smacked his forehead against the top of the car. He suffered a bout of vertigo, tipping to the side and almost falling into the ditch. Dean seemed to spin in front of him. Shit, oh shit. He still wasn't ready. He didn't have time to come to grips, or think his way out of it. His heart pounded. Instinct and the sheer evil in Dean's expression, hard lines and cold eyes, told him to run like hell. The gun in his brother's left hand was familiar, a sawed-off Dean always went for. He skittered away, attention flitting to the open driver's side door. He would never make it, and he knew he had to resist even trying. His right hand latched onto the door handle of the front passenger side.
"Time has come today," Dean chanted, smiling an unrecognizable smile.
"Dean," Sam said, still not even knowing how much of his brother was actually there anymore. Just enough. Too much. "Dean, it's okay."
"Aw, you two are so cute it makes me sick." Dean took a step forward. "What, no running this time?"
Sam couldn't stop the step back, his right leg nearly giving out on him and his left shaking too bad to be of much use anyway. He wanted to be stronger. He wanted to not be scared. He wanted Dean to be able to forgive himself when this was over.
"I'm tired of running."
"Good. I brought you a present," Dean said. He held out his right hand, three sunflowers in it with their heads drooping and stems wilted. He looked both earnest and malicious. "They remind him of you. They remind me of you. Do you like them?"
"Yes," Sam whispered. This wasn't Dean. "I like them."
The explosion of rock salt across Sam's abdomen knocked him onto his back and the breath out of his lungs. He never regained it.
He should have known what would happen by focusing on his brother. A part of him had known, and that same part of him hadn't cared. He had felt the thing's obsessive nature seeping into him slick and cool. Like everything else, he hadn't found a way to stop it once it got started. He couldn't turn off his thoughts. Even now all he could think about was finding Sam, needing his brother more than he ever had in his life.
The thing was stronger than ever now, somehow, more able to control what Dean saw and what he didn't. Maybe it enjoyed torturing him as much as it enjoyed killing and killing and killing some more. Or maybe he was getting weaker by each passing moment. He knew where he was at all times, and he knew what it was making him do. There was little escape into darkness. It felt like he was slipping away, while held in place.
"It's okay, little bro," his voice said. "You have to relax and let it happen. It won't hurt if you just relax."
Dean was in Billings, Montana with his hands wrapped around a boy's neck and the nauseating feeling of the thing's pleasure coursing over him. The boy's pale eyes were wide with fear, his hands scrabbling uselessly at Dean's face, trying to dislodge him. Off to the side, lying in wait, were a sunflower and a permanent marker. The eye color was wrong, but it wasn't about the way the boy looked. It wasn't the floppy hair or the width of his shoulders. The thing was methodical now, searching carefully for the perfect victim. It was more than the looks, the vaguest of resemblances to Sam, but the habits and mannerisms that required study. Dean was sick with it, all the while unable to keep it from happening as it took its time finding the right victim and took its time killing them.
"Unh nmph," the kid gasped and gurgled as he fought.
"I don't know why you never listen. It's always the same with you." Dean's hands were sore from the constricting grip they employed, from all the horrors they had inflicted. "So stubborn, to the last. It drives him … me crazy. It would be so much easier if you'd just be a good little boy."
His thoughts and feelings about his own brother were mutated into something uglier than they ever were naturally. Dean could feel it inside him, twisting and pulling in its evil way. He didn't know how long it'd been since Sioux Falls. Too long. Too many Sams who weren't Sam. Too many kids dead, though even that he couldn't be certain of. Everything was distorted through the lens of the monster's eye. And still it was all Sam, help me end this. Death would be so much better. Death and Sam were his foremost thoughts, intertwined together in a way he couldn't blame on the being using his body.
"That's better," he said as the boy beneath him went limp, eyes staring up at him sightlessly.
Dean hummed some Frankie Goes to Hollywood as he drew trademark Xs and positioned the sunflower between the dead boy's hands. The calm enjoyment of these rituals no longer surprised Dean, but they still made him sick. Through the fog of his existence, he was still him. He still tried to chant an exorcism that might free him, though nothing worked. Nothing would work but death and Sam, Sam and death.
"Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in noimine Jesu Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostril…"
That was what he was thinking, but it wasn't him. He knew the voice. As if for the first time doing what he wanted it to do, the thing turned. Dean caught a glimpse of Sam, the real Sam. He saw nothing but a pale, stricken face, wincing at the sight of him or the dead kid. He heard nothing but a rush of hurried Latin, but he could hear the worry in the tone. Sam, he screamed. Nothing came out of his mouth but a chuckle. As he stood and stepped toward his brother, darkness that had long evaded him swallowed him up, sudden, and he couldn't fight his way out of it. Sam, help.
When the darkness dissipated, Dean was on the road. His hands were tight on the wheel, blood on the knuckles of the right. Oh God, he had no idea what had happened. He was in the middle of nowhere. To the east beyond the mountains, Montana was nothing but flat, sparsely populated prairie land, blurring with the Dakotas. It was a relief to him on some level, knowing that without a population to choose from he couldn't kill anyone. But the thought of not knowing what had happened with Sam ate at him. The monster glanced at the rearview mirror, only Dean's eyes showing. It was smiling at him, laughing about everything it had done and everything it was going to do.
"Oh Sam," Dean's voice said, eyes dark in the mirror. "He can run, but he can't hide. Not from you, not from us. We're going to have a good time."
Dean had miscalculated. Focusing on Sam was a mistake and it was going to cost him. It was going to cost Sam. The impulses weren't his but he could feel them. He was going to find Sam now that he'd finally lured him out into first contact. It was what Dean had wanted, but it was so far from what Dean wanted it was laughable. He knew everything about Sam. He knew Sam was out of shape.
"I come home in the morning light, my mother says 'When you gonna live your life right?'" the thing sang with his off-key voice, "Oh, mother dear, we're not the fortunate ones, and girls, they wanna have fu-un. Oh, girls just wanna have fun."
He wasn't going to gain the wonderful oblivion of death. Sam was. Death and Sam, Sam and death.
"Buckle up, Buttercup. It's going to be a bumpy ride."
Darkness and flashes. Remote gas stations, beef jerky and beer and Twinkies. A farmhouse with sunflowers in the garden. The urge to kill stemmed only by images of Sam. Dean was spiraling somewhere in himself, dizzy and lost.
Then he wasn't.
The flicker of the light in the bathroom made the face that was no longer Dean's look maniacal as it stared back at him. His whole body shook, exhilaration and exhaustion in nearly equal parts. Blood under his fingernails. He didn't know where he was. He couldn't tell. Somewhere behind him, tinny voices talked in that formal way news broadcasters used warning people to be alert. Warning men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four to be especially diligent. The thing in him chuckled at that, making his face even more evil.
"This is your warning. Four minute warning," he watched himself say. "Take cover, the bombs are coming."
He took a washcloth from the linen closet of this strange bathroom and wiped the sink out, buffed the faucets and the doorknob as he left. There was a body on the floor, a kid no more than fourteen with a sunflower on his unmoving chest, Xs on his eyes. He looked nothing like Sam. Dean didn't remember what he … what the thing had done, but he felt the manic joy at the blood forming a small lake around the boy.
The front door burst open, sending a genuine ripple of surprise through him. He wasn't surprised to see Sam, though, who was already speaking before he stepped across the threshold.
"Regna terrae, cantate Deo, psallite Domino qui fertis super caelum caeli ad Orientem Ecce dabit voci Suae vocem virtutis, tribuite virtutem Deo," Sam said.
Dean recognized the slight tremble in the tone and the tremor in his gun hand. So did the monster.
"You're too late again. You're rusty, kiddo. We've been watching you since we followed you into this shitty town. Bismarck: the land of zero opportunity."
Sam's nostrils flared as he took an involuntary look at the dead boy. He didn't stop reciting, though he staggered slightly, exhausted, pale and thin.
"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii."
"Anh-anh, anhanhanh," Dean said, waggling a finger in the air. He cracked his neck. "That's not going to work, Sammy. You already know that."
Everything went dark as he lunged for his brother. Run, Sam, run. Dean was again drowning in the nothingness, but he knew it wasn't going to kill Sam and without him watching. Sam was okay. He had to be. Oh God, Sam, I'm sorry.
He saw the light as the Impala crossed into Fargo, North Dakota. The thing thrummed with eagerness as it drove, more buzzed than Dean could remember. Not that he could remember much anymore. But even now, he knew he needed to find Sam, that he needed his brother more than he ever had in his life. He couldn't with certainty say why anymore, though he was sure at one point he knew. It took him a few minutes to realize he was following a beat-up old Buick Riviera, and he knew Sam was in that car.
"If I could save time in a bottle," Dean's voice mumbled, nearly unrecognizable to his own ears. "The first thing that I'd like to do is to save every day till eternity passes away, just to spend them with you."
He followed Sam to a seedy motel. He watched Sam pace nervously outside the door, in the wide open and talking desperately on his cell. The thing waited patiently, enjoying every last drop of Dean's misery. It played scenarios for him. Sam gutted like a fish. Sam's head on a pike. Sam dragged behind the Impala on a dark, country road. All the imaginative and not-so-imaginative ways this thing wanted to kill his brother were a picture show for him, in black and white with splashes of red. But the worst was the simplest – his hands around Sam's neck.
Dean knew somehow, though he didn't remember the chase, that Sam was too tired to run anymore. He wanted the dark again. He never should have left that unknowing space.
"You and me going fishing in the dark." His voice sounded like he was standing in a tunnel.
Sam was on the move. Dusk all of a sudden, blue and hazy. No car, walking. It was a mistake or a trap and Dean knew now there was only one way this could end, the hope he'd buried in himself dying. He just wanted his brother to be able to do it, and hoped that Sam would be able to forgive himself in the end. A convenience store, a flash of memory. Empty parking lot. Sam had his back to him.
"Too easy, little brother," Dean said, and his hand suddenly had a knife. It sliced, it diced.
Sam bleated his name, putting up what defense he could before he ran. The darkness came for Dean, until he was in a different parking lot, motel, on his knees. He felt an ache in his arm and head and sticky wetness on the side of his face. How? What? The thing laughed at Sam hobbling to his car, blood streaming down his leg. There was a glint of metal. A blade. Dean got to his feet and the thing kept laughing as the old Buick tore out onto the street.
"It's now or never," he called after Sam. "Actually, it's just now."
There was no rush. The thing knew what Dean did – the likely route Sam would take. He knew that kid inside and out where it counted, despite their differences, the separation and everything. He could have found Sam weeks ago if the thing had really wanted to. That was the game. It wanted Sam dead and him broken.
It was going to get its wish. It whistled a happy tune as it shot a cool look at the motel manager peering at him through a window, murderous intent surging through him. The feeling passed quickly, replaced by its now ever-present, horrible thoughts about Sam. It stopped by a small 24-hour market to pick up some sad-looking sunflowers, all the while forcing Dean to stay present. This was it.
Sam was five miles out of Moorhead, the car pulled off to the side of the road. Run, Sam, he shouted in his head. His brother didn't move as the thing pulled the Impala right behind the car, stepped out and got a sawed-off shotgun out of the trunk.
"Hey, little brother."
Sam jerked to life, flailing slightly as he got to his feet. He wavered, staring at Dean with a haunted, knowing expression. He swallowed a couple of times, eyeing the shotgun first and then the driver's side door. He made no move, clinging to the passenger door handle as if it was the only thing keeping him upright.
"Time has come today," Dean's voice chanted.
"Dean," Sam said. His head tilted to the side a little, eyes tearing up. "Dean, it's okay."
"Aw, you two are so cute it makes me sick." Dean moved forward, despite wanting nothing more than to go the opposite direction now that he finally had what he'd wanted, his brother right in front of him. He wanted his mouth to stop saying words that were not his. "What, no running this time?"
Sam scuttled backwards a step, terror flitting across his face for a millisecond before sad resignation.
"I'm tired of running."
"Good. I brought you a present," Dean said. There was a jolt of excitement as his hand lifted the sunflowers. "They remind him of you. They remind me of you. Do you like them?"
"Yes," Sam whispered, terrified. "I like them."
The shot was thunderous, sending Sam flying onto his back without a sound. The thing dropped the sunflowers and the gun, leaping toward Sam before his brother moved at all. It straddled Sam, wrapping his hands around his neck. Fight, Sam. Dean tried so hard to make his body do what he wanted, but as he had for months, failed. Sam's mouth was open, gaping for the air that had been knocked out of his lungs. Fight, please fight. End this. This wasn't supposed to happen. Sam was supposed to put him out of his misery. Dean could only watch as Sam didn't fight him at all, as his brother never took another breath, at his hands.
Unadulterated, twisted pleasure rolled over him in waves. The thing couldn't tear its attention away from Sam, getting off on the dying light in Sam's eyes. Darkness encroached on Dean and he panicked, fighting and wanting it at the same time. No, no, no, no. He, not the thing, jerked his hands away, stretching his arms out wide. Beneath him, Sam lay unmoving and not breathing.
Something like lightning rocketed through him, bright and sharp and like nothing he'd experienced, sick, complete satisfaction. His vision wobbled and faded into nothing. Dean felt himself falling and he didn't care.
He came awake with a start. Dean blinked up at the starry sky, with no idea of where he was. The night air was crisp but not overly cold. The rumble of cars passing was white noise in his ringing ears. His body ached all over, his head the most. His mouth felt like a cotton rag had been stuffed in it. He coughed and rolled to his side, blinking blearily. Bad, something bad must have happened. He didn't know what. Accident? He'd gone for breakfast. Nothing after that.
"Sam?" he said.
No reply came. Dean sat up, putting a hand down to steady himself. It brushed against warmth, course fabric. A leg. Sam. Confusion gave way to dread. Sam wasn't moving. Sam wasn't breathing and he had no idea why or how.
"Oh crap," Dean said again, scrambling to his knees. "Oh shit, don't do this to me. Sam!"
He was warm, with a soft mattress beneath him. Noises all around him were familiar and unfamiliar at once, his brain too sluggish for him to care much about figuring out why. Sam shifted, pain in his side and leg startling him to full consciousness. Gasping brought about new discomfort, his throat tender. It only took him a few seconds to remember why his body was so sore. It took him a few seconds more to realize where he was. Oh God. Hospital. He moaned deep and opened his eyes to confirm what he already knew. He was alone in a sterile, uncomforting room.
It meant that he'd failed.
He pictured Dean's face above him with a vicious smile as Sam's vision faded to black. All Sam had had to do was die, and he'd managed to screw that up. Dean was out there right now, suffering because of him. He twisted until one leg hung off the side of the bed. He couldn't stay here. It was too dangerous. He had to get moving again. He didn't know how he was supposed to. The long years of training and structure under his father wouldn't allow him to remain in this bed for long, not with his brother out there, a monster.
He was as weak as a newborn kitten, though, and he sagged back, too spent to move after a brief attempt. His leg dangled slightly. Sam was done. He'd played his last hand and found out the deck had been stacked. He wasn't dead, but he was as good as. The self-pity threatened to suffocate him. Long years of training and structure wouldn't allow that, either. Not forever. Just for a few minutes. He needed it like he needed Dean.
The back of his throat was dry and his mouth sticky, but water wouldn't wash it all away. He was alone again. He was always going to be alone now. Dad was still AWOL and Dean was gone. Oh God, Dean.. Once he was out of here, wherever here was – Moorhead? – he'd head down to Dad's old friend Pastor Jim. Everything Sam had tried failed; maybe the cleric would have greater knowledge. If he'd only sought help sooner, so many people would still be alive. Dean would be Dean. He wouldn't be alone.
Shit. His heart started beating faster. Dean above him, choking and squeezing, hands like a vise grip. Sam shut his eyes. It hadn't been Dean. He had to remember that. He could never believe that, even in his darkest moments. Dean had been gone before Sam even caught up with him the first time.
He pulled his leg onto the bed and opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. He could give himself an hour or so, banking on the dybbuk being too smart and cautious to come after him in such a public place. With a bit of medical intervention, maybe he'd even get some rest. Pump some drugs in his veins to dim those overwhelming thoughts of Dean and failure.
"Hey, little brother."
Startled by the gruff voice suddenly at the side of the bed, Sam thrashed about, arms and legs jerking in his panic. His right leg became a mass of stabbing pain, forcing him to curl up in an attempt to alleviate it. A hand on each shoulder only made him buck away more, instinct kicking in. The hands holding him down were stronger than he was at the moment, pinning him to the mattress firmly.
"Sam. Hey, Sammy."
Right in his ear, Dean's voice. It sounded like Dean, not that thing, but it wasn't possible. Sam was still alive, so Dean must still be a prisoner in his own body. If the thing was here, now, Sam had to get a grip. The momentary panic was fading. He had a second chance to fix things, though a hospital wasn't the best place to try to die. To let what looked like his brother kill him. He stilled and turned to meet his fate.
"You with me now?" Dean asked, nothing but concern on his face and in his eyes.
Sam blinked. The image didn't ripple away like a mirage. Half of Dean's face was a bruised mess, but it was his face. It was Dean standing over him, not a murderous spirit. His big brother, whole again. He was confused.
"Sam? You're starting to freak me out, man."
"Dean," Sam said shakily, not sure if he was ready to believe it yet. "You're really okay?"
Dean furrowed his eyebrows, wincing from the pull on a line of stitches trailing back into his hairline. He frowned, staring at Sam intently.
"I'm fine." Now Dean's voice sounded funny, but the kind of funny that meant his throat was tight with emotion. Not the kind of funny that meant he was possessed. "You're the one I found not breathing on the side of the frigging road. As in … not breathing."
It was really Dean. Sam's insides felt like mush as a whole array of emotions raced through him. His breath came in small, rapid gasps as he tried not to let out the fear and relief and hysteria, but it was no use. Tears burned hot in his eyes. He barely felt Dean loosen his grip on one of his shoulders and heard the scrap of a chair across tile. It seemed like the torrent of emotion would never end, two months of it erupting from him in an unstoppable deluge.
Dean rubbed his shoulder, bearing silent witness to the breakdown and providing comfort for he knew not what.
"I was dead," Sam wheezed out, sounding as out of control as he felt. "I was dead."
"Yeah," Dean said thickly, "and you almost stayed that way. Sam, what happened?"
The breaking of the emotional levee left Sam sluggish and weak. He blinked slowly, not sure how to begin answering that question. He couldn't tell his brother what had happened. He couldn't do that to Dean if he didn't remember on his own. It was too cruel.
Dean shifted closer to the edge of his chair, leaning into Sam's space.
Sam drew back as far as the mattress would allow, cursing his body for betraying now-instinctive reactions he didn't want to think about or deal with. For an instant, it wasn't Dean there. He wondered how long it would be before he stopped seeing the monster first, then his brother. He averted his eyes, choosing instead to stare at neutral territory – a wall.
"What do you remember?" Sam whispered.
"Something about sunflowers," Dean said almost as softly. He paused when Sam flinched again. "Checking out a hot chick in a convenience store. Then pretty much nothing until here."
Good. That was good. Sam shivered. He'd never forget the past two months, but he'd rather that than have Dean remember a damned thing. There would have been no recovering from it. There still might not be, but if amnesia would keep Dean from learning what the thing had made him do, then Sam was relieved.
"Some guy saw us on the road last night and stopped to help, or you'd be dead. They're blaming what happened to us on some serial killer. Something about sunflowers. I couldn't argue. I don't remember anything and have the head injury to blame." Dean squeezed Sam's shoulder. "But what really happened?"
Sam closed his eyes, hoping Dean would think he was sleeping or maybe just hoping Dean would realize he wasn't ready to talk about any of it. For a few minutes they sat in silence, Dean waiting and Sam avoiding. He kept his eyes closed and tried to breathe normally as he replayed the last couple of months in his head. He was still uncertain this was real and that Dean was back. His mind raced. He must have been technically dead long enough for the dybbuk to think it had accomplished its final goal and move onto whatever hell it was destined for. He tried to imagine what it was like for Dean, waking out of a fog to find Sam dead on the side of the road in frigging Minnesota.
Dean deserved an answer Sam wasn't prepared to give. To his chagrin, the tears started up again. They ran down his temples and into his hair, but they were silent this time. Dean squeezed his arm tighter. There was a rustle of paper. He let out a shaky breath and opened his eyes again, turning to find Dean staring at him with a troubled look on his face.
"It was me, wasn't it?" Dean asked, holding up a newspaper. The headline was about the serial killer nearly claiming two more victims, but escaping into the dark night. "I did all of this. I've lost months of my life. I remember something about sunflowers. The way you flinch every time you see me. It was me."
"No, Dean," Sam said immediately, never meaning words more in his life. "It wasn't you. It was never you."
Someday maybe Sam was going to be able to make Dean believe that as much as he did.