Dean is out of the fight, and Sam knows it.
It's a Banshee that almost does him in; it picks him up and hurls him against a tree in the swamp that it's been hiding in, mid-fight, and by the time Sam can get to him he knows it's bad, it's already so much worse than he thought, because Dean is lying on the ground and he's not moving, the moss stained red with his blood. His skull his cracked, Sam can feel it with one touch. He's dialing nine-one-one and he's screaming, he's screaming himself hoarse with his fingers on Dean's pulse, begging for help, begging his brother to hold on.
The doctors can't help him.
They tell Sam this when he's standing with his hand on Dean's shoulder, and he almost falls to the slick linoleum floor. The doctor is in his mid-forties and looks as though he hasn't seen anything bad in his whole life; Sam, on the other hand, is watching his life fall apart. It's lying in the hospital bed, not twitching with cabin fever, not knotting its fingers in the sheet, but cold and still and almost, almost lifeless and almost, almost not Dean. Sam is twenty-eight years old and he's also five years old, he thinks, I can't do this. But the doctor needs him to make a choice.
With the ventilator whooshing air into Dean's atrophied lungs, with the halos of light around the fluorescents washing dully over the thick layers of bandages on Dean's head, Sam asks for five minutes.
Sam summons Crowley.
It's dangerous and reckless and God, Dean would kill him if he knew. But Dean doesn't know much of anything anymore; he was certifiably dead for over five minutes before the ambulance trundled out to the swamp and even if he can come back, could come back, Sam hears the floating whispers and the voices behind cupped hands. Words like permanent brain-damage and clinically retarded seep through cracks in the door and invade the bubble of denial Sam has built around himself; that small part that allows him to believe Dean is only sleeping.
Castiel is gone, the souls reaped from him by Death.
So Sam calls for Crowley instead.
The demon is in a charitable mood.
"Healing big brothers is what I do best, moose." He sinks down on the foot of the bed, facing Sam in the hospital chair, and Sam feels as though his skin is crawling. He hates Crowley, he hates all demons and everything that carries the stink of Hell. "But of course, there will be a price."
"Always is." Sam's voice is choked and husky. "What is it? My soul?"
"Don't you Winchesters ever learn?" Crowley rolls his eyes toward the ceiling in mocking exasperation. "No, my prize is something a little less dramatic. Something that might actually teach you a lesson."
Crowley leans forward and his breath is hot in Sam's ear. "I want to take a certain memory away from him. Something he finds very valuable."
"A memory?" Sam echoes.
"Your memory, Sam." Crowley sits back. "If you can't live with him dead, then he'll live. But you can never have him back."
Sam can think of one better: "Take away his memories of hunting. Everything. So he can live a normal life."
Crowley's tongue scrapes his bottom lip, and despite a chasm of bygones between them, Sam thinks he doesn't need to explain himself to this demon. "I see. And what will you do, moose?"
When the deed is done, Sam asks for five minutes.
He stretches across the bed and buries his head in Dean's side and he remembers, the time when Dean had a heart attack and Sam fell asleep just like this and woke up with Dean's hand in his hair. And again, after the angels forced Dean to torture Alistair, and Dean nearly paid the price with his life. And Sam slept, again, and he woke, again, with Dean's hand tangled in a mane of chestnut and his brother's first words: "Sammy, you really need a haircut."
Not anymore. Sam isn't Sammy, isn't Dean's Sam, and won't ever be again because if Dean opens his eyes, he won't recognize the stranger by his bed.
And Sam has to leave before that can happen.
He leaves all of Dean's possessions, calls Bobby and tells him to hide the Impala.
And true to his word, Sam Winchester cuts his hair, ditches his dismay, and disappears from anywhere.
Dean wakes up with a hole in his head.
He feels like he's been through the ringer, and the antiseptic smell of the hospital, the sting of an IV needle taped to his hand, confirms it. He blinks blurry eyes open and sees a nurse replacing the bag of fluids on the pole beside his bed. He feels so exhausted, so wrung out, that he's almost sure he's been through an ordeal.
He just can't remember what it was.
"Where'm'I?" The words all sort of run together, but the nurse looks down, and Dean thinks, she's pretty, and, she looks like a librarian. He thinks that this is important, that somebody should care, but nobody does.
"You're in a hospital, sweetie." She squeezes his shoulder. "You're our little miracle of the ward."
"M'I that special?" He closes his eyes to spare them the pain of the overbright glow from the lights.
"You were brain-dead." She says, straightforwardly. "The doctors all thought it was the end. But you pulled right through."
"I don't remember anything." Dean admits. "I don't even know how I got here."
"The memory-loss may be permanent, I'm afraid." The nurse rubs her thumb over the bandage that weighs on his forehead. "Do you have anyone we can call for you? Any friends or family?"
Dean's hand falls to the empty space on the bed, beside his ribs. "No. I don't have anybody. I'm alone."
Dean leaves the hospital four weeks later.
His miraculous survival stuns the medical world, with journalists and doctors alike clamoring for his story. Feeling choked and claustrophobic, Dean checks himself out. Nurse Brandy, the first face he saw after he returned to the world of the awake, tells him to send her his address when he finds a place to live, and she promises to forward his affects. Dean thanks her with a little more pizzazz and gusto than he intended to. He also scares himself with the first notion once outside being to hotwire someone's car. He shoves his hands in his pockets and turns down the street.
Inside a small Toyota on the other side of the parking lot, Sam puts his forehead on the steering wheel and cries until there's no breath left in his body.
And then he drives.
Five years pass.
Dean Winchester is the best mechanic in Lawrence, Kansas. Everybody says so. People come from miles around to let him work on their vehicles, including a mysterious man in a trucker cap and a vest who comes by six months after the joint opens. He pays Dean five grand a year to keep a car stored in his back shed, on the count that Dean never looks at it. Dean is happy to oblige, and the money always comes by check in the mail on January first; he never sees the man again.
Dean meets a girl with a restored Kutless named Samantha; she has blond hair and gray eyes and the best laugh Dean's ever heard. He never calls her Sam. They fall unexpectedly into a stable relationship and one day Dean is thinking about marriage. He goes to bed every night on clean sheets and with a full belly.
There's also a hole in his heart he can't ever fill, even with Samantha, even with pop television and good food. Dean feels like half a person, sometimes, like there's a better part of him out there somewhere, lost in the accident that damaged his head. No one can tell him what happened; he has no one to turn to for answers.
Dean dreams of words like djinn and deva, and doesn't think those hold the answers, either.
Sometimes he dreams of a dimpled smile that flashes out at him from the darkness, and after those dreams, he always wakes in tears.
Dean calls Nurse Brandy.
She tells him the emptiness is perfectly normal, given a large piece of his life is missing. Dean feels less than satisfied, because the memories he does have feel strange and fabricated and forced. Samantha tells him he's overreacting, that he needs to take better care of himself.
Dean doesn't eat as much; he begins to lose weight. Night after night he finds himself in the bathroom, touching the scar on the back of his head and wondering, again, what was so awful and so powerful that it could break his head open like that, and kill him. And what sheer force of will brought him back from the edge.
Dean watches the news; he hears about the awful things that happen, and wishes he could do something about it.
When Samantha is working a shift at the nearby veterinary hospital, Dean sharpens the kitchen knives.
He doesn't like dogs, either.
It's a fight that ends everything.
Three years after he starts dating Samantha, Dean realizes he doesn't love her; it's not that she's a terrible person, or even that they aren't compatible. But one morning Dean wakes up beside her and feels wrong because he can't he can't he can't commit himself to her. Can't promise her his time or his effort or the rest of his life. Because it's there, hanging and twisting at the edges of his mind, this knowledge that there's something more important that he's already devoted to.
Dean tries to explain it, and Samantha tells him he's crazy; tells him he's a coward, that he's making excuses. She screams and rants and storms out and Dean takes it all, and then he goes to check the mail because he really needs something to do. And that's where he finds the box with his personal affects, lost for five years, and a note on top from Nurse Brandy apologizing for the delay.
Dean goes for pie.
There's a diner on the corner that was always important.
Dean can't remember why, but he's sure that's the case, even though he's never been there in his life. He goes inside and finds it deserted, with no staff or employees. The floor is black-and-white checkers and the stools swivel the way kids seem to like it, and Dean realizes he's not entirely alone: there's a man in a biker jacket and a bandana at the counter, and he's eating cherry rhubarb pie.
Dean sits at the far end of the counter, and nobody comes to serve him; and there's a strange feeling under his skin every time he looks at the biker. It feels like wariness and warning and respect for someone he's known all his life.
The man looks at him and says, "Try the pie, it's delicious," and Dean slides a few stools closer and takes the slice that's offered to him. The plate is warm and the pie is warm and Dean practically inhales it.
"Joint's pretty deserted," He notes.
"I wanted it that way. The usual patrons are home with their families."
Dean swallows a bite that feels thistly. "You gank 'em?"
The man laughs. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't kill random people for the pleasure of it." He scoots the crust of his pie around his plate. "You had a father, Dean. Didn't his heart break for you when you suffered?"
The question needles at the edges of the hole. "You're asking the wrong guy. I don't remember my dad."
"He was strong. A brave soldier."
"You knew him?"
"I did. And I know you, Dean."
Dean doesn't protest that, because he can feel it's true. "Sorry, pal, I've got a hole the size of Texas in my head. I'm not so good with names."
"You could call me Yahweh, though most people don't."
"Yahweh." Dean has a bite halfway to his mouth before he catches on. "Wait. Isn't that one of the names of—?"
Yahweh holds up a finger, a smile creaking through his tangled gray beard and reaching his blue eyes. "It sounds presumptuous if I just come out and say it."
This is bizarre, and Dean knows it's bizarre, but he finishes his bite anyway. "So, God likes pie?"
Yahweh arches an eyebrow. "In whose image do you think you were created?" He serves himself another piece from the box on the counter. "Besides, this diner has the best pie in fifty states."
Dean acknowledges that. "So, what're you doing here? And where were you when we—?" But he stops, because there is no we and there was nowhere except, maybe, for the hospital. So he revises the question: "What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing." Yahweh replies with feeling. "You're simply a man adrift in a sea, Dean. You're swimming for shore but you've lost your compass."
"So, help me find it." Dean insists. "I've got a girl I just ended things with because I can't let myself get attached. For some reason. But I can't remember why. It feels like this isn't even my life."
"It could be. If you choose it." Yahweh said. "You make your own destiny, Dean. You make your own choices, because you have—"
"Free will." Like a spark, like a small flame starting inside his chest. "Man, why are you even talking to me?"
Yahweh rises, and throws two hundred dollar bills on the counter. "Because you have to remember, Dean, whatever your choice may be." He touches Dean's shoulder. "Somebody needs you."
The whole thing makes no sense.
But Dean finishes his pie, half-certain he's dreaming, and he goes home, and sits in the middle of the foyer and opens the box.
There's a pair of jeans on top, worn with use and tainted with a faint musky scent that's almost familiar. Dean sets them aside, pulling out a blue shirt that's rubbed almost white in patches. He folds it on top of the jeans and reaches back into the box.
There's a necklace, a strange horned head that smells like pine-tree air freshener and eggnog with whiskey and Funyuns. Dean stares at it, his chest begging to feel its weight, and he slips it on and plunges his hand back into the box.
The leather jacket is cold with disuse and soft in his hands, and Dean thinks, thinks, he knows that it means safety and comfort and shelter, it's a blanket and a piece of armor and a place to hide his head.
Dean buries his face in it and the smell socks him, it knuckles him down, because it's all different kinds of fire and hurt, it's the feeling of his head cracking open against a tree, it's the last swirly sensation of color fading at twilight and a hand on his throat, begging him to hold on.
Tears race each other down his unshaven cheeks as Dean slides the jacket on over his broad shoulders, and breaths in his own smell, the whiskey in his pores, the aftershave, the leather seats.
Dean drops the box and runs.
She's just the way Dean didn't remember her, until now.
He rips off the protective tarp, shamelessly flushing five grand a year down the drain, and when he sees her sleek dark hide it's like a door opens and a floodgate spills through. And then he's choking, he's swirling, he's running his hand across her side and remembering: running, and being overrun, and how much everything hurt but now it all makes sense.
He falls into the front seat and feels the steering wheel, and it's the Impala, it's his sweetheart, his baby, and has been for so long, and he's missed her. And Dean knows why she's here, he knows why, and he remembered to bring the key that the man in the hat the key the key that Bobby Singer, his surrogate father gave him, so he puts it into the ignition.
Her throaty growl is like a welcoming, like an embrace, and Dean runs the flat of his hand across the dashboard with an irrepressible smile and more tears. Tears that finally dry when he starts to drive her, for the first time in five years.
There's one thought, repeating over and over in his mind:
Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam.
Dean drives for a long time.
And he's not sure how he ever finds anything, because he can't reach Bobby, can't reach Sam. But he drives across so many states for days; and sometimes he's laughing and sometimes he's swearing and sometimes he's still crying as the memories saturate him, and he doesn't exactly know why he forgot, only that he did. And he knows that it was God and pie that brought him back and he knows this is gratitude, but it's fear, too, because he can't find Sam and he can't get in touch with Bobby.
That's when he happens to overhear something in a random gas station just between Nowhere and Nothing, about a girl who almost drowned but was saved by someone, a tall man with a rosary and a book of prayers and suddenly Dean can't drive fast enough.
He finds the seediest motel on the corner of town and of all the rooms currently occupied, the manager tells him there's only one with two beds.
Dean chooses that one.
It's so dark inside, Dean can't see.
But he doesn't dare turn on the light, doesn't even move at first, with the strong smell of alcohol and coppery blood assaulting his nostrils. He stands in the doorway, a small giant of six feet, but he fills the doorway because he's driven by purpose. Other scents join the first: pond scum and antiseptic. Dean studies the room.
It takes him a minute to see the hand gripping the bed-sheet, arching up from the floor. But after a few seconds a body levers up with it, and Dean sidesteps so the light of the motel parking lot spreads past him, and Dean gets his first look in years at his brother.
If sedentary life has made Dean a bit soft, he thinks he's taken all of that softness from Sam. The lines of Sam's face are prominent and bracketed with pain, his eyes sunken into the dark caves of their sockets, glassy with fatigue. He has several weeks of scruff on a face that was always clean-shaven and boyish, before. Sam's stepped beyond manhood; he has one foot in the grave.
His t-shirt hangs off his wasted shoulders, and his gaze doesn't seem to register anything, at first.
And then, everything.
"Dean?" His voice is a rasp, quiet in the gloom. Dean crosses the room to the gap between the beds and crouches, but not too close, not trying to invade Sam's space.
"I guess I got a pretty big bump on the head," Dean says, and Sam blinks those enormous, owlish eyes at him. "Heya, Sam."
"Crowley took your memories." Sam seems confused, tilting his head in that heartbreakingly familiar Sam-gesture, put to good use whenever he finds himself confronted with a complex problem. "Dean? Do you know who I am?"
"'Course I do. How could I forget my pain in the ass little brother?" Dean's voice breaks around a laugh, and Sam's eyes glisten.
"How—how did you—?"
"Remember?" Dean shakes his head. "Would you believe it if I said it was God?"
"Dunno. He was in a diner in Kansas." Dean answers. "Sam, what happened to you? Where's Bobby?"
"Hunting happened to me." Sam looks down, pulling his legs Indian-style under his body, not meeting Dean's eyes. "Bobby's gone. He died two months ago. A stroke, in his sleep. It was painless."
"Sonuvabitch." Dean says, softly, achingly.
Sam sniffs. "I'm all that's left."
"We're all that's left." Dean corrects him firmly, and Sam's head swings up. "Sammy, I'm sorry I forgot."
And that seems to be, in a way, some sort of permission. Because Sam unfolds from his hunched posture and lunges forward, and then his face is buried in the collar of Dean's jacket and Sam's crying, really crying like his heart's shattering, his hands fisting themselves into Dean's shirt and he could be thirty-three years old [Dean knows he is] but he could also be five.
And Dean's all right with that. Because he knows it, he's finally done it, he's found his other half. He's complete, for the first time in so long, he's whole.
Because, for the first time in five years, he has Sam safe in his arms again.
Dean holds his brother tightly, burying his face in Sam's hair. "It's okay, Sammy, it's okay, I'm here." He whispers. "I'm home."
They stay in the motel for a day.
Dean cleans it, and cleans Sam's filthy, lakewater clothes, and treats the claw marks on Sam's shoulder. And Sam follows him, everywhere, always, and Dean is eight again and has a four-year-old shadow and he's all right with that.
Sam doesn't sleep, Dean knows, until after he's fallen asleep, and maybe not even then; and when he wakes up Sam is sitting cross-legged on the other bed, waiting for him again with a look of wonder on his face like he's seeing something incredible.
They brush their teeth together, make the beds together, pack up the car together. Dean thinks he might be imagining it, but Sam's eyes seem brighter already. In the morning, while Dean shaves, Sam shaves, and when Dean says that he should get breakfast, Sam's only response is, "Not alone."
They climb into the car, slamming the doors in synchrony, and Sam almost laughs. Before they're even out of the parking lot, Dean can see Sam's eyelids are heavy, and that he's looking away from the early-morning sunlight.
Dean grins, flexing his fingers around the steering wheel. "Get some sleep, Sammy."
"Not tired." Sam protests around a yawn.
"Yeah? Just do it, Sam." Dean says in his best big brother voice. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Sam nods and hunches down against the door. "You swear?"
"Yup." Dean cranks on the radio, just to prove his point. "So, where to?"
"Anywhere." Sam flashes Dean that dimpled smile that Dean realizes he's missed for so long, without even knowing that it was out there, waiting for him.
Sam's asleep five minutes into the drive, and Dean squirms out of his jacket and tucks it onto Sam's shoulder, and hums a Beatles song under his breath.
Anywhere sounds good to him, too.