"I didn't trade in my soul," Sam told him once they were back in the rental car. "If that's what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinkin' anything," Dean said quietly, but he was relieved.
It was Hoodoo, after all. Not Hell.
Dean slumped in shotgun, honestly too weak to drive. He could've gotten pissed. He was pissed.
But there was nothing he could say. He'd signed away his high horse in this fight over 20 years ago.
Now all he could do was ride in silence in a strange car. He didn't ask Sam how they'd gotten to New Orleans. He suspected it involved an airplane and some sketchy flying conditions, and he was angry enough as it was.
The Creole woman had sat them down with cups of hot coffee and told them that entities could only take so much and Dean still remembered every word she said: "Bring a person back once, with good, he has a crack. Bring a person back twice, with good, he has more cracks. Bring a person back over and over, might as well have conjured him up from the Devil."
She looked at Dean then, significantly, saying she didn't know why Dean's body was failing so much faster than Sam's, if they'd had the same kind of life.
Dean looked at Sam, eyebrows drawn. Sam, every line on his face deepening, swallowed and looked away.
The boy still couldn't lie worth a shit. Under any other circumstances, Dean would've been pleased.
"You boys got one year, one year where you will not be able to die," she said, making sure her point was well-taken, that the full weight of her meaning was sinking in. "Even if you want to, even if it'd be merciful. You can try to conjure more years, ain't nobody can stop you if you do. But if you do?"
She leaned closer and her words burned into Dean's brain like the symbol on Sam's arm. "You think you seen bad times, the both of you? It'd be like Hell. Now, y'all know what Hell is like, don't you?"
Dean smirked at her at first. He thought she was using the word the way everyone else used it, people who had no fucking idea what they were talking about.
But she'd looked at both of them, one at a time, really carefully. She knew. She could see it.
He got the message.
Sam never told him, and Dean didn't press it. What good would it do?
He didn't tell Dean about the six months where he died every day and that's why his body, his entity or whatever, was giving out so fast. What was the point? If he had it to do again? He'd do it again. He wouldn't change anything. Because together they'd had twenty years more than they'd ever expected. Years that were quiet, safe almost, without being useless. Good years.
And now? Sam would never say it out loud, but now they knew the date. Now that they knew what was coming?
He was glad.
Sam didn't sleep in his own bed at all that year.
Sam called her up a few weeks later, because Dean was in pain. He was afraid that maybe the Hoodoo was running out.
Dean wasn't saying anything, but Sam knew his brother's body, how it moved, as well as if it was an extension of his own. Dean didn't move as big, didn't walk to the phones as fast. When he got into a fight, and Sam noticed he got into a few that year, more than in the previous decade combined, he paid the price for days afterward.
"Child," she said into the static on the line. "I could fix the heart and I could conjure the bones together, but your brother was dead for a day, and he's been dead before. I ain't no miracle worker."
As Dean sat behind the bar, Sam would stare at him, hard, like he was looking for the cracks in the bone, for the ice in the joints, for the dead nerves in the muscle. But he could never see it. Dean had never looked that way to him, and even though Sam knew that it was true, it was like seeing a ghost that was only visible on the edge of things, between motes of dust and crackles of electricity.
Dean put a good face on things that last year, but it was bad. And every day it got worse.
If a doctor had dared to ask him where it hurt, Dean wouldn't have known what to tell them. All over, in every muscle, in every flavor. Little twinges, dull aches and, every few days, a wave of pain that felt like hitting the ground with a sickening thud after a long fall. He'd bite the inside of his jaw and keep moving, hearing his knee, hearing his hip.
"Old age ain't for sissies," Bobby had told him once.
It sure as hell wasn't.
For the first time in his life, Dean made lists with roughly-drawn checkboxes and marked them off. Take Ash to get the once-over from the vet? Check. Call the lawyer? Check. Fix the sink in the kitchen? Check. Rebuild the dying transmission in the Impala? Check.
He didn't wanna will Chris and Beth a bunch of things that needed to be fixed. If they took this gig, and he felt certain they would, he wanted to make it as simple as possible.
"Are we sure about them?" Sam asked him now, whenever they came in.
It was Sam all this time telling Dean that they needed to bring someone else in, to bring more people along as a contingency plan. But now that time was winding down, Sam was wondering if they were leaving everything in the right hands.
Dean watched them when they were there. He watched them sit down together, close, both facing the same direction, as apart from anyone else as they could get.
He watched their wordless conversations. He watched them exchange smiles when they didn't know anyone was looking.
He watched as one got up to put quarters in the jukebox and the other tracked them across the room, probably without even realizing it.
He watched them on the rare occasions that one of them came in alone, and took some satisfaction in how ill at ease one was without the other.
He watched them look at each other, when the other wasn't looking, an expression on their faces that hit him in the gut like a brick.
Dean nodded. "Yeah, they're the ones."
Look for two people like us, Sam had said. And it was a guy and a girl who'd known each other since they were little kids, both raised in the hunting life, who'd been in love since they were teenagers.
The irony hadn't escaped him.
As the date got closer, Sam got more nervous. The more nervous Sam got, the calmer Dean seemed to be. It was infuriating.
Sam slept with one hand on Dean's chest, right where his lungs expanded, right where the heavy thud of Dean's heartbeat was loudest. If Dean would've allowed it, Sam would've hooked him up to monitors that made loud beeps when something was wrong.
If Dean was awake, Sam was awake. They played cards. They watched movies, but no new ones and no sad ones. Sam's eyes would start to fill up anyway, at the stupidest little things. He was glad they watched in the dark.
When there was a few more weeks to go, one night when they were both staffing the operations room, Dean looked over at him, putting down the gun he was trying to fix. "You got something you wanna ask me?"
Dean had asked him this question before, usually accusingly, usually angrily. But this time, he was just asking.
"No?" Sam said, not sure himself. He took off his glasses and put them on the book, rubbing the bridge of his nose between two fingers. "Why, what's wrong?"
"Nothin'," Dean said quietly, hands folded on the table in front of him, putting Sam in that spotlight gaze that would've made anyone else feel uncomfortable and threatened. "I'm just thinkin'... if you got something weighin' on your mind, man, why take it with us?"
And for days and days, Sam asked all kinds of questions, questions that he had been holding in, because Dean hated them and making Dean talk about this stuff would shut him down.
And Dean asked all kinds of questions of his own, questions that he'd been holding in because he didn't want to look weak for asking, didn't want to look like someone who worried, about anything.
Sam answered all of Dean's and Dean answered all of Sam's, and in the low light of the operations room, when the phones were quiet, they were like little boys again, swinging their legs off the edge, with nothing left to lose.
One year to the day, Dean got up the way he always did, sitting on the edge of the bed for a few minutes before rising painfully to his feet.
Sam made breakfast. When Ash padded in, whining at the smells, Sam pretended not to notice when Dean slipped him a slice of bacon.
Dean glanced over all the official documents one last time. Damned if he was going to be screwed over by a lawyer when he wouldn't be there to do anything about it.
He and Sam weren't apart all day. They went into town and bought some very good Scotch, the expensive stuff, and sat on the back end of the car, passing the bottle back and forth between them, looking over everything they'd created for themselves here in the Devil's Gate.
They put a sign up on the bar's doors that morning that said "Closed for Renovations" and set about cleaning it up, to make it nice for Beth and Chris.
Dean put a roll of quarters in the jukebox, and they listened to Led Zeppelin all day. Sam heard him singing to himself as he stocked the shelves behind him, making all the labels face the same way.
At 3:00 PM, Dean put the dog outside, because Sam told him that dogs could get traumatized, too. And even though he thought Dean would make something of it, he hugged the dog. But then Dean hugged him too, scratching him under his red collar.
Dean had set aside two bottles from the bar and handed one to Sam. Sam started to shake, but he didn't know if it was fear, or because the time was getting closer.
They didn't say much. They hadn't left themselves a lot of stuff to get out of the way. Any barriers between them were clear now. Bad blood, troubles, old grudges... as scrubbed clean as the bar downstairs.
Dean had thought about dying lots of places. He didn't want to die in the bed. He didn't want to in the car (that didn't seem fair to the car, or to Chris and Beth who had to inherit it).
If he could've chosen, he would've died on his feet with a gun in his hand, the way he'd always wanted it. But that wasn't practical. That was just leftover macho bullshit.
Dean opened all the windows and Sam, realizing what he was after, turned on the air conditioning as cold as it would go.
At 3:30 PM, they sat down on the old sofa.
Sam thought Dean might want to watch something, like a Clint Eastwood movie or some movie they had basically memorized, but the set stayed off. They sat there quietly, shoulder against shoulder, knee against knee, each drinking with the opposite hand.
"What time is it now?" Sam asked.
"It's close. Stop askin'."
"Dean," Sam said finally. "Dean, I'm sorry, this deal, you know, I -"
Dean shook his head, shushing him lightly. "I woulda done the same thing. Sammy, just stop. Look at me."
Sam looked at him, really looked at him as Dean looked back. He wanted to say so much, but nothing felt good enough.
He was sure he could feel it now, that he could feel the end closing on them, because Dean looked... younger. Like all the worry had dropped away, smoothing the lines of his face.
Sam said, in a voice that sounded like it was sent from 25 years ago, "Do you think it'll hurt?"
Dean smiled, his eyes bright green, clear and unbothered, like Sam hadn't seen them since before Hell, and said, "Not for much longer."