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a long way back to the light

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This was not a good day. To tell the truth, there are not many days in Sam's life he considers worse.
Jess's death, dad's death, the day Dean went to hell and Sam had to bury his brother for the first time, as well as all the times after that. Ellen and Jo. Bobby. Kevin. Charlie. Eileen. Even Crowley and Gabe. Worse than the months after Cas died, Sam left alone with dwindling hopes of finding his mom again and a little nephilim boy struggling with his powers, all the while Dean slipping more and more through Sam's fingers, spiraling into his worst depression to this day. Even worse than when Sam himself went to hell and wasn't that typical? They lost so many friends and family members, the list was near endless by now, but the numbness was nothing he could, or wants to get used to.

Sam is achingly familiar with that crippling feeling of guilt, all-consuming and merciless feeding into the self loathing part of himself that Sam normally keeps hidden deep inside. He's familiar with being unable to face his own reflection in the mirror, with the strength it sometimes takes him just to leave his bed, even after nights filled with dreams of all the faces of all those he couldn't save or for whose death he was responsible. He is definitely familiar with the need to invest into other people's problems, mostly Dean's, who, to be fair had definitely not been dealt the best cards in life, all so Sam can push down his own issues and just not deal with them because over the years it just became too much to bear.

Today too is a day he wishes he could just forget, but knows deep inside that the faces of all people he lost today would soon join all the other ones in his dreams, reproaching him with all his shortcomings, mistakes and the failure to keep his promise of keeping them safe.

A small voice inside his head objects that they were hunters and thus accustomed to the dangers of their profession. Still, Sam should have known that bringing an unconscious Dean with Michael still in his head back to the bunker might be a security risk and he had done it anyway, without sparing the dangers he had put the other hunters in a single thought, so much had his own mind been occupied with Dean and the injury. He doesn't blame Cas, who, still shaky after being poisoned and paralyzed, had carried Dean to the Impala, gently placed him on the back seat like he feared he might break into pieces if he used too much force and spent all of their hasty retreat back to the bunker with Dean's head in his lap and Dean's hand in his (which Sam had seen but not commented on as all of them had more pressing concerns at that time). He doesn't blame Jack, who also had no mind for anything else than getting Dean to safety, so he could hopefully wake up and recover, and who should not be the one to remind Sam of basic things like this. He doesn'r even blame Rowena, who did the same thing Dean had done for them in the face of immediate danger, only to be betrayed by Michael just seconds later. Beggars can't be choosers, not even Rowena.

Everything that happened, all those deaths are his fault. He got emotional and irrational, all caution thrown in the wind. He should have known better, the apocalypse world hunters were his people, his responsibility and he let them down.

They cannot burn the bodies as a pyre this size in the middle of the night in a forest would surely be noticed by someone. Nobody wants to risk being caught burning bodies of people who technically never existed in this universe on top of everything. So, all of them had grabbed shovels and marched out in the woods to find a secure final resting place. Somewhere the sun would shine tomorrow morning. If nothing else, Maggie, Andy, Ryan and all the others deserved to rest in peace.

The four of them dig all night without saying a word, all of them not up for conversations right now. They would need to talk about Jack and his powers though. Tomorrow. Or the day after. Sam flashes a couple of glances his way to check on him, but Jack's face is as blank as Sam's as he rams his shovel in the ground time and time again, all without using magic. Digging one grave for twelve people feels wrong.

Sam thinks they actually deserve real, individual graves with headstones and flowers and people who mourn them, instead of one single hole in the ground with nothing indicating that this the final resting place of some very brave people, one of the few mourning being the man responsible for their deaths in the first place.
All those are things he cannot provide.

A headstone with twelve names on it in the forest would raise suspicion though and on second thought, Sam suddenly doubts any of those who had lost their lives by the hands of the archangel Michael would want a cross on their grave.

Another wave of guilt crashes over Sam when he realizes how much he doesn't and now never will know about those he calls his friends. Were they even religious or had they stopped believing in God after witnessing the apocalypse like they had?

Carrying the bodies from the bunker to the gravesite feels just as unbearable as digging the grave. While they'd dug the grave Rowena had wrapped their bodies into blankets. Sam and Cas now lower them carefully into the hole in the ground, while Dean and Jack already begin to shovel the earth back in, stony expressions on their faces and mud and earth on their clothes. It's 5am and soon the sun will rise and lift the blanket of darkness that right now still surrounds and protects them from prying eyes. They should hurry.

It takes another two hours to fill the grave back up. By the time they finish Sam’s hands hurt and he has blisters on his hands. He says nothing though. What are a couple of blisters compared to having his insides fried and eyes burnt out by an archangel.

Also, he knew Dean was not that much better off, and what about Cas? Sam still needs to process how human he must have become by now, unnoticed by either Sam or Dean, if he has to cover his ears when hearing Michael's high-pitched angelic scream now. What's going on with his best friend? That's another important question he has to deal with later, but which he has to push back right now to not let all their problems still piling up in front of him crush him, even with Michael out of the picture now.

Saying last rites hurts like a knife to the heart and saying goodbye and thank you feels shallow and inadequate as a final farewell. It is always the same.
After Rowena, clad in one of Sam's jackets and a pair of Jack's walking boots, joins them, the five of them remain at the grave for a couple of minutes, saying their individual goodbyes before they prepare to leave, collecting shovels and shed pieces of sweaty flannels. But Sam is not finished yet, something still feels lacking. As one last deed, Sam grabs his knife and carves date and year into one of the trees standing next to the burial site. You were denied a peaceful life but I hope you can rest in peace…

It is this moment that exhaustion and grief finally catch up with Sam and he has to accept that this isn't just another nightmare but reality. His hands, his arms and back hurt and he quietly groans with pain. His body craves a hot shower and his bed, the rest of him however dreads to return to the bunker, now empty and quiet and still filled with the figurative ghosts of the dead.

Dean, Jack and Rowena lead them on in direction of the bunker. Cas walks with them at first before he stops and waits for Sam to catch up to him. Side by side they walk on.
Cas waits a couple of seconds before he speaks, his gaze fixed on the back of the three walking in front of them instead on Sam.
“I think I'm going to buy some seeds and plant flowers on the grave,” he says quietly.
“That's a good idea, Cas,” Sam answers, also without facing his friend but directed on his mud-caked boots. Silence falls upon them once again. Sam suddenly knows he will be unable to return here in the foreseeable future. It hurts too much. If Cas were to look out for this place, it will take a little weight of his shoulders. Sam inconspicuously wipes his hand over his face.
Cas looks like he desperately wants to say something, probably something comforting. Still, he holds back, maybe because he knows by now that Sam doesn't want to hear anything right now.
Sam is grateful for it.

Just as expected, the bunker is empty and quiet as a grave and therefore nothing Sam can stomach right now.
He and Jack quickly store the shovels, then they separate. Jack leaves for the showers, Sam on the other hand decides that he desperately needs something to drink right now. Ideally something that numbs his brain in the process.

The hunter skips past the kitchen after looking through the door. The kitchen always has been Dean's safe space and Sam for once doesn't want to intrude when he stops and sees Dean and Cas wrapped into a tight hug where one cannot tell where Dean ends and Cas starts. The two show no signs of acknowledging him, so lost in their own world, in their profound bond are they.
At least Dean is not alone right now, Sam thinks as he remembers Dean's anguished cries after he realized Michael had left. I'm not surprised that he thinks this is on him, too. But. No, this one is completely my own fuck-up…
With that thought in mind, he leaves in direction of the library. He needs something stronger than beer anyway and the strong stuff is stored there.

Sam spots a bottle in their well-stocked liquor cabinet and pours himself a glass. If it's more than the usual for him - well, nobody is looking, so nobody would lecture him. Nobody would dare to lecture him anyway, not on a day like this. There are days when even Sam Winchester was at the end of his rope and had to resort to less healthier coping mechanisms.
His back protests, so he sits down at the table in the library, downs the whole glass in one go and fills the glass right back up. He repeats the process two times and a grim sense of relief rises in him when the alcohol burns in his throat. After the last 24 hours spent with fighting monsters, driving and digging a mass grave and not much brain space dedicated to remind him of staying hydrated, he won't be needing all that much till the alcohol will take the edge off everything.

It's a mere coincidence his gaze falls on a familiar backpack in green and violet next to Jack's table in the corner. The backpack had belonged to Maggie. Immediately, everything comes rushing back and Sam hastily pushes back the chair and flees the room, leaving the open bottle behind on the table.

His feet carry him up the stairwell and out of the bunker's entrance. Sunshine blinds him when he leaves the confinement of their underground home. Sam stops abruptly. Out of breath, he leans forward, resting his palms on his knees. The hunter catches his breath for a few seconds.

Then Sam's eyes fall on the shape of a familiar red-headed figure sitting in the distance, still clad in Sam's coat and the hiking boots, for once not caring for the dirt and dust staining her clothes. If Sam needed a clue that Rowena might be struggling after Michael too, then this is it. Slowly, he makes his way over to the witch and sits down beside her in the dirt. The big coat makes her look even smaller than usual.

Rowena looks up and their eyes meet briefly. She looks just like Sam feels: absolutely crushed, as if all good spirits and charm have left, leaving only a beautiful but empty shell behind. They sit together, silently watching the surrounding forest, hear the birds sing, the whole nature ignorant to the terrible events that unfolded just a few feet below this very space just a couple of hours prior. The world carries on like nothing ever happened, as if Sam's faith in the world had not been shaken to it's core again.

Now Michael is dead - which means that Billies death prophecies are not as set in stone as she made them believe and isn't that, next to Dean getting rid of Michael for good, the one positive discovery coming from this mess?
Sam doesn't want to kill Rowena. He really doesn't. She's come a long way since they first met and by now, she has become another member of their crazy supernatural family and a good friend to Sam.
He hopes that she knows that no one blames her. She said yes to Michael for the same reasons Dean did and Sam cannot express his gratitude. It's not fair how Michael twisted, perverted and used her sympathy for them for his act of revenge, exposing it in front of them like a cat that got the cream.
They're both still mourning and Sam knows it might take a long while until the world will look brighter again. Just like Dean has Cas, Sam is glad that Rowena is there with him right now. Maybe together they can find the first steps towards healing and a brighter future.

***

A knock on the door interrupts Jack's thoughts.
“Come in,” he says and Cas sticks his head inside. “Hey Jack… do you… do you wanna talk?”, he asks and enters the room, closing the door behind him, then hovers awkwardly next to the door.
Jack, lying on the bed, arms crossed behind his back and his gaze trained on the cobwebs on the ceiling, sits up. “How are Sam and Dean?” he asks.
“You know them. It was a hard day for all of us. They're going to need a while to cope. We all do,” Cas says. “How do you feel?”
“I'm fine,” Jack says “I mean, as fine as I can be, after my friends were murdered in cold blood and me regaining my powers after cannibalising an archangel. How is this my life, Cas?

Cas doesn't really know how to respond to that.

But the prospect of Jack regaining his powers, of becoming himself again like he had put it, was something they needed to talk about. Especially because Jack had repeatedly used his soul’s power even when the knew he shouldn't. And how much of his soul did he burn off to kill Michael? Something told him Jack might react huffy if Cas asked him bluntly about the damage done to the kid’s soul.
“How do you feel? Physically, I mean,” Cas asks cautiously.
Jack shrugs. “I only realized I probably don't even need to shower anymore just after I stepped in the water. I have to get used to have my powers again... but apart from that I feel great. Like I found a part of me again - but I told you that already.”
Cas nods as he knows exactly what Jack means but he doesn't miss the sharp tone Jack ends his answer with. He'd probably seen right through Cas's casual approach.
“It’s okay. I believe you. If you say you're okay, I trust you,” Cas says.
“Thanks.”
Jack grabs a book from the nightstand next to him. Apparently, for him they're done talking.
“I’ll leave you to it, then. If there's anything you need or want to talk about, I'm there for you.”
“Thanks, Cas. I might take you up on that offer someday, just… not today. Take care of Sam and Dean, they need you.” He sounds less cranky now, but Cas opens the door and leaves, still feeling like he somehow lost a battle against a teenager.

Jack sinks back onto his cushions. He pointedly avoids looking at the framed photograph of him and the apocalypse world hunters on his desk he can still see in all detail despite the semi-darkness in his room, thanks to his returned powers. But not even Jack can stop his train of thoughts going down that path once it started going there.

Sam took the picture when they went to Lebanon's movie theater together on a day when it didn't look like two hours of idleness would cause anyone harm, where it seemed they had everything under control. Before Michael had reclaimed Dean and everything went to shit and Sam, Dean and Cas started to keep secrets from me, Jack thinks bitterly.

Somehow it feels surreal that they're supposed to be gone now. Gone. That they're never going to sit together in the war room or the library researching cases again, cooking and eating together. No more hunts together, no more laughs about inside jokes only the apocalypse world hunters understand. He sees all their faces in front of his inner eye, can recall every detail from memory. Hears Anthony tell them war stories around the campfire like he did back over in the alternate universe. Hears Ryan and Maggie in the bunker's kitchen, both totally tone-deaf, singing along to pop songs on a little radio while preparing snacks. Remembers Riley and his love for italian food. Remembers Cory's and Patrick's knife throwing competitions and that they now won't be able to make good on their promise to teach Jack to throw knifes. He still half-expects them to barge into the bunker tomorrow like nothing ever happened. It's different from the sadness he feels for his mother. He never knew her alive, not even visiting her parents, his grandparents, changed that. He only got to know her when they were both dead. He knows how life is without her. The apocalypse world hunters however were his friends and they fought and lived together for more than the half of his still relatively short life.
Telling himself that they won't come back fills him with a deep sadness he naively thought to have left it back in the other world with all the other fighters he couldn't save.

Something in his chest constricts at the thought before his thoughts come to an abrupt stop.
But what if I can save them? I'm both a Winchester. Sam, Dean and Cas see beating death as some kind of sports or something, Jack thinks, remembering Cas saying: „We've all been through it. It's something of a rite of passage around here.“ I got Castiel out of the Empty, too, even without a body. I'm stronger than him, why can't I do it and bring them back, too? I don't want them to be just a memory. I don't want to survive every one of my friends. If Castiel can accept that, then that's on him, but I don't want to! I'm going to get them back!

Spreading his wings after he was not able to for so long still feels like the greatest thing in the world and fills him with a satisfying sense of defiance.
He ignores the last voice in his head still trying to apply logic and telling him this might not be a good idea. Jack retorts that Cas will very much be not okay with it when the time comes and Sam and Dean die and he is a liar who only tries to put on a brave face for Jack's sake, just as Dean was utterly destroyed and merely a shell of himself after Jack's birth and Cas's death.
No. He's going to do this and no one is going to stop him. He's not only a Winchester after all, but the son of Lucifer, too.

With a flap of his wings he leaves the underground bunker, leaving behind an empty, dark room.

***

The hot water running down his body in rivulets feels nice. It's relaxing and dampens the soreness in his joints and his back and cleans his body from the grime and dirt accumulated during the last twenty-four hours.
Still, Dean still feels dirty after spending ten whole minutes watching muddy water going down the drain. Somehow, he knows that this is not that kind of dirty that goes away after showering. Not even scrubbing his skin off with his washcloth would change this. Not that he wanted to really scrub his skin off, his hands hurt too much due to the blisters on his hands anyway.
Cas had offered to heal his wounds earlier, Dean had refused though. It was not right. Not today. What are a couple of blisters compared to having his insides fried and eyes burnt out by an archangel. As far as Dean is concerned, he has no right to complain about some blisters and a cut on his face.
As always, Cas had rolled his eyes and presumably silently cursed the stubborn Winchester, but had respected his choice for now, even if Dean is a hundred percent sure that the angel will bug him about it again later. They've been through the same rodeo many times now.

Dean turns the tap off, the constant stream of hot water stops, leaving behind clouds of fog in the bathroom, hanging in the air and covering up the mirrors. Quickly, he steps out of the shower, dries himself off with a towel and slips into the soft flannel pajama Mary gifted him for his 40th birthday.
With one hand, he wipes through the fog on one of the mirrors.

The face of a forty year-old stares back at him. In hunter years, even without counting the years he spent in hell, he's still practically Methusalem (he doesn't count Bobby, he's not sure if the old hunter would appreciate the connection Dean draws here). How this could happen, how he can be here still Dean doesn't know. He has that sometimes, moments, days where his own existence just baffles him and he tries to recollect what he, what they all had overcome. Those are the good days. Mostly. Sometimes those are days when the adrenaline after an extremely nerve-wracking close call on a hunt wears off. Sometimes it's when he's driving Baby, Sam next to him and the open road open before them, sometimes when he's watching a movie with Cas. Sometimes, like today, he just looks in the mirror. Those he likes the least but today is one of these days.
Staring back at him is not only the face of a forty year-old. It's his face. His. Not Michael's. It will never be Michael's face again.
Dean is finally free.

Which, sadly, doesn't mean Dean is free of the guilt and trauma caused by the possession. It doesn't work like this. Too ingrained into his memory are the dreams of rusty metal boxes on the bottom of the ocean, the prospect of immortality spent in captivity in complete darkness. And he cannot get the thought out of his head that if he had paid better attention when fighting the gorgon, the monster would not have gotten the drop on him - Michael would never have escaped, wouldn't have possessed Rowena and thus Sam's lot would still be alive. Dean knows Sam doesn't blame him and still, Dean feels responsible for what went down today. He still has to thank Jack later. The kid lifted a heavy burden from his shoulders but Dean will still have to live with the repercussions, presumably till the end of his life.

Dean is free, but he knows instinctively he won't ever be completely free again.

 

After brushing his teeth, Dean stumbles to his room without caring for his surroundings, for once thanking the Men of Letters for building an underground bunker. It's almost 9am by now but without any windows it could as well still be evening.
He enters his room and is not surprised to find Cas already there, his coat hanging over the back of the chair. The angel is sitting at Dean's desk and staring into the void, obviously waiting for Dean to return. Both the desk lamp and the ceiling lamp are turned on. The desk light illuminates Cas in an orange light, highlighting the lines on his face, making him look older than usual and somehow sad, too. Which he is. But it looks sadder than usual.

Dean flips the light switch of the ceiling lamp off, climbs under the covers and makes himself comfortable. After a couple of seconds with no sound that would indicate movement, Dean lifts his head from the pillow to glare at Cas.
“Hey. You comin’, or what?” he asks. Cas remains silent, but he jumps up and starts to undress, strips down to his underwear and then joins Dean on the mattress.

They both lie on their sides, facing each other.
“I talked to Jack. He was not very talkative and brushed me off when I tried asking him about his soul,” Cas says. “Do you think something is up with him?”
“Knowing our luck, then yeah, probably. Maybe we wait a few days. The kid lost some good friends today. I wouldn't be so peachy after what he went through either.” He pauses when their conversation in the diner over coffee comes to his mind. “We're doing all this ‘being honest and talk about our problems’ lately, and… okay, I'm not fine. I can't shake the feeling it was my mistake and I have to get used to being just me again, trust myself again, you know? And I don't know how you or Sam got over it, I don't think I will ever be over it. Not when I know what Michael did with my hands. Him escaping felt like I neglected my responsibility and others paid the price for that, like always. I think we all need a break after today.”
“You didn't neglect your responsibility. You were unconscious, which you would not have been, if I had managed to kill the gorgon before that, by the way,” Cas says “I believe in you, Dean. Take all the time you need to heal. I cannot promise it will ever be like it was before, it never is. I can promise you however, that your family will always have your back,” he says with an almost somber tone and avoids Dean’s gaze. “And yes, sometimes winning is no fun at all.”
“Now you sound like a fortune cookie. But... thanks.”

They fall silent, just watch each other. It's relaxing and peaceful for a change, after weeks and weeks of desperation and mostly sleepless nights. Dean can already feel his exhaustion overcome him.
Michael is gone. He's finally allowed to rest, without fear, without having to worry about waking up and not being in charge of his own body.

Cas seems to know what's going on in Dean's head. He regards Dean with a tender expression on his face. “Sleep, Dean. You don't have to hold back anymore. Michael cannot get to you anymore. I'll watch over you. Everything else we’ll deal with in the morning.”

Dean doesn't hesitate for one second and pulls Cas into a hug, hiding his face in the crook of Cas's neck. “I'm sorry,” Dean murmurs.
“For what?”
“I did it again.”
Cas squints at him, confused, clearly still not getting what Dean wants to tell him. Dean sighs. “I asked you to kill me. Again. I'm so sorry, Cas. I still think it might've been necessary if… today… if Michael hadn't died today, but I know it was a horrible request to make and it's not the first time. So, yeah… I'm sorry.”
As an answer, Cas tightens the hug. “I'm honest with you,” he says, one hand slowly stroking through Dean’s hair, fingernails scratching over his scalp. “I don't think I could have done it. Even the prospect of watching you succumb to the Mark of Cain, I couldn't -” Cas stops “I'm an angel. I'm a soldier and I'm not unfamiliar with making difficult decisions. It defies all logic but hurting you? Killing you? I don't think I can do that anymore. I'd rather thrown myself into that box with you so you would not be alone down there than be the one to push you.”

Dean doesn't have the energy to wipe away the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “Cas…” he says, without knowing how to end the sentence. His voice sounds shaky. He gives up to search for the appropriate reply, something of the same value he can say without breaking down completely. But something tells him Cas understands him even without words.

***