Title: Riding Shotgun
Warning: character death
Word Count: 32K
Summary: "Sam doesn’t know how he can say his brother is dead when there’s still someone on this earth who looks at him like that."
For the Winchesters, death is never the end. Written for the 2011 spn_gen_bigbang.
The bitch of it is, there was nothing to set this hunt apart. Just another creature munching on bodily organs and leaving a bloody trail of clues behind. They’d put on wrinkled collared shirts to question the innocents, they’d called Bobby with a list of expletives and questions, in that order, and in the end they’d faced the thing down with all the right tools.
Bastard fought hard, though. Dean had swung the machete, buried under peat moss three days and blessed by a shaman, while Sam chanted and intoned like a sped-up talking doll. But still, the thing just wouldn’t roll over. Towering and amorphous, it seemed to reform its slimy skin no matter how many times Dean tried to go all slasher movie on it. And maybe there should be some comfort in that, some solace, that it really did put up a fight. That it was a hard-won battle.
Sam doesn’t think there’s solace to be found in anything, now that—
Bobby’s mad, ‘cause Sam didn’t burn the body. He’d dragged that son of a bitch out of the mud hole it called a swamp and driven the blade home until he was sure its unearthly wailing couldn’t be anything other than a death rattle. Then he’d dragged it to the pyre, working by the light of the matches he’d struck to ignite the damn thing – made of water, it was, water and swamp juice – but first he’d sliced it open. Looking, hoping, carving away bit by bit, trying not to nick anything living, anything family. He looked for a distended stomach, full to nearly bursting, stretching like a balloon with the shapes of a face and hands of one very pissed off Winchester trying to punch his way out.
But instead he’d found—
Bobby wants action, wants Sam to show him where the thing went down, but Sam knows it won’t help. The creature’d sizzled on a heap of damp wood, crackling with the moisture. The fire had faded and swayed, dousing itself the more it melted the gelatinous body, removing all traces of anything unnatural, anything that had done this. It wasn’t until the blaze recovered and reached ever skyward that the heat licked through the numbness chilling Sam’s body.
His hands had felt foreign and clumsy, his ears stuffed with cotton like a Molotov cocktail just waiting to be lit. Hell, he’d set the match to it himself, because—
Because there was nothing. He’d cut through the spongy lining of the stomach, and he’d thrown himself into the swamp for hours, dredging up bits of anything he could curl his frozen fingers around, hoping and fearing in the same breath that it’d be something he recognized as even vaguely human. But he’d found nothing. In every place he searched, every organ he split open – maybe there were two stomachs? Three? Cows had four, so there had to be at least one more in there, right? Hiding his brother just out of sight? – There was nothing. Nothing left to burn.
Nothing, even, to tuck away in his duffel, to mount firmly on the dash of the Impala as a silent travel companion for every mile Sam has left to go. Hell, Dean’s ring, anything, anything to…
Instead he holes up in Bobby’s guest room, suddenly too spacious for little old Sam to sleep easy in, and refuses to come down. There’s nothing left to come down for. Bobby gives him a couple days, and then a couple more, before he’s busting past Sam’s door with a pep talk and a beer, face lined with worry and something more paternal than Sam wants to recognize. Dean wouldn’t want this, Bobby says. He loved him too, he promises. Sam just has to get out of bed, he has to. Because Dean’s finally restin’ easy, for good this time, and can’t that just be one goddamn ray of sunshine in the middle of this shitstorm?
And yeah, Sam’s not braindead. Heaven is what he wants for Dean, if he really is kickin’ up his boots on fluffy cloud nine. Dean’s reached the promised land, and that makes Sam happy, he’ll swear up and down, but what becomes of their brother act now? To the straggling half of their two-man team? What do you do when you only have half the mold, and the best you can make is a lumpy piece of clay with a clear impression that it could have been something better?
When Bobby gives up he leaves the beer, but Sam can’t even drink it. Dean hated Bud.
A weekend comes and goes, he knows, because he can hear the church bells blaring after Sunday Mass. Like that ever saved anyone.
That’s when Bobby loses his cool. His jaw is set and it gives him a jowly look, and Sam wants to tell him that he didn’t love Dean, he didn’t, not if he can keep his shit together right now. But Sam’s managed to make it all this time without a word, so why ruin a perfect streak?
Bobby looms over the bed, kicking the barely-touched plate from the kitchen out of his way, and tells Sam to roll his ass out of bed right this goddamn minute.
“If you think I’m gonna play maid to your sorry ass any longer, boy, you’ve got another thing comin’. Now, we just lost one Winchester, and I ain’t losin’ another. You got to do something, eat something – hell, kill something for all I care, but if I don’t see your ass downstairs by lunchtime I’m smoking you out.”
Sam doesn’t really acknowledge the advice, but he does think that that might be the first good idea Bobby’s had yet. There are plenty of things out there for him to kill.
“But take a shower first, you’re stinkin’ up the joint like tuna fish in a trash can.”
Castiel, the paper-pushing son of a bitch, can neither confirm nor deny Dean’s presence in Heaven. Bureaucratic, celestial asshat. Sam wants to take his red tape and shove it up his—
No matter. The demons are happy to promise they’ve got Dean down under, screaming on a pike for every damned soul to enjoy. Which of course puts Sam on the war path, killing any and every demon that tries to explain that they can’t just let Sam into Hell, you see, because there has to be a contract, a promise, and that’s when demons start to rethink their position. Because no one, not even Lucifer’s best and brightest, wants Sam Winchester cutting a swath through their homeland. So Sam gets his answer anyway.
“And why should I believe you this time?” Sam asks the demon he’s got stuck in a (pathetically easy) devil’s trap, towering over the tiny girl it decided to wear like Sunday’s finest and doing his best to look intimidating. The heap of dead hell spawn behind him tops off the effect.
“Because, if we ever catch him again, we’ll make you watch.”
And that, Sam recognizes, is probably true. Torturing just one of the brothers hasn’t been good enough in Hell’s gnarled book for a long, long time; they’d likely aim for the set.
So, okay, not in Hell then.
Good. That’s good. Sam feels a twinge of guilt at his disappointment that Dean isn’t someplace he can yank him back from, that he’s not justified in wanting his brother back here right this damn minute, afterlife or not. But he stuffs it down behind the fury at being toyed with and his plans to wash the Impala this afternoon. Again.
He kills that demon too, because what would it do to his reputation if they heard he was getting soft? Besides – Winchester. Obviously.
Sam makes a pretty competent solo act, even if it does feel like typing out his will with only one hand. So what if he often grabs one more gun than he needs, or circles ‘round to the passenger side before he remembers the keys are in his pocket? It’s adjustment, that’s all, he’s adjusting, and it’s taking a little time. He just lost his brother, okay, his goddamn only family on this planet, so why do people keep looking at him like that?
It only takes a couple weeks before he gets the idea. His brother’s not gone. Or, at least, he doesn’t have to be. Sam knows exactly where he is. And, even better, he knows how to get there.
Except, as much as he prayed before, he always thought the Bible was a sort of guideline. Up for interpretation, that kind of thing. But now that he’s seen how infuriatingly literal angels are, well, he’s thinking maybe he should follow that book to the letter. And the letter says no matter how bad he wants to get to Heaven, he can’t send himself there. So.
Vampires. Vampires are easy. Not to kill, though that’s a breeze too, but to seduce.
He feels like the cheap star of some trashy porno. Trashy neck porno. He’s sitting right next to one, who’s mouthing away at the lip of her beer bottle but never actually drinking, and Sam’s doing everything he can to make his neck look sexy, bitable and unprotected. Yawning, twisting his head to look at specs of dust behind him, and generally staring into space with his chin in the air.
This chick, though, just will not budge. She’s making eyes at him, practically blowing the bottle and leaving blood red lipstick all down its neck, but she won’t make the first move. Sam’s finally about to introduce himself when a stocky man throws his hip against the bar between them.
“Hey,” the guy says, and Sam can’t help but notice his freckles. They’re all over, making his pale skin look tanner than it probably is, and it strikes a chord of familiarity that only strengthens Sam’s resolve.
“Excuse me,” Sam says, trying to look both firm but still innocent enough for the vamp to mark him as easy prey. “You’re blocking my view.”
The dude grins, unphased. “You sure that’s what you’re lookin’ for?”
Sam’s about to say no, to chalk this up to a wasted night and try again later, when he realizes how wide the guy is smiling. He’s got one of those unfortunate gumlines that’s entirely bare when he smiles, and Sam sees them. A neat little set of sheath holes, just waiting to birth fangs.
“Umm,” Sam answers, now that he knows he’s staring his own death in the face.
The guy leans forward, like he’s got a secret, and lays one hand casually on Sam’s forearm.
Jesus Christ, he thinks, this vamp thinks he’s flirting with me. Apparently he has no gaydar. And really, the only thing that bothers him about this whole situation is that the vamp assumed he was gay. Sure, he’d planned on being dragged to his death by a voluptuous she-vamp, but this’ll do. So he nods, straightening up from the stool shakily, and lets the guy rest one cold hand in the small of his back.
The chick behind him is staring at Sam like he’s just sprouted leaves, and curls her lip back in disgust.
“Are you kidding?” she asks, before downing half her beer in one go and storming away.
Okay, so, apparently he has neither gaydar nor vampdar. No time left to worry about it now.
The car ride is awkward, because the vamp dude is still putting the moves on and Sam is tempted to pull down his jacket and yell, “Make with the biting, alright!” but he’s just gonna let the vamp bite him on his own time because he cannot – the Bible was clear on this, cannot – ask for his own death.
Except, oh God, what if the guy is hoping for sex first?
As it is, Sam gives awkward smiles and turns down dark roads when he’s told to. The vamp doesn’t have a car because, Sam knows, there’s no point in burning gas when they can walk somewhere just as fast. Plus, victims feel safer when they have their own transportation, or so he’s read. And been tearfully told.
He parks under a large sycamore tree by a steep, soggy tumble of a riverbank, just like he’s told, and tries to get back into neck-porn mode when the vamp unbuckles his seat belt. Sam’s looking away, letting his body sag against the door, and is just about to close his eyes when he hears:
“What the fuck are you doing? Run, Sammy!”
His eyes snap open and he’s alert, sitting up and scrutinizing the dark shapes around the car for his brother.
“Hey now,” the vamp says, “the fun part’s still coming,” but Sam can’t spare him the time to care.
Because over the guy’s beefy shoulder, just barely lit in the moonlight, is his brother.
“Angus, actually,” but Sam just hisses at him to shut up.
That’s when the vamp gets pissed, but there is no way Sam’s about to become this leech’s slurpee when Dean is right freakin’ there. Sam scrambles, shoving the vamp’s chest with one hand and fumbling for the door handle with the other. When he catches it he falls, tumbling out of the car, but free is free and he’s fine with losing points for style.
“Dean! Where are you?”
“Here, Sammy. Where’s your knife?”
Sam spots him through the darkened windows, head still illuminated by the frame of the front passenger’s door, and starts patting himself down. His knife, where’s his knife?
He hadn’t brought it because he, he wanted to die, but now –
“Duck!” And he does, because he’s been following Dean’s war cries all his life and now is no different.
It takes a lot of dodging, mostly because Dean’s not helping – why isn’t he helping? – but Sam eventually wrestles his way into the back seat where he can grab for the spare machete.
The vamp goes down easy, probably because he thought he was dealing with a helpless civilian and not a seasoned hunter, and his head isn’t even rolling through the dead leaves before Sam’s running around the car.
“Dean? Where are you?” Sam yells, because he’s not there but then – then – he is. The clouds shift or something because suddenly Dean’s in full view, completely illuminated by the moonlight, and Sam wishes it were daytime so he could show Dean the car, show him how well he took care of her, how everything is just like it was.
Dean’s eyebrows are pinched and Sam knows he’s about to be chewed out, but there is no version of this where he could possibly care. Dean’s back, here, alive, and that’s all that matters. He’s reaching for Sam’s face, to look him over even as he berates him, and Sam’s reaching back, so beyond ready for that brotherly hug. He needs to grab his brother tight and know, once and for all, that he’s back, to apologize for letting him down, to be forgiven. Even the anticipation of that relief is blissful, and Sam lunges for it with his whole body.
Instead, though, he stumbles. He isn’t caught by Dean’s steadying arms, chest smacking chest, his fingers don’t even catch leather, and when he looks up he’s alone. Again.
“Dean?” He flips around, feet sliding on the soggy leaves, and Dean’s still there, twisting around too and looking just as bewildered.
It’s a cruel joke, and whoever or whatever is pulling it will be missing a ribcage once Sam finds them. He’d walk away right now, just get in the Impala and try not to fall apart like the cry baby Dean says he is. Said he is. Except… except the Dean-vision looks about ready to pop a gasket. He’s clutching at his plaid shirt with both hands and his eyes are so wide. Even if Sam can see through him – how could he ever think it was the moonlight? – it’s still Dean’s face, horrified like Sam hasn’t seen it since the Hellhounds were teething on his ankles, and there’s just no way Sam can walk away from it.
The vision is reaching for him again and saying, in a perfect imitation of his brother’s tone and cadence, “Sammy? What happened to you?”
Sam gasps so hard he chokes on his own spit. What is this thing, and why doesn’t it know? Sam should be the one asking questions.
Is this the demons, just fucking with them because they can? Or the angels, and their childishly-belated payback? Is it a ghost, some revenant, that takes the form of loved ones? Or, could it be…
It’s within reach now, and Sam slowly extends his arm out, unfurling his fingers to let them slip through the image. It’s like cool mist, a fog, but its intrinsic glow streaks between his fingertips like sunshine through a leafy canopy. His face is indistinct, the wells of his eyes and angle of his nose just barely dimmer, like shadows over a deep lake. So, definitely a spirit of some kind then. Which means…
Okay, just for the sake of argument, Sam decides to go with it. Just until he’s proven wrong. Because what if it is Dean? What if Dean’s ghost came by to say hi and how’s tricks and Sam just kicked him to the curb like yesterday’s hero, insisting they weren’t brothers and totally fucking with Dean’s posthumous peace of mind and then Dean’s ghost is cursed to haunt this highway forever looking for the long lost baby brother who does love him back and— Sam breathes. It’s not him, it’s not, but if it were… even the thought of the guilt knots his stomach like a wrung-out dish towel, and he knows he has to try.
“Dean?” he asks again, and it feels like that’s the only thing he’s said tonight. “How you doin’?”
The Dean-thing is still trying to grab him, though, to touch him and reassure himself that Sam’s here, that they’re both here, and the inevitable failure is etched into his face. “What’s wrong with you? Are you okay?”
Sam tries to put on his brave face, to remind himself that the sound of his brother’s fear is just an illusion, but it’s like watching someone cry. Even if you don’t know why, eventually you’re swallowing hard around the lump in your throat. So now, with that wide-eyed terror on a face he’s been following, watching, hanging his hopes on his whole life, he can’t avoid feeling its anguish.
“It’s okay, Dean, really. I’m fine.” He puts one big hand on his chest. The ghost tries to cover his palm with his own, but it slips through to his ribs and Sam shivers. “What about you? Does it hurt?”
Again, Sam tries to choke it back. How do you tell your own brother you let him die? That he’s got a big gaping neck wound where the monster’s teeth dragged him fifty feet to the murky water and you were so immersed in your Latin it took you half that time to even notice.
You don’t, that’s how. At least not yet. Because Sam can’t relive that night, can’t dredge up the glassy-eyed look on Dean’s face, letting the swamp just gurgle into his open mouth as the creature opened its jaws and he slid down into its muck-filled mouth. He won’t, not if this isn’t really his brother. Because it makes no sense that it would be, that Dean would be here, because he doesn’t think they’ve ever been to Hamilton, Indiana in their lives, and there’s nothing for him to haunt.
So he says, “Tell me something only you would know.” It’s bullshit, it’s a parlor trick, but he just can’t think of anything else.
Ghost-Dean looks, of all things, insulted, and it just rings so true that Sam feels guilty even putting him through this test, but he’s a fucking ghost for Christ’s sake. He’s made of thin air, Sam wouldn’t be the man he is if he didn’t follow a few precautions.
“Please, it’s important.”
“You had a crush on Laura Beekley in the fourth grade.”
Sam shakes his head. Everyone in his and the mixed four/five class knew that.
The ghost huffs, but thinks of another.
“You put your french fries in ketchup, but sweet potato fries in ranch, you freak.”
“Come on, anyone could know that.”
“Yeah, but only I care enough to remember.”
Sam shifts uneasily. He wants to let it go, but it’s just not the proof he’s looking for.
“Okay, fine. When you were nine, I told you you were too big to sleep in our bed anymore. Except for that one time in Crawford County, when that spiky fuck lanced me through the chest. Then I couldn’t fall asleep ‘til you did.”
God, that brings a different kind of hurt back to Sam’s chest. An old, healed-over wound, just like the scar above Dean’s heart, the one he’d tattooed over. Dean had been shivering madly, sick from venom and whining in his sleep, high pitched like a dog. Dad was out, looking to nab another spike to make the antidote, but nonetheless absent and no help at all. And, fuck, if nine had been too old then sixteen was downright forbidden, but he didn’t care. He’d just notched himself in right behind Dean, finally tall enough to be the big spoon, and fell asleep with Dean’s buzz cut tickling his nose.
“But you were out, man. You were delirious. I heard you.”
“No,” he shakes his head. “I was fakin’ sleep so you would quit asking me what you should do.”
“Oh,” Sam mumbles, feeling kind of chastised for no good reason. “It was a stupid rule, anyway.”
Ghost-Dean laughs once, softly. “Dude, I was fourteen. Puberty started popping up. Every morning, if you get my drift.”
“Oh,” Sam says again. Oh. And actually, yeah, that makes sense. In fact, it’s blatantly obvious, now, with the clarity of hindsight and adulthood and his own memories of slamming the bathroom door and telling Dean to just get out.
Dean’s still grinning, in a lopsided kind of way that would look embarrassed if this wasn’t Dean in front of him, who wore his sexuality like a badge of honor.
Dean. Even as he’s reaching for him, Sam’s trying to brush the tears out of his eyelashes, because Dean doesn’t know, won’t understand, and Sam knows better than to get all weepy in front of his big brother anyway. Or his ghost.
He doesn’t make contact, though, doesn’t even try, because talk about an exercise in futility. And it hits home, then, that while Dean is here, he isn’t back. Not really.
“Come on, Sammy. Let’s hit the road.”
Sam’s about to say that he doesn’t think they can, that Dean may not be able to go far, but instead he just nods. They’ll cross that bridge when they get to it. Hell, cross it, salt it, burn it. Whatever it takes.
Sam buries the headless body under a pile of leaves and top soil between the buckled-up roots of a large tree while Dean waits by the car. When Sam’s done, he looks up to see Dean already in the passenger seat, elbow hanging out of the window – no, through the window – like it’s a hot summer day.
He fakes a smile even as his stomach drops.
Dean’s shimmery presence lasts the entire drive back to the Sleepy Plains Motel and needless to say, Sam is shocked. Wary, even. But whatever kind of gift horse this is he promises to never, ever, check its teeth.
It isn’t until Sam’s pushing the Impala’s trunk closed, and yelling “Come on,” over his shoulder, that things start to make a little more sense.
Dean follows him, swaggering just a little, and even blinking slowly with that post-kill exhaustion Sam recognizes so easily. He’s got the prairie dog key ring in his hand, wondering if ghosts even sleep, knowing that they don’t, but glad he accidentally got two beds anyway. And that’s when Dean disappears. Just like any other spirit he flickers, hologram technology that’s just not worthy of the Enterprise yet, and then he’s sitting back in the car, bewildered.
“What the hell!”
Sam’s face contorts into a deep grimace, because he should have known. It just makes so much sense. It’s not Dean’s body that kept him here, since that was freakin’ absorbed into the swamp monster, it’s his things. His prized possessions. Sam flips through his mental catalogue of the car, from the tapes to the crease-worn maps with Dean’s scratchy notes to the cache of weapons in the trunk.
One by one, Sam brings everything from the car into the cramped motel room, making messy piles by the out-of-place Mojave curtains. It’s like a minefield of memories, not knowing which one will be the last one. Not that he’ll do anything with the knowledge, not necessarily. But it’d be good to know. Just… yeah. Just to know.
And maybe he leaves Dean’s favorite pearl-handled gun ‘til last, maybe he moves the old leather jacket to the front seat instead of carrying it in, because it belongs with Dean now that he’s back. Sam keeps waiting for Dean to follow one armful into the room, or to just flicker over to the lone chair, but he doesn’t. Not even when he carries their journals, Dad’s and Dean’s, in with a funeral march all of their own. Not the spit from licking his fingers as he flipped the pages, then. Sam is, maybe, audibly grateful.
He does the weapons towards the end, just ‘cause of what a bitch they are to carry, but even that doesn’t do the trick. And that’s when Sam’s given one more piece to the puzzle.
Of course. Dean’s most prized possession isn’t squirreled away in the glove compartment, it’s the whole damn thing. His last remaining gift from Dad, the only thing that he’s never been without. The Impala herself.
And Sam doesn’t give a fuck what Bobby or Dad or anyone else would say, he is not burning Dean’s baby. Besides, it’s not like Dean’s ghost is malevolent or anything.
He gathers up his machete, Dean’s favorite sawed-off and some salt rounds, and all the blankets and pillows from the unkempt bed. Dean asks him what the fuck he’s doing as he opens the car door with his pinky, trying to balance his supplies in one precarious heap, but Sam just tells him to slide over. He’ll bring the rest of the shit back tomorrow, but for now his arms are tired and he’s not going to spend one more night without Dean if he doesn’t have to.
Sam punches his impromptu bed until it looks at least somewhat comfortable, and shrugs all the blankets up to his neck. The car has long since lost the engine’s warmth and Dean’s sure to keep the vinyl ice-box frosty all night.
“You goin’ for a Darwin Award here, man?”
“Shut up, Dean.”
Unexpectedly, Dean does, and Sam opens his eyes in alarm. Dean’s still sitting there, though, shifting around in the driver’s seat like getting comfortable makes any difference.
“Just, don’t leave, alright?”
“What, like I got shit to do?”
It’s not quite as Arcticly chilly in the morning, and Sam enjoys a wide swatch of sun against his cheek before he realizes that means Dean’s gone. He calls out for him anyway, just in case the sun streaking across the leather seats renders him translucent, but he’s only answered with birdsong and the rumbling of tires up on the highway.
By the time he’s gotten coffee, Sam’s wondering if it was just a dream, even if he does have to lug all that shit back to the trunk. In the thin, crisp light of the afternoon he convinces himself it was just a hallucination. Some kind of freaky mind-trip telling himself that he didn’t want to die, not really, so he shakes it off and resolves never to tell anyone. “One’s dead and the other one’s crazy” just rolls off the tongue a bit too easy.
So he switches rooms to a single, and falls asleep that night contemplating the cruel nature of hope.
After that, it’s back to the killing. If even his subconscious won’t let him off himself, hunting’s pretty much all he’s got left and, besides, he still has a lot of catching up to do where Dean’s concerned. A lot to put right, to make up for.
This time it’s a demon, and the girl it chose to suit up in can’t be older than fifteen, but it’s strangling him with the pressure of the ocean’s depths anyway. It was waiting for him in the motel parking lot which means that, damnit, he’ll have to move again. He tries to get loose, to get a nice smack of the .45 to its head, but it turns out it only needs one hand to crush his windpipe because the other grips his wrist to the wall until his fingers spasm and drop the gun.
It looks like he’s struggling, but really he’s waiting for his next brilliant idea and it’s just taking its sweet ol’ time showing up. He’s gasping now, having long since given up on death threats when he needs that oxygen for himself, so it’s with complete shock that he finally pulls cool, blessed air back into his lungs. The hand falls away from his throat like a dead fly off a wire, and Sam’s left with the sight of a milky, translucent Dean choke-holding a puff of smoke.
So… not a hallucination, then. Or a massively recurring one.
He feels useless, watching dumbly as two intangible beings wrestle it out, but what can he really offer? He’s got the knife, but the chance that it could banish Dean along with the demon is just too big a risk.
“You alright there, Sammy?”
When Sam nods, one hand to his throat, Dean lets the demon hurl itself back into the body, and Sam’s ready with a knife across its throat before it even shudders in its first inhuman breath.
Then Dean’s rushing Sam, arms poised for the standard Winchester family look-over, except he can’t. Not now, not ever, and instead he slips straight through Sam and into the tacky room behind him.
Sam wonders if he’ll ever get used to the chills.
Dean’s not in the room, but Sam knows better than to expect it and after he drags the discarded body across the threshold of room 6, he heads back to the car.
Dean’s in a mood, no mistaking, but it’s almost just more proof that it really is Dean. Pissed, avoidant, drumming out a silent pattern on the steering wheel and pretending nothing’s wrong. Sam would just ignore it, gladly, until Dean did something so reckless that Sam had to call him on it except… What is Sam supposed to do? Sit on him? Politely ask him to move over because he’s not exactly corporeal at the moment and they have driving laws about that kind of thing?
When Sam opens the passenger door Dean, honest to god, holds out his hand and says, “Keys. Gimme.”
The hand is persistent. “Seriously, we don’t have time for this crap. Gimme the keys.”
Sam considers handing them over, just to see them drop right through his palm. “Dean.”
Yeah, mood might be an understatement, because that’s as much as Dean can take. He smacks his hand noiselessly against the horn before his shoulders sag, suddenly the picture of defeat.
“Damnit, Sammy,” he says, rolling his chin all the way down against his chest, “you and your damn talking.”
Sam considers his silence to be both pointed and ironic, but of all the things that are wrong with this picture, he’s not actually sure which Dean’s so bothered over. It takes a solid three minutes under Sam’s stare, but Dean eventually works himself up to it on his own and turns, barely, to stare back.
“I, uh,” he starts, and drags a hand down his face. “I think we should head to Bobby’s.”
Sam files that under ‘not a snowball’s chance’, and nods.
“I’m thinkin’, maybe, I caught some hoodoo back in Indiana.”
“What sort of hoodoo?”
Dean looks away; he never could own up to those crippling weaknesses like being human and needing help. “Been losing time.”
Sam reaches for him, but stops himself in time, poised over the middle seat. “Dean, it’s not—”
“Damnit, Sammy. You saw how close you came. I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’ve been, but even if it turns out I’m just sitting on my thumbs all day, it still means I’m not around when you get yourself in trouble.”
He bristles, because he does not get himself— That’s not the point.
Sam’s never met a ghost that isn’t trying to turn someone’s lips blue, but he’s never met a revenant so lucid either. Sam doesn’t actually have a clue what Dean is. But despite the link to the Impala, he’s starting to lean towards some form of revenant. Because, again, the not-trying-to-kill-people thing – but that means once Dean knows… once he accepts that he’s really…
The guilt tastes sour in the back of his throat. Revenants are in agony. Hell, ghosts are too, and to purposely trap his brother’s spirit on earth would be a new level of unholy. Bobby would have his hide and Dad, God, Dad would resurrect him just to skin him again.
He knows what he has to do. But the chance to explain, to apologize; people had killed for less. And here was his chance, shifting uncomfortably and talking about looking after him. The thought stings his eyes and dredges up the spiral of thoughts that had left him bed ridden at Bobby’s for so very long.
When he looks up, Dean’s even blurrier than usual, and he doesn’t even care that his eyelashes are clumping when he finally says the two words that have plagued him since the swamp.
“I’m sorry. Dean, I’m so sorry, I should’ve known, I should’ve looked up and seen and caught you and if I could go back, I would. I would but—”
“Hey,” Dean says, his hand reaching out toward Sam, for Sam. Through Sam, but he doesn’t notice. “Hey. We’ll fix it, okay? Just hold up.”
And Sam does because after one look at Dean’s face, his throat’s too tight to form vowels. Dean’s got that face on again, the forgot-to-pretend face and it’s all earnest and worried and so very big-brother. Sam doesn’t know how he can say his brother is dead when there’s still someone on this earth who looks at him like that.
Dean reaches for him again, but Sam pulls back. He just wants to pretend, just for a minute, but the icy tendrils left by Dean’s touch make it hard to ignore the fact that Dean’s words have no bearing on reality, that underneath the illusion of warmth they’re empty, just like the seat Dean’s sitting in.
“We’ll take care of it, Sammy. You just gotta tell me what it is, alright?”
Sam shakes his head, looks away, but even as he does he feels the tears fling from his cheeks. He looks up instead, trying to let them well, trapped, on his lower eyelid, so he doesn’t make any more of a scene than he has to. He can see Dean sigh out of the corner of his eye, then swear quietly, and Sam knows the signs. Dean’s reached the end of his touchy-feely rope, is so far out of his element he’ll need to change tactics soon, and if Sam doesn’t pull himself together fast he’ll be on the cruel end of some rather emasculating jokes. For a moment Sam almost wants to laugh, because the thing keeping him from mourning Dean’s death properly is Dean himself, and his same old tricks.
Sure enough, Dean makes a show of settling himself into the driver’s seat, rolling his neck even though the typical crack is inaudible, and flexing his fingers around the wheel. “Fine,” he says, “we can make a few more hours before we gotta bunk down again.”
Sam sniffs, oddly more relieved than slighted, because yup – same old. Which is why he’s too shocked by Dean’s next sentence to keep him from reaching for the radio.
“You just let me know when you’re ready for the show and tell bit. Then we’ll get on it.”
And sure, that’s more understanding than Sam was expecting, more head-on confrontation than Sam really thought he was capable of, but it doesn’t matter right now because Dean’s flicked the radio on.
In the cold-engine, un-revved, keys-in-Sam’s-pocket Impala, Dean just turned the radio on. Without even touching the dial. One of Zep’s mellower ballads starts seeping into the car, but Sam knows for a fact that his Bob Dylan tape’s sitting in the deck even as this plays.
Dean reaches for the gearshift next, and Sam’s a little afraid it won’t work, but mostly he’s afraid it will. He shouldn’t let his dead brother drive, but he can’t – absolutely can’t – head to Bobby’s like Dean’s time spent MIA is just another case to solve. Even if he could keep his shit together on the drive up, let Dean think things will be just fine until they reach the junkyard, Sam has a feeling Bobby’s level of un-fine would show up on the Richter scale.
Much as Dean wants to try, he can’t help Sam. Or himself. It’s a draining thought, that their time of no happy ending has come so soon – Dean’s dead and there are no take-backs – but if he owes Dean anything it’s the chance to let him move on.
His mouth is dry no matter how much he tries to swallow, tongue swollen and gritty, but he still manages to stop Dean before the fingers curling through the gearstick try to shift into drive.
“What do you remember?”
Dean stops immediately, more eager to talk than Sam’s ever seen him, but he schools his face into a purposeful smirk to say, “’sides you getting your ass beat by a girl?”
But Sam can’t even muster a smile, not even his backup humoring attempt. “Yeah. Besides that.”
“Oh, I dunno.” He rubs one hand along the back of his neck. “Just that swamp… thing. Backin’ it up against the river.”
“And then what?”
“I, uh.” Dean looks away, then turns back with a waggling eyebrow. “Slashed ‘im up pretty good, didn’t I?”
But again, it’s so not funny, Sam can’t even pretend. He has one more chance, one last chance before Dean’ll probably poof like a pumpkin carriage at midnight, ferried to another life by the self-actualization. Or, worse, realize the anger that’s kept him here and see for himself just how much damage a haunted Impala can do.
So he says it one last time. “I’m sorry.”
The tears are back in full force, raining down on his clasped hands and the Impala’s vinyl but he doesn’t care. “He just kept regenerating—”
“I thought we just did this bit.”
“And I kept working on the Latin, that fucking chanting—”
“It’s gonna be okay, Sammy.”
“You died, Dean! I let you die.”
And when that, finally, shuts Dean up, Sam has to jerk away.
“Sammy.” Dean’s voice is low, still none of the violence or disgust Sam deserves, so he ignores it. “Hey.”
Sam’s shoulders are shaking but suddenly they’re shivering too, which means Dean’s trying to offer some fucked up form of comfort, but Sam just curls his face down into his hands and cries harder. He can’t let his brother console him when Sam’s the one who delivered him to death. He just wants to grieve, he just wants to mourn in private – fuck. He just wants forgiveness.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he promises into his hands.
“Come on, Sammy. Didn’t we already learn this the hard way? You salt and burn. Always salt and burn.” And when Sam doesn’t respond, he adds, “No more deals.”
“I didn’t,” he swears, looking up for the first time. Looking at Dean’s glow in the approaching twilight’s like staring at a street lamp through a rain-streaked windshield, distorting itself and everything around it, and he only has the cues in Dean’s voice to go by. “I made sure you weren’t in Hell – I made sure – and I thought you were upstairs until… I burned everything I could find, Dean.”
“Then how come I’m still here, Sammy? How come I can—” He jams a hand at the steering wheel, aiming straight for the horn in a loud declaration of how very present he is, and Sam feels the sick burn of anticipation and pity as Dean’s hand slams right through it.
Sam rubs at his eyes furiously, squinting through the wetness. If there was ever a time he needed to see Dean’s reaction, it’s now, but Dean isn’t looking up yet. He’s staring, gaping, at his hand through the steering column. He pulls it out slowly, reverently, and holds it up against the window, wiggling his fingers. Sam watches his hand disappear when it lines up with the sight of the moon, and when Dean looks back at him it’s finally with the horror Sam’s been expecting.
Glowing? Incorporeal? The aftermath of a horrible, bloody death and it’s all your fault, Sam?
Dean’s voice crashes around a whisper, like his dead mouth can’t form the right syllables anymore. “I’m haunting you?”
Sam shakes his head, eyes never leaving his brother. “The Impala.”
And because Dean’s dead, glowing, and understandably a little fucked in the head, that brings a smile like none Sam’s seen since Dean was downgraded from life in Technicolor. His eyes widen and his teeth show in a translucent grin. His head and shoulders even seem to shine more, casting a bright, ethereal shadow on Sam’s side of the car that highlights each button and knob on the car’s console in sharp relief.
Sam nods, a little wary.
“Course I’m haunting her. Aren’t I, baby?” He pets the dashboard like it’s some kind of loyal puppy, following him to the afterlife and back, and Sam’s so struck by the absurdity of it that he forgets his guilt enough to roll his eyes.
“Of course you are.”
“Hey Sammy, you think I can…” He closes his eyes, and if Sam had to label that look he’d file it under constipated, but within a few seconds the dome light blinks on, pushing out an arc of pale yellow that’s cut into and overpowered by Dean’s own luminescence.
“Dude,” Dean yells, mouth hanging open in a blatant Did you see that? but Sam just rolls his eyes again.
“That’s nothin’, man. You already turned on the stereo.”
Dean’s eyes show surprise, flicking to the console to see the one dim light of the radio tuner, but his voice is cocky-smooth, Dean all the way through. “Sure did. And you know what else I can do?”
Sam has no idea. Dean has no idea – he’s bullshitting at the top of his game – but Sam’s ready to sit back and watch until Dean makes a claim he can’t swagger through.
Dean closes his eyes and slowly urges the heat vents to flood warm, dry air into the cabin. It’s a relief Sam didn’t even know he needed, respite from Dean’s frozen shadow, and he settles back against the vinyl, contented. Dean hasn’t stopped concentrating though, just reached a hand toward the dashboard again and leaned forward. Within a few moments he’s not just leaning, but hovering, still sitting but floating slowly forward until his chest is pressed up against the wheel and Sam’s attention is rapt. This is a new one.
All it takes is a blink and Dean’s gone. Sam calls out, unnerved and alone, but before he can work up to a full-scale panic the car rumbles beneath him. The headlights flick on, highlighting the door of #6, one queen, no smoking, hot water don’t last more’n ten minutes, so don’t push it. Then all the lights pop on, dashboard, console, door lights and with a final revving sound Sam hears the engine turn over, feels the steady thrum of the seat beneath him, vibrating against the keys in his jeans pocket.
Sam poises himself at the ready, debating slipping into the driver’s seat to wrestle control back from Dean, when his head pops back into the car. Just his head, straight through the dash.
“This is so cool. I can’t wait to take her out for a spin.”
“You’re not driving, Dean.”
“Course I am. It’s my car.”
“You’re dead.” And Sam can’t believe he just said that, aloud and dry-eyed, but it’s still a valid freaking point.
“And this is the car I’m haunting. I’m supposed to drive it.”
“Let’s hold off on possessing two tons of metal and gasoline just yet, alright?”
Now it’s Dean’s turn to roll his eyes, unimpressed and pouting in that way that uses just his eyes, but he relents. Sam’s surprised he caved so fast, maybe too fast, but he only hesitates a moment when Dean says, “Scoot your ass over, Sasquatch. We’ll take turns.”
It isn’t until Sam puts the keys in the ignition, tries to turn on a car that’s already running, that he realizes how surreal their conversation had become. How unexpectedly… easy. He would have bet money that Dean’s reaction, however he found out, would be laden with anger and blame and not a small dose of yelling. Instead he looks almost content, his feet up on the dash like he never got to do because Sam’s turns driving were a monthly affair, if that.
“Hey, Sammy. You know what this means?”
“Don’t gotta worry ‘bout the price of gas anymore.” Dean looks pleased – no, thrilled – over this idea, and Sam just shakes his head. Surreal.
“We never worried about it before, either.”
Dean scoffs, unperturbed.
Sam allows himself a smile as he pulls onto the highway, heading in any direction that’s not South Dakota.
~ Part 2 ~