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.
“You said you burned him!”
“I did! Everything I could find.”
“Damn it all,” he cusses, and scratches under his hat. He sounds panicked and beaten down, like Sam brought a dead body to his house and told him the cops were already on their way, and that’s all he says for a good long minute.
“Bobby,” Sam starts, but he holds a hand up.
“No. Don’t you go justifying this mess. You don’t say a word.”
It’s Dean’s voice that chimes in next, and Bobby flinches harder than Sam’s ever seen.
“ Bobby, it’s—”
“You neither! Jesus boys, you’re digging me an early grave.”
“How come,” Sam starts, and he has to swallow at the frigid look Bobby gives him. “You can see him?”
“Course I can see him. It’s sitting in the back goddamn seat.”
“Not, uh, no one else can.”
“Yeah, well, guess your boy forgot to put up his blinders there, didn’t he?”
Sam looks back to Dean, who looks as out of the loop as Sam. If he had blinders apparently they’d been stuck on all year, because they’d never had this problem before.
Bobby’s just staring between the two of them, incredulous, and then he heaves a sigh that pushes his gut out against the seat belt until he unbuckles it.
“Sam,” he says as he rolls out of the car. “Inside. I’ll call R.C. and tell him to meet us tomorrow.”
Sam follows, obedient, with Dean quick on his heels.
“He can’t come inside,” Bobby says without looking back.
“Bobby—” Sam starts, but Bobby stops on his heels and levels a look back at him.
“He can’t. It’s warded. Tell him to wait out here.”
“Sammy,” Dean says, trying to step between him and the house. “No.”
“Dean, it’s alright.” He steps around him. When Dean puts himself back in Sam’s path, Sam just moves on, accepting the shiver of passing through his brother as part of everyday life. “We’re just gonna talk.”
Dean looks beyond miserable, a pitbull that’s been caged and kicked all at once, and keeps to the shadows so he can look as solid and formidable as possible.
“You yell, Sammy. Anything goes the wrong way, you yell and wards or not I’ll find a way in there.”
“Dean.” He rolls his eyes. “It’s just Bobby.”
But Dean just says, “Yell.”
Which he won’t need to do, except Bobby cuffs him upside the head as soon as he steps inside, and Sam lets out a high grunt before he remembers he should pay heed to not alerting Dean.
“What were you thinkin’?”
“Nothing,” Sam insists, ducking and avoiding another hand coming at his head.
“And you couldn’t tell me ‘bout this ‘nothin’ you’ve been up to?”
Sam coughs, quietly, and rubs at his head some more.
“Soon as you can get that pile o’ crazy to calm down, you and me are getting in my truck and drivin’ all the way back to that swamp.”
“We’re gonna burn that whole place down if we have to, but this ain’t gonna last past sun up.”
Sam waves a hand through the air, sharp enough to cut him off. “It won’t help.”
“Yuh-huh. Let’s see if it helps when the match I take to it isn’t a big stickin’ lie.”
“I’m not lying,” Sam yells and then, feeling too much like a chastised teenager again, he straightens up and repeats himself. “I’m not lying, it’s just not the swamp.”
“What, cursed object then?”
Sam cringes, because it’s not a curse, dammit, it’s just— He looks through the delicate lace covering Bobby’s window, watching Dean pace in and out of the sunlight.
“It’s the car,” he whispers. “And I can’t. Anything else, but... You don’t know, Bobby, you don’t even know. I had Dad’s journal and Dean’s jacket and the pearl-handle. All ready to go. I was going to burn them all,” he says, finally looking up with wild eyes. He doesn’t really think about it often, can’t bear to dredge it up, but he was ready to mourn another pile of ashes just to give his brother peace. The car, though, burning that would be burning everything. Home and family and everything he had left.
“Son,” Bobby says, now approaching him with a hand out. He lays it on Sam’s shoulder, gentle, and Sam turns away because he’s gone from zero to losing it in about sixty seconds. “Sam,” Bobby tries again. “He’s sufferin’. You know that.”
Sam laughs, but it’s a sharp, mirthless sound. “I don’t even think he is. I know that, it’s why I even tried in the first place, but he’s not like that.” He stares, now, at Bobby, willing him to believe based on sheer tenacity alone. “He’s only upset when I’m bleeding, or ask him to wait in the car. If I thought he was in pain, I would, even the car, but—”
“I know you think he’s all you got, Sam. But if any part of that thing actually is your brother, don’t you think you should think on what he needs?”
“I am, Bobby. He wants to be here.”
“They all do. Why do you think they fight us so hard? Sam,” he insists. “You don’t gotta trouble yourself. Why don’t you just check out the backyard with him, show him the clunkers that could use a little ghostly spit-shine. I’ll just take care of a few chores up front.”
Sam bows his head. It’s, Jesus, it’s enough to make him boil. He can’t just play decoy while Bobby offs his brother – and that’s what it’ll be; he never really thought of ghosts as alive before, but this Dean’s sure as hell not dead. Not all the way. Dean’s died so many times, each more mind-blank scary than the one before, but somehow this seems to outweigh all the rest. If he goes this time, it’ll be the last.
Except Sam knows somewhere, in a tiny voice buried beneath years of hope and habit and comfort, that this is the easiest out he’s going to get, and he should take it. He sees Bobby’s feet shifting uncomfortably, knows he has to pick a position on this soon so Bobby can get on with the convincing or the condolences, but then they hear someone at the door.
It’s not a knock, more just the rattle the door would make if someone had knocked. It’s Dean’s new trick. Steady pressure is still a bitch of an idea but they’ve been working on brief points of contact; perfect for knocking on doors, luring nasties into traps, and tipping over Sam’s soy macchiatos, just because he can.
Sam turns to Bobby for confirmation, who looks confused, wary, and then exasperated, before opening the door. Dean’s sprawled out in the doorway, casual as ever like the wards are actually really comfortable to rest against, and that’s definitely a bad sign. Nothing about this Dean is casual.
“Bobby,” he nods.
“You should know,” he starts, translucent gaze still steady, “that I make sure Sammy’s taken care of.”
Bobby affords him the decency of a straight answer. “Yup. Doin’ a right good job of it, too.”
“And if anyone tries to get in the way of that, anyone – well. I can’t let that happen.”
Bobby blinks, letting years of hunting and poker faces stare back at the ghost in his doorway.
“Dean!” Sam cuts in, shocked and a bit ashamed. “You can’t threaten Bobby.”
Dean sounds so immovably calm, and Sam would be the first to admit it’s more than a little creepy. “I’m not. I just, I can’t let that happen.”
“He’s really not,” Sam insists, like Bobby believes things based on the amount of repetition and not the amount of bullshit stacked behind them. “He can’t even throw things yet.”
“I can do enough.”
It’s as close to a promise as Dean can get and after that, well, there’s really not much left to say.
Bobby raises his hands in defeat, though Sam’s seen that placating technique enough to call Bobby on his bullshit. Not out loud, though, he’s not an idiot.
Bobby nods, short and final. “Alright then. Sam, you always know where to find me.”
It’s another promise. Hell, Dean probably knows it too, but if anything it just shows that Dean should be glad he’s around. All in favor of Sam not dying – say aye.
Bobby putters around in the worst rendition of minding his own business Sam’s ever seen, but he takes the opportunity to wander over to Dean anyway.
“Hey,” he says, leaning on his own side of the doorjamb.
“Hey.” All the fight’s gone out of him, even as he stares into the living room he’ll never set foot in again. He’s back to being mild and agreeable in the way he usually is for Sam and not the way that makes Sam reach for iron
“You really shouldn’t do that. Hell of a time to drop the Casper routine.”
“I was friendly,” Dean says with a shrug. “He should know how things stand.”
He straightens up, meeting Sam at eye level. “Yeah?”
“Are you? You know. Happy?”
“Sammy,” he scoffs. “Of course I am.”
“No, Dean. Really. We both know. Ghosts are miserable, tormented creatures. What if – what if there’s a Heaven, and you could be there right now except—”
“Whoa, whoa, hey. Come on now. We’ve talked about this.”
“I know, but.”
“Sammy,” Dean says low, voice earnest like it gets these days. “We’re no good apart. You die, I die, either way it’s the end of the line for us both. I’m just makin’ sure you take care of yourself this time around.”
Sam nods, more for Dean than himself. He wants to believe him, more than anything, but the alternative is just so horrifying. To think he could be condemning his brother out of pure selfishness.
“I wanted this. I made this choice when I was alive, okay? You can’t argue with that.”
He says it like it’s the truest thing that’s ever passed anyone’s lips, and Sam – Sam has no idea what to do with that. He’s got encyclopedias memorized on how to read Dean, how no means yes but maybe means no. How if he just shrugged and said of course he was happy, Sam would know he’s lying, but if he told Sam to shut his trap and go back to finger painting like the other whiny kindergarteners, he’d know Dean just wanted to hold onto a good thing a little longer before Sam went all Freudian on it.
This, though? The straight-talking’s easy to take at face value when there’s not much at stake, but this. It just.
It just seems so goddamn genuine. It’s a new playbook, a new league, but this Dean has never lied to him and if he can just accept this Dean as different, then maybe these hurdles won’t be so high.
Hell, maybe they won’t be hurdles at all. Maybe Dean really is happy.
He doesn’t know what kind of a picture they make for Bobby there in the doorway, not just conspiring across car seats or state lines but huddling on either side of an impassable divide, taking an intangible distance and shrinking it down until their whispers can make it across.
Dean raises a hand to reach what part of Sam’s elbow he can and Sam leans into it, no matter how the goosebumps spread up his arm like wildfire.
Bobby wishes them well, which is a relief, seeing as how he has every right to throw Sam on his ass in the parking lot of the nearest hunter’s bar. Of course, Sam and Dean would’ve fought them tooth and nail and probably come out on top, but it’s nice it didn’t come to that. Instead, Bobby reminds Sam not to bring his brother round any of those hunter hotspots, ‘specially not near the Jones’ in Wichita, and then even gives him a passcode. If Sam ever says he heard of a hunt in the swamplands, Bobby’ll start the research.
Knowing him, he already has.
Dean’s learned that, sometimes, he should pump Metallica through the speakers for no reason at all. It always surprises Sam, shocks him with blasts of electric guitar, but then he settles into it like an old letterman from his glory days that he usually leaves in the back of the closet. It’s nice, for a minute, a fantasy he’s allowed to have, until Dean inevitably turns the volume down at the end of the song and asks, “More of the same?”
And Sam, inevitably, says yes.
~*~Sam’s just stepping out of a bar in Shreveport, folding up worn bills and shoving them in his wallet, when he hears a scream.
It’s not so easy to hustle pool with only one man, and even harder to keep his winnings with no one visibly watching his back. He’s sure that, with Dean’s help, he could strip every last barfly and cocky construction worker of their will to fight, and keep the money besides, but he usually tries not to let it come to that. With only one mouth to feed, and never having to stop for gas, money’s not any tighter than it ever was before.
Still, though, he makes sure it’s tucked safely into his back pocket before he follows the sound. It was feminine, short, and the young woman standing stock-still in the parking lot doesn’t seem to currently be at anyone’s mercy.
He coughs a Christo at her, just for good measure, but she just whips around, startled.
“Oh God,” she says, laughing in a high, embarrassed way with a hand to her chest. “I didn’t see you.”
“You alright?” he asks, trying to adopt some of the South in his accent that puts people around here at ease.
“I thought I saw,” she starts, motioning out into the black. “You know what, never mind. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. What’d you think you saw?”
“Well.” She laughs again. “You’ll think I’m nuts, but, a ghost. Over by that car.”
He doesn’t have to look to know she’s singled out the Impala, and he bites back a smile. Damn Dean and his predictable ways. Now that he really looks at her, he can recognize that she’s just his type. Brunette, dark eyes, small enough to fit under his arm and then some. Nothing like any woman that’s ever burned on one of his ceilings.
“I know, right?” she asks. “There no such thing. Any pre-med worth their salt knows that. There’s no such thing.”
And Sam doesn’t know what it is, that she’s educated or that she’s sweet enough to use old-fashioned idioms. Hell, maybe it’s just the proper respect for salt, he doesn’t know. But he breaks out his best college-days grin, the Sam Winchester Special, and says, “Still a lot of things that go bump in the night. I could give you a lift, if you don’t want to walk in the dark?”
“Umm,” she says, clearly debating ghost visions versus strange, tall men, but eventually decides in Sam’s favor. “Oh God, okay. Yeah. Thanks.”
When she touches Sam’s arm she fits just right, like he could scoop her up and just carry her along, and he lets his fingertips slide across the small of her back.
After she’s in the car and he’s closed the door like a gentleman, he looks at Dean and says, “I can find my own women, remember?”
“Eh,” Dean shrugs. “I just did the easy part.”
The Winchester brothers – singular when in public – make one hell of a team. Spirits aren’t used to fighting when their opponents are already dead, nests are beyond easy to scope out ahead of time, and Dean just plain out gives some things the creeps. Arachnids, Kelpies, anything a bit serpentine, most of them go ears-up (if they have any) the minute Dean gets close, and bolt before Sam can even got a shot off. They’ve made a game of it, even, trying to take them down before they flee for the brush like a fawn in hunting season.
Others – the demons, the witches, basically any chance Sam can get for impromptu Latin. As much time as he spends doing reps and running laps, he also spends memorizing: excorcisms, incantations, invocations. He knows them all.
He’s never looking down on a hunt to read from a book again.
It stacks all the chips in their favor. Some things are still impossible – wendigos take two men, and banshees flat out give him the creeps – but they’re racking up kills like tickets at an arcade. They’ve upped their game with so many creatures.
So it’s ironic, really, that what gets Sam is a ghost. Or maybe it isn’t, Sam can never really remember which definitions of irony were fake, but he sure as hell never saw it coming.
It’s harder to think of them as mindless, and the reassurance that he’s sending them to a better place doesn’t really help his mood, most days. And now, he can’t even blame the guy who put a knife through his stomach. He was tortured – literally – for years. Shut in, beat down, and finally gutted with the knife he was using to chop onions for dinner. That’s probably why Sam’s eyes sting a little as he goes down.
Dean loses his shit immediately, shoving the traumatized bastard straight into a table full of knives from his own childhood. Dean might have trouble going corporeal, but this guy doesn’t, and the table collapses under him until he’s swimming in the implements of his own torture. Dean doesn’t stop to watch, just runs for Sam, yelling about exits. By now, he doesn’t even need Sam to remind him that it has to be a door.
They stumble to the car, all of a hundred feet away, with only minor breaks for heavy panting. Dean’s got the car door open already, and Sam takes the middle ground between holding his side together carefully and throwing himself onto the nearest flat surface. His head is fucking swimming, which doesn’t make sense ‘cause it’s a stab wound and not a baseball bat to the noggin, but he can’t tell whether the lurching is the car or him and all he can think is how cold he is.
His shirts are wet, both of them soaked all the way through, and his jeans too. It leaves his hands slick and sticky. He wants to wipe them off, to feel just a little more human before he can sit up to drive, but there’s nowhere clean to wipe them off on.
Dean’s got the same old stream of worry in his ear, how bad? and more pressure and almost there. Sam doesn’t know where there is, doesn’t know how much Dean is orchestrating from the passenger’s seat beside him. He thinks Dean’s using the flickering pressure of his touch to bat Sam’s hands away and see the damage, but when he moves his hands he—
“That’s it. Up and at ‘em, Sammy. Wake on up, okay?”
“How bout we get inside? See the damage?”
That sounds… awful, really. His head’s so heavy, he thinks if he could just put it down for a minute he’d be okay. Just for a minute. Dean’s always so go-go-go! He just – he’s tired. Too tired. Dean can do it and he’ll have to sit this one out.
The radio is sudden, and blaring. It stabs into his ears like a talon, but it also pierces through the cobwebs until he can get that Dean’s asking him to get up. It’s a short walk. Please, he’s saying, for him.
The bed is even better than the car, and Sam should remember to tell Dean this was a good idea. Yes. But right now, Dean’s saying no – no Sammy, not the bed. No Sammy, keep the pressure. No Sammy, don’t close ‘em, look at me.
But he knows Dean is there even after he closes his eyes. He can feel him, pressing into his stomach with a solid weight that’s too reliable to be real. Sam thinks, maybe, this is what it’s like to be dead. Where his brother is just as solid as he is.
Jesus Christ, his head aches. Not just in an Excedrin way, it actually aches. Full on throbs like a banged up knee and is painful to the touch. The only saving grace is that the lights are low, staying as far away from migraine territory as possible, and making it all too easy to drift into sleep.
“Well, hey there sweetie.”
Sam blinks. A lot. The room is bright and painful, just like this woman’s voice.
“Oh,” she says, like she remembered she left her lunch on the kitchen counter, and then the lights go low and Sam likes her a hell of a lot more. “That better?” she whispers, and he croaks a yes.
He didn’t know it’d come out like that, but so be it.
“Okay, we’re just gonna test some vitals, and then you can close your eyes again.”
He keeps them closed now. He knows the drill, isn’t scared or even curious enough to track her around the room. Hospitals are like nosy old women who have fifty years’ worth of newspaper clippings in their attics. They’re time consuming, and a pain, but he’s more likely to come out alive if he lets them help.
The only thing about hospitals is, he doesn’t remember getting to one. Sam weighs the confusion against the cliché and finally clears his throat to ask, “How did I get here?”
“Oh, look at you, poor thing. You marched yourself right to reception, is how. You don’t remember?”
He cracks an eye open enough to see her worrying, eyeing the chart at the foot of his bed and wondering if she should note that down. She shouldn’t; amnesia or not, he doesn’t want them to have any more reasons than necessary to make him stay.
Instead, she slips a pressure cuff around his arm and starts pumping the little bulb in her hand. “Don’t know how you did it,” she goes on. “Do you remember what cut you up so bad?”
Sam winces, and moves a hand gingerly to the scar he can look forward to. “No,” he lies.
“Been down by the swamp, maybe?”
It’s a full body flinch this time, an automatic reaction to a place he rarely thinks of and never goes, and he wonders if she noticed – if she’s really a nurse at all. She looks the part, worn sneakers and short, no-nonsense hair framing her round face, but she could just be the perfect disguise for another beetle-eyed soul sucker. What business does any human have asking him about swamps?
“Hmm.” She purses her lips. “Guess not. Well, Dr. Fuller will probably ask you more. We’re running a few blood panels as we speak. There’s some concern, now, about your kidneys. Your blood was especially dark, which can be indicative of a form of kidney disease. It appeared to be intermittent, which is a good sign, but we want to be proactive about these things.”
She sits herself down on the side of the bed, utterly maternal despite the sudden hospital jargon, and Sam’s half expecting her to measure his temperature with a hand to his forehead. If she’s a demon, she’s doing a hell of a good job. He can tell she’s staying purposely calm, watching him with those wide ‘ask me anything’ eyes doctors use to try to be reassuring. She’s probably expecting more clichés, nervously asking whether that’s bad and if he should be worried. He needs her to back up, though, because he’s got his own figuring out to do. Dark blood could be some sort of clue.
“Uh? Oh, dark as the night, sweetie.” She says it regretfully. “You had quite a nosebleed when you got to us. Looked just like my boys after wrestling down by the marshes, inhale half their weight in swamp dirt, they do. Thought I’d try out a bit of wishful thinking for ya, til the bloodwork came back, but no can do, I suppose.”
Sam tunes her out, trying to picture it. A black nosebleed sounded demonic or—
He bolts up, jarring his stitches and sucking in a deep breath and his hand comes to press at his side. “My car.”
“Alright there. Hold on, now, just lay back down.”
Her hands are at his shoulders, gentle but steady, and he fights the urge to bat them away. “My car. Where’s my car?”
Something is wrong, it has to be, because he’s been awake for five whole minutes and he’s alone.
“I don’t know, but if you’ll just calm down, you can tell me what it looks like—”
He wriggles her hands from his shoulders and says, “The Impala.”
“Just lay down first.”
“It’s a black classic muscle car. Someone will remember it.”
“I’ll have to sedate you if you can’t lay back.”
She’s shrinking back from Sam’s flailing hands, moving towards his IV drip and out of reach, and he tries to grab for her. She can’t put him out, he has to find Dean.
“I need to find it. I need to go.”
And then she’s got a needle in the IV intake valve. He’s still reaching for her, needing her to listen. “Impala. Chevy. 1967. I need it. Please.”
He has just enough time to see the pity in her face before he’s out.
Next he has to deal with the doctor – Fuller, he said – who’s just as unhelpful. They’ve threatened to strap him down, they won’t answer his questions, and Fuller makes him go through his medical history and half his (straight from TV) life story before he lets Sam talk. And then all he says is, “I’m not sure, Barbara might have more information about your car than I do. We were more concerned about keeping you alive, Mr. Tyler.”
“Well,” Sam says with the same indignance of people kept waiting too long for their morning latte, “it shouldn’t be too hard to page her, right?”
He’d just yank the IV himself if he’d had another few days of rest, but these people are his best chance of finding his brother. For now.
Barbara, the nurse-mom, takes her sweet time coming back around but when she does she’s bearing gifts. He eyes the phone number she gives him with barely hidden disgust, but he still manages to say thank you.
They towed Dean’s car.
He calls Bobby instead, begging him to – yes, drop everything – haul ass across four states, and jailbreak the Impala.
“That’s at least seventeen hours, Sam. If I don’t sleep. I don’t see what you want me to do.”
“I don’t know how long Dean can make it, cooped up there. We have to get him out.”
Sam can hear him actively not reaching for his keys. “You know, This undead thing only works so long ‘s you got a good leash on that boy.”
“I was unconscious. Don’t I get a by?”
“Yeah? How many poltergeists go easy on you once they’ve knocked you out?”
“Please,” Sam begged again. “If he’s not freaking out by now, he will soon.”
Bobby heaved a long, guttural sigh. “Alright. Just let me hit the head and then I’ll warm the truck up.”
It’s more like twenty five hours, which is about twenty too long for Sam to do anything but jiggle his leg restlessly, throwing off his blankets and raising Barbara’s ire even further. The hospital is too small and homey to have anything resembling entertainment in the rooms, so Sam has to settle for counting the stains on the wall and wondering how many of them are bodily fluids.
When Dean does finally show up, he’s not any better off than Sam expected. He appears, already in motion, charging through the concrete second-story wall and straight to Sam’s side. He actually overshoots a little, standing somewhat in the middle of Sam, and Sam jumps enough to nearly pull his IV out.
Dean doesn’t notice.
“Jesus, Sammy, are you—”
“I’m fine. I am.” His heart’s going and his stitches tug as he rolls up to reach for his brother, but the biggest shock is how much fine actually washes over him. He’d thought it was just the joys of near-disembowelment, but he’s realizing that flesh wounds take a back seat to just knowing Dean’s not holed up in a junkyard, rattling the fence like an inmate.
“They towed me. Eight miles, Sammy. And I tried, I fought it, but they just kept reeling me back.” Dean spits it out, vehement, but it isn’t the disbelieving tone of dealing with assholes and dimwits that’s so familiar in Dean’s voice. Instead, his face is heavy with apology and worry so deep it etches itself in bones. “I can’t make it that far.”
“Dean.” Sam’s voice is calmer now, his pulse slowing with relief. “It’s alright. You’re alright.”
“Not me,” Dean counters. “It’s you. You were in surgery and those machines started beeping and he was calling out for more blood and I couldn’t get back.”
“Dean,” Sam says more urgently. “I promise. We’re fine. See?” He gestures to himself, intact and resting, “Limbs and bodily organs, all accounted for.”
That’s when he notices Dean’s fists are trying to curl in his shirt, to hold on like that alone will keep him tied to Sam no matter where the car goes. If Dean were really here he’d grab onto his wrist, shake it and not let go until Dean was grounded enough to accept that they were both still breathing and no blame was being flung. He wants to do the same now, curl his fingers into Dean’s hands so he has something real to hang onto. Flesh wound or not, it’s Dean who needs the reassurance now. It’s some sort of irony that as soon as Dean would be okay with all of Sam’s huggy-touchy forms of empathy, they’re incapable of touch.
All he can do is repeat, ad nauseum. Dean calms down like a storm slowly trickles off, thunder clouds hanging around long past the threat of any danger, and eventually he realizes he’s very much in the middle of Sam’s personal space. He only moves a little.
“You know,” Sam says once Dean’s gotten a bit more settled. “You could have just let it go.”
“What go?” Dean asks, sharp and quick.
“It,” Sam eyes him, tone casual but sincerity giving him away. “It would be okay. If you want us both to just… Move on.”
Dean takes a moment for that to sink in before going still in ways unnatural even for ghosts. “Don’t think that. I don’t want that.”
“Dean,” he says again. “It would be okay.”
“No!” Dean’s standing now, and Sam can imagine the chair that should have been slammed over in his rage. “Don’t say that. I had to.”
“Had to possess me? Dean, that’s heavy mojo. I didn’t even know you could do that.”
“I had to,” Dean stresses again. “You can’t ask me not to.”
Sam thinks, then, to check something he hadn’t even thought of before. This should have been impossible – not because Dean was weak, but because he was shielded. He pulls up the hand without the IV to slip under the neck of his gown and, sure enough, his fingers skim over more heavy gauze right where his protection tattoo should be. He should get it patched up ASAP, more ink for more protection.
He’ll... think about it.
He pans up to meet Dean’s eyes, conflicted and pained even in the bright fluorescents of the hospital room. “How?”
Dean shrugs, an old self-deprecating gesture. “I couldn’t stay still. You needed pressure, Sammy. Fuck, I shoulda just taken you to the hospital first, but I couldn’t stay solid long enough to apply pressure.” He raises his hands, judging them and deeming them unworthy. “So I did what I could with the spare knife. Short, quick moves, until I could get you out of there.”
“You left a wicked hangover, man.”
Despite how Sam’s head throbbed for a solid day afterwards, it’s an attempt to lighten things up.
Dean’s having none of it. “Lesser of two evils, Sammy. I had to.”
“Dean.” Sam slides a hand across the thin, cotton blanket towards his brother. “Don’t. Next time, don’t.”
He looks wrecked, worse than when he barreled in, but Sam can’t let himself be sorry. It’d be better if Dean stopped trying so hard to keep them each on two feet. Better for them both. They could just… pass on. Together.
A knock on the door precedes Barbara’s head poking in, but just barely. She’s oblivious, an overtaxed smile for Sam and not even a bit chilly, but Bobby behind her has no problem spotting the dead man in the room.
“You’ve got a visitor,” Barbara tells him, and he gives her the first genuine smile he’s managed since he realized what Dean had done. He’s not exactly feeling it, but he’s sane enough now to realize how being separated from Dean had made him a little crazy.
“Four states to pick this guy up,” Bobby starts, yanking a thumb in Dean’s direction like he’s just a schmuck walking by, “and he won’t even stay in the damn car. Heel-clicked his way out once we got within a mile of this place.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, suddenly a bit sheepish. “We figured that out a year or so ago. He’s pretty stuck to the car. Unless.”
Bobby raises an eyebrow. “Unless?”
“Unless he’s with me.”
“Well. Ain’t that peachy.”
Sam avoids his gaze, not really willing to put words to what that means, and Dean seems to do the same.
“Hey,” Bobby splits the silence. “Who died?”
“No one,” Dean says. And then he’s looking back at Sam, flimsy as a thought in the wind but full to the brim with anguish. “I can’t, Sammy. I can’t do that.”
And then he’s, like bad reception shorting out. Sam yells, startled, but if Dean can hear him he doesn’t answer. For all he knows he’s just outside but, “Fuck.”
“Really? Not even ten minutes in and the honeymoon’s over?”
“He shouldn’t have done it, Bobby.”
Bobby eyes him like a kid who likes to taunt rattlers. “Come again?”
“You said it yourself, he shouldn’t be here. I probably shouldn’t have lasted this long anyway, and—”
“You can just go on and shut it right there. I’ve had enough stupidity out of you two already, and on no sleep, to boot.”
“Come on, Bobby. I’m not saying I want to swan dive just yet but, if I gotta, at least something good could come of it.”
Bobby tisks, audibly, and pulls up a rickety plastic chair. “I take it you’re having trouble making him see things your way?”
Sam spreads his hands wide, watching them smooth out the blanket. “He’d agree with me. The real him.”
“Now, just ‘cause he’s a bit narrow-minded in the logic department don’t mean he’s not real.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sam,” Bobby says, straightening up, “didn’t you look up what happened to your brother?”
“Did I need to? I mean, yeah, of course. I pulled up all the ghost lore on what they can do, and triggers and stuff. But we already knew all that.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re lookin’ in hunting books.”
“And what should I be looking in? Cook books? Coloring books?”
Bobby rolls his eyes, letting Sam know that he’s ten years old and a pain in his side again. “Hunting books got vengeful spirits in ‘em. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, Dean doesn’t strike me as the violent killer type just yet?”
Sam shakes his head. “I told you, just on hunts. Same as always.”
“There are no solid accounts of it, but you hear of it every so often.”
Sam sits up farther. “Of what?”
“A protective spirit. They get confused for vengeful spirits sometimes, which is why no one’s really certain they exist. If they’re protecting the forest you want to bulldoze, well. Then they’re one in the same, I guess.”
Bobby snorts. “I think we both know what he’s protecting.”
And, yeah. Obviously. So it wasn’t just luck that made Dean so tame.
“So, what does that mean?”
“I got some books on it,” he says casually, resting back even as the chair twists and creaks beneath him. “He probably won’t even be as strong which, I hate to say, is probably a good thing for the people who cross your path. He just doesn’t have the anger to fuel it.”
Sam nods along.
“And it means,” Bobby adds, looking at him seriously, “there ain’t no chance he’s gonna stand by while you try to sneak past the pearly gates, neither.”
“But if I could just talk him into it—”
“Sam. He said it himself. Hell, he said it the first time I met him. It’s like asking him to ditch the car. He can’t. ”
And—Fuck. Sam drops back against the pillow, ignoring how the bounce tugs sharply at his side. Some things never change.
“Guess I’ll be around for a while then, huh? I better get him back here.”
He nods. “Guessin’ you better. And try not to insult his reason for existin’, this time.”
Bobby pushes himself up and then takes up a novel interest in the window while Sam says aloud, “Dean? Can you come back?” That earns him nothing, so he says it louder. “Dean?” Nothing.
“Dean, you gotta come back. Come on, you can’t just leave me here!”
That grabs Barbara’s attention again, but just as he’s waving her off there’s a thin, opalescent shimmer at the foot of his bed, and he turns all his attention to it.
“I take it back,” he says, and then Dean’s staring back at him, as hopeful as he is pained.
“Sammy, I can’t—”
“I know,” Sam says. “Come here.”
Dean remembers to walk around the bed, pulling up by Sam’s head and leaning a hand on the bed.
“It’s just,” and Sam feels guilty even as he says it, but there’s no getting away from it. “I miss you.”
Resignation joins all the other emotions parading across Dean’s face, and his smile is almost wistful. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Yeah. Me too.”
Sam’s unpacked a piece of paper and a pen, like Dean asked, and laid them down on the bedside table that’s the only thing this motel has in the way of a flat surface. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t wary, eying the pen like it’s about to erupt with gas like in a James Bond movie and he’ll wake up in seven hours wondering what his name is, but it’s just a pen.
Dean sits on the edge of the bed, eyes closed and hands balled on his knees, wading through concentration. It’s not reassuring, at all, when the pen does start to move – it jerks, rolls a little to the edge, but rights itself and slowly stands upright like an iron filling reaching up toward a magnet. Sam watches it drag across the pad of paper from three motels ago, pressure firm enough to leave a mark but not an indent. There’s two cautious lines, parallel, and then another connecting them like a goal post. Then a smaller, rounded curve begins to form at its side.
Dean hasn’t opened his eyes once, and Sam gets more caught up in watching him than he does in the writing, so it takes him three letters to realize Dean’s spelling something, and even longer to figure out what it is. It’s brief, direct, but – fuck. He’d recognize it anywhere. Those sharp letters, slanted and cramped. Already, he knows this one piece of paper will never see the inside of a trash can. He will fold it up, making smart creases with his thumbnail that don’t mar the letters, and tuck it into the hidden pocket in his wallet. To stay.
When Dean’s done, he’s grinning like a school boy who just learned to tie his shoe. “I’ve been practicing,” he says, and leans over to inspect his work.
There, in Dean’s perfect handwriting, are the words: Happy Birthday, Sammy.
Right before Christmas in 2018, a couple of flunkees in neon rain jackets try to steal the Impala. Sam’s still laughing about that one.
It’s jarring, sometimes – what Dean’s kept, and what he’s thrown away. Sam’s not an idiot, he knew his brother was off from the get-go, but sometimes he just seems so much more… distilled. Like any ghost, Sam supposes, single-mindedly determined and a bitch to argue with.
He was never going to ditch the nicknames, the Sammy and kiddo and Gigantor, but it had only taken a year or so to realize that ‘Princess’ was no longer in Dean’s repertoire. He knows, now, that what he does and doesn’t keep is all for Sam, and he supposes he should be happy about that one. The girl names were really getting old. And the reminders for Sam to man up and press on. Those still rear their heads occasionally but, given what he knows now, he can usually spot them for the distraction tactics they really are.
Dean’s still a pain on hunts, more so with every passing year, though that’s not really anything new. He wants to take point on every single job, keep Sam safe and sheltered and chanting Latin where the knives can’t reach him, and he’s constantly yelling for Sam to watch out or veer left or, above all, run. Gone are the days of militant obedience, though, of commands given to be followed on point. It stung when Sam realized that – that the authoritarian edge and close-cropped buzz cuts were really something Dean needed for himself. The only things left of Dad, archaic and vestigial, but important to him nonetheless. And Sam had balked at them every single time.
Living with Dean is like seeing his brother’s reflection, and each year holds up one more mirror for the light to bounce off of before the image reaches him. Dean loses details, the smirks and the swagger, until there’s only one thing Sam can see for sure. Dean loves him, no doubt. Even if, sometimes, that’s all he does.
But Dean still picks the music, even if he’s using Sam’s collection to do it. Sam throws in his requests whenever he feels like it, but the songs slips by like road and telephone poles, and it’s one less thing Sam has to worry about. Turns out, Sam likes it that way.
Sam groans, clutching his stomach even as he rolls feverishly against the motel bed.
“Dean,” he calls. “Avenge my death.”
Dean smiles placidly from the chair he’s floating on. “Sure thing, kiddo.”
“Dean,” he groans again, because Jesus it feels like something’s trying to eat its way through his stomach lining. Like Alien. It’s definitely got claws. Or maybe he swallowed a cursed watermelon seed and it really is growing its way out.
“Sammy. I can’t fight a chimichunga.”
“It’s killing me!”
“It’s digesting. Next time, we’re not stopping for Mexican so close to the border.”
Sam whines pitifully as his stomach cramps again. “It was authentic,” he says, face crammed into the pillow.
Dean says, “Exactly.”
Sam waits for his body to relax and the beads of sweat on his face and neck to trickle into the sheet. When he can sound more like a grown man and less like a kindergartener who broke his Transformers he says, “Seriously, Dean. This could be bad.”
“Sammy, if there were any chance…”
Dean starts to sound more serious, closing in from across the room, and Sam opens one eye. Dean’s watching him thoughtfully, halfway between vigilant and resigned, and he just says, “I’d know.”
Which is sweet and all, and Sam pretty much already knew that, but it doesn’t help the cramping or the serious dehydration he’s giving himself, sweat beads fat like raindrops across his neck.
“Can I at least get some water?”
“You sure you can keep it down this time?”
Sam whines, because Dean lets him, and because he probably will just hurl it all back up. Dean disappears, though, and it takes him a few minutes but eventually a plastic cup from the bathroom comes floating through the room, tipping and dripping onto the carpet and the bedspread but still landing mostly full on the bedside table.
“Let’s try it in sips.”
There’s already an empty trashcan by the bed for exactly what comes next, but Dean’s hands are cool against Sam’s sweaty back as he hurls.
In the morning, Sam stumbles across the motel room for his fifth bathroom trip of the night, but all he does this time is piss and drink more water straight from the tap. Dean’s waiting for him on the bed when he comes back, looking kempt and rested, as always.
“I’m thinking we should get a move-on, Sammy.”
Sam lets himself fall onto the bed, curling the covers back up to his neck, and successfully ignores him.
“No, really. I don’t think we should stay here much longer.”
“Don’t tell me your spidey sense is tingling now.”
“Are you kidding? Have you smelled that bathroom? One spark and this whole place is kaboom.” Dean mimes it with his hands, a pretty little slow motion explosion, complete with sound effects. “As soon as 3B lights a cigarette, we’re done for.
Pillows have absolutely no effect on ghosts whatsoever, but that doesn’t stop Sam from launching one straight through Dean, who laughs.
Sam grins. “Jerk.”
~ Part 4