He dreamed a road that went on forever, where time gathered in deep, still pools and everything was soft and sweetly dim.
He dreamed his mother – fisting a hand in her hair and seeing a baby’s clumsy grip and a man’s scarred knuckles superimposed, hearing her laugh and pry him loose, murmuring something affectionate that lingered in his ear like the echo of the ocean in a seashell.
He dreamed his brother small enough to curl into his side in the dark, sharp elbows and bony knees and baby fat, ribs rising and falling softly under his fingers and a fragile heart beating trustingly up into his palm.
He dreamed his son-who-wasn’t, small and precious and sunlit, a spray of bright balloons drifting at the corner of his sight and the smell of barbecue permeating the air.
He dreamed a man with black eyes who wore shadows and blood, who tilted his head and bared his teeth in a coyote’s smile.
He dreamed of falling.
Dean came back to himself in pieces, like a window shattering in reverse.
First came the things that made him Dean: emotions without any real source, and memories – Sam first, because so much of him was tied to Sam. Sam came in sketches of a smile, the one that got thinner, sharper as he grew from four, to eight, to fifteen, to bone-weary and ageless but still smiling that fundamentally bright smile. He came in a tangle of emotions Dean’s fingers were too clumsy to peel apart and put names to, a hopeless snarl of threads that he called love.
Then Dad, in the memory of rough, sure fingers curling his around the grip of a gun, a voice that gave him purpose, that kept him lifting his feet when he wanted to sink to his knees.
Mom. The scent of vanilla and tomato soup, wavering strains of Hey Jude, a whisper: Angels are watching over you.
Everything else came in a surge, in flashes of sound and colour and pain: hunting, monsters, losing people, losing Sammy, scrubbing blood from his skin like Lady Macbeth – aware of it even when he couldn’t see it anymore. Darkness poured in and carried in its wake an exhaustion that settled into his bones like it belonged there, like it owned him. He felt heavy.
He dragged a breath into his lungs and choked, gasping frantically. The weight was pressing him down, so heavy on his ribs he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. There was rain stinging his skin, mud slick against his fingers as they flexed instinctively, clumsily. He could feel the grains of it under his nails.
Dean opened his eyes, squinting into the rain and the satiny grey light. Everything was blurred. He blinked, raindrops flicking free of his lashes and stinging his eyes, dripping down his temples like tears.
For a long moment, he just lay there staring at the slate-grey sky, gasping, listening, feeling, but not truly aware. Everything felt… new, so overwhelming and strange that he couldn’t think past the sensation: the patter of rain and the sweet, wet coolness of it when he opened his mouth to drink, suddenly parched; the sluggish beat of his heart; the shiver of his muscles as the chill sank in, the sharp prick of goose-bumps racing across his bare skin.
He was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and drift back into the dream he didn’t really remember, but remembered the gentle happiness of – but the dull echo of his father’s voice was in his ear, telling him to pick his feet back up, to take another step, to keep moving forward.
“Are you going to lie in the mud for another hour, or can we get moving?” someone asked, sounding bored and nothing like John Winchester.
Dean surged upright – or tried to. The mud sucked at his back like a retreating tide and his muscles felt unsettlingly weak, like every time he’d almost bled out. Splayed in the mud, he couldn’t do anything but stare up at the sky with dread creeping in with the blackness that hovered at the edge of his vision.
“I suppose that answers my question,” the voice muttered, sighing. “Damn.”
Something squelched beside his head, and suddenly there was a dark shape looming over him, slowly resolving itself into something man-shaped. For a crazy moment, he thought he saw dark wings outlined against the sky – but, no, it was an umbrella, held over the head and shoulders of a man who stared down at him emotionlessly.
“Wh-” Dean broke off, startled at the thin, raspy sound of his own voice. He swallowed, tried again. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Calm down,” the man said in a tone that implied he was rolling his eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you… Probably.”
“Thanks. That’s real reassuring – again, what the fuck are you?”
The man dropped into a crouch, baring his teeth in a bright, empty smile. This close, Dean could make out the pale circle of his face, the shadow of stubble along his jaw, the brilliant blue of his eyes. Dean could only stare in awe, caught by the colour with the same child-like fascination he’d felt over the mud, the rain on his skin, the novelty of cold.
A hand closed on his shoulder, the grip firm and uncaring but not tight. The contact burned inexplicably and Dean hissed, catching a glimpse of a smirk as his eyes fluttered against the pain. The man lowered his face, voice a low, rolling sound like thunder that caught on the canopy of the umbrella and echoed.
“I’m the one who gripped you tight and dragged you from salvation, Dean Winchester,” he murmured, eyes a flash of glacier blue under the dark fan of his lashes.
Dean stared. “Yeah, thanks for that, asshole. Christo.”
The demon flinched, eyes turning black. The grip on Dean’s shoulder tightened and sent a bolt of agony through him, so strong his vision whited out and his stomach rolled. He thought he might have vomited if there had been anything in his stomach to bring up.
“You’re welcome,” it spat, and when Dean’s vision cleared its eyes were that fathomless blue again, the lips curled in a snarl. “Could you not do that? It’s uncomfortable.”
Uncom-? “You’re a demon,” Dean said, vaguely aware that his voice had taken on a hysterical edge.
“Yes, we’ve established that. Were you always this stupid, or did I bring you back wrong?”
“Get the fuck away from me,” Dean snarled, shrugging the hand off and struggling to sit up again.
The demon rocked back onto its heels, the umbrella hovering over it, and watched him heave himself upright with an expression of mixed amusement and condescension. Dean managed it, but he was shaking and dizzy and horribly, sickeningly aware that he was completely at a demon’s mercy.
As if aware of his thoughts, the demon reached out carelessly with one hand, ignoring Dean’s attempt to shove it away, and pushed on his breastbone. The pressure was almost gentle, but it was enough to send Dean sprawling back onto the ground, mud splattering out from the impact.
The demon smirked, bending close again, balancing itself with an open palm against his chest like a statement, like a threat. That close, Dean could see the glistening flecks of mud clinging to its face, the thin cracks in its dry lips, the dark power behind too-blue eyes.
“Yes, you’re helpless,” it breathed, the words falling wet and warm on his skin, “I could slit you open right now, Dean Winchester, and send you howling into whatever afterlife you’re entitled to now I’ve left my dirty fingerprints all over your soul.”
Dean swallowed, shaking. He was – fuck, he could barely sit up under his own power, let alone fight back against a demon. He had no weapons, not even his own body. He felt weaker than he’d ever felt in his life, except for waking up in that hospital bed after the coma, veins full of drugs and body heavy with blood that welled up in bruises all through him.
“But I won’t,” the demon continued, drawing back, “Because we have things to do.”
Before he could so much as open his mouth, there were fingertips brushing gently along his hairline and he was plunged into unconsciousness.