And there is no sorrow. And there is no pain.
And they shall feel no fear.
For she is with them.
The first time it happens, they're sitting in Dean's dormitory.
The room is dimly lit; pools of yellow light riddled here and there, a lamp on the wall above every bed spreading its glow like a spotlight. The beds are separated just enough to stop the light mixing and merging. Dean feels like he's sitting on a dinghy in the middle of a dark, calm ocean.
The room's empty and utterly silent.
Dean thinks he'd simply float away if Sam wasn't sitting nearby, perched on the window seat, knees up, arms wrapped around them. The cushions on the seat are covered in red velvet. The pale-yellow wallpaper is peeling off near the point of the wall that Sam's head reaches. The window is shut tight but the curling paper slit shifts slightly, like the room is breathing.
In, out. Up, down.
Sam's gazing intently out the window, like there's something there worth looking at. Like it's not what's always there, every night: the icy cold frosting the edge of the pane of glass; the full moon, large in the night sky; the unmoving, leafless trees.
Dean should be doing Latin, but he can't sponge up enough concentration from the tip of his brain to finish up. It's ridiculously easy. It's utterly boring.
Nam et si ambulavero in medio umbrae mortis: non timebo mala, quoniam tu mecum es, the book says to him, and for some reason, some reason Dean doesn't know and can't fathom, he knows that he'd know what that phrase meant even if he hadn't been studying Latin all his life in this godforsaken place. It's something deeper than simple knowledge; it rings of truth and it rings of experience and it rings of something inborn and never learnt, like breathing.
He's writing out the translation, taking his time, tracing out each letter slowly and robotically, eyes prickling and urging him to give up and go to sleep, when Sam shifts where he's sitting.
"Do you remember the sun?" he asks, and it's only a whisper.
Dean looks up. Sam's gazing back at him and there's something in his eyes, suddenly, something that wasn't there before (or something that was but has long been forgotten), or something behind them, perhaps, painstakingly making its way to the surface. It sends a sharp spike of wrongness down Dean's spine.
He doesn't know why.
"I don't remember the sun," Sam says.
Outside, the windless night goes ever on. There's no sound or sign of life. Not even crickets or bullfrogs or the singing of the whippoorwill.
"I don't remember the sun," Sam repeats and now, it sounds like wonderment.
That's the first time.
That's the beginning of the end.
Don't you want to be happy, Dean? Aren't you happy?
Yes, he's happy.
Of course, then, that's not how it starts.
That's not the beginning of the beginning. It's somewhere in the middle.
But how it starts isn't something Dean will remember for a long time.
Dean wakes up to raucous laughter and rowdy voices and the rolled-up ball of someone's boxers being thrown at his head.
There's the rushing sound of shutters being yanked open and Dean flings the boxers off to see the quickly deepening purple of the clouds through the window. In the west, there's still a hint of pink. It shines through the knuckled branches of the trees, tall and mighty and as good as dead. Someone flicks on the light and yellow chases away the signs of dusk.
Drawers are banging, wood scraping wood. Bare feet shuffle and thump against the floorboards.
"Get your ass outta bed, Winchester!" someone shouts, and Dean throws off his blankets and clenches his teeth against the iciness that sweeps against his bare legs.
Breakfast is off the Main Hall, in one of the brighter rooms, with large French windows and curtains that would make any moth's mouth water. It's completely dark out by the time Dean gets downstairs, moon shining large and ominous.
Sam's sitting at his regular table, poring over a book, his fork just barely missing his chin and making his mouth, the piece of egg on it wobbling precariously.
"Morning," he says, looking up when Dean trudges over. "What took you?"
Dean mumbles something unintelligible, drops his book bag on the bench and sits down next to it.
Sam slides a plate of deviled eggs and bacon across to him. "Saved you some," he says. "Billy Rushmore was on the attack."
"Well, fuck Billy Rushmore," mutters Dean.
He pulls the plate closer and takes the fork Sam proffers, but only manages a few bites before everything begins to look unappetizing. Sam's already set his fork down, and he's pushing his book into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder.
"Is that all you can eat?" Dean asks, pointing at Sam's plate. A quarter of the egg is done, yoke seeping in onto the plate in a thin stream from the one minute cut in the membrane. His glass of juice is half full.
Sam shrugs as he swings his legs over the bench, nudging his chin at Dean's plate. "I could say the same to you. Lunch?"
"Got a class today."
Sam nods, face clearing like he'd known and just forgotten, and come to think of it, Sam should know Dean's schedule by now.
Something runs across his shoulders, a spark or current, and Dean shifts uncomfortably.
"Dinner, then," says Sam, standing up.
"Dinner," Dean agrees. He shrugs again, after Sam's back is turned, trying to push away a feeling.
Three feet away, Tony Bryson laughs loudly and slaps the table.
Dean takes a breath and looks at the ceiling, distant and ornate, trying to be okay. He shuts his eyes, opens them again, and then he is.
He grabs his bag and leaves.
What are you? he asks sometimes.
Angel. God. Mother, she says. Whatever you need me to be. I'm here for you.
I'll keep you safe.
Biology, Chemistry, English, Latin.
Dean drags himself through the classes. He puts pen to paper and looks up at the chalkboard and takes notes. He nods like he's listening when the teacher's eyes fall on him.
Mr. Richardson talks about molar ratios and the reactions between sodium and oxygen. Mrs. Gleeson relates Gregor Mendel's pea plant project. They read Latin works by English authors with Ms. Connelly and English works by Russian authors with Mr. Jones.
"Cogito, ergo sum," Ms. Connelly reminds them one day, as they file out of the classroom, books under arms, bags over shoulders.
Sam's waiting for him outside the class and hears her words. Something dims (because something else brightens) in his eyes and Dean sees him mouth the words in English, "I think, therefore I am."
He shakes his head and looks through Dean. "No. Not cogito, ergo sum. Just… just sum."
"What?" asks Dean, stepping closer when Mitchell Barns shoulders him by accident.
Sam meets Dean's gaze, and whatever was in his eyes before is gone now. "What?" he parrots back, looking confused.
Dean blinks at him, but lets it go.
I'm glad you're happy, Dean.
"I had a really weird dream, man."
"Yeah? What about?"
"I don't know – I don't remember. I just have this feeling…"
"Just a dream, Sam."
"Yeah… Saved you some eggs. Billy Rushmore was on the attack."
"Well, fuck Billy Rushmore."
"That all you can eat?"
Sam sits back down at that, abruptly, like someone's kicked his legs out from underneath him.
"What?" asks Dean. "What, Sam?"
"Why…" Sam trails off and then starts again. "It's so easy to fall into the same conversation, huh?"
The pause stretches out for a long time. Sam watches him. Dean shrugs. "Not like you're starting any enlightening conversations," he mutters.
Sam's eyes narrow. Dean reaches for the unused pat of butter on Sam's plate with his knife, spreads it on a piece of toast just to have something to do, something to look at.
"I won't be here for lunch," Sam says eventually.
"Sure know how to have fun, Sammy. I got a class, anyway."
Sam nods slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I know you do. I know that."
He walks away with the same unreadable expression on his face.
That's the third time.
The fourth time it happens, Dean's asleep.
He's dreaming and not, two voices in his head, one deep and commanding and respected, the other soft and kind and safe, both fighting for control. It's okay, the dream, he has it a lot and it never means anything and he can never really remember what it's about or who the voices belong to.
Someone's shaking his shoulder when he slithers into consciousness, fingers squeezing tight.
Someone's saying, "Dean? Dean, wake up. Dean, please." The voice is quiet, a panicked whisper, and a part of Dean thinks he's never heard anyone sound like that before (here). A part of Dean thinks he's not heard his name said that many times in one sentence, said in just that tone (for a long time).
"Sam?" he murmurs, eyes still lead-heavy and half-shut.
"Dean. Wake up. You have to. Dean!"
Dean reaches up and pries Sam's hand off his shoulder. "Sam, what?" His words slur together.
"I don't know," says Sam, a hurried whisper. He's leaning close to Dean, and Dean's still got his hand around Sam's wrist, can feel Sam's pulse triphammering against his thumb.
"I don't know," Sam says again. "Something. Something's wrong."
Dean notices that Sam's words are slurred and slow, even in their whisper, and wonders if he's whispering because he's half-asleep and not really because he wants to be quiet.
Sam pauses to swallow, and Dean sees him shaking his head through the slits of his hardly-opened eyes. Sam blinks a couple of times. "Dean?"
"Sam." The response is automatic. All Dean wants to do is go back to sleep.
"Don't go back t'sleep, Dean. Try to stay awake," says Sam. "You have to try. Something's wrong. I – something's—"
"Sam," says Dean. "Sammy. Nothing's wrong."
Sleep is already calling him back, warm caresses, the promise of safety.
"Dean, no. Dean, please," says Sam, voice strained.
"It's okay, Sam. We're okay. We're safe," says Dean.
And he lets his eyes falls shut.
When Dean wakes up the next night, Sam's gone.
He doesn't come to meals, he's not in his dormitory, he doesn't attend classes. The teachers Dean asks seem unconcerned, Sam's classmates and roommates shrug him off.
"It happens," says Michael Dunwoody. "I've been here ages, man, I'm telling you. Every now and then, kids need a break. So they take off."
"Do they come back?" asks Dean.
Michael gives him a look. "Of course. Where else is there to go?"
Students shuffle past them in the hall, making their way up to their dorm rooms and bed. The sky hasn't started brightening yet, but it will soon. Dean remembers Sam begging him to stay awake. Remembers that he couldn't, didn't want to. He's always slept through the night here, never once woken. For anything. A nightmare, a midnight snack, trip to the bathroom.
Megan Dunwoody brushes past and her perfume goes right up Dean's nose, makes him want to sneeze. He watches her retreating back, until Michael tries to brain him with his Latin textbook.
Dean looks at him again.
"If there's nowhere else to go – where do the kids go?" he asks.
"Very funny, smartass," says Michael, rolling his eyes and joining the throng.
"Wasn't a joke," calls Dean, half-heartedly.
He takes a shower before going to bed, using too much shampoo and letting the lather slide down his cheeks and neck, rubbing it back off his forehead so it doesn't get into his eyes. The water swirls into the drain, a never-ending whorl and no matter what Dean does he can't kick this feeling.
Something's wrong, Sam had said, he'd said that, said it to Dean, and why hadn't Dean listened? Why does it seem so ridiculous that something could be wrong? Why is his every instinct shouting, even now, that it's all okay? That everything is fine, that he's overreacting?
But Sam had been scared.
And now Sam's gone.
And that means something. It has to.
This is what you wanted, Dean. Aren't you happy?
The windows bang open, blinds flying forward in the gale-force wind. Someone groans, and someone else shouts, "Shut the fucking window!"
Dean wakes up.
And then, he wakes up.
It's the smell that hits him first.
He rolls and vomits over the side of his bed, only slightly aware of the voices around him, buzzing like blowflies in his ears.
He's late for breakfast, later than usual and the halls are mostly empty, but he wouldn't notice even if they weren't because the smell, the stench, it's overpowering. The more he breathes the more he gets used to it, but first, he's got to convince himself that breathing won't kill him. He's taking shallow breaths in through his mouth, pushing past the stragglers to get to the dining room, to see if Sam's back, to see if Sam can tell him what's the fuck's happening, what's died and why.
The relief that washes over him when he sees Sam at his table is almost enough to make him forget the smell. He walks up to the table, and Sam raises his head and Dean stops short.
"Morning," says Sam.
Dean goes all the way up to the table, in case it's a trick of the light, or lack of light, in case the smell is making him see things.
"Dean?" says Sam. His eyes are bloodshot and red-rimmed and underlined by thick black bags, bags like gorges, like someone took a piece of coal and swiped it on his skin. He's pale and his hands, his hands.
Dean grabs one of them, wrenches the fork Sam's holding out of his grasp and ignoring Sam's indignant protests (and his voice is hoarse and raspy, like he's been screaming, like he's been screaming).
Sam's fingers are bloody, his nails wrecked, some peeling off and curved backwards, and some completely gone, ripped right off his skin to leave torn flesh underneath. His hands are swollen, the skin waxier, smoother than usual at the fingers.
"What happened?" Dean says. "What happened, Sam?"
Sam shakes his head, pulling his hand back. "Are you okay, Dean?" He looks confused. He looks confused and concerned, like Dean's acting insane, like it doesn't fucking look like he was using his hands as anchors while someone dragged him to the gallows.
"What the fuck happened to your hands, Sammy?" says Dean. "Why didn't you wrap them? What happened? What happened?"
"Dean, stop it," says Sam, bewildered. "My hands are fine." He holds them up and they're not, they're fucking not. Sam gives Dean a look, and slides over a plate of food.
"You need to eat something," he says.
Dean looks down at the plate and there are flies, there are flies and maggots and God knows what else.
And beneath that, there are eggs.
"Billy Rushmore was on the attack," says Sam.
He goes to class, and he thinks he's losing his mind.
Mrs. Connelly says to open to page 300. Dean pulls out his book and the cover comes off in his hand. The first page crumbles to dust.
Michael Dunwoody taps him on the shoulder. "You okay, man?"
Dean turns to show him the book, and no, he's not okay, but the words die in his throat. Michael grins at him, skull-like, the skin around his mouth eaten away. Maggots writhe in the hole where his right eye should be.
A blowfly zips around his head, metallic-blue and loud.
He corners Sam outside, grabs him as he's going around the corner and shoves him against the wall, clapping a hand over his mouth.
"Jesus Christ, Dean!" Sam hisses when Dean moves his hand. "What the hell's gotten into you, man?"
"Something's fucking wrong here, Sam, and you're going to tell me what," Dean whispers back.
Sam's eyes widen. "What're you talking about? You've been acting strange all day—"
"Day?" snarls Dean. "Day? This look like day to you?" He gestures behind him, at the pitch-black sky, the waning moon peering out from behind a cloud.
"Dean—" He moves to walk around Dean, and Dean puts an arm across his chest, pushes him back into the wall.
"What happened to the day, Sam? You know something – you knew something. You said it to me – you can't remember the sun. Why can't we remember the sun?"
Sam struggles against Dean. "You're talking crazy, dude, get a grip. I don't know what you're saying."
Dean pulls back when he realizes Sam's toes are barely touching the ground. He takes a deep breath, rakes a hand through his hair as Sam glares at him and rubs at his chest.
"You came and woke me up two days ago, remember? You said something was wrong," says Dean.
Sam blinks, then shakes his head. "I – it was a nightmare. I had a nightmare."
"A nightmare," Dean repeats.
They look at each other. Sam's expression doesn't change, and something burns in the pit of Dean's stomach. Something like fear.
It's like - Sam doesn't even look at him anymore. In that way, that head slightly cocked, half-smile, half-frown way, like Dean's face is telling Sam something it probably shouldn't, betraying its owner, confessing his deepest secrets to the one person who should and shouldn't know them.
Sam just looks now. Looks straight, eyes not flicking from one of Dean's to the other, or over the rest of his face, just dead center, or maybe right through.
But two days ago – two days ago, Dean had seen a sliver of that old look. And Sam had been scared and shaking him in his bed, but he'd been – he'd been awake. He'd been aware. And now?
Dean steps back.
"What happened to you, Sam?"
"What happened to me?" Sam half-laughs.
"Yeah." Dean grabs one of Sam's hands, presses it to his palm so the fingers stretch out, the tips catching the moonlight. "What happened here?"
Sam looks at his hand and then back at Dean. "There's nothing there, Dean," he says warily.
There's a group of kids standing ten feet away, and three of them are rotting, putrid, walking corpses, and Dean pulls Sam forward and says, "You can't see that?"
Dean grabs Sam's hand, pinches one of the curling pieces of dead nail still hanging onto his finger and yanks.
"Fuck!" Sam cries out, doubling over, wrenching his hand back. He straightens, gasping, and Dean sees a flicker there, in his eyes, and blood dripping off his finger.
Then, the flicker's gone. Sam looks at Dean.
"We should get inside," he says. And he walks off.
He has to get out. They've got to get out.
He's got to find a way to leave.
But he doesn't know how.
As far as he can remember, he's never seen a gate on the grounds. It's just the school, and the walls surrounding it and the still sky above them.
Dean wakes up in the dark.
He just stays like that for a moment, blinking his eyes for a bit until he's sure that they're open, and then waiting for them to adjust. He's not in bed, that much is clear, his back resting against something hard, a wall.
It's very quiet.
He can hear himself swallow, can feel his heart beating throughout his body, pulsing, pulsing, pulsing, ticking off the seconds as he waits for the blackness to dissipate.
It doesn't. No matter how long he waits, and he doesn't know, can't tell how much time has passed. Five minutes, five hours? Could he sit here and grow steadily older and older without knowing it?
He stands up then, but doesn't get far, head cracking against the – the wood, he guesses, rubbing his hands over it – and his knees have hardly unbent, his back still curved, his ass hardly off the floor. He pushes his hands out sideways, fingertips meeting more wood, and every which way he feels there's wood, wood, wood and no room to move.
"Hello?" he shouts. "Hey!"
He's kicking at the door, or the wall, or whatever the fuck's right in front of him, kicking at it before he knows what he's doing, bracing himself on his hands and against the wood at his back, ragged grunts ripping themselves from his mouth.
He kicks until his legs are shivery and shaking and feel like they're made of wax paper, translucent and weak. Kicks until he realizes he's gasping for breath and starts wondering how much air he's got in here, how much can get through the gaps in the wood – if there are gaps in it.
Thinks, This is where Sam must have been.
Thinks, Sam's claustrophobic.
Thinks he's going to be joining Sam on that train if he gets out of here alive.
A skittering sounds above his head, and a full-body shudder runs through Dean.
He sticks his leg out, deals a half-hearted blow to the wood, hears the resulting hollow knock.
"Somebody," he says, not loud enough to hear. He's sure there's no one out there. He'd combed the school looking for Sam, and if Sam's hands and hoarse voice were anything to go by, the kid had screamed his fair share. Dean hadn't heard anything. The thought wraps around his stomach, tries to wring it out.
He reaches out for the wall again, presses his fingertips to it as he searches for any gaps between the boards. He forgets where he started, ends up circling himself until he's almost positive that there's no finger-sized cracks to use. He slumps back down, legs bent, arms on knees and tries not to panic.
He's sweating even though it's freezing. He feels like he's not getting enough air.
Sam didn't die.
Whatever happened to him down here, the point is – he came out of it alive. In one piece.
Dean will too.
He wishes for light.
His blindness makes him feel like the walls are pressing in on him.
He can feel panic, just under his fingernails, and it takes an effort to keep from letting go, to keep from trying to rip apart his prison with his bare hands.
There's an iron band across his chest and it's being pulled tight.
His hands are shaking.
There's a boulder in his throat and he can't stop clenching his teeth.
Let it end, he thinks. Let it fucking end, please, pleasepleaseplease letitend letitend letitend.
Maybe he falls asleep. Maybe he doesn't. But he's not there when he first hears the voice, not really inside himself, floating somewhere higher than his own head, though there's nowhere to go.
Dean, says the voice, gently, and something washes over Dean, and he's falling back into himself, jarringly, a sound tearing out of him, pure, sweet relief.
Dean, the voice says again, so soft, so loving. Are you ready to go back?
Dean's nodding his head, can't stop himself, nodding, yes, yes, yes..
I need you to say it, Dean. You'd be happy to return, wouldn't you? Would you be happy?
Dean opens his mouth to say that word, the one that'll set things right, but what comes out instead is, "What are you?"
There's a pause in which Dean thinks, maybe, he's awake again, awake and alone and the feeling is worse than Dean could ever have imagined.
But the voice returns. And something else with it. A feeling. You and your brother, she says. Why does it matter? Weren't you happy?
"What are you?" Dean repeats.
Anyone you want me to be.
It's like he'd reached breaking point and come full circle, reset, so that the fear is only a trickle now, the panic ignorable. He doesn't know how, he doesn't care. His thoughts shuffle around, trying to line up.
"What are you doing here?" Dean asks, and as he talks, he stretches his arms and legs as far as they will go. Still the same place, then. He wishes he knew if this was a dream or not.
Are you sure that's the question you want to be asking?
"You're trapping people here," says Dean.
I know what's best.
The air seems clearer, less stale – maybe it's Dean's mind playing tricks on him. "For who? No one asked for this," he snarls.
You're children. You can't be expected to understand. I just want you to be happy. Here, there is no pain. There's no death.
"There's no fucking life, either," says Dean. "It's like we're replaying the same day – over and over again."
You are. It's the only way. You exist forever, suspended in bliss, cloaked by night.
Sam's voice in Dean's head: "Not cogito, ergo sum. Just… just sum."
"That's why – the smell, some of the kids—"
The soul is eternal. Bodies are not.
"You've buried us alive, you bitch," Dean yells.
The voice seems amused. If you can dig yourself out, you can leave.
"You don't give us a choice—"
And you do not realize what you're asking. You haven't seen the world, Dean Winchester, in spite of what you might think. You still harbor fanciful ideals – of heroes and good and evil. That is not how it works. You have no idea what you will see, if given the chance, what you will be forced to do. I am saving you the pain. I am saving you the suffering. Why should children grow into this – this thing that is coming? Why?
"That's not your choice to make—"
No. It's not. And that's why I ask you, Dean. That's why I ask everyone. And everyone gives me the answer I want.
There's a sudden gust of something and it's back, back like it had never gone, the fear, the panic, the jaws around his heart, squeezing. It's a maelstrom and Dean can't escape, head pushed down into rapids and held there.
Are you happy, Dean?
He kicks out, and suddenly, it's like he's somewhere underneath the world, or adjacent to it, and there are voices in his head and pictures, swirling in the cloud of pain, blurry and they slip-slide out of Dean's grasp like wet soap.
"Joshua's got scent of a case in Albany. Kids are disappearing."
"There's hardly any pattern to put together. The only thing they have in common is that they're kids, all of them. And they were out at night, alone."
"Let me take this one, Dad. If they're kids—"
"You were serious, Dean? What you were saying to Dad? You want to be bait?"
"I'm not sending you out there, Dean. I don't know what's happening, I don't have the facts. That's not a risk worth taking."
"Well, you're not being bait alone, you jerk."
"This is a fucked up idea, Dean. If anything happens—"
"Dad – c'mon. It's me. I can handle it. And I've got Sammy."
The pain is physical, in his chest and in his head and the voice in chanting, chanting, Are you happy, Dean? Are you? Are you happy?
And then. Dean remembers.
Remembers Dad, and the case, remembers what this was supposed to be – a hunt, like any other.
Remembers finding a bench just before dawn and curling up on it, a thin blanket around himself and Sam, huddled close to keep away the cold, both of them wondering what'll happen and how and when. And he remembers Sam whispering, "This isn't going to work", just warm breath near his ear, making his fingers and toes feel even colder, and then—
And then he was waking up in a warm bed, under thick covers, to laughter and Sam was downstairs waiting with breakfast and there was no past and there was no future, there was only existence, only being and it was okay then, without knowing, it was, it was, but now?
Now he knows.
Now he knows.
Are you happy, Dean? Are you happy?
For a moment, infinitesimal and beautiful, she lets it wrap around him, the feeling of eternal safety, no dangers and no worries, just warmth and happiness and Dean just wants to say yes, wants to say it so badly, and for a moment, he thinks, what would it matter if he did? If he said okay, and let her take him back – he'd have Sam, and they'd be safe, and Dad – Dad would be okay, of course he would, who knows how long they've been here, maybe Dad's moved on already—
No, this isn't what life's supposed to be – it isn't something handed over, it's something glorious and earned and Dean believes in choices and this is not his choice and—
Are you happy, Dean?
And now he's stumbling and falling to his knees on dewy grass, dampness soaking through his jeans and there's someone gasping beside him, as if to remind Dean that he's alive. There are birds, obnoxiously loud and there's warmth on his face and Dean turns to look, knows before he meets the gaze, who it is. Sam's eyes are wide and Dean knows that his match, and Dean's struggling to his feet, legs weak and protesting loudly, and Sam's trying to crawl forward using his wrecked fingers, and he's looking over his shoulder at the same time, and he's got a knife in his hand and Dean doesn't even want to know, and Sam says, "You?"
"I don't – I don't know."
A breeze rushes past, lifting their hair.
"Do we—?" Sam's looking back again, but Dean's not, Dean never will. There's nothing to see there, anyway, because they're back, back in the park they vanished from.
"No," he says, and he feels firm ground beneath him, and then Sam's up too and they're grabbing at each other and running, running towards the rising sun and the jet-black car on the road ahead, breathing in the sweet scent of freedom.