Sam first saw it in a dream.
He didn't realize it was important then, of course. It was just a dream, one of many he'd had while lying weak and feeble in his bed, clawing his way back from where the Trials had so nearly taken him. He dreamed of many things in the quiet of the bunker: the terrible beauty of the angels falling, the humanity shading Crowley's features as Sam poured his own blood into the demon's veins, the desperation in Dean's eyes as he tried to convince Sam to stop. Memories filled his unconscious mind, merging with visions of himself talking to Bobby in a forest before fading into something else.
There were stranger, more terrible dreams, too, like the church falling down around him as flames rose up to pull both him and Crowley down into a fiery pit because Sam's sacrifice wasn't deemed worthy. Or the fallen angels forming a circle around him to pool their last remaining scraps of grace and wipe him from the earth. Or finishing the Trials despite Dean's pleas only to see his brother taken instead of him—a sacrifice Sam hadn't anticipated and that left him gasping for air when he woke up.
The dream with the tear in the sky was different. It was just…there. It wasn't menacing or threatening. It was over his head, out of the corner of his eye, as he and Dean walked through a grassy field, tall mountains rising around them. Sam didn't pay it much mind when he awoke, only glad to be waking calmly for once and not with the dread or despair that his dreams often brought.
Outside, from what Sam knew, the world wasn't much better. Dean had thought of nothing other than getting Sam to safety in his near-comatose condition, so Crowley had made good his escape from the church. Despite what Kevin had been able to learn from the demon tablet about how to track the King of Hell, there was no sign of him.
Cas was also nowhere to be found despite Dean's best efforts, presumably graceless and earthbound like the other angels. When Sam was awake long enough to watch the news, he saw a few stories about large numbers of bewildered people wandering the country. Nothing more noticeable than that, which meant whatever had happened while he was trying to close the gates of Hell, at least the Muggles hadn't noticed it.
It took almost a month before Sam was able to get up and out of bed. It was a month in which Dean hovered over him constantly on the days he was in the bunker. When Dean was out looking for Cas or Crowley, he left Kevin with strict orders to watch over Sam and call him if Sam so much as looked woozy. Sam gave only token protests because he could read in the wildness of Dean's eyes and the set of his jaw how near a thing it had been, how Sam had almost failed not only completing the Trials but keeping himself alive. If Dean wanted to hover and claim that he wasn't, or bring tomato and rice soup three times a day for a week, Sam wasn't going to complain.
Of course, "out of bed" only meant sitting at the table in the library, letting Dean and Kevin fuss over him like he couldn't even sit up on his own. Okay, so he did fall asleep once or twice while reading the newspaper, but he was getting stronger. He knew it.
Then one night, a few days after leaving his room for the first time, Sam dreamed about the sky again. It was a bright, sunny day, there was a road winding off over grass-covered hills, and he and Dean were walking along without a care in the world. Over his shoulder, as Sam tracked the flight of a monarch butterfly, he saw it. The sky had a tear in it, ragged-edged like a sheet of paper torn by hand, nothing visible behind it except sheer, dark blackness.
Once was his fevered mind playing tricks. Twice…well, twice was probably something more serious.
"No, I haven't seen anything like that," Kevin said when Sam asked him the next morning. "Not in the tablets, at least."
"Hmm." Sam leaned back in his chair, contemplating how long he could stand at a time, and how long it would take him to go through the Men of Letters' library to find a reference to rips in the sky based on how frequently he'd have to sit down.
Kevin sighed. "Do you think it's important?"
Sam shook his head. "It's probably just a dream," he said quietly.
Kevin looked wary but said nothing else.
Sam might not have been able to wander through the library for long, but he did have his laptop. So he spent the next several days combing the usual websites for anything useful. He found some mildly interesting psychoanalysis on the meaning of dreams, and wow, what a coincidence, he had recently been under a lot of pressure without a good support network. "Thanks for the insight," he muttered, closing the tab.
"You say something?" Dean asked, poking his head around the corner from the kitchen.
"Nothing important," Sam sighed.
"I'm fine, Dean."
Dean narrowed his eyes, but all he said was, "You up for a burger? Or more soup?"
Sam contemplated the scarred tabletop for a moment. "I think I could do a burger," he finally said.
Dean's eyes lit up. "Awesome," he said. "One burger, coming right up."
Sam only ate about half of it, but to be fair, it was a huge-ass burger, and the most solid food he'd managed at a time since getting out of bed. Dean didn't stop beaming the entire time, even while eating his own meal.
Or most of his meal, at any rate. About a third of Dean's burger was still sitting on his plate when he finally stood up, and quite a few tater tots, as well. Sam raised an eyebrow. "You saving that for later?"
Dean shrugged. "Guess I was snacking while I was making dinner. Eyes are bigger than my stomach, you know."
He carried the plates back to the kitchen, and Sam watched him go with a slight frown. Dean's stomach was always bigger than his eyes. Bigger than it had any right to be, even given their lifestyle.
Later that evening, when Dean sat down across from him with a beer, Sam snuck glances at him over the top of his laptop. It might have been the lighting, but Dean looked a little paler than normal. When Dean finally met his gaze with a raised eyebrow, Sam flushed. "Sorry. Just…are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," Dean said.
"You've been down here for weeks. You should get out more, get some sun."
"Getting tired of me?" Dean asked.
"No, it's not that," Sam said. "It's just…you look kinda pale. Like you haven't been outside much."
"I've been outside," Dean retorted. "And until I get a reason to go out, like a new lead on Cas, I'm gonna be here. That okay with you?"
"Okay, okay." Sam held his hands up. "Never mind."
But he started paying more attention over the next few days, and he didn't like what he saw.
On the one hand, Dean's cooking got more elaborate as Sam grew stronger. Burgers were replaced with steaks, salads had jar-shaken vinegar-and-oil dressing instead of bottled, and pies were homemade concoctions with double crusts and flavored whipped cream. Everything was delicious; Kevin tore into his food with relish, and Sam found himself eating more than he thought he could. He was staying upright all day now, even taking walks down the corridors, and he felt stronger than he had in months. The effects of the Trials weren't entirely gone, but rest and recuperation were doing wonders.
Dean, on the other hand. Dean wasn't doing so well.
He was putting less food than normal on his plate, and even then, he wouldn't finish it all. He looked thinner, his flannel shirts hanging more loosely. There were circles under his eyes, and he looked as tired as he had the first few days he'd been hovering beside Sam's bed.
Sam finally asked Kevin, and the worry on his face told Sam he wasn't imagining things. "I haven't asked him," Kevin said in a low voice. "Doubt he'd tell me anyway. And I don’t think he's sick. Not like, a cold or anything. But yeah, I feel like something's wrong."
Now Sam had two reasons to visit the library. Thankfully, by now he could spend hours wandering the library and only have to sit down a few times. He started with the first problem, finding hundreds of references to a tear in the sky, but nothing about what it might mean in a dream.
It wasn't until he raised his head and saw Dean in the doorway, almost swaying back and forth, that it hit him. He recognized the bone-deep tiredness on Dean's face. It was his tiredness. He'd felt that way after the second trial, had never really recovered until it was all over. Until recently, really, when his slow, day-by-day improvement meant he almost felt like himself again.
Right at the same time that Dean was looking worse and worse every day.
Sam shelved the book he'd been looking at and came forward. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Dean was trying to lean unobtrusively on the doorframe. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "Just didn't sleep well."
"Bad dreams?" Sam asked.
Dean gave him a quick side-eye. They didn't talk about their dreams. Not since Dean confessed to remembering forty years in Hell, certainly not since Sam's eternity in the same place.
So Sam was surprised when Dean shrugged one shoulder and said, "Not bad, really, just weird."
Dean's gaze went unfocused. "We were walking somewhere, you and me, out in this field. Just walking. And then there was this—like this rip in the sky. I didn't hear it or anything, I just suddenly saw it when I turned around."
Sam stared. "Dean, I had that dream, too."
"What?" Dean blinked. "Is this like the dream where you forgot you had a test and it turns out nerds all over the world have that dream?"
"No, it's not." Sam folded his arms over his chest. "I've been looking it up, or trying to. I can't find anything, online or here. But the fact that we're both having the same dream has to mean something."
"Yeah, well, if you figure it out, let me know. Baby needs a wash." Dean jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'll be in the garage."
Sam watched him go, seeing the weary tilt of his shoulders and the gait that was more bow-legged than usual. He opened his mouth to call out, but then stopped. He knew his brother. Dean wasn't going to admit anything was wrong. Sam was going to have to figure it out for himself and confront Dean with it.
As it turned out, that was only half right.
A few days later, Kevin came and found him in the library. "I found something," he said, holding up a thin volume with black lines criss-crossing the dark red cover. "You're not gonna like it."
"When do I ever?" Sam muttered.
"We didn't realize until it was almost too late what the consequences of going through with the Trials would be," Kevin said. He grimaced. "I mean, I didn't realize. It was almost too late."
"Hey, no," Sam said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You did the best you could, Kevin. You went through things no one should have to go through to get that tablet translated."
"Anyway." Kevin grimaced. "After you guys came back, I got to wondering about what the consequences of <i>not</i> doing the Trials might be. There have certainly been people who got through the first Trial before, and even a couple who passed the second. But I don't think anyone ever came as close as you did to passing the third."
"I don't even know how close it was," Sam said softly.
"Close enough," Kevin replied. "Given how long it took you to recover."
"Yeah," Sam said. He shook his head, chasing away memories of fire coursing under his skin. "So what's the part I'm not going to like?"
Kevin sighed. "How did Dean get you back?"
Frowning, Sam asked, "What do you mean, get me back?"
"The Trials require a sacrifice," Kevin said. "You were almost gone, Sam. Dean must have done something to keep you from going all the way."
"He talked me out of it." Sam shook his head. "That was all."
"Are you sure?"
Sam tried to remember. It was mostly still a blur, but the last thing he recalled before blinding pain washing over him was the warmth of Dean's hands on his. "He bound up my hand where it was bleeding, and then I just—started to keel over."
"He bound your hand?" Kevin asked sharply.
"Just with a handkerchief."
"Did you guys say anything to each other?"
Sam briefly looked away. They weren't his words to share, not when Dean had been speaking from the heart as he so rarely did. But Kevin wouldn't be asking unless it was important. "He, uh, he said there was nothing he would put in front of me. That I came first, I guess."
"Great." Kevin muttered. When Sam glared at him, he said, "I mean, normally I'd say yay, good for you guys, talking it out like that. But here…well, take a look."
He held out the book, open to a page halfway through. Sam leaned over and squinted at the tiny, precise handwriting. It was a ritual, a binding spell from somewhere in Northern Europe. It was meant for a transfer of powers between mages, or from mage to healer, and at first, Sam was going to ask why Kevin was showing it to him.
Then he read it a second time, and it clicked. They'd done this ritual. Unwittingly, simply by being on holy ground and binding up a wound and exchanging the words they had with the sentiment behind them, he and Dean had bound themselves together.
Unsurprisingly, Kevin made himself scarce when Sam went to show Dean the book. Dean was half-lying down in bed, propped up on pillows with some movie on the television with lots of explosions. He muted the TV with an inquiring eyebrow raise. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, just…you need to take a look at this. Kevin found it, and it—yeah." Sam stopped stammering and held out the book.
Dean looked it over in much the same way Sam had: confused incomprehension at first, and then a dawning realization. He looked up at Sam. "We did this?"
"Not on purpose, but yeah."
"So what does it mean?"
"It's a ritual designed to bind together two people and their magic. A partnership, basically. So each one can use the other's strength when necessary."
"Doesn't sound so bad," Dean said. He turned his head and coughed, deep and raspy.
Sam frowned. "The problem is, I'm the only one who had any power, and that was just from what the Trials were doing to me. So the magic's gone haywire. It's drawing from you to make me stronger, but since you don't have any magic to pull on, it's just taking from <i>you</i>."
"And that's why I'm so tired?"
Sam blinked, stunned that Dean would come out and say it. "Yeah, that—that's it."
"I thought I was just running ragged taking care of you, you know?" Dean coughed again. "But it keeps getting worse." He waved a hand in Sam's direction. "And you're obviously getting around fine now."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Sam asked.
Dean shrugged one shoulder. "You almost died, Sam."
The words were simple, and they didn't even really answer the question. But Sam heard what Dean wasn't saying through the tone of his voice, loud and clear.
He sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "There's nothing in here about reversing the ritual," he said, tapping the pages of the book. "Or a counter-spell or anything. But Kevin's looking."
"There might not be one," Dean said. "I mean, if it's to help with magic-sharing, you don't want one guy to be able to drain the other's powers and then cut off the flow, right?"
"Doesn't mean there isn't a way." Sam hesitated. "Have you had that dream again?"
"With the tear in the sky?"
"Yeah, that one."
Dean pursed his lips. "Yeah. Most nights, now."
"Me too," Sam replied. "That's gotta be it. That's the key somehow." He reached into the front pocket of his shirt and pulled out a small packet. "Fortunately, the Men of Letters have dream root in their stores."
"Man, that tea tastes like ass," Dean muttered.
"It's worth a try." Sam hesitated and then went on, "I've been watching, Dean. You're getting weaker as I'm getting stronger. Every single day. When I'm back up to full speed, what's that going to mean for you?"
"Lots of time with my memory foam?" Dean replied with a weak grin.
"No." Sam shook his head. "I’m not gonna get better at your expense."
"What if you don't get better?" Dean coughed and went on, "What if we break this and you go back to the way you were? What if you…?" He trailed off, eyes dark and jaw set. "I’m not going to risk that."
"And I'm not going to let you waste away because of me," Sam retorted. "So where does that leave us?"
Dean folded his arms across his chest. He inhaled as if to speak, then started coughing.
Sam sighed and sat back. Dean's hand was over his mouth, and when he finally finished coughing, he glanced at his palm before curling his hand into a fist.
Something prickled along the back of Sam's neck, and his hand shot out to grab Dean's wrist. Dean tried to pull away, but Sam was stronger now, and he twisted Dean's wrist until he could see the bright red spattering his palm.
The room was quiet for a moment except for the sound of their breathing. Sam looked his brother in the eye, saw the stubbornness and protectiveness underlying the words he'd spoken a moment ago. But he also saw the tinge of fear that Dean couldn't quite hide in his widened eyes.
And so Sam leaned closer and said in the lowest, most commanding voice he could muster, "I'm going to get some hot water. And we're going to drink that damn root."
Dean silently nodded.
There was just enough room for them to lie down side by side. Dean had been coughing again when Sam returned with the tea cups, but as soon as he took a sip, he stopped. Whether it was the hot liquid or something about the root itself, Sam didn't know. Either way, Dean looked relieved as he closed his eyes.
Sam cursed silently to himself at not paying closer attention to his brother. How long had this been going on? Not just the tiredness, but coughing up blood, for God's sake? Sam had only done that once or twice near the end, but Dean looked like he'd been getting used to it. How had he—?
He jerked awake to find himself standing on a dirt road, bright blue sky overhead and a ring of mountains in the near distance. He heard the rush of wind in the grass, and when he turned around in a slow circle, Dean was standing beside him. "Heya, Sammy."
Sam eyed him closely. "How're you feeling?"
Dean spread his arms out from his side. "Right as rain. Which definitely makes this a dream."
Sam frowned at him, and Dean smirked. "Bitchface number twenty-one, nice to see you."
"Shut up." Sam lightly punched him in the shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I told you why." Dean met his gaze for a moment and then shrugged one shoulder. "'Sides, there was nothing you could do."
"You didn't even know what the problem was, Dean! Much less whether or not there was a way to fix it."
"Sam, it's not—" Dean cut himself off, gaze shifting over Sam's shoulder. "There it is," he said more quietly. "Right on time."
Sam looked over his shoulder. Up in the sky, high overhead, there was a dark slash against the bright blue. The edges were jagged, the darkness absolute, but something looked different than in previous dreams.
"Does that seem closer to you?" Dean asked.
Sam looked back at him. "You noticed that, too?"
"Yeah. Before, it was always…" Dean waved a hand at it. "Way out there. This time, I feel like it's right here. Whatever it is."
"Yeah, I know." Sam peered up at the sky again. "Maybe because we're both here?"
"What would that have to do—?" Dean broke off and grabbed Sam's wrist, hard.
"Ow!" Sam shook his arm. "Ease up, dude."
"Uh, Sam. You're kind of floating."
Sam looked down. Sure enough, his feet were a few inches off the ground. He tilted his head back and saw the dark tear growing wider, splitting the sky right over his head. If he concentrated, he could feel a pull, like someone gently tugging at the hair on top of his head.
"What the hell is going on?" Dean asked.
"I don't know." Sam furrowed his brow. "Don’t you feel it?"
"Feel what?" Dean barked. He grabbed Sam's other wrist. "You're not going anywhere."
"It's okay, Dean, it's just a dream. I'm fine."
"There is no 'just a dream' when it comes to that damn root," Dean snapped back. "You die in here, you die out there."
"I'm not dying," Sam said. He could feel himself starting to rise higher, and Dean was digging his heels in the dirt to hold him down. "Dean, we need to sever this bond we accidentally created, right? What if this is the way?" It felt right to him, right in the same way that watching Bobby's soul fly free had felt. This was what he was supposed to do. This was why they were here.
"No way." Dean jerked his chin up to indicate the ever-widening dark space above them. "I'm not letting you go up there when we have no idea what that is or where it leads."
"You said I had to let it go. Back in the church, I had fire pulsing through my veins, this power I had no idea how to handle, and you told me to let it go. And I did. So maybe it's your turn, Dean. Maybe you have to let me go."
"I can't do that, Sam." Dean shook his head, jaw clenched. "Don't ask me to do that."
"You're dying, Dean," Sam said bluntly. "Outside this dream, you are dying. You can't think that I can possibly be okay with that."
"I'm not ever going to let you go, Sam. That's just the way it is."
"I know." Sam gave him a small smile. "And I love you for it."
As he'd hoped, Dean was briefly taken aback by the words. Sam didn't let himself hesitate. He twisted out of Dean's grasp and flung himself upwards.
In the strange logic of dreams, it worked perfectly. Gravity seemed to dissipate, at least around Sam, and he was rising into the air as Dean shouted angrily below him. Dean even tried to follow, but his jumps only brought him back to earth.
Sam closed his eyes as he rose higher. The wind was rushing around him, rapidly drowning out Dean's cries. He was moving faster and faster, and when he opened his eyes again, he was almost to the rip overhead.
When he crossed into it, a piercing pain shot through his gut. It was as sharp as what he'd felt in the church, when the power he'd been gathering suddenly turned on him after he decided not to use it. Sam choked out a cry, hands flying to his middle as if there was something he could do to ease the pain.
Far below, he heard Dean cry out, too far away to help him now as he had then. The pain was spreading inside of him, from the center outward, growing in intensity as well as reach. Sam was well-versed in the registers of pain and how much he could handle. Any moment now he would surely pass out from it, any moment now—
There was a sharp screech in his ear, and the feeling of a rope he'd been holding onto being cut. Then Sam was falling, tumbling end over end, still surrounded by darkness, still filled with pain.
There was a heavy thump, and then it all went black.
When Sam opened his eyes, everything was still dark.
He sat up in a panic. Was he trapped inside the void? Had he been wrong about following his instincts? Had he screwed this up, too?
A faint light caught his eye. Sam turned to see a soft glow from the far side of the room. Slowly, things around him came into focus. He was in Dean's room, on the bed where they'd taken the dream root, Dean still snoring beside him. The light was coming from under the desk, and Sam climbed off the bed to take a closer look.
It was a night light. Dean had a night light in his room.
"Too many years of crappy motel curtains," Dean's voice rumbled. "Can't sleep if it's too dark."
Sam had to tone down his grin before turning around. He could let Dean have that one. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
Dean slowly sat up. He was just as pale as he had been, and the circles beneath his eyes were just as dark. But when he drew in a deep breath, there was no hitch in it like he needed to cough. "Better," he said. He took another breath and smiled. "Yeah."
"That's great." Sam beamed at him. "And I'm fine, too. Didn't go back to where I was."
"You sure?" Dean's eyes narrowed. "You're not just saying that?"
Sam held his arms out from his sides. "I'm okay if you're okay."
"Yeah." Dean looked at him for a moment. Then he slammed his hand down on the bed. "But what the fuck were you thinking, flying away like that?"
"I was thinking it was the only choice we had," Sam replied. "I was thinking that you said you trusted me, back when I did the first Trial. I was thinking that you said you wouldn't put anything in front of me, which also means you shouldn't hold me back."
"That's not the same thing as letting you go," Dean muttered.
Sam sighed. "I came back. I'm here. I'll always come back, Dean. If I have any choice in the matter, I'll always come back."
Dean glanced up at him, and Sam knew Dean didn't like the disclaimer. But Dean also knew him, and he knew Sam needed to be as precise as he could, and so eventually he sighed. "Yeah, I know," he said quietly, and Sam almost believed that Dean believed his words.
"Good." Sam cleared his throat. "I, uh, I think I'm gonna turn in. Still not a hundred percent, but I'm getting there."
"Yeah, okay. Me too." Dean punched his pillow and laid back down. "Take the mugs with you, would you? I don't want that stuff stinking up my room."
"You got it." Sam snatched the mugs and their dried-out dregs from the nightstand. "You, uh, want me to tuck you in? Read you a story?"
Sam got a middle finger in response, and he snickered as he closed the door behind him. Maybe neither of them was at full speed right now, and there was a lot out there in the world they had to fix, but they'd get there. He knew that as surely as he'd known what to do in the dream.
The Winchesters would always find a way. Together.