Jack of Spades
Dean closed his eyes against a wave of hopelessness that swept over him, threatening to bring him to his knees as Lucifer's words echoed in his head: I know you have the rings, Sam.
Beside him, his brother stiffened and stammered as he scrambled for a new lie. "I—I have no idea—what you're talking about."
It was a poor bluff, the poorest, they both knew it. But they were out of cards. This was it, then. This was how they would die. Wiped off the earth with an inconsequential wave of Satan's hand, a mere dismissal, the swatting of a fly. Dean looked at Sam, his brother breathing heavily but his face set. Sam's eyes were locked on Lucifer.
"So he knows," said Sam under his breath to Dean, with all his resolve conveyed in a harsh whisper. "Doesn't change anything."
The raw desperation in Sam's voice stabbed Dean through the heart.
"We don't have any other choice!"
He couldn't. They couldn't. He couldn't let this happen, couldn't let Sam do this. His world was slipping away. Sam. No.
His brother looked up and met Lucifer's eyes resolutely. "YES."
He was slipping. Slipping. But he held on, clutching hard to the sleeve of this brother's jacket like a lifeline, the feeling draining from his fingertips along with his awareness. He was not letting go. He was not leaving Sammy alone, not like this. Would not let him die alone.
"Sam, it's okay." He gasped through broken lips. "It's okay, I'm here. I'm not gonna leave you. I'm not gonna leave you."
His vision narrowed to a pinprick, and he clawed his way back through the dark that was pulling him down. He fought it back and through the swimming blackness and saw his brother's fist raising above him. Not your fault, Sam. Don't you dare think this is your fault. He couldn't form the words. Couldn't reach his brother, couldn't save him. He begged Sam to see it in his eyes. Could only watch as Sam wrested back control from Lucifer and saved his life.
Saved this whole damned world and let go of himself.
The dark kitchen was quiet but for the hum of the refrigerator and a soft whir as the air conditioning kicked on. Dean closed his eyes and pressed his fingers into his eyelids, wishing he could shut the noise of the past out of his head.
He hadn't bothered to turn on the light. Remotely, numbly, he grasped the neck of the whiskey bottle and tipped it against the glass, feeling liquid spill across the fingers holding the glass by its rim. He shook them off with disinterest and downed the shot.
The warmth couldn't reach him. He was stone inside and out, dead and cold.
Not quite as cold as hell.
He angrily pushed the unbidden thought down along with his surging feelings. What right did he have to feel anything? What was Sam feeling right now?
A flash of his own hell caught him off guard, as it often did, ripping the air from his lungs and seizing his chest in an iron grip of terror and dread.
It was always worst at night. When there was no soft sound of Sam's heavy breathing in the hotel bed next to his to keep him grounded.
"Hey." The soft voice behind him brought him back to the suburban kitchen. Lisa.
Dean shook himself, quickly burying the grief, the hopelessness, as he half-turned to face her and pasted on a half grin that he hoped was reassuring. "Hey," he replied neutrally.
"You okay?" she asked gently, pulling out a chair at the table to sit beside him. She had her robe pulled close around herself, sleepiness clouding her features but genuine caring in her eyes. She didn't wait for an answer. Her gaze fell on the half-drained bottle. She put her hand over Dean's hand still gripping it by the neck, and pried his fingers away, closing them into her own and holding his hand limply against the laminate of the kitchen table. Dean's hand shook. Lisa noticed.
When he met her eyes, her sad smile spoke volumes. It drove a new spike into the dead place inside Dean.
"Didn't wake you up, did I?" Dean asked, subtly shifting the attention away from himself and giving the hand that held his a gentle squeeze.
"Can't help but notice you spending more time down here with her –" Lisa nodded at the bottle between them – "than with me. So do you want to talk about it?"
"Nah," said Dean reflexively. "I'm good." He knew his voice sounded hollow.
"Yeah, if you say so," Lisa countered with kind lightheartedness. "But it's my duty to inform you that I'm seeing a pattern here, tiger. Torturing yourself isn't going to bring Sam back."
Dean flinched at the word torture,and Lisa saw it. Shit, he cursed at himself, and that caused his careful mask to slip further.
"Dean," she said earnestly, pulling his hand toward her and leaning in close. "I know there's no normal for this, what you're going through. You're allowed to feel whatever you feel right now. It's going to take time. I just…"
She ran out of words, and they sat in silence for a long moment. As it stretched between them, Dean's mind brought up image after image of his brother's head thrown back in a silent scream, Sam's face twisted in pain, Sam's hands coming up over his head to ward off unimaginable horror, Sam's arms pinned back by unseen forces to prevent him from protecting himself. His kid brother, his Sammy, the single most important person Dean cared most about in the world, being ripped apart and broken to pieces by a dispassionate evil that was beyond human understanding.
Desperate to break the silence and the barrage of images, Dean cleared his throat. He picked up the shot glass and pointed it toward the beautiful woman who had somehow been dumb enough to take him in, to continue putting up with his shit, and he did his best imitation of a reassuring smile. "Youdon't need to worry about me. I'm fine. Really."
"Right, because taking your liver for a swim every night is what fine people do. Okay," she sighed. "Look. The least I can do is keep you company. I'm not gonna leave you alone down here."
I'm not gonna leave you.
At the look on Dean's face, Lisa's crooked smile faded.
Dean visibly struggled for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was unsteady. "Lisa, if you really want to do something for me, then please. Get some sleep, okay? For both of us."
Lisa gave Dean's hand one last squeeze and then slid sideways out of her chair to stand up from the table. Just before turning to head back upstairs, she paused and said, "You can talk about it, you know. It's okay."
Dean drew in a breath, effectively pulling himself together. He looked up at Lisa and raised his eyebrows. "Yeah. Yeah, sure. I get it." He tried to smile. "Thanks," he added.
"Oh hey, one more thing," she said. "Ben's little league team starts practice this week and he's been asking if you still want to take him out and play catch. Apparently he's worried that he throws like a girl."
This drew the first genuine grin from Dean. "You bet. We'll work the sissy right outta that arm."
He saw Sam everywhere.
At the parts store, at the diner, even out of the corner of his eye when he was sitting home alone in the living room watching mindless TV. And each time he realized it wasn't Sam, it was like a brutal kick in the stomach. It was a constant reminder of the fact that he would never again catch a glimpse of Sam and have it really be Sam standing there.
Digging through a cardboard box he kept in the garage, Dean busily pushed aside the Sam things he couldn't bring himself to part with and could barely stand to touch because of the sharp current of pain that flooded through him when he did. Sam's jacket. His flannel shirt. Notebooks, gnawed pen caps. His laptop. Dean's fingers unintentionally brushed the cool, smooth edge of it, and he bit the inside of his cheek hard as a flood of Sam memories washed over him. He forcefully pushed the feelings back down.
At last, he found what he'd been looking for. His old baseball mitt, worn and aged with the word Dean printed along the edge in deliberate, childish letters with faded permanent marker. He still marveled at the fact that Bobby had kept it all these years, although he had tried to turn it down when Bobby shoved it at him along with some other pieces of his haphazard childhood.
"Just take it, ya moron," Bobby had muttered. "It doesn't hurt to hold on to a thing or two from your past. You did have a past, much as you like to pretend ya didn't."
Dean had to admit, he liked the stir of warmth that the mitt evoked when he brought it close to his face and breathed in the soft, faded leather. He saw himself with Bobby, ditching his training to toss the ball around in the park until shadows stretched around them through the uneven blades of grass. He felt the curve of the ball in his ten-year-old fingers, the way he hooked his arm to hurl it directly into Bobby's waiting glove. The satisfying thwack of his throw landing square where he'd intended.
He wanted Ben to know that feeling.
Not the crippling guilt that came afterward when he'd heard his dad shouting at Bobby about wasted time and dulled hunting skills. …get his brother killed one day, he'd heard his dad shout angrily. Bobby had raised his voice in response, … ten year old kid!... put that on him… Dean had shoved his fingers in his ears to block it out, silently siding with his father against himself and Bobby, kicking himself for letting himself get talked into an afternoon of fun if it meant failing his dad… or losing his brother.
Dean swallowed hard and hurriedly shoved his few possessions back into the cardboard box, pushing it back against the wall on the metal storage shelf.
Ben punched his fist into the recess of Dean's glove on his other hand, testing its fit and its give. "This is sweet," he said. "How did you get it so soft like this? My glove is way too stiff."
"You just need to break it in," Dean offered, reaching out to trade Ben for his own glove. He wiggled his calloused, adult-sized fingers into the grooves his much younger self had carved out. It was tight, the bottom of the glove riding up to the middle of his palm, but he'd be able to get by for a game or two of catch. "You oil it up, let it soak its way in, and then keep working it till it's how you like it. Your glove is like your car, kid," Dean went on, enjoying the flow of man-wisdom that he seemed to be channeling from his own father through him to this boy who reminded him so much of himself. "You love it, you take care of it with everything you've got, and it'll always be there for you."
"Just like a brother."
Dean spun around sharply, certain he'd heard a voice he couldn't have heard. There was no one there, just a handful of kids and parents milling around the playground. He swung back to Ben. "What did you say?" he demanded.
Ben was looking at him strangely. "I didn't say anything. What? Did you hear something?"
"You didn't hear that?"
Ben shook his head. He looked bemused, like he was enjoying Dean's comedy act. "What?"
"I was sure I…" He frowned, pressing his fist into the small glove and driving his fingers farther into the grooves. "Nothing. Forget it, never mind."
Stupid. Thinking you see Sam, now hearing him. Get it together, man.
Dean reached down and grasped the ball he'd brought with them and held it up to Ben. "You know your way around one of these?"
Ben took it and trotted off a good distance from Dean, grinning broadly. He pulled his arm back, bringing his throwing hand up to his shoulder and then catapulting an overhand throw back at Dean. Dean suppressed a smile and started calculating how many games of catch it would take to teach the kid to throw properly.
Then, Dean's stomach twisted into a knot, because he heard it, clear as anything, and he recognized the voice behind it because it was a voice he knew better than his own.
The ball slipped out of Dean's glove, dropping and bouncing twice on the ground beside him.
"Ben, we have to go," Dean said, low and rushed, heading in the direction of Ben and scooping him in under his arm as he strode toward the car. He never looked back toward the source of the voice, he just moved. He needed to get out of there. Ben's protests were loud and justified, but Dean couldn't. He just couldn't.
The drive home was silent and tense. Dean didn't blame Ben for being pissed. He drove in silence, embarrassed by his obvious overreaction and trying to reason with the part of himself that had heard Sam. It wasn't his imagination. But it had to be. He wondered what stage of grief auditory hallucinations fell into. Whatever, it wasn't like he was about to start reading self-help books and holding hands in a trust circle.
"Did you know that guy?" Ben asked suddenly.
Dean felt the color drain from his face. He turned a sharp glance toward Ben. "What?"
"That guy back there, the one who said your name. Did you know him? He looked familiar."
Dean slammed on the brakes and swerved the Impala over to the shoulder. His hands were clenched on the wheel. He tried to keep his voice level. "What… did he look like?"
Ben shrugged. "Tall. Long hair."
Gravel on the side of the road skittered away under Baby's tires as Dean hit the gas hard and yanked the wheel into a u-turn.
"You're sure," Dean pressed, urging the pedal down to the floor. His heart was beating a thousand miles a minute, and his stomach felt like it was trying to climb out of his throat.
What if it wasn't impossible? And then: Don't be stupid. It's not Sam. Sam is gone.
But: Cas had brought him back. What if, somehow…
What if it was possible?
"Yeah. Course I'm sure," Ben said. "He was right behind you." Dean noticed Ben's tight grip on the door handle and the way he was anxiously staring straight ahead at the windshield as the neighborhoods blew past. Dean consciously eased up on the gas at bit.
They hung around the park until well past dinner, Dean on high alert looking for any trace of anything that might scream Sam to him. Of course, there was nothing. No sign of Sam. Not ever again. You know where Sam is. There's no coming back from that.
When he finally called Ben over to head home, the sun was setting and Dean knew Lisa was wondering where they were. He absently pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open in the act of dialing home. He glanced down at the screen.
One missed call: S.
Dean's entire universe tunneled in on the phone in his hand. He stared at it blankly.
Wake up, dumbass. This is a dream.
Only, he was pretty sure it wasn't. And for a brief moment, he let himself entertain the idea. A strange warmth coursed through him at the idea of seeing Sam again, seeing the gleam of a smile in his eyes, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him close. Oh God, he wanted his brother back so bad.
Slowly, deliberately, he pressed "return call" and brought the phone to his ear. It rang once, then went to voicemail. Sam's voicemail.
"Hey, this is Sam. Leave me a message."
God. Oh God. Sam's voice, Sam, safe and familiar, and alive. He could close his eyes and imagine that Sam was just across town, back at their hotel or researching something at the library. The familiar, grief-driven kick in the stomach turned violent, and Dean nearly doubled over. This was why he had never called Sam's voicemail or listened to any of the saved messages he had of Sam's. He never wanted to feel this.
He clicked over to his own voicemail. No new messages. No shit. Someone was fucking with him, and this wasn't fucking funny. The reality of it closed in on him, the cold, hard emptiness of loss that threatened to swallow him, and he very nearly couldn't push it all down again.
"Fuck this," he said to no one.
"Dean?" It was Ben. His face was drawn into a look of concern. "You okay?"
Dean exhaled and pressed the number one. Lisa. "Yeah, buddy. Just fine. Let's get you home."
To be continued.